THE LITERATURE OF THE AMERICAN GANGSTER
By Patterson Smith
[Copyright 1986 by AB Bookman Publications. Note: Because this article was written many years ago, some of my comments on the biographical literature may no longer be valid.]
In the Spring of 1934 the mails delivered a letter addressed to “Mr. Henry Ford, Detroit, Mich.” In crude handwriting it said:
While I still have got breath in my lungs I will tell you what a dandy car you make. I have drove Fords exclusivly when I could get away with one. For sustained speed and freedom from trouble the Ford has got ever other car skinned, and even if my business hasn’t been strickly legal it don’t hurt eny thing to tell you what a fine car you got in the V8.
Although the receipt of complimentary letters was surely a commonplace at the Ford offices, this one was of singular interest, for its writer was Clyde Barrow and his “business” certainly had not been “strickly legal.”
In only a year Barrow and his gang had already plundered and murdered their way into national notoriety, and in a few short weeks after the letter to Ford, Barrow and his girlfriend Bonnie Parker would be slain in ambush by Texas lawmen. Thus did the short and violent career of Bonnie and Clyde pass quickly into American folklore and international legend.
The American gangster is my theme, and the collectible literature which treats of him. By “gangster” I refer to two principal categories of criminal: the bandit who roved the rural landscape in the 1920s and 1930s and who has now largely disappeared, and the city mobster who was nurtured in the Prohibition era and whose descendants are still with us today.
The collector of gangster literature is in a fortunate position, for the corpus is of manageable size and the material still relatively easy to find at modest cost. In this article I illustrate some of the books of importance to the genre.
The role of the automobile
I thought it fitting to begin our topic with the letter to Henry Ford, for among the many ways in which the automobile changed American society were the new opportunities it created for the criminal. In the day of the automobile it was less likely that a stranger with criminal intent would be eyed suspiciously in a small town, and far less likely that the town’s chief of police could hope to thwart his escape by sending detectives to the railroad depot to scrutinize departing passengers. Even driving a car across a state line in the early days of the automobile was certain to hamper and confuse pursuing lawmen.
Clyde Barrow’s driving skill kept his band free of capture longer than he deserved, for he was a robber of little talent. The murders which he committed were unnecessary to his purpose and betrayed the mentality of a psychopathic killer. It is therefore incongruous that the principal primary source for the lives of Bonnie and Clyde should come from a sentimental account by two devoted family members, Bonnie’s mother and Clyde’s sister. Their book is a key one in the gangster literature: Fugitives: The Story of Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker, by Emma Parker and Nell Barrow Cowan, Ranger Press, 1934. It is often found in dust jacket, like many books that were remaindered (I once found a dozen copies priced under a dollar in a discount bookshop in New York). More common is another book important to the Bonnie and Clyde story, H. G. Frost and J. H. Jenkins’ I’m Frank Hamer, Pemberton Press, 1968, which deals with the man who tracked them down.
Bonnie and Clyde were looked upon with scorn as blundering amateurs by John Dillinger, a skilled bank robber whose crimes were planned with great care. Robert Cromie and Joseph Pinkston’s biography of this gangster, entitled Dillinger, a Short and Violent Life, McGraw-Hill, 1962, is becoming hard to find. More common is John Tolland’s Dillinger Days, Random House, 1963, which in content is probably the single most valuable work on the period, with well-researched material on Dillinger and his contemporaries in crime, including, besides the Barrow gang, Baby Face Nelson, Machine Gun Kelly, Pretty Boy Floyd, Alvin Karpis and the Ma Barker gang.
Bookmen will be particularly interested in one passage of Tolland’s work, which recounts how in the Fall of 1934 an FBI special agent just out of training school was at the wheel of his car when he and his partner caught sight of an oncoming automobile containing Baby Face Nelson, a member of the Dillinger gang, with his wife and accomplice. The gangsters made a U-turn, pulled alongside the G-Men and fired at them with rifle and pistol as the two vehicles raced down the highway. Return fire from the FBI men damaged the engine of Nelson’s car, which dropped behind to be pursued by another pair of G-Men in a third car. In a subsequent gun battle, these two agents were killed and Nelson mortally wounded.
The young FBI agent who narrowly escaped death at the wheel of his car in the first exchange of fire was Thomas McDade, who in a later and more peaceful time of life compiled that bible of the American crime collector, The Annals of Murder: A Bibliography of American Murder Trials Prior to 1900, University of Oklahoma Press, 1965.
The only full-length biography of the vicious Nelson is a paperback by Frank Castle (writing as “Steve Thurman”) entitled ‘Baby Face’ Nelson, Monarch, 1961. Monarch also published ‘Mad Dog’ CoIl by the same author, and biographies of Dillinger and Lucky Luciano by Ovid Demaris. Like many paperback titles that were never published in hardcover, they can be difficult books to find.
A few months before the killing of Nelson, Dillinger himself had been shot dead in an FBI stake-out outside the Biograph movie theatre (which still survives) in Chicago after being betrayed by “the woman in red.” But was it really Dillinger who was gunned down? Not according to the theory put forth in Dillinger, Dead or Alive? Regnery, 1970, which was co-authored by Jay Robert Nash, the prolific compiler of crime chronologies and crime reference books. Nash believes that the FBI was duped by Dillinger’s arranging to have another man substitute for him, and that the Bureau concealed its error with a massive cover-up. Relations between Nash and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover were cool after the book appeared, but few criminologists give Nash’s theory credence.
Alvin Karpis had a much longer criminal career than Dillinger. As he wrote in The Alvin Karpis Story, Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, 1971: “My profession was robbing banks, knocking off payrolls, and kidnaping rich men. I was good at it. Maybe the best in North America for five years, from 1931 to 1936.” Hoover hated Karpis, and Karpis had contempt for Hoover. Not only did Karpis elude capture for many years as “Public Enemy No. 1,” but he taunted Hoover by robbing a train after Hoover had supposedly “wiped out” train robbery.
Hoover was also stung by a senator’s accusation that the FBI chief was just a desk cop who had never made an arrest in his life. Hoover thereupon ordered that whenever Karpis was cornered, Hoover personally should be the one to make the arrest. What followed was one of the more comic incidents in law enforcement history. When Karpis was found holed up in New Orleans, Hoover flew down to be in on the arrest. Emerging from his hideout, Karpis was surrounded by G-Men just after he entered his automobile. “Put the handcuffs on him,” Hoover said. But no agent had remembered to bring any, so they tied his wrists with an agent’s necktie.
The arrest of Karpis secured Hoover’s national reputation. “I made that son of a bitch,” said Karpis. Nevertheless, the director’s actual role in the arrest is in dispute. According to Don Whitehead in The FBI Story: A Report to the People, Random House, 1956, the bureau’s “official” history, Hoover ran to one side of Karpis’ car immediately after he had entered it and “reached into the car and grabbed Karpis before he could reach for a rifle on the back seat.” According to the fugitive himself, he was completely unarmed and had already been subdued by two dozen FBI agents when Hoover was told he could emerge from cover to make the arrest. Detractors of Hoover like to point out Karpis’ car was a 1936 Plymouth coupe, which had no back seat.
Earlier in his criminal career Karpis had met Freddie Barker and joined the notorious Barker gang, a resourceful, cunning and bloodthirsty bunch whose unpatterned string of robberies and kidnapings led the FBI on a merry chase through the early 1930s. Presiding over the gang was “Ma” Barker, whom Hoover saw as an evil genius who had become “a veritable beast of prey,” although to Karpis “she just didn’t have the brains or know-how to direct us on a robbery.”
Ma and Freddie were eventually trapped in their hideout outside a Florida village in 1935 and killed in a four-hour gun battle. The Barker gang was now defunct, and Karpis struck out on his own on a long trail of crime that led ultimately to his capture and imprisonment in Alcatraz. There he remained for 26 years, the longest term of any prisoner. He wrote about his Alcatraz days in On the Rock, Beaufort, 1980.
Upon reading The Alvin Karpis Story, McDade wrote to its author, who was by now out of prison. After an exchange of correspondence they agreed to a meeting, which was finally arranged in 1978 in Spain, where Karpis was then living in retirement. In a friendly spirit the retired lawman and the retired gangster he had once pursued talked over old times. Karpis was an able raconteur with a capacious memory for the details of 40 years previous, and the two men spent two evenings swapping stories. Writing of that encounter months later in a newsletter for ex-FBI men, McDade noted:
I asked [Karpis] about other members of the gang. His closest friend had been Freddie Barker, and Barker’s mother, the notorious Ma Barker, had been a kind of surrogate mother to him. I was glad then I had not mentioned that I was one of the raiding party when Freddie and Ma were killed.
In six years the Barker-Karpis gang had itself killed 10 persons in the course of its depredations, and Karpis was one of its top guns. Yet Karpis never considered himself a violent man. When Hoover called him a hoodlum, Karpis was quick to correct him: “I’m no hoodlum, and I don’t like to be called a hood. I’m a thief.” He then explained the difference to Hoover and said that he had turned down a job with a Chicago syndicate handling a machine gun. McDade subscribes to the view that Karpis killed only when cornered and not for the joy of it, and the impression rings true in Karpis’ highly readable book.
A feckless gangster of those days was Machine Gun Kelly, a one-time bootlegger who, although he rose to be Public Enemy No. 1, had never fired a shot. He acquired his sobriquet when his ambitious wife, wishing to enhance his tough-guy image, bought him a machine gun and cultivated the habit of telling friends (untruthfully) that George was “away robbing banks.” Looking for big money, Mr. and Mrs. Kelly formed a small kidnaping gang in 1933 and abducted Oklahoma City oil millionaire Charles Urschel. After several bungled attempts at collecting the ransom, the gang finally succeeded, and Urschel was released. Kelly was soon caught and sent to Alcatraz. A friend of Urschel’s who acted as intermediary in the kidnaping wrote a book on the case entitled Crime’s Paradise, Naylor, 1934. Like many self-published books, it is frequently found with an author’s inscription.
Operating in the early pre-Dillinger days of Prohibition was a Florida gang under the leadership of John Ashley. These bandits were casual. They would ride openly into a town in a Model T, stick up its bank, and disperse into the trackless Everglades. Whereas Dillinger or Karpis or Willie Sutton would case a bank thoroughly, sometimes for days, before attempting to rob it, the Ashley gang would go no further than to check the bank’s hours to be sure it would be open when they arrived. Their methods were successful, nevertheless, for in a decade they are credited with robbing 40 banks and stealing nearly a million dollars. And so adept were they at highjacking liquor from bootleggers that they achieved something the Coast Guard was unable to do: virtually shut down the rum-running trade between Bimini in the Bahamas and the lower Florida East Coast. A scarce book treats of this mob: Hix C. Stuart’s The Ashley Gang: A Saga of the King and Queen of the Everglades, St. Lucie Printing Co., 1928. As far as I have been able to determine, it is the first book on American automobile bandits.
Prohibition had ushered in a period of widespread lawlessness fed by general contempt for a law embodying unenforceable regulations and by the enormous profits realized from the sale of illicit alcohol. None rose to higher prominence during that period than “Scarface Al” Capone, whose power in Chicago was so great that he could boast, with much truth, “I own the police.” His biography was one of the first of an American gangster to be published by a mainstream publisher. In 1930, while he was still riding high, he appeared between hard covers in Fred D. Pasley’s Al Capone: The Biography of a Self-Made Man. Published by Ives Washburn, it went through at least thirteen printings in its original edition before continuing its life as a Garden City reprint.
The fame of Capone quickly spread abroad and won him a wide audience, particularly in England, where American gangsters have always exerted a fascination over our more law-abiding cousins. (The definitive history of the Barrow gang— John Treherne’s The Strange History of Bonnie and Clyde, in print with Stein & Day — is by an Englishman.) The London firm of Faber & Faber published Pasley’s biography of Capone in 1931, and in the same year the English social critic Frederic Watson published A Century of Gunmen: A Study in Lawlessness, Ivor Nicholson & Watson. Watson apparently felt it superfluous to identify in his title the country of which he was writing. Where but in America? Following several chapters devoted to Western outlaws (which earned the book a place in Ramon Adams’ outlaw bibliography Six-guns and Saddle Leather) is a chapter wryly entitled “The Contribution of Capone.” Oddly enough, this work was never published in this country, unlike most English works on American crime.
Published in the more usual manner in both London and New York was James Spenser’s Limey: An Englishman Joins the Gangs, Longmans, Green, 1933. Spenser began his American career with simple household burglaries, stealing men’s wallets from their trousers as they slept. (“You don’t want to be too stealthy,” he advises in his book. “Little tiny suspicious noises will wake a sleeping man far more quickly than a slight, plain, everyday noise.”) He moved into gang operations on both coasts before being sent to San Quentin and deported to England, where he composed his memoirs at age 30— “not very old, but then they die young in gangland,” the author notes.
Another book published on both sides of the Atlantic was Carrying a Gun for Al Capone, Putnam, 1932, written by Hugo C. K. Baruch under the pseudonym Jack Bilbo. Subtitled, “The Intimate Experiences of a Gangster in the Bodyguard of Al Capone,” it gives many rich details of the Chicago gangster’s doings, and one may well wonder why John Kobler’s definitive biography, Capone: The Life and World of Al Capone, Putnam’s, 1971, completely omits mention of this seemingly valuable source. The reason is that Bilbo, an eccentric English artist and litterateur with a flair for self-advertisement, had never met Capone in his entire lifetime, and the book is a fraud from beginning to end. But such was the overseas appetite for American gangster material that two subsequent English editions appeared in the 1940s, after a German edition had already followed closely on the original.
It is said that the only mobster that Capone ever feared was Roger Touhy, the head of the Terrible Touhys, six brothers who produced a superior beer during bootlegging days. “Don’t chisel me, Al,” Touhy once sternly told Capone when the latter tried to renege on the price of a wholesale beer purchase. Touhy was originally suspected by the FBI of kidnaping William Hamm, a wealthy St. Paul brewer, who in reality had been a victim of Karpis. Absolved of involvement in that crime, Touhy was later charged with kidnaping Jake Factor, an international con man with Chicago mob connections. Although Touhy ardently proclaimed his innocence of that crime also, he was convicted and ultimately served nearly 25 years in prison. Immediately upon his release in 1959 he began work with a collaborator on his book, The Stolen Years, Pennington, 1959, in which he recounted how he had been framed by Factor and Capone. As soon as the book was completed, Touhy was gunned down on a Chicago street. As he lay dying, he muttered, “I’ve been expecting it. The bastards never forget.” Karpis, who was in Alcatraz when Touhy’s book appeared, had never seen a copy of it. At Tom McDade’s suggestion, I sent a copy to him in Spain. In the warm reply which I received, Karpis made no bones about his opinion of Touhy’s allegation of frame-up: “Actually,” Karpis wrote me, “Roger was guilty as hell.”
In 1930, the year in which Pasley’s biography of Capone appeared, a crime reporter for the Chicago Tribune named Jake Lingle was murdered. At first there was outrage over what seemed to be mob vengeance against a member of the press, but it soon developed that Lingle, who had powerful friends in both the mob and the police, had been living a profitable life, with two homes and winter vacations in the Caribbean while on a salary of $65 a week. Who had murdered him and why? Although the police obtained a conviction, no one was satisfied that the crime had been solved, and the case remains a mystery to this day. Out of the mystery arose a book that has always been in heavy demand by gangster collectors: John Boettiger’s Jake Lingle, or Chicago on the Spot, Dutton, 1931. The late bookman Van Allen Bradley once told me that this was the only crime book he could ever sell (although he never put it into his Book Collector’s Handbook of Values).
I myself have found strong customer interest in any book connected with Capone or Chicago crime, and when I exhibited at the Chicago book fair last year I regretted not having more of that kind of material. Particularly difficult to acquire are some of the magazine-format works on Chicago gangsters and racketeers that were sold on the newsstands during the 1930s, usually with no author ascribed. Of large format and heavily illustrated, they fed the Windy City’s appetite for its local criminal heroes, and today even Chicago’s “antiquarian” bookshops do not scruple to treat them as “Americana” and price them accordingly — when they can find them.
Racketeers had other sources of income than bootlegging, of course. The ramifications of racketeering are explored in Gordon L. Hostetter and Thomas Q. Beesley’s It’s a Racket! Les Quin Books, 1929, appropriately published in Chicago. This was the first book to describe both the extortionate and the collusive varieties of racketeering and to attempt a taxonomy. It contains a glossary of gangland argot and photographs of fire-bombings carried out by vengeful “protection men” who had not been adequately compensated.
Meanwhile the underworld had not gone unstudied by academia. At the University of Chicago a graduate student named John Landesco had spent more than a year investigating the intricate alliance between the mobs and the political machine. His book-length findings, entitled “Organized Crime in Chicago,” appeared as Part 3 of the mammoth Illinois Crime Survey, published by the Illinois Association for Criminal Justice in 1929. With chapters on the beer wars, gangland assassinations, gangster funerals and gangster mores, it is to the social historian the single most valuable primary source on the Capone era.
It would be wrong to leave Chicago without mentioning two other crime figures from that era, Eddie Guerin and Chicago May, even if they do not quite fit the mold of the others. English by birth, Eddie Guerin was brought up in Chicago and already in prison by 15 years of age. He had an illustrious international career in crime, even doing time in the notorious penal colony in French Guiana, whence he escaped to New York. He beat Al Capone into hard covers by a year. Eddie Guerin’s I Was a Bandit was published in 1929 by Doubleday as part of “The Crime Club, Inc.” series which, though aimed principally at a mystery fiction audience, included several factual works.
May Churchill Sharpe, commonly known as “Chicago May,” was less of a bandit than a skilled practitioner of the “badger game.” This was an old hustle in which a prosperous-looking gent out on the town is invited by an attractive woman to her hotel room and into bed, whereupon the lady’s pretended husband bursts into the room in outrage and threatens the interloper with physical violence, the police, or both. The wrathful “husband” can be placated only by the payment of all the cash that the unhappy dupe has on him.
Like Guerin, May also grew up in Chicago and robbed on an international scale. The two teamed up in Europe until they had a falling out which led to a gun battle between Eddie and May’s new consort. In Chicago May, Her Story, Macaulay, 1928, the “Queen of the Crooks” contradicts her former gangster friend Guerin in many particulars. I pity the historian who has to sort out the truth in the two accounts of these resentful ex-lovers.
The exploits of the G-Men who pursued the criminals of the 1930s and 1940s were, of course, exciting fare for the youth of America. On the entertainment front, the lawmen’s deeds were publicized chiefly through the movies (which, in Hoover’s eyes, had glorified many bandits as well).
Another youth medium were the cards enclosed in gum packages sold to children. A popular series of these cards was “G-Men and Heroes of the Law,” published by Gum Incorporated in the mid 1930s. The series contained 168 cards, but they were numbered from 1 to 451. The nasty gum company created gaps in the numbering to encourage the unsuspecting kids to keep buying the cards in an attempt to fill the set. Gum card collectors aim to collect all that were published in the series, which consists mostly of scenes depicting exploits of unnamed lawmen; gangster collectors are attracted chiefly to the cards showing identifiable bad guys.
Ephemeral pieces of greater value are the pornographic booklets called “Tijuana bibles” or “eight-pagers,” which circulated among schoolboys. A bible consisted of a short ribald narrative told in eight cartoon panels, one to a page, often crudely drawn but always grossly explicit. The central character involved in the story was most frequently a personage of film or comicstrip fame, but some starred a noted criminal figure such as Dillinger or Capone.
While the Chicago gang wars were boiling, racketeering in New York City was also active. A key player in Gotham’s bootlegging and gambling operations was Arnold Rothstein who, like Capone, had strong political connections, but unlike Capone dressed with quiet elegance and tried to stay off the front pages. One evening in November 1928 he laid down more than half a million dollars in bets on the imminent national and gubernatorial elections. He would have won handsomely if he had lived, but he was murdered later that night in his hotel suite. The two principal suspects had alibis, and the murder has never been solved. A surprisingly scarce book on Rothstein, considering its imprint, was written by his wife Carolyn. Entitled Now I’ll Tell, it was published by Vanguard in 1934.
After Rothstein’s murder, New York City’s underworld was in ferment as various Italian and Jewish gangs struggled to form territories and forge coalitions. A leading criminal syndicate emerged which formed a pool of professional killers, dubbed “.Murder, Inc.” by the press, on whom it could draw to deal with recalcitrants. The concept was that its targets were to be killed on “contract” by hit men who were often completely unknown to and unconnected with the victims, making police investigation especially difficult. The principal source for Murder, Inc. is the book of that title by Burton Turkus and Sid Feder, published by Farrar, Straus & Young in 1951, although the events which it treats occurred a decade earlier. An even more important source, which appears in virtually every bibliography on New York’s criminal history, is Craig Thompson and Raymond Allen’s Gang Rule in New York, Dial, 1940, now a difficult work to obtain.
In 1950 the nation’s attention was focused on organized crime through television broadcasts of the hearings conducted by the Senate Special Committee to Investigate Crime in Interstate Commerce, commonly known as the Kefauver Committee. Its Third Interim Report, 1951, became a national bestseller, both in the Government Printing Office self-wrappered version, which collectors naturally prefer, and in hardcover format by Arco (who brutally omitted seven pages) and by Didier (who did not).
The Kefauver hearings opened up to public discussion the concept of “organized crime,” which term had by now largely replaced the “racketeering” label of an earlier generation. Of particular fascination was the suggestion put forth by many witnesses (and increasingly subscribed to by the committee itself) that there was a centrally directed crime syndicate known as the “Mafia” which controlled organized crime throughout the nation. The first popular book to take up and embellish this theme was Ed Reid’s Mafia, Random House, 1952.
In 1957 there occurred an event which was to leave a long-lasting impression on American attitudes toward the Mafia. At the home of Joseph Barbara near the small town of Apalachin, N.Y., a state trooper surprised 50 to 100 members of the Italian-American underworld enjoying a cookout. In the years following the Apalachin meeting an enormous amount of ink was spilled by people who were not at the party but think they can tell us what went on. Sparked by continued public fascination with the Apalachin convocation and what it might imply was a succession of works on the Mafia, including Frederick Sondern’s Brotherhood of Evil: The Mafia, Farrar, Straus & Cudahy, 1959; Edward J. Allen’s Merchants of Menace: The Mafia, Charles C. Thomas, 1962; and Raymond V. Martin’s Revolt in the Mafia, Duell, Sloan & Pearce, 1963.
In 1969 Putnam’s published the bestselling novel by Mario Puzo, The Godfather, whose capo bears the same surname as the first Mafia novel to appear in English: F. Marion Crawford’s Corleone: A Tale of Sicily, Macmillan, 1897. Puzo’s work spawned many imitations, and by the 1970s it had become unclear whether Mafia-genre novelists and movie scripters were accurately portraying La Cosa Nostra or whether the hoods were learning to behave like the mafiosi they were accustomed to seeing on television.
The mafioso biography had by now also become a commonplace on the American publishing scene. The first to appear was Robert Prall and Norton Mockridge’s This is Costello, Fawcett, 1951, a scarce paperback. There followed such works as Sid Feder and Norton Mockridge’s The Luciano Story, McKay, 1954; Don Frasca’s King of Crime: Vito Genovese, Crown, 1959; Peter Maas’ The Valachi Papers, Putnam’s, 1964; and Paul Hoffman and Ira Pecznick’s account of a Mafia hit man, To Drop a Dime, Putnam’s, 1976.
The debate over the existence of a Mafia acting as a centrally controlled syndicate overseeing mob operations nationwide, as had been suggested by the Kefauver Committee and later endorsed by the McClellan Committee, continued to engage the attention of academics. Supporting this thesis was the criminologist Donald Cressey, writing in Theft of a Nation, Harper & Row, 1969. Among those in strong rebuttal was the peppery Italian-American scholar Giovanni Schiavo, who maintained in The Truth about the Mafia, Vigo Press, 1962, that the standard American view of the Mafia betrays a grave lack of understanding of Italian history, culture and ethos. Somewhere between these two opposing viewpoints is the American Bar Association’s report, Organized Crime and Law Enforcement, edited by Morris Ploscowe, Grosby Press, 1951, 2 vols.
The ever-engaging speculation on the Mafia leads to a natural question for the bookman. What is the first book on the Mafia in America? The answer seems to be William J. Flynn’s The Barrel Mystery, by McCann, 1919, which deals with the victim of a Mafia killing whose body was found stuffed in a barrel on a New York City street. This historically significant work is omitted from Lloyd Trott’s bibliography, Mafia, University of Cambridge, 1977, and both the Library of Congress and William Hubin (the detective story compiler) mistakenly classify it as fiction. In short, it is a “sleeper,” and it can sometimes be found in a bookstore on a crime fiction shelf among the humdrum mysteries, and priced accordingly. Don’t tell anybody this, or I’ll break your legs.