Friday, December 14, 2007

Charlie Mays

Chas. Mays circa 1919 when admitted into Kansas State Penitentiary for robbery.

You know my first reaction was that he looked a little like Charlie Birger, but no my senses are a little off these days so I'll reserve that comparison for another day.

Charlie doesn't really seem to have been a very nice guy but he appears to have known how to play the system. His original sentence was for 10 to 21 years. He got that commuted to 1 to 5 by having one of the men he robbed Arthur Henderson write a letter saying that he was never certain of the robber’s identity. In fact once Henderson got a good look at Mays close up (you see Henderson through dumb luck of his own happened to get incarcerated also) he could tell that Mays just wasn't the guy! Henderson writes that he was pressured to identify Mays by the court. Since the robbery occurred in a box car it's hard to believe that he didn't get that close but hey I wasn't there. Well things just fell into place after that. After serving a year and eight months he received parole on 6/12/1921. The Kansas parole board was very understanding: even though Mays did not report to his parole officer during 1922 and had been arrested for vagrancy repeatedly in Joplin, MO he received a full commutation in early 1923. Which I'm sure he appreciated (it's so stressful having to keep up with these small details when your casing banks).

I do wonder if this is the right Charlie Mays though; I mean supposedly he murdered a man in that box car when he was robbing them. His papers don't mention the murder although there is a statement that one of his victims can't be found.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Earl McDowell

Finally got to LOC newspaper reading room again. Found articles on Earl McDowell in the Chicago Tribune when he murdered a young woman who had the bad fortune to be in the bullets way. One night, McDowell went to a "beer flat" in Chicago, IL with some friends. While there, he took an intense dislike to the radio station being played. In order to register his displeasure he shot the radio. Unfortunately, the bullets found Dorothy Evelyn Renshaw, a 23 year old mother from Sioux City, IA, killing her. McDowell fled to Kansas City, MO after this incident.

It's his Kansas City exploits that concern me and proved to be the death of him. Once there he began living with Vivian Chase who began using his name. It's evident McDowell was a handsome man, but evidently he had a nasty temper. He once shot at his wife but missed her. It's always been said that Luther Jordan , another of Vivian's paramours, was intensely jealous of McDowell, but Jordan always denied any relationship with Vivian or jealousy resulting from her affections for McDowell. It makes since that Jordan would deny his involvement with her. McDowell was found dead in a ditch outside of Kansas City shortly after his arrival.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Crash Out!

The time frame for this book is just on the cusp of period I usually read. The story begins in 1939 with the Shopping Bag Gang from Hell's Kitchen, their exploits and capture for robbery, and the gang leaders' attempt to escape from Sing Sing.

It's a great read. Goewey has provided meticulous details for every facet of the book. He really shines describing the break out and the gang's capture. The 3rd degree given to the captured suspects is described in graphic detail. He also manages to be fair in his assessments of all the characters involved- police, criminals, guards, family members. The details in the book make it easy for the reader to have sympathy for Whitey Riordan (executed for the murder of a guard and a policeman during the robbery but not the actual killer); but, Goewey doesn't just gloss over the escape attempts victims and it's a rotten deal that they were killed in what was supposed to be a clean break.

Monday, December 03, 2007


I'm mad at everyone. No getting around it; today is one of those days that I'm sure I exist because people need to say the word NO.

The FBI can't find the record for the Cherryvale Bank Robbery investigation. Although the file is referenced in the Luer documents, it appears that it no longer exists. I was looking forward to reading that file on my next day off. But it's not to be. I'll make another request using the names of the other principals in the case, Charlie Mayes, Lee Flournoy, Lyman Ford, & Clarence Howard. I thought that since the agent referenced a file called George C. Robertson, Montgomery National Bank....that one must surely exist. Silly me.

It's a shame that so many records from the past were destroyed or are put someplace where no one can find them. I've been trying to find out if any original materials still exist for Vivian's arrest following the Picher, OK shootout. No such luck. If they do exist there isn't anyone in OK who knows where they are. But at least everyone I talked to was polite when they said no to me.

I'll look at it in the positive think of how much copying fees I'm saving by not having access to that file!

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Trudging Along

Well I found George Chase in the Missouri Penitentiary in 1920. Whether or not he is Vivian's George Chase is the question. I wrote the archives to see if I could get some information. Hopefully they have intake papers and a mugshot. It will take them 8 weeks to get back to me. It would be great if it turned out to be Mr. George M. Chase.

I also think I have found the right Vivian Davis. 18 years old in 1920 living in Kansas City working as a waitress. Rooming in a household of older men. Yes that sounds like Vivian. The marriage certificate states that she is from KC and 19 years old. The date of the certificate is April 1921.

When she was arrested in 1923 Vivian gave her place of birth as Springfield, MO.; I don't know. Births prior to 1910 in Missouri are harder to trace. Not impossible though.

I guess the only thing for certain is that Vivian is a product of Missouri and Kansas during Prohibition. It would have been so much easier if she had been from Chicago. There's loads of information on Chicago. It's so funny so much happened all over the country but historians typically focused on New York and Chicago so if you go looking for information on who, what & where for some other area you have to cross your fingers and hope.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

William Radkay

I really enjoyed this book because it written very informally. When I was reading it, it was easy to imagine that Willie Radkay was telling me all of these stories himself.

First hand accounts are great because the stories that people tell explain what it means when someone says a "town was wide open" and it explains more than a researched book what the culture and attitudes were during the time discussed.

The book really shines in two places. The first is Willie's account of growing up in the Strawberry Hill Section of Kansas City, KS and the second is his description of doing time in Alcatraz and Leavenworth. It's not that the rest of the book lacks anything. It's just hard to keep reading about an obviously bright man making the bad decision to follow a life of crime. It's a value's thing.

Oh yeah, and the book is good because for once another criminal has something decent to say about Machine Gun Kelly (George Barnes). Radkay and Kelly were friends. While I don't think Kelly as a bank robber was in Alvin Karpis' or Harvey Bailey's league as a bank robber. He's not the blow hard doofus that Karpis makes him sound like in his book.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Oh S#!#

A years work down the toilet. Evidently, I have been completely and utterly wrong. There's no way that the Vivian Davis who married George M. Chase in 1921 is Vivian G. Davis of Springfield, MO. That Vivian died a year and a month before the wedding!

Time to take another look at the sources or perhaps I could interest one of those mediums, who are always bothering dead people, to visit the graves and find out the truth from the source.

I have learned a valuable lesson. I will never trust someone else's research at face value. I will always do my own or verify as if it were my own. Truthfully, piecing together someone's information from old census records when they have a common name is not easy. It is easy to trip up when you can't find everything at once i.e. birth, marriage, and death data scattered everyplace. I just have to look at this as part of the process and not give up.

George C. Robertson

G.C. Robertson, was one of the inside guys on the Montgomery County National Bank robbery. I was a little surprised to find out that he was 35 at the time of the robbery. Because I read that he was the bank Vice President, I was expecting an older man with a paunch like Lionel Barrymore.

There's more to this story than is commonly known. Mr. Robertson, who served 1 year and a day in Leavenworth for his role, is originally from Springfield, MO. The address he gave for his father's home is on the same street, Kimbrough, that Vivian Chase's family occupied. Hmmm.

So where is my fertile mind going with all of this? Did Vivian actually know Robertson prior to the robbery? Did she set him up? Or was he in on the double cross from the beginning?

There is something odd in Robertson's Leavenworth file. Supposedly he had no prior arrests to the Cherryvale robbery, yet there's an FBI arrest record for in his file for a Clarence Griffin dating back to 1918. Maybe it's a mistake someone else's information in his file. Maybe not.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Dead or Alive

This book has merits for a lot of reasons; chief among them (for me) is that since I'm unacquainted with the details of Harry Tracy's tale I was surprised at the ending. Gulick doesn't give anything away in earlier chapters; he lets the reader know what happens only at the point of the narrative when it happens. No value judgements about not being surprised at what awaits Tracy.

It's interesting I think this is one of the better prison escape tales that I've read. Mainly because there isn't an attempt to explain the why. There no exhausting analysis about who could have provided the guns for the escape. No onerous details about Tracy and Merril's associates outside of the Oregon pen or the conditions inside the penitentiary. A good tale. I think what makes the story surprising is that the crimes that Tracy was convicted for gave no indication that he would be capable of eluding a posse for months. He seems more like a bully than a professional thief. Definitely, not a yegg. He stole yes, but with a senseless brutality that if he hadn't been able to escape from the pen and actively dodge capture for so long he could have been dismissed as unintelligent.

Another thing that makes this story interesting is that this occurs during a time when the American West is moving into the modern age but it's not quite there. It's 1902, men are traveling by horse and buggy. But there are electric cars and telephones. This is the twilight for the old fashioned badman and the civilian posse. It's also great to see how intrusive the media could be even in 1902 to a criminal investigation and how even then people could have a dreadful awe for a man who kills 7 people in the pursuit of his freedom and escapes one trap after another. Sometimes it's not clear who's the fox or whose the hound. It's not a tale that is going to end well.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Hunting Vivian

Well for the second time I was directed to Startling Detective's June 1936 article on Vivian Chase so I decided to read it. No small job since the magazine I have is so fragile that it crumbles with the slightest touch.

I got a copy of the obituary for Vivian's father Alfred W. Davis. The obit listed surviving siblings. It might be possible that there are descendants living. I could end up knowing more about Vivian's genealogy than I do about my own.

I've requested the FBI Cherryvale Bank robbery file and the Leavenworth file for the inside guys convicted. I'll never understand why the FBI is so stingy with documents that are over 70 years old. They have an index of files but they won't make it available. They are the keepers. I understand about stuff that's current. Hell I understand about stuff that's 40 years old (MLK & Kennedy files) but honestly making information concerning prohibition and the 30's accessible to the public is not going to harm anyone now!

Off the soapbox...if the FBI does give me the file location I'll be able to go to the archives again..ooooh!

BTW, I don't think Luther Jordan and Vivian ever had anything going. At the time of the KC bank job Vivian had been using Earl McDowell's last name as an alias. She tended to do that when she was living with a man. McDowell ended up eating lead on a lonely road. I guess it is possible that she and Jordon hooked up afterwards but he denied it.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Vincent Coll

Brendan Delap's Mad Dog Coll: an Irish Gangster begins with an examination of Coll's Irish roots and asks the question of what would have happened to Coll had they never left Ireland. Hmmm...well probably Coll would have been an unknown Irish thug with a shorter career and a longer stretch in the pen if he didn't make it too the gallows sooner. Really.

Delap reveals that Coll had been diagnosed with schizophrenia which goes a long way in explaining his explosive temper and his odd habit of laughing during his mug shots. It also explains how he could have no remorse for the life he led. Most of the criminals I read about don't have such a great excuse or maybe they do (who knows). Anyway, the book is a little long probably because it does spend so much time on Coll's early life. Coll really doesn't become interesting until later in his life when he breaks from Schultz and takes on Schultz, Madden, and the other big sharks. Coll's early life is incredibly similar to Legs Diamond's which may explain why their abbreviated partnership came about. The book picks up momentum when it begins discussing Coll's flirtation with death in the form of taking on Owney Madden while carrying on a war with Dutch Schultz. Coll had more guts than brains which is the primary reason his candle was snuffed in a hotel phone booth at 24.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Dutch Schultz

I found a great site that will allow you to read Paul Sann's Kill the Dutchman.

The book is out of print so unless you want to shell out for a used book ( a decent copy is running around $20) then this is a great deal. I'd been looking for the book forever and here it is!

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Vivian Grace Davis

LDS family search shows that Vivian Grace Davis died in 1920. I wonder where they got this information because there is no death certificate in Missouri vital records to support the claim. MO required death certificates for all deaths after 1910 so a 16 year old girl could not just die without some formal record. So where does this information originate? I wonder if I write the LDS if they keep records of who tells them what. I can try. Vivian married George M. Chase April 1, 1921. Maybe she left home, under less than favorable circumstances, in 1920. Maybe someone knows the story and after 87 years I can find out what it is.

As Brian Beerman (thanks Brian!) suggested I am trying to find obituaries for Vivian's parents Alfred and Sarah Davis. Unfortunately LOC doesn't have any holdings for Springfield, MO during the time of their deaths. So I'm contacting various MO organizations and MOGENWEB. It would be interesting to get an idea of where Vivian came from....

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Egan's Rats

Egan's Rats, Daniel Waugh

St. Louis, Missouri. Somehow when I hear those words I see Judy Garland sing "meet me in St. Louie" and I imagine that St. Louis must be a place of clean cut, Hollywood sanitized, decency. After reading Daniel Waugh's book I think "SO NOT"!

Waugh does a great job detailing The Egan's Rats origins. Showing the relationship between Tom Egan and Snake Kinney; two Progressive Era fixers who were unapologetically part thug and part politician. Waugh gives the reader both atmosphere and details in his compelling description of a bourgeoning St. Louis and the various characters in the gang during that era. Before his death, Tom Egan set up what could have proved to be incredibly lucrative booze routes and affiliates in other cities; after he died the Rat's increasingly moved from being a confederation of illegal businessmen to being a gang of thieving trigger-happy goons. While they did make money from bootlegging their preferred occupation was robbing banks and company payrolls. Murder could be described as a past-time for the Egan's under Dint Colbeck. There were so many intra-gang executions that it’s amazing that the gang avoided self destructing. The body count in this book is staggering showing that St. Louis in the 1920's was as dangerous as anyplace in the country including Chicago.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Newton Brothers

Alright! First person accounts without (seemingly) much editing. It's hard for an author to convey second (often third) hand the urgency and stealth necessary to pull off a successful robbery. Willis & Joe Newton describe the life first hand.

It's a good thing that technology has changed so much since these guys were operating because Willis Newton's descriptions could be a primer for the novice yegg. How much nitroglycerin do you need to blow a steel pete? Keep reading and you'll find out. Some time's it's a little amazing how little security there was back then. Basically, I think people believed that their money was safe until someone tried to steal it. Never mind what happened in other places. So in a warped way the robbers of yesterday have done us a favor. If it wasn't for them our money would be a lot more vulnerable.

It's amazing that the Newton Brothers were as successful for such an extended period of time, but I think they would say it was easier then. The gangs best years were the early 1920's and they concentrated on safe blowing (true Yeggs), Canadian couriers, and trains. They were sent to Leavenworth for a mail train heist in 1924. This was before the FBI, concrete vaults, and trained professional local police departments. It was also during the time when most householders in small towns and cities had guns so it many a robbery had the Newtons being shot at by irate citizens. It's actually amazing that more people don't die in this tale. I believe the count was 2 gang members, no police, and a civilian grazed.

I wish Doc Newton had been able to be interviewed for the book. Evidently he was the true original among the brothers. I would have loved to have read a first hand account of his escape from a Texas prison farm. He stole a guards horse and gun and let hundreds of men out while he rode to safety. Some one should do a book on original escapes.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Harry Tracy

The details behind the story

Dave Merrill

I got this Dave Merrill mug shot from the LOC a while ago. I had no idea who he was. But one look at that kisser and I knew he was not a good guy. I finally found out who he was (never felt like just Googling his name) by reading a book on the Newton Boys. A little over a hundred years ago Merrill was a fairly well known outlaw and he escaped from the Oregon State Penitentiary with Harry Tracy. After the two escaped to Washington state Tracy shot Merrill in the back. Mmmm...maybe I will Google this tale.

Saturday, September 22, 2007


Well, finished reading the copies I made at the archives. Always enlightening but this time just a little sad. One of the documents that I copied was a report on Vivian Chase's funeral. At the end of the report there's an addendum detailing what happened the night she was killed.

Vivian and other members of her gang had finished a robbery. They decided to have a few drinks. Vivian said something to one of the men, Clarence Sparger, and he shot her then he ran away from the group. Evidently the remaining gang members took Vivian to St. Luke's Hospital. They left her inside the car at the hospital's parking lot. She died a couple of hours before anyone found her body.

There has always been speculation that Vivian was executed because of a double cross. The truth is it was a drunken quarrel.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Vivian again I went to the Archives again. I can't believe this is my last day of vacation.

I'm almost positive that I was wrong about Vivian and Pearl Loge being the same person. I took a close look at the original photograph and Pearl Loge seems less hardened; she also talked up a storm. Vivian Chase was notoriously closed mouth when questioned. Also, agents noted the resemblance to Vivian right away so I'd tend to think that they would have tried to match fingerprints with Vivian's first thing.

Another thing, Percy Fitzgerald, one of the August Luer kidnapping team stated that Vivian was only used to gain entry into the house. Some how that makes me feel better about her because it was an incredibly unprofessional job. I like to think she did her part and then let the rest of them make a mess. Looks like I have some fun reading tonight.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007


Well, I know it's been a while since I've posted. Largely my silence has been due to multiple personal/professional disruptions that no one except for the parties involved care to know.

Anyway yesterday I went to the LOC to look up Vivian Chase articles. I was disappointed to find out that the LOC does not have issues of the Kansas City Times microfilmed. The Kansas City times was the morning edition of the Kansas City Star for the years I'm interested in. I'm convinced that the truly interesting stuff is in the Times (only because it is unavailable to me)! I did get some great articles about the 1932 bank robbery with Luther Jordon. She was actually implicated in the murder of Earl McDowell a union organizer and thug wanted in Chicago for the murder of some unfortunate female. The article stated that Jordon may have killed McDowell because he was jealous of Vivian's affections for him. Jordan always denied he was ever romantically involved with Vivian Chase. I don't doubt that Chase and McDowell were paramours (as the FBI likes to call such relationships) because an alias she used at the time was Vivian McDowell. Vivian seems to have taken the last name of her lovers when propriety dictated it as the most prudent course. After all it was the 20's and 30's.

So loads of information from this trip; unfortunately I didn't get all the articles I was looking for. The next trip in I will concentrate on the 20's. Tomorrow or Friday I'm going to make a trip to the Archives again to copy more of the Luer Kidnapping file. I was going to go to the FBI reading room to read some of the Karpis gang file, but this week off is going by fast. Again amazing how personal time goes much quicker than professional time.

Well I've got a bunch of stuff I wanted to accomplish today, important stuff like getting a pedicure so I'm off again.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Same Woman?

Well I had my field trip to the Archives yesterday and actually spent the whole day with the Luer kidnapping file. I'm pretty sure that this file contains everything the FBI knows about Vivian Chase since this Kidnapping is the only federal crime she was ever wanted for.

I got some miscellaneous dope on Vivian that I can add to my biography. I also took the liberty of making photo copies of her mug shot for a mere $5.75. Doing the research your self is whole lot better than buying the book!

Anyway take a look at the pictures to your left. These 3 women are not the same woman according to the FBI. The 2 pictures to the right (mug shots) are Vivian Chase the picture on the left is Pearl Loge. According to the FBI file Pearl Loge was captured with the other Luer kidnappers and questioned. Supposedly, Pearl shared a room with Vivian at another suspects' rooming house and that's how Pearl knew the kidnappers. I'm thinking Pearl and Vivian are one in the same! And that means that when I get another day off with pay I take a second look at that particular file. While there are mention of Vivian's fingerprints I not completely sure that Pearl was fingerprinted. Maybe they aren't the same...I'm going to have some breakfast and read my copies. I love it when things get interesting and complicated!

Tuesday, July 31, 2007


I am so EXCITED! I get a day off so I am going to the Archives to look at the Luer kidnapping file! I can't wait. I've been wanting to do this forever and now I finally have the chance. It has to be done during a week day because the archives doesn't pull files on the weekend. There are supposed to be 3 boxes so we'll see if I can get anything interesting!

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Fleagle Gang

This book is interesting because I'm not sure how much I enjoyed it! The book is about the 1928 robbery of the First National Bank of Lamar Colorado committed by the "Fleagle Gang". The Fleagle's were a group of brothers. There were 4 of them, Ralph, Fred, Little Jake, and Walter. Whether they were all thieves or whether it was just Ralph and Little Jake isn't easily determined by the book. It's definite that the other 2 brothers knew of Ralph's and Little Jake's activities and offered assistance that 8 years later would have had them thrown in jail.

While I'm not sure I enjoyed the books reliance on old newspaper articles to tell the
Fleagle's history; the use of the articles brings the reader into the dramatic events. A traditional narrative would have told the story much quicker and still have been interesting.

This book is the first I've read about a robbery that was prior to the depression. The Lamar robbery was violent: 2 deaths during the robbery; a hostage murdered; a doctor kidnapped and murdered. A comparison with some of the depression bandits who were both vilified and praised in different circles would make for interesting commentary.

Ralph Fleagle or maybe it was the sire Jake Fleagle made the commentary that they didn't steal from anyone who couldn't afford it. Sound Familiar? Crime was on the increase and local police were at a disadvantage because of jurisdiction problems and inferior transportation. Hmmm....

Anyway, one of the things that I liked about this group of cold blooded murdering thieves is that they took a very pragmatic approach to gang membership. While Ralph and Little Jake were the corner stones they actually hired other gang members for each job for a set fee. The hired men in the Lamar, Co. robbery, Abshier and Royston, each got $1500 for their part and a date with the hangman.

Oh yeah, this case is also great because it's one where forensic science really brought the killers to justice. One fingerprint brought the whole gang down during a time when there was a huge amount of scepticism on the science.

Saturday, July 21, 2007


I wanted a really good book to read after all that studying and Ellen Poulsen's the Case Against Lucky Luciano hit the spot.

This book is not an homage to Charles Lucky Luciano (thank God); it's an analysis of the vice trials that finally convicted him. The central players in the book are the madame's ,prostitutes and bookers who acted as material witnesses and the prosecution's methods of obtaining witnesses and material.

Prostitution is an old story and I really didn't think this book was going to shed any new insights on it's history in the US. I was wrong. The start of the book details a racket in setting up innocent women to be charged with prostitution that was carried on with cooperation from police officers, bailsman, and judges. The book shows how Luciano's racket wasn't simply owning a house; he essentially saw that the money was in making the workers pay for protection against being jailed. He found a way to make the protection racket apply to Prostitution. Madame's and prostitutes were used to paying off police, janitors, cab drivers, etc to steer in business and look the other way; no one had ever made them pay insurance against getting arrested and making bail. A super pimp to make a bad situation worse.

It's a fast read but with great details. Poulsen sums up the trial, the convictions, and the attempt of the 2 main material witnesses to go straight and Luciano's war effort. Buy the book it's new and easy to find.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Studying for CEBS 8

Won't be posting for a while; I have to study for my exam in 2 months.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Reading a B Movie

I picked this up at a used book sale. Let's just say that the history books I've read on Dillinger don't support the character of Dillinger portrayed in the book. Homer Van Meter is portrayed as a sniveling coward.

It' funny because the story of Dillinger and his associates is so interesting when you just stick to the facts. Yeah I can see where you would want to put words in his mouth, but it could be so much more believable. Read Handsome Harry by James Carlos Blake instead.

I guess I shouldn't be so critical; I get the feeling from talking to Spanish that if she ever does write her version of Pierpont and Dillinger; Pierpont is going to come out as a repressed homosexual that Claudy had the hots for. Yes I know...the thing about it is that Dillinger is a great story on his own with just the hard facts that can be verified. So when you throw in other stuff that can't be verified and doesn't ring true with historical writing and such it's just icky. Yes, icky.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Mad Dog Coll

Just got finished watching this video on Mad Dog Vincent Coll. While I don't think Coll was "the most notorious gangster during the Prohibition era" he is a name that people recognize. I think the video was a good introduction, but I'll have to get the biography to determine where he fits in the baby faced killer pantheon.

Let's face it; it's hard to really have some one's personality come through when they are this notorious bad ass. Let's face it I compare everyone to Panzram ! Coll seems just regular raised in the slums... fights his way through institutions and life... kills an innocent child in the crossfire... gunned down at 24. Maybe in Coll's case the book will be more interesting will see.

On a more upbeat note: the National Archives has located the FBI's Luer kidnapping files for me and are checking them for privacy violations. So I should be able to get a gander soon. Cool.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

You Can't Win: Jack Black

It was time for a re-reading of You Can't Win, Jack Black's autobiography. Maybe because I often wonder why intelligent people make bad choices in life. Why someone raised in a "decent" family will choose to go wrong. This book pretty much answers my questions and it's entertaining to boot. The timing of Black's adventures are the 1890's and early 20th century. A completely different time from Dillinger and Capone but I think with some of the same sensibilities. Thieves saw themselves as professionals. It's also easy see that many of the same social problems that abound now, homelessness and addiction, were much the same.

It's telling to admit that I had to buy another copy of this book. I had loaned my copy to someone who moved away and took the book with him. I usually wish that most of the characters that I read about had written an autobiography explaining the why they chose crime. I think as to the choice, if not the methodology and experience, they might say the same thing Jack Black says. The honest life the pay is too little and the demands too great; the criminal life excitement and "easy" money for the high life.

This book gives great descriptions of jails, penitentiaries, flop houses, hop houses, and other places in plain language that rivals any novel. Ah, to go on a binge with Salt Chunk Mary and to attend a "convention".

On the Spot Journal

Read the article on Dopey Benny Fein; so good. It had to be because it was written by Rose Keefe. Who as I said before is wonderful. It's funny how in a lot of history accounts Benny Fein is written off. But really he just became more involved with garment manufacturing and stealing. Funny how stealing doesn't get the respect from mafia historians that it should. They write Bugs Moran off for the same reason. A yegg is a yegg...

There's a great mug shot of James Clark, of the Michigan City prison break, in the story on handsome Jack Klutas. The Klutas story is good in substance, but really needs better editing. Youse no Ise caint stand lousy graimer!

Any way this journal is great because it gives the reader shorter articles about subjects that won't necessarily ever get books written about them. For the person interested in pre-WWII crime there isn't anything else like it that I've found.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

The Big Bankroll

David Pietrusza's biography of Arnold Rothstein is a good read. Pietrusza has a gift for story telling making this book more enjoyable than I anticipated.

For the layman, Rothstein is usually mentioned in a few sentences when reading an article about Lucky Luciano, et al or maybe a paragraph when discussing the "black sox". Well, I'm only a quarter of the way through this book and there is so much more to Rothstein's career. (Not that Luciano and the black sox are not important; I'm looking forward to reading about them.) Rothstein is perfect for the time he was born the quintessential fixer; a prolific gambler, and an unabashed cheat! In the first third of the book when Pietrusza is writing about Rothstein's early career he discusses the Becker affair (wonderful detail)Becker was executed because he was found guilty of ordering "Beansie" Rosenthal's murder. But did he? Or was a dishonest cop who had done so much damage the perfect fall guy for Tammany? I'd read much about how corrupt old New York was but Rothstein's life really makes me understand how corrupt it was! Imagine if all politicians were as corrupt as we believe them to be. Imagine if you could kill someone and have the police look the other way for the right price. Imagine if Reformers had to choose between the devil they knew and the devil they couldn't see. Ferocious class division, poverty and racism. If you think everyone cheats then this world is for you!

Evidently, Rothstein reveled in having people know he was smarter than they were and he wasn't adverse to cheating. What I didn't know before was that Rothstein founded American international drug trafficking. Evidently, Drugs were his last big endeavor before he was murdered. It's amazing how someone so smart could be so smarmy in his morals! I think Rothstein knew the Volstead Act's days were numbered by the late 1920's and he wanted something more viable. I don't agree with Pietrusza's assessment that bootlegging had too many variables for Rothstein. I do agree that the risks stopped being acceptable with so many players in the mix, but I think that Rothstein wanted something that would continue his income once America regained it's senses. That's my take anyway. All in all an enjoyable read.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Legs Diamond

While I can't say much for the cover of Gary Levine's Jack "Legs" Diamond Anatomy of a Gangster, it was a good read. I really didn't know much about Diamond other than he was a bootlegger in NYC so it was interesting to read about his exploits. He was Arnold Rothstein's bodyguard. Levine makes a brief statement that Diamond may have had something to do with Rothstein's death but he doesn't elaborate. One thing is clear fidelity was not one of Diamond's strong points. With the exception of his brother he pretty much cheated on everyone (wives, lovers, associates, gang members). People made much of Diamonds ability to take a bullet surviving 5 attempts on his life until fatally shot in a rooming house but I'm not so much surprised that he survived those 5 times I'm just surprised that with the number of people he cheated that there wasn't an attempt on his life every other day. Diamond comes off as probably the worse crime manager I've read about so far. He came close to being absolutely huge but the endeavor always fell through. I finally got Rothstein's biography so it will be interesting to compare Diamond's characterization.

Saturday, March 31, 2007

St. Valentines Day Massacre Theories

Helmer and Bilek's book goes into the different theories that abounded about the St. Valentines Day Massacre. One of the earliest was that rogue cops who were on the take and angry at not being paid off actually hit Moran's gang.

It's funny but the book points out that Capone was not immediately associated with the murders. In fact NYC papers began to link Capone to the crime before Chicago papers did.

Much of the stuff that I had heard about the massacre turns out to be false. For instance no one knows exactly why the Moran gang was meeting that morning in that garage; but it was not to accept delivery for booze hijacked from Capone. The authors write logically that the men assembled in the garage for the most part were Moran's top men. His men in charge of racketeering and gambling and his top hit men. They also weren't dressed for labor (with the exception of the mechanic who was there for his daily job). Definitely a set up.

You know the thing about history is that hind sight is 20/20 vision. I wonder what I would have thought if this were 1929 and I was reading about this for the first time. Would I have believed everything I read? I guess in a way the newspaper coverage of the murders was excessive, but it doesn't seem like overkill. I mean there wasn't TV coverage yet and even with newsreels I think the public was able to forget about what happened until they picked up the newspaper again. I guess I'm trying to say something about how the innocent simpler time wasn't all that innocent but the evil and the bad didn't bombard you the way it does now. So was having mass communication on a smaller scale better? Hmmmm?

Thursday, March 29, 2007

St. Valentines Day Massacre

OK, I'm in a weird mood so that's why I'm writing about a book I haven't finished yet. I think this is going to be the last of my Chicago books after that I'm going back to reading about my bank robbers and such. You'd think I'd be saturated by now, but it is a topic that rarely becomes dull.

I think this book is great because of the perspective that it provides on Capone and the effect of the St. Valentine's day massacre. For a criminal there is such a thing as too much publicity. This book explains the role that the massacre played in bringing down Capone. Public opinion is not a thing to be trifled with and let's face it if something could turn Chicago's lenient public against a gangster it had to be pretty bad. Bad enough to make a public that put gangster killings on the inside pages of the news believe there is a limit even if they are only killing one another.

I'm looking forward to getting to the parts about the 'American Boys' the imported hit men who carried out the massacre. They were alumni of the Egan Rat's gang in St. Louis. I've got to get that book about the Egan Rats. Missouri and Kansas criminals have not received the ink they deserve.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

The Chicago Outfit

I LOVE old photographs! So I love this book...Images of America The Chicago Outfit John Binder's photographic essay on organized crime in Chicago.

I enjoy the first couple of sections that deal with the old days and wish these sections comprised the whole book. It's no secret that my interest in criminals ends with the 40's. There are loads of pictures in here that I haven't seen someplace else and they are good quality. I literally drooled over the photo of inside of Colisimos and there's a very early photo of Jake Guzik where he almost looks normal!

Crime scene photos, vacation photos, mug shots this book pretty much covers Capone's group. Cool.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Karpis Interview

Well I enjoyed the interview I got to watch it for the first time last night. I mainly enjoyed just seeing an older Karpis. The interview set up was a joke: they had these actors dressed up as the 70's version of 30's gangsters. Silly. The interview itself wasn't substantial. There was so much that guy could have asked. Honestly, he asks Karpis about Doc Moran's death and doesn't probe further. What about the time Moran refused to treat John Hamilton? I guess that's the way the world works you can't have someone who is too into the criminal asking questions because I guess mainstream gets too upset. It's not about glorifying his acts it's just about information.
I wish I could get a hold of the FBI interviews with Karpis after his capture.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Cool Mail!

Just got this Karpis VHS tape in the mail! I am so looking forward to seeing this interview (if only I could kick my nephew out of front of my only TV set!) Alvin Karpis has a rep as one of the smarter thieves from the 30's. Unlike Dillinger, Nelson, and Floyd he was not gunned down by FBI agents. He's got a couple of books that are great reads too.

I got a letter from the FBI saying that the Luer files have been transferred to the archives so I am in search there. The National Archives actually have a great web site , but not much of the stuff that I am interested in is on there. Although it you would like to see prison profiles from the Federal Prison system you can probably find them. We'll see. The good part is that the files are stored close by so if I have to I can add them to the ever extending list of things I gotta do. So much to know so little time.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Gangsters & Gold Diggers

Well, this is more like history lite Gangsters & Gold Diggers affectionately browses through the underworld in NYC in the early 20th century. It touches on interesting characters like Arnold Rothstein and Owney Madden with little detail and much opinion. But it's fun. So that's a good thing. I read this and then ordered Rothstein the Life,Times and Murder of the Criminal Genius Who Fixed the 1919 World Series by David Pietrusza.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Cool Mail!

Ooh! Look what I got in the mail today! I'm excited but turning the cover it looks like I may already have this stuff, besides I was looking for a magnitude of pictures. Loads of text. I'm always hoping that when I get a new book there will be loads of photos I haven't seen. Photo's are the best because they bring everything to life (DUH!).

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Bugs Moran

Rose Keefe has done it again! I got this book (even though I had been waiting for the paperback version)because I enjoyed her work on Dion O'Banion. While the meat of this book covers much of the same territory as Guns and Roses there's more her on Bugs Moran than I've found anywhere else.

Most histories that I've read discount Moran as mainly a wannabe. Let's face it he was the last in line of the Northsider's to go head to head with Capone and pretty much gets dismissed after the Valentine's Day Massacre. Keefe's book is an eye opener. "Bugs" Moran's real identity is Adelard Cunin. He was born in St. Paul, MN to French Canadian parents. He wasn't even Irish! George Moran was one of the identities he adopted while evading Prison. There's copious detail in the book about O'Banion and the yegg gang that started the Northsiders out. Right thieves the lot of them! What's great about the book is that Keefe gives the full picture of Moran's career and she gives a decent enough portrayal of him as a man. After reading this book, I believe that it is short sighted to dismiss Moran. His criminal career was extensive and largely successful. (I'm not saying that crime pays: read the book to see why) But as criminal lives go he was a success for a longer period of time than many of his 20's counterparts. If you see a Rose Keefe book buy it! She is a great writer. She's got one coming out soon about Jack Zelig one of the 1900's gang bangers. Can't wait.

On a personal note the FBI has sent me notice that they are searching their files to determine what information remains of the August Luer kidnapping. Cool!

Saturday, February 24, 2007

More Leads

Just when I think I've figured out which direction to go in I get a lead that leads me in a new direction! V. informs me that there are some documents that I will find very interesting about the Michigan City break. Information from the Board of Charities, overseers of the prison back in the day, that finger Joseph Burns as the ring leader for the escape. I'll definitely request the documents to take a look, but I wonder if they aren't referring to the December 1929 escape. I'd always figured Burns for the ring leader in that escape attempt.

I have a day off on Monday. My choices are LOC newspaper archives searching for articles related to Vivian Chase or being lazy and reading Rose Keefe's The Man Who Got Away: the Bugs Moran Story. I'm lazy by nature....

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Bonnie & Clyde Sidekick

I've always thought that the most interesting thing about Raymond Hamilton was his 1934 escape from the Texas penitentiary death house. Depression Desperado written by Syd Underwood supports this assertion. Until the escape Hamilton is a sidekick, a less important player in the Clyde Barrow chronicle. I just never got a sense of Hamilton's individuality from this book. Underwood doesn't play up the differences or the rift that developed between Clyde and Hamilton.

Underwood disperses Barrow's shadow when he begins the narrative of the Huntsville escape. Absolute desperation and almost certain death are the elements that make any death row escape attempt fascinating. This attempt takes place in Huntsville, TX a prison with a vicious reputation. It occurs on a sunny day when a prison baseball came is in progress. All in all a fascinating story. Besides Hamilton, players in the escape are Blackie Thompson, Joe Palmer, Whitey Walker, and Joe Frazier. Walker originated the escape plan to save his partner Blackie Thompson and invited the others along for the ride. It was partially successful: Palmer, Hamilton, and Thompson did make it over the walls. Walker was killed. Thompson would die a short time later and both Palmer and Hamilton would be recaptured to keep a date the electric chair.

It's the escape and Hamilton's death watch that the book gives the reader an idea of Hamilton's individuality. Was he the cold hearted repeat offender whom society would be much better with out? Even though he didn't pull the trigger was the fact that he was definitely an accessory (hell he planned the escape that resulted in Major Crowson's death) did he deserve the death penalty? Hamilton certainly didn't think so. At the end of the book when I read his date of death May 10, 1935 and remembered his year of birth 1913 the realization Hamilton was 11 days shy of his 22nd birthday made me think one thing. What a stupid waste.

Saturday, February 17, 2007


Yes! Office politics rule no 7: when you can't get information directly from the source you go to another source who has access to the information. I now have the information that I was looking for from Harry's Central State Hospital file.

I would not have to go through all of this if Harry had ever been given the attention he deserves as a case study. The only book that has good information on him also was very poorly fact checked. Consequently, I have to piece together information on my own. Personally it's more fun this way. Authors are human so either they are too detached or too involved with their subjects. Interpretation as to motive and history are always subjective with the exception of cold hard facts. I mean the where, when, how. Why is always subjective and why is almost never fully known unless you get an untainted confession. (Untainted no coercion, no diminished capacity, etc)

So here's the skinny; the information may not seem like much but it does explain some things, raise more questions about others and make me see Mrs. Lena Pierpont in a much more favorable light.
  • Harry was diagnosed with dementia praecox. That diagnosis is available on the inquest papers that are available to the public. In the Central State file it list that his illness was of the Hebephrenic type. A form of schizophrenia that typically onsets after puberty and involves a progressive disintegration of behavior. Characteristics include inappropriate mannerisms and emotional responses (such as grimacing or grinning at improper times).
  • Harry suffered a head injury at age 9, which was not though serious and a severe injury at 18 when he was hit in the head with a baseball bat and rendered unconscious for about 5 minutes.
  • Harry was not sexually active at 18, in fact he avoided the company of girls except his sister Fern who he was close to. He was not a good mixer and became more stubborn and irritable as he grew older.
  • Fern died when she was 19 years old of Pulmonary Tuberculosis, Harry would have been 17 at the time (1910 census records for the family show a 2 year difference). Harry did not tend to Fern during her illness; however he "was round her quite a bit". No sanitary precautions were used during his time with her.
  • Examination of his lungs and breathing lead doctors to suspect a T.B. condition existed.
"Patient expresses no delusions. He guards well all that he says and will not let out anything. Declares at all times that there is nothing wrong with his mental condition. It is conceded that he is normal but the nervous system does not present a very favorable condition."
Even before he truly began his criminal career Harry knew when it was to his advantage to keep his mouth shut. It would become harder for him to keep outbursts at bay as evidenced at the Sarber trial and during his stint on death row. So why is this important? To me at least it shows several things:

  1. Had Harry been in any criminal trouble prior to his visit at Central State it would show up in this file. So, unlike Dillinger, Karpis, Nelson, and hosts of others Harry doesn't start showing a criminal tendency until after childhood which is consistent with his diagnosis.
  2. Harry's mother was genuinely concerned about her son's health and she had every reason to be. Her letter writing campaign is genuine not a ruse developed to spring Harry early.
  3. Harry was crazy enough to develop an escape plan where the inmates went out the front door and think it would work. His paranoia aided him in changing the date.
I love this stuff!

Friday, February 16, 2007

Harry and HIPAA

Now for those of you who have ever had occasion to do research at the IN archives recently you know that the place is staffed with wonderful helpful people. Until you request to see the medical file from Harry's stay a Central State (the state mental institution). When you request to see that file you will meet with the proverbial brick wall!

Now the IN Public Records Act states that confidential information, with the exception of adoption records. is available to the public after 75 years. Harry's Central State records should have been available around 1996. Nope. If you request the records now and you are not a relative, then you will be told that those records are not available to the public because of HIPAA.

Now for those of you who don't know The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) Privacy Rule is the first comprehensive Federal protection for the privacy of personal health information. Well here's my beef. I deal with HIPAA every day and I do understand some of the nuances of the law. What I don't understand is how the archives can stretch that law to deal with individuals who have been dead 72 years! The dead don't have privacy issues. Since members of Harry's immediate family are also dead (may be a nephew living in AL, but no spouses, children, parents, or siblings) I think applying HIPAA to his records is more than a stretch.

Only one thing to do...write Health & Human Services and get a ruling as to whether the archives is correct in their assessment. I wish I was as dedicated in my professional life as I am in my hobby life!

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Jack McGurn

Amanda J. Parr's biography of Vincenzo Gibaldi (aka "Machine Gun" Jack McGurn) is better than most of the genre. Jack McGurn is another individual whose story is so much better than fiction.

Most people who follow 30's crime know that Jack McGurn began his career as a boxer and eventually caught the eye of Al Capone and became Capone's chief bodyguard. What isn't usually told is the story of how McGurn became a criminal. His father was a victim of a Black Hand shake down that ended his life. McGurn methodically tracked down is father's killers and exacted vengeance. According to Parr it was this act that brought McGurn to Capone's attention.

Parr manages to flesh out McGurn's character; her portrayal is a man who is decidedly human. She writes about McGurn's transformation from hardworking family man to lethal "family" man. The man who orchestrated the largest hit during prohibition comes across as more than a cold calculating killer. Don't get me wrong, Parr doesn't sugar coat McGurn's story or motives. A complex individual- yes: a good person -no.

I almost felt sorry for McGurn in the end when Nitti (who comes across as a jealous bastard) kicks McGurn out after Capone is jailed for tax evasion. Almost but not quite, it's impossible to read the book to the end and forget how much blood is on McGurn's hands. In my book McGurn goes down as yet another person who made a bad choice about how to live life and he died like he lived.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Dary Matera John Dillinger

Well, I finished reading Dary Matera's John Dillinger The Life and Death of America's First Celebrity Criminal ; actually I reread it. Books like this usually take a couple of reads because they have so much information. What's great about it is that it is not as biased as some of the earlier works and it appears to be well researched and has good notes. The only thing that bothers me is that much of the work is based upon personal archives that aren't accessible to the general public. I'd love to see that stuff.

Anyway Johnny D. comes off as believable in this book. Some of the books seem hell bent on making sure that you know what a swell guy Dillinger was or they want to demonize him. This book presents a balanced portrait. A human being who made some bad decisions. Not good not evil: human.

I enjoyed the fact that the book paid some attention to Dillinger's relationship with Billie Freschette and what she meant to him. The book demonstrates Billie's humor and guile. It's also one of 2 books that I know that dispute that Dillinger ever slugged Freschette. There are a few errors but minor not glaring. Errors such as Helen Gillis in the riding outfit at Little Bohemia (it wasn't Helen), some things that don't really mean much.

Friday, February 09, 2007

I lost out on this photo on ebay. It's a great picture of Harry Pierpont being interrogated when the gang was captured in Tuscon!
I guess it 's for the best. I have to stop spending money on this stuff!! But I hate the fact that I was beat out by $0.50! Just when you think you got it made BOOM a faster gun gets you.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Maybes and What ifs

So Spanish and I disagree to an extent about Harry Pierpont.

I think these guys were bound together by friendship and their choice of occupation. But I don't think that Harry's reputation is wholly made up by sensationalist journalist. I don't think he is the psychopathic killer they like to make him out to be. He was schizophrenic yes; no disagreement there. But let's face it; he wasn't the menace he was made out to be. That said I don't want anybody to think that I think he was a good guy. He was a good con. He chose a life of crime. In the course of those crimes people got hurt and he was directly responsible for the death of Jess Sarber. I think that he was a leader of the group, but among friends everyone leads sometimes.

Spanish thinks that the Sept 1933 wasn't Harry's Plan. She thinks that it was primarily Detrich who planned it and Harry signed on for it. She also thinks that Van Meter was the outside contact and not Dillinger. She's really going to need to do some convincing for me to buy that one! It goes against everything everyone else has ever written and if she finds documentation for it then she will create a huge stir.

I tried to get in contact with Lori Hyde who has been researching Pierpont for sometime now. No success. I was wondering if she ever found out information about Harry as a child. Simply because I want to know if his delinquent tendencies ever surfaced prior his schizophrenia.

Did you know that if a person is diagnosed with schizophrenia then the probability of that person going to jail rise exponentially! Maybe I want to blame everything on his illness or maybe I just want to understand him better. Why is it the things we can't answer are so more tantalizing than the things we can?

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Harry Pierpont wants Parole

Spanish sent me some letters that were written on Harry's behalf for parole. One letter was from Harry. They are fascinating and get me to wondering. His mother, Lena, did a whole letter writing campaign about how much he was needed on their large farm and so forth. Which is to be expected. He was also having Jesse Levy take care of getting letters from the judge and prosecuting attorney from his bank robbery case. The more information I get; the more I begin to wonder. It's a pity Harry didn't write down his memoirs at his death!

Reading Lena's letters I wonder how much is fact and how much is fiction? On the one hand I see a definite attempt to manipulate the system on the other I understand that she wants her son home with her. So it is hard and I think it is because I don't have all the pieces of the puzzle. With just the pieces that I have; I think Harry was tasking his Mom to do the letter writing campaign. Just as he had Levy broker the letters from the prosecutor and such.

I wonder if his Dad had TB and I wonder if Harry also suffered from it like Lena writes in her letters. I know that soon after the trial Lena brought a bar-b-cue stand. So maybe her husband was as ill as she writes he was and he and passed away soon after the trial. But I don't think she ever honestly believed Harry would come home to work on that farm. Those days left when he woke up from that baseball bat incident. But I think she wanted him home.

She alludes to something about Claudy. Supposedly he was obsessed with Harry. Was it because Harry was so defiant? Or was he sexually obsessed with him? Which would have made Harry really defiant! As much as people write that Harry was intolerant of homosexuals; sometimes I think maybe it was more he was intolerant of any man who had a sexual interest in him. That's why he allowed Dillinger in his gang (Dillinger didn't go for blonds. Also, James Jenkins was in with the Dec 1929 escape attempt. Jenkins was notorious from all accounts but Harry still let him in the group.

Again, I wonder too about the timing for the escape attempt. Harry had been planning that escape for a long time. Even while he was doing his parole campaign. I wonder when he made friends with Detrich. Detrich's having that job in the receiving department was key to the whole thing. Makley had it before but lost it for a discipline reason.

Just a bunch of musing on the puzzle.