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Friday, Apr. 29, 2016

Al Capone's secret brother in Nebraska

Monday, February 18, 2002

Every Nebraska town and village can point to some of their citizens, famous or infamous, who helped to shape the history of our state or nation. Many people know of Al Capone, also known as Scareface, Public Enemy No. 1, and other similar nom de plumes. For many years during the Prohibition years of the 1920s and 1930s Al Capone dominated the headlines in the nation's newspapers.

Though he was born in Italy and grew up in the Italian district of New York City, he made his reputation in Chicago. Early on he became a member of one of the gangs in Brooklyn, where he learned his trade. In the '20s he was sent to Chicago to take over the illegal liquor, drugs, and prostitution business of one Johnny Torrio. He proceeded to systematically eliminate rival operations in a series of gang wars, culminating in the famous "Valentine's Day Massacre" in 1929, when he and his thugs used machine guns to mow down a rival gang in a neighborhood garage. That battle insured his title of Chicago's Crime King.

For years, the federal government had attempted to pin some crime on Al Capone, so that they could lock him away, but they always failed -- until 1931, when they were able to convict him of income tax violations. He was sent to a federal prison for 11 years on that charge. In 1939, ravaged in mind and body from the effects of syphilis, he was released to spend his last years (until 1947) at his palatial home in Florida.

A number of movies and TV specials have been made about the life and times of Al Capone, from the well-known "Public Enemy, starring James Cagney, in 1931, to Sylvester Stallone's "Capone", in 1975. The name of Al Capone has come to be associated with gangs and violence in popular American culture.

Much less is known about Al Capone's brother, James, who went by the name of Dick Hart, and lived in Nebraska. I recently came into possession of an unpublished manuscript by the brother of a friend of mine, titled "The Real R.J. (Two Gun) Hart That I Knew," by Harlan Rockwell.

The Rockwells operated a grocery store in Homer, Nebraska, just south of Sioux City. They were well acquainted with Dick Hart (Capone).

Dick Hart had come to Homer at the end of World War I, intent to: 1. Lead an exemplary life as a good citizen and 2. Keep his real identity a secret.

He worked at various odd jobs around town, carpentry, painting, etc., married a local girl, Kathleen Winch, and eventually landed a job as a Federal Prohibition Officer. That job took him to locations near Indian Reser-vations in South Dakota and Idaho. He apparently did a good job, searching out and raiding unlawful liquor stills, and became quite well known as a fearless agent. But for some reason, he lost that job and returned to Homer in 1930 or '31 .

By this time, Dick and Kathleen had four boys and little in the way of worldly possessions, besides a souped up 1928 Chevy sedan, with a siren and flashing red lights. That Chevy was enough to qualify Dick as Homer's Night Watchman / Town "Constable."

Dick very soon earned a reputation as a brave, but careful lawman. One day, while he was serving as night watchman, he was called to a home where the father, in the throes of some kind of seizure was threatening to kill family members with a large knife. Dick was roused out of a sound sleep, but never the less dashed to the home, bare-chested, and holding up his pants with one hand, and unarmed. He charged into the house and disarmed the fellow and put him into custody before anyone was hurt.

Each night, in Homer, there was a continuous card game at the pool hall. Dick could usually be found there, playing cards, but it was obvious that he never would sit with his back to the door. He was merely considered a cautious lawman. No one ever suspected that he might have been cautious because he was a "hunted man."

Homer is close to the Omaha and Winnebago Indian Reservations. Like most towns in that area, loafing and staggering Indians, suffering from drunkenness, was a big problem in Homer. Dick Hart proved his worth and gained a reputation as a fellow who could "Keep the Peace."

He didn't jail the vagrants and go through the formalities of court cases. Early on he issued a few beatings on a few drunks. After that they feared "The Marshall in Homer," stayed away, and gave their business to the other towns in the area.

But Dick was not just tough on vagrants. He taught his four boys to swim in a natural swimming hole in the nearby Omaha Creek, by tossing them into the water, letting them thrash around for a bit, then fishing them out. They seemed to enjoy the experience, as they eagerly lined up on the bank for their next turn. In a very short time they were swimming on their own.

Dick immediately entered into the civic activities of Homer. He assisted with the local Boy Scout troop, by volunteering to teach the boys the intricacies of "close order drill." It was apparent that he had military experience, and soon had the boys marching with a precision that would do a military school proud. The Scouts loved it.

As a scout leader, Dick regularly took Scouts to the Missouri River on overnight fishing/camping outings. He was an excellent shot and encouraged the boys to become marksmen. He was also a superb cook. The boys caught the fish and Dick's breakfasts of deep fat fried catfish and potatoes were eagerly anticipated by everyone.

Dick Hart was interested in boxing. He coached boys in Homer in the art of self-defense, and regularly took a team of boxers to the "Golden Gloves" tournament in Sioux City. Harlan remembers that while Hart used the siren and flashing lights only rarely on the '28 Chevy, when they went to the Golden Gloves tournament he turned on both as soon as they hit the toll bridge over the Missouri river to Sioux City, speeding across the bridge, without stopping to pay the toll. "Apparently, law officers are exempt from paying tolls, whether they are on official business or not."

"Two Gun" Hart did a good job enforcing the law in Homer. He was never in any trouble, and he worked well with civic groups, especially those involving the boys. He certainly did have his boosters. But he never did have universal approval by the citizens. There was a faction of townspeople who were always suspicious of the swarthy Italian from Chi-cago, who was somewhat mysterious. He took occasional trips to Chicago and came back with a money clip full of money. And there were rumors that he had killed a man while he was a Prohibition Officer, an act which cost him his Federal job. Some people were uncomfortable when he was around.

Dick's military experience led to his joining the American Legion in Homer. His natural leadership abilities soon advanced him to the office of Post Commander, an office, which he held for a number of years. He did a good job and under his command the Post activities ran very smoothly. He enjoyed the Legion and liked talking about his experiences as a combat soldier in France and Belgium with the other veterans. Then somehow, someone found out that there never was a R.J. Hart in the army. He was called upon to come forward and explain. He never did, at least publicly. He was removed as Commander, but allowed to remain in the Legion. Then the incident was hushed up, as if it had never happened.

It was years later that a story about Al Capone's lost brother ran in Life magazine. Still later a TV movie, "The Lost Capone" was shown on TNT. Only then did it become generally known that Homer's R.J. Dick Hart, friend, good citizen, and keeper of the law, was in reality James Capone, brother of the infamous Crime Boss, Al Capone.

Source: "The real RJ. Hart (Two Gun) that I knew", an unpublished manuscript, by Harlan Rockwell.

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