The 1920s saw a rapid increase in the American crime-rate. This was mainly owing to the illegal alcohol trade that had been developed to overcome prohibition. All the main cities in America suffered from this problem but the most violent and corrupt was Chicago. During the late 1920s Chicago was dominated by a gangster called Al Capone. It has been estimated that in 1929, Capone's income from the various aspects of his business was $60,000,000 (illegal alcohol), $25,000,000 (gambling establishments), $10,000,000 (vice) and $10,000,000 from various other rackets.
In order to protect such lucrative business interests from other gangsters, Capone employed a team of heavily armed men. Gang warfare broke out in Chicago. The most notorious incident was the St Valentine's Day Massacre when six leading members of the Bugs Moran gang were executed in a garage by gangsters dressed in police uniforms.
Gangsters and racketeers play so prominent a part in the American life of today that it would be little short of a miracle if their exploits were ignored by the movies. Nor are they. In fact, the number of films dealing with the underworld and its criminal activities is altogether too great. The week under review saw four new pictures in New York belonging to this class. It is the business of movies, as it is of the theatre, to reflect life. The trouble with these films is that they reflect the life of the underworld in a light that is altogether false. They crown the hold-up man and the safe-breaker with the romantic halo of bravery and adventure that helps to disguise their fundamental moronism.
He (Al Capone) had discovered that there was big money in the newly outlawed liquor business. He was fired with the hope of getting control of the dispensation of booze of the whole city of Chicago. Within three years it was said that he had seven hundred men at his disposal, many of them adept in the use of the sawed-off shotgun and the Thompson sub-machine gun. As the profits from beer and alky-cooking (illicit distilling) rolled in, young Capone acquired more finesse - particularly finesse in the management of politics and politicians. By the middle of the decade he had gained complete control of the suburb of Cicero, and had installed his own mayor in office there were only five hundred gang murders in all. Few of the murderers were apprehended; careful planning, money, influence, the intimidation of witnesses, and the refusal of any gangster to testify against any other, no matter how treacherous the murder, met that danger.
Legends of America
If the Old West Outlaws get a lot of historic attention, a close second are the gangsters of the 1920’s Prohibition era and the 1930’s Depression period. Feared and revered, these American gangsters often controlled liquor sales, gambling, and prostitution, while making popular, silk suits, diamond rings, guns, booze, and broads.
These many men, though often murderers and outright robbers, were sometimes also involved in the political, social, and economic conditions of the times. Infamous names of the era included people such as Al Capone, Vito Genovese, Dutch Schultz, Jack “Legs” Diamond, Charles “Lucky” Luciano, John Dillinger, Bugsy Siegel, and many more
The Depression created yet another type of outlaw, fed by both need and greed. Though not as “revered” as the 1920’s gangsters, Depression-era outlaws with names like Bonnie and Clyde, “Baby Face” Nelson, Ma Barker, and “Pretty Boy” Floyd, also became legends, as their deeds included some of the wildest and deadliest stories ever to hit newspaper front pages.
Much like the days of the Old West following the Civil War, these were difficult times for the vast majority of Americans and like the gunmen before them, the outlaws of the 1920s and s gained fame among those who dreamed of individuality and fast money. The “romance” of the lifestyle and resistance to the socially imposed rules of the times led numerous men and a few women into a criminal life that included bank robberies, illegal sales of alcohol, gambling, prostitution, and black market drugs.
With it came violence, spawned mostly by bitter gang rivalries in the 1920s. In those days, gangster killings were unlike those of the Old West or those of today. They generally calculated business practices rather than personal vendettas, where one gang would line up rival gang members and shoot them down, or make a surprise attack on them, blasting or bombing until their rivals were dead. In the 1930s, the violence was more desperate as outlaws were determined to have their way at any cost.
Though these men and women were violent criminals, like their predecessors in the days of the Old West, the public couldn’t get enough of them – craving the news stories, photographs, tales of luxurious living, and the morbid facts of violent deeds.
In the end, most of these outlaws were sent to jail, killed by rival gangsters, or killed by law enforcement, but their legends live on.
During the Prohibition era, from 1920 to 1933 when alcohol sales were banded in the United States, the “speakeasy” was a code word for locations where illegal booze was available for purchase often accompanied by music, dancing, other recreation drugs and sex, both consensual and mercenary. Often the purveyors of the booze, known as bootleggers, were recent immigrant groups who were locked out mainstream American businesses. While that thirteen year experiment in behavior control failed as government policy, it had the unintended consequence of cementing a marriage of the criminal underworld and the music industry.
After alcohol sales became legal again nightclubs became ways to launder dirty money, base various illegal operations, and use as legitimate business fronts for its owners. In essence, the roots of the modern entertainment business, and its intimate relationship with the underworld, go back to America’s first failed war on drugs. Despite the wishes of that era’s Christian Right the appetite for alcohol grew more feverish with Prohibition as bottles of whiskey, rum etc were brought down from Canada, up from Mexico, and made at home made stills nationwide.
Prohibition criminalized thousands of Americans who drank illegally, became part of this bootlegging economy, or were law enforcement officers who took bribes. There’s a huge percentage of Americans who have, and always will, like to get high. How they get high evolves with time, but that desire to escape reality is part of our national character. You can make certain substances illegal or legal. You can arrest sellers large and small. You can close borders and pass draconian laws to criminalize selling. But, unless Americans stop getting high in large numbers, any war on drugs is just an excuse for sanctimonious speechifying and broad hypocrisy. The United States is a nation of addicts and has been so at least since the 1900s.
The original soundtrack for this booze crazed country was “hot jazz” and swing provided by Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Jimmy Lunceford, Count Basie and other giants. Though people affiliated with the white underworld often managed booking agencies for black talent, organized crime’s main focus was on prestigious, segregated venues. The majority of black performers, especially those who played the blues and rawer sounds of black music, worked the network of segregated venues originally known as TOBA (aka tough on black asses), which later evolved into the chitlin’ circuit. Any entry into the American showbiz mainstream post-Prohibition meant dealing with the larger forces in organized crime.
Chicago is crucial part of this story. The criminal empire of Al Capone ruled the Windy City in the 1920s through profits generated from bootlegging. During this same decade Chicago was deemed a northern promised land for hundreds of thousands in the Great Migration, swelling the city’s South Side, which became known as Bronzeville, with Southerners fleeing the south. These new Northerners traded in share cropping for work in Chicago’s stockyards and brought with them a strong work ethic, high hopes, and a vibrant musical culture.
Somewhere in this mix was the black gangsters, men and women, who were both exploited and exploiters, enforcers of the status quo and an economic engines for the community. In the segregated America of the 20th century black gangsters operated several roles: gate keepers for white power, both criminal and political independent businessmen using hustles to build their own dreams undercover financiers of black businesses (or straight up loan sharks) and the civil rights movement.
In music these folks were essential figures in the journey of black music as managers, label owners and club owners. Sometimes they were heroic in that they provided opportunity where otherwise none would have existed. Sometimes they were villains who exploited black performers as profoundly as a white mobster. Many of them spoke the language of black nationalism, urging black ownership (be it of our music or our rackets), while wedded to capitalism’s strengths and weaknesses. I think it’s important to see black gangsters in the social context of racist America. In a segregated world where employment opportunities — especially opportunities to build wealth — were limited to the black bourgeois, life outside the lines attracted those unwilling to settle for crumbs.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF R&B GANGSTER’S
The Underworld/Music world nexus took many forms throughout the decades, so much so that it constitutes a parallel narrative to the black music’s commercial evolution. Following the lives of different figures creates a narrative of exploitation, innovation, murder and opportunity that spans a century. Not all these men were gangsters. Some were more hustlers or con men. Others were just gangster affiliated. Some abused music makers and likely went straight to hell. Others accumulated power, cultivated relationships and elevated generations in the process. In this column we’ll look at three men who reflect the nature of R&B Gangsterism.
While Suge Knight has become symbolic of the ‘90s of the gangsta hip hop mogul, I’d suggest the original R&B musical gangster was a black Jew from Houston named Don Robey. As a record man Robey would be eclipsed by Berry Gordy’s crossover success at Motown in the ‘60s, but the legend of the multifaceted musical empire he built in the ‘40s and ‘50s lingers with old heads. He recorded gospel, blues, rhythm & blues, and rock & roll, opened a booking agency that flourished throughout the South, and ran a music publishing company that featured scores of copyrights with his name on it (though he probably wrote none of them.) Unlike Knight, who lost Death Row Records and has languished in prison for much of the 21st century, Robey died only after selling all his assets for millions in 1973.
Hip hop generation fans of Texas music will tell you the most important business figure to emerge from Houston’s notorious Fifth Ward is J Prince, the founder of Rap-A-Lot records home to the Geto Boys and Scarface. But the original Fifth Ward OG was born in Houston in 1903 of a white Jewish mother and a black father, and was known to brag, “I can outsmart you and beat your ass!” Colorful stories about Robey abound. Singer Roy Head said, “(Robey) could spit and hit a spittoon from eight feet away without getting anything on the floor.” Little Richard, who’s earliest recordings were on Robey’s Duke label, said Robey “wore great big diamonds on his hand and he was always chewing this big cigar, cussin’ at me ’round the end of it.”
After a big night at his club the Bronze Peacock, Robey reputedly stuffed the night’s take in burlap sacks, grabbed a 12-gauge shotgun and drove downtown to the bank. Hopping out of his ride, weapon over one shoulder and money bags over the other, Robey walked in to make his deposit. The late Dave Clark, one of the first promotion men to bring records to radio stations, worked for Robey and idolized him. “He was one of the greatest black record manufacturers who ever lived,” Clark told me. “A lot of black companies went out of business. A lot of label presidents ended up poor. Don Robey ended his life a very rich man.”
As a young man Robey gravitated towards gambling, becoming proficient at poker and dice. During the Great Depression he opened a few local venues and made his entry into the music business by booking local bands before bringing nationally known ensembles led by Jimmy Lunceford, Earl Hines, Duke Ellington and others to H-town. With Houston as his base, Robey build a network of relationships with similar underworld/music world figures in Texas (Port Arthur, San Antonio) and Louisiana (Baton Rouge, Shreveport) that would eventually evolve into a booking agency. Not only was he building a rep as a music man, but as a bad ass. He and a partner named Morris Merritt had opened a spot called the Harlem Grill. The two men had a dispute and, on a Houston street, Robey cold cocked Merritt, knocking him to the ground and ending their business relationship.
As World War II was ending in 1945, Robey opened the centerpiece of his empire — a Fifth Ward nightclub he called the Bronze Peacock. Blues historian Roger Wood wrote in his book, Down in Houston: Bayou City Blues, that the club was “arguably the most sophisticated African American owned and operated nightclub in the south during the 1940s and 1950s. It hired only the most prestigious chefs and offered an extensive menu of fine food and drink. Its roomy stage hosted productions featuring the leading uptown performers of the day.”
Popular black music was transitioning from big bands to smaller combos. It was called jump blues until Billboard contributor (soon to be legendary producer) Jerry Wexler coined the phrase rhythm & blues to capture the growing importance of rhythm sections in the era when the electric guitar and the Fender bass were introduced.
The key transitional figure was Louis Jordan, a saxophonist, witty songwriter and engaging singer. His Tympany Five, a nibble band consisted of drum, double bass, piano, his tenor sax and a horn section that varied from three to five members, including another sax, trumpets and trombone. It was this stripped down instrumental line up that would become standard for blues, rhythm & blues and, it’s step child, rock & roll, and for much pop music in the post war era. During his late ‘40s/early ‘50s peak Jordan was called “the king of the jukebox” with hit records like “Caladonia,” “Ain’t Nobody Here But Us Chickens,” “Let the Good Times Roll” and many more. (Jordan would be immortalized years later in the musical Five Guys Named Moe.)
As bands based on Jordan’s new model proliferated, the Bronze Peacock was a major Southern stop. Robey loved these smaller bands since dealing with a five to eight pieces was way cheaper than paying for the orchestras of Ellington or Basie. It was while watching Clarence ‘Gatemouth’ Brown, a young singer, fiddler, and guitarist influenced by Jordan and bluesman T-Bone Walker, do an impromptu set at the Bronze Peacock that Robey decided to make records. Initially he got Brown’s singles release on the Los Angeles based Aladdin label but, unhappy with the results, he founded Peacock Records in 1949.
In 1952 Robey took control of Duke, a Memphis based label, which brought many established performers under his control, including Bobby “Blue” Bland, Junior Parker, Johnny Ace, Roscoe Gordon, Memphis Slim, Johnny Otis, Big Walter and the Thunderbirds and O.V. Wright. Among the historic records released by Peacock were Bland’s classic album,’ Two Steps from the Blues,’ and Big Mama Thorton’s 1953 “Hound Dog,” later famously covered by young Elvis Presley.
The irony of Robey’s career is that, for a man who was deep in the world of gambling and nightlife, it would be gospel music that would cement his legacy. According to historian Michael Corcoran the Mississippi Blind Boys, on tour in Houston in 1950, met Robey who, very aware of the growing importance of rhythm in black music, figured he could sell more records by adding a drum beat to gospel quartet singing. Until that point all gospel quartet recordings were done acappella, replicating the performances delivered at a black churches. Recording as The Original Five Blind Boys, the group cut “Our Father,” a sung version of The Lord’s Prayer backed by strident drum beat. The record got picked by jukebox operators in bars and restaurants, a success Robey quickly capitalized upon.
In 1953 he shut down the Bronze Peacock, turning the club into office space and a recording studio for his burgeoning empire. Between 1953 and 1960 Robey would sign three of gospel’s greatest vocal groups: the versatile Dixie Hummingbirds lead by the magnificent Ira Tucker, the Sensational Nightingales lead by the fiery vocals of Julius Cheeks and “the Temptations of gospel” the Mighty Clouds of Joy. At one point in the ‘60s Robey would have some 109 gospel acts under contract.
The network of nightclub relationships Robey had built in the late ‘40s blossomed into a full-fledged business in the ‘50s. Under the banner of Buffalo Booking and the management of his chief lieutenant Evelyn Johnson, Robey’s venture became a dominant force in South. Robey may have owned a Buffalo Booking, but the company was registered with the American Federation of Musicians under Johnson’s name and she made all the operation’s day to day decisions. Her ambition had been to become an X-ray technician had been stifled by racist Texas state officials who wouldn’t let her take the state boards. So Johnson fell in with Robey and did a bit of everything, from helping with the building of the Duke/Peacock studio and running a record pressing plant. But Buffalo Booking was Robey’s cash cow.
“Over the years, Robey had become part of a fraternity of light-skinned kingpins like himself whose membership spanned the South,” wrote historian Preston Lauterback of Robey’s Southern musical network. “They all ran nightclubs rife with gambling, liquor, prostitution—or all of the above. At the national level, these playboys were the backbone of the black entertainment industry known as the chitlin’ circuit. Robey and his colleagues operated in a shadow world, segregated from white society just as black music was segregated from mainstream pop in the r&b category.
“In places like New Orleans, Memphis, and Chicago, this group—informally known as “nigga mob”—ingratiated themselves to white men of power: law enforcement, politicians, and business leaders. In return, the playboys offered a taste of the proceeds from across the tracks, and this ensured the fix as it pertained to any legal difficulties they might encounter. Robey carried a badge identifying him as a special deputy of the Harris County Sheriff’s Department. His badge was customized with diamond studs.”
Buffalo Booking kept its clients working, whether at hard drinking night clubs or gospel jubilees. This was a good thing since getting royalties for record sales or songwriting were nonexistent for artists on Peacock, Duke or his other gospel label Song Bird. For $25 or $50 he’d buy songs from composers and put his nom de plum Deadric Malone on them, collecting what ever publishing monies they accrued. He was more slightly more generous with singers who he was known to give Cadillacs and $1000 a year.
In the early 21st century the Texas State Historical society placed a marker at the offices of Duke-Peacock in the Fifth Ward which, in essence, was a memorial for Robey. It’s doubtful any of the young black residents of the area know anything about him or the blues and gospel stars he recorded. Yet Robey was absolutely as gangsta as any of the current local music biz types hustling trap music via the internet.
Morris ‘Moishe’ Levy was the most famous reputed record business gangster of all-time. So notorious was Levy that he was the basis of the Hesh character in HBO’s epic gangster series The Sopranos. Starting with his ownership of the legendary Manhattan jazz club Birdland in the ‘40s, Levy accumulated labels, publishing companies, and retail outlets. His Roulette Records, founded in 1956, like many labels of the era, was notorious for abusive deals and ripping off artists. He owned publishing rights to or controlled thirty thousand copyrights. By the ‘80s his fortune was estimated to be $75 million.
The most infamous example of Levy’s business tactics was his treatment of Teenagers featuring the charismatic lead singer Frankie Lymon. In 1955 the group released the single “Why Do Fools Fall in Love,” which went to number one on the pop charts. The song was penned by Lymon, along with bandmates Herman Santiago and Jimmy Merchant. Ultimately Levy’s name found his name on the single and copyright as co-writer with Lymon, generating hundreds of thousands of dollars for the label head. Levy was able to get away with this, and decades more shade dealing, because he was reputedly the music businesses most important connection to the Mafia, close to the New York based Genovese crime family run by Vincent ‘the Chin’ Gigante and Dominick ‘Badly Dom’ Canterio.
Because of Levy’s involvement with R&B he needed a black emissary and he employed a quite fearsome one. His name was Nathan ‘Big Nat’ McCalla, a six-foot, 250 pound ex-Army vet who liked to brag that the U.S. government had trained him on how to kill. McCalla’s office was right down the hall from Levy’s where he was on call when intimidation was needed. The Levy-McCalla partnership appears to have begun when McCalla returned from Army service as a Korean War paratrooper. “If I was going to describe Nate I’d recall the song ‘Bad, Bad Leroy Brown,’” an attorney told author Fred Dannen. “He had hands like baseball gloves.”
In 1965 McCalla was rewarded with his own Roulette distributed label, Calla, and a publishing company with an appropriate name JAMF (as in Jive Ass Mother Fucker.) McCalla may have been a thug but he had good taste in music, signing the Emotions, Little Jerry Williams (aka Swamp Dogg) and Better Lavette, all of whom would have great success post-Calla.
The bond between Levy and McCalla was clearly more than musical. In 1975 McCalla and Levy were indicted for attacking an off-duty police officer outside a Manhattan jazz club. NYPD cop Charlie Heinz made what Levy felt as an inappropriate comment to his girlfriend. According to the indictment McCalla held Heinz on the ground while Levy pummeled his face causing Heinz to lose his right eye. Despite this brutal act of violence a deal was worked out since charges were dismissed before the case went to trial.
In spring 1977, with the backing of Genovese family cash, Levy organized an Independence Day concert at the Take It Easy Ranch on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Popular D.C. air personality Bob ‘Nighthawk’ Terry was brought in to co-promote and host the event. McCalla was sent down to Maryland as Levy’s on site eyes. Apparently Terry was in need of cash and not afraid to cross Levy. With the help of two D.C. hoods, Howard McNair and Teddy Brown, Terry printed up thousands of counterfeit tickets, pocketing money for sales Levy would never get paid for.
On July 2, two days before the concert, the bodies of McNair and Brown were found a few hundred yards from the ranch, each shot dead at close range. Despite this double murder the show went on. People backstage reported Terry and McCalla had a loud shouting match over how many people attended the show’s and how much money was being taken in. Terry, who would be implicated in drug trafficking by local law enforcement, didn’t back down from McCalla. On August 31 of 1977 Terry drove off from WHUR radio station on the Howard University campus and was never seen again. A year later his Oldsmobile was found torched in a North Carolina field. No body was ever found.
Perhaps not coincidentlly Calla Records shut down in 1977 and McCalla split from New York, relocating to Florida and laying low. There was speculation McCalla was being sought, not just for his role in three murders, but to testify against Levy. On February 20, 1980 McCalla’s body was found at a Fort Lauderdale apartment. The backdoor was open. A set of keys were in the lock. The windows were all closed and the heat was on. McCalla was sitting in a lounge chair in front of his television. The back of head blown off. He’d been dead a week when his body was found. He was 49 years old.
Levy’s end wasn’t as violent. In 1990 he who was convicted of extortion charges from an FBI investigation into mob infiltration of the music business. Levy received a ten year sentence, but died of cancer two months before he was to report to prison. He was 62 years old.
These are just two stories of the black music/underworld matrix. There are many more. But there is a difference between how these characters moved in the past and have in more recent times.
The civil rights era of the ‘60s and ‘70s definitely opened up many once closed doors for advancement for African-Americans. Disturbingly parallel to this progress was an unprecedented flood of drugs into the country’s poorest areas. In the ‘60s it was heroin. In the early ‘80s angel dust. In the ‘90s crack. In each waves of illegal drug proliferation hundreds of thousands were addicted, their hard earned money becoming a business opportunity for people hungry for money, power and respect.
Up until the ‘90s crime had been a subtext of much black musical production and distribution. Most of the songs were about love and the singer’s, whether female or male, told stories of love lost and found, temporary and eternal. But with the crack era the drug dealer narrative became the primary text or defining metaphor of thousands of songs. It was the difference between gangsters, who moved in shadows or behind the scenes, and gangsta’s who swaggered through the music in lyrics and in the backstory of artists and entrepreneurs proud to display their bonafides. Many the people I wrote about while covering the music business full time in the ‘80s either had criminal backgrounds or had underworld associations. It was still an era euphemism. It wasn’t something to be proud or advertise. By the late ‘90s and early ‘00s it was a badge of honor that was as likely to be celebrated as condemned. Now that shifted lyrical focus has altered the tenor and impact of R&B will be the subject of some later posts.
On January 20, 2011, the United States Justice Department issued 16 indictments against Northeast American Mafia families resulting in 127 charged defendants and more than 110 arrests. Thinking of the most ruthless and untamed American outlaws it somehow easy to transpose their influence onto a classic picture of what it is called the American Dream. Maybe because these men where the triumphant image of succeeding against all odds. Planting their influence on cultural aspects of Manhattan and Brooklyn, Detroit, Philadelphia, Chicago and New Orleans to this day.
Prohibition and the Upward Movement of the American Gangsters
From a historical point of view, the fearless 1920s gangster names are strongly related to the Prohibition era. Every important crisis brought along his big winners. In the Prohibition case those winners were the now known nation’s gangsters that glanced the wonderful business opportunity from its beginning. The police recorded the very first attempt to break this sever law only one hour after it was operational, when six armed individuals steal around 100.000 dollars worth of whisky for medicinal use from a train. In every major city gangs had been stockpiled liquor supplies for months. As legends are telling, Arnold Rothstein was the earliest gangster to overpower the commercial potential of the Eighteen Amendment empowered by the Volstead Act. Building up his “office” at Lindy’s Restaurant in Midtown Manhattan, Rothstein brought liquor over the Great Lakes and down the Hudson river from Canada, and provided it – at a nice looking profit – to the city’s criminals, until he was murdered in 1928.
Arnold Rothstein in Saratoga 1926
Meanwhile in Chicago the New York-born most famed American gangster, Al Capone, controlled by far the mid-1920s Chicago underworld. Known to public as compassionate to others needs, this Robin Hood of his time lived his life with good taste just like a businessman as he used to refer to himself, for the people’s delight. But the 1929 Valentine’s Day Tommy gun gangster massacre of his rivals made him one of the most infamous gangsters of America. He died in prison after being sentenced to 11 years for tax evasion. Something that could have been linked back in the day with slots online win real money.
Social and Cultural Influence
Along with the development of the United States society and culture new social type of immigrants were relocating to America. Starting with the Irish gangs in the early 19th century, followed by Italians with their Five Points Gang and then a later Jewish Eastman Gang, every one of them influenced somehow the social and cultural environment that they lived in, as still do our days.
The most representative where the Italians whom presence was resented over the years, especially starting the 1950’s Vito Genovese era, when the Genovese Family was the New York’s most fearful mob organization. The Mafia slowly integrated itself in every phase of the American life, making no exception to popular culture. Over thirty years, Hollywood never lost the occasion to worship gangsters. What followed, can easily be called a domino effect over the hip-hop culture and today’s studied socio-cultural effect called “The Godfather effect”, referring to the Francis Ford Coppola’s film inspired by the same labeled novel. Big star names as Frank Sinatra are related to the Mafia stile of life and maybe one of the most unbelievable both cultural and historical outstanding effect and eccentric legacy of the gangsters epoch is Bugsy Siegel’s amazing dream: Las Vegas. Now you can simply install the Bet365 android app and enjoy a whole Las Vegas experience.
No matter what, eventually after all the “fun”, the law catches up. At times it takes years but it happens. Many of this socially powerful men influencing criminal behavior invested a long time on the run keeping away from the law but every one of them somehow faced their charges. There is unquestionably a cost to pay for this kind of living stile. For most the price was their life.
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Prohibition and the Gangsters
Prohibition and the gangsters are an integral part of America’s history in the 1920’s. America experienced the Jazz Age and the young who formed the basis of this period’s fame wanted alcohol.
The 18th Amendment had banned the sale, transportation and manufacture of alcohol in America. But it was clear to some, that millions neither wanted this law nor would respect it. There was obviously a huge market for what in the 1920’s was an illegal commodity. It was the gangsters who dominated various cities who provided this commodity. Each major city had its gangster element but the most famous was Chicago with Al Capone.
Capone was “Public Enemy Number 1”. He had moved to Chicago in 1920 where he worked for Johnny Torrio the city’s leading figure in the underworld. Capone was given the task of intimidating Torrio’s rivals within the city so that they would give up and hand over to Torrio their territory. Capone also had to convince speakeasy operators to buy illegal alcohol from Torrio.
Capone was very good at what he did. in 1925, Torrio was nearly killed by a rival gang and he decided to get out of the criminal world while he was still alive. Torrio handed over to Capone his ‘business’.
Within 2 years, Capone was earning $60 million a year from alcohol sales alone. Other rackets earned him an extra $45 million a year.
Capone managed to bribe both the police and the important politicians of Chicago. He spent $75 million on such ventures but considered it a good investment of his huge fortune. His armed thugs patrolled election booths to ensure that Capone’s politicians were returned to office. The city’s mayor after 1927 was Big Bill Thompson – one of Capone’s men. Thompson said
For all his power, Capone still had enemies from other surviving gangs in the city. He drove everywhere in an armour plated limousine and wherever he went, so did his armed bodyguards. Violence was a daily occurrence in Chicago. 227 gangsters were killed in the space of 4 years and on St Valentine’s Day, 1929, 7 members of the O’Banion gang were shot dead by gangsters dressed as police officers.
In 1931, the law finally caught up with Capone and he was charged with tax evasion. He got 11 years in jail. In prison, his health went and when he was released, he retired to his Florida mansion no longer the feared man he was from 1925 to 1931.
The United States Enters World War II
While the Nazis took control of Germany and planned for war in Europe, Japan aggressively expanded its control of territory in east Asia by invading Manchuria in 1931 and China in 1937. In 1940, Japan signed the Tripartite Pact with Germany and Italy, creating World War II’s Axis powers. While the United States had remained neutral in the war, it responded to Japan’s aggression in Asia with economic sanctions that caused severe shortages of natural resources that the Japanese needed for their war effort. In an attempt to prevent American interference in the Pacific war, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, the US naval station in Hawaii, in a surprise attack on December 7, 1941. 1
On December 8, Joseph Goebbels described Adolf Hitler as “exceptionally happy” when he learned the news. Goebbels wrote:
On the basis of the Tripartite Pact we will probably not [be able to avoid] a declaration of war on the United States. But now this isn’t so bad anymore. We are now to a certain extent protected on our flanks. The United States will probably no longer make aircraft, weapons, and transport available to England so carelessly, as it can be assumed that they will need these for their own war against Japan. 2
On December 9, 1941—two days after the attack—US President Franklin D. Roosevelt addressed the American people on the radio. He said, in part:
The course that Japan has followed for the past ten years in Asia has paralleled the course of Hitler and Mussolini in Europe and in Africa. Today, it has become far more than a parallel. It is actual collaboration so well calculated that all the continents of the world, and all the oceans, are now considered by the Axis strategists as one gigantic battlefield. . . .
In these past few years—and, most violently, in the past three days—we have learned a terrible lesson.
It is our obligation to our dead—it is our sacred obligation to their children and to our children—that we must never forget what we have learned.
And what we all have learned is this: There is no such thing as security for any Nation—or any individual—in a world ruled by the principles of gangsterism. . . .
We are now in the midst of a war, not for conquest, not for vengeance, but for a world in which this Nation, and all that this Nation represents, will be safe for our children. We expect to eliminate the danger from Japan, but it would serve us ill if we accomplished that and found that the rest of the world was dominated by Hitler and Mussolini.
We are going to win the war and we are going to win the peace that follows. . . . 3
Two days later, on December 11, 1941, Adolf Hitler declared war on the United States, and Benito Mussolini of Italy followed suit. Hours later, the United States declared war on both countries. In his address to the Reichstag, Hitler said: “If it is the will of Providence that the German people not be spared this struggle, then I will be grateful to Providence for having appointed me leader in a historic contest, which for the next five hundred or one thousand years, will decisively affect not only German history but also the history of Europe, and indeed all of mankind.” 4
The FBI and the American Gangster, 1924-1938
The “war to end all wars” was over, but a new one was just beginning—on the streets of America.
It wasn’t much of a fight, really—at least at the start.
On the one side was a rising tide of professional criminals, made richer and bolder by Prohibition, which had turned the nation “dry” in 1920. In one big city alone— Chicago—an estimated 1,300 gangs had spread like a deadly virus by the mid-1920s. There was no easy cure. With wallets bursting from bootlegging profits, gangs outfitted themselves with “Tommy” guns and operated with impunity by paying off politicians and police alike. Rival gangs led by the powerful Al “Scarface” Capone and the hot-headed George “Bugs” Moran turned the city streets into a virtual war zone with their gangland clashes. By 1926, more than 12,000 murders were taking place every year across America.
On the other side was law enforcement, which was outgunned (literally) and ill-prepared at this point in history to take on the surging national crime wave. Dealing with the bootlegging and speakeasies was challenging enough, but the “Roaring Twenties” also saw bank robbery, kidnapping, auto theft, gambling, and drug trafficking become increasingly common crimes. More often than not, local police forces were hobbled by the lack of modern tools and training. And their jurisdictions stopped abruptly at their borders.
In the young Bureau of Investigation, things were not much better. In the early twenties, the agency was no model of efficiency. It had a growing reputation for politicized investigations. In 1923, in the midst of the Teapot Dome scandal that rocked the Harding Administration, the nation learned that Department of Justice officials had sent Bureau agents to spy on members of Congress who had opposed its policies. Not long after the news of these secret activities broke, President Calvin Coolidge fired Harding’s Attorney General Harry Daugherty, naming Harlan Fiske Stone as his successor in 1924.
Al Capone after his arrest in 1929.
The first graduates of the Bureau’s training program for national police executives, the forerunner of today’s National Academy, in 1935.
A good housecleaning was in order for the Bureau, and it came at the hands of a young lawyer by the name of J. Edgar Hoover. Hoover had joined the Department of Justice in 1917 and had quickly risen through its ranks. In 1921, he was named Assistant Director of the Bureau. Three years later, Stone named him Director. Hoover would go on to serve for nearly another half century.
At the outset, the 29-year-old Hoover was determined to reform the Bureau, quickly and thoroughly, to make it a model of professionalism. He did so by weeding out the “political hacks” and incompetents, laying down a strict code of conduct for agents, and instituting regular inspections of Headquarters and field operations. He insisted on rigorous hiring criteria, including background checks, interviews, and physical tests for all special agent applicants, and in January 1928, he launched the first formal training for incoming agents, a two-month course of instruction and practical exercises in Washington, D.C. Under Hoover’s direction, new agents were also required to be 25 to 35 years old, preferably with experience in law or accounting.
When Hoover took over in 1924, the Bureau had about 650 employees, including 441 special agents. In five years, with the rash of firings it had just 339 special agents and less than 600 total employees. But it was beginning to become the organized, professional, and effective force that Hoover envisioned.
One important step in that direction came during Hoover’s first year at the helm, when the Bureau was given the responsibility of consolidating the nation’s two major collections of fingerprint files. In the summer of 1924, Hoover quickly created an Identification Division (informally called “Ident” in the organization for many years to come) to gather prints from police agencies nationwide and to search them upon request for matches to criminals and crime evidence.
New agents train on the rooftop of the Department of Justice building in Washington, D.C., where FBI Headquarters was located from 1933 to 1972.
It was a vital new tool for all of law enforcement—the first major building block in Hoover’s growing quest to bring the discipline of science to Bureau investigations and scientific services to law enforcement nationwide. Combined with its identification orders, or IOs—early wanted posters that included fingerprints and all manner of details about criminal suspects on the run—the Bureau was fast becoming a national hub for crime records. In the late 1920s, the Bureau began exchanging fingerprints with Canada and added more friendly foreign governments in 1932 the following year, it created a corresponding civil fingerprint file for non-criminal cases. By 1936, the agency had a total reservoir of 100,000 fingerprint cards by 1946, that number had swelled to 100 million.
Welcome to the World of Fingerprints
We take it for granted now, but at the turn of the twentieth century the use of fingerprints to identify criminals was still in its infancy.
More popular was the Bertillon system, which measured dozens of features of a criminal’s face and body and recorded the series of precise numbers on a large card along with a photograph.
After all, the thinking went, what were the chances that two different people would look the same and have identical measurements in all the minute particulars logged by the Bertillon method?
Not great, of course. But inevitably a case came along to beat the odds.
It happened this way. In 1903, a convicted criminal named Will West was taken to Leavenworth federal prison in Kansas. The clerk at the admissions desk, thinking he recognized West, asked if he’d ever been to Leavenworth. The new prisoner denied it. The clerk took his Bertillon measurements and went to the files, only to return with a card for a “William” West. Turns out, Will and William bore an uncanny resemblance (they may have been identical twins). And their Bertillon measurements were a near match.
The clerk asked Will again if he’d ever been to the prison. “Never,” he protested. When the clerk flipped the card over, he discovered Will was telling the truth. “William” was already in Leavenworth, serving a life sentence for murder! Soon after, the fingerprints of both men were taken, and they were clearly different.
It was this incident that caused the Bertillon system to fall “flat on its face,” as reporter Don Whitehead aptly put it. The next year, Leavenworth abandoned the method and start fingerprinting its inmates. Thus began the first federal fingerprint collection.
In New York, the state prison had begun fingerprinting its inmates as early as 1903. Following the event at Leavenworth, other police and prison officials followed suit. Leavenworth itself eventually began swapping prints with other agencies, and its collection swelled to more than 800,000 individual records.
By 1920, though, the International Association of Chiefs of Police had become concerned about the erratic quality and disorganization of criminal identification records in America. It urged the Department of Justice to merge the country’s two major fingerprint collections—the federal one at Leavenworth and its own set of state and local ones held in Chicago.
Four years later, a bill was passed providing the funds and giving the task to the young Bureau of Investigation. On July 1, 1924, J. Edgar Hoover, who had been appointed Acting Director less than two months earlier, quickly formed a Division of Identification. He announced that the Bureau would welcome submissions from other jurisdictions and provide identification services to all law enforcement partners.
Jewish Gangsters in America
There are few excuses for the behavior of Jewish gangsters in the 1920s and 1930s. The best known Jewish gangsters &ndash Meyer Lansky, Bugsy Siegel, Longy Zwillman, Moe Dalitz &mdash were involved in the numbers rackets, illegal drug dealing, prostitution, gambling and loan sharking. They were not nice men. During the rise of American Nazism in the 1930s and when Israel was being founded between 1945 and 1948, however, they proved staunch defenders of the Jewish people.
The roots of Jewish gangsterism lay in the ethnic neighborhoods of the Lower East Side Brownsville, Brooklyn Maxwell Street in Chicago and Boyle Heights in Los Angeles. Like other newly arrived groups in American history, a few Jews who considered themselves blocked from respectable professions used crime as a means to "make good" economically. The market for vice flourished during Prohibition and Jews joined with others to exploit the artificial market created by the legal bans on alcohol, gambling, paid sex and narcotics.
Few of these men were religiously observant. They rarely attended services, although they did support congregations financially. They did not keep kosher or send their children to day schools. However, at crucial moments they protected other Jews, in America and around the world.
The 1930s were a period of rampant anti-Semitism in America, particularly in the Midwest. Father Charles Coughlin, the Radio Priest in Detroit, and William Pelley of Minneapolis, among others, openly called for Jews to be driven from positions of responsibility, if not from the country itself. Organized Brown Shirts in New York and Silver Shirts in Minneapolis outraged and terrorized American Jewry. While the older and more respectable Jewish organizations pondered a response that would not alienate non-Jewish supporters, others &ndash including a few rabbis &ndashasked the gangsters to break up American Nazi rallies.
Historian Robert Rockaway, writing in the journal of the American Jewish Historical Society, notes that German-American Bund rallies in the New York City area posed a dilemma for mainstream Jewish leaders. They wanted the rallies stopped, but had no legal grounds on which to do so. New York State Judge Nathan Perlman personally contacted Meyer Lansky to ask him to disrupt the Bund rallies, with the proviso that Lansky&rsquos henchmen stop short of killing any Bundists. Enthusiastic for the assignment, if disappointed by the restraints, Lansky accepted all of Perlman&rsquos terms except one: he would take no money for the work. Lansky later observed, "I was a Jew and felt for those Jews in Europe who were suffering. They were my brothers." For months, Lansky&rsquos workmen effectively broke up one Nazi rally after another. As Rockaway notes, "Nazi arms, legs and ribs were broken and skulls were cracked, but no one died."
Lansky recalled breaking up a Brown Shirt rally in the Yorkville section of Manhattan: "The stage was decorated with a swastika and a picture of Hitler. The speakers started ranting. There were only fifteen of us, but we went into action. We &hellip threw some of them out the windows. . . . Most of the Nazis panicked and ran out. We chased them and beat them up. . . . We wanted to show them that Jews would not always sit back and accept insults."
In Minneapolis, William Dudley Pelley organized a Silver Shirt Legion to "rescue" America from an imaginary Jewish-Communist conspiracy. In Pelley&rsquos own words, just as "Mussolini and his Black Shirts saved Italy and as Hitler and his Brown Shirts saved Germany," he would save America from Jewish communists. Minneapolis gambling czar David Berman confronted Pelley&rsquos Silver Shirts on behalf of the Minneapolis Jewish community.
Berman learned that Silver Shirts were mounting a rally at a nearby Elks&rsquo Lodge. When the Nazi leader called for all the "Jew bastards" in the city to be expelled, or worse, Berman and his associates burst in to the room and started cracking heads. After ten minutes, they had emptied the hall. His suit covered in blood, Berman took the microphone and announced, "This is a warning. Anybody who says anything against Jews gets the same treatment. Only next time it will be worse." After Berman broke up two more rallies, there were no more public Silver Shirt meetings in Minneapolis.
Jewish gangsters also helped establish Israel after the war. One famous example is a meeting between Bugsy Siegel and Reuven Dafne, a Haganah emissary, in 1945. Dafne was seeking funds and guns to help liberate Palestine from British rule. A mutual friend arranged for the two men to meet. "You mean to tell me Jews are fighting?" Siegel asked. "You mean fighting as in killing?" Dafne answered in the affirmative. Siegel replied, "I&rsquom with you." For weeks, Dafne received suitcases filled with $5 and $10 bills -- $50,000 in all -- from Siegel.
No one should paint gangsters as heroes. They committed acts of great evil. Historian Rockaway has presented a textured version of Jewish gangster history in a book ironically titled, But They Were Good to their Mothers. Some have observed that, despite their disreputable behavior, they could be good to their people, too.
Source: Michael Feldberg, PhD, reprinted with permission of the author.
Who Were the Real ‘Peaky Blinders’?
British screenwriter Steven Knight took inspiration from his father's stories of “incredibly well dressed,” “incredibly powerful” gangsters active in turn-of-the-century England when he invented the Shelby clan—the family of razor blade-wielding mobsters at the heart of his BBC drama “Peaky Blinders.” But it turns out that the Birmingham gang that lends the series its name actually existed, albeit in a different form than the family-centered criminal enterprise.
The real-life Peaky Blinders weren’t quite as successful as the rags-to-riches Shelbys, whose criminal network evolves from a small local faction to a multi-country powerhouse over the course of the show’s five seasons. Still, the two share a number of core similarities: namely, savvy fashion sense, a brutal disregard for the law and a member base made up largely of young working-class men. These youths, hardened by the economic deprivation rampant in industrial England, created what Historic U.K.’s Jessica Brain deems a “violent, criminal and organized” subculture.
As historian Carl Chinn, author of The Real Peaky Blinders, tells the Birmingham Mail’s Zoe Chamberlain, the main difference between the fictionalized Peaky Blinders and their historical counterparts is timing. Although the television drama is set during the 1920s and '30s, the actual Birmingham group rose to prominence closer to the 1890s.
And while Machiavellian anti-hero Tommy Shelby, his shellstruck brother Arthur and their band of enforcers derive the name “Peaky Blinders” from the razor blade-lined peaked caps worn by members of the gang, it’s unlikely the actual gangsters hid razors—then considered a luxury item—inside of their hats. (According to Chinn, the Shelby men use their covert weapons to “[slash] across the foreheads of their opponents, causing blood to pour down into their eyes and blind them.”) Instead, Brain writes for Historic U.K., the real Peaky Blinders likely owe their title to the distinctive peak of their caps, or perhaps the fact that they used the hats to hide their faces from victims. It’s also possible the nickname stems from the local slang term “blinder,” which was used to describe “particularly striking” individuals.
Tommy Shelby, the family patriarch, wears a distinctive peaked cap (Courtesy of the BBC)
Arthur Matthison, a paint and varnish manufacturer who witnessed the gang’s antics firsthand, later described the archetypal Peaky Blinder as someone who “took pride in his personal appearance and dressed the part with skill.” He wore bell-bottomed trousers, hob-nailed boots, a colorful scarf and a peaked hat with a long elongated brim his hair, Matthison adds, was “prison cropped all over his head, except for a quiff in front which was grown long and plastered down obliquely on his forehead.” Gang members’ girlfriends, meanwhile, donned a “lavish display of pearls” and gaudy silk handkerchiefs draped over their throats, according to Philip Gooderson’s The Gangs of Birmingham.
The Peaky Blinders’ dapper appearance belied their brutal treatment of rival gang members, police and the general public. Per a July 21, 1898, letter sent to the Birmingham Daily Mail by an anonymous “workman,” “No matter what part of the city one walks, gangs of ‘peaky blinders’ are to be seen, who ofttimes think nothing of grossly insulting passers by, be it a man, woman or child.”
Days before the concerned workman penned this missive, a street brawl between Blinders and the police resulted in one constable’s death. As Andrew Davies reports for History Extra, officer George Snipe was patrolling Birmingham’s city center when he and a colleague encountered six or seven gang members who had been “drinking all the day, and fighting all the evening.” Snipe arrested 23-year-old William Colerain for using lewd language, but the detainee’s friends quickly came to his rescue. During the clash that followed, one of the young men threw a brick at Snipe’s head with such force that he fractured the skull in two places. The constable died early the next morning. His killer, 19-year-old George “Cloggy Williams,” was found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to a lifetime of penal servitude—a fate the Birmingham Daily Post said should serve as a warning to “every rowdy in Birmingham.”
Gang members' mugshots detail minor offenses including “shop-breaking,” “bike theft” and acting under “false pretences” (West Midlands Police Museum)
David Cross, a historian at the West Midslands Police Museum, tells BBC News’ Michael Bradley that the Peaky Blinders targeted victims indiscriminately, choosing “anybody who looked vulnerable.” He says, “Anything that could be taken, they would take it.”
On March 23, 1890, for example, a group led by Thomas Mucklow attacked the younger George Eastwood after seeing him order a non-alcoholic ginger beer at the local pub. The outnumbered victim suffered “serious bodily contusions,” a skull fracture and multiple lacerations on his scalp. He spent more than three weeks in the hospital and had to undergo a “trepanning” operation in which doctors drilled a hole into his head. The Daily Post dubbed the incident a “murderous assault,” and the London Daily News identified the perpetrators as members of the “Small Heath Peaky Blinders.” According to Chinn, this mention represents the earliest known written reference to the gang.
Unlike their fictional counterparts, the real Blinders were far from criminal masterminds: Police mugshots of Harry Fowler, Ernest Bayles, Stephen McHickie and Thomas Gilbert detail minor offenses including “shop-breaking,” “bike theft” and acting under “false pretences.” Per the West Midlands Police Museum, which holds a collection of some 6,000 Victorian and Edwardian mugshots, Fowler—arrested in 1904—later fought in World War I. He spent 12 hours buried alive by a mortar bombardment and emerged from the battle with serious injuries. After the war, historian Corinne Brazier reveals, the severely injured Fowler made a living by selling postcards of himself dressed as a female nurse.
The Peaky Blinders dominated Birmingham until the dawn of World War I—a timeline reversed in the BBC drama, which finds Tommy, Arthur and John Shelby building their criminal enterprise after returning from the war. (All five seasons of show are now streaming on Netflix.) In truth, a rival gang called the Birmingham Boys assumed control of the region during the 1920s. Led by Billy Kimber, a gangster Chinn describes as a “very intelligent man with a fighting ability, a magnetic personality and a shrewd [awareness] of the importance of an alliance with London,” the group wielded influence until the 1930s, when another gang headed by Charles Sabini usurped its place in the English Midlands. Fictionalized versions of both rival gangs appear in “Peaky Blinders,” providing foils to Tommy’s Shelby Company Limited.
As Knight tells History Extra’s Jonathan Wright, one of the tales that inspired the show centers on his father’s childhood encounter with a group of local gangsters. Sent to deliver a message, the young boy found eight well-dressed men sitting around a table covered in money. Each wore a peaked cap and had a gun tucked inside their pocket.
“Just that image—smoke, booze and these immaculately dressed men in this slum in Birmingham—I thought, that’s the mythology, that’s the story, and that’s the first image I started to work with,” Knight says.
Writing in The Real Peaky Blinders, Chinn similarly emphasizes the gang’s intangible allure.
He concludes, “The ill-fame of the Peaky Blinders and their lurid name infused as it was with violence and gangsterism ensured that they would not be forgotten.”
How Do Gangs Affect the Community?
Gangs have direct effects on a community, such as increased levels of crime, violence and murder. Gangs also have long-term or delayed implications in that gang members are more likely to drop out of school, struggle with unemployment, abuse drugs and alcohol or wind up in jail. These factors not only harm the gang members, but they force taxpayers to contribute to welfare and community-assistance programs.
Common motives for youth to join gangs include finding a place to belong and sharing in mutual desires for safety from family problems or life challenges. Collectively, the feelings and attitudes among gang members compel them to act violently, often conflicting with rival gangs. This violence leads to injury and death of not only members but also of bystanders in the community. High gang activity also causes fear among community members, deters business activity and impedes home-value appreciation. Communities also have to pay for higher levels of law enforcement when gangs are prominent.
Drug abuse, teen pregnancy, incarceration and unemployment all bring costs to communities. Populations of able-bodied, educated workers are diminished due to negative results of gangs. Drugs and teen pregnancy put pressure on communities to offer medical facilities and rehab programs. Jails are also costly to build, maintain and operate.