Welcome to the final volume in our exploration of the anthropology of crime, Frank Lucas and Aliya King’s Original Gangster. Unlike the other book in this series, this one is actually (co)authored by the criminal himself. This provides a unique perspective, but also introduces the question of whether the author is entirely honest–but since I have no way to independently verify his story, I’ll just be reporting matters as he tells them.
It’s been a month since I finished the book, and I’m still not sure how I feel about it. It’s an interesting read, for sure, but I am ambivalent about giving criminals more attention–on the other hand, the book has already been made into a movie, so what’s one more reader?
Lucas’s story begins in 1936, when, at the age of six, he witnesses his cousin’s head blown off by the KKK. He soon began stealing food to help feed his impoverished family, and left home at the age of 14. I forget why, exactly, he decided to set off on his own, but he quickly ran into trouble, was arrested and put into a chain gang. With a little help he managed to escape and made his way to New York City, where a helpful bus driver got him to his final destination:
“Right here! Go. Get off! This is Harlem.”
I stood on 114th Street and 8th Avenue and looked to my right and to my left. There was nothing but black people as far as I cold see. And there were all kinds of black folks: men and women of all ages and sizes, some who looked dirt poor (but not as poor as me) and some who looked straight-up rich.
I threw out my hands and screamed out as loud as I could, “Hello, Harlem USA!”
Harlem has an interesting history of its own. The British burned down the small, Dutch town during the Revolutionary War. New York City expanded into Harlem, and after the Civil War, the area became heavily Jewish and Italian. By the 30s, the Jews had been replaced by Puerto Ricans (the Italians lingered a little longer.)
In 1904, black real estate entrepreneur Phillip Payton, Jr., of the Afro-American Realty Company, began encouraging blacks to move from other New York neighborhoods to Harlem (which had particularly low rents then because of a housing crash.) According to Wikipedia:
The early 20th-century Great Migration of blacks to northern industrial cities was fueled by their desire to leave behind the Jim Crow South, seek better jobs and education for their children, and escape a culture of lynching violence. During World War I, expanding industries recruited black laborers to fill new jobs, thinly staffed after the draft began to take young men. … In 1910, Central Harlem was about 10% black. By 1920, central Harlem was 32.43% black. The 1930 census showed 70.18% of Central Harlem’s residents as black… As blacks moved in, white residents left. Between 1920 and 1930, 118,792 white people left the neighborhood and 87,417 blacks arrived.
Between 1907 and 1915 some white residents of Harlem resisted the neighborhood’s change, especially once the swelling black population pressed west of Lenox Avenue, which served as an informal color line until the early 1920s. Some made pacts not to sell to or rent to black Others tried to buy property and evict black tenants, but the Afro-American Realty Company retaliated by buying other property and evicting whites. …
Soon after blacks began to move into Harlem, the community became known as “the spiritual home of the Negro protest movement.” … The NAACP chapter there soon grew to be the largest in the country. Activist A. Philip Randolph lived in Harlem and published the radical magazine The Messenger starting in 1917. … W. E. B. Du Bois lived and published in Harlem in the 1920s, as did James Weldon Johnson and Marcus Garvey.
You know, some books are written in a way that lends themselves quoting, and some are not. This book had a great deal of interesting material about crime and particularly Lucas’s development as a criminal, but most of it went into too much depth to easily quote. (I do longer quotes for books out of copyright.) This passage works, though:
I never even thought about getting a regular job. That just wasn’t me. From the moment I saw my cousin’s head blown away in front of me by the Klan, I had no faith in doing things the “right” way. … I watched my parents break their backs for next to nothing because they tried to play by the unfair rule of the sharecropping system. Just seemed like trying to do things the so-called right way got you nowhere…
There were two Harlems back then. There were the high-society folks, the people who lived in the fancy brownstones overlooking Central Park or up on Mount Morris. … I didn’t notice these people. I knew they were there, but it was like they were in black and white. …Those people up on Mount Morris had solid educations, which gave them a hell of a lot more options than I had. …
The underworld was in full, living color. The prostitute and their pimps, the number runners and their clients, the drug dealers and, most especially, the gamblers, who always had lots of money. They spoke a language I could read, write, and understand fluently.
Just to recap, our author showed up in Harlem at the age of 14 or so with the clothes on his back and not enough money to ride the bus. He found a warm place to sleep with the other homeless and began stealing food. This progressed to stealing money, and as the author puts it:
A few months after I started stealing anything not nailed down in Harlem, I was introduced to the heroin trade.
On the history of Heroin ™:
Hoffmann, working at Bayer pharmaceutical company in Elberfeld, Germany, was instructed by his supervisor Heinrich Dreser to acetylate morphine with the objective of producing codeine, a constituent of the opium poppy… Instead, the experiment produced an acetylated form of morphine one and a half to two times more potent than morphine itself. The head of Bayer’s research department reputedly coined the drug’s new name, “heroin,” based on the German heroisch, which means “heroic, strong” (from the ancient Greek word “heros, ήρως”). …
In 1895, the German drug company Bayer marketed diacetylmorphine as an over-the-counter drug under the trademark name Heroin. It was developed chiefly as a morphine substitute for cough suppressants that did not have morphine’s addictive side-effects. Morphine at the time was a popular recreational drug, and Bayer wished to find a similar but non-addictive substitute to market. However, contrary to Bayer’s advertising as a “non-addictive morphine substitute,” heroin would soon have one of the highest rates of addiction among its users.
Like Frisbees and Kleenex, Heroin was once a brand name that has become synonymous with the product.
Lucas isn’t out to take heroin. He wants to sell it–probably a less risky and more profitable venture than robbing people at gunpoint. But by now he’s attracted some unwanted attention.
In the underworld environment, cops are the natural enemy of a drug dealer. It was my job to just stay out of their way, but that rule only applies to cops trying to do their job. Crooked cops have no rules and no ethics. And some of them get a badge just so they can have a license to beat people up and rob them.
If I ever turned a corner and saw Diggs and his partner, Pappo, my stomach sank and my temper jumped a few degrees. …
“You got a reason to have your hands on me?” I’d say.
“We can make one up if you don’t shut the fuck up,” they’d say.
Diggs and Pappo beat him up a lot, until one day Lucas went a little crazy and threatened to kill them, after which they left him alone.
If I recall correctly, Lucas was only about 17 at this time, so this was around 1947, maybe into the early 50s.
Obviously Lucas has interacted with a lot of police officers, since he’s been arrested a few times and spent many years in prison. He doesn’t have much negative to say about honest cops, but crooked cops–who not only beat him, like Diggs and Pappo, but also extorted money from him–earn his ire.
Of course, Lucas was actually a criminal, but why did he attract so much attention from police officers who were content to beat him up a bit and then let him back out on the streets? If the crooked cops knew he was dealing, why didn’t he attract the attention of honest police officers before becoming a multi-millionaire drug lord? Were the crooked cops just more attuned to criminal activity (being, essentially, criminals themselves)? Was there just not enough solid evidence to convict Lucas in a court of law, but more than plenty to randomly harass him? Does arresting people require a lot of paperwork?
Lucas was eventually arrested and sent to prison (in 1975, though his 70 year sentence was eventually reduced to 5 plus parole.) Throughout the period Lucas was operating–primarily the 1960s and early 70s–heroin, crack, and crime hit NYC like a sledgehammer. How much was Lucas’s fault is debatable (though it was surely a lot.) But the attitude of “let’s just beat up the criminals a bit and then put them back on the streets” couldn’t have helped.
It’s getting late, so let’s continue this next Friday.