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
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. Frank was two years younger than Ralph and four years older than Al. Of the seven brothers, Frank by far had the most promise. He was described as the best looking - he was tall and lean, with thick wavy hair. 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 berated 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 ripped from their hands by Capone gunmen to see how they were voting. Women were scared off and many a voter was sent home without having cast their ballot. 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 fifty 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 thirty or forty 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, fifteen 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, though, it was John. Fined once for disorderly conduct when he was 18, John’s contributions to the gang were only menial ones. One of these jobs was escorting beer trucks on deliveries to the suburban cabarets. At one stop, the Arrowhead Club in Burnham, Illinois, John fell in love with a cabaret singer. Brother Al 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 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 prison, 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, Pennsylvania. After Al’s release from Alcatraz, 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 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, who everyone 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, Matt threatened a photographer who was attempting to take a picture of his Teresa Capone. Matt died on January 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 overcame their grief at the loss of Frank. However when both Al and Ralph were removed in the early 1930s, the family’s ascent as well as its ability to maintain control of the Chicago mob vanished. With Al gone for a long-time, no other brother could really take his place. The younger brothers – John, Albert and Matt – simply weren’t that interested in devoting their life 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 thirties eliminated that possibility. The Capone dynasty was over, thank God. But what a legacy was left behind.
Copyright A. R. May 1999