Gangsters: They Don't Make 'Em Like They Used To

Getting sucked into television marathons happens more than I'd like to admit. America's Next Top Model will suck me in every time if I don't have a really good reason to be pulled away from the T.V. But a couple of weekends ago, I had so many marathons to choose from I didn't know what to do with myself. I ended up watching bits and pieces of What Not to Wear, The Twilight Zone, Most Evil and something on the History Channel about Depression-era gangsters. I know! I should have been outside. But in my defense, it was a very nasty, humid weekend. At least a couple of the shows were educational - I found the gangsters documentary oddly fascinating, and thought that you guys would too. Here's what I learned:

Bonnie and Clyde

America was kind of in love with many of the gangsters of the era – times were really rough and they viewed the robbers as sticking it to the Man. Bonnie and Clyde were no exception. They were an unlikely duo, really. Bonnie was an honor roll student who won literary arts contests. Clyde, on the other hand, had a history of running from police, cracking safes and stealing cars. How the mismatched pair met isn't totally clear. Legend says she was a waitress and Clyde met her at the diner; another story says Bonnie was staying with a friend when Clyde dropped by the friend's house. Some more factoids:

• Interviews with the surviving gang members imply Bonnie never fired a gun.
• The gang killed a total of 13 people, including nine police officers.
• Bonnie and Clyde finally met their match on May 23, 1934, when six police officers ambushed them and shot about 130 rounds into the car.
• John Dillinger and Pretty Boy Floyd reportedly sent flowers to the funeral home.
• When the movie Bonnie and Clyde was made, Warren Beatty consulted Blanche Barrow (Clyde's sister-in-law and a member of the gang) and eventually became good friends with her. She felt that she was portrayed as "a screaming horse's ass" in the movie.
• Clyde may have sent a letter to the Ford Motor Company thanking them for making such a "dandy car". They used it in advertisements, but it was never authenticated. Snopes classifies it as "undetermined".

John Dillinger

Dillinger outlasted Bonnie and Clyde by about two months – he met his maker on July 22, 1934. He was another criminal who somehow got the reputation for being a modern-day Robin Hood. He was arrested for robbing a grocer in Mooresville, Indiana, and served eight-and-a-half years in prison. He took advantage of the situation to learn all he could from the men incarcerated there and began planning his robberies. When he was released in 1934, he robbed a bank almost immediately. His legendary reign was actually pretty short – from September, 1933 until his death in July, 1934. During this time he and his gang killed three men, wounded seven, stole about $5 million (adjusted for inflation) and executed three jail breaks. More dirt on Dillinger:

• Dillinger enlisted in the Navy but deserted after only a few months.
• He was quite creative in his methods – one of his most famous exploits was pretending to be a sales rep for a company selling bank alarm systems and waltzed right into the vault. Another time, he and his gang pretended to be a film crew scouting out locations for a bank robbery scene.
• He once escaped from jail by carving a fake gun out of soap or wood and blackening it with shoe polish.
• On his last day alive, he saw a gangster flick, Manhattan Melodrama, at the Biograph Theater in Chicago. On the way out of the theater, Dillinger was shot three times by FBI agents who had been tipped off by Anna Sage, one of the ladies accompanying him to the theater.
• Much like Elvis and Andy Kaufman, some people think Dillinger faked his death and lived a fruitful life long after his body double was put on ice. The corpse apparently had brown eyes whereas Dillinger supposedly had grey; the body showed signs of a childhood illness that Dillinger never had and also showed a heart condition that the extremely active gangster probably wouldn't have had. However, the body was identified by Dillinger's sister, who said she knew it was him from a scar on his leg that he had gotten as a kid. Hmm.
• There is an urban legend that John Dillinger's penis is at the Smithsonian. Snopes says no way.
• Other rumors have Dillinger sending J. Edgar Hoover, who was obsessed with nabbing him, Christmas cards and collect phone calls. After his death, Hoover kept a mini-museum of Dillinger artifacts, including the glasses, hat, gun and pocket change he had on him when he died.

Baby Face Nelson

For a little guy (he was only 5'3") with a sweet face, Baby Face Nelson sure was tough. His real name was Lester M. Gillis and he hated his childish nickname. By his early teens, he already had a reputation as a car thief. But things would get much worse:

• Baby Face worked for Al Capone for a while, but had to be let go because Capone couldn't control him.
• He was definitely not one of the feel-good gangsters like Bonnie and Clyde and John Dillinger. He had no qualms about shooting innocent bystanders. He killed at least 12 police officers.
• He often hauled his wife and kids along with him when on the lam.
• After Dillinger died, Baby Face was Public Enemy Number One.
• He actively "hunted" police and feds. He kept a list of license plates and chased down cars when he recognized the plates. This was how he met his end – after chasing down one such vehicle on November 17, 1934, he was shot 17 times. He made it back to the car after being shot but died shortly thereafter. His wife wrapped him up in a blanket and left him in a ditch in front of St. Peter Catholic Cemetery in Skokie, Illinois.

Pretty Boy Floyd

When Pretty Boy Floyd and Baby Face Nelson got together, I bet one of the conversation topic was nicknames. They both loathed their monikers with a passion. Charles Arthur Floyd was a pretty typical guy from Adairsville, Georgia. He got married at the age of 17 and most reports say he got into the lift of crime because he needed to pay the bills. His first known robbery was $3.50 in pennies from a local post office in 1922. Here are the details about the rest of his exploits:
• After his first stint in prison for a payroll robbery, he vowed he would never see the inside of a prison again.
• He would hide out near his hometown because the locals protected him from the law. Some say it's because they hated the banks, which were foreclosing on their farms. Others say he bribed them. Either way, the method worked.
• 1934 was a bad year for gangsters. On October 18th of that year, Pretty Boy and his gang hit a telephone pole while driving in a heavy fog. The car wouldn't run after that. The gang sent their girls into town to get a wrecker and waited in a ditch for them to return, but not before they were spotted. The police were informed that a couple of suspicious men in suits were lying in a ditch. Ultimately, there was a shootout and Pretty Boy fled into the woods. He was able to hide out for a few days by eating fruit and traveling on foot, but on October 22nd he was spotted hitching a ride and was shot multiple times.
• When he realized he was shot, he supposedly said, "I'm done for; you've hit me twice."
• Somewhere between 20,000 and 40,000 people attended his funeral.
• You can see Pretty Boy's death mask in East Liverpool, Ohio. It's hanging over the washer and dryer at the Sturgis House Bed and Breakfast. Sturgis House used to be the Sturgis Funeral Home, and the basement that houses the washer and dryer used to be the morgue where Pretty Boy was embalmed.

Machine Gun Kelly

No one would have suspected that George Kelly Barnes would have turned to a live of crime – he was born into a very wealthy family from Memphis and had a quiet, "normal" childhood. He even went to Mississippi State University in 1917 for agriculture. But this is where things went awry. He flunked out, so his dad stopped giving him money. Kelly became a bootlegger and had some encounters with the local police, so he moved and changed his name to George R. Kelly. His first arrest was in Tulsa, Oklahoma, for smuggling liquor onto an Indian Reservation and things went downhill from there:

• He served time in Leavenworth Penitentiary for his first arrest but was released on good behavior.
• His second wife, Kathryn Thorne, is the one who bought Kelly his first machine gun and possibly gave him the Machine Gun nickname.
• His undoing was when he and his gang kidnapped Charles Urschel, a rich man living in Oklahoma City. The gang demanded $200,000 in ransom and released Urschel when they received it. Urschel was able to help police locate one of Machine Gun Kelly's accomplices and eventually they found Kelly himself.
• Machine Gun Kelly accidentally peed on a police officer when he was arrested for the kidnapping.
• He served as an altar boy at the chapel at Alcatraz when he was incarcerated there. He also received the nickname "Pop Gun Kelly" because he wasn't nearly as tough as he was made out to be.
• He died at Leavenworth on July 18, 1954, at the age of 59.

Al Capone

Finally, no list of Prohibition Era gangsters is complete without Alphonse Capone. He was one of nine Capone kids, so it probably wasn't too hard for him to escape attention and get into mischief. He was born in Brooklyn and lived in Canada briefly before the Capones moved back to Brooklyn, this time to the Park Slope area. He left school at 14 because he punched a teacher, which was the first of many indiscretions:

• Capone was a member of a number of gangs in his youth, including the Junior Forty Thieves, the Five Points Juniors and then the Five Points Gang.
• As a bouncer at a Brooklyn club, he got in a fight with a man who slashed his face three times, giving him the scars that would earn him his Scarface nickname. He later hired the guy as a bodyguard.
• His friends called him "Snorky".
• His retreats and hideouts included Brookfield, Wisconsin; Saint Paul, Minnesota; Olean, New York; Terre Haute, Indiana; Dubuque, Iowa; Hot Springs, Arkansas; Johnson City, Tennessee; Lansing, Michigan; and Palm Island, Florida. Tunnels found under the city of Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, are said to have been another hideout of Capone's.
• After his Valentine's Day Massacre failed to kill rival Bugs Moran, Capone had himself put in prison in Philadelphia for a year to avoid any of Moran's assassination attempts. This was smart of him, because on the anniversary of the Massacre, one of the men involved was gunned down at a bowling alley and two others disappeared.
• Capone was famously brought down for tax evasion, not bootlegging or murders or any of his other numerous crimes. He received 11 years in federal prison, one year in the county jail and six months
• In Chicago, he was one of the first to shake Charles Lindbergh's hand after his successful transatlantic flight.
• He tried to position himself as a community leader and opened up soup kitchens after the Great Depression. He also set up a program to provide milk daily for Chicago kids in school. He would also buy large blocks of tickets when circuses and rodeos were in town and distribute them to kids from low-income areas of town.
• He could often be found watching White Sox and Cubs games from box seats, giving autographs to baseball players.
• He was stabbed in the back in prison by James Lucas, a bank robber from Texas. He spent a week in the hospital recovering. This was just one of multiple murder attempts – others included lye in his coffee and an attack as he went to the dentist.
• He died of cardiac arrest (from complications of syphilis) on January 25, 1947.

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My great great uncle was pretty boy floyd. My grandfathers name is Charles Floyd, it must have been passed down from generations. I have seen younger pictures of my grandfather and the resemblence is amazing. As a young kid my grandpa would say Pretty Boy Floyd and I looked alike. I am very excited to see the new movie and to be able to see parts of his life re-inacted. To be blood related to a infamous gang member is, well let me put it this way hes my hero.
Christopher. N. Ferrell
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i wanna know if gangsters in these modern times act like al capone use to act? i have this 5 page paper to write about just that. if yall got any info please comment back ill appreciate it THANKS
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Not Another Jake: I'm Italian as hell and I've never seen anything like that.

However I must say it's probably good that the police stayed out of it as it was probably a drunken thing and not anything someone would want to see any sort of relative go to prison over. Hope you guys can work it out, keep it in the family!
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On my Italian side, I have a cousin (not really, but second and third cousins are still cousins in my family) who shot another cousin in an argument over borrowing a car. He didn't die and they managed to keep the police out of it, but still, not funny. Gang and mafia style life is praised far too much by Hollywood. It is NOT cool. Glorifying murderers doesn't help anyone. I love my heritage, but I would love it more if it were a tad less ... shady.
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