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Public Enemy #1 | Article

Gangsters During the Depression

William J. Helmer

Although the term "gangster" is used for any criminal from the 1920s or 30s that operated in a group, it refers to two different breeds.

Mobsters belonged to organized crime rings. They generally lived in large cities, and most were immigrants, or children of immigrants. Many of these criminal gangs were protected by urban politicians and police. While the Italian mafia was the largest and most powerful, other ethnic groups also had organized crime rings, most notably Jews and the Irish. While the different groups certainly competed with each other, by the early 1930s they are starting to collaborate more closely because public opposition to gang violence makes them so conspicuous. 

Outlaws typically came from rural areas in the Midwest, Southwest, or the West. According to FBI Special Agent Melvin Purvis, "Most of the top-flight hoodlums of the Middle West were 100-per-cent American boys with no foreign background whatsoever." The term "outlaw" applied to robbers, kidnappers, or occasionally, murderers. They followed in the tradition of Western outlaws such as Jesse James, except that after a hold-up, they used cars instead of horses for their getaway. Hence they were also called "auto bandits" or desperadoes.

Mobsters earned their money by providing illegal goods and services. They were most famous for bootlegging, but also managed gambling, prostitution, and abortion. While outlaws operated independently of mobsters, they did rely on organized gangs for the tools of the trade -- firearms, bulletproof vests, and armored cars. They could use the organized rings to pay for hide-outs and police protection. They could also arrange for legal assistance or medical care. Whether outlaws were wounded in a gunfight or simply became ill, they risked capture by going to an ordinary doctor. For an exorbitant fee, an underworld doctor would treat them and not notify the authorities. The outlaws sometimes took on special jobs for the criminal rings, like murdering an enemy, that a particular organization wanted done but didn't want to take the blame for. 

The outlaws were relatively democratic. Each gang member received a share of the loot in proportion to the level of participation. Mobsters, on the other hand, belonged to a hierarchical structure organized like a corporation — hence the name "syndicate." The Chicago Syndicate was the country's largest and most powerful organized crime operation. Its chief, Al Capone, controlled all underworld operations in the Chicago area. Capone lived so lavishly and openly that Chicago newspapers wrote about him in their gossip columns. He cultivated good public relations by donating money to charity, and opening soup kitchens during the Depression. 

Throughout the 1920s mobsters engaged in street battles over issues of control. Gang warfare reached its climax in the St. Valentine's Day Massacre. On February 14, 1929, seven men were killed in a Chicago garage by five unknown men wearing police uniforms. Witnesses were unable to establish their identity, and the coroner's jury did not find sufficient evidence to prosecute anyone. Al Capone was blamed for the Massacre, even though he was in Florida at the time. To this day, the perpetrators' identity remains a mystery.

The St. Valentine's Day Massacre shocked the American public more than any previous street violence, because it resembled an execution. People blamed Prohibition for this violence, and began to favor its repeal.

Meanwhile, outlaws were successfully robbing banks throughout the Midwest. Besides the automobile, they were assisted by new hard-surfaced highways, and the Rand-McNally Road Atlas, which first came out in 1924. Robberies were easier in the Midwest than other parts of the country because small Midwestern towns usually lacked adequate police forces. The long distances between towns also made getaways feasible. 

Due to the expansion of newspaper wire services and the radio, bank robberies could become national news instantaneously. Criminals became national celebrities, who symbolized the public's lack of faith in society's crumbling institutions. While the public found their notoriety exciting, the government did not. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover targeted them for pursuit. By 1935, all the famous outlaws had been killed or captured by FBI special agents.

Fearing the end of Prohibition, mafia leaders held their first national conference from May 13-15, 1929, in Atlantic City, New Jersey. They solidified the networks formed through bootlegging to become national in scope. Mobsters expanded their markets to racketeering and legitimate enterprises. Violence became more discreet, as street battles became a thing of the past. Ironically, while the syndicates became less visible in American society, their power increased dramatically.

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