Curtis Eriksmoen, Published September 11 2011
Eriksmoen: Older Capone was Prohibition agent
Capone was born in 1892 in Castellammare di Stabia, a small town 16 miles south of Naples, Italy. On Dec. 9, 1893, the Capones arrived by steamship in New York and settled in Brooklyn. While growing up, his parents had six more sons and two daughters.
James heard stories about the West and at the age of 16 left Brooklyn to set off on his own. He found odd jobs working on farms and ranches and, in 1907, ended up in Wichita, Kan. After four years as a farm laborer, James landed a job as a “circus roustabout” and wrestler.
In his free time, James spent hours shooting circus pistols at empty cans and bottles. He also attended Western movies. His hero was William S. Hart, a cowboy star who usually played a sheriff. In 1914, Hart had the title role in the film “Two-Gun Hicks,” a character James immediately identified with. James passed himself off as part Indian, claimed he was born in Oklahoma and changed his name to Richard Joseph Hart.
After war was declared on Germany, Hart enlisted with the Marines and saw action in France. After the war, Hart hopped a freight train and got off at a small farm town next to the Winnebago Indian Reservation in northeastern Nebraska. The town of Homer (population less than 500) was the antithesis of New York City. Hart had finally arrived at a place he wanted to call home.
Hart found work as a timekeeper for a railroad crew and was then a house painter and paper hanger. Homer was on the Missouri River, which started flooding after a downpour on May 19, 1919. Hart rescued people caught up in the floodwaters. He helped pull the Winch family to safety, and the daughter, Kathleen Winch, fell in love with him. The two got married.
On Jan. 16, 1919, Congress ratified the 18th Amendment, banning the manufacture, sale or transportation of intoxicating liquors. The federal government hired agents to enforce the law. Hart was hired as an agent in summer 1920.
Within two weeks of becoming a Prohibition agent, Hart made his first raid in nearby Martinsburg, seizing five stills. He shut down stills almost weekly. He had pictures of himself standing next to the confiscated booze equipment placed in newspapers, and he fed stories to the press about the exploits of “Two-Gun” Hart. He was now living the life of his dreams, that of a modern-day William S. Hart.
That dream nearly came crashing down on Oct. 23, 1923. Hart, another agent and the town constable of South Sioux City, Neb., staked out the home of a suspected moonshiner. They followed a Buick that left the home of the suspect. After they ordered the Buick to stop, the driver accelerated, shots were fired, and the driver was fatally injured. Hart and the two other lawmen were charged with “manslaughter” at a trial in Dakota City, Neb. Hart feared that his real identity would be revealed. The Women’s Christian Temperance Union stepped in to provide legal counsel, and all of the lawmen were found innocent. Hart was able to continue as a federal marshal.
In 1925, Hart was hired by the U.S. Indian Service to keep alcohol off the Indian reservations. He was sent to the Dakotas and immediately began busting stills. In the Dakotas, “Hart enjoyed a reputation as a relentless and hard-nosed lawman.” The Sioux nicknamed him “Soiko,” which translates as a “big hairy bogeyman.”
In summer 1927, President Calvin Coolidge took his family on a vacation to the Black Hills. Hart was sent to provide for his protection. In 1928, the Indian Service transferred Hart to the Spokane Indian Reservation in Benewah County, Idaho. “While there he was involved in the arrests of at least 20 wanted killers.” Because of the Great Depression, Hart’s position was eliminated, and in summer 1931, he returned to the Dakotas after being hired by cattlemen to crack down on rustlers.
Hart was then appointed as a special agent with the Department of Interior and sent back to Homer to work with the Nebraska Indian tribes. While there, he was tracked down by relatives of the man who was killed near South Sioux City in 1923. Seeking revenge, four men attacked Hart and pummeled his face with brass knuckles. He lost one eye and developed a cataract in the other eye.
Hart was unable to continue his work, and the leaders of Homer appointed him justice of the peace. It didn’t pay well, so he fell behind on bills. In 1940, his younger brother Ralph Capone gave him money and transferred some real estate to Hart.
That transfer led to the public finding out that “Two-Gun” Hart was the brother of the lawless Capone brothers. Ralph was investigated for tax evasion, and a Chicago grand jury subpoenaed Hart to testify in September 1951. The revelation that the oldest brother of the country’s most notorious Prohibition violator had been a feared and respected Prohibition enforcer made national news. On Oct. 1, 1952, Hart suffered a fatal heart attack at his home in Homer.
“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your suggestions for columns, comments or corrections to the Eriksmoens at email@example.com.