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Headlines And History During The Depression

Most successful armed robbers had been operating for years with virtual immunity from law enforcement because of their anonymity, mobility and the uncoordinated efforts of state and local authorities. Newspapers frequently headlined the raids of "daring daylight bank robbers," but in the absence of an effective central criminal records agency the bandits usually went unrecognized, and a fast escape to another state frustrated pursuit. Harvey Bailey, the Newton Brothers, Baron H.K. Lamm and Eddie Bentz knocked over hundreds of banks, payrolls and even trains in the 1920s without local police knowing who they were; and the "snatch racket" that involved criminals kidnapping one another did not concern the public, the police or the press.

By 1932, only Pretty Boy Floyd and Bonnie and Clyde had earned any national publicity, usually because they were locally known or left calling cards in one form or another. But while all had one or more partners in crime, they didn't lead gangs in the usual sense of the word. In 1933, Machine Gun Kelly became a household name not because he led a gang (despite newspaper accounts), but because he was involved in the most sensational "civilian" kidnapping since the Lindbergh case and eluded authorities long enough to earn personal notoriety. Those who made headlines and history during the Depression can be considered the last representatives of an outlaw tradition dating to the closing days of the Civil War, but that view still raises issues of definition and semantics.

History's "highwaymen" had operated successfully in sparcely settled areas of continental Europe and England as soon as the plow horse was supplemented by the riding horses traditionally owned by the aristocracy. Eventually they also became a commoner's form of transportation; and in the American West the horse enabled outlaws to hold up stages, trains and banks even after the turn of the century. Civil War veterans who engaged in robbery had learned during the war the value of prior planning and organization, especially in the face of possible resistance, giving rise to the Jameses, the Daltons and other outlaw gangs who essentially were civilian versions of military raiding parties. But not until the early 1920s did American language abandon the term "highway robbery" in favor "armed robbery" to describe a general situation where armed men used the element of surprise, and usually the automobile, to steal money or other valuables at gunpoint.

Horseback outlawry was eventually suppressed by mounted posses of sworn and armed citizens and by professional security forces such as the Pinkertons, whose pursuit of fugitives across state lines made them in some ways private-enterprise versions of the future FBI. Even in the late 1800s the effectiveness of organized "vigilance" committees and Pinkertontype "detective" agencies had made commandostyle robbery a sufficiently risky proposition that daylight attacks by gangs on horseback were giving way to bank burglaries, which pitted safecrackers, or yeggs, against safe makers, who themselves were competing to develop thief-resistant designs.

As historical chance would have it, advances in locks and vault design exceeded the skills of the average "yegg," or safecracker, about the same time that the transportation industry developed relatively fast and reliable automobiles. The result was a post-World War I revival of daylight armed robbery by James-style gangs now using cars instead of horses, at a time when law-enforcement was again in the hands of local police who found themselves no match for the new "motorized bandits."

Compounding the problem was the advent of Prohibition, which not only ushered in an era of unprecedented graft, but dismantled the principal means used by police to put a lid on crime. In the absence of anything resembling a central criminal records file, district and precinct cops depended heavily on their network of informants who patronized popular hoodlum hangouts to identify suspects and fugitives. The closing of the more notorious saloons and taverns dispersed the criminal community to speakeasies that came and went like floating craps games, and (thanks to the automobile) to a growing number of roadhouses that ringed every city, catered to big-spending crooks and enjoyed police protection - from other police.

The result was a police preoccupation with bootleggers who had little to fear from the courts even when prosecuted, and the opportunity for better-equipped armed robbers to regroup as gangs who could resume raiding banks, payroll messengers and even trains with virtual impunity. Many of the jobs made banner headlines because of the size of the loot, but identification methods were so primitive and uncoordinated that newspapers could only report that some unrecognized strangers had easily vanished after pulling a "daring daylight robbery." Thus some of the country's all-time greats, including Eddie Bentz, Baron Lamm and Harvey Bailey, plundered the Midwest with an anonymity that cost them status in the annals of crime, while lesser outlaws became Depression-era celebrities once A1 Capone went to prison and new federal laws unleashed a publicity-conscious FBI.

Nevertheless, since crime waves are largely a matter of public perception, a number of robbers, kidnappers and their cohorts were deliberately transformed into symbols of the national crime problem, whether or not they constituted "gangs" in the historic sense. Sometimes all it took was a memorable nickname, supplied either by the press or by the Justice Department, which understood that public support for its "war on crime" was directly proportional to the notoriety of its opponents.

Other factors were the refinement of wireservice journalism that linked newspapers nationwide and the competitiveness of publishing magnates, epitomized by William Randolph Hearst. Crime and scandal were the biggest headline makers, especially in cities like Chicago, and the larger papers even had their own syndicates that fed the country's appetite for crime news. About the same time, "detective magazines" that began as pulps abandoned crime fiction for crime "fact" in articles about gangsters, murders, robberies and kidnappings that were making daily headlines. Some became slick, well-edited and generous enough to attract good writers whose research was far better than that of the harried newspaper reporter racing to meet a particular edition's deadline. They became barbershop staples and actually led to the capture of quite a few criminals whose faces became more familiar to their readers than to the police.

So it was timing, as much as anything, that fostered the notoriety of certain criminals who composed "gangs" in the minds of the public and went into the history books as such. For instance there was never a "Dillinger gang," but rather a criminal community that included several robbers he worked with when possible, and others when necessary, all of whom came and went as luck and the law allowed. Whether they were close confederates or simply filling in on a particular job, some qualified as "members" of the gang only to the extent that any association with Dillinger was their one claim to fame.

What constituted a gang "moll" was pretty vague. The extent to which Bonnie participated in Clyde's crimes remains a matter of disagreement. That she considered herself his crime partner is clear, but she may have been less active than generally portrayed. Some killings may have been attributed to her by former accomplices to save their own skins. Ma Barker's role in gang affairs is now known to have been greatly exaggerated, whereas Edna "The Kissing Bandit" Murray seems to have thrived on the risk and excitement of robbing banks with boyfriend Volney Davis, after which she'd often kiss her victims. Machine Gun Kelly's wife Kathryn fostered his criminal career and reputation, bought him a machine gun and even involved her own family by hiding the kidnapped Urschel at their farm, but she took no active part in that crime or his robberies, so far as is ki'ivwri. (iPe fact (Aai fAe FBI's reading room contains thousands of pages on Dillinger, Nelson, Floyd and others, but nothing on the Urschel kidnapping that launched the Bureau nationally, raises some questions. One is that its quick solution of case may have depended less on Urschel's noting of an airliner's daily flights than on a tip from some crooked cops the kidnappers thought would participate. Another is that disgrunted former agent William W. Turner, in his book Hoover's F.B.L, published interoffice memos noting that the handwriting evidence used to convict Kathryn later proved to be erroneous; and presumably for that reason the Bureau refused to release case files that could have caused it and Hoover "embarrassment." Unaware of this, the judge hearing Kathryn's appeal in 1959 may have wondered at Hoover's lack of cooperation, for the director had always and adamantly opposed the paroling of "public enemies." But in the absence of case records, he released Kathryn after more than 25 years in prison.)

In any event, newspapers of the day made few distinctions between a woman who was either an ignorant or thrill-seeking girlfriend, a loyal wife, a willing accomplice, or a fullfledged crime partner, and tended to describe anyone associated with a halfway prominent criminal as a "moll."

The famous outlaw gangs of the Depression were largely the invention of the FBI, with two conspicuous exceptions. The Dillinger gang, consisting mainly of convicts he helped break out of the Michigan City prison, worked closely as a group, but only from September 1933 until the following January, when most were arrested in Tucson when a fire in their hotel led to their recognition. After Dillinger himself escaped from the Crown Point, Indiana, jail two months later, using bribes and a wooden pistol, he was forced to team up with Baby Face Nelson, who had put together his own small band of robbers and of course resented greatly the identification of his group as the "Dillinger gang" by the national press. Dillinger's criminal career lasted only another four months before he was set up by supposed friends and killed by federal agents outside Chicago's Biograph Theatre.

The only group that qualified as a bona fide gang in the traditional sense of the word was the one headed by Alvin Karpis and the Barker brothers, mainly Dock and Freddie, and supposedly captained by the notorious Ma Barker. Despite two more civilian kidnappings, many burglaries, several murders and dozens of bank, train and payroll holdups since the 1920s, the FBI did not even know of their existence as a group until the Bureau captured a talkative associate of the Dillinger gang in the spring of 1934. Their depredations spanned the entire "public enemy" era; and while the Barkers and Alvin Karpis were always the principals, they teamed with many criminals from other gangs and also worked with organized crime groups in several cities, especially Chicago. In truth, the headline-making "gangs" of Floyd, Kelly, and Bonnie and Clyde, were far more loosely structured than suited headline writers, the FBI or the general public to believe.

William J. Helmer with Rick Mattix. Public Enemies: America's Criminal Past, 1919-1940. Facts on File. September 1998.


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