Monday, January 28, 2008

Satan's Circus

You know I was really prepared to love Mike Dash’s Satan’s Circus when I brought it at Borders (paid full price too). Which is why I feel perfectly fine trashing it now! No honestly, it’s an OK book.

Satan's Circus was one of the more salacious terms for New York City's turn of the century tenderloin district. I was hoping for a spicier telling of Charles Becker's sad story. The inside flap promises that Satan's Circus brings to life an almost forgotten Gotham. However, this book like all good history books is well researched but not spicy. Dash does an excellent job of dramatizing the role that the press plays in Becker's downfall. I think this book would serve as a good primer for anyone not acquainted with the Becker case. The NYC policeman was executed because his death was convenient for a lot of people. Becker wasn't a saint, not by a long shot but he didn't deserve to be executed even by the lax standards of his day.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Patience is a virtue...Virtue is over-rated

I spoke with 3 representatives of the FBI records only to be told that since I was not an FBI employee I can only recieve information about files in FBI custody through FOIA. I learned that it is actually NARA that decides what files the FBI sends to them are destroyed and which kept. So if Vivian Chase's file was definately destroyed then it's the archives fault. They just can't tell me whether the file was sent to NARA , but I do have a FOIA request outstanding so I'll find out that way. So there is hope.

The photo at left is Clarence Sparger's Alcatraz mug. Sparger is according to one FBI informant responsible for Vivian's death. He shot her because she said something that Sparger did not like. Vivian seems to have had a thing for hot heads. Sparger, Mayes, McDowell and her husband all seemed to enjoy acting before thinking things through. Speaking of her husband, George Chase, I'm having no luck with Missouri Archives in getting his prison record. Archives employees consulted a penitentiary admissions index and that index did not include his name. However, as I pointed out to them George Chase is clearly listed as an inmate in the 1920 Census. I don't think the Census taker made the record up. I gave Missouri a copy of the Census and I'm waiting to hear if they will look any further. I'm having the worst trouble with old lists.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Alvin Karpis Story

After the disappointing experience at the archives I wanted to read something fun. The Alvin Karpis Story is so much fun to read because it's quick paced and Karpis doesn't have any remorse about anything. If your not familiar with the Barker-Karpis (or Karpis-Barker gang as Alvin Karpis puts it)then you won't be bogged down with keeping track of the bodies.

It's funny that in the Video interview
,Karpis says that he thinks he killed around 13-14 men. You won't find out who Karpis murdered from this book he lays the blame for every death on someone else, usually Freddy Barker. It makes sense, because there's no statue of limitations on murder like there is for bank robbery. No one ever accused Karpis of being stupid. But as I read the book, I wonder which of the murders Karpis actually did himself. Karpis' other book about life on Alcatraz is a great read too maybe I'll read it tonight. The only thing I wish were different about this book is that I wish it had an index of people and heists.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Too Sad....

Well my worst fears came true...when I got the box that should have contained the Vivian Chase file...nothing. The HQ FBI index lists Vivian's file number as 91-866-20 which according to the NARA file listing should be located at RG 65 230/A/15/02 box 60; well box 60 contains information about the Bank of Cairo robbery in 1937. The thieves netted all of $446.50. So was Vivian's file destroyed? Why would they keep a file on such a small time job, but destroy the file on one of a stand up criminal like Vivian? I'm truly blue now because my research is at an impasse. I was hoping that the FBI file might contain information such as the interviews with Dorothy Flournoy and Lyman Ford's wife. Interviews that were referenced in the Luer kidnapping file; I was also hoping that it might contain a more thorough explanation about how she made bail for the Cherryvale robbery and maybe the autopsy photos. Yes, I'm morbid...

Well, I got the information for contacting the person at the FBI who is responsible for transferring eligible files to the archives. I'm just hoping that maybe the old FBI indices aren't reliable for finding the file transferred to the archives. I know it's stupid but I'm hoping that the file wasn't destroyed and somehow some benevolent spirit will lead me to it. Or maybe they can give me a list of the files that were destroyed. You know it would save me a lot of time, trouble, and money.

I need chocolate but I'm out; so I'm gonna have a couple of shots of vodka. Medicinal you know...

Thursday, January 17, 2008


It's snowing! UGH! Tomorrow is my day at the archives! Hopefully this won't amount to anything...and all will be well. I'm not worried. Snow wimps like me just have to trust God.

There is one slight glitch...all FBI files requested from the Archives now have to go through a review to make sure that the files are appropriate for copying. Because the class 91 records contain files up to 1960's they need to make sure that no one is copying prohibited records. I wish they would just take my word for "she died in 1935". It's just going to mean a longer wait for the file. I'm not patient!

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.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Nothing Much....

I haven't been doing much lately...went to the archives New Year's eve. I found Vivian Chase's case file record information. Finally! Believe it or not the FBI indexes (indices for snobs) are still on 3x5 index cards! Yes, for class 91 (bank robbery) there are 64 card file boxes. Each index contains a name (and if your lucky) cross references. I'd be happy to input that stuff on an excel spread sheet; but according to one NARA employee the FBI is going to give NARA a copy of their electronic index SOMEDAY soon. I wonder how many of those cards actually made it to the electronic index! Call me paranoid if you like. I've been called worse and a few people actually meant it!

So my boss has been so kind as to let me take Jan. 18 off so off to the archives I'll be in my comfortable shoes so I can make loads of copies.

Needless to say if Vivian's file only has congratulatory letters to Hoover I will be heartbroken.