GREAT DEPRESSION: THE ERA OF AMERICAN OUTLAWS AND LAWMAN HEROES
It may seem difficult to believe today, but there was an era when violent crime, specifically armed bank robberies, were alarmingly commonplace. Indeed, societal unrest started almost immediately with ‘Prohibition’ in 1920. Anger and unrest that continued to rise with sustained consistency until circa 1935. As a matter of historical fact, the extreme wealth inequity defined by a miniscule percentage of Americans possessing an obscenely high percentage of America’s monetary wealth, was ugly. Frankly, this made many formerly middle class Americans inexperienced, and unfamiliar with sudden abject poverty … literally crazy. Strange, awfully reckless, and certainly illegal behavior could be witnessed all across America. The advent of moral and ethical decline of men (and women) was indicative of extraordinary stress and desperation. There is a reason the idiom ‘desperate times call for desperate actions’…exists. That reason is the Great Depression era in America.
The Great Depression saw Americans lose their homes and resources at a record pace. This was true in all states, counties, cities. It’s okay to say ‘everywhere’. However, the Midwest got hit the hardest and felt the sting of destitution the darndest. Then to add insult to injury, many if not all neighborhood banks started running out of depositors money. Then, it began, as if overnight – brash new kinds of American outlaws from both in and around the Midwest, began racing through the heartland heavily armed … robbing still operating bank after still standing bank, before about to close bank. The most prolific and colorful of these outlaws became real-life anti-heroes and subsequently pop culture legends.
To be sure, many of these outlaw Americans were creations of the Great Depression. This is to say, grievously pissed off with the added benefit of being well armed with weapons and murderous. Violent. Intent. Law enforcement was caught unprepared, understaffed, and outgunned. For their part, many citizens were ambivalent about these bank robbers. After all, these citizens had no love at all for the banks that lost their operating money and life savings in the first place. In fact, many among these newly, horribly poor Americans, outlaws like the dashing John Dillinger, and others with colorful names and cinematic exploits like ‘Pretty Boy Floyd’, and ‘Babyface Nelson’ were entertaining, if not voyeuristically cathartic. To wit, very often popular outlaws were seen as modern Robin Hoods driving big block Ford V-8’s.
On the other hand, there was the harsh reality to reckon for those Americans who lost their money in these bank robberies. The federal bank deposit insurance we know as F.D.I.C – did not yet exist. Which was, of course, another cruel irony of the Great Depression. During a 10 year span between 1922 and 1932, the midwestern portion of the United States, specifically banks and financial institutions were terrorized by violent armed bandits, many with bad intentions … routinely. Remarkably, over the course of a few too many moons, banks all throughout the United States were being strong armed robbed…literarily on a daily basis. It was during this time that the bank robbing American anti-hero was born. Local law enforcement called them a scourge, newsreels made them matinée idols and J. Edgar Hoover’s fledgling F.B.I. called them ‘Public Enemies’. AmericanPop33.com presents a snapshot of 12 outlaws turned pop culture icons while also being America’s ‘Public Enemies.’
THE F.B.I. ‘G -MEN’ ERA BEGINS
DEPRESSION ERA TRADE TOOL – THOMPSON M-1 ‘TOMMY’ ‘SUB MACHINE GUN
Alvin Francis Karpis was also known as ‘Creepy’ and/or ‘Ray’ by his criminal associates. He started building his reputation at the early age of 10 in the state of Kansas, before graduating to the head table of the Barker-Karpis gang in the 1930’s. Part of what set Karpis and his gang (which featured bad-ass grandmother Ma Barker) apart from many, was their willingness to shoot and kill any innocent bystanders who had the misfortune of getting in their way. Although the gang robbed their share of banks, they made far more money in the kidnapping for ransom game. A game that eventually led to Creepy Karpis’s capture in New Orleans, Louisiana on May 1, 1936.
Fred ‘Killer’ Burke is widely known and/or famous for his suspected role in the infamous St. Valentine’s Day Massacre of 1929. Fred was a prolific and violent criminal during the ‘Depression Era’. In 1922 Burke chose St. Louis, Missouri as his personal stomping grounds as he became a member of the notorious gang the ‘Egan’s Rats’. In 1928 Al Capone had a serious Bugs Moran problem and he allegedly asked Killer Burke and his people to be a permanent solution, thus spawning the aforementioned St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. This became a shocking mass murder whose violence and brutality rocked the entire nation. Burke’s 1929 murder of Policeman Charles Skalay officially made him one of Americas most wanted and marked the beginning of the end of his life of crime. His notoriety helped bring him down as an amateur Green City, Missouri gumshoe recognized Burke’s photo in True Detective Magazine, notified law enforcement leading to his arrest.
AMERICAN LIFE CIRCA 1930. NOT A CARTOON. NOT A MOVIE.
Wilbur Underhill, Jr. nicknamed ‘Mad Dog’ was also known as the ‘Tri-State Terror‘. Underhill and his gang terrorized Oklahoma during the late 1920’s and into the 1930’s. After being convicted on murder and armed robbery charges, ‘Mad Dog’ escaped from the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in July of 1931. Throughout his criminal career ‘Mad Dog’ found himself committing crimes and murder for very little pay-off. For example, there was a $52 movie theatre robbery and a $15 gas station robbery, both of which involved murdered persons. His Bailey-Underhill Gang were responsible for dozens of bank robberies in the early 1930’s. He was finally captured in Shawnee, Oklahoma on New Years Eve eve December 30, 1933.
It is a little known fact that Frank ‘Jelly’ Nash is considered in many circles as the most successful armed bank robber in the history of the United States. However, he is widely known for his involvement and subsequent violent death in the notorious ‘Kansas City Massacre’ which was an ill-fated attempt to free him by ‘Pretty Boy’ Floyd and Adam Richetti from police custody. Nash was the reputed mastermind behind over 200 bank robberies using several different gangs before his eventual capture and death in 1933.
DEPRESSION AMERICA: THE 2ND WILD WEST ERA
‘Slim Gray’ Gibson was a notorious ‘Depression Era’ bank robber who ran with Alvin Karpis and the ‘Barker Gang’ during the late 1920s and into the mid 1930s and just like all of the other members of the gang , was eventually captured and/or killed circa 1935 following a 5 year murderous bank robbing spree throughout the midwest United States. After exchanging heated gunfire with FBI agents in Chicago, Slim Gibson was shot and killed in 1935.
Arizona Donnie Barker aka Kate Barker aka Ma Barker was the matriarch of a family of violent criminals, many of whom were members of the ‘Barker Gang’ during the ‘Depression Era’ from which ‘Public Enemies’ were born. Ma Barker hit America’s dusty roads with her sons as a nationwide manhunt for them was closing in fast. Many historians claim that Ma Barker’s portrayal as the leader and/or mastermind of the ‘Barker-Karpis’ gang in films and popular culture is widely exaggerated. Although what isn’t disputed is her predilection for being part of the murderous gang that terrorized the mid-west.
CPD LT. WILLIAM SHOEMACHER …. PRECURSOR TO ‘DIRTY HARRY’
Much like his ‘Depression Era’ bank robbing contemporaries such as ‘Babyface’ Nelson, Charles Arthur ‘Pretty Boy’ Floyd despised his media pandered pop culture nickname. It was this same culture and press coverage that sensationalized his criminal accomplishments during the 1930s. Sensationalism that has cemented Floyd as a notorious popular culture anti-hero of iconic status. Like many people of the era, it could be argued that Floyd was as much a tragic victim of hard-time circumstance as a criminal. In either case, Floyd was a central figure in the Kansas City underworld where he performed a plethora of felonious activities, namely bank robberies, over a period of years back to back. It was at that time that he inherited the nickname ‘Pretty Boy’ for his boyish good looks that belied his danger. He was shot numerous times and killed by police during a gunfight as part of his attempted capture in 1934.
Bonnie & Clyde have become greater than a mere pop culture reference. This twisted albeit loving couple are a fixture in American criminal folklore. Their exploits and perceived love story have taken on a legendary life of their own over the decades. The lion’s share of their exploits circle around a string of smaller robberies to gather resources to satisfy Clyde Darrow’s thirst for revenge against Eastham Prison and it’s guards. In 1932, after a store robbery in Hillsboro, Texas in which the owner was killed by Clyde, Bonnie & Clyde officially went on a run that lasted nearly two years, with the murder of at least thirteen (13) people. Many of these people being law enforcement officers. Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow were eventually found, ambushed, then killed by law enforcement officers in 1934. Following this, some 20 additional members of their family, as well as friends, were arrested, charged and found guilty … for ‘Aiding and Abetting’ of Barrow and Parker while they had been on the run. Regardless of their murderous actions and social defiance, Bonnie & Clyde are considered legends … because it’s a love story.
MAY 23, 1934 – Weapons cache retrieved from BONNIE & CLYDE’S Ford V-8
Unlike the other persons on our list, Alphonse ‘Al’ Capone was not a hands on bank robber. However, he was labeled as a ‘Public Enemy’ during the 1930’s for his remarkably brief, although quite memorable seven (7) year ‘streets soaked with blood’, ‘sidewalks used for murder’ … criminal run as head of the ‘Chicago Outfit’. The irony is that he was actually convicted on tax evasion charges and not for any of the murder and mayhem he was ultimately responsible for over those years. Like many other gangsters, Capone hated his ‘Scarface’ nickname that was a by-product of the scarred left side of his face. In many ways his 1932conviction and imprisonment marked the beginning of the end of the rollicking, criminal laden movement that ruled the prohibition, depression era in the United States.
THAT’S $360,000 IN 2018 MONEY … JUST IN CASE YOU WERE WONDERING
He was born George Francis Barnes Jr. however, he died Machine Gun Kelly. The intervening years of his life were the stuff of criminal legend. Kelly made his bones as a gangster during the prohibition era, around the same time that he inherited his nickname ‘Machine Gun’ which had to do with his predilection for using and love affair with, the ‘Thompson Submachine Gun‘. The state of the art firearm of the era. He became infamous after his brazen kidnapping of oil tycoon Charles F. Urschel in July 1933, a crime for which his gang collected a cool $200,000 in ransom ($3.6 million in 2018 money). Unlike most of his criminal peers of the era Kelly lived long enough to eventually die in prison after his 1933 capture in Memphis, Tennessee. Legend says that his stay in Alcatraz was so severe that inmates referred to him as ‘Pop Gun’. Either way, Kelly has become an American legend.
CPD Keep Vigil at County Jail – Attempts to Break Out Criminals – Commonplace.
If anybody dared call Lester Joseph Gillis aka George ‘Babyface‘ Nelson to his face. He might’ve shot them … to death. It was a nickname that he despised. It is rumored that he would shoot a person in the face, who dared call him that to his face. The safe bet was to call him ‘Jimmy’ if you had to call him anything … at all. Nelson was a prolific bank robber during the 1930s and was known for his ultra-violent brand of robbery. He didn’t really need an excuse to shoot people, especially police. Indeed, it’s been reported that ‘Babyface’ would often search for Police to shoot. Sweet guy? No. No, he was not. Over the course of his career he worked with several crews, including a stint with John Dillinger, a crime legend whom ‘Babyface Nelson’ would often shock with the nature of his maniacal brutality. They helped each other escape from a Crown Point, Indiana prison. Prison escapes were commonplace and occasionally comical occurrences in the 1930’s. ‘Babyface’ killed more law enforcement officers than any other gangster of the era, including three (3) FBI Agents. His violent nature belied his boyish looks and small stature. He met his demise in a shootout with FBI agents in a town called Barrington outside of Chicago. The FBI was out for blood, and Nelson killed two of them prior to his own death. There was no way Nelson was going down without a fight.
When it came to incarceration for criminal activities, John Dillinger often did his best Harry Houdini. Dillinger escaped and/or helped others escape, dozens of jails and prisons across the midwest in the 1930’s. In fact, he and his gang would routinely raid small town police stations and relieve them of their weapons, bullet proof vests and even badges. On numerous occasions Dillinger and his gang either outwitted or straight up out shot the FBI during their attempts to apprehend them. As a result Dillinger’s exploits began to grow in popularity as the newsreels in movie theaters would sensationalize and/or report on him. He became America’s ‘Public Enemy’ and remained so until his death in Chicago outside of the Biograph movie theater in July of 1934. It could be easily argued that beautiful women were Dillinger’s soft spot and/or Achilles heel, as on more than one occasion, including his death, his capture was due to the betrayal of his adored girlfriend Mary Evelyn “Billie” Frechette. For our money John Dillinger is America’s first and most remembered anti-hero celebrity aka ‘Public Enemy #1’……