He would go on to become a ‘Prohibition cowboy,’ one who wasn’t afraid to use his guns against bootleggers. And he pursued his lawman career while keeping quiet about his family connection to a man near the top of the crime world
He was a throwback to another age, a walking, talking anachronism. From his high-heeled boots to his low-slung six-shooter, fancy vest and wide-brimmed Stetson, he was the popular depiction of the 19th-century Wild West gunfighter. But the year was 1919, and his type normally only made appearances in the hugely popular cowboy silent films of the day. When in the spring of that year he dropped off a freight train in Homer, Nebraska, a small community set back 16 miles from the wide Missouri opposite Sioux City, Iowa, he was neither packing a gun (at least not holstered in plain sight) nor sporting a sombrero. Local townsfolk, if they noticed him at all, would have taken him for just another rail-riding hobo.
For some reason the newcomer, who gave his name as Richard J. Hart, took an immediate liking to the little community of 500 souls and stayed on, taking work wherever he could find it. Obviously intelligent and ambitious, he was not afraid of hard work and over the next few months held jobs as a railroad timekeeper, housepainter and paperhanger.
Short in stature but powerfully built, he had black hair, dark eyes, a dark complexion and a prominent nose, indications, many believed, that he carried Indian or Mexican blood, a notion he did not dispute. Somehow he appeared older than his 27 years. Outgoing and talkative, especially about his own experiences, he told acquaintances he was originally from Oklahoma, where he had punched cattle, broken broncos and chased badmen. He said he had traveled the country with a circus, during which time he had honed his natural shooting ability. This skill came in handy, he claimed, when in 1917 the nation went to war and he enlisted and went to France with the American Expeditionary Forces.
In Homer he joined the local chapter of the American Legion and regaled veterans with accounts of his exploits against the Germans, how he had been promoted from private to lieutenant and been decorated by General John “Black Jack” Pershing himself for his bravery and sharpshooting feats. He also claimed to be a champion wrestler and challenged anyone to a match. No one chose to face him on the mats, however, after witnessing demonstrations of his expert marksmanship blasting tin cans and bottles with a six-shooter behind the legion post.
And any who might have doubted his bravery joined the ranks of his admirers when on May 19, 1919, a flash flood struck neighboring Emerson, Neb., and Hart risked his life to rescue a little girl named Margaret O’Connor from drowning, then re-entered the raging torrent to bring the entire family of a popular local grocer named Winch to safety. Winch’s 19-year-old daughter, Kathleen, was so smitten with her savior that she married him that fall.
Most everyone in Homer was greatly impressed by this new addition to the community. The town council appointed him marshal. The county sheriff issued him deputy papers. The American Legion honored him by electing him commander of their post and the Boy Scouts of America by appointing him district commissioner of their organization. Richard J. Hart seemed well on his way to becoming a big fish in a very small pond, but it soon became apparent he had greater ambitions. He would go on to become a “Prohibition cowboy,” one who wasn’t afraid to use his guns against bootleggers. And he pursued his lawman career while keeping quiet about his family connection to a man near the top of the crime world.
At the very time Richard Hart was establishing himself in Homer, a radical change was taking place in American society, one that would dramatically affect law enforcement in general and Hart in particular. On January 16, 1919, the States ratified the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, prohibiting the manufacture and sale of intoxicating liquors, and on October 29 Congress, over the veto of President Woodrow Wilson, passed the Volstead Act, a statute providing for the enforcement of Prohibition. It soon became evident many Americans disliked the new law and would defy it. Illicit stills sprang up all over the country. Authorities needed hundreds of agents for enforcement, and one of the first to apply for such a position was Richard Hart of Homer. In the summer of 1920 Nebraska Governor Sam McKelvie accepted his application, and Hart received his official commission as Prohibition agent.
He wasted no time. Within weeks he raided and destroyed five stills near Martinsburg, Neb. In late October, after learning that much illicit booze was coming from stills in and around Randolph, Neb., Hart went there disguised as a laborer, pinpointed the stills and led a raid that netted 20 men, including some of Randolph’s foremost citizens.
Hart followed up that success with a raid on bootleggers in Spencer, Neb., discovering to his amazement that one of the suspects he took into custody was the town’s marshal. Before he could turn in the man, another local officer sought to arrest Hart on a charge of disturbing the peace, sparking an angry verbal exchange. The affair left him with a strong distrust of local enforcement officers, many of whom, he believed, operated in partnership with moonshiners. On December 17, 1920, Hart and other Prohibition agents, acting on incriminating evidence Hart had turned up while again investigating undercover, raided stills in Schuyler, 70 miles west of Omaha.
By the spring of 1921 these exploits had gained him statewide fame. The Homer Star trumpeted that their hometown lawman was “becoming such a menace in the state that his name alone carries terror to the heart of every criminal.” Officials at the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs took note of the growing celebrity of this daring young Prohibition agent and tapped him for an even more challenging and potentially more dangerous assignment: the suppression of liquor traffic on Indian reservations.
His first destination was the Yankton Indian Reservation in southeastern South Dakota. Wearing his Western duds with twin pistols on his hips, he attacked liquor traffic there with the same energy and fearlessness he had displayed in Nebraska. Within months the superintendent of the reservation reported to superiors in Washington: “I wish to commend Mr. Hart in highest terms for his fearless and untiring efforts to bring these liquor peddlers and moonshiners to justice. …This man Hart is a go-getter.”
In his early years on the job Hart worked hard to gain the respect and confidence of the reservation Indians, studying their customs and various languages. He became especially proficient in the Lakota and Omaha dialects. Tribal leaders, in recognition of his Wild West attire and the low-slung twin six-shooters he often wore, bestowed on him the sobriquet “Two-Gun.” Newspapers reporting his exploits jumped on the colorful nom de guerre, and the handle “Two-Gun” Hart remained with him the rest of his life. (A member of the Oglala tribe in South Dakota recalled that some reservation Indians gave Hart another name after he once hid among a group of Oglala children before leaping out with drawn guns to arrest suspected bootleggers, startling suspects and children alike: Soiko, a name translating roughly to “big hairy boogie man.”)
But beginning in 1923 a series of incidents reflected badly on the reputation of Two-Gun Hart. That fall Hart received information that a Nebraska bootlegger named John Haaker was selling booze to the Winnebago Indians. Accompanied by Prohibition agent Walter Gumm and two young Winnebago Indians, Hart went to South Sioux City, Neb., to make the arrest. What began as a routine collar developed into a nightmarish automobile chase with Hart clinging to a running board and Gumm at the wheel, taking off after a car they believed was loaded with illegal hooch. When the driver of the fleeing vehicle refused orders to stop, both agents fired their pistols, trying to shoot out its tires. When it careened to a stop they found the driver, 35-year-old Ed Morvace, dying from a gunshot wound. A bullet had entered the back of his neck and exited his mouth. He expired later that night.
Many citizens expressed outrage at the death of the young man, a well-liked mechanic, married and the father of a 7-month-old son. Perhaps due to his formidable nickname and quick-triggered reputation, Two-Gun Hart became the focus of their anger. The incident set off an intense conflict between the “wets” and the “dries,” with bootleggers and others opposed to Prohibition talking openly of lynching Hart, and dedicated Prohibitionists and the influential Women’s Christian Temperance Union proclaiming the agent a much-maligned hero. WCTU members went so far as to take up a collection for Hart’s defense. “This is not a question of the guilt or innocence of Hart,” argued the WCTU-hired lawyer Harry Keefe, “so much as it is the issue of the enforcement of the law. If an enforcement officer is convicted of such a charge, it will materially affect the future operations of other enforcement officers. Many of them are too timid now. If Mr. Hart is eliminated from the field, it is going to make the bootleggers more secure in their position.”
While the controversy raged, Hart received death threats. As late as June 1924 a newspaper dispatch from Sioux City, Iowa, reported that due to his “relentlessness in enforcing prohibition laws,” Hart had received threats from “disgruntled bootleggers.” Hart, the paper added, had ignored the warnings. Justice Department investigators looked into the affair and concluded that the shooting by the agents was “wholly uncalled for” and declared them “guilty of careless indifference to consequences.” Though Hart faced reprimand, his superiors, fully aware of his effectiveness, allowed him to resume his duties.
Over the next few years Hart bounced among a number of widely separated Indian reservations in Nebraska, Wyoming, Idaho and Washington. Sometimes wife Kathleen and their growing brood accompanied him; other times his family remained in Homer, Hart’s adopted hometown. The couple ultimately had four sons: William S. (named after his father’s hero, silent screen Western film star William S. Hart), Richard Jr., Sherman and Harry. Many years later one of Hart’s sons would relate to a newspaper reporter how his father, as a demonstration of his shooting ability, once formed his boys in a line, placed cigarettes in their mouths and then blasted the butts in half with bullets from his six-shooter.
By the summer of 1927 Hart had regained sufficient standing among Washington officials to be chosen to join a group of outstanding Western lawmen specially commissioned as bodyguards for President Calvin Coolidge and his wife during their sojourn through the Black Hills of South Dakota.
And again he was garnering headlines. ‘Two-Guns’ Sleuth Pacifies Northwest Indians touted an Associated Press dispatch from the period:
“Two-Guns” Hart, picturesque chief of Indian reservation police, once again proved that he performs as the hero of any good thriller should. On Uncle Sam’s payroll the name appears as Richard J. Hart, special federal officer, but the Indians on the reservations…long ago named him “Two-Guns,” thanks to his ambidexterity with a six-shooter….
Hart has had a hand in the capture of more than 20 murderers while covering 12 reservations. In the last year he brought in three Indian killers. He has been a cowboy, soldier and police officer. A “beat” of more than 200 square miles with supervision over more than 800 is Hart’s domain. He travels by foot, in car, horseback, on snowshoes and skis….His work is different from that of his regular officers or detectives, for the criminals he captures are outdoor men, and there are few informers who aid him. “The Indian who kills a man is different from the white,” Hart says, “for he will not talk about it and has no regrets. He usually feels that he was justified and forgets, and he rarely has a guilty conscience.”
Hart’s alleged capture of 20 murderers may have been an exaggeration, but his pursuit and arrest of a murder suspect in August 1929 made headlines nationwide. When the wife of Charles Cherrapin, a well-educated, prosperous wheat farmer on the Coeur d’Alene Reservation of Idaho, returned to him after running off two years earlier with another Indian, Cherrapin, who had vowed to kill her if she ever came back, picked up a revolver and pumped four bullets into her body. Swearing he would never be taken alive, Cherrapin gathered up his rifle, a pistol, 100 rounds of ammunition, food and clothing and disappeared into the mountain forests.
Two-Gun Hart, wearing, as one dispatch reported, “the conventional ten-gallon hat, red bandana and two pistols in emulation of a movie gunman,” led his Indian police on the trail of the fugitive. Benewah County Deputy Sheriff Ira Horn and a well-armed posse joined him. The manhunters tracked their quarry to a remote valley but, aware of the man’s reputation as a crack shot, hesitated to attack his position. In the end Cherrapin chose to surrender, out of his “respect for the reputation and clear shooting eye of Hart,” according to press reports. “‘Two-Gun’ Hart, Indian policeman who has stricken terror to the heart of many a brave buck of the Northwest, has brought in his man again,” one news dispatch gushed.
Charged with second-degree murder, Cherrapin was convicted at Coeur d’Alene late that year and sentenced to 10 years imprisonment. A few weeks after seeing Cherrapin off to the federal penitentiary at McNeil Island, Hart, assisted by two of his Indian police, Chindahl and Sigloch, nabbed Tom Gregory, another violently inclined reservation resident, and jailed him for a vicious knife attack on his victim.
Hart became so well known in the Northwest that when postal authorities in Tekoa, Wash., received a letter in the spring of 1930 bearing no address other than the single word “Hart” and a rough sketch of a brace of pistols, they knew to deliver it to the renowned Indian reservation policeman.
Although famous for his nickname and proficiency with pistols, Hart also could use his fists to good advantage, according to a May 15, 1927, story in South Dakota’s Aberdeen Daily News. During a raid on the ranch of Frank Yancey near the Rosebud Reservation, Hart found a 100-gallon still and a great quantity of moonshine. The agent informed Yancey he was under arrest.
Yancey was defiant, growling that if Hart wasn’t wearing his guns, he, Yancey, would give him a “good licking.”
Dropping his gun belts, Hart reportedly called his bluff: “Go ahead.”
Then, continued the story, “Yancey succeeded in hitting Hart once with his fist and then picked up an iron bar and struck at him. Hart dodged, the blow falling on his shoulder. He then ‘sailed’ into Yancey [and] pummeled him so severely…that Yancey was glad to cry, ‘Enough!’ [He was] badly cut and bruised by the flying fists of the officer. His injuries, in fact, were so severe that he was brought to the Rosebud Agency and received treatment at the hospital.”
But one of Hart’s arrests ended badly for both quarry and hunter. The agent had cornered a wanted Indian, but the man resisted, so Hart pulled a gun and shot the man dead. Indicted for manslaughter, he stood trial and was acquitted, but the affair did not sit well in Washington, D.C., and in April 1931 the commissioner of Indian Affairs summarily fired him. Hart, who was stationed at Plummer, Idaho, overseeing the Coeur d’Alene Reservation at the time, contested the dismissal, claiming the real reason for his firing was a dispute he was having with the reservation superintendent, a man named Byron A. Sharp. Hart had accused Sharp of a number of questionable actions, including improper advances to an attractive young Sioux Indian girl in his office. Hart demanded a hearing into Sharp’s dismissal, but to no avail.
Like many Western lawmen of former days, he quickly found employment as a range detective and stock inspector for a cattlemen’s association and during the next four years tracked down rustlers working the grasslands of Nebraska and the Dakotas. In October 1935 officials of the Department of the Interior, well aware of his record of dedicated service as an Indian agent, relented and reinstated him as a special agent assigned to the Winnebago and Omaha reservations. The job lasted only a few months, however, and the following year Hart was back in Homer, out of work and broke.
About this time he suffered another calamity. Relatives of one of the men the agent had killed tracked down Hart, ambushed him and beat him brutally with brass knuckles. He lost the sight of one eye.
The country remained in the depths of the Great Depression, and jobs were scarce. Hart’s friends got him reappointed town marshal and later justice of the peace, but the pay was miniscule, and he and his family were forced to move from one house to another for nonpayment of rent. It got worse. The once-famous lawman was accused of stealing canned goods from grocery stores (including his father-in-law’s) while making his nightly marshal rounds. He lost both jobs but escaped prosecution. To top things off, Homer’s American Legion post ejected Hart after members contacted the Department of the Army and found there was no record of Hart’s service or claimed medals.
These were dark days for Hart and his family. His boys grew up. Although Hart was never the war hero he pretended to be, Richard J. Hart Jr., his namesake and oldest son, died fighting for his country in World War II.
As he aged, the senior Hart developed a cataract in his one good eye and became almost blind. Finally, on October 1, 1952, the Prohibition cowboy once feared as Two-Gun Hart suffered a severe heart attack and died in Homer. He was 60 years old.
“And now,” as famed Midwestern radio commentator Paul Harvey used to say, “the rest of the story.”
The truth was that the man who achieved a modicum of celebrity as Richard J. “Two Gun” Hart, the reincarnation of the Old West lawman, was not a mixed-blood Oklahoma cowboy. His name was actually James Vincenzo Capone, and he was born not in the United States but in Naples, Italy, in 1892. Brought to the New World as an infant by his immigrant parents, he lived first in Canada and then in New York City, where he grew up in Brooklyn’s teeming tenement district. He was the eldest of seven brothers, the rest of whom drifted into a life of crime. One of those brothers, Alphonse, was destined to attain worldwide notoriety as “Scarface Al” Capone, the foremost racketeer and gangster of the Prohibition era, and the man responsible for many gangland murders, including the infamous St. Valentine’s Day massacre of 1929, in which seven men were machine-gunned to death in a North Side Chicago garage.
The notorious underworld mob boss acquired his facial scars in Brooklyn at an early age. When a fight broke out between rival street gangs, a knife-wielding delinquent slashed Al. Rushing to his younger brother’s defense, Vincenzo knocked the attacker through a plate-glass window. It was this incident that led to the departure of the older brother. Fearing retaliation from other gang members, 16-year-old Vincenzo Capone fled New York City, joined a circus as a roustabout and eventually adopted the last name of his idol, William S. Hart, the foremost star of Western silent films in the 1920s. Not satisfied with taking Hart’s surname, the Italian-born refugee from the mean streets of Brooklyn also adopted the actor’s attire, his mannerisms and much of his cinematic charisma, in time even earning the “Two-Gun” moniker long attached to the motion picture star.
For years following his departure from Brooklyn the runaway Capone had no communication with his family. They knew nothing of Vincenzo’s invented life or his growing fame as an enforcer of Prohibition laws. He, in turn, was completely unaware of the rapidly increasing infamy of his brothers, led by Al, in the breaking of those laws. Only when “Scarface Al’s” bloody exploits in Chicago spread his name and face across the front pages of every newspaper in the country did Two-Gun Hart in Homer, Neb., learn the direction Al and his brothers had taken. He followed news accounts of their misadventures, including the police shooting of brother Salvatore (“Frank”) and the trials and convictions of brothers Alphonse (“Scarface Al”) and Raffaele (“Ralph” or “Bottles”) for income tax evasion.
In 1937 Al Capone was still imprisoned at the notorious Alcatraz Penitentiary in San Francisco Bay when Hart, poverty-stricken and suffering from the loss of his eyesight, finally broke down and sought financial help from brother Ralph, who had served his time in prison and been released. Ralph later invited him to his summer retreat in Mercer, Wis., bought him new clothes, gave him cash and thereafter sent him a monthly check. After Al’s release from Alcatraz is 1939, Hart also had a reunion with his infamous brother at Ralph’s northern Wisconsin retreat.
In the fall of 1951 the federal government brought new tax evasion charges against Ralph Capone. When defense attorneys subpoenaed Richard Hart to testify on behalf of their client, newspaper reporters for the first time learned the sibling relationship between legendary Prohibition agent Two-Gun Hart and the notorious Capone brothers of the bootlegging and speakeasy days of the Roaring Twenties. The papers ran a rash of stories about this strange situation, but Hart soon dropped out of the news again. Within a year he was dead and buried in Homer, the tiny Nebraska town he had made his home after hopping off a freight train 33 years earlier.
R.K. DeArment is a distinguished author of Western history books and a frequent contributor to Wild West. Suggested for further reading: Capone: The Man and His Era, by Lawrence Bergreen; “Two Gun Hart,” by Marilyn Bardsley; and “The Capone Crime Family’s Coeur d’Alene White Sheep,” by Joe Kamps (scroll down in the latter forum to find post).