Deirdre Capone Interview: Niece Recalls Experiences with Infamous Mobster Al Capone
Deirdre Marie Capone lived in the house of her uncle, the infamous gangster Al Capone. In her tell-all memoir, Uncle Al Capone – The Untold Story from Inside His Family, Deirdre (the last member of the family born with the name Capone), shares what it was really like growing up with that name. It is the only book ever written about America’s most notorious mobster by someone who knew him well.
The author tells what really happened in the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, relates absorbing stories about Capone and his family and what life was like growing up the grand niece of Public Enemy #1. Uncle Al Capone grabs the reader’s attention right from the start with its true dialogue of the Capone family – from their ancestral roots in Angri, Italy to Brooklyn, New York, and later to Chicago.
“Anybody that knew Al Capone knew that he would have nothing to do with that kind of a slaughter.”
For most of her life, Deirdre Capone made every effort to hide the fact that she was a Capone and in 1972, in her early thirties, she left Chicago and her family history behind to reinvent herself in Minnesota, making sure that no one other than her husband knew her ancestry. She succeeded.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Deirdre, let me start by asking how you are related to infamous gangster Alphonse Gabriel “Al” Capone.
Deirdre Capone: My grandfather, Ralph Capone, was Al’s older brother and business partner, so that makes me his grand niece. I am a member of the core family. My father was raised as Al’s younger sibling and when my mother was pregnant with me, they lived in Al’s house. When Al’s only sister passed, I inherited the Capone family gravesites. I’m in charge of all the remains of my family, and there is a grave there waiting for me. I’m a niece, but I’m much closer than that sounds.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): The family is of Italian-American heritage?
Deirdre Capone: The family is all Italian. All of the Capones were 100% Italian.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Did you know your grandfather Ralph Capone?
Deirdre Capone: Oh yeah, I was very close to my grandfather. He was listed in 1930 as Public Enemy #3 by the Chicago Crime Commission and was married and had one child, which was my father. There was a unique family situation where my grandfather brought his son to Chicago from Brooklyn, New York, where his mother raised my father as the younger sibling of Al Capone. My grandfather, as I said, had only one child and that was my father.
My grandfather felt personally responsible for my father’s suicide. After that, I didn’t have a father and I really never had a mother. My mother was kind of a wild creature. Just imagine who would choose to marry into a mobster’s family and you’ll nail my mom pretty well. It was party time for her. Anyway, my grandfather felt personally responsible for my father’s death, so he really started taking me under his wing.
Ralph ran the businesses and Al was the guy that loved the limelight. When Al walked into a room, everybody knew he was there. He commanded attention and he loved that. My grandfather hated it. He would come into a room and you would hardly notice him. My grandfather really ran the operation, so he told me a lot of things, as did the other family members.
I wanted to know why my dad committed suicide and why I was fired from jobs. So, I started to keep a diary, and they made me promise that I would not write a book until all the original family members had passed. I started to write it pretty much in earnest in the late 90s, but then I got cancer, so I needed to get myself well first because writing the book was very emotional.
I hid who I was for most of my life and didn’t even tell my children their heritage until they were almost teenagers. I’ve seen so much grief and pain, and I was so frightened for so much of my life that I just didn’t want my children to go through that. When I finally got up enough nerve to tell them, they thought it was real cool (laughs).
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Of course (laughs).
Deirdre Capone: Now it’s just a different time, you know? It was hard for me, but it is just a different time for them.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): How did having the last name “Capone” affect you?
Deirdre Capone: It was very difficult for me to grow up in Chicago with the name Deirdre Marie Capone. It was very hard. I’m one of those people that can remember being a baby in a crib. I was either cursed or blessed with a photographic memory and remember things that most people usually forget.
I knew there was something going on when I would go over with my dad to the Capone household especially when Al was in residence. The home was the typical two-story brownstone. All the drapes would be pulled over the windows on the first floor and the drapes would be open on the second floor. When Al was at home, there’d be armed guards out in front and in back of the house.
But, the thing that really hit me hard was that Al died on my seventh birthday, which was January 25, 1947. I was raised a Catholic, and Catholics have their first communion when they’re in second grade at seven years old. My parents planned a big thing for me, and all the members of the Capone family were in attendance in church to watch me take my first communion. This was 1947, and back then you always made your first Holy Communion on Mother’s Day.
In 1947, in the city of Chicago, they had local editions. The Chicago Tribune and Chicago American would always have a local edition of their papers, and it would come out twice a week. In the Monday edition of those papers, it said that the second graders of St. Philip Neri Church made their first communion, and Deirdre Capone, with the entire Capone family in attendance, made hers.
When my father entered me in school, he was trying to protect me, so he entered me using Gabriel as my last name. My father was Ralph Gabriel Capone. How many Deirdres do you think there were in the city of Chicago in 1947, let alone at St. Philip Neri School? When Al died, all of my classmates’ parents were being educated for the first time in their lives to all of the alleged things that Al Capone did.
Two weeks later, every single student in my second grade class was invited to a girl’s birthday party … but not me. That’s when it started. I stayed on the same campus for twelve years with some of these girls, and they had nothing to do with me. I can understand parents, you know? You want to protect your kids. They didn’t know if they let their kids come to the house if there was going to be armed guards or bullets flying. So, I understood that … but it was dreadful.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): It was difficult to understand as a child.
Deirdre Capone: Very difficult. Then, my mom divorced my dad because she didn’t get to marry the lawyer he was going to be. I think I was literally the first latchkey child in the United States. I would have to take my lunch to school, and all the other kids went home for lunch and enjoyed a hot meal. I would have to sit at school all by myself with my sandwich. I never felt like anyone cared.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You didn’t have any friends?
Deirdre Capone: No. A new girl transferred into the school in sixth grade. I introduced myself to her and we became really good friends, but she didn’t know who I was.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): One reason for writing the book was to debunk popular “myths” about Al Capone.
Deirdre Capone: Yes. He has been portrayed as a mobster. He was a mobster, but he was not a monster. Melissa, back in the 1920s, the people in the gambling, prostitution, and liquor businesses practiced something that was called “omerta.” Omerta was basically the code of silence and meant, “Don’t talk to anbody. You don’t know anything and you didn’t see anything.” They all lived by that code. Because of that, when somebody was written about in the newspaper, they didn’t know the person’s character. They just could write about the alleged things that the person did. Writers, producers, and directors can take these characters and make them into something of their own choosing.
My uncle Al once said, “I’m a spook. I’m a product of a million minds.” He also said, “They would blame me for the Great Chicago Fire if they could.” Prohibition was really dumb. There were seven people who changed the minds of Congress to outlaw liquor. The 1920s were the Roaring Twenties for many different reasons. Women were bobbing their hair and shortening their skirts, and jazz was coming into being. Everything revolved around alcohol. If you lived in a rural area of the United States, you could build a still and make your own alcohol. But, in the cities, you couldn’t do that, so you relied on somebody else bringing the alcohol in from Canada or the Bahamas to this country and serving it. During prohibition, President Hoover served alcohol in the White House.
My grandfather’s business included only three things – gambling, prostitution, and alcohol. He swore to me that no innocent person was ever harmed, no child was ever in danger, and no woman was ever made to do something she did not choose to do. So, when they started seeing a different element coming into the business, they chose to get out.
I was raised to believe that your word is your bond and family is everything. I have four children and fourteen grandchildren, and now I have one granddaughter-in-law. You can interview any of them, and they will tell you they’ve never heard me tell a lie. I don’t lie. There’s a saying, “There’s honor among thieves.” They’d get into business with one another and they could trust each other. A handshake meant it was a deal. People watched your back. Nobody got into that business without knowing those rules. If someone broke his word, there had to be retaliation.
In those times, the bootleggers (people providing alcohol), the elected officials, and the police all worked together because the citizens wanted alcohol. They wanted speakeasies. Like my uncle Al said, “When I serve alcohol, it’s called bootlegging, but when the people on North Shore serve it, it’s called hospitality.” More people were killed by police than by any mobster during those days. There were more murders in the newspaper industry than there ever was in the liquor industry.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You say that Al Capone was not involved in the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre (February 14, 1929) where seven men were gunned down in cold blood in a garage in Chicago.
Deirdre Capone: No Capone … no member of the Chicago Outfit was involved in the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. I had a very funny quirk of fate. My husband’s uncle married the sister of the so-called mechanic that was killed that day. His name was Johnny May. Johnny had a brother and his brother told my married family that it was the police. The police were stealing alcohol off the backs of Bugs Moran’s trucks.
My uncle Matty (Al’s youngest brother) and I were very close. Matty told me that he was on watch that day. They were trying to watch for Bugs Moran because Al had told the guys to put the fear of God in him. Al said to tell Bugs there was enough business for everybody there and that his head was getting too big for his hat. But, he didn’t tell them to kill Bugs Moran.
I needed more evidence than that before I could put it into my book. There are two books that were just recently released. One is called Alcatraz: The Gangster Years, and the other is called Get Capone. Both of these books back me up, and we also have the physical evidence that point to the police. When the police stole cases of alcohol from Bugs Moran’s trucks, one of his men said, “I’m going to the police lieutenant and you guys are going to be fired.”
There was a group of businessmen in Chicago called “The Secret Six.” They wanted to bring Al Capone down because he was Italian and at that point in time, Italians were not supposed to rise to that kind of power position or have that much influence and money. The police went to these businessmen, and they said, “Make it look like Al Capone did it.” Anybody that knew Al Capone knew that he would have nothing to do with that kind of a slaughter. And if Capone’s mob had done it, Bugs Moran would have been killed if that was what Al Capone wanted. That incident alone destroyed the Capone name.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): There was a man in the garage that looked like Bugs Moran and was dressed like him, so he was mistaken for him. That’s why the men were killed, correct?
Deirdre Capone: Yes, the lookout men thought it was Moran that was going into the garage. But, my uncle Al knew it wasn’t Moran. He saw this touring car of police going up and down the alley and as he was leaving, he heard the gunshots.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): So, you are saying that there is evidence, and there are witnesses that prove police shot and killed those seven people?
Deirdre Capone: Correct.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Do you have any personal knowledge that Al Capone ever murdered anyone or ordered a hit on anyone?
Deirdre Capone: Oh, I’m sure that happened. I equate that section of our history to the Wild West. In the Wild West, if you rustled someone’s cattle or took somebody’s woman, the two cowboys would end up on either end of the street and go for each other. Yes. There was blood shed. But, again, no innocent person was ever harmed.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): If Al killed or ordered a hit, it was done in retaliation?
Deirdre Capone: Yes, absolutely. There was one incident where Al was in the main lobby of the Hawthorne Hotel. These cars went by, and all these machine guns were flying out the windows. His bodyguard knocked Al down to the floor and he escaped. But, you know, you should have some recourse and be able to do something to the person who is trying to kill you.
Al would have nightmares. He was scared to death a lot. That’s why he moved his wife and son out of the city. It was after that incident when he got the armored car. All of a sudden, there seemed to be a breach of honor, and families were being threatened. They took my father out of the family home and sent him to private schools. They did a lot of that back in 1927/28. It was really getting pretty bad to be out there. Al got a place in Miami.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): The police were not getting involved in the violence between gangs?
Deirdre Capone: No, they were not. Nowadays, it’s entirely different. They couldn’t even get the Lindbergh baby back. Al wanted to help find the baby. If the police would have allowed him and his Outfit to help, they would have solved that case much sooner. The police were not well trained back then.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): How did the general public perceive Al Capone during that time?
Deirdre Capone: Melissa, since I’ve come to be known and people can find me now, countless people have contacted me whose grandfather, father, mother, or someone they knew worked for my grandfather or uncle. I have not met anyone who knew them directly that had anything bad to say about them. They were generous, kind, and helped many people after the Wall Street Crash of 1929. Ralph and Al opened up the first soup kitchens, and they fed people for months. They built churches, put organs in churches, and paid for their children to go to school. They made lots of money, but were also very generous with it.
When I had to move my grandfather out of his big house and put him into a nursing home, my cousin was helping, and we found about 300 pieces of paper that he had in a drawer. Each one of them was an IOU. They’d say IOU Ralph Capone $350, IOU $25 and so on. He never collected on anything. Ralph would give the people money, but he would ask them for an IOU, so the people up in Mercer, Wisconsin, where he lived, still say good things about him.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Did Ralph and Al have a particular political party affiliation?
Deirdre Capone: They were Republicans and were very patriotic. Of course, they chose to come to this county, and they loved being here. Al Capone was quoted many times as saying, “I’m not Italian. I’m 100% American.”
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Do you have any personal items that belonged to Al?
Deirdre Capone: Yeah, I have quite a few things. Probably my most prized possession is a picture of Al. He’s sitting there with a nice suit on and wearing a silk tie. If you look closely, there’s a stickpin in his tie, and it has a cameo with the face of a woman surrounded by diamonds. When Al died, his mother got that pin and when his mother died, she left it to me. I wear the cameo on a chain around my neck, but I still have the stickpin part of it also.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Did Al use the Lexington Hotel as an office or a hideout?
Deirdre Capone: It was in a central location, and he could come and go easily. If he needed to go anywhere downtown, he could get to Cicero very easily from there. Al didn’t have to worry about somebody sneaking up on him there in the middle of the night like he did at home.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): He was well protected there.
Deirdre Capone: Correct.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Are you offering proof also that Al was not guilty of tax evasion?
Deirdre Capone: No. Al was retried by the American Bar Association in 1991 in the city of Chicago. The head defender and I have become very good friends. They used a real jury, a real judge, and reenacted the 1930s trial. The jury reached a unanimous “not guilty verdict on all charges” verdict. He was retried again in 2011 in Minnesota by the University of St. Thomas Law School, and they also found him not guilty.
When income tax was first passed, there was a provision in the law that said, “You do not have to declare any income that was earned illegally.” If you did, someone in the IRS could look at it and send the police over to arrest the guy who had been dealing in gambling or prostitution. It would just be incriminating. So, Al and my grandfather didn’t know they had to pay income tax. When they found out, they offered to pay what was owed.
My grandfather was found guilty for the same amount of money and for the same years as Al, but he only got a sentence of three years and served his time in the federal prison at McNeill Island in Washington. Al was found guilty and got eleven years. At one point, Al offered the US government $10 million in order to pay the bill. They said, “No. We want you to stand trial.” They wanted him out of Chicago. What I found out was that he was planning to run for mayor of Chicago. He would’ve won hands down because the people adored him, but the businessmen did not want that. They did not want an Italian in that position of power. So, they started this campaign against him.
Al was sent to Atlanta and a couple of appeals were filed, but they were denied. A writ of habeas corpus was filed because his lawyers found out that a witness was tortured so that he would lie on the witness stand. Al was one day away from being taken from Atlanta back to Chicago to go before the judge with the new evidence when President Hoover called the new warden of Alcatraz, James A. Johnston, and said, “If you want the world to know about this maximum security prison, transfer Al Capone there and they will write about it all over the world.”
Alcatraz was the first maximum security prison to be opened in the United States. They sell my book there, so I’ve visited the island several times for book signings. The very first sign that you see before you get on the ferry boat is a quote by Warden Johnston. It says, “Alcatraz was opened to incarcerate irredeemable men.” Well, Al Capone was not irredeemable, but being sent to Alcatraz put the seal on him being viewed as a monster … as this horrible person, because that’s all that was incarcerated there.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Do you feel that Al was railroaded into going to prison for tax evasion because they couldn’t get him on any murder charges?
Deirdre Capone: Not railroaded by the police. He was railroaded by this group of businessmen who wanted him out of Chicago.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): During the time Al was in Alcatraz prison, was he suffering from complications due to syphilis?
Deirdre Capone: That’s also a misnomer. He and my grandfather both had syphilis. I think anybody going through the Roaring Twenties could get it because those were new roles, especially for women. Everyone had either syphilis or gonorrhea. That’s why they started to push so hard for condoms and to educate people on unprotected sex. But, nobody dies from syphilis. My grandfather’s syphilis was under control and he never had a problem with it.
My grandfather told me that Al was getting out of Alcatraz early. Once you transferred someone out to Alcatraz, a maximum-security prison, the prisoner did not have the right to a writ of habeas corpus because they didn’t want these horrible people taken off the island and going back before the judge. They might escape and kill someone. But, they did have a “time off for good behavior” provision. Al was getting out of Alcatraz at the end of seven years. He was that much of a model prisoner.
The businessmen did not want Al to come back to Chicago to pick things up again. My grandfather told me that Warden Johnston called and said, “We’ve got this new treatment for syphilis and would like to try it on your brother.” They began injecting him with mercury. Well, if you read about the Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland, you would know that he went mad because he’d dip his threads in mercury to make his sewing easier. The mercury got into his bloodstream and drove him crazy.
Al went crazy due to the mercury being injected into his system. My mother told me that Ralph had a big party for Al in Chicago when he got out of prison. She was pregnant with me at the time. Al would go up to his own sister and ask, “Who are you?” He would go up to his brother and ask, “Who are you?” My grandfather found a psychiatrist in Baltimore at Johns Hopkins. They put Al there to leech the poison out of his body. I had many conversations with the psychiatrist’s wife who was also a psychiatrist. She said, “We never came home and talked about our cases to one another. But, my husband was very concerned about your uncle and the amount of toxins that were in his system.”
Every week, no matter where Al was, there would be someone there to give him a shot of nutrients. I don’t know what else was in the injections, but they were given to try to pull all those heavy metals out of his system. Up until the day he died, Al was getting those treatments to get rid of the mercury poisoning.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Al died of a heart attack after a stroke?
Deirdre Capone: He died of a massive stroke. In 1929, he had pneumonia and we thought we were going to lose him then, but he rallied. On January 25, 1947, Al was getting ready for a swim. Two of his male nurses were toweling him off and getting him ready after a shower. They said Al just looked at them and fell to the ground. To me, that’s a massive stroke, not a heart attack.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): He never regained consciousness?
Deirdre Capone: Never. He was dead before he hit the floor. Al was 48 when he died. He ruled Chicago in his 20s. My grandfather told me that, at one point, they were running over 300 different establishments, paying the bills and paying wages. They did not have a fax machine, a computer, or a cell phone.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): That’s remarkable (laughs).
Deirdre Capone: I know (laughs).
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): How did Al get into the business?
Deirdre Capone: Johnny Torrio, who helped build the Chicago Outfit, summoned Al to Chicago because he was looking for a lieutenant. There were a couple of things that happened in New York, and Al wanted to get out of the city and relocate. So, he took his wife and son and left for Chicago.
In November of 1920, Al’s father dropped dead of a massive stroke. That left five siblings at home. My father was a baby and the mother had no means of income. As it is with most families, the oldest son has to take over for the father and take care of everybody. My grandfather wasn’t earning that much money, so Al called him and said, “I think we can do something with Chicago, but I need you to run it for me.” My grandfather then went to Chicago, leaving his wife and son in Brooklyn. Once they knew that it was a viable business and they could afford it, Ralph and Al brought the entire family to Chicago.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): According to numerous sources on the Internet, Al was expelled from school at the age of fourteen.
Deirdre Capone: I don’t know where or how that started. Al graduated from high school. I have a picture in the book of the day he graduated. My grandfather quit school in the sixth grade, so that might be what people picked up on. But, Al Capone was a high school graduate.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Any interest in turning your book into a film?
Deirdre Capone: There have been a couple of people that have talked to me. One young man who emailed me is now with a new company called Vision Entertainment or something. I sent him a book. I also have somebody that is shopping it around in Japan. Japan loves Al Capone.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): That’s interesting. How do you feel about past films on Al Capone or the current HBO series Boardwalk Empire that is set in Atlantic City during the Prohibition era?
Deirdre Capone: I like Boardwalk Empire. I think Scorsese stays pretty close to the events of that day. I like Stephen Graham (who plays Al Capone) and think he’s an excellent actor. Do I like the conversations they write for him? No. I do not. They make Al out to be a mean character. But, in some respects he was. Did they have tempers? Oh yeah, they had tempers.
The men of that day were really not socialized like they are today. If something made them mad, they’d just haul off and sock someone in the nose. They had tempers, but they also had a sense of family. This year on Boardwalk they feature my grandfather Ralph Capone. I think the best movie was The Godfather with Marlon Brando. The only difference is that they were Sicilian and of course, Al was Italian. I adored The Sopranos.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Deirdre, is this the first book you’ve written?
Deirdre Capone: Under my maiden name, yes. But, I have written quite a few things in the past. I’m pretty proud of how I have chosen to live my life on earth. I’ve helped millions of people achieve their dreams and reach their goals. As part of that, I wrote a chapter in a book on reading improvement.
I was a certified private school teacher in Minnesota, and I helped many disadvantaged high school kids who sort of fell through the cracks. But, this is the first book of this type I’ve written.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Are you still trying to keep your married name hidden?
Deirdre Capone: I’m trying to, but nowadays you can just Google me (laughs). See, there are nuts out there. There are 35 book reviews on Amazon right now. Immediately following the favorable ones, there are three negative comments. Those three people are really one person.
It’s a man who lives in England, has three different identities and he’s crazy. He believes that he is the illegitimate grandson of Al Capone. So, there are crazy people out there. I was a little afraid that my business, being run by my son, might be hacked by someone, so I’m still trying to keep my identity a secret.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You have a very large family, so it seems like that secret would be very hard to keep.
Deirdre Capone: Yeah. One granddaughter went to school and said, “I am Al Capone’s grand-grand-grand niece.”
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I would think that kind of stigma would not be as troublesome in 2012 as compared to thirty or forty years ago.
Deirdre Capone: No. It is so different today than it was seventy years ago when I was just starting out. Now, if you’re a relative of someone that famous, it’s kind of cool as the kids say. I just don’t want to make it easy for the nuts out there. I don’t understand what goes on in some people’s brains. I really don’t.
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