Showing posts with label Ellen Poulsen. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Ellen Poulsen. Show all posts

07 January 2018

Indiana's Policewomen in the Dillinger Saga

Stories about cops and robbers usually feature -- you guessed it, the robber!  In the Great Depression era of the desperado, two women of  state law enforcement made their own imprint.  They each had problems with their public image.  One survived the era with her career intact.  The other was forced into early retirement.

In the days predating large-scale enrollment of women in policing, there was little upon which to base an opinion.  Female police officers generated reactions ranging from the good, the bad, to the ugly -- mostly the bad and the ugly.  Take for example these two women of Indiana.  Both served their official duties during the zenith of the Midwest Crime Wave, facing the boldest desperadoes of the time.  Both of these women stepped into positions that required bravery and a revolutionary, trail-blazing attitude.

Fingerprint expert Marie Grott of the Indiana State Police and Sheriff Lillian Holley of Lake County, stood out among the state police of the John Dillinger man-hunting brigade.   


At the height of the Midwest Crime Wave of 1933-1935, these two women police officers were at ground zero, the matrix of the hunt for Dillinger.   It was an interstate, embattled officialdom, a backstabbing place where officials turned on each other, talked behind each other's back, and sold each other out.  And those were the men -- Captain Matt Leach of Indiana, Inspector Yendes of Dayton, Chief Michael Morrissey of Indianapolis, to name but a few.

 Indiana State Police fingerprint expert Marie Grott worked out of Indianapolis under Captain Matt Leach.  The press flirted with "Miss Grott."  The papers described her as "comely" (dictionary, anyone?)


During the Depression-challenged job market, a police woman in Indiana could bring home the bacon to fry before her eight-to-four shift.  Indiana women who were candidates for jobs, and who happened to know the right politician, were hired.  They got state jobs with responsibility and titles.  This was the result of political patronage; most of the civil service employees in the 1930s Midwest were there because they were connected to people under Governor Paul V. McNutt. 1

Both Marie Grott and Lillian Holly were maligned in the sexist press in the days before "sexist" was even a thing.  Both were hammered and elevated at the same time.  The result of this character assassination was more deadly for Holley than for Grott.

Marie Grott is best known to Dillinger aficionados as having accompanied Terror Gang moll Mary Kinder out of Tucson, Arizona, where she had been arrested with the gang.   Grott was overqualified for the job of impromptu prison matron.  Brought to Tucson with Indiana State Police (ISP) Captain Matt Leach, Grott took charge of Mary Kinder as she was extradited from Tucson to Indianapolis to undergo a grand jury investigation stemming from her alleged role in the notorious multi-prisoner escape from the Indiana State Penitentiary at Michigan City. 2

Leach included Grott in his entourage for several reasons.  As an inner-circle member of the ISP team close to Matt Leach, Grott was trusted.  Taking custody of Mary Kinder was anticipated as an act that would be wrought with hysteria.  Kinder was to be separated from her lover, Dillinger associate Harry "Pete" Pierpont.  Mary Kinder and Pierpont nursed hatred for Matt Leach, whom they blamed for not letting them get married while in custody. 3

Grott was a rising star in the department, a fingerprint expert who would soon head the Bureau of Criminal Identification.  In Tucson, Grott kept a poker face for photographers.  No doubt, the officer was aware that one false move, in this case a smile, would ruin the credibility she was trying to establish in her career.  As a result of her intuitive knowledge of the shark tank she inhabited, she survived the era with a strong reputation.  Grott managed her high-profile moments carefully, and stayed out of the limelight whenever possible.

Grott was injured in 1933 near Michigan City while enroute with Leach to question incarcerated Dillinger gang member Ed Shouse.  While driving alone in a car with the married Matt Leach, Grott's status as a single women was somehow overlooked by the press.  The other subject of this blog, Sheriff Lillian Holley, was not as fortunate. 4

While Marie Grott was patronized, Lillian Holley was vilified.

Holly is remembered as the "lady sheriff" who had charge of the Crown Point facility when Dillinger blazed out with a wooden gun.   A year before the escape, Holley had been assigned the job of sheriff after her husband, Roy, died in the line of duty.  She would eventually be skewered as holding a job that was "too tough for a woman."

Holley was caught in the crossfire of the sensational "wooden gun" Crown Point, Indiana, escape.  The press coverage that destroyed her reputation was the result of ignorance on the part of reporters as to the true machinations behind the escape.  Add to this a desire to tap into Depression-era America's inability to accept females in policing.  While the pundits blamed Holley, the true culprits -- the politicians, prison employees and judicial officials who were involved in the bribery conspiracy -- walked away from the grand jury investigation like a  walk in the park.  It did not help Holley that she, as the sheriff, was featured next to prosecutor Robert Estill as he posed with his arm around Dillinger. She smiled and appeared to be having a good time.  It was a moment that would prove to be her undoing. 5  Shortly after the escape, the press editorialized that Dillinger flew the coop because a women was in charge. 

Lillian Holley's nephew, Carroll Holley, floated around like Estill's ghost during the period that his aunt was pilloried.   Young Holley is photographed numerous times with Estill (in photo above, behind Estill to the left).  Young Holley as the deputy sheriff, took over for his aunt shortly after the escape.  Somehow, young Holley escaped the tag of holding a job that was too tough for the nephew of the lady sheriff.   It seems in hindsight that Lillian Holley took a fall in order to allow the job to remain in her family, that young Holley would be a placeholder to allow the minions of Robert Estill to maintain control in Crown Point/Lake County.

Lillian Holley got no support from news reporters who could have added a positive voice.  Dillinger-scoop staff writers for the Indianapolis Times, in particular Basil Gallagher and William "Tubby" Toms, did not step up and use the power of their pens to vindicate Holley.  While Toms took his material from ISP Captain Matt Leach, Gallagher often wrote independent, expository features.  It was Gallagher who first labeled Dillinger gang moll Mary Kinder as the "Queen of the Gun Molls."  Had he done research into the background and experience of Lillian Holley, Gallahger would have learned some impressive facts.

Holly had been in charge of  James "Fur" Sammons for a time prior to the Dillinger debacle.  Lake County Prosecutor Robert Estill was accused by East Chicago, Indiana reporters as needing to get the powerful Sammons out of the vice and gambling districts of Gary, where he posed a threat to the existing mob structure.  Estill rushed the Chicago gangster's commitment to prison. 6

Sammons was an expert machine gunner with a rap sheet that included rape of a young girl, murder during a robbery and sentencing to life imprisonment which was commuted to a parole in 1923. 7

The fall of 1933 conviction of Sammons had been a victory for both Holley and Estill.  In the frantic efforts to protect her good name after Dillinger's escape, Holley reminded the public that she had presided over custody of Sammons, who was a far greater threat to society than Dillinger. 8

"Mrs. Lillian Holley" retired from Lake County politics shortly after the escape, and her nephew, Carroll Holley took her place.

"Miss Marie Grott" settled by 1935 into to an administrative post within the Indianapolis State Police.  That year, she became the first woman to head the Indiana Criminal Investigation Bureau. The surrounding publicity celebrated her appointment by referring to her as a "good-looking blonde." 9





"Because of her excellent work in the Dillinger and other important criminal cases, Miss Marie Grott, comely fingerprint expert, has been promoted to head the criminal identification bureau pf the Indiana State Police.  Miss Grott has herself taken 139,000 fingerprints, and is adding to her files at the rate of 1,500 per month through exchanges with other states and the Department of Justice." 









Notes:

1.  Ellen Poulsen and Lori Hyde, Chasing Dillinger:  Indiana's Matt Leach Collides with the FBI, McFarland Publications, Exposit Imprint, to be released in 2018.

2.  Basil Gallagher, "City's Queen of the Gun Moll Call Master Strategist of Terrorists," Indianapolis Times, February 1934; "Holmes Out as Kinder Counsel," Indianapolis Times, February 3, 1934.

3.  Poulsen and Hyde, Chasing Dillinger.

4.  "Marie Grott Seriously Hurt in Auto Crackup; Leach Also is Injured," The Indianapolis News, February 3, 1934.

5.  "Indiana Desperado No. 1 Now Lodged in Jail of Mrs. Sheriff Holley," Indianapolis News, Jannuray 31, 193; "Woman Sheriff Unafraid as Killer Joins her Family," misc. news article.

6.  Poulsen and Hyde, Chasing Dillinger.

7.  John J. Binder, Al Capone's Beer Wars:  A Complete History of Organized Crime in Chicago During Prohibition, Prometheus Books, 2017, 96, 97.

8.  Ellen Poulsen, Don't Call Us Molls:  Women of the John Dillinger Gang, Clinton Cook Publishing Corp., 2002, 140.

9.  The Indianapolis News, September 14, 1935; "G-Woman in the U.S. Now",:Daily Mirror, September 14, 1935.

Ellen Poulsen is the author of Don't Call Us Molls:  Women of the John Dillinger Gang; The Case Against Lucky Luciano:  New York's Most Sensational Vice Trial; and co-author of the forthcoming Chasing Dillinger:  Indiana's Matt Leach Collides with the FBI.  She lectures on the 1930s gangster era and has appeared on numerous TV documentaries, including AMC's The Making of the Mob.  She has started work on a book examining the 1934 New York State conviction and execution of accused husband "murderess" Anna Antonio.

www.dillingerswomen.com
www.lucianotrial1936.com










12 September 2017

Eighty Years Ago in F.B.I. History - The Firing of Indiana State Police Captain Matt Leach

He was livin' in the U.S.A., as the song title goes.  Because of his privileged status as a law enforcement officer in the democracy called the United States of America, when he was found to be guilty of wrongdoing, he was simply fired.  Across the universe, in 1937 Stalin's Soviet Russia, officials such as Leach coming up against authority would be deemed enemies of the State, would disappear into Siberia for twenty years of forced labor and/or solitary confinement, or more likely be executed.  Period.  But Leach got an American slap on the wrist, all things considered, when he was fired from his post as Captain of the Indiana State Police at the behest of the F.B.I.
The most recognized photo of Matt Leach

The Indianapolis field agents of the F.B.I. had tried for the previous four years to work with Captain Leach on cases as diverse as John Dillinger, Al Brady of "The New Dillinger Gang," and the notorious "Head and Hands" murder/amputation case that had graced the State of Indiana with tabloid realism gritty enough to rival the New York Daily News.

When the F.B.I. agents grew tired of Leach, they called him an obstructionist and demanded his dismissal. Through relationships garnered with public officials on the Indiana State Police Board, Indianapolis field agents got Leach publicly disgraced.  

Before Captain Matt Leach became a statistic as having had his state policing career terminated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, he had tried to cooperate with the special agents working in Indianapolis  and Chicago.  Leach was riding high on the crest of the Dillinger campaign when, in 1934, the agents of Justice Department (as the F.B.I. was called before 1935), walked into his Indianapolis office and leafed through his files.  They then took Leach's files, compiled through extensive use of informants and material garnered from a private investigator named Forrest Huntington, into their own widely distributed memos which were written under their own names.  After the F.B.I. entered the Dillinger case, Leach was pushed on the sidelines and hushed by his own people -- notably Governor Paul V. McNutt and Safety Director Al Feeney, both of whom had sponsored Leach up from his humble beginnings as a Serbian immigrant and volunteer National Guardsman.
Indiana Governor Paul V. McNutt, 1933-1936


An immigrant, Leach rose from his origins as the child who spoke English to the grocer for his Serbian mother, a boy beaten by his drunken father until he one day fought back, a young restless man who joined the National Guard while still underage and who fought in the Mexican Conflict and the First World War.  Later, his name was linked with outlaw JohhDillinger.




John Dillinger
Leach was "Dillinger's Nemesis," the lawman most hated by Dillinger.  Leach was equally hated by Dillinger's friend and gang member, Harry "Pete" Pierpont.  The Dillinger "Trigger Man" once tried to shoot Leach, before he was talked out of this would-be capital crime.
Dillinger Trigger Man Harry Pierpont
On the day that he was fired on September 4, 1937, Leach demanded a hearing even though this would have meant negative publicity in his darkest hour.  The charges that the F.B.I. filed against him were lengthy and repetitive.  Most notably, he'd given information to the newspapers that amounted to police secrets in the Brady Gang case.  His patron, Governor McNutt, was no longer in office by 1937 and he had no backers.

It was clear he'd lost his balance, obvious that he was on a downward spiral that had started back in 1933 with his unpopular reputation among the hardened, streetwise investigators and back alley cops in East Chicago and Indiana Harbor and Chief Michael Morrissey in Indianapolis.  Yet he was liked and respected in Chicago by Captain John Stege -- and both Stege and Leach were kept in the dark by the F.B.I. on the night Dillinger was killed at the Biograph Theater in Chicago's North Side.


The federal agents said he was unprofessional, guilty of conduct unbecoming an officer.  How that
Foreground, The Indiana Statehouse
must have hurt Captain Matt Leach!  His hearing, held in the Indiana Statehouse in the presence of bored office workers on a break, amounted to nothing more than a kangaroo court.  He was given a day to defend himself for his conduct going back over four years.

Indiana field agents testified against Leach and the conclusion was that his firing was upheld.
 








From there he went into an abyss, depressed and unemployed until finding work as a salesman. He signed up for more military service and served in World War II.  Not
Mat Leach was featured almost daily in news reporting in 1934.
to make a hero of the man.  He was controversial and particularly disliked by factions around Indiana for going after publicity in a world where a real cop always laid low.

Yet he revolutionized the way the public viewed police officers.  He dressed neatly, with perfectly folded handkerchief, collar and tie, his every detail flawless.  He was a self-educated student of the criminal mind and used interrogation techniques which relied heavily on his playing the good cop verses the heavy-handed, third degree methods in place at the time.






Matt Leach lived until June of 1955, when he was killed on the Pennsylvania Turnpike in a horrendous accident which claimed the lives of himself, his wife Mary, and two other people, one of whom was pregnant.  He and his wife were on the way home from New York on a search for a ghost writer and/or publisher for the book he planned to write on Dillinger.    
Make and Model of the other car involved in the accident, which sent Leach and his wife thirty feet down a roadside ravine.  

There are many myths and rumors associated with Matt Leach.  Here is a sample:

True or False:  Outlaw John Dillinger once sent Leach abook entitled, "How to be a Detective."
Ans.:  False.  The book, actually a pamphlet, was sent to Leach by an Indiana news reporter who admitted to sending it to Leach in January of 1934.

Ellen Poulsen, Author, Don't Call Us Molls:  Women of the John Dillinger Gang, and The Case Against Lucky Luciano:  New York's Most Sensational Vice Trial.  

Co-author, with Lori Hyde, of a soon to be released biography of Captain Matt Leach:  Chasing Dillinger:  Indiana's Matt Leach Collides with the F.B.I.

Lecturer, avid researcher and television commentator on the crime wave of the 1930s.




@Ellen Poulsen on FaceBook


  

    

15 August 2017

Meyer Lansky: Opponent of the American Nazi Bund

Meyer Lansky was a mobster who today is known for his longevity and intensity.

A taciturn man, Meyer Lansky nevertheless put his money where his mouth was in the 1930s, when he challenged the rise of United States-based Nazism and Fascism.  To Lansky, a Jewish man, this was personal.

Lansky's attempts to send in roughnecks to disrupt and prevent the meetings of the German-American Bund are documented in at least two published works.  These stories are familiar to gangster buffs.  His commitment to stopping the growth of Nazism in America was transmitted through columnist Walter Winchell and within unpublished interviews with author Paul Sann that Lansky gave later in his life.

He is credited with creating at least one riot that prevented the leader of the German American Bund, Fritz Kuhn, and his wife, Elsa, from speaking at a Nazi-Fascist event on New York's Upper East Side in the 1930s.

Lanski used his muscle and might to fight the bigotry of the German-American Bund.  Its members stood to "unite the various forces of intolerance, racial hatred, Nazism and Fascism in the United States," according to a congressional report into Un-American Propaganda activities which was conducted in 1940.




The face of the Bund was undoutedly Fritz Kuhn.  During his rise to power in the thirties, Kuhn raised $3,000 and presented it to Adolph Hitler in 1936.  Kuhn would be defeated via imprisonment by 1939.  Yet during his few short years in the spotlight, Kuhn sponsored many extremist Nazi and Fascist groups, and encouraged them to attend his meetings. During the height of his power, Kuhn controlled at least seventy "posts," or units of the Bund.  These groups had deceptive names which evoked a religious component -- the "Christian Front," and the "Social Justice Society" to name two.  While hiding behind this fraudulent labeling, Kuhn led his factions and would mislabel his organization as "a political group whose primary purpose was to promote the welfare and best interests of the citizens of the United States."






By 1939, Lansky's anti-Nazi /Fascist mission -- which never ameliorated his guilt in the eyes of the criminal justice system -- was taken over by the Non-Sectarian Anti-Nazi League, which tried to seek the deportation of Kuhn.  Their basis for pursuing deportation was information that Kuhn possessed a criminal record.  On November 3, 1939, Kuhn was convicted of grand larceny and forgery in theft of money stolen from the Bund.  The United States Government then went about trying to effect the deportation of Kuhn's wife, Elsa Kuhn.













In 1943, it was reported that Kuhn was imprisoned at Dannemora.  In the 1940s, Dannemora or Clinton Correctional Facility a/k/a "Siberia",  also housed Inmate Charles "Lucky" Luciano and his co-defendant from the Prostitution Bonding Combination Conviction of 1936, David "Little Davie" Petillo (shown at right).

One might assume that Meyer Lansky's friend, Lucky Luciano, with the possible help of Petillo, found ways to get revenge on Kuhn "mob style" once the American Nazi was imprisoned inside the walls of Dannemora.      

(Photo source of David "Little Davie" Petillo:  NYC Municipal Archives)





Sources:

Report of the Un-American Propaganda Activities under the category of Nazi-Fascist organizations, Wednesday, January 3, 1940; H. Rpt. 1476.  Serial Set Vol. No. 10440, pp 14-16, 18, 24.

The Jewish Chronicle, May 12, 1939.

Miami Herald, November 30, 1939.

Lacey, Robert. Little Man:  Meyer Lansky and the Gangster Life. Little, Brown & Co., 1991

Newark, Tim.  Mafia Allies.  Zenith Press, 2007.  



Ellen Poulsen is the author of The Case Against Lucky Luciano:  New York's Most Sensational Vice Trial, and "Don't Call Us Molls:  Women of the John Dillinger Gang, as well as a forthcoming book tentatively entitled, Chasing Dillinger:  Indiana's Matt Leach Collides with the F.B.I.

www.Dillingerswomen.com
www.Lucianotrial1936.com

19 May 2017

The Long Black Veil: The Widows of Frankie Yale

Before 1925, women associated with mobsters were rarely seen in the newspapers.  The mob funeral, which spawned a mid-1920s genre of photojournalism, would lift the blackout on mob women and their children.

With Prohibition, newspapers kept mob activity in the face of the law-abiding.  It was a time when everybody read the paper.  While gangland hits were making the front page, some vestiges of Edwardian morality kept most gangsters' molls away from the camera lens.  With the mob funeral, photojournalists at last found a tasteful way to portray the mystery women connected to gangland. 

Summer in the city and gangland murders made for dramatic sendoffs.  By 1925, the war between the Torrio/Capone and Genna factions raged on Chicago's West Side.  On June 13th, Mike Genna of the alcohol-making Genna family was mortally wounded in a battle with police officers.  Angelo Genna had been killed three weeks prior on May 26th, and Anthony "Tony" Genna would die on July 8th.



Aerial photos of the Genna corteges lining the streets showed a strange ink blot.  Closer inspection revealed a cluster of black-garbed women of the Genna family, bereaved of sons and lovers.









New York reporters would not be outdone by Chicago.  On July 1, 1928, Frankie Uale, whose ethnic name was often anglicized to "Frankie Yale," became the first recorded New York mob boss to die in a submachine gun ambush.  (The submachine gun was discovered to be unfired.  Some initial accounts attributed his wounds, which rendered him unrecognizable, to a shotgun blast.) 

Yale, a strikebreaker, racketeer and fixer in the parlance of the day, was a Capone associate.  He is said to have been the assassin of  "Big Jim" Colosimo.  Uale was killed as he drove his expensive sedan down a Brooklyn street in broad daylight.  A car bearing Illinois or Indiana license plates fired six shots aimed at his head.  His car crashed through a fence and stopped in a yard as pedestrians ran for cover. 

The press covered the lavish funeral from a unique angle.  Frankie Yale had not one but two widows, each with her own children in attendance.  No aerial or bird's eye view of this event would satisfy photographers, who used close-up techniques to snap tear-stained faces hiding beneath yards of black tulle.  

There was the "aging Mrs. Maria Yale with her two children..." and there was "the other woman, Lucienda, for whom the gangland emperor deserted Maria."

Public records indicate the likelihood that Maria (nee' Pea) might have been the only Mrs. Frankie Uale.  The two were married on March 1, 1917 in Brooklyn.  No record of a divorce or subsequent remarriage is recorded for Frankie Uale in New York City.


Sources: 

March 3, 1929, 'Chicago Gangland:  The True Story of its Murders, its Vices and its Reprisals," by James O'Donnell Bennett, Chicago Daily Tribune

July 2, 1928, "Rich Flowers Smell of Guns and Revenge," New York Daily News.

Kings County Groom Index

Photos:  Collection of author




 

07 March 2017

Framed and Defamed

Framed and Defamed:  Stephanie St. Clair Meets Samuel Seabury



Stephanie St. Clair was known as the "Harlem Policy Queen."  In antiquated parlance, she was called "Mme. Stephanie Ste. Clair."  This black woman of another age was a policy banker in Harlem when that area north of 110th Street was the destination of black people migrating from the South in search of better social conditions.  She is sometimes remembered as the "Tiger from Marseilles" who fought back when the mob governed by Dutch Schultz tried to take away her business interests. 

Historically, she is confusing.  She was: 
1.  A hardened black woman who fell for the ministrations of a kindly old white man. 
2.  A numbers runner who sold out her network of cops-on-the-take. 
3.  A fierce street fighter who stood up to Dutch Schultz. 
4.  A rejected, dejected wife who tried to kill her cheating spouse. 
5..  All of the above. (This is the correct answer.) 

Today she remains a paradox.  Her life in the numbers was underground.  Her life as an informant was somewhat documented.  For this reason, we know more about her life after the fact -- "the fact" having ended the moment she started to talk to authorities about the underworld.

Even her existing pictures are a puzzle.  With the exception of one world news photo that shows her in police custody, none of her photos are substantiated beyond a shadow of a doubt.  The photo subject here was identified as being  the wife of Sufi Abdula Hamid.  For that reason, this is most likely an image of a slightly older St. Clair.  Researchers might look for ways to positively identify the providence of the few photos that exist of her.

St. Clair worked as a numbers bankers when neighborhood folks controlled the policy.   As a local figure, she blended in easily.  She arrived in the U.S. on a Caribbean steamship in 1911.  Its manifest listed her as a servant.  From that humble start, she started up her policy banking business around 1922.  At that time it cost a few days' pay to get started.

In or around 1930, she started having trouble with the cops.  Although her runners wore identification tags to indicate "no arrest," police started harassing them.  Around this time, Judge Samuel Seabury, a reformer, launched a commission to investigate New York corruption.  In those days New York had one reformer for every crooked cop and politician, so this didn't look like a big shakeup.  St. Clair, oddly enough, was fooled into thinking that this commission could bring her cops into line.  Threaten them with exposure, and they would allow her to continue her numbers.  It was kind of a blackmail by proxy and it backfired on her. 

The commission is now a page in the history of Tammany Hall and the ill-fated term of Mayor James "Jimmy" Walker.  It is worthy to note that this commission, which came to be known as the "New York City Investigation," heralded in a new "fusion" administration that blended reform and populist principles and resulted in the reign of Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia.   

When St. Clair visited Seabury's offices, he welcomed the well-dressed, stately woman.  She sensed his empathy.  He considered her complaints about crooked cops to be at the heart of his investigation into corruption in the lower courts.  Police and bailiff bribes went hand in glove with the compromised criminal justice system that the commission uncovered in 1931. 

In going to Seabury, St. Clair abdicated her royal position in this insular, black community.  Speaking to the authorities was an act that made her a figure of betrayal to the neighborhood.  She had crossed 110th Street in more ways than one.  After that, her precinct bag man deserted her.  She was arrested by the same officers she'd once paid off.  She was sentenced to a term at Welfare Island.  The 1930 Census confirms that St. Clair was a resident there, living as a "work detainee." 

Her imprisonment was more than revenge over some precinct dirt.  Her arrest had come through higher channels.  It was a way to silence her violent opposition to the new numbers runners and bankers coming into Harlem.  The combination, fronted by Dutch Schultz with the backing of Tammany politician Jimmy Hines, was moving in and taking over.  After her release, she had a new complaint to take to Seabury.  She wanted police protection from the combination in order to allow her to continue her racket.  

The takeover had caused other bankers to emigrate back to their native Caribbean islands.  The bankers were all faced with the same choice.  They could let Seabury audit their books (assuming anything was written down) or they could roll over and allow the combination thugs to bash their brains in.  Those who did not leave the neighborhood would remain and work for the combination.  While St. Clair made the most noise, her barrel was as empty as the frightened bankers who had abandoned ship.

For now the system had moved from street corners to candy stores, from street runners to storekeepers.  One banker, Paloma Lida, put it this way:  "The racket is a snare and a delusion . . . now old lady Stephanie gets mixed up with the law and the grand jury.  Why did she do that?  Wasn't good business . . . no money in the policy slip profession; bottom done dropped out."

Why did she do it, is a good question.  Maybe she was too street -- she knew her neighborhood but not much else.  She was Caribbean.  She knew corruption, not reform politics.  She was a 19th Century woman, born into a gas-lit winter, December of 1896.  Why did the Tiger trust Seabury?  Perhaps her righteous anger needed a righteous authority figure -- which she thought she'd found in the kindly white man who was fighting injustice. 

By 1932, with all of the old bankers now working for the combination, St. Clair was shut out.  Her name never surfaced among the documented lists of bankers who survived the takeover. 

She went on to a spectacular life through her marriage to Harlem activist Sufi Abdula Hamid.  Nicknamed "Harlem's Hitler" by the press, Hamid advocated the boycotting of Harlem's white-owned businesses.  The marriage was not made in heaven, in spite of Hamid's affectations to spiritualism.  St. Clair was eventually replaced by a younger woman in Hamid's life.  Never one to turn the other cheek, St. Clair attempted to murder him by shooting at him outside his home.  Having survived the wrath of St. Clair, he went on to die in a plane crash above Bellmore, Long Island, as he was preparing to testify in the trial of politician James "Jimmy" Hines.

Her later years were obscure.  As a black underworld woman, she wasn't fodder for justice stories or detective magazines in the way that white gangsters and their molls would be featured.  For this reason, also, she was able to drop out of site.  Thus, her last years are a mystery.  She was mislabeled "The Tiger from Marseilles" in one book.  In spite of its incorrect birther origins -- she was born in Guadeloupe -- the tag has become part of her lore. 


Sources: 

Sann, Paul.  Kill the Dutchman!  New York:  Arlington House, 1971.  New edition of same cited above.
U.S. Census 1930.
Port of NY Passenger Lists

The following sources were found via primary research in the Schomburg Center for Research and Black Culture in Harlem:

9 March, 1931, New York Tribune
13, 20 August, 1932, New York Age
9 October, 1934, New York Telegram
1 August, 1938, New York Post.

Ellen Poulsen, author, Don't Call Us Molls: Women of the John Dillinger Gang; and The Case Against Lucky Luciano:  New York's Most Sensational Vice Trial.
Lecturer and commentator on the 1930s Crime Wave.  Currently completing work on a biography tentatively entitled:  Chasing Dillinger:  Indiana's Matt Leach Collides with the F.B.I." 



 







27 January 2017

Crime Does Not Pay -- Serialized Morality Tales of the 1930s

In 1935, crime spree bandits like Midwestern desperadoes Dillinger and Baby Face Nelson had been killed.  Likewise, inner-city gangsters of Chicago and New York who had been prominent in the "Big Six" era of organized crime were also gone -- either to prison or dead through mob retaliation.  The disappearance of these criminals from the American landscape left the public hungry for information about them.  Enter magazines like True Detective, Sterling and Liberty.  They created a new genre of the gangland memoir.  At the same time, J. Edgar Hoover, the F.B.I.'s director, had positioned himself as an anti-crime pundit.  He was clamping down the lid on the way these stories were told.  The gangland gravitas seething inside women like Evelyn Frechette (Dillinger's moll), Florence "Cokey Flo" Brown (a material witness in the trial of Charles "Lucky" Luciano), and other women on the verge of disaster went into print.  One such publisher,  MacFadden Publications, would send a ghost writer into prison or wherever these offenders lived after the fact.  Even city dailies joined the trend.  These stories went into syndication and were featured across the United States.  For the authors of these memoirs, the payment was nominal.  "I got $25.00 and a couple of gowns," said Mary Kinder, Dillinger moll and girlfriend of Pete "Harry" Pierpont.

Joseph "Fatso" Negri
Some of gangland's molls avoided the pathos of the paid-by-the-page sob story.  One moll not treated kindly by the press was Helen "Mrs. Baby Face" Gillis.  While still a fugitive after the death of her husband in an F.B.I. shootout, Helen Gillis appeared on the front page of Chicago's papers with "Kill Widow of Baby Face" captioned beneath her young face.  Mrs. Gillis went into prison undoubtedly relieved to escape further press coverage. 
            
The art of the memoir was not lost on women in hiding.  Florence "Cokey Flo" Brown, the chief material witness who testified against Charles "Lucky" Luciano in his 1936 trial for compulsory prostitution, had her story published in Liberty in 1937 while her actual whereabouts were unknown.   
Women were not the only gang associates who were called upon to write for these rags that sold for $.25.  Joseph "Fatso" Negri, an associate of Lester "Baby Face Nelson" Gillis, became a chronicler of the last weeks of the Nelson gang in True Detective.  In the series, which ran for several months, Negri introduced the mob expressions and jargon that might have been lost.  "Nelson always used the words 'to charge on,' in speaking of bank holdups, Negri wrote.  "The six of us tried to pile into one car, but it couldn't be done, what with everyone lugging along his machino and wearing his bulletproof vest." 

With the dawn of the Second World War, the crime-does-not-pay stories became old hat.  For those survivors of the 1930s criminal era, these serialized memoirs had helped to pay legal fees and keep the rent paid for a while.  These first-person accounts of gangland served a purpose that went beyond twenty-five bucks and a couple of gowns.  Today avid crime researchers, jaded by the age of technology, are still fascinated by these original stories of gangland.      



Ellen Poulsen"
Author of "Don't Call Us Molls: Women of the John Dillinger Gang,"
"The Case Against Lucky Luciano:  New York's Most Sensational Vice Trial,"
and a forthcoming biography of Captain Matt Leach of the Dillinger saga.



06 January 2017

Her Face for the World To See

Her Face for the World to See
In the era of Harold Robbins, she wrote the book on love, mob-style.  From the mid-1950s to 1961 Liz Renay had the kind of troubles that only organized crime could render – subpoenas, jail, abandonment, disgrace, paranoia.  She had spiraled into the mob as a beautiful showgirl dating Albert Anastasia’s reputed bodyguard Tony “Cappy” Coppola.  Using him as a springboard, she bounced from New York to Hollywood, where Mickey Cohen introduced her to the casting couch. She leant Cohen some money and the gratuity ruined her life.  After a barrage of subpoenas and a grand jury appearance resulted in a perjury charge, a hanging judge threw her into jail for three years.  Her story’s title cried big tears:  My Face for the World to See.   
Liz Renay – striptease dancer, B-girl, gun moll – confessed with no footnotes.  It’s not a perfect way to get the history, but in firsthand accounts of a woman’s life with the mob, it beats a blank.  The genre of not-really-true crime confessionals had been established earlier with the publication of the Roaring Twenties madam Polly Adler’s memoir, A House is Not a Home, the raunchy masterpiece of ghostwriting which became a bestseller.  In this type of confession genre, there is no documentation, no tangible facts save for what’s on public record – and fact-checkers have to look up newspaper records and court documents to establish timelines hiding beneath the innuendo.      
Renay’s story does not resonate historically like Polly Adler’s tale of vice in the age of Tammany.  It does, however, put a personal spin on the intense pressure that mob associates felt in the McClellan era.  Renay blamed her three-year commitment on Robert Kennedy’s vow to get Mickey Cohen.  The tax evasion case against Cohen in 1961 and ’62 swept Renay into prison on a suspicious technicality after she’d been set free on probation on the perjury charge.   “Could Robert Kennedy be so base that he’d smash my life...?”     
For Adler and Renay, the dangers were everywhere.  The D.A. had boiler-plated their names onto blue-backed subpoenas while the mob tailed them to within five feet of every police station house.  In an uncharacteristic way, their memoirs detailed lurid true-crime with a tender twist.  After a meeting with New York District Attorney Frank Hogan, Renay’s only thought is to take a warm bubble bath.  Polly Adler detested the experience of the prison shower messing up her salon-styled hair.   The editors chose to focus these molls' indignities on the trivialities of hair and makeup;  
Maybelline  saved their world.  
Consider that Renay talked about Albert Anastasia; Adler dished about Detroit’s Purple Gang.   Their musings were not based on specific activities but rather, gifts, proposals, manners – nothing to rival the revelations of Joseph Valachi or Henry Hill.  Neither woman was ever coaxed into protective custody or witness protection for selling out the secret of Cappy’s botched marriage proposal or the Purple Gang’s crass behavior while visiting Adler’s house of prostitution.        
The warnings issued to known crime figures who have flirted with memoirs are well-known among readers of true crime nonfiction.  Those who did cross the line to talk lived out their lives in federally sanctioned hiding places.  Yet Renay and Adler carried on without the mob connections of their wild days.  Renay knew that after-the-fact meant just that.  She left the life of a moll for a 1970’s reinvention as a campy film star.

There are legions of historical gun molls who, framed in their black & white photos taken in courtrooms, mob funerals and police stations, didn’t change with time but remain frozen in whatever era they typify.  (See Reney below, on trial and accompanied by her loving daughter.)    
By turning their tawdry experiences into literary stock, Adler and Renay elevated themselves and in doing so, escaped the mob.  It wasn’t easy.  Polly Adler’s worst John would prove to be the U.S. tax man.  Liz Renay made her image pay as an old stripper for the new age.  They both found life after organized crime.  More realistically, they stayed alive. (This blog is reprinted from an article originally submitted to the Las Vegas Mob Museum.)