Capone Fakes, Mistakes and Imposters
As a writer of history and historical fiction, I have come to prize photographs of the times I’m writing about as much as the documentary record. But no-one since Lincoln, perhaps, has been so routinely misrepresented in the photographic record as Al Capone. As I researched I, Capone: The Memoirs of Al Capone, I kept encountering long-debunked images purporting to be of him, his family and associates. In some cases they derived from honest, if uninformed, misreadings and misidentifications. But in many cases I suspect they reflect the frustration and wishful thinking that afflicts a lot of people who, like myself, nurture a fascination with the murky world of Capone and his period. So I decided to put together a gallery of the fake photographs of Al Capone that currently circulate in books, documentaries, and on the internet.
Something called “Past to Present” contends this is a picture of Al taken in 1899, the year of his birth. There are many reasons to dismiss it as a fake. Indoor snapshots like this were difficult to take in the 1890s owing to slow film speeds; unless Baby Al was able to keep this pose for several seconds, he would have been a blur. The graininess of this image also suggests it was taken later on smaller format film than was available at the time. And the high chair and cushion suggest a much higher standard of living than the Capone family had attained by the time of their fourth child’s birth.
Big Vinnie & Little Al
These two waifs have been put forward as Vincenzo (Jimmie) Capone and his little brother Al, to whom they bear a slight resemblance. But there are several problems. Perhaps the least of them is that Vincenzo was seven years older than Al, whereas these two seem to be three years apart, at most. Vincenzo was also taller than Al by several inches, which is not reflected in this image. But all that’s moot, because what really sinks the claim that these boys are Capones is that it was taken by the pioneering street photographer Vivian Maier who was born in 1926, when Al was 27 years old.
The Boy Capone
This appears on an Al Capone timeline at timetoast.com to represent Capone around the time (about 1912) he slapped his teacher. The 1940 snapshot quality is unlike any taken in the first decade of the 20th century; the plaid or madras jacket evokes the 1950s; not to mention he doesn’t look at all like Al Capone, no matter how liberally you might extrapolate backward.
Teenaged Capone I
Several images purport to show Capone as a teenager. Perhaps the most widely circulated is this studio portrait of a short, cocky, cigar-flicking youth in an oversized coat. Whoever the little fellow may be, he is certainly not Al Capone, as attested to by the only photograph of a teenaged Capone that has been authenticated by the family.
I first encountered this remarkable image, which will be the subject of its own post, in Uncle Al by Al’s great niece Deirdre Capone. She kindly allowed me to include it here if only to show that the real teenaged Al Capone could have taken the little poseur with both hands tied behind his back.
Teenaged Capone II
This turns up on Pinterest as a portrait of a young Al Capone, titled “the Fist.” He looks more like a young Fatty Arbuckle, but he isn’t Arbuckle either. Capone did have enormous fists, but his were hairier. This “Capone’s” nose is wrong, his mouth is wrong, and so is his witless gaze. His makeup suggests to me that this may be a studio portrait of an actor, albeit with a terrible taste in ties.
Teenaged Capone III
A Capone timeline by Jeff Lewis on the website timetoast.com claims this is an image of “Al Capone in his teenaged years.” It’s actually the bank robber Lester Joseph Gillis, otherwise known as “Baby Face Nelson.”
Teenaged Capone IV
There is nothing fake about this image of Capone, but it has been published in encyclopedias and John Kobler’s otherwise admirable biography as showing Capone as a teenager. Notwithstanding Capone’s receded hairline, I suspect someone mistook the sores around his mouth for acne and his relatively gaunt face and tattered collar as marks of childhood impoverishment. Had Kobler seen the image in its entirety, he would never have included it.
In fact, it’s one of a pair of mug shots taken when Capone arrived at the penal hospital facility on Terminal Island a week or so before his 40th birthday. His sores, reduced state, and raggedy shirt were the result of years of incarceration and the grueling medical treatments he underwent for syphilis.
This image purporting to show the ill effects of Capone’s syphilis appears in a 2016 article titled “How an STD Killed Al Capone’s Criminal Mind” by Jen Engevik on the First to Know website. It instead shows the L.A. mobster Mickey Cohen when he entered Alcatraz in 1961, 33 years after Capone’s death.
Not that there wasn’t a time when, despite the nose he broke as a boxer, Cohen didn’t bear enough resemblance to Capone to catch the eye of a B-movie casting director. (Despite five attempts to kill Cohen, all by a Sicilian gang he dubbed the “Mickey Mouse Mafia,” he somehow managed to die of natural causes in 1976 at the age of 63.)
Capone & Chaplin
This notorious fake is still making the rounds. In fact, as far as anyone knows, unless Chaplin dropped by one of Capone’s clubs, the two men never met, nor did Capone ever visit him on his set. Someone simply decided to stick Capone’s head on the body of what was probably Chaplin’s enormous and reliably villainous costar, Eric Campbell.
Here’s the source of this deception, a candid of Capone at the races. The trickster removed Capone’s head and hat, flipped it horizontally, and tilted it slightly to cover Campbell’s enormous head.
It would have no doubt pleased the late Rod Steiger, who had the title role in 1959’s Al Capone, to know that this image of him is sometimes mistaken for a candid of Capone himself.
This snapshot of a large, handcuffed man in an ill-fitting suit has been widely accepted as showing Capone doing a perp walk either after his conviction for tax evasion in October 1931 or when he was transported to the Federal Penitentiary in Atlanta, Georgia in 1932. But I don’t buy it.
The man pictured has a comparatively balder and narrower head, whereas Capone’s could have been drawn with a compass. His haircut, shaved high above his cauliflower ear, does not match Capone’s (and neither does his ear). This image of Capone at his trial shows that he was not as bald as the man in the picture (and I don’t believe “Snorky” would have deigned to wear that ill-fitting suit with the vertical stripes).
Here’s an authentic image of Capone taken at a similar angle as he emerged from court during his tax trial. I don’t see the resemblance.
Here is an authentic image of Capone being escorted out of the court house en route to Atlanta on May 4, 1932…
…And here’s Capone arriving at the Atlanta railway station on the following day. If this was taken either the same day or the next day as the perp-walk image, note again that he has more hair and that his suit is solid, with no visible vest. It seems to me doubtful that Capone would have been given the chance to change out of the striped suit during the trip to Atlanta.
There were other transfers in Capone’s life as a convict, but none of them jibe with this image. When he was let out of prison in Pennsylvania, there were no pictures taken of him as he was hustled out under cover of darkness. When he was transferred from Atlanta to Alcatraz, he wore a prison uniform, and again the press had no access to him as he was loaded onto a rail car within the prison grounds. And finally, when he was transferred to Terminal Island he resembled the perp walker even less, as “Teenaged Capone IV” demonstrates.
The one remaining possibility is that the picture was taken after one of his arrests in Miami. But the dissimilarity persists, and indicates to me that the perp-walk picture is of another prison-bound criminal whom the photographer mistook for (or passed off as) Capone, which may explain why he’s laughing.
Who is this burly fellow? I don’t know, but my long-shot candidate is George Remus: cuckholded bootleg czar who murdered his wife in 1927 after emerging from prison to discover that she and her boyfriend had walked off with his entire fortune.
There is something off about this candid of Capone. I may well be wrong, but this looks less like Capone and more like Hollywood’s idea of what America’s most famous mobster should look like. At the very least, I think some newspaper may have tampered with the original.
Hot Springs Capone
This turns up as a photograph of Al Capone in a mule-drawn cart. It is indeed an authentic picture of a Capone vacationing at Hot Springs, Arkansas, but it’s Ralph, not Al. The woman seated next to him is probably Velma (or Valma) Pheasant, Ralph’s second wife, with whom he may have been enjoying his honeymoon when this picture was taken. She is certainly not Mae.
This photograph appears in a contemporaneous but unidentified magazine article referencing the expensive and extensive bespoke ensembles that earned Al Capone the nickname “Snorky.” Capone was a clothes horse and style setter, but even though the man in this picture is certainly well dressed, he is not Al but his older brother Ralph.
This alarmingly distorted image of Capone appears on the website crimezine with a caption that reads, “Al Capone practiced looking crazy in a mirror — but did he really need to?” Crimezene undoubtedly never intended its readers to take this image seriously, but these things can take on lives of their own, and just in case the uninitiated might think it’s authentic, I include it here among the fakes.
Besides, Capone’s real malocchio or “evil eye” was scary enough.
Capone & His “Brothers”
This image is making the rounds as showing Capone photographed with his brothers in May 1929. Though the gents lined up behind him look tough, none of them resembles any of Capone’s brothers. Also, Capone’s face (below left) doesn’t quite reflect the same lighting conditions as the others; it lacks the others’ shadows along the jowls and dark shadow under their brims, as in the case of the third man from the left.
But be that as it may, the date is almost certainly wrong. In early May 1929, in the wake of the St. Valentines Day massacre, Capone was summoned to Atlantic City by his fellow mobsters. Alarmed by the publicity Capone was receiving, they urged him to disappear for a couple of months by getting himself and his bodyguard Frank Rio arrested in Philadelphia on a minor gun possession charge. Subsequently, they were arrested on May 16 and sentenced the next day to not two but twelve month’s incarceration, of which Capone served eight.
I have not found the source for Capone’s face, but I believe whoever pasted this together employed a photograph taken around the same time as this portrait of Capone and Sonny.
Capone & Braddock
There’s nothing phony about this late-twenties photograph of Capone and a companion working out on Palm Island. But his companion has been misidentified as the great boxer James Braddock; in fact the man with the medicine ball is Rocco De Grazia. According to Mario Gomez of My Al Capone Museum, De Grazia served as Capone’s driver, torpedo, and gambling associate. Capone put a lot of stock in physical fitness and outfitted gymnasiums in the various hotels he occupied to keep boys like De Grazia in shape.
Capone did hang out with boxers and attended a lot of fights. Like his mentor Torrio, he managed several boxers himself. He apparently once tried (and failed) to persuade Jack Dempsey to let him fix his bout with Gene Tunney. Dempsey lost. Here Capone poses on Palm Island with another leading heavyweight, Jack Sharkey, who was in Miami to fight golden boy Young Stribling on February 27, 1929. Sharkey won.
“You must’ve just missed him.” This jolly crowd is said to include Al Capone. If so, he must have ducked down behind the bar. Or do they mean the older man seated at the bar or the Robert De Niro doppelgänger seated next to him? Or maybe they mean the round-faced man behind the bar? Because whoever these gentlemen are, not one of them is Al Capone. Judging by the drinks and the men standing in back, I would guess they are Cuban.
Dr. Alphonse Ignatov
The distinguished crime historian William J. Helmer sent me this absurd clipping from a supermarket tabloid about one Dr. Boris Ignatov, who, if he existed, apparently promoted the liberal consumption of alcohol. I imagine an art director figured, “What the hell. So did Capone,” and took an old portrait of Capone and put a Russian ushanka on his bald head. The entire article is nonsense, but I do hope that the squib about the urinal is true.
Capone & “Family”
This image is making the rounds as showing Capone with his “family.” Even if you apply “family” loosely to the Organization Capone controlled, with the possible exception of the partially obscured man on the far right (who may or may not be a Capone bodyguard) the men in this picture were not his employees but Federal Marshals, with the possible exception of the man peeking out from behind Capone who may (or may not) be Capone’s attorney Fink.
This fake is so obvious it may not deserve inclusion, but it accompanies an article claiming Capone was somehow involved on his son’s behalf in the football program under Knute Rockne at Notre Dame. His son, however, was a student there for only one academic year (1937–1938), while his father was in prison in California. Here’s the original picture from which Capone’s figure was plucked:
Al Capone loved baseball so much that just before his tax trial he was rumored to be negotiating with chewing gum magnate William Wrigley Jr. to purchase the Chicago Cubs. As a teenager Capone was said to have been a formidable player in the games in which rival Brooklyn gangs fielded their own teams.
Here we see Capone living a dream: swinging for the bleachers on the summer day in 1927 when his friend Babe Ruth arranged for him to don a uniform and practice his swing at Yankee Stadium.
If you never knew about Capone’s time at bat, it’s probably because it never happened. To caution mob aficionados about how easy it is to fake images of Capone, I created this image myself by combining an iconic shot of Babe Ruth with a profile (lower right) of Capone, photographed while he was watching a ball game.
It’s important to remember that many of the pasted-up images I’ve collected were created either before Photoshop was invented or before practitioners could master it. Far more convincing frauds are now possible. I am no expert, and my forgery — the work of about half an hour — is by no means perfect. But I hope it may make people think twice before they accept a faked image of Al Capone as the real thing.
Text copyright © 2017 by Andrew Ward.