Sunday, 18 January 2015

Al Capone’s bullet proof car and my great-uncle

One of my favourite historical resources is the British Pathé film archive – a digital collection of old newsreels and film. Fully searchable, this archive is rich in its coverage of world and British events from the earliest days of film newsreels. I have often used its archives on my own blog, Essex Voices Past, to research my local history posts. For example, to illustrate posts about the Essex town of Great Dunmow and the Dunmow Flitch; and the nearby Felsted Sugar Beet Factory (the latter being one of the most searched terms on Google leading people to my blog!). The archive also has some fantastic footage from the newsreels of the Great War.

Although this archive has been well-known to me for some years, it was with some shock when I recently discovered that my (half) great-uncle, Harry Elmo LaBreque, had been captured by British newsreels in the gangster Al Capone’s bullet-proof car. Harry rolled into England inside Capone’s car shortly after the gangster had been imprisoned in America for tax evasion. The link below is to the film account of my great-uncle bringing Al Capone’s gangster car to England and Southend (Essex) in 1933. I have been led to believe that my grandfather (Harry’s half-brother), then a young man in his 20s, was also present in Southend – but I haven’t managed to spot him in the film footage.

Al Capone's Car outside the Kursaal in Southend, Essex, 1933
Click on the image to be taken to
British Pathé newsreel of the car's visit to Southend
© British Pathé

Harry was quite a man – born near Boston, America, in 1885 to a Welsh mother (my great-grandmother, Mary Anne Hopkins but known as "Minnie") and a French-Canadian father – he was a “showman of yester-year” (to quote his own words).  A showman and pioneer in the very early days of Hollywood, in 1955-56, Harry typed out his memoirs on a typewriter.  They were “jotted down while convalsesceing [sic] from a ‘stroke’ that hit me two years ago, paralyzing my right side, I am typeing [sic] my memories, useing [sic] one finger on my left hand, with my little portable on my lap while in a wheel chair”. On his death, these memoirs (approximately 80 typed pages) were passed to his sister, Edith, who then gave them to me back in the early 1980s, when I first started my genealogical researches.

Al Capone's bullet proof car

The Kursaal's re-enactments of  Al Capone's shoot-outs
The following is an extract from his memoirs about Al Capone’s car. The spelling and punctuation are all his – not bad if you consider he typed this one-fingered after his stroke partially paralyzed him. Quite a few family-history facts in the rest of his memoirs are incorrect.  For example, he said his mother was an only child, and so didn't recount that she had two older brothers.  But that can be attributed to "selective memory" as one brother disowned her, and the other brother's step-son married her(! yes you read that correctly). So some of his stories about his family have to be taken with a pinch of salt - and he was writing in his twilight years recalling a very exciting life - years after the events he described. But the British Pathé newsreel certainly confirms that family legend was correct – he did appear at the Kursaal in Southend with Al Capone’s car! And, whilst researching this post, I discovered that the vast majority of his accounts certainly tied up with documented primary source evidence such as the newsreels and newspaper articles.

When you read his account, remember that the events he is describing took place during the height of America’s bloody gangster warfare during the Prohibition and Harry was in Chicago shortly after its bloodiest battles, the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre, collecting Capone's car.

Al Capone (1899-1947)

Al Capone's police mug shot

Al Capone, Gangster Car 
About this time [early 1930s] I received advance notices regarding the showing of the movie “Scarface” on Al Capone, the notorious Chicago gangster. I then read in American news-papers, which I received every week [at this point, Harry was in England visiting his family and exhibiting in London's Olympia a stuffed whale mounted on a car] that the government was going to sell at auction several Capone beer trucks and his personal automobile. His auto had been made over with inch plate glass, armored body, etc., the sale was to satisfy in part, back income tax owed the government. (Capone was serving time in Atlanta). A Chicago auto dealer bought the car. But, after purchasing this “Armored Brougham”, he found out that it was unlawful to operate an armored car and he had it in his showroom. The news item gave me an idea and I mentioned same to Mr Morehouse [Harry’s British manager and owner of the the Kursaal Amusement Park in Southend, Essex]. I sold him my idea of getting the car and putting it on exhibition at the park. So, I wired a friend, Clifton Kelly, who was in Chicago, to find out if the car could be bought and the price. His reply was not satisfactory, so I decided to go to Chicago myself. Mr. Morehouse agreed and I phoned right away for return passage on one of the U.S. Line ships. In fact, I left London the next day, with credit credientials. In the meantimes, I cabled the “Billboard” to place an ad that I was interested in anything pertaining to gangland. I arrived O.K. in New York, picked up several answer at the New York Billboard office and proceeded to Washington, D.C. to look over a gang-stye show on Johnny J. Jones Midway. It did not impress me and I started to Chicago. 
Stopped off that night in Baltimore and visited at McCranees Museum. I bought a lot of framed pictures of early day desperadoes, such as the James boys, the Dalton gang, etc. I arrived in Chicago next morning, when direct to the auto dealers’ place, and got the car at a price. Arrangements were made with the R.R. [train] to ship it in a baggage car. Had the railroad and the customs men at lunch at the Sherman Hotel, while waiting on the auto dealer to bring the car to a parking lot at Lake and LaSalle, back of the Hotel Sherman. 
During our lunch, Lieutenant John Tracy and his bomb squad were attracted to the car.. and delayed themselves around the parking lot awaiting the return of the owners, who they were sure were gangsters. After an hours wait, three men got into the car. Tracy didn’t recognize them as hoodlums, but nevertheless took us and the car to the Decetive Bureau. I told them who I was, why the car was there, and that I had just purchased the car. With me were the customs man, and a Mr. Joseph R. Lyons, and the car dealer, Patrick Moore. After two or three hours, they let us go, but not until they wired the New York police to escort me and the car through the docks where I had made arrangements to put the car in the ship “American Trader”.  [There is an English newspaper account - reprinted at the end of this post - confirming that this account was true - 2 Englishmen with Al Capone's car were arrested in Chicago on suspicion of being gangsters.]
The New York papers run good stories & pictures.. which I have copies in my scrap book [Harry refers to his scrap book throughout his memoirs, unfortunately it hasn’t survived]. 
Note: I checked the factory number with the Chicago police and have papers that it was the Al Capone car. This makes it documentary. [Unfortunately Harry's papers confirming the authenticity of the car haven't survived.]
During the afternoon after this happened, I got busy buying second hand Chicago police uniforms, badges, lots of newspapers from their files showing Capone’s picture with his prison no. 40886, some showing the “Valentine’s massacre”, and a dozen others with newspaper write-ups. Tried to buy a sawed-off shotgun and a machine gun, but the authorities would not let me take them out of the country. On the return trip I wrote a book (have a copy in my scrapbook, also lots of news items of this episode.) The book was sold at the exhibition.
After I had squared myself with the Chicago police and had the car released, it was just time to take it to the R.R. depot [rail-road - i.e. train station] and load it through the end door of the baggage car. A police sergeant stayed right to the last. to be sure that I was going to ship the bullet-proof armored car out of the country. This I had assured the bureau I was doing. So they gave me the keys of the car and it was on its way by fast freight to the docks. It was supper time by now and I returned to the Hotel Sherman. After eating I took in the World Fair. That was just opening and enjoyed in very much. [The date of Chicago World Fair (A Century of Progress International Exposition) collaborates Harry’s account that he purchased the car in May 1933 - the Fair took place between May and November 1933.] Returned about 12 in time to catch the Bull-Edition of the papers as I was sure they would play up my pinch. I asked for my key at the desk and the clerk whispered that two characters of questionable appearance had been asking if I were around. I then had a talk with “Casey” the hotel “dick”, and he said it had been rumoured, through the grapevine, that I was carrying a large sum of money on me and I was to be “high-jacked”
Well my itinerary called for leaving in the morning but brother I lost no time in getting to the station, and on the first train. To be sure, after reading the headlines in the papers, I stopped off at Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Then later that day, went on to New York. The authorities had removed the two-way radio from the car, saying it was unlawful. I had a day in New York, so bought a new one and installed it at the docks, also two new bullet-proof tires. (They had them in stock for trucks) I left my experiences back of me and steamed out of the harbor for jolly old England with my “prize”. By the way, the New York papers played it up fine, with 3 and 4 column pictures, etc. (have copies in my scrapbook) This publicity I could not have bought for thousands of dollars. The London Dailies ran the news the same time it was released in America, what a break! 
Note: The only other armored bullet-proof glass, automobile known at that time was used by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. [In the last few years, there has been much confusion on social media that Capone's and Roosevelt's car was one and the same car. They were not: Harry's memoirs confirms that they were two totally separate bullet-proof cars - one for the President and one for a gangster.]
I arrived in London after spending only 8 days in the States, some hurry-up trip. Mr. Morehouse arranged a great exploit stunt in presenting the car to the English public. It had already received some wonderful newspaper stories owing to the purchase and pinch in Chicago etc. He used his big ballroom at Kursal [The Kursaal, a purpose-built amusement park in Southend, Essex] to show off the car with a luncheon for the press and officials and a demonstration with the car on the highway [it is possibly this demonstration which was captured by the newsreels and then saved by the British Pathé’s film archive (see first image on this post)]. Mr Morehouse did things in a big way, he sent out special engraved invitations to the review and had a novelty menu printed using gangland phrases. I placed the car in the center of the ballroom and surrounded it with the outlaw pictures I had bought in Baltimore. It was a tremendous success, go the exhibition off to a great start when it opened. 
Note: I almost lost the opening at the Kursall, as they had a Fire will give an acct of this in my “ODDITIES” [an appendix to Harry's memoirs]. 
Before opening at the Kursal, I wrote a book with plenty of pictures on Capone which we sold to the public. It was interesting to note that the “showgoing” people bought this book. I used local Englishmen for the cops, and lectures, dressed them up in the uniforms I bought in Chicago. In the lobby I placed the gangland pictures that I bought in Baltimore. The entrance front was made up in a prison effect. 
That fall after the park closed, I showed the car at several fairs.. throughout England. [I believe my grandfather accompanied Harry (his half-brother)] on these trips.] It was a big hit. After this tour, Mr. Morehouse kept the car for his own use, although he bought Packard each year.  I always enjoyed trips with Mr. Morehouse in his cruiser.  We made trips to Southern France, etc.  He was the Commodore at the Yatch [sic] Club. 
[At this point in his memoirs, Harry returns his thoughts to his trip to Chicago to purchase Al Capone’s car.] Note: You talk about a fast trip and transaction, just read this: Mr. More house did things right now. He phoned for boat reservations on the U.S. Ship Banker sailing on Monday. Tuesday I was on the boat on my way to New York, arrived the following Monday. Had sent a cable to the Billboard, advertising for a gangster’s car, and gangland stuff. When I arrived, gathered up my mail. One read that a car was on the Johnny J. Jones shows, playing at Washington D.C. I took the first train, but I did not like the outfit, so that night I went to Baltimore, Maryland and some pictures etc. from the museum. Then on to Chicago, made the deal [to purchase Capone’s car], back to New York, sailed on the U.S. American Trader on May 9 and opened at the Kursal May 26 [1933]. How’s that for a quickie?
Note: Before leaving to get the [Capone] car, I had made arrangements with Mr. Morehouse to use his “Whirl-Pool” ride and building to show the car in a turn-stile fashion. When the “American Trader” ship captain got the mail and newspapers, right on the first page of the London papers was “Kursal Burns”! You could have knocked me down with a feather. However, a cable also was given me from Mr. More house stating that the fire had destroyed only some concession buildings and the “Whirlpool” building and further that he was erecting another building for the “car”. 
Notes: Although I visited a great deal at my mothers [my great-grandmother, who by this time was living in genteel middle-class poverty on the Cromwell Road, Kensington] while in London, I stayed near the center of things at the “Regent Palace” Hotel [Piccadilly]. “Jesse Crawford”, the organist, was playing at one of the leading movie houses. We had a nice visit. The way I managed to stay so long in England was through arrangements with the “home” office in London, registered and reported to the police every few weeks, and just as long as I employed English help… they extended my stay. [Harry, his sister and my grandfather were all American-born but their mother was Welsh/British.] At South-end [Southend, Essex] I had “Digs” that is what they call rooms.
I asked Mr. Morehouse about a trip back to America after the season, and he was very agreeable. So at the close of the Kursal, I booked passage to New York for Vera [his third wife] and myself. After a week or so we proceeded to Cincinnati, Ohio to visit pals at the Billboard, then went to Memphis for the holidays. Just about Christmas I received a cable from South-end, England that Mr. Morehouse had died very suddenly. Naturally I was shocked. After several days, I learned that owing to complications regarding his estate, they were closing his business."
At this point, Harry continues his memoirs about other “adventures” in America. As far as I am aware, David DeForrest Morehouse's death on 21 November 1935 brought Harry’s business exploits in England to an end.  There is no note in Harry's memoirs as to what happened to Al Capone's car after Morehouse's death.  Indeed, it is unclear if the car even belonged to Harry, or whether the credit credentials referred to in his memoirs meant that his manager, Morehouse, had financed the car's purchase.

Harry probably returned to England privately throughout the late 1930s to visit his mother  - possibly right up until the start of the Second World War (Minnie died in the early 1940s). His sister, Edith, who gave me these memoirs, died fairly recently aged over 100. My grandfather, his half-brother, died in 1966. Harry died in 1967.  I never met him - in fact, from this side of my family, I only knew his sister Edith.

My great-uncle - Harry Elmo LaBreque
Standing outside Al Capone's car - the Kursaal, Southend, Essex 1933
© British Pathé
Edwardian view of Kursaal Amusement Park in Southend, Essex

Lancashire Evening Post - Tuesday 09 May 1933
This newspaper article confirms Harry's account of Chicago police's interest in his activities
Image created courtesy of The British Library Board.

Alton Evening Telegraph Illinois - 9 May 1933
An Illinois's newspaper account - a similar account was published throughout America in state newspapers - all recounting that the car was to go on show in England. As this newspaper report totally ties in with Harry's memoirs, it's likely that one of the newspaper reports was in Harry's missing scrapbook, and he used it in the 1950s to write his account of purchasing the car.  It is somewhat amusing (and unwitting testimony) that despite Harry's American accent (and citizenship!), he appeared to have implied he was British by giving the Chicago police the London address of his British mother!

Yorkshire Evening Post - Saturday 20 May 1933
One local newspaper's excited account of the car
Image created courtesy of The British Library Board.

Nottingham Evening Post - Tuesday 03 October 1933
Although not mentioned by name in this article, Harry's hand at the 1933 Nottingham's Goose Fair can be seen throughout this article.  He spent his early formative years in the 1880s and 1890s working with his parents in American "freak shows", sideshows, circuses, and Wild West shows

Image created courtesy of The British Library Board.

Hartlepool Mail - Tuesday 17 July 1934
Not everyone approved of Harry's showmanship!

Image created courtesy of The British Library Board.


One day I will publish Harry’s full autobiography as it is fascinating document. It includes the story of him being involved with Col. Frederick T. Cummins and Buffalo Bill's Wild West shows, also the tale of Harry being the first ever manager of the famous Grauman's Chinese Theater in Los Angeles (when it was known as Grauman’s Million Dollar Theater), and his second marriage to a minor Hollywood starlet (Miss Millie Marlowe); and also the tale of him bringing from America an extremely large stuffed whale to London’s Olympia via the eastend’s Royal Docks.

Equally fascinating (and partially recounted by Harry in his memoirs) is the story of his mother, my great-grandmother, Mary Anne Hopkins. She ran away from a perfectly respectable Welsh family living in Cardiff and became a show-girl touring throughout America performing with her husband (Harry's father) a magical illusion called "Thauma" in the likes of Austin and Stone's Dime Museum in Boston; the Eden Musee in New York; and also Madison Square Gardens in New York (the latter was the venue of the famous P. T Barnum). After many of her own adventures, she returned permanently to Wales in 1912 arriving back on British soil on 9th April 1912. Family legend has it that she sent back letters to family and friends in America via The Titanic but her letters all went down with the ship.

Her story will also have to wait for another day!

Harry Elmo LaBreque's memoirs of life as a showman of yesteryear

You may be interested in the following: 
- Newpaper report from 2012 reporting the sale of Al Capone’s car 
- Blog about the 2012 auction of Al Capone's car
RM Auctions sale of Al Capone's car in 2012 - including the provenance of the car
Photo from the New York Daily News May (1933) showing the car being loaded onto the ship


I look forward to sharing with you more of my discoveries over the coming months - see you next time on this blog on 18th March 2015. In the meantime, you can catch me on my blog Essex Voices Past or on twitter @EssexVoicesPast.

You may also be interested in my previous posts on this blog
- December 2014: Christmas Truce 1914
November 2014: Men (and women) of courage
October 2014: Writing local history
September 2014: Hidden from history - the scandalous Redit women of Suffolk
April 2014: Happy Easter 1916?
March 2014: Who do you think they were?
February 2014: Family History Show and Tell
January 2014: Family history is like a box of chocolates - you never know what you're gonna get

 © Essex Voices Past


  1. A most interesting and enjoyable story. It is always great when you can corroborate family history with other documents. A quick look at UK, Incoming Passenger Lists, 1878-1960 on shows your uncle arriving back in the UK in May 1933. There is also a 1931 arrival. My very quick glance at the indexes did not see any later arrivals. Regards Anne

    1. Thank you Anne. Thank you also for looking at the incoming passenger lists. It's good to see that his arrival in May 1933 ties up with all the other documentary evidence I have. The 1931 arrival is an interesting one - this would indicate that it was in this year that he first came to Britain - to see his mother and siblings. But it also ties up with his memoirs and their account of when he showed "Eric the Whale" (a massive oversized embalmed whale mounted on a car) around London Olympia and then on to the Kursaal in 1931.


  2. Terrific story. I envy people with such interesting families ..... Many thanks.

    1. Thank you. I think we all have interesting families. It's good to hear all the stories

  3. A wonderful family history connection which makes for fascinating reading, especially with all the supportive documentation you have unearthed.

    1. When I was first given his memoirs back in the early 80s I remember wondering if his stories were true. Back then it was almost impossible to verify some of his stories. Although even then, I did manage to confirm the story of his mother being "Thauma" via a couple of happy sessions sat in the old British Library reading room! So once the internet opened up the fantastic resouces such as the newspapers and film archives, its incredible to find that his recollections were actually all true! Not a fabricated tall-tale, but instead it all really did happen.

  4. Wonderful article. Great research.


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