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Imagine having the most notorious gangster in U.S. history for a brother. James, the oldest of the seven Capone brothers, did everything he could, including changing his name and becoming a Prohibition agent, to distance himself. He didn't quite make it. The others lived their lives in Big Al's orbit.
by Allan May
Gabriel and Teresa Capone, like many Italians, produced a large family; seven boys in a row, followed by two daughters. Sons James and Ralph were born in Italy, Frank, Alphonse (on Jan. 17, 1899), John, Albert and Matt were born in America. The daughters were Rose and Mafalda.
Vincenzo, called James by family members, was born in 1882. When he was 16 he ran away from home to join the circus. A year after he departed he wrote the family to say that he was fine and not to worry. The letter was postmarked Wichita, Kan.
James enjoyed living in the Midwest, moving from town to town, doing his best to hide his Brooklyn accent. He never revealed his Italian ancestry, preferring people to mistake him for Mexican, Indian or a combination of both. He became fascinated with guns and spent hours shooting at empty beer bottles and tin cans, becoming an expert marksman.
During World War I he enlisted in the infantry and served in France, rising to the rank of lieutenant. There he received a sharpshooter's medal from the commander of the American Expeditionary Force, Gen. John J. Pershing. All the while his family knew nothing of his whereabouts and years would pass before they heard from him again.
Returning from Europe, James ended up in Homer, Neb., where he would further distance himself from his infamous brothers by taking the name Richard Hart in honor of a popular silent-movie cowboy of that time. He married in 1919 and had three sons, in quick succession. While the rest of his brothers drifted into a life of crime, James became a Prohibition agent in 1920.
As an agent he led many raids; most of his arrests ended with convictions. Several times his raids created sensational headlines in the local newspapers. His successful string of raids earned him the nickname "Two-Gun" Hart. Using disguises, he entered towns to do undercover investigating into local bootlegging operations. In 1923, he was involved in a shooting in which an innocent man was killed. Although a formal inquiry cleared him of any wrongdoing, the incident tarnished his image. By 1924 the newspapers had found out and reported that that "Two-Gun" Hart was related to the Chicago Capones, a revelation that caused Hart and his family to leave Homer.
He now began to reestablish his relationship with his family. Once a year, without telling his wife where or why he was going, he traveled alone to Chicago, usually during the holidays. He kept his children in the dark about their notorious uncles, although rumors about their father's relationship to them would occasionally surface.
In 1926 Hart became a special agent of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. He moved to a Cheyenne Indian reservation in South Dakota. Here he and his wife had a fourth son. During the summer of 1927, Hart served as a bodyguard for President Calvin Coolidge when the President and his family vacationed in the Black Hills. Coolidge had not known his protector was the brother of the most infamous gangster of all time.
A short time later Hart moved to Idaho, close to the Washington State border, near the Spokane Indian reservation. While there he was involved in the arrests of at least 20 wanted killers. He spent the next four years in the Northwest moving from one Indian reservation to another, chasing bootleggers and outlaws. He got into scrapes with both outlaw Indians and law enforcement. Once again he would go to trial, this time for killing a fugitive Indian.
In 1931, during the midst of the Depression, Hart returned to Homer, Neb., and his job as a Prohibition agent. When Prohibition ended in December of 1933, Hart accepted a position as a justice of the peace but the pay was low and he soon had to take on several odd jobs to make ends meet. As 1940 approached things Hart could not afford to pay his light bill; the power company was threatening to shut off his electricity.
Hart swallowed his pride and asked his family for help. His brother Ralph insisted that he come up to his summer home in Mercer, Wis., and make his appeal for help in person. Hart made the long trek. When he got back to Homer he was wearing a brand new suit and had a roll of $100 dollar bills. He would not reveal where the money came from. When Hart made a return trip to Mercer to see Ralph the following summer he was shocked to find Al there. Al, who had been released from Alcatraz in 1939, was convalescing from complications from syphilis. In the book Mr. Capone by Robert J. Schoenberg, Hart said it was hard to tell how sick Al was because he "looked healthy and happy; he just didn't have much of a memory."
During the early 1950s Hart was called to testify at an income-tax evasion trial involving Ralph. This was Ralph's second encounter with the IRS. Ralph, without informing Hart, had listed him as the owner of his Mercer home. Hart bailed his brother out by claiming this was true. Hart returned to Homer after the trial and died there on Oct. 1, 1952 at the age of 60.
Raffaele Capone was born in 1894, the second child and last to be born in Italy. After James left, the family looked to Ralph for family leadership. Ralph did not excel in this role, as he was not as smart as either Frank or Al. He left school in the sixth grade to help supplement the family's income by working as a telegram messenger boy. Ralph became the first of the Capone brothers to marry, although the marriage would be a stormy one. Two years after the wedding Ralph Jr. was born, but the couple would soon separate and eventually divorce. Ralph continued a legitimate life in New York selling life insurance and later handled a soft-drink delivery route where he earned the nickname "Bottles."
After Al moved to Chicago to work for Johnny Torrio, Ralph followed about a year later. The two shared an apartment while they both worked for Torrio in the vice trade. When their father, Gabriel Capone, passed away the rest of the family moved to Chicago in 1923 into a home Al had just purchased. Compared to the home the Capones had left behind in Brooklyn, their new family residence on Prairie Avenue was heaven. It was a sign of having "made it" in America. The home, by Chicago standards, was considered ordinary, but for the Capones it was ideal. They lived in the home the same way they had lived back in Brooklyn, the same way their ancestors had lived back in Naples: one on top of another. Teresa Capone lived on the top floor of the home. On the first floor, in a suite of rooms in the back, Al lived with his wife Mae and son, Albert Francis, who was called Sonny. The other brothers came and went living in different rooms in the house. Only Ralph, who at the time was almost 30, lived outside the home.
After the Torrio gang's move to Cicero, Ralph took control of the speakeasies and nightclubs there. A problem soon arose in the form of Robert St. John, the editor of the Cicero Tribune. A crusading young man, he tried his best to publicize the mob's takeover of the town. The Capone gangsters soon tired of the aggressive editor and their first effort to quiet him was to scare the merchants who advertised in his paper into switching to another newspaper. St. John responded with an expose on a Capone brothel. During his undercover investigation, St. John visited the brothel and interviewed a prostitute until 4 a.m. whereupon he made his exit by jumping out a second-floor window. The brothel story enraged the citizens of Cicero and a few weeks later a carefully timed fire burned the brothel to the ground.
Now the Capone gang was enraged. Al sent an associate to see St. John and let him know that he and Ralph, according to Schoenberg, "were extremely angry with the Cicero Tribune." Two days later as St. John was walking to work, Ralph and three others jumped out of an automobile and beat the intrepid editor unmercifully. The attack, directed by Ralph, happened while two Cicero policemen stood by and watched. The only one who tried to help was the Tribune's society editor, but her attempts were futile. Later that same day, Capone henchmen kidnapped St. John's brother, the editor of a newspaper in nearby Berwyn. After several hours he was taken to a wooded area and left to find his way home.
Al paid for St. John's hospital bills. When St. John tried to press charges against Ralph, Al met him at the police station and tried to reason with him by pulling out a fist full of $100 dollar bills. After St. John refused the offer, Al and Ralph ended the problem by purchasing the Cicero Tribune.
Although not a bright individual, Ralph would become Al's right-hand man and the person Al trusted the most. When Al went to prison in 1929 for carrying a concealed weapon, he ran the gang through Ralph. Also, during the times when Al would get out of control due to anger or alcohol, it was always Ralph who had the ability to calm him down.
During the time Al was in prison, Ralph came under legal attack from the IRS. In early October 1929, a grand jury returned seven indictments against him for failing to file income-tax returns and for defrauding the federal government. On the night of Oct. 8, the U. S. Treasury department decided it was going to make a public spectacle of the arrest of Ralph Capone and did so as he sat ringside at a boxing match. Arresting agents led Ralph away in handcuffs. Due to the late hour bond could not be set and Ralph had to spend the night in jail.
Ralph had made serious mistakes in handling his income and by not filing returns. He now made matters worse by not lying low after his release on bail. He returned to running his brother's bootleg empire out of the Montmartre Café where a young Prohibition agent named Eliot Ness had recently tapped the telephone lines.
In April 1930 Ralph was convicted of tax evasion and faced a prison term and a $40,000 fine. He remained free while appeals were in process. During this period Al threw a party for his brother where, according to Schoenberg's book, he publicly humiliated him by saying "you got caught because you weren't smart, you talked too much and put too many things in writing. You gotta be smart Ralph, and I hope you will be when you get out."
Through appeals, Ralph was able to stave off going to prison until November 1930. Then he was packed off to Leavenworth to begin a three-year sentence. The IRS had actually considered its prosecution of Ralph a test case. When it was successful, IRS agents went after other Capone associates such as Jake Guzik and Frank Nitti, fine-tuning their efforts before they proceeded against Big Al.
After Al's conviction on income-tax evasion in 1931, Ralph's importance to the Chicago mob quickly declined. He ran a dance hall in Stickney, had an interest in a bottling company, and a cigarette-vending firm. He purchased a summer home in Mercer, Wis., where he spent most of his time. Ralph married again, but this union too would end in divorce.
When Al became gravely ill, Ralph went to Miami to be with the family at Al's Palm Island estate. The home was surrounded with newspaper people and Ralph kept them abreast of his brother's condition and served them cold beer as they stood in the hot sun. After years of suffering from brain disease brought on by untreated syphilis, Al died on Jan. 25, 1947.
In 1950 Ralph was called to Washington D. C. to appear before the Kefauver committee's investigation of organized crime in interstate commerce. Ralph answered questions about his bootlegging days but refused to talk about any of the people he was associated with. The committee asked Ralph how he spent his time when he went to Miami.
"At the dog tracks," Ralph replied.
"When you showed up they rolled out the red carpet for you, didn't they?" asked a committee member.
"When I went there they were out of red carpet," Ralph responded.
Shortly after Ralph's testimony, his son committed suicide. The 33-year-old Ralphie, who had drifted in and out of a series of jobs and one marriage, mixed alcohol with a bottle of cold medicine one night before writing a note to his girlfriend. Ralph was devastated by the loss but had little time to mourn as another IRS investigation of his finances had begun. Ralph survived the IRS attack, thanks to his brother James' perjury, without having to go back to prison.
The remainder of his life was spent in relative obscurity. On Nov. 22, 1974 he died of a heart attack in Mercer where he spent his final years. He was 80 years old.
Some Capone historians believe that had Frank Capone lived he would have been the brother to take the lead role in the family's affairs. Of all the brothers he fit the Torrio mold the best.
Salvatore Capone, always called Frank, was born in 1895. He was two years younger than Ralph and four years older than Al. Of the seven brothers, Frank by far had the most promise. Tall and lean, with thick wavy hair, he was described as the best looking. When the Torrio/Capone gang moved into Cicero in 1922, Frank was the most visible of the Capone brothers. He served as the front man for the gang and represented the organization in its dealings with the Cicero town council. Frank was mild mannered compared to both Al and Ralph and took on the air of a respectable businessman, always attired in a neat suit.
In exchange for allowing the gang's gambling dens and brothels to operate without interference from the local police, Frank made sure that on election day cooperating office seekers achieved victory by an overwhelming majority. Once, one of the Capone- sponsored candidates found out that he, as a member of the Cicero Town Board, was making less money than one of the lower-ranking members of the gang. He then demanded a percentage of the Torrio-Capone income. Al responded by berating Frank for choosing such a stupid candidate.
April 1, 1924, was primary-election day in Cicero and the Capone mob was voting Republican. Although the early morning hours saw many Democratic election workers out supporting their candidates, by midday an alarming amount of them had disappeared. Some had been kidnapped, some beaten, others were just frightened off. Voters at the polls had ballots jerked from their hands by Capone gunmen to see how they were voting. Women were scared off and many voters were sent home without having cast their ballots. When word of this reached Chicago, a special contingent of Chicago policemen were deputized to go to Cicero and restore order. The policemen, all in plain clothes, drove to Cicero in the same type of large black touring sedans the gangsters used.
When the police caravan arrived in Cicero, newspaper editor Robert St. John described what happened:
"I set up my observation post on the Cicero side of Forty-eighth Avenue near a public telephone booth. In a few minutes I saw the cavalcade approaching. At the same time I saw a neatly dressed man leave a building on the Cicero side of the street. He might have been a banker or a prosperous dry-goods-store owner. As he came closer I recognized him as Frank Capone. About the same time I recognized him, the driver of the first police car recognized him too. As the driver of the first car slammed on his brakes, the drivers of the other nine black touring cars were forced to come to a quick stop to avoid piling into the first one. In those days when brakes were applied to a car going 50 miles an hour the noise was slightly disturbing to the ears. I was not able to interview Frank Capone later, but it was not difficult to imagine what had gone through his mind in that split second when life and death hung in a delicate balance. He heard the screaming of the brakes, turned quickly, saw 30 or 40 men in ordinary street clothes leaping from a long line of black touring cars. With that instinct for self-preservation . . . he reached for his right rear trousers pocket. His hand was still on the revolver, which was still in his pocket, when we rolled over the corpse. For the first time I understood that newspaper cliché about a body riddled with bullets."
At the inquest the police told a much different story of the day's events. They said Frank had "lured" them into a pitched gunfight and had fired at least twice at them. Despite St. John's testimony to the contrary, the jury returned a verdict that Frank had been killed while resisting arrest.
Frank's funeral proved to be the grandest of any of the Capone brothers. Laid out in a silver-plated coffin he was surrounded by $20,000 worth of floral arrangements. The funeral cortege consisted of no fewer that 100 cars, 15 of which carried flowers.
Erminio was born in 1901 and was called John or Mimi by family and friends. If there was a loser in the family, it was John. Fined once for disorderly conduct when he was 18, his contributions to the gang were menial ones. One of his jobs was to escort beer trucks on deliveries to the suburban cabarets. At one stop, the Arrowhead Club in Burnham, Ill., John fell in love with a cabaret singer. Brother Al, according to Schoenberg, decided that this was a bad match and ordered the bandleader to fire the girl stating, "Get her out of here. If I hear any more stuff about her and Mimi," you'll go to.
The bandleader, Milton "Mezz" Mezzrow, refused saying; "I won't fire her. She's one of the best entertainers we've got around here. Why don't you keep Mimi out of here, if that's the way you feel about it?"
Well. "She can't sing anyway," Al grumbled.
"Can't sing! Why you couldn't even tell good whiskey if you smelled it and that's your racket, so how do you figure to tell me about music."
Capone must have been in a good mood. Mezzrow lived. Al left warning the bandleader he'd better not catch the girl around John anymore.
In 1926, police arrested John at the family home on Prairie Avenue. At the time they were looking for Al in connection with the highly publicized murder of William McSwiggen, an assistant state's attorney. While in Florida in 1929, John was arrested during a raid at Al's Palm Island estate where police found bottles of liquor in his closet. An additional charge of vagrancy, a popular charge used against gangsters at that time, was placed against him. Another time, as he and Al drove to Miami for an afternoon movie the two were stopped and tossed in jail for "investigation" and "suspicion." During the early 1930s John was called to testify before a federal grand jury investigating the liquor rackets.
After Al went to Alcatraz in 1932, John helped Al's wife, Mae, by delivering payments to clear up tax charges and other misdemeanor counts while trying to run a small business in Villanova, Pa. After Al's release from Alcatraz in 1939, John served as the family spokesman carefully giving out information to the media. During the Kefauver Crime Committee hearings, he and Ralph were questioned in Washington D. C. In 1955, photographers caught him and his younger brother Albert attending the funeral of Louis "Little New York" Campagna, an old family friend. Then John changed his last name to Martin and stayed out of the public eye. As of the last book published about Al Capone, in 1994, John had not been reported dead, although he would have been 93 at that time.
Umberto Capone, called Albert, was born in 1906. He seems to have led the quietest existence of the seven brothers. He served an apprenticeship in the circulation department of the Cicero Tribune after his brothers purchased the newspaper. He too was arrested during the 1929 Palm Island police raid and charged with vagrancy. In the early 1930s he was arrested in connection with a bombing at the home of the mayor of Cicero.
Albert used aliases for a long time before legally changing his name in 1942 to Rayola, a version of his mother's maiden name. Except for a court fine of $25 for assaulting his wife, Albert avoided the public eye. In June 1980, he died at the age of 74.
The last Capone brother, born in 1908, was named Amedoe, but was called Matthew, Mattie, or Matt. During the mid-1920s, Matt became friends with Mickey Cohen, a small- time Chicago hood who would one day make a name for himself on the West Coast.
Cohen had done some boxing in Chicago and through his friendship with Ralph and Matt was invited to several of the Capone family's Sunday dinners. Al liked Cohen and helped him and Matt get a poker game going in the Chicago Loop section. Soon both of them got in trouble with Al when they tried to start a crap game there. According to Cohen, Matt and Al were not always on the best of terms. Mattie was said to resent Al's prominence.
In the mid-1940s, Matt was running the Hall of Fame tavern in Cicero. One night two employees got into a fight over a $5 bill that was missing from the register. Witnesses said Matt started rifling through a drawer while the two employees pummeled each other. Suddenly a shot rang out and Matt ran out of the bar. Police later found the body of one of the employees in an alley some distance from the tavern. Police wanted to question Matt, but he had gone into hiding. By the time he reappeared, almost a year later, witnesses had disappeared and the case was dropped.
While attending Al's funeral in 1947, Matt threatened a photographer who was attempting to take a picture of his mother, Teresa Capone. Matt died on Jan. 31, 1967, at the age of 59. Only 25 people attended the service. Two reporters covering the funeral were called upon to act as pallbearers.
One of the strengths of the Capone family was its ability to stay intact during the most adverse times. Their strength came from their numbers. They had survived the disappearance of the oldest brother James, and overcome their grief at the loss of Frank. However when both Al and Ralph were removed in the early 1930s, the family's ability to maintain control of the Chicago mob vanished. With Al in Alcatraz for eight years in the 1930s, no other brother could really take his place. The younger brothers – John, Albert and Matt – simply weren't that interested in devoting their lives to crime after seeing the price their three older brothers had paid. As for Ralph he was too easy-going and accommodating while lacking Al's drive, daring, and ruthlessness. Ralph was content to hang around the racetrack or the nightclubs tending to his own interests. Smarter men, who came up through the ranks, were now taking over the Chicago outfit. Although many believed Al would be back one day, his deteriorating mental state in the late 1930s eliminated that possibility. The great Capone dynasty was over.
Allan May's e-mail address is: AllanMay@worldnet.att.net
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