Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Choosing Crime

I read Confessions of a Jack Roller by Clifford R. Shaw; it's a sociological case study showing the life history of a juvenile offender written in the early 1930's. For me one of the most startling aspects of the book (OK the only startling aspect) was the part where there describing his childhood. His mother died when he was young. He didn't get along with his stepmother (old tale right?) so the six year old kid takes to staying out on the streets sometimes for days on end. Remember the child is SIX. Policemen finds him and takes him home. Kid stays for less than a night (evidently enough time to get a beating) and takes to the streets again. Over and over it happens. What's startling for someone reading this in 2006 is that never is there a concern by officials that something could be wrong with the child's home life. He's branded incorrigible. A six year old who would rather live in the street and eat out of the trash than go home and no one thinks to put him foster care!

For those who don't know a "jack roller" is a term for rolling drunks and homosexuals of their money. It's a particular form of petty larceny (not high on the criminal hierarchy). I started thinking about some of our more famous yeggs from the 1930's. Those whose home life we know something about. Take John H. Dillinger, Alvin Karpis, and Baby Face Nelson. Well all of these thieves came from decent homes. Hardworking parents. Fairly comfortable surroundings. Dillinger's home appears to have been slightly more affluent; both Karpis and Nelson came from rough neighborhoods in Chicago.

Writers who tell the Dillinger story, must have a very hard time reconciling his childhood. On the one hand you have family members who describe the young Johnny D. as a normal high spirited boy, who enjoyed hunting and the tales of Jesse James. Then you have a litany of petty offenses: such as stealing coal, getting other children drunk (which led to some shady business with a few farm girls), destruction of property. All for laughs. It seems clear to me from an early age John Dillinger enjoyed being bad. I don't think anyone was that surprised when he mugged that grocer with Ed Singleton! Surprised at the harshness of his sentence yes, but not surprised that he'd finally landed in jail.

I am trying to decide which delinquent was worse: Alvin Karpis or Lester Gillis (Baby Face Nelson). It's a hard choice. Both just didn't seem to enjoy the normal activities associated with childhood playing games. Each seemed to enjoy activities with a more unlawful bent. Gillis was a member of a kiddie gang that enjoyed stealing and such. Karpis enjoyed riding the rails and stealing. Each had picked up these habits before their tenth birthday. Both went to reformatories and came out unreformed. Confessions of a Jack Roller is great in it's description of the various types of juvenile corrections facilities. I think that's important because it does show that as much as these individuals chose a life of crime their stays in reformatories aided that choice.

The sexually predatory nature of these institutions is public knowledge (and was back in the day); but what is so surprising to me again is the fact that very young children were thrown into these institutions. If you place a child in a world where might prevails and that child is on the low end of the food chain I don't think you can expect the child to choose to reform. The child has to live on it's instincts and do what's necessary to survive. I'm not just talking sexually, but morally. Lying, cheating, stealing (really just different forms of deception) become the things that are necessary for survival. The task is to become an expert at these arts. For extreme cases of this take a look at Carl Panzram . I honestly believe that Clyde Barrow is another one.

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