Allan May, Crime Historian
Allan May is an organized crime historian, writer and lecturer. He also writes a monthly column for the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Contact him at AllanMay@AmericanMafia.com
The Brothers Capone
By Allan May
The name Al Capone is to crime, what the name Babe Ruth is to baseball. Ruth was an over achiever and rose to the top of his profession, so did Capone. Ruth’s fame, at the height of his career filled newspaper headlines across the country, so did Capone’s. Ruth was proficient in the use of a baseball bat, so was Capone. Ruth died relatively young, fortunately, so did Capone. Ruth was an orphan here the similarity ends. Al Capone was one of seven brothers.
Gabriel and Teresa Capone, like many Italians, produced a large family; seven boys all in a row, followed by two daughters. Sons James and Ralph were born in Italy, Frank was conceived there, and Alphonse, John, Albert and Matt were born in America. Daughters Rose and Mafalda brought mother Teresa Capone’s childbearing days to an end.
When Alphonse Capone was born on January 17, 1899, he was the forth child of the couple who were hoping desperately for a little girl. To the future chagrin of a nation, it wasn’t.
Vincenzo was the first child born and perhaps led the most interesting life of all the Capone brothers. Born in Italy in 1892, he was called James by family members. At the age of sixteen he ran away from home to join the circus. A year after he departed he wrote the family to let them know that he was fine and not to worry. The letter was postmarked Wichita, Kansas.
James enjoyed living in the mid-west, moving from town to town doing his best to hide his Brooklyn accent. He never revealed his Italian ancestry letting everybody believe he was Mexican, Indian or a combination of both. He became fascinated with guns and would spend hours shooting at empty beer bottles and tin cans turning himself into 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, General 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, Nebraska where he took the name Richard Hart in honor of a popular silent movie cowboy of that time. James married in 1919 and had three children, all boys, in quick succession. While the rest of his brothers drifted into a life of crime, James sought to differentiate himself from them and in 1920 became a prohibition agent.
As Richard Hart, he led many raids and 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 and find out about local bootlegging operations. In 1923, Hart was involved in a shooting in which an innocent man was killed. Although a formal inquiry cleared Hart of any wrong doing his image was tarnished for the time being. By 1924 the newspapers had found out that “Two-Gun” Hart was related to the Chicago Capones and printed front-page stories about it. Hart and his family then moved away from Homer.
He slowly reestablished his relationship with his family and traveled alone to Chicago once a year, usually during the holidays to visit. When he did, he wouldn’t tell his wife where he was going or why. He never told his children about their notorious uncles although rumors would occasionally come up.
In 1926 Hart became a special agent of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and 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 he 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. Here he was involved in the arrests of no less than 20 wanted killers. He spent the next four years in the northwest moving from one Indian reservation to another chasing bootleggers and outlaws. Hart got into scrapes with both outlaw Indians and law enforcement alike. He would once again go to trial, this time for the killing of a fugitive Indian.
In 1931, Hart returned to Homer, Nebraska. The country was in the middle of the great depression and the mid-west was hit the hardest. Prohibition would soon come to an end and Hart would be out of a job. He 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 had gotten so bad for Hart that he could not afford to pay his light bill and the power company was threatening to shut off his electricity.
At this point Hart had to swallow his pride and ask his family for help. Ralph insisted that he come up to his summer home in Mercer, Wisconsin. Hart made the long trek. When he got back to Homer he was wearing a brand new suit with the pockets stuffed with $100 dollar bills. He would not reveal where the money came from. Ralph continued to help his older brother and when Hart made a return trip to Mercer the following summer he was shocked to find Al there. Hart stated it was hard to tell how sick Al was because he “looked healthy and happy; he just didn’t have much of a memory.”
Hart took three of his sons up to Mercer where they spent the summer with Uncle Ralph and Uncle Al. The children loved Al viewing him as a “lovable bear of a man,” and they enjoyed wrestling with him.
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 I. R. S. He had listed his older brother as the owner of his Mercer home. Hart, who had no prior knowledge of this, bailed his brother out by claiming this was true. Hart returned to Homer after the trial and died there on October 1, 1952 at the age of 60. Mother Teresa Capone, who was happy to see her family get back together again before she died, passed away less than two months later.
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 it 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 just 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, lived Al, 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 four o’clock in the morning. He left the brothel 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 premises 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 “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 him unmercifully. The attack, directed by Ralph, happened while two Cicero policemen stood by and watched. The only individual who tried to help was the Tribune’s society editor, but her attempts were futile. Later this same day, Capone henchmen kidnapped St. John’s brother who was 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 simply purchasing the Cicero Tribune.
Although not a bright or intelligent 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 Internal Revenue Service. In early October 1929, a grand jury returned seven indictments against him for failing to file income tax returns and for defrauding the United States government. On the night of October 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 he 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 the telephone lines had recently been tapped by a young prohibition agent named Eliot Ness.
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 he publicly humiliated Ralph by telling him “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 Internal Revenue Service had actually considered their prosecution of Ralph a test case. When it was successful they went after other Capone associates like Jake Guzik and Frank Nitti, fine-tuning their efforts before they proceeded against Big Al.
After Al’s conviction, Ralph’s importance to the Chicago mob quickly declined. Ralph ran a dance hall in Stickney and had an interest in a bottling company and a cigarette-vending firm. He purchased a summer home in Mercer, Wisconsin 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. Al died on January 25, 1947 after years of suffering from brain disease brought on by untreated syphilis.
In 1950 Ralph was called to Washington D. C. to appear before the Kefauver committee which was investigating 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 girl friend. Ralph was devastated by the loss but had little time to mourn as another I. R. S. investigation of his finances had begun. Ralph survived the I. R. S. attack without having to go back to prison.
The remainder of his life was spent in relative obscurity. On November 22, 1974 Ralph Capone died of a heart attack in Mercer where he spent his final years. He was 80 years old.
To be continued next week!
Copyright A. R. May 1999