Big Al's Bros
You never got no back talk from no corpse.
The criminal, of course, has a family from whence he or she came. Early organized crime “families” in the United States actually consisted of gangsters who generally came from very large biological families with many brothers and sisters.
Alphonse Capone, America’s best known name in organized crime of the 20th Century, came from a very large clan. And while most of his siblings lived without notice three of his brothers carved out a niche, albeit obscure, for themselves during their lifetimes.
While the person living in northern Siberia may not be clear on the details he or she has certainly heard the name and has a vague idea that it is associated with organized crime, specifically the brutality of criminal enterprises during America’s failed (and extremely short-sighted and stupid) experiment in “sobriety” known as the Prohibition Era (from 1920-1933).
Alphonse Gabriel Capone had been born in 1899 in Brooklyn, New York. He was in the middle mix in birth order, and the nine children his mother bore gave Al six brothers and two sisters. He managed to get through school up to the sixth grade. By that time he was a juvenile delinquent. After beating up a teacher, and then being summarily pummeled by his school’s principal, Al and formal education parted ways.
Salvatore Capone, Al’s older brother, had been born in 1895. He later went by the less-Old World name “Frank”. Frank and Al, as teens, began associating with one of New York’s most ruthless and notorious group of street thugs, the Five Points Gang.
Johnny Torrio (a Sicilian, born in 1882) was a major underworld player in New York, handling prostitution and other rackets, and he and Al met and became friends and business associates. When Al was in his late teens, Torrio hired him as a doorman/bouncer at one of his brothel/saloons.
It was there that Al got the scar that earned him the (hated) nickname, “Scarface”. While on duty at the brothel, he got into a scuffle with Frank Galluccio over one of the girls—Galluccio slashed Al’s face, leaving him permanently disfigured. [Al would later aggrandize this injury, claiming he’d received it during World War I serving with the “Lost Battalion” in France. Capone was never in any branch of the armed forces.]
When Johnny Torrio left New York for the greener pastures of Chicago (ripe for a takeover by New York gangsters) Al and his brother Frank followed. Ready jobs awaited them as enforcers, and Al himself later assumed Torrio’s “head” position of the Chicago Mob when Torrio gave everything up in 1925, taking roughly $30 million dollars in earnings and retiring to New York. [This was an insanely huge sum—in today’s dollars this would have made Torrio a billionaire.]
Al’s story has been documented time and again and does not bear repeating in great detail. While no angel he was open to negotiating with his perceived enemies (despite his reputation for extreme violence), and preferred diplomacy over gunplay where feasible (though there was much gunplay and other violence during his reign as the king of all mobsters in Chicago). He even went so far as to hire Galluccio, the man who had slashed his face in his early New York days, as a body-guard in a typical, and perhaps smug, display of magnanimity.
Credit: public domainA person in Al’s organization who was not as tactful when dealing with people, though, was his older brother, Frank Capone. Frank’s place in the organization was that of enforcer, and he relished it. While Frank was reportedly less boisterous than his younger brother (always speaking quietly, mild-mannered, and always wearing a suit), of the two, Frank really was the more volatile. He was inclined to use fists, cudgels, and guns as a first resort to resolving a problem, not as a last one.
The Capone outfit had many politicians and police paid off (as well as judges and state legislators). Capone’s group carried a payroll of over $300,000 per week (over $4 million today!) with some 1,000 persons in Al’s “employ”. To keep this machine rolling, Al needed friendly faces in City Hall.
While he had headquarters in Chicago, much of the operation was run from a base in Cicero, Illinois, a hamlet about eight miles due west of Chicago’s heart. Keeping a peaceful place from which to operate was always foremost in Al’s mind. He had that town’s city manager paid off; other members of Cicero’s city government were also on the Capone payroll. Al wanted the town completely in the control of the Chicago Mob.
The incumbents were under the aegis of city manager, Joseph Z. Klenha, who was in Al Capone’s pocket. But in 1923, a group of Democrats decided they’d had enough of their corrupt city officials, and set about putting up candidates to run against the sitting Torrio/Capone Republicans. They campaigned vigorously, railing against the Cicero machine’s corruption and graft taking. Al and Johnny Torrio (who was still in the picture in 1924), of course, wanted to keep “their” people (bought and paid for) in office.
The Democrats gained ground. With the threat of a voting public perhaps causing a changing of the guard Johnny Torrio and Al Capone instituted a program of terror for the upcoming election. On the eve of Election Day, Frank Capone, with some extra muscle, stormed the office of William K. Pflaum. He was the Democrats’ candidate for town clerk. Frank and his men trashed Pflaum’s office and roughed him up. This was meant to serve as a message for other Democrats who opposed the sitting Republicans.
On Election Day, April 1, 1924, Frank Capone, along with many other Torrio/Capone gunsels, wandered the town, and staked out polling booths. They armed themselves with baseball bats, submachine guns, and sawed-off shotguns; the intimidation factor of these armed men hovering ominously around voting locales had to be terrifying.
But a mere display of might was not enough. Frank and his cohorts spent time working the crowds lined up to vote. A mobster might sidle up to someone standing in line and ask that voter for whom he was casting his ballot. If the response was for anyone other than the Republican candidates the thug would simply take the ballot sheet from the person, fill it out for him (or her) and hand it back. If the person still refused to cast the “appropriate” ballot, he or she was forcibly removed from the place and kept away.
Some people were kidnapped outright while still others were beaten. Three men were shot dead and another had his throat cut. A Democratic campaign worker was shot in both legs and hauled off to a Torrio/Capone-owned hotel in Chicago; eight other Democrats were taken to the same location, held captive, and it was they who tended this man’s wounds. Many others simply gave up—in the face of Frank’s small army a lot of potential voters simply went home.
However, enough people were incensed enough to try and fight back. By late afternoon a group had appealed to a Cook County judge (who was not beholden to either Torrio or Al Capone). He hastily swore in 70 Chicago plainclothes officers as deputy sheriffs (so they would have legal authority outside the Chicago city limits).
Rioting ensued in Cicero; the newly-deputized Chicago cops arrived on the scene to help quell the violence. In haste, most police arrived in unmarked cars. These vehicles looked like the same cars most of the mobsters themselves used: black sedans and limos.
One rolled up to a polling place where Frank and Al Capone, joined by a cousin and another henchman, were “helping” people vote properly (while brandishing weapons). Al and the other two men were unsure who the occupants were; thinking it might have been a carload of other mobsters coming to lend support Al Capone stayed his hand momentarily until he could see clearly who the late arrivals were.
Frank, of course, exercised no such restraint. He immediately opened fire on one of the newcomers, a plainclothes cop, at almost point-blank range—he missed. That cop and his partner let go with double blasts, killing him instantly. Al Capone escaped.
Frank Capone’s funeral was the largest and most opulent underworld affair Chicago had seen (even bigger than that of Big Jim Colosimo, Torrio’s Chicago mentor whose murder Torrio arranged, a few years earlier). Frank was laid in state in a silver-plated, satin-lined casket, surrounded by $20,000 worth of flowers (well north of a quarter-million dollars today).
In deference to this solemn occasion every whorehouse, gambling joint, and saloon shut down business operations for two hours.
But, at least Frank Capone didn’t die in vain. His “electioneering assistance” on behalf of Cicero’s Republican ticket ensured that city manager Klenha and all his cronies were swept back into office by an overwhelming margin.
“Bottles” (a/k/a/, “Public Enemy #3”)
Raffaele James Capone, the second-oldest son (b: 1894), was born in Italy and migrated to America with his mother and older brother James Vincenzo in 1895. [Their father had found his way to New York via Canada six months earlier.] Raffaele then later Americanized his name to “Ralph”
He married, but in 1920, he moved from his home in New York to Chicago at the bequest of his younger brother, Al. His wife did not want to move, so Ralph took their son (Ralph, Jr.) with him, leaving the wife behind. He returned to New York in 1921 long enough to divorce her. Back in Chicago, he married again in 1923.
Credit: public domainThe Chicago Mob had many legitimate business interests; among them were several soft-drink facilities that bottled and distributed ginger ale, soda water, and other non-alcoholic beverages. These were particularly lucrative during the Prohibition years as some people were legitimately toeing the line and not drinking or possessing any alcohol. These were also used as mixers for cocktails, and Scarface wanted a city-wide monopoly on that commodity, capturing the imbibers and the teetotalers alike.
Ralph Capone was put in charge of these operations, and swiftly made them very lucrative for the Mob. It was from his job managing this arm of the business he got the nickname “Bottles”.
While close to his brother, Bottles was never in the upper ranks of the Chicago Mob, and most of his activities on their behalf were focused on above-board businesses. Nonetheless, in April 1930 when Al Capone was named “Public Enemy Number 1”, his lesser-known brother was dubbed “Public Enemy Number 3”!
In 1932, Bottles drew a three-year stretch in prison for tax evasion (the same charge that had sent Brother Al to the joint in 1931). When he got out, he rejoined the Chicago Mob, this time getting his hands a little dirtier than before. He bought a “silent” part-ownership in a tavern/hotel and a home in Wisconsin (where he would live for the rest of his life). He divorced his second wife in 1938.
Meanwhile, Al, suffering from paresis (the dementia associated with advanced syphilis) was let out of prison early due to his health issues in 1939 (he’d been sentenced to 11 years). He retired to Florida where he maintained a mansion. Bottles kept the Chicago Mob running. He kept money flowing to Florida where Al was spending his last years. Scarface was ravaged by his late-stage syphilis, something he’d picked up early in life working the New York brothels. He was in the dementia phase. [He died from this in 1947.]
In 1950, though, because of his “connections”, Bottles was questioned by the Kefauver Committee (a congressional investigation from 1950-1951 set up to probe interstate commerce as it related to racketeering and organized crime). He was referred to in a press item, with hyperbole, as “. . . now one of the overlords of the national syndicate which controls gambling, vice, and other rackets.”
Nothing could be further from the truth: while Bottles held a place of honor nationally, he was nowhere near the level of power or prestige of his peers in the syndicate, such as Lucky Luciano or Meyer Lansky. Nor was he equal to the current leaders of the Chicago Mob (Sam Giancana, and others).
Shortly after the hearings Bottles’ son (Ralph, Jr.) killed himself. As a child in school the boy had trouble follow him because of his Capone surname; he was bullied and never allowed to forget he was related to “Uncle Al”. As an adult that same haunted feeling kept after him, and he worked a string of meaningless jobs, never able to shake off the Capone burden he seemed to carry. The aging Bottles remarried in 1951 (for the last time).
Ralph “Bottles” Capone was the most durable of the Capone brothers, living to the age of 80. He died in 1974 of natural causes.
Perhaps the most interesting of all the Capone brothers is the one who never had a hand in organized crime, though he would come to rely on his criminal brothers for a hand-out.
Born in Italy in 1892* over half a decade before his most infamous sibling, the oldest Capone child was named James Vincenzo Capone. After the family (at the time just him, Ralph, his mother, and father) migrated to New York, more children came along, including future bad boys, Frank and Al.
Jim Capone left New York at the age of 16. [Here sources differ, and his age at departure may be 18. Furthermore, confusion about his year of departure could give differing ages: years anywhere from 1905-1908 are noted.] His brothers, several years younger than he, couldn’t as yet have had time to besmirch the family name so shame could not have been the reason Jim left home. Perhaps it was merely wanderlust, or a desire to be shed of his immigrant parents and their Old World ways (he would spend much time trying to improve his speech patterns, losing the Italian accent, so his heritage could not be so easily guessed at).
Regardless of when he ran away, or why, or how old he was (most certainly a teenager still) Jim struck out for the unknown. He seemed to disappear into the landscape.
The Capones would not hear from Jim until 1940. He wrote a letter to his brother Ralph “Bottles” Capone (running the Chicago Mob as Al’s proxy) in 1940. Apparently destitute with a wife and several children to support he was reaching out for help. When finally faced with his long-lost brother, Bottles was in for a shock: Jim was missing an eye, he was broke, and his wife had no idea the man she was married to was related to the former “Public Enemies”. After visiting with Ralph in Wisconsin, Jim also made the trek to Florida to see the sickly Al.
Jim Capone told a fantastic story once reunited with some of his clan. He said he had spent most of his missing years in Nebraska working in law enforcement. He had changed his name to Richard James Hart to distance himself from his gangster brothers and their reputations. He said he’d picked up a nickname while working as a law man: “Two-Gun”, because of his prowess with a side-arm. His eye was lost in a gunfight with gangsters, or so he said.
Newspapers picking up the story of the return of the prodigal Capone had staff do some background work. It turned out “Two-Gun” Hart was no hero or gunslinger. He was a lying braggart and a derelict.
He had joined a circus after leaving New York but later simply tramped around the US and Central America. In 1919 he’d jumped from a freight train (on which he’d hitched a ride) at Homer, Nebraska, and decided that was as good a place as any to stay put. He odd-jobbed around his new town, doing carpentry work and house painting. He married a local grocer’s daughter, Kathleen Winch, and they went on to have four sons.
Jim’s outrageous lying skills led him to tell such vivid and compelling war stories (though he’d never served in any division of the armed forces) that the local American Legion post honored him with being its post commander. He was sufficiently well thought of that he was made the town of Homer’s constable. After a two-year stint at that post he was given the job of a state officer.
Interestingly enough, in 1922 he was appointed as a special officer supervising two local Indian tribes, the Omaha and the Winnebago. Drunkenness among the Natives caused problems in town with fighting and other disturbances of the peace. His job was to keep liquor out of their hands.
Jim Capone/“Two-Gun” Hart had no real love for his charges and he was needlessly cruel to the Indians he met in his job. Rather than jail them for vagrancy or drunkenness he usually gave them a severe beating. His reputation for sadism and abuse of authority became so pronounced he was removed from this post and transferred to one in Sioux City, Iowa. There, his apparently inborn hatred for Native Americans continued to rear its ugly head. He killed an Indian in a Sioux City saloon brawl; he was not prosecuted for this offense, though. And it was in a dust-up with more Native Americans that he lost his eye (not in a gunfight with gangsters). Afterward, he was transferred to Idaho where he was charged with yet another murder, but the case was not pursued by authorities.
He went back to his old constable’s job in Homer. [Some sources call this position that of town marshal.] Acting as the town’s law, Jim had keys to every business establishment in town. His badge was taken away, however, when local store owners started coming up short of products on their shelves and in their storerooms. He was obviously pilfering. Credit: tripod.com
To add further insult to this injury to his ego some members of the local American Legion finally decided to question Jim’s service record. Someone from the group asked for proof of his war service. Jim, having never served, could produce nothing to show he was a veteran. He was stripped of his commander title.
With no income, he, his wife, and four sons were evicted from their home. They signed up for “relief” (“welfare”). It was about this time in his life that Richard Hart decided that his real name of James Vincenzo Capone might pull him out of a slump. And that was when he wrote to brother Bottles.
Thanks to handouts from Al and Bottles (who sent him a monthly check), plus with the money made for spinning yarns for any newspaper reporter gullible enough to swallow his tall tales Jim and his brood lived fairly well afterward. He died in 1952, though he went blind beforehand.
Brothers in Arms
Looking into a family’s history can give a more complete picture of that family. With the addition of Frank (the thug), Bottles (the straight arrow), and “Two-Gun” (the crackpot) the Al Capone story changes into something just a bit more colorful than what is normally presented for consumption. The dynamic among these men, colored by lawlessness, can only go toward proving the old adage, “Blood is thicker than water.”
*an isolated source records his birth year as 1887
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