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.