Why Boys Go Wrong: Gangsters, Hoodlums and the Natural History of Delinquent Careers Richard Maltby



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Why Boys Go Wrong: Gangsters, Hoodlums and the Natural History of Delinquent Careers

Richard Maltby


The street, the sidewalks swarm with people. Pushcarts range along the curb; the proprietors hawking their wares to all passersby. In the store windows bordering the street is a bizarre assortment of dry goods, cheeses, condiments and liquors, and from opened doorways and cellars issue a host of smells even more provocative. People elbow each other for passage along the sidewalk while others pause to bargain loudly with the pushcart peddlers. The shrill notes of a hurdy-gurdy are heard down the street and from somewhere overhead in the solid block of dingy six floor tenements comes the strident noise of a radio out of control. A street car clangs its way along among the pushcart peddlers and their customers … from another direction a heavy truck lumbers along spreading the dust and dirt of the street in its wake. The boys in the side street at their game of ball give way before it, but in the ensuing traffic are able in some way to continue their play.1

This description of an inner-city street scene might have come from the screenplay of The Public Enemy (1931), Dead End (1937) or Angels with Dirty Faces (1939), all of which open with a scene establishing their environment of urban poverty. It is instead the beginning of a manuscript entitled “The Community – A Social Setting for the Motion Picture,” written in December 1932 by Paul G. Cressey as a draft of Boys, Movies and City Streets, a projected but eventually unpublished volume in the Payne Fund investigations into “Motion Pictures and Youth.”2 Like many of the other scholars in the Payne Fund project, Cressey was a product of the University of Chicago’s school of urban sociology, the dominant academic institution developing sociological enquiry in the United States in the 1920s.3 His book, which was to be jointly authored by Frederic Thrasher, aimed to extend his previous work on commercialized recreation, The Taxi-Dance Hall, by constructing a “natural history” of the neighbourhood movie theatres in a section of Manhattan from which had come “many of New York's youthful gunmen and desperados of recent years,” including some notorious from coast to coast for their association “with organized crime of the worst forms.”4 Cressey’s study aimed to place movies and their effects in the context of “the social backgrounds, the personal dynamics,” and “the characteristic conditions of life” of the boys in this urban environment.5 Pursuing an elliptical course through the gang history of Chicago and the influence of James Cagney’s hoodlum heroics, this essay follows Cressey’s project in examining the relationship between cinematic and sociological discourses on delinquency and criminality in the 1930s.

Like many 1930s crime movies, The Public Enemy (1931) begins with an explicit statement of authorial intent: “It is the intention of the authors of The Public Enemy to honestly depict an environment that exists today in a certain strata [sic] of American life, rather than to glorify the hoodlum or the criminal.” It is frequently argued that this “rhetoric of civic responsibility” was an empty and largely cynical gesture intended to appease critics concerned at the movies’ socially destabilising effects.6 This interpretation, however, places an ahistorical emphasis on the often claimed but seldom demonstrated “subversive” effects of these movies, and simplifies their complex and contradictory position within the discourses on criminality circulating at the time of their release. Contemporary reviews treated The Public Enemy’s claim to provide “a picture of gangland as it really is … a sociological study of the entire situation as it exists in Chicago” more seriously.7 Reviewer André Sennwald’s description of Warner Bros.’ motive in making The Public Enemy as “laudable” may have been ironic, but his assessment of its central performances as “remarkably lifelike portraits of young hoodlums … a hard and true picture of the unheroic gangster” was typical of reviewers’ endorsements of the movie’s claims to realism.8 In the National Board of Review Magazine, James Shelley Hamilton took the movie’s claim to be “something of a sociological document, presenting … its story and characters as a problem which the country must … solve” seriously enough to debate the value of its contribution to to the public discourse on the causes of criminality.9

The studio was not, of course, primarily seeking to produce a sociological treatise, any more than it intended to produce a “subversive” movie. Its aim was to produce the “roughest, toughest, and best of the gang films to date,” avoiding any sentimentality in the representation of its amoral characters.10 The editorial position expressed in the movie’s opening and closing titles provided a plausible defence for its “vigorous and brutal assault upon the nerves”; without such a defence, the picture could not have been widely exhibited.11 The motion picture industry was well aware that it needed to address the persistent criticism that movies were a source of inspiration for criminal behaviour and knowledge of criminal technique, in both its general statements of intent and its justification of individual pictures. As I have detailed elsewhere, industry leaders had on previous occasions countered allegations that movies were “the basic cause of the crime waves of today,” and recognised the economic and political necessity of justifying the content of its products as simultaneously harmless and socially responsible.12 The requirement to present The Public Enemy as a contribution to social debate was not something tacked on to the end of the project to fool the censorious, but an integral part of the movie’s process of construction.

On 6 January 1931, Darryl F. Zanuck, head of production at Warner Bros., sent Col. Jason S. Joy, Director of the Studio Relations Committee (SRC) of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, Inc. (MPPDA) a draft copy of the script of The Public Enemy. Anticipating the likely censorship difficulties that its subject matter would present, Zanuck sought to justify the movie’s “biography of a couple of young gentlemen from Chicago” as a contribution to public debate. In addition to its insistence on “the futility of crime as a business or as a profit,” he argued that The Public Enemy carried “a secondary theme, that

PROHIBITION is not the cause of the present crime wave - mobs and gangs have existed for years and years BECAUSE of environment and the only thing that PROHIBITION has done is to bring these unlawful organizations more noticeably before the eye of the public. REPEAL of the Eighteenth Amendment could not possibly stop CRIME and WARFARE. The only thing that can STOP same is the betterment of ENVIRONMENT and living conditions in the lower reasons [sic]. In other words, “The Public Enemy” is the story of two boys who know nothing but CRIME, STEALING, CHEATING AND KILLING, and they both come to their death in the picture because of their activities … Our picture is going to be a biography more than a plot. … I feel that if we can sell the idea that … ONLY BY THE BETTERMENT OF ENVIRONMENT AND EDUCATION for the masses can we overcome the widespread tendency toward lawbreaking – we have then punched over a moral that should do a lot toward protecting us.13

In search of a way of promoting the movie that would disarm its potential critics, or else ensure that protests would enhance its box-office performance rather than damage it, Zanuck’s argument had to be plausible enough to earn the endorsement of at least some reviewers and other contributors to public debate, such as educators, criminologists and sociologists. It also had to be integral to both the structure of the movie and its publicity. The movie’s self-justification lay in the combination of its claim to historical and factual accuracy, its rejection of the “sentimental, preachy type” of plot “in which a ‘moll’ saves the day for justice and humanity,” its substitution of “handsome youths whose looks belie their evil deeds” for the “outmoded” caricatures of crooks as “blue-jowled monsters with cauliflower ears and flattened noses,” and in its representation of an environmental account of the causes of criminality, which echoed both the conclusions and the method of the most recent sociological research in its presentation of “an intense biographical document.”14

During the late 1920s, the University of Chicago Press published several major works on the role played by environment and personality in the development of criminal behaviour, particularly among the young. Led by Robert E. Park and Ernest W. Burgess and explicitly deriving their terminology from the study of natural history, the Chicago school of sociology conceived the city as an ecological system, subject to “the selective, distributive, and accommodative forces of the environment” that distributed and segregated a city’s population, encouraging the evolution of what Park termed “natural areas,” each with their own “peculiar selective and cultural characteristics.” 15 Under these ecological influences, some “natural areas” would assume the character of a “moral region,” in which a distinctive moral code diverging from the city’s norm operated.16 The Darwinism underlying this analysis was encapsulated by Harvey Zorbaugh in The Gold Coast and the Slum in 1929:

The slum gradually acquires a character distinctly different from that of other areas of the city through a cumulative process of natural selection that is continually going on as the more ambitious and energetic keep moving out and the unadjusted, the dregs, and the outlaws accumulate.17

The most fully elaborated application of the concept of the “moral region” occurred in Clifford Shaw’s studies of “delinquency areas.” Shaw demonstrated that rates of truancy, juvenile delinquency and adult felony were subject to high geographical variation in different areas of Chicago, with the highest rates found in “interstitial” areas in transition from residential to business or industrial use, and “characterized by physical deterioration, decreasing population, and the disintegration of the conventional neighborhood culture and organization.”18 He maintained that the intrusion of business and industry into residential areas caused “a disintegration of the community as a unit of social control,” which was intensified by “the influx of foreign national and racial groups whose old cultural and social controls break down in the new cultural and racial situation of the city.”

In his 1942 book on the ecology of delinquency and crime, Shaw argued that in these interstitial areas, where there existed “the greatest disparity between the social values to which the people aspire and the availability of facilities for acquiring these values in conventional ways,” crime might become “an organized way of life,” the means by which people attempted to acquire “the economic and social values generally idealized in our culture.” Adolescent boys in such areas knew that many criminals became rich and powerful: “their clothes, cars, and other possessions are the unmistakable evidence of this fact.” For such boys, the gangster represented the only available model of American success, and this knowledge helped determine “the character of their ideals.”19 This was particularly true, the Chicago sociologists argued, for the children of immigrants, who experienced an increasing amount of personal disorganization as a result of trying to live in two social worlds with conflicting values:

The child cannot live and conform in both social worlds at the same time. The family and colony are defined for him in his American contacts by such epithets as “dago,” “wop,” “foreign,” and the like. He feels the loss of status attached to his connection with the colony. … In his effort to achieve status in the American city he loses his rapport with family and community. Conflicts arise between the child and his family. Yet by virtue of his race, his manner of speech, the necessity of living in the colony, and these same definitive epithets, he is excluded from status and intimate participation in American life. Out of this situation … arises the gang, affording the boy a social world in which he finds his only status and recognition.20

For the most part, the Chicago sociologists were more concerned with the gang than the gangster. In his 1927 book The Gang, which for decades remained “the basic work concerning the gang as a form of social organization,” Frederic Thrasher used the term “gangster” only once to refer to Capone-like criminals “at the top” of organized crime. Thrasher’s central concern was with the gang as an adolescent phenomenon, occupying a period “between childhood, when he is usually incorporated in a family structure, and marriage, when he is reincorporated into a family and other orderly relations of work, religion, and pleasure. … the gang appears to be an interstitial group, a manifestation of the period of readjustment between childhood and maturity.”21 While gangland included “most of the underworld districts” within its borders, it was inhabited by adolescent gangs rather than by adult criminals, and Thrasher argued that there was “no hard and fast dividing line between predatory gangs of boys and criminal groups of younger and older adults.” In gangland, argued Thrasher, boys learned demoralizing personal habits, familiarity with criminal techniques, and a philosophy of life that facilitated further delinquency, merging imperceptibly into a life of hardened criminality for some gang members. Chicago’s crime was rooted in the adolescent gang “as its basic organized unit, no matter how it may have become elaborated into rings and syndicates,” and almost all of Chicago's supposed 10,000 professional criminals had received gang training.22

Members of the Chicago School frequently suggested that social phenomena had a “natural history,” in order to give temporal shape to the proposition that the ecological forces of the city exercised a determining influence on the lives of its inhabitants.23 When applied to an individual presented as a representative case history, as Shaw did in his studies of The Jack-Roller (1930), The Natural History of a Delinquent Career (1931) and Brothers in Crime (1938), the conception of a “natural history” served as a determining condition of the biography under consideration.24 In Shaw’s analysis, criminal behaviour was not the result of individual depravity, mental deficiency or psychopathology, but a response to “the cultural disintegration which has resulted from the natural processes involved in the growth and expansion of the city.”25 Shaw identified delinquency as an effect of the mutual alienation of adolescent males and conventional social organization, a symptom of “the gulf between residents of slum communities and the larger society.” Criminal careers resulted from the combined effect of boys drifting into delinquency as a way of life and the rejection of the convicted delinquent by conventional society. Alienation was a consequence of powerlessness, and crime, delinquency and social disorganization, were in turn “complex products of alienation and the forces related to it.”26

Although Shaw and Thrasher made extensive use of first-person accounts to dramatise the sociological phenomena they examined, they viewed the delinquents they studied as constructs of the city and ascribed them very little individual agency in the process of their own social construction. Their proposition that the gang culture of juvenile delinquency bred the adult gangster through a continuum of demoralization from truancy, vulgarity, smoking and crap shooting to jack-rolling (mugging), bootlegging and murder became common sociological wisdom in the second quarter of the century. When Thrasher suggested that the hoodlum might develop into either “a seasoned gangster or a professional criminal,” however, he was making a semantic distinction in keeping with its generally accepted meaning of the term prior to 1925.27

During the 1920s, however, the meaning of the term “gangster” was shifting significantly as the organisational, discursive and social structures of criminality changed. The word was of late nineteenth-century American coinage (the Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest etymological reference is in 1896), and referred most commonly to the imbrication of criminality and machine politics in low-income areas of major cities.28 In his 1927 book The Gangs of New York, Herbert Asbury proclaimed that the gangster “has now passed from the metropolitan scene,” having existed for the previous decade “mainly in the lively imaginations of industrious journalists.”29 “There are now no gangs in New York,” Asbury declared, “and no gangsters in the sense that the word has come into common use.” The “gangs” described by newspapers in the 1920s bore little resemblance to the “great brawling, thieving gangs” of the late nineteenth century:

They are gunmen and burglars, but none of their killings and stealings have anything to do with gang rivalry or questions of gang jurisdiction … Their operations lack the spectacularity of the deeds of the old timers, and probably will continue to lack it until they have been touched by the magic finger of legend.30

Legend was, however, actively constructing a revised mythology of the gangster as businessman around the figure of Al Capone, “the Horatio Alger lad of Prohibition,” principally through a style of press reporting “not shy about printing higher truths which transcended mere fact.”31 As David Ruth notes, the inventors of the post-1925 gangster’s public image were journalists “who moved easily from medium to medium”:

“Factual” journalistic accounts relied on imaginative conjecture and regularly included material, from the dialogue at ultra-secret meetings to the unuttered thoughts of dying men, beyond the range of even the most capable reporter. “Fictional” accounts … invariably claimed authenticity, asserting the author's intimate knowledge of gangland, highlighting the use of shady underworld consultants, or incorporating well-known real settings and events.32

The shift in the meaning of “gangster” to embrace the Prohibition-inspired model represented by Capone was both gradual and contradictory. While eulogising Capone as “the greatest and most successful gangster who ever lived,” the anonymous author of 1930’s X Marks the Spot maintained that “what is significant is that he really is a gangster, as much so as the celebrated Monk Eastman and Big Jack Zelig of New York. As a youth he was himself a member of their notorious Five Points gang, and the difference between him and all other gangsters is that he is possessed of a genius for organization and a profound business sense.”33

Academic accounts of “the empire of gangland” also emphasised its historical continuities with the neighbourhood criminal gangs of the 1890s as strongly as they dwelt on the changes in gang activity brought about by Prohibition. In his 1929 study, Organized Crime in Chicago, undertaken under the auspices of the Chicago school and published as part of the Illinois Crime Survey, John Landesco argued that organized crime had not originated with prohibition, and that the underworld providing Chicagoans with alcohol displayed crucial continuities in gang leadership and gang activity, and above all in the “unholy alliance between organized crime and politics,” that had existed thirty years earlier.34

Thrasher described municipal politics as a complex of personal relationships and mutual personal obligations “which make service in the interest of an impersonal public and an abstract justice very difficult.”35 In the slum districts of gangland, wrote Harvey Zorbaugh, the immigrant vote was “a commodity upon the market … controlled by the bosses and kings of the colony, marshalled, if need be, with the aid of gangs and automatics, and traded to the higher-ups for petty political favors.”36 Local politicians actively cultivated gangs, providing some of them with clubrooms and protection from prosecution, so that when they came of age they would become loyal members of the local political machine. As an example of the way that gang influence was enlisted in the support of political machines, Thrasher cited the history of Ragen’s Colts, an “athletic club” sponsored by a district politician, operating for twenty-five years as both a political organisation which bred “aldermen, police captains, county treasurers, sheriffs … some of whom have made good records in public service,” and an effectively lawless gang so well protected from punishment that its members “succeeded pretty well in terrorizing their immediate community.”37 This protection, in turn, reinforced the gang’s political power: most visibly, a gang leader’s ability to influence a district election result was rewarded with immunity from effective punishment for the most serious of crimes, including rioting and murder. “It has become customary in Chicago to refer to these gangsters as "immune criminals,” declared Thrasher. “The immunity which the politician confers is not without its effect upon gang boys, who are prospective gangsters.”38 Such immunity, indeed, was most frequently exercised in excusing the day-to-day criminal activities of adolescent gang members.39

The pattern of mutual obligation between politicians, municipal officials and criminal gangs had long constituted a significant part of the history of gangs as both Asbury and the Chicago sociologists understood them. Thrasher and Landesco, however, recognised that as well as augmenting the power of criminal gangs to corrupt public officials, the vast profits to be made from bootlegging had introduced “a different and more sinister form of relation between the gangster and the politician,” creating “the commercialized gang of today”:

Neighborliness and friendly relations recede to the background. Operations in crime and political protection from its consequences are no longer local but city-wide. Immunity is no longer obtained by friendship, but from graft. Organized crime and organized political corruption have formed a partnership to exploit for profit the enormous revenues to be derived from law-breaking. … while neighborhood criminal gangs can rely only on the influence of the local politician, mercenary criminal gangs have understandings with the highest sources of protection in the county, the city, and certain of the nearby towns and villages.40

The “commercialized gang” was ceasing to be a neighbourhood group and becoming instead “a feudal group of professional gunmen formed to exploit the business of crime … a retinue of mercenaries held together by need of protection and expectation of profits.”41

In his discussion of “The Gang and Organized Crime,” Thrasher distinguished three types of criminal gangs, identifying the most “successful and permanent type,” as the “Master Gang.” The principal business of these gangs was bootlegging, but many were also involved in robbery or the promotion of gambling or prostitution. The names of the “ten to twenty” such gangs operating in Chicago “are sufficient to strike terror into the hearts of the peaceful residents of the districts where they hold sway.”42 Typical of such groups was the Valley gang, which had been in existence for over fifty years. From the 1870s, it had controlled the Fifteenth Street district politically and socially, maintaining Irish hegemony in the district in the face of German, Jewish and Southern Italian immigration, and having “an element of genuine leadership and loyal following” in the neighbourhood.43 From the mid-1890s to 1920 the gang was led by “the feared and fearless dictator of the district,” Patrick "Paddy the Bear" Ryan, who added “labor slugging” to the gang’s mixture of criminal and political activities.44 When Ryan was assassinated in June 1920 by another member of the gang, leadership passed to his protégés Terry Druggan and Frankie Lake, who moved into beer trafficking, eventually controlling half a dozen breweries in partnership with brewing magnate Joseph Stenson, and providing Capone’s mentor John Torrio with a model of successful collaboration between bootleggers and respectable business. The “wizened and dwarfish” Druggan and “big and bull-like” Lake were boyhood friends who dressed alike and became known to the tabloid press as “the Damon and Pythias of gangland”; they were less flatteringly described by John Kobler as “the comic turn of Chicago gangland, a vaudeville brother act about to break into a song-and-dance routine.”45

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