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American Gangsters: Public Enemies of the 20th Century

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At the turn of the Twentieth Century, a number of societal and economic changes in America led to the rise of wide-spread gang-related crime. Notorious criminals like “Legs” Diamond, Bonnie and Clyde, and John Dillinger rose to fame, often domina

At the turn of the Twentieth Century, a number of societal and economic changes in America led to the rise of wide-spread gang-related crime, especially across the Midwest part of the country.  Lack of work, a prohibition against the sale of alcohol, followed by the devastation of the Great Depression, notorious criminals like “Legs” Diamond, Bonnie and Clyde, and John Dillinger rose to fame, often dominating the headlines, and often deemed modern-day Robin Hoods for their willingness to fight back against what many saw as unjust laws and a government that seemed to have abandoned the American people.  Bootlegging, bank robbery, and crimes sprees that left many lying dead in their wake were common as the FBI’s Most Wanted American gangsters took what they wanted and lived by the gun.  Here are seven such individuals who dominated the 1930’s, each a legend in their own time.

Jack "Legs" Diamond (July 10, 1897--December 18, 1931)

Born Jack Nolan, aka “Gentleman Jack," “Legs” Diamond was a high profile Irish-American gangster from New York City during the Prohibition era.  A bootlegger who made many enemies in the crime world, "Legs" survived a number of attempts on his life between 1916 and 1931, including being shot five times by men working for crime lord “Dutch” Schultz.  Diamond's enemies finally caught up with him, shooting him three times in the back of the head after he had passed out at a hideout on Dove Street in Albany, New York after an all-night party. (Legs’ exploits are perhaps best captured on film in the 1960 The Rise and Fall of “Legs” Diamond, starring Ray Danton.)

Bonnie & Clyde  (October 1, 1910--May 23, 1934/March 24, 1909--May 23, 1934)

Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow were well-known outlaws who traveled with their gang throughout the Central United States during the Great Depression, robbing banks, murdering, and committing numerous other crimes. Just before dawn on May 23, 1934, a posse from Louisiana and Texas concealed themselves in bushes along the highway near Sailes, Louisiana.  In addition to numerous bank robberies, burglaries, and auto thefts, the two are believed to have committed 13 murders.  Clyde was suspected of murdering two police officers in Joplin, Missouri and kidnapping a man and a woman in rural Louisiana; he is known to have murdered a man at Hillsboro, Texas; murdered a sheriff and wounded another in Stringtown, Oklahoma; kidnapped a deputy in Carlsbad, New Mexico; attempted to murder a deputy in Wharton, Texas; committed murder and robbery in Abilene and Sherman, Texas; committed murder in Dallas, Texas; abducted a sheriff and the chief of police in Wellington, Texas; and committed murder in Joplin and Columbia, Missouri. 

In order to catch the two clever criminals, authorites hid in the bushes where the two had been spotted, then as they approached in their car and attempted to escape, the officers opened fire, killing the two instantly.  (Their bullet-riddled car is now a museum piece.)  Now part of American pop culture, their reputations were cemented in American folklore by Arthur Penn's 1967 classic film  Bonnie and Clyde starring Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty.

John Dillinger (June 22, 1903--July 22, 1934)

John Herbert Dillinger, Jr. (the “Gentleman’s Bank Robber”) was an American gangster and bank-robber during the Depression era of America.  From September 1933 until July 1934, Dillinger--whose fame once dominated the newspaper headlines--and his violent gang terrorized the Midwest, killing ten men, wounding seven others, robbing at least a dozen banks and four police arsenals, and staging 3 jail breaks—killing a sheriff during one and wounding two guards in another.  Dillinger was charged with the murder of an East Chicago police officer, but was never convicted. 

At 10:30 p.m. on July 22, 1934, Dillinger, with his two female companions, walked out of a theater and proceeded to head down the busy street.  Waiting nearby was famed FBI lawman Melvin Purvis who lit a cigar as a signal for his men to close in.  Quickly realizing what was happening, Dillinger pulled a pistol from his right pants pocket and ran toward the alley.  But before he could fire, five shots came from three FBI agents, three hitting Dillinger who fell face-first to the pavement.  At 10:50 p.m. John Dillinger was pronounced dead at Alexian Brothers Hospital.  (While numerous films have been made about Dillinger, the 1973 Dillinger, starring Warren Oates, is perhaps the best known.)

“Pretty Boy” Floyd (February 3, 1904--October 22, 1934)

Charles Arthur "Pretty Boy" Floyd was an American bank robber who came to national fame on June 17, 1933, when a mass murder was committed in front of Union Railway Station in Kansas City, Missouri. The killings, which took the lives of four police officers and their prisoner and now known as the "Kansas City Massacre," was the attempt by "Pretty Boy" Floyd and two of his gang members to free their friend, Frank Nash, who was in federal custody.

After serving a four-year prison term beginning in 1925 for a payroll robbery, Floyd joined the ranks of Kansas City, Missouri, gangsters and adopted the machine gun as his professional trademark.  Teaming up with others criminals he is known to have robbed banks in Ohio (where he was captured in 1930, but subsequently escaped), Michigan, and Kentucky.  After nearly being apprehended by the police in 1931, Floyd returned to Oklahoma where he was protected by the locals who called him “the Robin Hood of the Cookson Hills” for his destruction of mortgage papers during bank robberies.  Floyd's criminal activities continued, and following the 1933 Union Station massacre Melvin Purvis and FBI authorities intensified efforts to capture him, finally gunning him down the following year in a field in East Liverpool, Ohio. “Pretty Boy” was the subject of several films including the 1974 TV movie, The Story of Pretty Boy Floyd, starring Martin Sheen.

“Baby Face” Nelson (December 6, 1908--November 27, 1934)

Lester Joseph Gillis, known as George "Baby Face" Nelson, was a bank robber and murderer during  the 1930s.  “Baby Face,” a nickname given to him due to his kid-like appearance and small stature, made his bones by partnering with John Dillinger, helping him escape from prison in the now famous "wooden pistol" escape, and was subsequently give the dubious distinction of being Public Enemy # 1.

"Baby Face" is responsible for the murder of numerous people (more than can be documented), and has the unique distinction of having killed more FBI agents while in the line of duty than any other single American citizen.  Nelson, who was shot and killed by FBI agents during a shootout known as "The Battle of Barrington” has been the subject of several films, most notably the 1957 Baby Face Nelson, starring Mickey Rooney.

“Ma” Barker (October 8, 1873--January 16, 1935)

Kate "Ma" Barker was an American gangster of the "Public Enemy” era whose notorious exploits, part fact, part myth, focus largely around the criminal activities of her four sons who committed virtually every crime on the books--from robbery to murder--and formed the notorious Karpis-Barker Gang.  While “Ma” was not the mastermind behind the criminal activities that spanned over 25 years, she undoubtedly took part in many of the gang’s activities, and had a loyalty to her sons that superseded the law. 

On the morning of January 16, 1935, FBI agents surrounded the isolated cottage at Lake Weir in Oklawaha, Florida where "Ma" and the gang were holed-up, and ordered her to surrender.  According to FBI statements, it was Kate’s son Fred who opened fire, setting off an intense fire fight during which both he and his mother were killed by federal agents. The so-called “villainous deeds” of Kate “Ma” Barker and her violent sons are probably known to more people around the world due to the Roger Corman cult classic Bloody Mama starring Shelley Winters.

“Dutch (The Dutchman) Schultz” (August 6, 1902--October 23, 1935)

Born Arthur Flegenheimer, “Dutch” Schultz was a New York City Jewish American gangster of the 1920s and 1930s who made his fortune in organized crime activities such as bootlegging and gambling.  With an infamously ruthless and violent temper, Schultz worked his way up the gangland ladder in the high-crime streets of the Bronx from an early age.  With a long and varied criminal history, “Dutch” was one of the most well known criminals of his time, and was declared Public Enemy #1 by the FBI.  Known for wearing his pistol under his vest, tucked inside his pants up against his belly, (as well as for carrying a switchblade), Dutch was shot in the men’s room of the Palace Chophouse at 12 East Park St. in Newark, New Jersey--which he used as his headquarters--having left his gun on the restaurant table. (Many know Schultz by Dustin Hoffman’s portrayal in the 1991 film, Billy Bathgate.)










Images via wikipedia and FBI/profiles


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