Sunday, January 13, 2008

Verne Sankey

I picked up Timothy W. Bjorkman's book Verne Sankey America's First Public Enemy because of the title. America's first Public Enemy? Since the cover photo is of a man in modern dress, I was intrigued. I thought I pretty much knew all of the major criminals from the 30's. I was wrong and the book is great reading.

For the unaware, Verne Sankey committed 2 kidnappings in the 1930's. One in Minnesota, Haskell Bohn, and another in Denver, Charles Boettcher. It' s the Boettcher kidnapping that gave Sankey his notoriety.

Bjorkman manages to do what many historian's have difficulty accomplishing. He seamlessly weaves economic realities into his discussion of Sankey. He also manages to use the economic realities of the 20's and most importantly the 30's without using those realities as an explanation of Sankey's crimes.

Honestly, the image of Sankey is one of a personable, but domineering individual (to those he could dominate) who thought he was smarter than the police. He was a caring family man who supplemented his income first by running a lucrative bootlegging operation in the 20's. He loved excitement and gambling. Crime suited him. He was smart. He chose his home in Denver and built a ranch in S. Dakota so that both included features that would allow him to know if Police were coming. He chose men who were not criminals as his associates. But the men he chose were down on their luck and easily led. Sankey's tale isn't a typical gangland drama with loads of gun play, but Bjorkman relates the history of the players in thoughtful detail. Sankey comes across as a true rogue. He threw away a secure respectable lifestyle for one that was thrilling, but he didn't throw away his life. He went to school functions for his kids, assisted his neighbors, and if it wasn't for the discovery of his kidnappings he could have been elected mayor or sheriff in many a small town.