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People's Bandits

America is a nation without a distinct criminal class with the possible exception of Congress.
Mark Twain

One of the first Hollywood crime dramas based on an actual figure (although the script strays from the true story), this bullet-riddled saga stars Lawrence Tierney as the Indiana farm boy who grew up to rob banks across the Midwest in the 1930s and became "Public Enemy Number One."

The American Wild West includes the history, folklore, people, and events of the mid-1800s to the beginning of the 20th century (though some people date it up to the 1920s). During this time of expansion from coast to coast, many people rose to fame through their exciting (and often illegal) lives.

The Depression desperadoes were red-blooded, all-American outlaws in the Jesse James tradition who "came from good homes" and were "driven to crime" by circumstances. They were underdogs in a nation of underdogs, "people's bandits" who shook their fists in the face of corrupt authority and attacked the symbols of wealth. Daring, colorful, sometimes gallant, they led the cops a merry chase and died with their boots on. At least so go their legends, created partly by the press and partly by badly outclassed lawmen to explain their inability to bring them down. These "gangsters" worked as teams instead of in syndicates, used force instead of bribes, lived as fugitives instead of businessmen and soon fell victim to the technological and legal changes they themselves helped bring about.

Sanitized by the passage of time, the urban mobsters of the 1920s can now be glamorized as classic criminals, the first of a new breed that came in with Prohibition, while a Depression-era bandit represents the last of an old one that now substituted automobiles for horses. In both categories, those best remembered had an outrageous style that mocked authority and enthralled a largely apathetic public whose main source of entertainment was a shamelessly sensational press. To combat the increasing gangster chic, serious crime fighters countered by declaring them Public Enemies, which newspapers seized on just as eagerly as a major killing and need for reforms, but the public's continued fascination with crime, its perception of criminals and its remarkably flexible value system remain a fairly good index to the average citizen's priorities and sense of right and wrong. Celebrity criminals of the Public Enemy era taught Americans that while "Crime Does Not Pay," it can be a shortcut to immortality.

In the history of Depression-era America, many rose from callus-fingered cotton pickers to trigger-fingered desperadoes. Less bad men than a symbol of a turbulent era in the saga of the sagebrush. Robin Hoods who enjoyed hitting back against the wealthy for the defense of the poor, they are remembered in legend, recalled not with a shudder but with almost a fond salute.

Born too late, when the world was caught in a turmoil between past and present, from horse to horseless carriage, from telegraph to radio, from spoken legend to recorded deed. Even though where they came from was slower to enter the 20th Century than much of the more populated areas of the country, it was maturing nevertheless, daily, impacted by an undeniable financial depression and a series of soil-sucking droughts that weakened even the leathery's ability to endure their own growing pains.

Most transcended the discomfort of a backwards country boy thrust dizzily from the old world into the brink of the modern era. Like so many others who found it humanly impossible to cope with the ravages of a newer and less tranquil world, they fought back. And when they did so they found a fight unexpected "" not the romantic glory gained by Jesse James, Henry Starr, Cole Younger and other boyhood heroes.

Because the world was changing swiftly, because highwaymen now moved quicker behind the wheel of a Ford Sedan than in the stirrups of their old gray mare, a new way of battling those highwaymen became apparent. Technology - radio and telephone "" produced a communications system that, even in infancy, outdid the old days when Jesse could ride faster than the news of his latest bank robbery. They couldn't ride faster, but they tried. To the death they tried. "He modeled himself after the desperadoes of the Wild West," says a special chapter of the popular television program, Biography. "While much of his heroics have been greatly exaggerated, there was an element of truth."

Unfortunately for them they were beginning to sow their wild oats at the time when law enforcement, was out to get its man. Even though the 1920s in this country practiced a flippant attitude to many social wrongs, it was the big city gangster in Chicago, New York and Kansas City who enjoyed that benefit. But, most could not buy the politicians who wanted to be bought nor pay off the brilliant lawyers who proved brilliant only when well-paid. And, therefore, his oats were sowed to consequence.

In the end, most were betrayed. Not by a woman in red, as was Indiana bank robber John Dillinger; not by his own taste for blood, as was the mad-boy child "Baby Face" Nelson; not by a death wish that was Bonnie and Clyde's. But, allegedly, by an ambitious protector of American Justice called J. Edgar Hoover who thought they would be better a stepping stone to higher things if killed and not incarcerated. In short, America betrayed him when it forecast an end to its tolerance for wild oats to make way for progressiveness and modernity. They couldn't keep up.

According to the FBI, George "Machine Gun"- Kelly was the bank robber and kidnapping desperado who gave the federal agents their colorful nickname, G-Men. Just the sound of his name "" "Machine Gun"- Kelly "" conjures up memories of a bygone era known as the Mid-West Crime Wave. Although the period itself lasted just a few short years, it left behind a legacy of personalities that would be etched into the annals of American criminal history forever.

The short crime-filled era produced such notorious luminaries as John Dillinger, "Pretty Boy"- Floyd, "Baby Face"- Nelson, Alvin "Creepy"- Karpis, "Ma"- Barker and the Barker Gang, Bonnie & Clyde, as well as "Machine Gun"- Kelly. It also produced a secondary cast of characters just as successful and deadly as the headliners. Among this supporting cast was Harvey Bailey, Harry Pierpont, Frank "Jelly"- Nash, Jimmy Keating, Tommy Holden, Verne Miller, Wilbur Underhill, Homer Van Meter, John "Red"- Hamilton and Tommy Carroll. Of the headliners of the Mid-West Crime Wave, "Machine Gun"- Kelly had the shortest career and was the first to be put away. Fortunately for Kelly, he was one of the few to survive.

Using the terms gangster and public enemy to describe both Al Capone and John Dillinger reflects a fundamental misunderstanding about crime that has characterized the U.S. legal system from the start and continues to confuse lawmakers, law enforcers and the public. The confusion lies in the failure to distinguish between consensual crime and violent crime, and to recognize that the strategies for combating one are almost totally ineffective against the other.

Capone was in the business of supplying illegal goods and services to willing consumers. This is consensual crime, which involves violence only to the extent that the business is unlawful and any territorial or personal disputes between competitors require settlement "out of court." Laws against gambling, prostitution, drunkenness, drugs, private sexual acts and even illegal firearm ownership are difficult to enforce because the only complainants are the law enforcers themselves; there is no "victim" in the legal sense of the word, only customers, if the crime goes undetected. As Capone once complained, "When I sell liquor, they call it bootlegging; when my patrons serve it on silver trays on Lake Shore Drive, they call it hospitality."

Robbery, on the other hand, is by definition a violent crime from which an unconsenting victim seeks the protection of the police. Dillinger was a professional criminal who could be declared a "public enemy," but he was not a gangster in the style of Al Capone. More precisely, he was an outlaw - indeed, among the last of the outlaws-in the Jesse James tradition, a fugitive whose survival depended on avoiding recognition and capture. Bandit gangs were not business organizations but raiding parties.

So while the term gangster is loosely applied to both racketeers and bank robbers, this clouds the fact that the two types of crimes differ greatly in method, in the ways they threaten the community and in the kinds of laws and enforcement strategies required for their control. That said, it's true that the criminal community in the 1920s and early '30s had not yet clearly divided into separate populations. The neighborhood bootlegger might be more an adventurer than a career criminal, but he did business with professionals, including gunmen, and some who were professional robbers also did their share of bootlegging. So whether they worked together or not, the gangsters and outlaws often knew each other socially from frequenting the same taverns and roadhouses, and from patronizing the same group of doctors, lawyers, bail bondsmen, mechanics and fences who constituted an underworld support group. Professional courtesies and services were readily exchanged, and some criminals, especially several in the Barker-Karpis gang, divided their time between armed robbery, kidnapping and working for the crime "syndicate."

Their notoriety more often reflected the public's perception of the crime problem than actual crime conditions. Some of the most successful bandits operated for long periods during Prohibition, when the country was preoccupied with bootleggers and beer wars and police had not yet developed effective criminal-identification systems. With Repeal and the police professionalism promoted by the FBI, national excitement shifted to outlaws whom the Bureau could readily name and widely publicize, partly to demonstrate the inability of local police agencies to deal with interstate crime.

Ironically, it was Prohibition that hampered local crime control by closing the saloons where criminals routinely congregated, and where police and their informants could keep tabs on thieves, burglars and stickup artists without sophisticated means. And following Repeal, it was the FBI's preoccupation with interstate banditry and new law enforcement technology that enabled local racketeering to expand into nationally organized crime.

The country's first "public enemies" were organized criminals, the products of Prohibition. After Repeal and the arrival of federalized crime control, they were bank robbers whose careers were as short as they were colorful, thanks to the New Deal Justice Department and its different set of priorities. So the criminal celebrities who earned a place in the history books did not necessarily represent the type or extent of lawlessness occurring at the time they were making news.



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