Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Can't Let it Go

I wish I could let it go. Things would be so much easier if I didn't take the FBI's no as a challenge. You see in each of the FBI's responses I got a pat response that "neither confirms or denies" that the files I'm looking for are still in existence. Essentially, they just hide behind a bunch of statutes that allow them to do the minimum unless something compels them to do more. Big IMO! I hate saying anything negative about anyone but I'm getting close. All it would take is a "no this file has been destroyed" or a "no this file is still within the FOIA statute of limitations" or anything that lead me to believe that yes they actually did the work in finding out whether the files are still in existence. I don't think there's any one person in the FBI's records division whose sure of what they still have; what went to the Archives; and what's been destroyed. Wait! I may have a contact I can call!!! Just thought of it!!! Actually, you know before I got the Cherryvale file by surprise; I had talked to a lot of different people who gave me no encouragement. Then the file showed up at my door one day with a bill for copying! So maybe this is part of the process? Strange.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

Gloves Off

Just got a reply from the FBI on my appeal for information. This time around I got a new response. Evidently, the FBI does not have to affirm or deny that files exist because
  1. 1. Affirming or denying that the files exist might provide the requester with insight into Agency internal practices; and
  2. 2. the release of such knowledge may provide the requester with information on the techniques and procedures for law enforcement investigations (well duh!).

The injury served with the insult is the last sentence where if I am dissatisfied with the response I may file a law suit in accordance with 5 U.S.C. section 552(a)(4)(B).

Well, what did I expect? Did I honestly believe that getting something from them would be so easy? The only thing easy to get from the FBI are the materials in their reading room which at this point are not files that I am interested in. Why couldn't my interest in the Midwest crime wave have stopped with Dillinger? Truly, I think that basically the FBI has covered it's ass in saying no we are not going to look for the file.

So many things go through my head (I have wicked imagination!) I think the FBI is saying the following in their response to my file request:

  1. It's been 70 years women give it a rest! We don't know where those files are and we are way too busy to look. Crime marches on and we are not the F@#% National Archives.
  2. How were we supposed to know that our files would be the subject to historical inquiry after the statute of limitations ended! Were we supposed to keep track of where all this &#*!
  3. Maybe we destroyed the files, maybe they are gathering mildew in some damp basement, maybe they are in a climate controlled acid free environment where they will remain until the onion skin disintegrates naturally. It doesn't matter we know were the files are and you don't need to know. Because if we told you where the files were or whether they were destroyed you might begin to infer what our internal practices are for keeping matters of historical record. Transparency does not apply to US.
  4. God forbid we give you access to files that are 70 or more years old that we haven't carefully screened. Everything we want you to know has been made available to you.

So along with retaking an exam at the end of the month (I flunked Asset Management in December) and handling my confusing personal life I now get to look up legal code sections. It would be easy to say that I'll just give up and find another hobby. Truth of the matter is my ornery nature doesn't allow me to just slink away. Just gonna have to give it another go. Third times the charm.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

FBI File Requests

Another person has asked me how I go about requesting FBI case files. So I’d thought I’d post my method which is basically by the book of how the FBI tells you to request files. If you go to http://www.fbi.gov/research.htm it’s an abundant source for doing research with the FBI. If you’re interested in case files, you'll need to make a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. Now the first thing to remember is that if you’re interested in current case files you may be out of luck. Much of that information is still sealed. I have an interest in crimes that occurred in the 1920’s and 1930’s when the FBI was the Bureau of Investigation so it’s easier for me to get records if they still exist and have not been destroyed.

I usually just use the FBI FOIA request form and send it to the field office where the case originates. This is an important point. If you make your FOIA request directly to the headquarters in Washington, DC (FBIHQ) they will search for your records by consulting an FBIHQ list of files they have. The only problem with this is that the more obscure the person or crime you are looking for the less likely they are on the HQ list. If you are looking for information on Dillinger, you will not have a problem (except for getting access to a file that hasn’t been “redacted”). If you contact the field office first, because that’s what the rule says you should do, the field office will send your request to FBIHQ and they will do a more thorough search. I usually write on my request to search all medium available paper files, microfilm, and microfiche. I don’t know if the FBI stores anything on microfiche, but just in case. You can find the field offices on http://www.fbi.gov/contact/fo/fo.htm .

After where to send the initial request, the next most important thing is how to ask for the file. As with any confidential information there are rules as to what available to you. Also, never take for granted that the FBI personnel know your subject. The person involved must be deceased (death is assumed if 100 years have passed since birth). Information about an individual may actually be in a case filed under the crime itself, or the leader of the criminal gang and not the individual’s name. If you have the file number (lucky you), include it. Sometimes I’ve included old newspaper clippings that demonstrate that the FBI was active in investigating the crime. Whatever you have that will help them find your info include.
Now if you’ve included everything and you still get a letter saying that the FBI doesn’t see any reason why they would have ever done an investigation on your subject—DON’T GIVE UP! I always take that letter to mean that they don’t think I’m serious about getting the information. You have the right to appeal so do so. Something tells me that there is some ‘Public Information Officer’ at the Dept. of Justice who got a chuckle when I sent in my appeal for the Cherryvale Bank Robbery file because I said I was appealing because I didn’t think they looked for it hard enough! If you get a letter back saying the files have been destroyed that’s when cussing is allowed. How about going to the National Archives first? Don’t unless you know that the file you want is already there and what it’s filed under and if that’s the case make arrangements for the file to be waiting at the archives for you when you visit so you don’t have any nasty surprises.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Charles Arthur Floyd

Funny, I don't know much about Pretty Boy Floyd. Of course I know that he was shot down in 1934. I know that in the pantheon of A List depression era desperadoes he ranked up there with Dillinger. In fact, he might have been bigger than Dillinger (at times). So it's odd that I am only vaguely aware of the details about his criminal career.

So reading Jeffery S. King's The Life and Death of Pretty Boy Floyd gave me an education. Truthfully, if you want to know about “Charles A. Floyd-Criminal” it's all here. From the beginning to the end, King concentrates on Floyd's criminal career in succinct prose. He discusses Floyd’s early life and early exploits and the period when “they just wouldn’t leave him alone”. As an ex-con, Floyd was subject to multiple arrests for ‘suspicion’. From what I understand suspicion was a catch all to arrest people whether they’d committed a crime or not. They looked like the type who might commit a crime or they associated with ‘known police characters’ or they just hadn’t paid the bribe money to be left alone.

It’s funny how one colossally bad decision can define the remaining periods of your life. King relies on the FBI files about the Kansas City Massacre and gives convincing evidence that yes Floyd did participate. Basically, Verne Miller and two other gunmen attempted to free Frank "Jelly" Nash from federal custody when he was being escorted back to Leavenworth. In the attempt, five men including Nash were mowed down in a torrent of gun fire. Floyd denied having anything to do with the Kansas City Massacre, an event which turned public opinion against depression era bank robbers. In his book King relates credible witnesses such as Vi Mathis (Verne Miller's woman) and James "Jimmy Needles" LaCapra (Kansas City underworld power) who detail Floyd and his sidekick Adam Richetti's participation in the massacre. Excellent evidence although Floyd's family continually denied that he participated in the killing, it looks like he was there.

I picked this book up on Saturday and was done by Sunday afternoon, not because it's short --it's not short on anything. It's excellently researched and perfectly paced. King never gets lost describing characters or events that are immaterial to Floyd. The book is an excellent narrative about Floyd's life and the chapter on his death is great. Even though I knew how Floyd's life ends, King provides a wealth of detail that made the story fresh. He also includes details about the aftermath of Floyd's death and the various reactions. There were a few people who objected to ambushing a man and shooting him in the back…but only a few.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Robbin' Banks & Killin' Cops

Yeah! It's always fun to find a book on someone whose a little off the beaten path and Lawrence DeVol is about as off as the come. So in our roster of bad guys we have a bio on someone who usually merits about a paragraph when people write about the Barker-Karpis Gang. Robert R. Ernst has written a detailed account of Lawrence DeVol's life in the book Robbin' Banks & Killin' Cops.
If you want to read a bio on someone who appears completely unrepentant then this is the book for you. It was a good read, but it does get slow in the middle. But I think that's due more to my being familiar with the Barker-Karpis Gang thank anything else. There's nothing new about the Barkers in this book so it was almost a relief when DeVol's story separates from the gangs. DeVol's final years in Minnesota are very detailed as is his last shoot out. I'm still not sure whether DeVol was insane enough to be institutionalized. Maybe it was men like DeVol who could and did kill whenever he got the chance who made society and the justice system say OK simply being immoral is not crazy. See back when DeVol was captured in St. Paul they judged him 'criminally insane' and he was sentenced to the state mental hospital. Where he, with five other men who were 'criminally insane' broke out. Ernst makes it a point to show that this sentence is what DeVol was hoping for. He knew he'd have an easier time breaking out of the mental institution. Hey what am I doing? I'm not going to give the story away. Let's just that he who lives by the gun is headed for a bloody shootout that probably inspired Hollywood.
Speaking of Hollywood I've decided to wait for the DVD for Public Enemies. I just can't get a definite yes from anyone that the film is worth spending precious weekend hours on. Oh..the FBI and I are beginning our dance again. I sent FOIA requests to the Kansas City, MO offices who promptly sent it to HQ who sent me a letter saying to paraphrase 'we see no reason why you would believe the FBI has files on these individuals. You may appeal....' I send death certificates I sent news clippings FINE!!! FINE!!! Here we go again. You know in my vision of Utopia every file that the FBI has is in order and digitized and easy to access. I love my utopia but since it only exists in my head appeal I will.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Decisions Decisions

OK, I have to decide if I'm going to see the new Public Enemies movie with Johnny Depp. I know it sounds silly but making up my mind about this isn't easy.

On the one hand, I've always wanted to see a movie about Dillinger that was true to the historical facts. You know you really don't have to add anything to this tale. I know 'artistic licence'. UGH! Honestly, if you want to make up dialogue that's one thing but please don't make up events... At least that's my viewpoint.

Then there's Johnny Depp as Dillinger. Well, I think Johnny Depp (he really should start asking to be called John now!) is a wonderful actor. I'm sure he's believable in the role as he's been in all of his roles. I just don't really see him as Dillinger. He's 10 years too old and he lacks the simplicity I always felt Dillinger possessed. I know Depp will bring an intensity to the role, but what about the lightness. In the beginning Dillinger enjoyed his work!

Well, maybe I'll see it this weekend if I get the chance. I usually get to see at least one movie a summer. Haven't seen one yet. If I can just empty my mind of my preconceived notions I might just enjoy the flick!

Friday, June 12, 2009

Murder at the Brown Palace

I had time so I picked up a book on a murder that occurred in Denver around 1911. Murder in the Brown Palace is about Frank Henwood's murder of two men, Tony Von Phul and George E. Copeland. In all honesty this murder case goes down as one of the more stupid examples of misguided chivalry leading to tragedy than any other I've read. Evidently, Henwood killed Von Phul to prevent himself being beaten publicly by the much larger man. Copeland was an innocent bystander. The reason for the animosity between the two men was one Mrs. Isabel Springer the wife of a prominent man. Mrs. Springer had asked for Henwood's assistance in retrieving some love letters from Von Phul. Von Phul was using the letters to black mail Mrs. Springer into continuing to see him. Henwood let his testosterone get the better of him and gave into Von Phul's baiting and refused to drop the matter even after being asked to do so by Mrs. Springer. As payment for his misguided gallantry (and the death of an innocent bystander) Henwood gets to die in prison.

It's a pleasant read, but even this completely unrelated book got me to thinking about Vivian Chase! (can you say obsessed!) I was thinking about Isabel Springer and her privileged existence and the very different circumstances that Vivian was (more likely than not) born into. Although Springer is at least 20 years Vivian's senior I don't think there was that dramatic a difference in the expectations of either woman about marriage. Marriage was your primary occupation and you married the best provider you could get.

In the 1920 Kansas City, MO census Vivian Davis (prior to her marriage to George Chase) is listed as a waitress. I really didn't think too much about that because I didn't fully grasp where that put her in the American "egalitarian" social structure. I've been trying to find ways to learn what her life might have been like and it hasn't been easy. There's loads of material on Jazz Age women but usually from the viewpoint of middle class expectations and experience. Vivian wasn't middle class (although she could fake it). I stumbled upon an e-book Four Years in the Underbrush Adventures of a Working Woman in New York . Reading this provided me with a new perspective of what it would have been to be an unskilled woman working in Vivian's time. Marrying George Chase and becoming a housewife/gun moll is definitely easier. More than likely she ate better too!

Sunday, June 07, 2009


Right now my path doesn't leave me much time for active research. Which means that I have any number of ideas running through my head waiting for a time when I can try to find out if the idea has any merit.

It's not that I can put something else aside to do research I'm dealing with circle of life issues that I can't ignore and remain the person I want to be. So here is a list of things that are going by the wayside for now:

  • John Langan & Vivian's relationship there is always speculation that Langan and Vivian carried on but I've never been able to figure out the truth of the matter. Vivian and Langan's wife Margaret were physically similar; I've always wondered if the idea that Langan and Vivian were together stemmed from confusing the 2 women. Also, if Clarence Sparger did shoot Vivian and she and Langan were an item John Langan seems the type who would have retaliated against Sparger. In fact Langan and Sparger continue partnership until they are captured.
  • I think I know what Vivian was doing for the period after the Cherryvale Robbery newspaper articles have her living with Dorothy Flournoy in Picher, OK until she's hauled in 1928. Since their 2 men were killed each women had a direct share in the haul meaning that Vivian could have lived well for quite awhile if she were smart.
  • Earl McDowell I always wonder if Vivian shot him herself! But I also wonder if he was killed in retaliation for talking to police or if it was an execution ordered as repayment for one of his hot headed acts.
  • Was McDowell in on the Liberty bank job and did Vivian decide to play an active role because of his death. Or did the plans include her from the beginning.
  • George M. Chase's death. Did he die in a car accident in California around 1923 or did he die during a robbery attempt at that time. These days I wonder if Vivian's first? husband wasn't the member of the Flournoy/Mays gang killed on the highway during a bootlegging venture. Or maybe he died in Mexico MO about that time.
  • Vivian's escape from the Liberty jail. She obviously had to have had help. Now did she still have money left over from the robberies for the bribes necessary? Did she go directly to St. Joseph MO after the escape? Did she know the Spargers before that time?
  • Did Clarence Sparger shoot Vivian the way it's described in the FBI files or was it John Langan?

Wednesday, May 13, 2009


OK, every once and a while it’s important to have a little fun. I imagine that Patrick Downey the author of Bad Seeds in the Big Apple: Bandits, Killers, and Chaos in New York City, 1920-40must have had a blast researching his book. Reading it was most enjoyable! The book starts out with a synopsis of Gentleman Gerald Chapman (Yippee- cause I still can’t find my book!) and moves on to other notable criminals who are seldom heard about anymore such as the Whittamore gang. Then there are a number of well known and less well known punks such as Two Gun Crowley who weren’t stand up criminals but who were glorified or vilified in the press. In one respect, the book is sad – it’s sad to have one story after another of boys/men who have barely begun life throw their lives away for a thrill. It’s funny why don’t I consider it sad that someone as bright as Gerald Chapmen chose a life of crime, but some pimply faced adolescent whose only claim to fame is killing policemen in an amazing shootout (Crowley) is really depressing to me. I guess because guys like Chapman at least had a chance to live for a bit. Sure, they made bad choices but they lived the life they chose. A kid like Francis Crowley— I don’t think he was mature enough to have thought through what he did. I’m not trying to excuse him. Everyone has to pay the price of his or her actions and that’s one thing this book demonstrates time and time again. Some of these men deserve to be better known (professionalism has its merits) and the rest of Downey’s subjects make great cautionary tales. All in all a good read for the summer. BUT, don’t buy this book expecting a who’s who of NYC’s criminal world if you want to read about Owney Madden, Legs Diamond, etc. You’ll have to look elsewhere—but then you’d miss reading about all of these interesting screw-ups you never heard of before!

Tuesday, April 07, 2009


Well my idea maybe half-witted but I think it's as good a hunch as anyone has ever had to figuring out Vivian's past. My idea that Vivian's maiden name may not have been Davis has been fun to research. Since Vivian had listed Springfield, Mo as her hometown, I started with some old school records from Greene County Mo. Luckily of the 2 other Vivian's that I found who were an appropriate age one was very easily eliminated. Vivian Gaunt was alive and well with her family in the 1920 census the same year that Vivian Davis is found living in KCMO in January of that year and by April marries George M. Chase.

So I have one other canditate. Vivian Byrne, who became more frustrating with every step (that is so like Vivian Chase)! I find Vivian Byrne in the 1912-1913 school year Springfield attending the Liberty School. I can't find her at all in the 1920 census, but in the 1910 census I find her with her family. She is the adopted daughter of G.W. Byrne and Susannie Byrne. I can find the Missouri death certificate for George Washington Bryne in 1928 but no further record for Susannie. I'm hampered because I am only guessing at Susannie's name. The 1910 census takers penmanship was not neat. I have no success with Susannah, Susan, or Susamie. Was the diminutive Susie used back then?

Well while it's too soon to tell if Vivian Byrne and Vivian Chase are the same people it is promising to me. The FBI and police tried hard to find out about Vivian's background. Maybe the reason that they got nowhere was that there wasn't any family left that she knew about. In some ways this is good in some ways it's frustrating. There's a good chance that I may learn all about another woman who turns out not to be Vivian Chase. Nothing beats a failure but a try. Oh yeah, start praying now because accessing adoption records is going to make getting Harry Pierpont's competency information seem easy.

Saturday, April 04, 2009


I've misplaced my copy of Robert Alcorn's Count of Gramercy Park. "Gentleman "Gerald Chapman has been mentioned in the last couple of books I read.
I guess he was the first 20th century celebrity criminal. My copy is old and moth eaten. I suffer from an allergy to dust mites so I figured I let it air out for awhile. Been over a year now, the book should be readable. If only I knew where it was.

Mr. Chapman was an extraordinary thief who escaped from federal custody (several times); while on the lam he committed a robbery in CT. A policeman was killed. Caught and sentenced to hang, the Gentleman's attorney argued that he could not be executed by a state because technically he was still a ward of the federal prison system. Lepke Buchalter's lawyer argued the same thing. It's surprising that Buchalter's attorney went that route. They hung Chapman and the public certainly liked him a lot more than they did Mr. Buchalter.

If I were to write a book, I think I would write it on Gentleman Gerald or someone like him. My understanding is that Alcorn's book isn't a definitive work. I haven't been able to find another bio on Chapman.

Friday, April 03, 2009

Lepke Buchalter

It's funny after finishing Paul R. Kavieff's biography of Lepke BuchalterThe Life and Times of Lepke Buchalter: America's Most Ruthless Labor Racketeer I can honestly say that I feel no sympathy for Louis Buchalter. I've felt more sympathy for serial killers than I did for Lepke. It stands to reason though. Lepke could not have been who he was if a wuss like me could identify with him! Let's see...started out as your basic pick pocket. Discovered more money in busting heads for or against labor unions. Discovered the real money was in taking over the businesses that he'd worked for. A lot of times the prior owners were killed or maimed when they protested. On the side he was the CEO of Murder, Inc. a group of hit men who specialised in killing people who displeased the mob. He did it all so well, too. In the end, he was taken down by a ruse conceived by Lucky Luciano and eventually paid the ultimate price for ordering the murder of a hapless trucking company owner he had hounded out of his business and never adequately compensated. Never pays to be cheap.
I've got mixed emotions about this book. I'm not sure if my lack of enthusiasm isn't because hoods aren't thieves.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Vivian Again

so far I actually have 2 candidates for my little theory that Vivian was born or raised in Springfield but her maiden name was not Davis...Vivian Gaunt 11 years old in 1911 and Vivian Byrne 12 years old in 1911. Both in Springfield for the right time frame. In fact Vivian Gaunt moved from Springfield around 1917. It may be a wild goose chase but hey...nothing ventured nothing gained.

Monday, March 23, 2009


OK, so for a while now Vivian's kind of had me stumped. It's like the more I learn the less I know. I'd been thinking that maybe Vivian Davis wasn't her maiden name. The marriage certificate to George Chase listed her maiden name as Vivian Davis from KC, MO and her age as 19. I can find Vivian Davis earlier in that year (1920) in the census as a single waitress in KC, MO. When she was booked for her fight with Mrs. Flournoy in 1926 she listed her hometown as Springfield, MO. Now, I've looked for Vivian Davis in Springfield and I found one. But she died in 1920 at 15 years old.

Vivian was most likely born around 1901; unfortunately, birth certificates were not required in MO until 1910. (For now, I'm sticking to MO as a birth place) The MO state archives has a wonderful website with digital vital records and indexes for the period before 1910. But no luck. I'm more than likely going to need to travel for what I'm looking for in KC (school records and such)to determine if there was a Vivian Davis who at school there during the right time period. That is going to have to wait for a while until I can afford to get away. So while I'm waiting to pursue that angle I'll see if I can't find another Vivian in Springfield during the right time frame. I found some old school records online so.... It's just one possibility and it won't hurt. Might not help but it won't hurt.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Starker Big Jack Zelig

Anyone who's followed my blog is aware that I enjoy Rose Keefe's work so it won't come as any surprise that I think The Starker: Big Jack Zelig, the Becker-Rosenthal Case, and the Advent of the Jewish Gangster
is much better than good.

What surprised me was Keefe's ability to bring Zelig to life. While I was excited when I heard about the book (research on a period that deserves a more detailed look), I had my doubts that someone who has been dead for over 90 years and who has NOT been studied in depth could be “brought to life” {clich├ęs exist for a reason}. As much as I love her work, I honestly wondered whether Rose Keefe could pull it off. She did!

“Big Jack Zelig” is only a marginal figure in most crime histories. He rose to prominence as ‘the” NYC Jewish Gang leader in the first decade of the 20th century. Here’s a man who died in 1912 and, in most histories, whose chief claim to fame had been the circumstances of his death. He was murdered by Red Phil Davidson in order to keep him from testifying for the defense in the Herman "Beansy" Rosenthal murder trial. The Rosenthal murder was the crime of the century during this time period. Charles Becker a NYPD Lieutenant was railroaded and executed for the murder. Zelig was to testify in his defense but was killed to prevent his naming the true killers and exonerating Becker.

Keefe introduces readers to Zelig Zvi Lefkowitz more person than myth. A young, bright child, who did not understand why the money that he drew wouldn't ease his family and neighbors' lives, Zelig, was a bright kid from a respectable family who chose to steal (how familiar). In his teens he became an accomplished "gun" as pickpockets were called then. When he was younger he could bring tears to his eyes at will when he was caught to feign hunger and desperate need so his victims would have sympathy for him. Oddly enough, he was only a peripheral member of Monk Eastman's gang, while he was a good thief, Zelig wasn't a standout thug. He actually chickened out on the first murder he agreed to do. A trip to Chicago and a severe beating at the hands of gamblers changed that. He returned to NYC a hardened man who would not back down. Keefe writes about Zelig's world detailing an array of colorful gang members, seedy gamblers, and corrupt politicians with just enough detail to be enjoyable with out ever getting too scholarly.

To me a good historical biography knows what to leave out. The book never stopped being about Big Jack Zelig. It would be easy to let the Herman Rosenthal murder and the Becker trials overwhelm Zelig's story. I could go on and on but in a nutshell Rose Keefe did a lot better than I would have thought possible. She takes her subject a man who has become a marginal figure in the 90 years after his death and lets the reader understand just who Big Jack Zelig is and why some people called him great. This book is a lot better than good. Take a look at Rose Keefe's Zelig web page for more information: http://www.jackzelig.com/

Saturday, January 10, 2009

The Jews of Sing Sing

The Jews of Sing Sing by Ron Arons would have been much more enjoyable if I didn't have prior knowledge about the subject matter. The book is short on analysis. If you don't know anything about historic crime, you might find Arons' book interesting.