In the 1920s, a lawman in North Dakota had a dark secret — He was Al Capone’s brother
Sometimes called 'the white sheep' of the family, what would make Vincenzo Capone choose to fight the booze trade that was making his little brother Al the most powerful gangster in the world?
Editor’s note: This is part one of a three-part special report on “The Capones in North Dakota.”
Can you imagine the stress on poor old Vincenzo Capone as he tried to hide his real identity? What would his fellow prohibition agent friends think if they found out the man they knew as “Richard Hart” — a guy fighting corruption and crime just like they were — actually shared a last name with the most notorious gangster of the era: “Capone.”
And it wasn’t just a shared last name, they shared parents. “Richard Hart” was Al Capone’s older brother.
It all sounds too unbelievable to be true. How could Richard Hart/Vincenzo Capone have plotted such a different path for his life than his gangster brothers, Al “Scarface” Capone, Ralph “Bottles” Capone and Frank Capone? But he did.
The story of this unlikely family dynamic starts across the Atlantic ocean.
The cowboy Capone
Vincenzo Capone was born near Salerno, Italy, in 1892. When he was just a toddler he immigrated to the United States with his parents, Gabriele Capone, a barber, and Teresa Raiola, a seamstress. The couple eventually had eight more children, including Al, who was fourth in the birth order.
All of the Capone children were given Italian names, but as they grew up in Brooklyn, New York, they chose to Americanize them, so Vincenzo went by “James” and Alphonse became “Al,” Raffael was “Ralph,” Salvatore was “Frank” and so on.
Unlike some of his younger brothers, Vincenzo avoided getting into street fights and gangs, instead choosing to spend time at area horse stables where he could act out his dreams of living in the wild west as a gun-slinging cowboy.
‘He avoided the life of the hoodlums and went across the bay to Staten Island where the homes and shops were separated by grassy fields and woods where he could wander and forget the crowded metropolis from which he came,’ writes author Jeff McArthur in his 2015 book about the eldest Capone, titled “Two Gun Hart: Law Man, Cowboy and Long-Lost Brother of Al Capone.”
Vincenzo left home unexpectedly at 16, most likely with one of the traveling wild west shows that came through New York. (He wrote home later that he had joined the circus). McArthur writes that 8-year-old Al saw him off on the ferry that day and Vincenzo had to tell him he had to stay in New York. When World War I broke out, Vincenzo enlisted and was stationed in France.
He sent the occasional postcard home, but for the most part was looking to distance himself from his life in Brooklyn and his Italian heritage. According to a story by Curt Eriksmoen in 2019, “He believed that being Italian would hinder him from finding meaningful employment, so he changed his name to ‘Richard Hart’ and claimed he was darker-skinned because he was part Native American.”
He chose the name “Richard Hart” in honor of his idol William Hart, a silent movie cowboy of the era. He was even given William Hart’s nickname “Two-Gun” after he took part in successful shootouts against bootleggers.
A Capone sent to North Dakota
Following the passage of the 18th Amendment banning the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors, the federal government authorized the hiring of federal prohibition agents. Hart applied to become an agent and was hired in the summer of 1920.
Five years later, Hart was hired by the Bureau of Indian Affairs to try to keep alcohol off of the reservations. He was sent to the Dakotas, and used the Standing Rock Reservation as his base of operation.
Eriksmoen points out the irony of that particular year.
“The year 1925 was also the same time that his younger brother, Al Capone, became the head of the violent Torrio crime organization in Chicago. This organization became the country’s largest trafficker of illegal liquor under Capone’s leadership.”
Because prohibition was largely unpopular and the alcoholism rate on the reservations was estimated to be close to 45%, Hart and his fellow agents were in for a fight, but Two-Gun was up for the challenge. According to McArthur, within a year he had become “the most feared name among bootleggers in the Midwest.”
'A most crafty enforcement officer'
Ashley Thronson of the State Historical Society of North Dakota noted in a blog post, that in January of 1926 the Sioux County Pioneer reported on the success of a series of raids on the reservation that netted, “many victims beside a lot of evidence and other paraphernalia.”
One such raid resulted in the removal of 25 gallons of alcohol. Hart was declared by the paper as “a most crafty enforcement officer.”
Because of his collaboration with tribal police in fighting poverty and alcoholism on the reservation, many tribal elders respected and admired Hart and even gave him a teasing nickname, translated from Lakota to mean “Big Hairy Thing.” They might have also trusted him because of his claim to be part Native American (and not Italian).
In a promotional video for McArthur’s book, Hart’s grandson Jeff said his grandfather connected with the native people, learning to speak a couple of native languages in addition to English and the Italian he learned at home in Brooklyn.
It’s fortuitous that Hart was on the reservation the same time as photographer Frank Fiske, who was there to document everyday life at Fort Yates and Standing Rock. The end result was a series of photographs showing Hart standing together with Native American agents and the liquor they confiscated. Fiske also shot cowboy portraits of Hart that probably satisfied his desire to be a Wild West Star
It’s pretty clear Hart was proud of the work he did as a Prohibition agent in North Dakota. Thronson said, “according to records in Fiske’s business ledger, Hart purchased 12 postcards of these photographs of him for a total of $5.00.”
Did Al Capone know about Richard Hart?
It appears that he did. Newspaper reports suggest the two men had been seen together, even at the height of Prohibition.
According to McArthur, a Chicago photographer named Tony Berardi claimed to have met Hart and Capone together in 1924 – when the gangster introduced his eldest sibling as a Prohibition officer in Nebraska.
“Apparently proud of his brother, Al revealed no animosity toward him, and was, in fact, showing him off," McArthur writes. “Richard, on the other hand, seemed in awe of the situation. Where he was living, bootleggers had to hide. Here, his brother and his gang walked openly in the street…Not only was Al not having to hide, he was a local celebrity.”
McArthur said the two brothers basically agreed to stay out of each other’s territories.
The Capones reconnect
By 1928, Hart left North Dakota and was transferred to the Spokane Indian Reservation to continue his work. But as Prohibition ended and The Great Depression took hold, work was hard to come by.
Hart apparently swallowed his pride and sought help from his famous family. He still kept his identity secret, but reportedly would leave his home in Homer, Nebraska, where he continued to work in law enforcement, only to come back a few days later in a nice suit carrying cash. At this time, he told his wife Kathleen, who he had met in Nebraska, and their four sons his true identity.
It become public knowledge in 1951 when Hart was called to testify at his brother Ralph Capone’s tax evasion trial. Ralph had apparently written down Hart’s name as the real owner of a home Ralph owned in Wisconsin. Hart actually testified on Ralph’s behalf. (He insisted he be allowed to wear his 10-gallon-cowboy hat while doing so). Some historians believe by testifying the way he did, Hart probably perjured himself. But McArthur believes Hart was trying to pay back his family for helping him through the Great Depression.
Richard Hart/AKA Vincenzo Capone died a year later. According to his obituary in the Lincoln Star, on Oct. 2, 1952, the former lawman had been nearly blind for almost two years following a gunfight in Sioux City, Iowa. But the cause of death was a heart ailment. He was 60 years old.
He is buried in a cemetery in Homer, Nebraska with a tombstone that reads simply:
Richard J. Hart
The name "Vincenzo Capone" is no where to be found.
Next week — part two of "The Capones in North Dakota," Did Al Capone come to visit his brother in North Dakota? Maybe. Two waitresses at a cafe in Petersburg, North Dakota say they served him a steak.