On an Ill Inmate

The prisoner was obviously sick when he was brought to the prison infirmary. Guards had reported that he sat in his heated prison cell wrapped in a heavy coat. He would hear orders from them but could not seem to process what he had been told. The prison doctor only had to look at the man and speak a few sentences with him to know what the condition was: Syphilis.

The prisoner was a thug, a professional criminal, a person who had been in trouble since his youth. The doctor, who had seen it all in his work at the prison, still felt some sympathy for the man despite his past. The man’s face was festering, and his mind had already started to turn to mush.

Treatment for syphilis in the days before penicillin could only treat the symptoms but not really the disease and that only if the situation was caught in time. Unfortunately for this inmate, he had gone for years without seeking help for his condition.

In fact, syphilis had remained one of the main causes of death in the United States in the years before World War II. The first symptoms of sores on the mouth or genitalia would then soon turn into a rash that could cover the body. Then, apparently, the disease could seem to go dormant for years only to re-manifest itself and enter the final stage—when it began to not show in lesions not only on the skin but also attack the person’s brain. It often left sufferers severely mentally incapacitated. In addition, the illness struck the heart and the liver and other internal organs.

By this stage, the syphilis patient was doomed to death.

The poor man’s wife appealed to the courts and even directly to the warden to have the man who now only looked somewhat like her husband back in her house where she could look after him in what was left of his life. Out of a sense of sympathy, the request was granted.

In an effort to save the family and even the man himself further embarrassment, his release papers said that his sentence had been reduced because of his “good behavior” and did not list the syphilis. When he died at age 48 of a weakened heart due to the syphilis, the man was hardly recognizable to friends and family and was said to have the mental capacity of a child.

It was not the end one would expect for a man like Al Capone.

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