I recently had a conversation with someone who seemed entirely motivated by kindness and also entirely, dangerously wrong.
The subject was prisons, and more specifically the treatment of prisoners:
Steven Hayes, who was convicted of a deadly 2007 home invasion in Connecticut that was so brutal it gained international attention, is receiving hormone therapy in prison as part of a gender transition https://t.co/jaDpU5UQEp
You’ve probably noticed that I’ve read a few books on prisons, crime, and legal systems. My opinion of the American legal system is that it is kind of terrifying; it usually catches the right person, but not always; unscrupulous people absolutely can use it to destroy your life.
Prisoners can be divided into roughly three groups:
People who shouldn’t be there (innocent, or their sentences are absurd for their crimes)
People who should be there, but feel genuine remorse
Some prisoners shouldn’t be there at all, some should be treated better than they currently are and given more support for reintegration to the non-prison world, and some should be tortured to death.
Over in real life, I try hard to be kind to others. I hand out cookies and hot cider on cold days to the neighborhood kids, volunteer with the homeless, and feel bad about eating animals.
But kindness requires… policing. Children cannot play on the playground if it’s full of homeless druggies. Homeless shelters cannot help if they are full of strung-out druggies, either. Even eating “free range” chickens requires that farmers raising chickens in batteries be prevented from slapping a fraudulent “free range” sticker on their meat.
Kindness alone is insufficient for creating a “kind” world. Many people are not nice people and will take advantage of or harm others if given the chance. Being “kind” to such people simply allows them to harm others.
My interlocutor in the conversation about the “trans” inmate basically argued that taxpayers should fund cross-sex hormone therapy for a man who raped/tortured/murdered a family (raped and murdered their kid, too), because it is medical care that prevents pain and suffering.
This argument is flawed on two grounds. The first is obvious: the entire point of prisons is to cause suffering. Prison isn’t fun; if it were fun, people would want to be there. Prison has to be unpleasant in order to function as any sort of deterrent, and we do actually want to deter people from committing crime. (In this case, the fellow should suffer to death, but that’s irrelevant, since the death penalty isn’t on the table in Connecticut.)
This doesn’t mean that I want to torture all of the prisoners–see above–but that doesn’t change the fundamental fact that punishment is an part of what prisons are for.
The second flaw is the matter of obligation. We may not wish to cause further harm to an inmate–having determined that prison is sufficient already–but that does not obligate us to relieve suffering that we didn’t cause in the first place.
This is a very common conversation in the car: “Mom! I forgot my toy! We have to go back!”
“I’m sorry, but we don’t have time to go back. You had half an hour to get ready, so you had plenty of time to get Mr. Fuzzy before we left. Hopefully you’ll plan ahead better next time.”
Yes, kiddo is going to cry, but he’s old enough to remember Mr. Fuzzy; it’s not everyone else in the car’s job to fix his mistake.
The fact that someone wants to undergo a sex change does not mean they need to; they may be unhappy because they cannot, but there are 2.3 million other people in prison who are also unhappy because there are things they cannot do. There are people who will never attend their children’s birthday parties; men whose wives will leave them; women whose sick and aging parents will die without saying good-bye.
Life is filled with tragedies; there is nothing special about wanting to be a girl that it sets it above the others and obligates tax payers to pay for it.
I am fine with paying for actual life-saving medical care, up to a point–diabetics in prison shouldn’t be denied insulin, for example. But wanting to be a girl is not an emergency. It’s a luxury, and once you’ve torture murdered a few people, you don’t get luxuries anymore.
To this is replied that I am, in some way, denying the inmate’s humanity, or perhaps drawing lines in the sand that could get shifted in difficult cases to cause harm to someone I do not want harmed, etc. The idea that we should not decide a trivially easy case because someday a more difficult case may come along is obvious nonsense, and “humanity” in this context is meaningless. I wouldn’t torture a dog, even though they aren’t human. I think it is immoral to kill or mistreat great apes, elephants, and dolphins.
Dolphins don’t torture humans to death.
If we are going to remember that someone is a human, we should remember his victims. They were humans; he is merely a member of Homo sapiens, a distinction he neither earned nor made meaningful.
There are several sleights of hand, here. The first is the exchange of causing harm and preventing harm. We may have an obligation not to cause harm, but we lack one to prevent harm. The second is the classification of sex hormones as necessary medical care. It is not; no one dies from not undergoing HRT. The third was characterizing a denial of medical care as a human rights violation. Human rights, you know, the things the UN decided were important after the Holocaust.
Put these three sleights together, and wanting to spend my money on my own children instead of on sex hormones for a murderer is equivalent to shoveling people into ovens.
I don’t think most of these sleights my interlocutor made were intentional–rather, I think she (or he) is a very kind person who has been effectively deceived by others who prey on her niceness.
Step one in fixing this sort of problem is to realize that kindness cannot exist in a vacuum: predators have to be stopped or children will be murdered, and we do this via coercion, which is, yes, painful. Step two is realizing that money (and resources) is limited, and that spending it on one thing requires not spending it on something else. Once we realize that, we have a quick and easy morality test: would sane people take money from their children in order to spend it on this?
In this case, normal people find the idea abhorrent: no loving parent would deprive their children in order to provide a murderer with luxuries.
If your “kindness” leads to acting abhorrently, it isn’t really kindness.
Welcome back to Anthropology-ish Friday: The History and Romance of Crime: Oriental Prisons, by Arthur Griffiths, a British prison administrator and inspector of the late 1800s. I am not sure when the book was published, but I believe it was sometime in the early 1900s, for Griffiths mentions events that occurred up to 1899 and died in 1908.
An account from the Prisons of Burmah (aka Myanmar):
“The acquisition and annexation of Burmah by Great Britain, first the lower province with three-fourths of the seaboard, and then the entire kingdom, were accomplished between 1824 and 1886, in a little more than half a century, that is to say. Until this took place the country was generally in a state of anarchy, the king was a bloodthirsty despot, and the state council was at his bidding no better than a band of Dacoits who plundered the people and murdered them wholesale. The ruling powers were always anxious to pick a quarrel …
“The outbreak of hostilities led to cruel retaliation by the king of Burmah upon all Europeans who resided in the country, whether as missionaries or merchants engaged in trade. One of them, an Englishman, Mr. Henry Gouger, was arrested as a spy and arraigned before a court of justice with very little hope of escaping with his life. He was fortunately spared after suffering untold indignities and many positive tortures. Eventually he published his experiences, which remain to this day as a graphic record of the Burmese prisons as they then existed. He was first committed to the safe keeping of the king’s body guard, and confined with his feet in the stocks; then he was transferred to the “death prison,” having been barbarously robbed and deprived of his clothing. He was not entirely stripped, but was led away with his arms tied behind his back, bare-headed and bare-footed to the Let-ma-yoon, the “antechamber of the tomb.” ”
The following quotes are from Gouger’s account:
“While we were passing this week in the inner prison, a frightful event took place, which threatened the immediate destruction of the whole community; indeed, it is wonderful that the instinct of self-preservation did not deter our parent of the prison from executing his order. A woman was brought in covered with the pustules of the small-pox. … Even the Burmese prisoners themselves expressed their astonishment, but remonstrance was useless. The gaolers, however, showed a little common sense by placing the unfortunate creature in a clear spot by herself to avoid contact with the other inmates of the prison, with delicate threats of punishment if she moved from it.
“We never heard what induced this barbarity, but she was most likely suffering for the misconduct of some relative in the war, and the authority who sent her there could not have been aware of the disease, for she had not been among us more than twenty-four hours when she was again taken away.
“But by what means was infection averted? Inoculation or vaccination was unknown. Here were about fifty persons living in the same confined room without ventilation, and yet not one of them took the disease. The fact seems almost miraculous, and I should have doubted the nature of the malady had it not been acknowledged and dreaded by everyone, the natives as well as ourselves. I can only account for our immunity by the free use of tobacco.”
EvX: I’ve noted before that tobacco appears to have certain anti-parasitic and possibly anti-microbial properties. It’s ironic that something that damages your lungs might simultaneously protect you from infection, but it’s not a completely insane idea.
Back to the account:
““In the Indies,” says one old authority, “when one man accuses another of a crime punishable by death, it is customary to ask the accused if he is willing to go through trial by fire, and if he answers in the affirmative, they heat a piece of iron till it is red hot; then he is told to put his hand on the hot iron, and his hand is afterward wrapped up in a bay leaf, and if at the end of three days he has suffered no hurt he is declared innocent and delivered from the punishment which threatened him. Sometimes they boil water in a cauldron till it is so hot no one may approach it; then an iron ring is thrown into it and the person accused is ordered to thrust in his hand and bring up the ring, and if he does so without injury he is declared innocent. …”
“Another ordeal was to take the accused to the tomb of a Mohammedan saint and walk past, having first loaded him with heavy fetters. If the fetters fall off, he is declared to be clear. “I have heard it said,” is the comment of one authority who had little confidence in the good faith of the tribunal, “that by some artful contrivance the fetters are so applied as to fall off at a particular juncture.” …
“To follow this man on his reception and through his treatment will give a good idea of prison life in Burmah. His clothing was first issued to him; a loin cloth of coarse brown stuff and a strip of sacking to serve as his bed. His hair was close cut and his head was as smooth as the palm of his hand, save for one small tuft left on the crown; his name was registered in the great book, and he was led to the blacksmith’s shop, where his leg irons were riveted on him, anklets in the form of a heavy ring to which a connecting ring with two straight iron bars was attached. At the same time a neck ring of iron as thick as a lead pencil was welded on, with a plate attached, nine inches by five, on which a paper recording the personal description of the individual was pasted. …
““If there is a type of revolting human ugliness, it is the Burmese gaol-bird,” says the same authority, “with his shaven head and the unmistakable stamp of criminal on his vicious face. All convicts seem to acquire that look of low, half-defiant cunning from their associates, and a physiognomist would not hesitate to describe nine-tenths of the men before us as bad characters if he saw them in any society. Many of this gang are Dacoits, and their breasts, arms and necks are picture galleries of tattooed devices, fondly cherished by the owners as charms against death or capture. Some have rows of unsightly warts, like large peas, upon the breast and arms which mark the spots where the charms have been inserted,—scraps of metal and other substances inscribed with spells known only to the wise men who deal in such things. One or two natives of India are amongst the gang, and these are conspicuous by the absence of the tattooing universally found on the Burman’s thighs. A powerfully built convict at the end of the rank, in addition to the usual irons, has his ankle rings connected by a single straight bar, so that he can only stand with his feet twelve inches apart.
“‘Look at that fellow,’ says the superintendent; ‘he is in for five years, and his time would have been up in three months. A week ago he was down at the creek with his gang working timber, and must needs try to escape. He was up to his waist in water and dived under a raft, coming to the surface a good fifty yards down the stream. The guard never missed him until a shout from another man drew their attention, when they saw him swimming as hard as he could go, irons and all, towards a patch of jungle on the opposite side.’ Amongst a repulsive horde this man would take first place without competition. ‘Reckless scoundrel,’ is written on every line of his scowling face, and such he undoubtedly is. After the severe flogging his attempted escape earned for him, he assaulted and bit his guards and fellow prisoners, and the bar between his anklets was the immediate result.”
“According to Chinese law, theoretically, no prisoner is punished until he confesses his crime. He is therefore proved guilty and then by torture made to acknowledge the accuracy of the verdict. The cruelty shown to witnesses as well as culprits is a distinct blot on the administration of justice in China. The penal code is ferocious, the punishments inflicted are fiendishly cruel, and the prisons’ pig-stys in which torture is hardly more deadly than the diseases engendered by the most abominable neglect….
“Few Europeans have experienced imprisonment in China. One Englishman, Lord Loch, has given an account of the sufferings he endured when treacherously captured during the war of 1860. “The discipline of the prison was not in itself very strict and had it not been for the starvation, the pain arising from the cramped position in which the chains and ropes retained the arms and legs, with the heavy drag of the iron collar on the bones of the spine, and the creeping vermin that infested every place, together with the occasional beatings and tortures which the prisoners were from time to time taken away for a few hours to endure, returning with bleeding legs and bodies and so weak as to be scarcely able to crawl, there was no very great hardship to be endured…
“There was a small maggot which appears to infest all Chinese prisons: the earth at a depth of a few inches swarms with them; they are the scourge most dreaded by every poor prisoner. Few enter a Chinese prison who have not on their bodies or limbs some wounds, either inflicted by blows to which they have been subjected, or caused by the manner in which they have been bound; the instinct of the insect to which I allude appears to lead them direct to these wounds. Bound and helpless, the poor wretch cannot save himself from their approach, although he knows full well that if they once succeed in reaching his lacerated skin, there is the certainty of a fearful lingering and agonising death before him.”
“Japan as an enlightened and progressive country has made strenuous efforts to establish “as perfect a prison system as possible; one which is in harmony with the advancement of science and the results of experience.” These reforms were commenced in 1871 and were continued in various new prisons at Tokio, Kobold, Kiogo and upon the island of Yezo, all admirably organised and maintained. This movement was hurried on by the great overcrowding of the small provincial prisons on account of the accumulation of long-term prisoners. No proper discipline could be applied and there was absolutely no room for short-term offenders. Most of those sentenced to hard labour and deportation are now sent to the penal settlement on the island of Yezo, where they are employed both within the prisons and at agriculture in the open air. Every advantage is taken of the natural aptitudes of the Japanese, and the inmates of gaols prove the most expert and artistic workmen.”
EvX: Abashiri Prison is still there. According to Wikipedia,
Abashiri Prison … The northernmost prison in Japan, it is located near the Abashiri River and east of Mount Tento. It holds inmates with sentences of less-than ten-years. …
In April 1890, the Meiji government sent over 1,000 political prisoners to the isolated Abashiri village and forced them to build roads linking it to the more populous south. Abashiri Prison later became known for being a self-sufficient farming prison, and cited as a model for others throughout Japan.
…The prison is also known for its wooden nipopo (ニポポ) dolls carved by its inmates.
It’s in Hokkaido, one of the snowiest places in the world.
Some Japanese Prison History:
“Even in the middle of the nineteenth century the same brutal methods of torture prevailed as in China (from where their bloody codes were mostly borrowed), and there are preserved collections of instruments of torture as diabolical as any known to history. Crime, too, was not lacking in those “isles of the blest,” and every species of moral filth and corruption abounded, which was shown in its true colours when the liberty of the press was granted, in 1872-1874. The number of executions and deaths in the native prisons at that time was said to average three thousand per annum.
“The chief prison of the empire, in Tokio, as described by Mr. William M. Griffis, who visited it in 1875, was very different in its sanitary appointments and general condition from the prisons of Tokio to-day. …
“Tokio has now two prisons; the first and chief is situated upon the island of Oshikawa at the south of the city, and the second, the convict and female prison of Ichigawa, is in the centre of the city. … Otherwise the two prisons resemble each other closely and a description of one will answer for both, says Mr. Norman, who described them in 1892, and gives the following account:
“The entrance is through a massive wooden gateway, into a guard-room adjoining which are the offices of the director and officials. The prison itself consists of a score or more of detached one-story buildings, all of wood and some of them merely substantial sheds, under which the rougher labour, like stone-breaking, is performed. The dormitories are enormous wooden cages, the front and part of the back formed of bars as thick as one’s arm, before which again is a narrow covered passage, where the warder on guard walks at night.
“There is not a particle of furniture or a single article of any kind upon the floor, which is polished till it reflects your body like a mirror. No boot, of course, ever touches it. The thick quilts, or futon, which constitute everywhere the Japanese bed, are all rolled up and stacked on a broad shelf running round the room overhead. Each dormitory holds ninety-six prisoners, and there is a long row of them. The sanitary arrangements are situated in a little addition at the back, and I was assured that these had not been made pleasant for my inspection. If not, I can only say that in this most important respect a Japanese prison could not well be improved. In fact, the whole dormitory, with its perfect ventilation, its construction of solid, highly-polished wood, in which there is no chance for vermin to harbour, and its combined simplicity and security, is an almost ideal prison structure. Of course the fact that every Japanese, from the emperor to the coolie, sleeps upon quilts spread out on the floor, greatly simplifies the task of the prison architect in Japan.
“On leaving the dormitories we passed a small, isolated square erection, peaked and gabled like a little temple. The door was solemnly unlocked and flung back, and I was motioned to enter. It was the punishment cell, another spotless wooden box, well ventilated, but perfectly dark, and with walls so thick as to render it practically silent. ‘How many prisoners have been in it during the last month?’ I asked. The director summoned the chief warder, and repeated my question to him. ‘None whatever,’ was the reply. ‘What other punishments have you?’ ‘None whatever.’ ‘No flogging?’ When this question was translated the director and the little group of officials all laughed together at the bare idea. I could not help wondering whether there was another prison in the world with no method of punishment for two thousand criminals except one dark cell, and that not used for a month. And the recollection of the filthy and suffocating sty used as a punishment cell in the city prison of San Francisco came upon me like a nausea.”
EvX: I find it interesting that a little over a hundred years later, a rank ordering of Burmese prisons as worst, Chinese prisons as moderately bad, and Japanese prisons as quite good (as far as prisons anywhere are concerned) probably still holds.
That’s all for today. Egyptian prisons next Friday. Take care and have a lovely, crime-free weekend.
Welcome back to Anthropology Friday, featuring Frank Lucas and Aliya King’s Original Gangster: the real life story of one of America’s most notorious drug lords. At his height, Lucas’s net worth was, by his account, around 52 million dollars, much of it stashed in off-shore bank accounts and American real estate. But at this point in our story, Lucas was still Bumpy Johnson’s driver.
One evening, Bumpy, Lucas and a few others were eating dinner:
At Well’s, I sat a few booths away from Bumpy. …
The chimes at the door rattled and in came a tall, lanky young man with a shock of red hair styled in a straightened conk. He made his way to Bumpy’s table and then stopped, waiting for permission from Bumpy before sitting down.
Bumpy smiled, just barely, and tilted his head to the side in a gesture that meant “have a seat.” …
The two of them spoke briefly. I wasn’t close enough to hear anything but I could tell it was a friendly, personal conversation. They didn’t look like they were in any kind of business together.
The guy took one sip of his coffee, looked at his watch, and stood up.
“Gotta go. Good to see you, Mr. Johnson.”
Always good to see you. Careful out there, Red,” said Bumpy…
Just like all of Bumpy’s associates, the guy called Detroit Red didn’t speak to me… But I knew him. I knew they called him Detroit Red and I always recognized the bright red hair he had. Years and years later, he would become Malcolm X.
I assume I don’t need to tell you about Malcolm X. He’s pretty famous–even I’ve seen the movie about him.
Bumpy decides to put Lucas in charge of a “numbers” spot, keeping track of gamblers. He explains to Lucas the different kinds of gamblers and how the operation works:
“[This guy] Can’t afford to play more than a quarter a day. But he plays it. He’d skip lunch before he missed playing his number. …
“This is a sensitive operation. It’s illegal–God only knows why–so you have to watch out for the police. Avoid the good cops. Pay off the crooked ones. …
“Spot like this one? Right next to the subway line. Brings in at least a hundred grand a week.”
As crimes go, gambling is pretty mild and makes decent money, but Lucas finds it boring and itches to expand into something more exciting. While watching a news report about American servicemen in Vietnam getting hooked on the local heroin, described as purer and cheaper than the heroin available in the US. Those words stuck in his brain, but Bumpy nixed his idea to go to Thailand and buy drugs straight from the source, bypassing the Mafia. In the meanwhile:
[Frank’s third child] was born in the spring. And by the fall of 1960, I was in a situation that would make it much harder for me to go see him.
I got arrested for conspiracy to sell drugs and sentenced to thirty months in the federal penitentiary in Lewisburg… Doing jail time was no big deal to me. But what made it a little complicated was that they had blacks and whites desegregated. Around the time I went into Lewisburg, they’d passed some law that made it illegal to segregate prisoners. So, for the first time in the common areas and in the mess hall, black folks and white folk were together. I’m not so sue that was a good idea back then ’cause, for the most part, blacks and whites in jail were like the Bloods and Crips today.
And at Lewisburg, there were more white boys. We were outnumbered at least three to one, which just added to the tension when they started mixing us up.
I started this whole project hoping to find something on race and prison gangs (unfortunately, my local library didn’t have anything that looked promising on the subject.) Even within the genre of crime stories, it appears that most people aren’t very comfortable discussing racial conflict, but I doubt a stranger who started his memoir with a Klan slaying is any stranger to racial animosity.
With Bumpy’s passing, Lucas became one of the top gangsters in Harlem and could finally pursue his dream of importing heroin directly from Thailand. With military planes flying in and out of the area due to the Vietnam war, it wasn’t hard to arrange for a few more things to be shipped in their holds. The drugs arrive and Lucas arranges for a crew to unload it from the plane:
Doc and his boys moved everything out. They would take it to the second location to prevent the first crew from knowing too much about the operation. I always wanted to have more than one layer to my business proceedings. And with a project like this, it was even more important.
My work was now done. Doc and Glynn would make sure the product was prepared for the streets and sold. I didn’t touch any part of that process. … I was no longer a drug dealer. I didn’t deal with any junkies. I didn’t touch any drugs, and I was several layers removed from the streets. I was an entrepreneur; I simply dealt with supply and demand. Some folks import tea from China, art from Paris, or fabric from Italy. I imported heroin.
Both Mafia bosses and Frank Lucas used this technique of putting multiple layers of employees between themselves and the street-level handling, processing, and selling of the product (or street-level gambling operations, extortion, etc.) The Bosses call the shots, but with enough plausible deniability to make them difficult to prosecute (which is why they are often prosecuted on money-laundering charges, instead.)
With Frank Lucas managing the supply chain, the streets of New York were flooded with cheaper, more potent heroin–leading to thousands of deaths.
For years, I would use this to keep my mind off the guilt of what the heroin was doing to the people in my community. Joseph Seagram made sure the streets had beer, wine, and liquor. And I’m sure he didn’t feel bad about the winos and alcoholics in the street. Down in North Carolina, where I was from, R. J. Reynolds had tobacco fields everywhere. Made sure the streets were flooded with cigarettes… I know R. J. Reynolds didn’t feel bad about folks dying of lung cancer left and right.
I was Frank Lucas. I supplied the streets of Harlem with heroin. It was my profession. And, like war, it came with casualties.
Lucas goes to visit the poppy fields in Thailand:
I’m telling you, I felt like we crossed every river in Asia on our way. From the Ruak River to the Mekong, we trekked out on foot for miles and miles. ….
And across the land, there was nothing but poppies–everywhere. I was in complete shock.
Now, when I say there was nothing before me but poppy field, you really have to understand what I’m trying to tell you. I’m talking about land the size of all five boroughs in New York City combined. And there was nothing but the poppy seed plants–the plant that heroin is made from–stretching from one end to the other. I looked up and noticed that the entire field was covered with dark netting. The netting made it impossible to see the fields from the sky so that traveling military planes wouldn’t know what was going on there. But the sun could still shine through…
I asked my guide how the area had become the headquarters for heroin… In the 1960s, there was an anticommunist group of Chinese people who had settled near the border of China and Burma. They ended up getting support from the American CIA… The Hmong people traded in heroin, an with the CIA tuning a blind eye to their illegal activities, the region exploded. …
While the CIA was sponsoring a Secret War in Laos from 1961 to 1975, it was accused of trafficking in opium (an area known as the Golden Triangle). …
During its involvement, the CIA used the Meo (Hmong) population to fight Pathet Lao rebels. Because of the war against Pathet Lao rebels, the Hmong depended upon poppy cultivation for hard currency. The Hmong were very important to CIA operations and the CIA was very concerned with their well-being. The Plain of Jars had been captured by Pathet Lao rebels in 1964, which resulted in the Laotian Air Force not being able to land their C-47 transport aircraft on the Plain of Jars for opium transport. The Laotian Air Force had almost no light planes that could land on the dirt runways near the mountaintop poppy fields. Having no way to transport their opium, the Hmong were faced with economic ruin. Air America was the only airline available in northern Laos. “According to several unproven sources, Air America began flying opium from mountain villages north and east of the Plain of Jars to Gen Vang Pao’s headquarters at Long Tieng.”
The CIA’s front company, Air America was alleged to have profited from transporting opium and heroin on behalf of Hmong leader Vang Pao, or of “turning a blind eye” to the Laotian military doing it. This allegation has been supported by former Laos CIA paramilitary Anthony Poshepny (aka Tony Poe), former Air America pilots, and other people involved in the war. … However, University of Georgia historian William M. Leary, writing on behalf of Air America, claims that this was done without the airline employees’ direct knowledge and that the airline did not trade in drugs.
Finally Lucas get a bit sloppy, shows off a bit too much wealth, and more than just crooked cops (who had long known about his business and been extorting him for money) come down on him. His house is raided and they find nearly $600,000 in cash (Lucas claims there was far more, but they stole it, including the key and subsequently contents of his safe deposit box in the Cayman Islands.) He was sentenced to 70 years in prison, but for providing evidence that lead to 100 other drug-related convictions, he was placed in the Witness Protection Program. His sentence was was soon reduced to five years plus lifetime parole.
After some more in-and-out with the legal system, he was released from prison in 1991.
Testimony during one of the trials from a grieving mother whose son overdosed on heroin began to make Lucas realize that he couldn’t just wash his hands of the results of his “business.” Tired of prison and the drug trade, Lucas was faced with the prospect of finding legal ways to make money:
As soon as I got out, my brother Larry asked me about working with him on an oil deal. He knew a man who was trying to import oil from Nigeria to Texas.
“He’s got a great connection,” said Larry. “He’s just trying to raise money.” … “Nothing illegal here, Frank. He just needs investors. Everything’s on the up and up.” …
I met with the guy and I was impressed with him right way. I agreed to start doing some fund-raising for him and try to get his oil business off the ground. Even though I wasn’t in the drug game anymore, I still knew people with money. I ended up raising close to a million dollars in three months… ‘The profits from the oil business started coming in quickly. It wasn’t big money. It was nothing like I’d experienced years before… But I did pull in about a hundred grand every few months. And I did it legally–for the very first time in my entire adult life.
Lucas soon found other ways to make money, like turning his life’s story into a book and then a movie.
At the memoir’s end, he approaches the premier of the movie about his own life, considers for a few minutes, and turns away:
In some small measure, my absence from the premier [of the movie about him] was out of respect to the many people, in Harlem and beyond, who suffered from the heroin industry that I helped to expand. …
Today, I write this book and outline all my successes and my failings in honor of every single person affected directly or indirectly by the evils of the heroin trade. … I’m seventy-eight years old today and I still have a lifetime of regret.
And every single word in this book is dedicated to those I impacted in any way.
Does he mean it? I suppose that is between him and God. Can a man of no conscience develop one? Can a man with psychopathic disregard for the lives of others (and his own) become a loving husband, father, and son? And can a man redeem himself for such crimes?
And from a societal perspective, what should be done with people like Lucas? Is there some alternative scenario where he didn’t enter a life of crime? Lucas certainly didn’t enter crime because he lacked the intelligence or talents necessary for other occupations, but because he was far too ambitious for the honest employment options open to him. Even if better jobs had been available, would he have wanted to pursue them, or would all of those years of school and training have been too tedious beside the allure of immediate money?
Welcome back to Frank Lucas and Aliya King’s Original Gangster: the real life story of one of America’s most notorious drug lords. (Given that I’d never heard of Frank Lucas before reading this book, I’m not sure how notorious he actually is, but I’ll grant that I can’t name a whole lot of drug lords off the top of my head.)
To recap: at the age of 14, Frank Lucas arrived–penniless and homeless–in NYC. He began stealing food and quickly progressed to drug dealing and armed robbery:
I was crazy. I didn’t care about anything except where my next dollar was coming from and how I was going to spend it… I heard through the grapevine that I had at least five contracts out on my life. From the grocery-store owner to the group of gangsters I’d robbed at the gambling spot,* people were straight up making deals and promising money to anyone who would kill em dead in the street.
*Not a good idea.
I should mention here that I was all of seventeen years old.
I wasn’t afraid to die. More than that, I just didn’t care about dying. I was young, tough, good-looking, and strong. I was prepared to do whatever I had to do to live. If that meant killing anyone who tried to kill me, so be it.
I have a friend who was homeless for many years. During that time, he never held up a liquor store or so much as picked a pocket. He ate at soup kitchens and slept in homeless shelters, and while the food was dull and the environs terrible, he didn’t starve and he is very much still alive. Of course, the charity situation in NYC in the 40s may have been different, but I have not heard of their homeless just starving to death. Theft is not necessary for survival.
On the other hand, Frank Lucas was homeless for a far shorter time than my friend, and ended up with far more money.
For several weeks, I was a wanted man. But if you’d run into me at one of my Harlem hangouts you’d never have known it by looking at me. I was calm, cool. and collected. I woke up every morning ready to kill on sight. …
I continued robbing whoever and wherever, getting my money up, and I was still dating any woman I wanted.
Lack of fear is one of the signs of psychopathy (especially since psychopaths experience low emotional affect in general.) As Wikipedia puts it:
People scoring 25 or higher in the PCL-R, with an associated history of violent behavior, appear on average to have significantly reduced microstructural integrity between the white matter connecting the amygdala and orbitofrontal cortex (such as the uncinate fasciculus). The evidence suggested that the degree of abnormality was significantly related to the degree of psychopathy and may explain the offending behaviors. …
Additionally, the notion of psychopathy being characterized by low fear is consistent with findings of abnormalities in the amygdala, since deficits in aversive conditioning and instrumental learning are thought to result from amygdala dysfunction, potentially compounded by orbitofrontal cortex dysfunction, although the specific reasons are unknown.
Back to Lucas:
I think we need to recap right here before I go any further. I come up to Harlem in the mid-1940s, just barely a teenager. I start robbing and stealing, move on to selling heroin, and within a few years, I’d made and lost hundreds of thousands of dollars. … And I took it straight to the gambling and pool halls throughout my neighborhood and lost every penny.
Glib and superficial charm
Cunning and manipulativeness
Need for stimulation
Impulsivity / Irresponsibility
Poor behavioral controls
Lack of (realistic) long-term goals
Many short-term marital relationships / Sexual promiscuity
Lack of remorse or guilt / Lack of empathy
Shallow affect (superficial emotional responsiveness)
Failure to accept responsibility for own actions
Early behavioral problems / Juvenile delinquency
Revocation of conditional release
Lucas does eventually get married, love his wife, provide for a couple of his many children, and feel remorse for selling the heroin that killed many people. But that’s later. At 17, he was wondering if he could get in on the murder-for-hire business:
I wondered if Icepick needed a little help in the kill-for-hire business. I would have killed someone for twenty-five thousand dollars. … It’s the mind frame I was in at the time. … It was kill or be killed, as far as I was concerned.
Icepick Red was wanted by the police for walking up to people in the streets and sticking icepicks into their chests, presumably in exchange for money. Lucas tries to talk to Icepick, but Icepick (who does not come across as the sanest guy) won’t even acknowledge his presence. (Later in the book, one of Lucas’s wives–upon realizing that he was going to be a terrible father–has an abortion, and Lucas has the temerity to object that killing fetuses is immoral.)
I wanted to find a picture for you of Icepick–or even the original newspaper article about him–but so far nothing specific has come up. I did, however, find an article confirming that icepicks were a popular murder weapon about this time:
Just when it seemed the ice pick served no purpose, a Brooklyn organized-crime syndicate, known as Murder Incorporated, found a deliberately sinister use for the otherwise antiquated tool. Historians estimate that the gangster ring carried out 400 to 1,000 contract killings. In more than a few cases, the victim met with his death at the end of an ice pick.
According to newspaper accounts, two young Brooklyn “underworld characters” were found dead in a vacant lot in New Jersey in 1932. Their bodies, each stabbed at least 20 times with an ice pick, were stuffed into sewn sacks. One victim had only one cent in his pocket.
In 1944, a jury found Jacob Drucker guilty of the murder of Walter Sage, a Brooklyn moneylender whose body was found “riddled with ice-pick holes” and strapped to a slot machine frame.
“Let me put it to you this way,” said a former New York City police detective. “An ice pick stabbed through the temple and through the brains was not uncommon in homicides.”
Back then, mobsters used ice picks not only because the tool was easy to get and did the job … but also because an ice pick instilled fear. It was employed to send a message, said the detective, Thomas D. Nerney, 72, who joined the New York Police Department in 1966 and worked in virtually every homicide squad in the city before retiring in 2002.
“Murder is not only to take somebody’s life away, but to terrorize,” Mr. Nerney said. …”That was the message that went out to the people who didn’t comply with the rules of the Mafia.”
A little later, Lucas and Icepick Red got into a tense situation over a game of pool, when Bumpy Johnson stepped in (and, according to Lucas, saved his life):
I’d never seen him before. But anyone living in Harlem knew the name Bumpy Johnson. I’d read his name in the paper a few time and I knew that if anyone in Harlem wanted to do any kind of big business, he had to come see Bumpy Johnson first. Or die. …
I only knew the basics about Bumpy stuff I’d heard in the streets. He was from South Carolina. And I’d heard that he wasn’t a typical gangster. He worked the streets but he wasn’t of the streets. He was refined and classy, more like a businessman with a legitimate career than most people in the underworld. I could tell by looking at him that he was a lot different than most people I saw in the streets. …
From that day until the day he died, my place was at the right side of Bumpy Johnson. I went where he went. I did whatever he told me to do. I listened, I observed, and I learned. I didn’t ask questions. I only followed commands and order. And I learned everything about how the King of Harlem ran his enterprises.
There’s some debate over how much Lucas actually worked for Bumpy. Bumpy’s wife, Mayme, tells the story differently. (Here’s an interesting story about Bumpy from Mayme’s POV.)
I’m not sure if Icepick Red was a real person, or multiple people rolled into one character, but Bumpy was definitely real. He moved to Harlem in 1919, and became an enforcer for Stephanie St. Clair, herself, fascinating. St. Clair, born in 1886 in Martinique of French and African parentage, became one of Harlem’s only female mob bosses. According to Wikipedia:
After the end of Prohibition, Jewish and Italian-American crime families saw a decrease in profits and decided to move in on the Harlem gambling scene. Bronx-based mob boss Dutch Schultz was the first to move in, beating and killing numbers operators who would not pay him protection.
Saint-Clair and her chief enforcer Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson refused to pay protection to Schultz, despite the violence and intimidation by police they faced. St. Clair responded by attacking the storefronts of businesses that ran Dutch Schultz’s betting operations and tipping off the police about him. This resulted in the police raiding his house, arresting more than a dozen of his employees and seizing approximately $12 million (about $216 million in 2016 currency). Saint-Clair never submitted to Dutch Schultz like many others in Harlem eventually did.
After Saint-Clair’s struggles with Schultz, she had to keep clean and away from police, so she handed off her business to “Bumpy” Johnson. Eventually her former enforcer negotiated with Lucky Luciano, and Lucky took over Schultz’s spots, with a percentage going to “Bumpy”. The Italians then had to go to “Bumpy” first if they had any problems in Harlem.
Luciano realized that the struggle with the Five Families was hurting their business, so Schultz was assassinated in 1935 on the orders of The Commission. Saint-Clair sent an insulting telegram to his hospital bed as the gangster lay dying. By the 1940s, “Bumpy” Johnson had become the reigning king in Harlem, while Saint-Clair became less and less involved in the numbers game.
Let’s return to Lucas’s account:
If you wanted to do business in Harlem, you went through Bumpy. And you paid him a percentage of your profits for the benefits of being in business in the neighborhood. It was like property tax–hazard insurance. If you didn’t want your hardware store, beauty salon, or grocery to go up in flames in the dead of night, you collected your fee every month and passed it off to one of Bumpy’s associates…
I saw a variety of celebrities come into his brownstone to visit. I saw the actor Sidney Poitier in the sitting room one afternoon, talking with Bumpy. On other occasions, I saw people like Billy Daniels and Billy Eckstine in the formal dining room for dinner. Of course, I never had conversation with these people. That wasn’t my place…
years later, I’d hear about how Bumpy Johnson was supposedly a big time drug dealer. I put my life on this statement right here: I didn’t know nothing about Bumpy and drugs. He never whispered a word to me about it and I was with him from first thing in the morning till late at night. I’m not saying he wasn’t. I’m just saying that if he was, he did it all without me hearing a word about it. …
Bumpy didn’t just shake down businesses in Harlem. If anyone made any money doing anything illegal, Bumpy was owed a piece of that, too. Soon after I started working for him, some guys from Harlem pulled a job off out in the Midwest, robbed some diamonds from somewhere. And they sent Bumpy his share of the heist. That kind of thing happened quite often.
The story of Icepick Red comes to an end after Icepick murders one of Bumpy’s associates and rapes the deceased’s wife. Bumpy sends Lucas and some of his other men to do what the police couldn’t: bring Icepick in. Bumpy proceeds to chain Icepick to a pipe and sic a couple of jars of fire ants on him. Icepick is eaten alive.
(Despite Icepick’s crimes, Lucas expresses horror at the nature of his murder, noting that he wishes he had just shot Icepick when they cornered him.)
Whether Icepick was real or a composite, I still wonder it took someone like Bumpy–not the police–to bring him down. Was it only in the 90s that the police got serious about stopping criminals, instead of occasionally beating them up and then returning them to the streets?
I’m running low on time, so that’s all for today. See you next Friday!
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.
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.
Welcome to our final post on Jay Dobyns and Nils Johnson-Shelton‘s No Angel: My Harrowing Undercover Journey to the Inner Circle of the Hells Angels. (The subtitle is a bit of an overstatement–while Dobyns does meet Sonny Barger, he’s never part of Sonny’s circle. The authors may not have had any control over the book’s title, though.) This has been an interesting, often intense book. I’ve not quoted as much as I usually do because the book is new, under copyright, and obviously the authors would like for you to buy a copy and read it yourself.
One of the themes running through the book is the intersection of crime, drugs, poverty, and innocents (children) caught in the middle. It’s a part of America where meth is rampant and lives are broken.
And how do the Hells Angels (and other motorcycle clubs) fit into this? Are they spontaneous order or disorder? For people who grew up neglected, abused, or merely on the outside of society, does the “brotherhood” of bikers provide an essential, tribal sense of belonging?
Indeed, one of the mysteries the book touches on repeatedly is that this “criminal” organization receives nigh unwavering support from the general public. When they go to clubs, they’re given an introduction over the loudspeaker (“Everyone, the Hells Angels are partying with us tonight!”) Women are thrown at them. (Dobyns, who is married, has to get another undercover police officer to fake being his girlfriend to explain why he isn’t having sex with any of the women throwing themselves at him.) All of the motorcycle clubs in the area, even the totally mundane ones, respect the HAs; there are HA “support” clubs scattered around the nation.
(In any area where the HA aren’t dominant and some other club is, people look up to and respect that club.) People buy Hells Angels t-shirts and as Dobyns notes, even some police officers form their own motorcycle clubs, at least somewhat modeled on the Outlaw clubs.
By contrast, while people do look out for and respect their local Mafia bosses and drug dealers, they don’t form gang fan clubs or wear Mafia-themed t-shirts.
Meanwhile, job demands were wearing on Dobyns (as usual, I’m using “” instead of blockquotes for readability):
“I was running ragged. The life of an undercover cop is not one of leisure. I was up every morning at seven, going over notes from the night before or transcribing audio from one of my recorders. the notes couldn’t be half-assed or glossed over, they had to be dead-nuts on. Then I’d do my expenditures, and those had to be to the penny… Then I’d contact the suspects–some of whom were occasionally crashed out in the living room while I did reports behind my bedroom’s locked door–and set up meetings and deals for the day or week. Then I’d call Slats and go over everything with him. Then I’d meet a task force agent to exchange notes and evidence. Then I’d start making my runs, seeing the boys, hitting the spots–just being seen is a job in itself. Then I’d make my scheduled meetings, do the buys I’d set up, Hit the club houses, and have conversations.
“Some days I’d ride from Phoenix to Bullhead and back … The sun would set, the heat would dissipate, and the nights would begin. I’d go out and, despite drinking, would try to stay lucid enough to be able to defend myself, JJ, Timmy, or Pop if any of us got made. The stress of being in near-constant mortal danger is what we were trained to endure, but undertaking it day after day is enough to fry anyone. I’d get home, cross myself, smoke cigarettes, down coffee, jot down notes and reminders, and then try to get a few hours sleep before doing t all over again the next day.”
EvX: According to Donnie Brasco, (The Way of the Wiseguy,) he didn’t set foot in an FBI office for the whole 6 years of his undercover operation. Obviously his phone and house were bugged, but it sounds like he didn’t have to check in with his supervisors or get most of his moves approved by anyone. Of course, that was in the 70s (and New York.) The FBI’s standard procedures have likely changed a bit since then (from the sounds of it, toward “more bureaucratic control and less liability” but ironically, “more likely to die from exhaustion while trying to ride a motorcycle at night.”)
Assassination of Sonny’s Successor?
“Daniel “Hoover” Seybert had been shot through the forehead on March 22. He’d been killed in the parking lot of Bridgette’s Last Laugh, a Phoenix bar, surrounded by his brothers, who conveniently–and ludicrously–didn’t see a thing. According to the Hells Angels witnesses, Hoover had just started his bike when he suddenly slumped over the bars. there was no exit wound. they didn’t hear a discharge. Some claimed that until they saw the wound in his forehead they thought he’d had a heart attack. … they were all convinced the shooter must have been a Mongol.
“We weren’t so sure. The medical examiner concluded that the wound was from a small-caliber, close-range shot. … Hoover was revered and respected nationally and internationally by friend and foes–he’d been groomed as Sonny’s replacement… His death devastated the club and drove their paranoia to new heights. …
“There was plenty of internal tension among the Angels in those days, centering on which way the club was headed, what they’d symbolize as they continued their wild ride through American cultural history. … Generally, younger members felt as though they’d joined the Hells Angels to raise hell, to do what they wanted to, when they wanted to, and not be told otherwise. Older members–members, it should be said, who’d lived this freer, hell0-raising lifestyle in decades past,–preferred to rest on their laurels, doing whatever they could not to attract attention from the law. These Angels were content with being old-time kings of the hill and selling T-shirts at motorcycle rallies.”
EvX: Again, this gets back to the question of what the organization is. The HAs got their reputation by being violent, but once you’ve got that reputation, why not sit back and enjoy it? Crime is dangerous and can lead to getting arrested; partying is fun. But the younger members have different ideas of fun. They don’t want to avoid trouble; they want to go out and raise hell.
Back to Dobyns:
“Time passed in a blur. Back in Phoenix, on the eight, I worked out with Dan… the crazy musclehead Angel I’d met when our Solo Angeles crew came to town back in January. He pumped his iron, vein in his neck bulging, and waxed hopeful about the end of his parole… JJ and I went with Bobby on the ninth to set up a T-shirt booth at a run. He intimidated the guy in charge into giving us free passes and the best booth location. Bobby said he was going to run the Americans Motorcycle Club out of there if he saw them. He and Teddy bitched about how they hadn’t been giving the Angels their due respect and that they were going to force the Americans out of the area, maybe even the state…
[They get news of a possible conflict with another club and get called in:]
“He addressed us. ‘Expect to kill tonight. Expect to shoot. Expect to die, go to jail, or skip country.’ …
“Teddy and Bobby looked on as Joby loaded the Jeep with the shotgun a box of shells, a sap, an ax handle and three or four knives. Teddy looked distraught. …
“He spoke, contemplating the ground. ‘I”m not happy about this, but this is what we do. I’m proud of ya and I’m proud of the Hells Angels. Ya be there for them, and they’ll be there for ya. Do what ya gotta do, but I want y’all to come back alive.’ He gave each of us a big hug.
“Bobby hugged us too. As he finished with me he grabbed my shoulders and said, ‘Remember, Bird–a Hells Angel may not always be right, but he is always you bother.’
“Teddy spoke again. ‘Half of what’s mine is yours. Don’t forget that either.’
“Their words made sense. Even though I’d sworn an oath to fight guy like these, I’d bought into some of their credo. I knew that any of these guys, and more than a few others across the state, wold gladly take a bullet for me. In that instant I believed in some of what the Hell Angels stood for. I was genuinely touched.”
EvX: Luckily, based on Dobyns’ and the other undercover cops’ information, the police intercept the guys they were going to potentially fight and no violence occurs.
The Wild Pigs:
“The Williams run was easy. … I wandered around with Bobby, acting as his bodyguard.
“We came across a group of bikers who called themselves the Wild Pigs. One of their guys walked up to us, his hand extended to Bobby. He wore a big shit-eating smile. He said, ‘Hey, pleasure to meet you.’
“Bobby raised his sunglasses and looked at him intently. He did not offer his hand in return. ‘Get fucked.’ …
“The Wild Pigs were cops, guys with badges who paraded around on weekends like a One Percenter club. In my mind, as in Bobby’s, they were a fucking abomination.”
EvX: Dobyns is running into a problem. He has documented plenty of illegal gun and drug sales, but nothing really new or incriminating for the organization as a whole. He’s still on the outside, a member of the “Solo Angeles” club that just rides a lot with the Hells Angels. He wants to become a full member, but prospecting for a club takes time. There are rules, they’re strict, and they don’t let a lot of people in. Meanwhile, his bosses are getting tired of the operation; it’s a lot of expense, hassle, and stress to pay him to go drinking and riding motorcycles if he’s not getting any information they don’t already have.
So Dobyns tries to expedite the prospecting process by proposing a hit job. He’ll show his devotion to the HAs by going down to Mexico and killing one of the Mongols, the HA’s rivals. He is essentially given the club’s blessings to do this, but I note that it was Dobyns‘s idea, not the club’s.
So, if you’re ever in a club that the FBI might be infiltrating, and some guy is proposing something violent or illegal, it’s best to say no.
“He handed me the pistol, I checked the safety and stuck it in my back pocket. I said I had to go, that I’d be in touch, and that I’d be back in a few days.
“He grabbed me by the shoulders and pulled me close, hugging me tight, slapping my back hard. He pushed me back, looked into my eyes, and said, ‘I want you to come home. All of you.’
“Don’t worry, bro, we will. We will.”
[Obviously, Dobyns does not actually kill anyone. They stage a photograph to make it look like they killed the dude.]
“But I was no Angel. The Mongol murder was not as simple as it appeared. …
“The fire at Joby’s camp had smelled like lamb chops for a good reason. The blood, skin, and brain that spattered out of the Mongol’s clothes had belonged to a lamb, not a man.”
It almost works, but the Hells Angels, they’ve got rules:
“On the thirtieth, Timmy, JJ, and I went to Skull Valley to talk things over. … We were told that we weren’t going to get patched [that is, receive their Hells Angels patches], even though the local shot-callers had sided with us. The problem went back to Laughlin… when some Angels had been fast-patched after the riot. This pissed off the European Angels. Those guys were over there fighting their rivals with RPGs, blowing up entire clubhouses, and none them got patched early. We were told that Europe simply outnumbered the United States and none of our guys wanted to step on their European counterparts’ toes.”
EvX: Two interesting things here. One, people did get fast-patched after the Laughlin (River Run) Riot. So violence on behalf of the club is definitely rewarded. The other interesting thing is that the European Angels sound like they are getting into a lot more violence than the American ones.
But this leaves Dobyns in the lurch. With no fast patch, the FBI decides to stop the operation. Dobyns has come far–he’s apparently considered a member of his local club even if the HA international says he needs more time–but not far enough. He’s pulled out and essentially disappears.
The case’s search warrants get executed on July 8:
“Staci, Bobby’s girlfriend, called after we started knocking the Angels down and left a frantic message, saying, ‘Bird [Dobyns’s alias], it’s Staci. I don’t know where you are, but wherever it is, stay there. They’re coming for the guys. It looks like they’re coming for all the guys. I don’t know what the fuck is going on Hopefully I’ll see you soon…’
“What was going on was predawn SRT and SWAT raids, conducted in Arizona, Nevada, California, Washington, and Colorado. The total haul was impressive. More than 1,600 pieces of evidence were collected: over 650 guns, eight of which were machine guns, sawed-off shotguns, and other prohibited weapons; dozens of silencers; explosives, including pipe-bombs, napalm, blasting caps, dynamite, and grenades; and over 30,000 rounds of live ammunition. …
“Owing to lack of evidence, Ralph “Sonny” Barger was left untouched. …
“By the summer of 2004 the Hells Angels had issued two death threats against my family and me. Over the following years they would issue three more. …
“ATF didn’t take the threats seriously. … My paranoia grew, and was only made worse by ATF’s refusal to recognize what I knew was a mortal situation. They belittled my concerns and downplayed my accomplishments… It was a dreary business, but heart-breaking and eye-opening. I’d expected to be betrayed by the Hells Angels, but not by the people I’d worked so incredibly hard for.”
EvX: Obviously we’re reading this through Dobyns’ POV. Maybe his superiors have a completely different version of things.
But there’s a lot of betrayal here. Dobyns betrayed men he’d called “brother” and had called him “brother.” Yes, many of these men were criminals, but they also would have taken a bullet for him. Even after Dobyns completely disappeared without warning or goodbye, people in the midst of life-destroying SWAT raids (raids Dobyns caused) tried to warn and protect him.
And in the meanwhile, the organization that was supposed to have Dobyns’s back and protect him didn’t.
Operation Black Biscuit [the codename for the case] ultimately failed:
“Sadly, disputes over evidence and tensions between ATF and the U.S. attorneys killed our case. Most of the serious charges were dismissed in early 2006, and as a result, hardly any of the guys who were charged with RICO violations saw the inside of a courtroom. …
“Those were dark days. The press and the defense attorneys, not privy to the turf battles fought between the case agents and the prosecutors, hung the blame on the undercover operation. We were called rogue actors, reckless and impulsive, and the Hells Angels’ legal representation publicly yoked us, confident the case would never go before a jury…
“In the beginning I thought of the Black Biscuit case as a classic Good-versus-Evil struggle. I knew the brutality and intimidation brought by the Hells Angels was real. Violence was their way of life. … Our team of elite investigators was an ideal adversary to the Hells Angels, and everyone on the task force was proud to throw themselves into taking down such an evil organization.
“But as we’ve seen, things aren’t always so cut-and-dried. I went in deep and realized that the Hells Angels weren’t all bad–and I wasn’t all good.”
“When we do right, nobody remembers. When we do wrong, nobody forgets.” — HA motto
“For those who don’t know, [Ralph “Sonny” Barger] was the man–the legend, really–who molded the Hells Angels into what they are. it’s not a stretch to say that Sonny Barger is a visionary who essentially created the image of the outlaw biker as we know it. He had help, to be sure, and the names of his cohorts dating back to the late fifties through the present are legendary in the biker world… these men created the image–the leather, the hair, the grime, the hardness, the silence, the impenetrability, the bikes–everything that constitute an outlaw biker. …
“Without the Hells Angels we wouldn’t have floor-model Harleys that look like stripped-down scream machines. No ape hangers… no bitch bar, no spool wheels, no front-end extenders. … The HA were obsessed with going fast, and without this obsession bikes would be slower. They were relentless in stripping their bikes of all but the barest essentials. The formula was simple: less weight plus bigger engines equaled more speed. Every pound they shed gained them two miles per hour. Thus “choppers”–chopped-down motorcycles. What they did was mimicked by everyone who wanted to be a Hells Angel but couldn’t be.”
EvX: When you get down to it, the motorcycle is a machine. A car is also a machine, but a car is a machine with a lot of metal between you and the engine. A chopper is a machine that has minimized the amount of metal between you and the engine. The motorcycle is about the closest you can get to just riding on an engine, riding straight down the highway on pure power.
Hells Angels International:
“[Berger] saw that the Angels could go international, that though American in origin, they needn’t be limited to America’s borders. As I’ve said before, I believe that the Hells Angels, and to a lesser extent all American-style biker gangs, are this country’s only organized-crime export.”
According to Wikipedia:
Numerous police and international intelligence agencies classify the Hells Angels as one of the “big four” motorcycle gangs, along with the Pagans, Outlaws, and Bandidos, and contend that members carry out widespread violent crime and organized crime, including drug dealing, trafficking in stolen goods, and extortion, and are involved in prostitution. Members of the organization have continuously asserted that they are only a group of motorcycle enthusiasts who have joined to ride motorcycles together, to organize social events such as group road trips, fundraisers, parties, and motorcycle rallies, and that any crimes are the responsibility of the individuals who carried them out and not the club as a whole. …
The HAMC acknowledges more than one hundred chapters spread over 29 countries. The Hells Angels motorcycle club founded a chapter in Auckland, New Zealand in 1961 and has since taken over gangs in Wanganui. New Zealand had the first chapter of the Hells Angels outside the United States. Europe did not become widely home to the Hells Angels until 1969 when two London chapters were formed. The Beatles‘ George Harrison invited some members of the HAMC San Francisco to stay at Apple Records in London in 1968. … Two charters were issued on July 30, 1969; one for “South London”—the re-imagined chapter renewing the already existing 1950 South London chapter—and the other for “East London” …The London Angels provided security at a number of UK Underground festivals including Phun City in 1970 organized by Mick Farren. They awarded Farren an “approval patch” in 1970 for use on his first solo album Mona, which also featured Steve Peregrin Took (who was credited as “Shagrat the Vagrant”).
In the 1980s and 1990s, there was a major expansion of the club into Canada. The Quebec Biker war was a violent turf war that began in 1994 and continued until late 2002 in Montreal. The war began as the Hells Angels in Quebec began to make a push to establish a monopoly on street-level drug sales in the province. A number of drug dealers and crime families resisted and established groups such as the “Alliance to fight the Angels”. The war resulted in the bombings of many establishments and murders on both sides. It has claimed more than 150 lives and led to the incarceration of over 100 bikers. …
A list of acknowledged chapters can be found on the HAMC’s official website.
“These contradictions fascinate me. The Hells Angels are separate from society, but they’re rooted in it. They’re nonconformists, but they all look the same; they’re a secret society, but also flamboyant exhibitionists; they flout the laws of the land, but they’re governed by a strict code; their name and their Death Head logo represent freedom, individualism, toughness, and lawlessness, but both name and logo are protected by legal trademarks.”
EvX: It sounds to me like they aren’t so much “non conformists” in the abstract as “non conformists” relative to a particular society. How many of these guys would succeed and be happy in the corporate world? People who think cars–which I regard as terrifying 2-ton death traps hurtling at 60 miles an hour down the road–as “cages” and want to take their chances with getting their flesh grounds straight onto the road do not strike me as people who’d be inclined to sit still in a cubicle all day.
Rather, the HAs and similar groups have opted out of mainstream society and formed their own, alternative society–a tribe of their own, replete with its own initiation rituals, tribal dress, symbolic brotherhood (the members of real tribes are usually quite closely related,) their own history and lore, and even their own army. By doing so, they leave the world in which they are at the bottom, and create a world where they are at the top.
But they still live in our society, and ironically, they definitely will sue you if you use their logos:
In March 2007 the Hells Angels filed suit against the Walt Disney Motion Pictures Group alleging that the film entitled Wild Hogs used both the name and distinctive logo of the Hells Angels Motorcycle Corporation without permission. …
In October 2010 the Hells Angels filed a lawsuit against Alexander McQueen for “misusing its trademark winged death heads symbol” in several items from its Autumn/Winter 2010 collection. The lawsuit is also aimed at Saks Fifth Avenue and Zappos.com, which stock the jacquard box dress and knuckle duster ring that bear the symbol, which has been used since at least 1948 and is protected by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. … “This isn’t just about money, it’s about membership. If you’ve got one of these rings on, a member might get really upset that you’re an impostor.” …
As of December 2013, the Hells Angels sells its branded merchandise at a retail store in Toronto, Canada.
Some final notes from Wikipedia on who can and can’t become a Hells Angel:
In order to become a Hells Angels prospect, candidates must have a valid driver’s license, a motorcycle over 750cc, and have the right combination of personal qualities. It is said the club excludes child molesters and individuals who have applied to become police or prison officers.
They might be outlaws, but they have standards.
To become a full member, the prospect must be voted on unanimously by the rest of the full club members. Prior to votes being cast, a prospect usually travels to every chapter in the sponsoring chapter’s geographic jurisdiction (state/province/territory) and introduces himself to every Full-Patch member. This process allows each voting member to become familiar with the subject and to ask any questions of concern prior to the vote. Some form of formal induction follows, wherein the prospect affirms his loyalty to the club and its members. The final logo patch (top “Hells Angels” rocker) is then awarded at this initiation ceremony. The step of attaining full membership can be referred to as “being patched”. …
The club claims not to be a racially segregated organization, although at least one chapter allegedly requires that a candidate be a white male, and Sonny Barger stated in a BBC interview in 2000 that “The club, as a whole, is not racist but we probably have enough racist members that no black guy is going to get in it”. At that time the club had no black members.
…Wooley [a black guy] became an associate of the Hells Angels Montreal chapter in the 1990s and later tried uniting street gangs in Quebec after Boucher was imprisoned.
In another interview with leader Sonny Barger in 2000 he remarked “if you’re a motorcycle rider and you’re white, you want to join the Hell’s Angels. If you black, you want to join the Dragons. …We don’t have no blacks and they don’t have no whites.” …Tobie Levingston who formed the black motorcycle club East Bay Dragons MC wrote in his book that he and Sonny Barger have a long-lasting friendship and that the Hells Angels and Dragons have a mutual friendship and hang out and ride together.
In a 1966 article about motorcycle rebels in the African-American community magazine Ebony, the Chosen Few MC stated that they see no racial animosity in the Hells Angels and that when they come into Chosen Few territory they all get together and just party. A Hells Angel member interviewed for the magazine insisted there was no racial prejudice in any of their clubs and stated “we don’t have any negro members” but maintained there have not been any blacks who have sought membership. At one point in the 1970s the Hells Angels were looking to consolidate the different motorcycle clubs and offered every member of the Chosen Few MC a Hells Angel badge, but the Chosen Few turned down the offer.
We should of course be skeptical about what people tell reporters–people don’t always want to admit in writing that they hate other people and might want to kill them. But we can contrast this against the HA’s attitude toward the Mongols, who are frequent subjects of ire in the book and whom the HA got in a shootout with back in 2002.
Meanwhile, Dobyns’ undercover persona is so good, the local police go after him:
“On the way home, on a dark side street deliberately taken to avoid a confrontation, we were pulled over for a traffic stop. …
Typically, when a mixed-club group of bikers is stopped, and Hells Angel are among those present, they get the most thorough attention. Everyone knows the Angels are the ones to be wary of, and that given an inch they will take it a mile. They must be attended to first.
“But they weren’t….
“An officer approached JJ and me from behind. When he got about ten feet from us, he racked a shell into the chamber of his shotgun…
“I didn’t appreciate the sound of that shotgun…
“Over the bullhorn a young, angry voice said, “Bird, [Dobyns’ undercover name] do not let go of your handlebars until ordered to do so. Do you understand?” I nodded yes. I held the bars with a death grip….
“The Angels were told to remain on their bikes. …
“I was led to the curb and told to kneel. I was led at the barrel of a loaded and charged shotgun. …
“The guys were cuffed and lined up curbside. No one but me had to kneel. No one but me had a gun drawn on them. The Angels couldn’t believe it, but as far as these cops were concerned, I was more dangerous than they were. …
“Meanwhile, Officer Shotgun talked to me. … He said, “You gotta move on, Bird, you gotta get the fuck out of my town.” “Meanwhile, Officer Shotgun talked to me.
“I said, ‘You can arrest me or lecture me, but I won’t take both, so make up your mind.’ “
EvX: Note Dobyns’s persona is demanding respect. He doesn’t get it from the police, but it was important for the observing Angels.
“He didn’t like that. He put his boot in between my shoulder blades and pushed me to the ground. Since I was cuffed I caught the pavement with my cheek. He kneeled, leaned in close, and whispered into my ear: “Motherfucker, if I ever see you in this town again I will fucking bury you in the desert where no one will ever fucking find you.”
“My recorder was going. I thought, Not good, dude. Not good for you. I knew this guy desperately wanted me out of his town and I knew he wasn’t using approved methods. I wanted to tell him what I was, but I couldn’t. It would be months until he learned how close he’d come to ruining his career that night.”
EvX: I once took a self-defense class taught by a retired police officer who claimed to have taken criminals out to the Everglades Swamp and left them for the alligators.
On the one hand, sometimes the justice system has trouble getting convictions against people who are actually violent criminals, and then you wonder if things wouldn’t be better if the police did more vigilante violence.
And then there are cases like this, where the police are dead wrong.
Respect, body language, and some interesting characters:
“On the thirty-first we waltzed into the Pioneer Saloon in Cave Creek and got a full introduction over the PA. …
“Everyone was there, and I mean everyone. Sonny, Johnny Angel, Hoover, Smitty, Joby, Bob, Fang–every guy who had any kind of influence in the state.
“Sonny came up and greeted each one of us, and in one of the greatest moments in bike investigator history, we got a group shot with him: Just Sonny Barger and Johnny Angel in the middle of a row of Sol Angeles, aka cops…
“As we left the side room I bumped into a short, roided out live wire with a shaved head. He looked like my shorter, wider twin. …
“The live wire asked, ‘What the fuck? You’re fucking Bird, aren’t you?’ He stabbed his finger at me, tapping me hard right were the bullet had come out of my chest.
“‘Yeah. that’s right.’
“‘Shit! I’m fucking Dirty Dan. And I need to talk to you. Come with me.’ … ‘I heard all about you, Bird. You’re some kind of crazy fucking cowboy, ain’t you? Shit, brother, I love that.’ …
“He asked about Mexico. I said I went to Mexico often. He said he’d heard there were Mongols down there. I said there were, but not too many. He said that as soon as his parole was up, he’d like to come with me, see if we could find some. I said great. He said find some and then kill ’em. I said awesome. He said we’d be a two-man massacre crew. I said, “Dirty Dan, you’re the kind of Hell Angel I’ve been waiting to meet.” He said that he liked the way I carried myself, that the club needed more guys like me. …
“After several minutes we parted company just as abruptly as we’d come together. We agreed to met and work out at the gym. He yelled, ‘All right! Later, Bird.’
“I yelled, ‘Later, Dirty Dan.’
“We’d been in a complete bubble. Hours after that, when were were winding down at the UC house, Gundo told me that when Dan and I started talking, all eyes turned to us. Our body language looked overly confrontational. Gundo said, ‘Man, I thought you two were gonna hit the deck. I was leaning against the bar with my hand on my gun… I thought we were about to be in the middle of an ass-beating shoot-out.’
“I laughed and said, ‘You kidding me? … I fucking loved that guy.’ …”
EvX: For the most part, the talk about killing Mongols sounds like a lot of talk, except during the 2002 River Run Riot, which occurred near the beginning of the book. Wikipedia summarizes:
The River Run Riot was a violent confrontation between the Hells Angels and the Mongols motorcycle clubs that occurred on April 27, 2002, in Laughlin, Nevada during the Laughlin River Run. The conflict began when members of the Hells Angels went to Harrah’s Laughlin to confront members of the Mongols who had allegedly harassed vendors that sold Hells Angels related merchandise. Mongol Anthony Barrera, 43, was stabbed to death, and two Hells Angels, Jeramie Bell, 27, and Robert Tumelty, 50, were shot to death.
Even by the end of the book, it was not clear what the essential nature of the Hells Angels really is. 1% clubs are ostensibly composed of criminals–that’s what the 1% means–but are they actually criminal organizations, or just organized criminals? The Angola Prison in in Louisiana, for example, publishes a newspaper, The Angolite, written by the prisoners. Obviously everyone who work on the paper is a criminal, but The Angolite isn’t a criminal organization, it’s just a newspaper. By contrast, the Mafia, while run by a set of related families from a particular ethnic background, obeying particular cultural codes, exists for the sole reason of committing crime. The Angolite is organized criminals; the Mafia is a criminal organization.
This may sound a bit existential, but for the police (and the HAs) it’s essential. If the HAs are just like-minded guys who want to ride motorcycles together, support their incarcerated brothers, hand out toys and bicycles to poor kids, and sell t-shirts, then they have every right to do that. Having once committed a crime does not preclude your right to hang out with other guys and ride motorcycles together. It doesn’t preclude your right to have a logo, copyright it, and sue Toys R Us if they violate it.
By contrast, if the HAs are actually using their organization to commit crimes, then the police can shut them down and seize their assets (logos included.)
This distinction is essential for Dobyns. The police can prove that plenty of individual people have committed crimes. He’s purchased plenty of illegal guns, for example. The River Run Riot was caught on surveillance cameras, and at least some of the perpetrators were arrested and convicted of murder. But it takes more than that to prove that an organization is actively conspiring to commit crimes.
The government tried to charge the Hells Angels under RICO (the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act) back in 1979, but couldn’t make it stick:
In 1979 the United States Federal Government went after Sonny Barger and several members and associates of the Oakland charter of the Hells Angels using RICO. In United States vs. Barger, the prosecution team attempted to demonstrate a pattern of behavior to convict Barger and other members of the club of RICO offenses related to guns and illegal drugs. The jury acquitted Barger on the RICO charges with a hung jury on the predicate acts: “There was no proof it was part of club policy, and as much as they tried, the government could not come up with any incriminating minutes from any of our meetings mentioning drugs and guns.“
Here, from Jay Dobyns, the first federal agent to infiltrate the inner circle of the outlaw Hells Angels Motorcycle Club, is the inside story of the twenty-one-month operation that almost cost him his family, his sanity, and his life.
Getting shot in the chest as a rookie agent, bartering for machine guns, throttling down the highway at 100 mph, and responding to a full-scale, bloody riot between the Hells Angels and their rivals, the Mongols…
Reminiscent of Donnie Brasco’s uncovering of the true Mafia, this is an eye-opening portrait of the world of bikers… one that fully describes the seductive lure criminal camaraderie has for men who would otherwise be powerless outsiders. Here is all the nihilism, hate, and intimidation, but also the freedom–and, yes, brotherhood–of the only truly American form of organized crime.
So what do all of these books on criminals have to do with anthropology? Traditional anthropology looks at pre-industrial societies such as Hadza hunter-gatherers or reindeer-herding Sami. With the rapid spread of industrialization, anthropologists feared that information about our own human past and the variety of forms societies can take would soon diseappear.
After our long look at Siberia, I wanted to find something different. If people can write about Gypsies, why not the poor of our own society?
I began this project thinking of criminals as aberrations, people in whom something had gone wrong or who had decided to abandon normal social norms. Now that I am at the end (typing up my notes,) I realize that many criminals as respected, integrated members of their societies whose behavior could be, under different circumstances, not only normal but beneficial. What is the difference, after all, between a criminal who sells illegal drugs and an honest business man who sells alcohol and tobacco? Between a gang member who kills a rival gangster for invading his turf and a soldier who kills an invading enemy?
Many thieves and violent criminals are kind and loving to their own families. Pablo Escobar, the notorious Colombian drug lord, had a devoted wife, loved his children, and gave away so much money to Colombia’s poor that 25,000 people attended his funeral. And even Mafia bosses, for all their crimes, have families and are treated with the respect in their own neighborhoods. (The fact that the locals often like or sympathize with the local criminals can interfere greatly in police efforts to track down and arrest those same criminals.)
Note: this is not all criminals. Drug dealers and serial killers have very different motives. Drug dealers want to make money. Serial killers want to kill people. Some criminals are, indeed, aberrant, psychotic people. Many are impulsive, low-IQ, or unable to succeed in life without resorting to crime. And most have a very low regard for the lives of others.
For obvious reasons, there aren’t a whole lot of ethnographies of criminals or criminal organizations, but Dobyns’s account of infiltrating the Hells Angels (no apostrophe) comes close.
Let’s begin with a bit of reflection about getting shot when he was a rookie cop (As usual, I’ll be using “” instead of blockquotes for readability):
“If anything, the shooting proved that my job, and therefore my life, was not glamorous in any way. Pathetically, I’d imagined that undercover life would be like Miami Vice–full of cigarette boats, fast cars, expensive clothe, and perfect tens in bikinis sitting in my lap while I negotiated with drug kingpins. Instead, I confronted toothless strippers and disgruntled Vietnam vets, and did deals with jonesing tweakers in trailer parks while getting shot by a broke-dick ex-con who lived with his mom. …
“In the years between the shooting and the summer of 2001, I’d done and seen things that citizen simply don’t do or see. I’d been in another shoot-out, I’d had an inhuman number of guns shoved in my face, I’d bought and sold tons of drugs, and I’d made hundreds of solid collars. I’d worked African-American gangbangers and Italian mobsters with Chris; the Aryan Brotherhood with Special Agent Louis Quinonez, and bikers from Georgia to Colorado with a bunch of different partners, including one of my ATF mentors, Vincent Cefalu.”
On to his next assignment, in a city worth describing:
“Bullhead City is near the southern tip of Nevada, ten hours from where I lived in Tucson. It’s a broken-down town full of semi-employed mechanics who’ve shacked up with women who are–or were–“dancers.” It’s a meth capital teeming with high-school dropouts, and it’s all set down in a brown and tan valley that looks more like Mars than Earth. Across the brown Colorado River is Laughlin, Nevada, Bullhead’s dusty twin sister, with her winkling strip and brand-name outfits: Flamingo, Golden Nugget, Harrah’s. …
“By the end of the following week I was holed up in Bullhead at Gretchen’s Inn, a contemptible riverside hideaway off Route 95. From the outside it looked harmless, but from the inside it was something else. A fleabag meth flophouse, busted locks on the doors and windows that wouldn’t close, people screwing all day and night. I slept with my arms folded over my chest and one of my beloved Glock 19s in my hand.”
EvX: I’ve been a bit afraid of very cheap hotels ever since reading about a horrible crime that happened in one that I’m not going to link to because I don’t want to look it up again. So far I’ve managed to structure my life so that I can avoid bad neighborhoods, pretending more or less that they aren’t there when I’m not looking at them. But of course they are there, broken-down places full of drugs and broken dreams.
According to Wikipedia’s climate data, Bullhead City’s average high temperatures (average, not record) from June through September are 107.7, 112, 110, and 103.7 degrees F.
But back to the story, where our undercover cop needs to buy some guns:
“Sugarbear’s informant, Chuck, would take me to Mohave Firearms for some introductions…
“Here’s what I said:
“What’s up? This’s a nice place you got here, looks like you know your business. Yeah, Jay’s my name, but everyone calls me Bird … Yeah, I ride. You see a patch on my back? Well, then I’m not a One Percenter*, so quit asking… But listen, I got another business, maybe you can help me out? I need guns. Small ones, big ones, fast ones, slow ones. No papers. …
“The next day he sold me two .45s, no papers, no forms. All cash. It was too easy.
“Through the years I was often amused by how quickly suspects decided to trust me.”
EvX: Note: I cut a lot from this conversation. This just gives you some of the flavor. Dobyns needs to convince these guys that he’s a genuine buyer of illegal guns, not, oh, an undercover cop. And he does.
*A 1%, if you aren’t familiar with the term, is a member of an outlaw motorcycle club such as the Hells Angels.
Back to the story: working class Americans like their guns. Some of them really like them:
“Varvil proceeded to let us into his gun vault, a fifteen-by-twenty-foot room off the cluttered garage. Every wall of the room was lined with guns of every kind from damn near every decade of the twentieth century and probably two dozen countries.”
The Prison Run:
“Thousands of bikers stage up and slowly ride out to the prison complex in a massive pack of chrome, steel, leather, and denim to pay their respects to those unfortunate enough to be doing hard time. As the ragged column crawls past the yard, orange jumpsuited inmates caged behind thousands of feet of curlicued razor wire stand at parade rest while the bikers file past, saluting, hooting and hollering. To establish some semblance of order, the law comes out in a show of force. Helicopters, interpersonnel vehicles, cruisers, motorcycles, SUVs, paddy wagons–the whole fleet.”
“They talk about rehabilitation. They call it a “justice” system. But in reality this place is designed to destroy a man. The system has been designed to break, not to better a person. A man’s most valuable possession is his freedom. In this place they take that away. …
“For the last 24 years the Florence Prison Run has been a show of support by the Brothers still on the outside for all of the Brothers who are unfortunately under the care of the state on the inside. … The inspiration for the run was the incarceration of a brother. Running the prison was a way for the locked up Brother to feel and hear the presence outside and know, without a doubt, that he was remembered.”
Some background on why ATF wanted to infiltrate the Angels:
“At the time ATF had some real interest in the Angels. … This kind of case is built around existing police reports, warrants, affidavits, arrests, convictions, financial document, and public records. Slats [one of the ATF agents] sought to prove that the Angels were a criminal organization, indictable under RICO …
“the Angels had been in Arizona for a little under five years… before them the state’s top One Percenters were the Dirty Dozen. The Dozen had been violent and well-established. …
“The Angels came onto their turf when Ralph “Sonny” Barger, the iconic godfather of the Hells Angels, “retired” his forty-year presidency in Oakland, California. He’d served a prison term in the Phoenix area and had fallen in love with the climate and the state. … The Dirty Dozen were in a hard spot… They were tough, but they lacked the resources… of the Hells Angels. The Dozen’s members were given a choice: Disappear or patch over to the Angels. Most enthusiastically chose the latter. …
“These facts were significant. For a club to go from nonexistent to the main show in town in under five years proved… that the Angels were wielding their influence ably and willfully. These are the types of bricks that RICO cases are built with.”
EvX: In other words, regardless of whatever else the Hells Angels were up to, if they used violence or the threat of violence to force the Dirty Dozen out of Arizona, then they could be indicted under RICO.
That “regardless,” though, haunted me throughout the book. What were the Hells Angels up to, besides controlling territory? Selling drugs? Buying guns? I have some answers, but we’ll get to them later.
A certain curious difficulty:
some biker investigators assimilate and sympathize with their adversaries. Some even form their own clubs. This has always been a mystery to me. Cops don’t mimic mafia dons or dress as Crips and Bloods and form up neighborhood sets, so why would some choose to create their own motorcycle clubs patterned after criminal syndicates? …
Instructions for riding with the Angels:
“We’ll be at the back, keeping up. We gotta keep up. They blow a light, we blow a light. They get traffic stopped, we get traffic stopped. Mesa rides like the Blue Angels on Memorial Day. Other charters hate riding with ’em ’cause they’re such fucking road Nazis. Stay eighteen inches off the wheel in front of you. And stay back. Never, ever cross the line of a full patch’s front wheel. You pass one of these guys and there will be hell to pay.”
Murder at the local Hells Angels clubhouse:
“There was a bar on one side with a small triangular stage wedged next to it. A twelve foot long Death Head painted on one wall, an adjacent wall covered with trophies and memorabilia. …
“At least on person had already been killed on the floor of the Mesa clubhouse. … On October 25, 2001, a forty-something woman named Cynthia Garcia was partying with the boys at Mesa. During the course of that night she had the drunken balls to insult the Angels on their home turf… she was beaten unconscious by patched members Mesa Mike and Keven Augustiniak and a prospect, Paul Eischeid…
“[They] hauled the body, which was still technically alive, into the carport and dumped it in the trunk of a car. They drove Garcia out to the desert. … They stabbed her repeatedly. They took turns trying to cut off her head, which they wanted to leave on a fencepost for the vultures. …
“Cynthia Garcia, a mother of two, had made a bad decision, and she was dead for it.”
EvX: one theme that comes up constantly in these books–here, in Donnie Brasco’s The Way of the Wiseguy, and eponymousy in Bourgeois’s In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in El Barrio is respect.
Some people say that North West Europe has a Guilt Culture, while many Asian countries have a Shame Culture. I’m not exactly sure what the difference is, but in a guilt culture, people are told that God is watching them even when they are otherwise alone and will know if they have sinned. God knows if you pick your nose. God knows if you don’t wash your hands after using the toilet. And God definitely knows if you kill someone, even if no one else finds out.
By contrast, high-crime groups (including groups that hail from NW Europe) seem to have what I’m going to call Respect Cultures. In Respect Cultures, one’s social standing is of paramount importance, and disrespect can be grounds for murder.
The danger here is three-fold:
People from Respect Cultures are often at the bottom of the American totem pole–cause and effect unclear, but this seems like a bad combination either way.
People in Respect Cultures believe in rigid hierarchies in which they do not treat social inferiors as equals.
People in Respect Cultures will not hesitate to use violence to secure or increase their position.
More hierarchical societies obviously lean toward Respect Cultures, while more egalitarian societies lean toward Guilt Cultures. In atomized, egalitarian cultures, individual behavior is kept in check via internalized norms that one should not violate the “social contract.” By contrast, in hierarchical societies, your behavior is dictated by your position within the social pecking order. You have certain obligations to the people above you (often monetary) and obligations to the people below you (such as organizing economic opportunities or providing for their safety.)
For criminals, respect is absolutely vital, because respect translates into other criminals staying out of your turf. You respect a criminal because he can kill you; you disrespect him if you think you can kill him.
More on riding motorcycles:
“The Mesa boys rode like fearless banshees on crack. Jesus Christ himself could not have ridden a motorcycle better, faster, or tighter than Mesa… they kept no more than eighteen inches off the wheel in front of them–and they were often closer than that. By the time the lead riders had banked into a turn, the guy three bikes back had already leaned his shoulder into the thin air. They moved like a snake chasing a rabbit through its burrow. They blew lights and ignored traffic. The rabbits–everyone who wasn’t on a chromed-out Harley-Davidson, everyone who was ensconced in the “cage” of a car or truck, everyone unfortunate enough to be a pedestrian, everyone who was not a Hells Angel–ran scared. …
“Hells Angels live for their club and their brothers. One of there credos is “Step down or aside for no man, no law, no God.” They are free men unto themselves. At the root of this liberty is the experience of riding a bike. Their Harley Davidsons are the vehicles of their emancipation. Emancipation from society’s rule and expectations; from a life of work and obligations, from other men, wives, girlfriends, and family. … The things that the rest of us depend on for safety and consistency were never there for these men. They’re outcasts. The way they see it is, why should they return any favors?
“For these men it is the smallest of steps from outcast to outlaw.”
EvX: I wish the book had gone into more detail on what made these men “outcasts” in the first place.
“The irony is that while their appearance and lifestyle are clearly set up in opposition to those of us who live straight lives, they are hardly distinguishable from one another. Their individuality is confined by a rigid conformity. All wear the same kind of clothing, ride the same brand of bike, adhere to the same set of club rules. All must report once a week to “church” meetings, and all must pay monthly dues. The cuts [biker vests] forever remain the property of the club, as do the “skin patches,” the tattoos that each new member must receive. If for whatever reason a brother quits the club, then the Hells Angels are bound to go to his residence and remove every article of clothing, furniture, and memorabilia that contain ay reference to the Hells Angel–not merely to punish and divest him, but because the stuff simply is not his. … if he leaves on bad terms, then those tattoos are carved off–in some cases taken back with a cheese grater, or with a clothes iron on the linen setting. …
“the Hells Angels’ rules were legion and covered damn near everything … The Hells Angels have rules that govern their bikes, their appearance, their behavior, their old ladies, their engagement in criminal activity, their handling of rivals.”
So what’s the whole point?
“If you become a Hells Angel, everything else about you becomes moot. You’re no longer John J. Johnson–you’re a brother. A soldier. A unit of fear. … Drinks become free, and pussy is never more than a dick’s length away. … You’re suddenly capital-R Respected. If you’re done wrong by someone, the whole club is duty-bound to do wrong back to that person.”
EvX: This, right here, I think is it.
Throughout the book, I kept asking, “but what is the point?” The contrast with Brasco’s description of the Mafia is stark. The Mafia has a point: to make money. Drug lord Frank Lucas, in Original Gangster, had an obvious goal: to make money. But the Hells Angels are not obviously making much money. Perhaps they are, but are being very careful about not showing it off. Or perhaps some of them are, just not the ones Dobyns hung out with.
No, I don’t think money is the main point, though they probably make money when the opportunity presents itself. Rather, the Hells Angels and other groups like them are in it to control resources and territory. Drinks, women, bikes, and highways. That’s what they want, and by being the biggest bad-asses around (and pushing out any competing bad-asses, like the Dirty Dozen,) that’s what they get.
This is good place to wrap up for the week. See you next Friday.
Welcome back to Anthropology Friday. Today we’re continuing with Harry Dago’s Outlaws on Horseback, beginning with an interesting description of Texas post Civil War:
“Texas was rapidly recovering from the poverty and prostration of years of carpetbag rule and the dislocations of the Civil War… When peace came, there was no “hard” money in the state. In east Texas, the Negroes, no longer slaves, refused to work cotton. Out on the plains and down in the brush country of south Texas, millions of unbranded Longhorns were running wild. … It was not until Joseph G. McCoy opened his cattle market at Abilene, Kansas, and the great trail herds began moving north that the economy of Texas began to revive. By the early seventies, millions of dollars of Yankee money were flowing back into Texas. Banditry became more profitable.
“Jim Reed, looking for bigger game than could be bagged on the cattle trails, left Texas … for the cabin of Watt Grayson, in the Creek country, some miles west of Tom Starr’s stronghold. Old Watt was one of the three subchiefs of the Creek Nation and had become rich by subverting United States government funds from the tribal treasury. Reed had spent so much time in the Territory, often disposing of stolen Cherokee horses in Kansas for Tom Starr, that he was familiar with the tale of Watt Grayson’ hoard.
“On the night of November 19, 1873, the three men broke into the Grayson cabin… The bandits strung up the old couple by the thumbs, burned their feet and otherwise tortured them until they were willing to talk. A cache beneath the floor yielded $30,000 in gold and notes, some of it in Confederate currency.”
EvX: The Creek, one of the “Five Civilized Tribes,” moved along with the Cherokee to “Indian Territory” in modern Oklahoma. Today they are known as the Muscogee. , because it is of course our custom in English to refer to other people by their own autonyms, just like we now call the Germans the Deutsche, the Japanese the Nihonjin, and the Finns the Suomalaiset–no wait we don’t do that. We don’t do that at all. We only bother changing the customary names of small, obscure groups so that elites can show off how much better they are than all of the confused, low-class people who don’t have the spare time to keep up with the latest PC names.
Creek it is.
Anyway, the Creek are an interesting people with a relatively advanced pre-Columbian culture. They’re most likely descended from the local Mound-Builders, who built cities and monumental architecture throughout the Mississippi valley prior to the arrival of European diseases (and horses) with the Spanish, (which decimated their numbers and upset the balance of power in local Indian communities by making nomadic raiding more profitable.)
I don’t want to digress too far, but you should read the story of the State of Muskogee, founded by William Bowles aka Estajoca. The tale is pure, great frontier history.
But back to Dago and the notorious Starr Clan of the Cherokees:
“Though the blood-stained feud which the Starr clan had waged against the John Ross faction for several decade in retaliation for the murder of James Starr, Tom Starr’s father, was now quiescent, the Starrs were still stealing horses from their fellow Cherokees. …
“Stories of Tom Starr’s cruelty are legion. He stood six feet six in his socks, and despite his years was as straight as the proverbial arrow. … for twenty years he had been the clan elder, and the Starrs had slit the throats of countless followers of John Ross, the principal chief of the Cherokee Nation.
“The Tribal Council, dominated by the Ross faction, had outlawed them and deprived them of all their tribal rights. But the killings had continued, and in desperation the council had offered to rescind it edict, grant them amnesty and restore their rights.
“Tom Starr had said no; he wanted more than that–namely the allotment money the clan had not received for years–and he got it. …
“Usually when a railroad was built into new country in the 1870s, new towns sprang up and civilization (at least of a kind) followed. Nothing of the sort happened when the rambunctious “Katy” Railroad, undeterred by hell and high water, slashed and slopped its way down through the Nations to Texas. Indian Territory remained a wilderness. … The only attempt at law enforcement came from the roving deputy marshal working out of the U.S. District Court at Fort Smith, Arkansas, and the Indian police and tribal courts. Thievery and crimes of violence continued to occur with grisly frequency.
“This was in July, 1886. Sam [Starr] had been on the scout almost continually for two years. [“On the scout” means hiding out in the wilderness to avoid the police.] Late in September Chief Bill Vann, of the Cherokee police, [plus several others, including Frank West, whose testimony had previously convicted Sam and Belle and put them in prison for nine months] … caught him as he was riding through a cornfield.
“Chief Vann called on him to surrender. When Sam raked his hose with his spurs, … Vann emptied his pistol at him. Two of the slugs unseated Starr and another killed the mare. Sam was disarmed and taken to a farmhouse to have his wound treated.”
EvX: Interestingly, in the 1800s, not surrendering immediately when the police told you to was grounds for them to try their best to kill you. Today we hold our police to a much more difficult (and dangerous) standard: they are supposed to capture suspected criminals, even ones who’ve led them on high-speed chases, without killing them.
The flip-side to this bullet-ridden coin is that when outlaws turned themselves in voluntarily, they were generally assumed to be acting in good faith, and often got quite light sentences by modern standards.
Back to Sam Starr:
“News of Sam’s capture and where he was being held went winging along the Starr clan’s grapevine… Shortly before midnight, a score of Sam’s brothers and relative broke into the farmhouse… and carried Sam away to his father’s stronghold. Two weeks later he was sufficiently recovered to visit Belle. …
“Belle demonstrated her sagacity by urging him to surrender himself to the District Court at Fort Smith, where with good Counsel (J. Warren Reed) he would have a much better chance of defending himself than in one of the tribal courts. The Choctaw and Creek chiefs hated Tom Starr and his sons, holding them responsible for numerous thefts and robberies. With the Ross faction in command of the Cherokee Tribal Council, his chances of escaping the death penalty in a Cherokee court wold be slim. … Once he was in the custody of the federal government, the Indian police could not touch him. …
“Sam was indicted and promptly released on bond… [The lawyer’s] advice to Sam was to go home to Younger’s Bend and keep out of trouble.”
EvX: Released on bond! Sam is a wanted man, a fugitive, a murderer and outlaw, and they’ve just released him on bond and told him to behave! The thinking, as I mentioned, is that a man who has turned himself in has shown some kind of contrition for his acts and so is less likely to commit more.
“Sam followed [this advice] until the evening of December 21, when the neighborhood was invited to a “stomp” dance at “Auntie” Lucy Suratt’s place… The dance was in progress when [Sam, Belle, and Belle’s daughter] arrived. The night was cold and a bonfire was blazing in the yard. …
“Belle was surprised to see Frank West squatting on the ground on the opposite side of the bonfire. Sam saw West and pushed her aside. He was half-drunk and in an ugly mood. He accused West of wounding him and killing [his horse]. … Whipping out his pistol, he shot [West] through the neck. As West went down, he managed to get a revolver out of his overcoat pocket and send a bullet crashing through Sam’s side. Both men were mortally wounded. Sam staggered to a cottonwood and wrapped his arms around it to keep from falling. Life was running out of him, however, and he slid to the ground.
EvX: So ended the lives of both Sam Starr and Frank West, whose testimony had previously put Sam in prison for a short while. Belle Starr was left a widow, but quickly found a new outlaw paramour, as she always did:
“[Belle Starr’s daughter, Pearl] and Cole Younger share the dubious distinction of being the only ones among Belle Starr’s intimates, through either blood or sex, to die of natural causes. The others–her brothers Preston and Bud, her son Eddie, her “husbands” and lovers (Jim Reed, Sam Starr, John Middleton, Blue Duck, Jack Spaniard, Jim French, Jim July)–all met violent death, a fate which she herself did not escape. Today, more than seventy yeas later, her name endures.”
EvX: How times change. Belle might have been a well-known person in Dago’s day, but I’d never heard of her before this book. (There are many characters in the book whose fame, Dago claims, well long endure but whom I have never heard of.) I suspect this is largely due to the massive decrease in interest in Westerns and the history of the “Wild West” during my lifetime.
“Though it is largely unknown, the Bill Cook Gang played an important role in the history of horseback outlawry in what is now eastern Oklahoma. If its life as an organized gang under the leadership of Bill Cook was brief, it was spectacular. In one week short of three months, they successfully committed ten assorted stagecoach, store, bank and railroad holdups. It i a record un-matched by the James-Younger Gang or any other. In the course of it, they killed only one man, which is another record.”
EvX: Bill Cook does not appear to have a Wikipedia page, but according to Old West Legends:
Growing up to become one of the outlaw leaders of the Cook Gang, William “Bill” Tuttle Cook was born near Fort Gibson in 1873 in the Cherokee Nation, but was left homeless at the age fourteen when his mother died in 1887.
Starting out as an honest young man, he served as a scout for the U.S. Marshals from Fort Smith, Arkansas, guiding them through Indian Territory. However, he soon started running whiskey to the Indians and in 1893 was sentenced to 40 days in jail by Judge Isaac Parker. During his incarceration he vowed he would put together an outlaw gang when he was released and the following year he did.
If you don’t want to incarcerate or or execute large numbers of criminals, then one of the fastest ways to decrease crime is to eliminate the profits/potential for violence by making the activity legal. For example, lots of people want to gamble. Goodness knows why, but they want to. Illegal gambling has long been an easy way for criminals to make lots of money. If people are going to do it anyway, perhaps it would just be better to let them do it without funding criminals in the process.
But back to Dago:
“[Bill Cook] was the son of Jim Cook, a Southerner from Tennessee who had fought in the Union army. Like so many others, he drifted into Indian Territory after the war and married a quarter-blood Cherokee woman, which enabled him to acquire a headright near Fort Bigson. They had two sons, Bill… and James… The boys were orphaned when they were in their teens. They were placed in an Indian orphanage, from which Bill ran away in 1887. He was then barely fourteen. …
The Cook Gang and the Cherokee Strip:
“One thing remains to to be said about the Cooks and that concerns the circumstances that put young Jim Cook into the Cherokee prison for eight years. So turn back to the spring of 1894, when after endless negotiations, the federal government purchased the so-called Cherokee Strip from the Cherokee Nation. … the Cherokee Nation had definite treaty rights to the “outlet” which, as usual where Indians were concerned, had been ignored when it was thrown open to white settlement on September 16 of the previous year, resulting in the sensational Cherokee Strip “run” that brought thousands of whites racing across the Kansas line to claim free land and make new homes in today’s Oklahoma. It was to “quiet” all Cherokee claims to it that the purchase was made. Of the total amount paid, a third went into the Cherokee National Treasury. It left $6,640,000 to be divided individually among all who could make legitimate claim to being at least one-eight Cherokee. After a lengthy checking of tribal roles, the figure arrived at was $265.70 per person.
“It is remarkable that in outlaw-infested Indian Territory six million dollars could be distributed without a major robbery taking place. This was accomplished, however. Thousands of Cherokee were begowked, robbed, cheated, but only after they received their share of the “Strip” money. … A blind man could have foreseen that putting such a huge sum of money in the hands of largely ignorant Indians was bound to result in their being ruthlessly exploited by white sharpers. Nothing was done to prevent it. The results were often tragic and often ludicrous.
“In the weeks before the distribution was made, a horde of unscrupulous agents and racketeers crisscrossed the Cherokee country, selling the Indians things they did not need and did not know how to operate, all at extravagant prices, and on credit against their Strip Money, taking notes in payment. A carload of cheap sewing machines and washing machines was unloaded at Gibson Station. On the “luxury” side came musical instruments, which the Cherokees could not play, and an endless variety of feminine finery.
“When a distribution point was set up, the Cherokees flocked in by the hundreds to find a carnival atmosphere prevailing. Gamblers and bootleggers operated openly, along with thugs and pick-pockets. At Tahlequah, the Cherokee capital, there were tent shows, a mery-go-round, every device for extracting money from the Indians. And the agents with their notes were there, too. They got their money before the man who had bought on credit got his.
Young Jim Cook had the necessary Cherokee blood in his veins to qualify for his $256.70, and he wanted it, as did his brother Bill and Cherokee Bill. Their names were on the Tahlequah roles, but since they were wanted by both the Indian police and the U.S. deputy marshals, they knew it would not be safe for them to appear… To get their money, they hit upon the device of getting someone to go in and collect it for them. …
“She had no difficulty getting it, but when Ellis Rattling Gourd, chief of the Cherokee police, read the names on the letter she presented to the treasurer, he realized at once that the three men were in the neighborhood…
“Ellis Rattling Gourd was back in the morning with a posse of seven men, including Sequoyah Houston… Jim Cook, peering around a corner of the building, was seriously wounded by a slug… He tossed away his Winchester a he went down and lying on the ground was struck several times more. A few moments later, Cherokee Bill stepped out boldly and killed Sequoyah Houston. …
“Jim Cook’s condition was grave. Desperate as the chance was, his brother insisted on getting him to a doctor at Fort Gibson. … When Jim recovered from his wound he was convicted of being a party to the killing of Sequoyah Houston and sentenced to eight years in the Cherokee prison. He escaped once, but was recaptured and served his full sentence. When he came out it was to find that life in the Territory had changed drastically; the Cook Gang was just a fading memory.” …
“Ironically enough, two members of his gang were destined to become far better known in their time than he. One was Henry Starr, the gentleman bandit and bank robbery, by marriage the nephew of Belle Starr. The other was Crawford Goldsby, Alias Cherokee Bill, the bloodthirsty mad dog who killed for the love of killing and was accounted the most vicious of all Indian Teritory-Oklahoma outlaws. Both organized gangs of their own when the U.S. deputy marshals and Indian police scattered and destroyed the Cook Gang. That was normal gang procedure. They were constantly being broken up and re-forming.”
EvX: This is an important point. I was reading recently about (recent) government attempts to fight gang violence/activity by going after the gang leaders, on the assumption that with no one to direct operations, the gangs would fall apart. (The difficulty with this approach, as we’ll see later, is that gang leaders often insulate themselves with several layers of plausible deniability from the gang’s day-to-day criminal operations.)
But it appears that gangs operate more the way Dago describes: splitting and merging as needs and opportunities present themselves. According to the article, the government had therefore recently switched to mass-arresting hundreds (thousands?) of gang members.
The law came down hard on the Cook Gang:
“Not one had escaped. The guns of the U.S. marshals and the Indian police had snuffed out the lives of Lon Gordon, Hank Munson, George Sanders, the Verdigris Kid and Sam Butler, Bill and Jim Cook, Jess Snyder, Will Farri, Chicken Lucas, Curt Dayson and Skeeter Baldwin were behind bars.”
Cherokee Bill and Henry Starr, however, were not through:
“Because of the alias of Cherokee Bill, the only name by which he is known, Crawford Goldsby is widely and erroneously believed to have been a Cherokee Indian. Actually he was only an eight Cherokee. The rest of him was a weird mixture of other bloods. George Goldsby, his father, saw honorable service as a trooper in the Tenth U.S. Cavalry, an all-Negro regiment, our first, which distinguished itself in the Apache campaigns in Arizona. On his enlistment papers he put himself down a a Negro, but in late years he claimed to be of mixed white, Mexican, and Sioux descent. The assorted blood strains from which Cherokee Bill sprang did not end there, for his father married Ellen Beck, who was half Negro, a fourth Cherokee and a fourth white. Perhaps the assorted origins of his parents clashed violently in Cherokee Bill and made him the cruel, psychopathic killer that he was. Certainly some of his murderous traits appeared in Clarence Goldsby, his younger brother.”
EvX: Theory: it’s not so much that different “bloods” were incompatible as that certain kinds of people were more likely to cross racial lines in the 1800s, including criminals trying to evade capture in their hometowns by heading across state lines into Indian Territory.
“[Bill] was not much over thirteen when she packed him off to the Indian School at Cherokee, Kansas, and she kept him there for three years. Being part Cherokee and having gone to school at Cherokee, Kansas, were enough to fasten the nickname of “Cherokee” on him. Where the “Bill” came from is not known.
“His mother, as indomitable in her way as he was in his, insisted that he continue his education. With what must have entailed some sacrifice on her part, she sent him east to the Carlisle Industrial School for Indian youth… Hundreds of Indian boys went to Carlisle. They came from many tribes. Apparently, Crawford Goldsby is the only one who returned home to become an outlaw. …
“Cherokee Bill came up for arraignment before Judge Parker, charged with the murder of Ernest Melton, the Lenapah painter. From the moment they first faced each other, the air was charged with a personal enmity between judge and prisoner seldom recorded in any courtroom. Cherokee Bill had been a thorn in Parker’s side for years, and he was prepared to show him no mercy. Though the evidence against the accused was overwhelming, he knew from the moment J. Warren Reed appeared as counsel for the defense that the case would be bitterly contested to the very end.”
EvX: The full story of Judge Parker and J. Warren Reed, esquire, is too long to recount in its entirety, but Parker had set it as his duty to rid Arkansas and neighboring Indian territory of outlaws and bandits, sometimes by less than Constitutional means. Reed, seeing the opportunity to defend lots of clients, made it his duty to stop Parker from packing juries and hanging criminals.
Eventually Reed succeeded so well, he got Parker’s court shut down and put himself out of a job.
But back to Cherokee Bill’s trial:
“Very likely the astute Reed, in his feud with Parker, was so anxious to take the case that money, for once, meant little or nothing to him. The trial was certain to attract tremendous attention, perhaps more than any other ever heard by the Fort Smith court. With the evidence against the notorious outlaw so strong, Reed undoubtedly expected Parker to run roughshod over the defendant’s legal rights. Sufficiently goaded, he might overstep the rules of jurisprudence flagrantly enough to convince the U.S. Supreme Court that a fair trial could not be had in the Fort Smith court–which Reed had been contending for years.
“The trial became an endless series of clashes between defense counsel and the bench. Bullied, exasperated beyond endurance, Parker laid down some rules of his own, limiting the cross-examination of witnesses by both the prosecution and the defense … The jury was out only a few minute and returned with a verdict of guilty. …
“The death sentence was pronounced and the day of execution named. His mother wept when she heard it. …
“Reed immediately took an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court to have the verdict set aside, stipulating on five counts that Crawford Goldsby, alias Cherokee Bill, had not received a fair trial. It stayed the date of execution until the high court could review the case. …
“Among Cherokee Bill’s fellow inmates was one with whom he was well acquainted from his days with the Cook Gang. He was Henry Starr, under sentence of death for the killing of Floyd Wilson…
“After supper on the evening of July 26, on what had been a hot, sultry day, not a breath of air stirring, the prisoners were allowed out in the corridors. At seven o’clock the signal was given for them to return to their cells. …
“Cherokee Bill had entered his cell, and there was no confusion until Eoff and Keating [the guards] reached his cell door. [Cherokee Bill] had removed his hidden revolver from its hiding place. Suddenly, Eoff and Keating found themselves covered… Keating was ordered to hand over his pistol, butt first. Instead of obeying, the guard backed away and started to draw. the outlaw fired instantly and Keating staggered back, mortally wounded, his face a bloody smear.
“Eoff ran for the gate. Cherokee Bill, out into the corridor, blazed away at him. … Bedlam broke out all over the prison. Men who had not yet been locked up rushed from their cells, and full-scale riot was ready to erupt. Guards and other prison officers drove them back at gunpoint. …
“With gunsmoke hanging heavily in the corridor, Henry Starr got Eoff’s attention. With courage seldom, if ever equaled by a man outside the law, he said quietly, “If you guards will stop shooting, I’ll go into Bill’s cell and get his gun.”
“His offer was accepted… As the sounds of shooting died away, they heard hm calling to Cherokee Bill. The latter had barricaded himself, but he permitted Starr to enter. What passed between them will never be known. Certainly it was more than Starr’s laconic statement. “I jut said, ‘Bill, your mother wouldn’t want you to do this. Give me your gun and call it quits.’…
“When [Judge Parker] got the news, he started back to Fort Smith at once, but not before calling in reporters and denouncing the Supreme Court for interfering with the Fort Smith tribunal, recklessly granting appeals and setting aside the justly deserved convictions of known killers. … His health was failing, but he came back to Fort Smith with a fresh burst of energy. At last he had such an iron-clad case against Cherokee Bill that even the learned judges in Washington would not dare dispute it. …
“Invitations to the hanging had been limited to one hundred, but hundreds of others, denied the privilege of the yard, witnessed it from the walls and adjoining rooftops. Before the black cap was adjusted, Cherokee Bill was asked if he had anything to say. His answer was a fitting epitaph to his ferocious career. “Hell, no,” he snarled. “I came here to die, not to make a speech.”
The James–Younger Gang had its origins in a group of Confederatebushwhackers that participated in the bitter partisan fighting that wracked Missouri during the American Civil War. After the war, the men continued to plunder and murder, though the motive shifted to personal profit rather than for the glory of the Confederacy. ..
For nearly a decade following the Civil War, the James–Younger Gang was among the most feared, most publicized, and most wanted confederations of outlaws on the American frontier. Though their crimes were reckless and brutal, many members of the gang commanded a notoriety in the public eye that earned the gang significant popular support and sympathy. The gang’s activities spanned much of the central part of the country; they are suspected of having robbed banks, trains, and stagecoaches in at least ten states: Missouri, Kentucky, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, Alabama, and West Virginia.
But back to Dago’s account. Here is some background on Cole Younger, and what prompted him to become an outlaw:
“A week after the battle at Lone Jack, Cole [Younger] risked coming to see his mother. He was caught in the house by Union militiamen… and escaped only through the connivance of Suse (short for Susan,) who had grown old as a Younger slave.
“Two months later, Union troops came to the house again in the middle of the night and searched it from cellar to garret for Cole. Infuriated by not finding him, they ordered Mrs. Younger to set fire to the place. She had her four youngest children with her. An early fall storm had put a few inches of snow on the ground. She pleaded that if the intruders were determined to make her burn her own home they wait until morning. …
“When she offered to cook them something to eat, they agreed to wait. At the crack of dawn, however, they hitched a horse to a wagon, tossed a mattress and some blankets into it. Some furniture having been gathered into a pile, they forced her to set it afire…
“In his autobiography, The story of Cole Younger, by Himself, published in 1903, he makes much of the burning of his old home and the treatment his mother and brothers and sisters received, though hundreds of other families were burned out in that fashion”
EvX: Dago quotes an excerpt from Kansas, a Guide to the Sunflower State about the state of things between Missouri and Kansas before the war:
For two years a state of open warfare existed. Armed bands of border ruffians from Missouri made forays into Kansas and were answered by retaliatory companies of Jayhawkers. Men were called out into the night and shot down for no other reason than they supported or were suspected of supporting the opposite cause…. Fields were laid waste and towns were sacked, all int he name of the cause, but more often to gratify personal revenge or avarice. …
“While formal war was being waged between the North and the South, the old border warfare [between Kansas and Missouri] took on new dimensions, blazing up like a forest fire out of control as opposing bands of bushwhackers and guerrillas spread terror, death and destruction wherever they rode. As 1862 opened, a man could go to his door after nightfall only at the risk of being shot down. Every night in one direction or another, the sky was red as some farmer’s home went up in flames. It was murder, arson and robbery without hope of redress. The opposing factions pretended to have a quasi-military status. Actually, they had none. The flag under which they rode might be the stars and stripes of the North, or the stars and bars of the confederacy, but their real emblem would have been emblazoned with the skull and crossbones of piracy.
“Northern sympathizers were no safer from Red Legs and Jayhawkers than Southerners and vice versa. …
“With the end of the war, families had begun streaming back to the Burnt District to begin life anew. … Dr. Samuel [Jesse James’s father] had the old home repaired and made livable… Between doctoring and farming, he was making a humble living, when Jesse catapulted the family into prominence by robbing the bank at nearby Liberty. After that, life was never the same for Zerelda [Jesse’s mother] and the doctor. Other robberies and train holdups followed, all attributed to the James-Younger Gang. The hunt for them was intensified, but dangerous as it was, they often slipped in out of the brush and spent the night at the Samuel house. It was not long before information to that effect was int he hand of the Pinkertons [a private detective agency.] What they did about it ended in stark tragedy. …
“For months, a score of the agency’s best operatives had been crisscrossing Missouri… the results were distinctly embarrassing… As the year of 1874 drew to a close, the score read: three detectives and only one outlaw, John Younger, killed… And trains continued to be held up and banks robbed with annoying frequency.
“However, on January 5, 1876, the agency got a break. Jack Lad, one of their best operatives, who had been working as a pseudo farmhand within several miles of the Samuel home, wired the Kansas City office that Frank and Jesse were visiting their mother…
“There is some disagreement as to what followed, but it concerns only what one of the Pinkertons tossed through the window that he had opened. The only light within came from the fireplace. It was a bitter night, the temperature hovering around zero. The doctor, Zelda, their two young children–Archie, aged eight, and Fannie, aged five–and a Negro servant woman, who had come west from Kentucky with Zelda and her husband, had retired for the night. Whatever it was that came sailing into the room, it exploded, and the effect was ghastly. Zelda’s right arm was torn off at the elbow. Archie was disemboweled and died almost at once. Dr. Samuel and the Negro woman were seriously injured… The irony of it was that Frank and Jesse were a hundred miles away.
“A feeling of revulsion against the Pinkertons swept the state. …
“Wellman is one of the few [writers who do not think it was a grenade]… I can only ask: why not? I recall the part played by Pinkerton men in the bloody strike at the McCormick Reaper Company Works, in Chicago, and again in the revolt of the steelworkers at the Homestead Mills, in Pittsburgh. The Pinkertons of that era are not sacrosanct with me.”
EvX:Wikipedia gives an interesting account of this incident and its aftermath:
Allan Pinkerton, the agency’s founder and leader, took on the case as a personal vendetta. … On the night of January 25, 1875, he staged a raid on the homestead. Detectives threw an incendiary device into the house; it exploded …
Many residents were outraged by the raid on the family home. The Missouri state legislature narrowly defeated a bill that praised the James and Younger brothers and offered them amnesty. Allowed to vote and hold office again, former Confederates in the legislature voted to limit the size of rewards which the governor could make for fugitives. This extended a measure of protection over the James–Younger gang by minimizing the incentive for attempting to capture them.
One man’s outlaw is another man’s, er, freedom fighter?
But let’s get back to Dago. How well did outlawry pay?
“After the robbery at Liberty, in February, the James-Younger Gang did not strike again until October 30, more than eight months later, when they looted the bank at Lexington, Missouri. …
“three, possibly four, stagecoach robberies can be rightly charged up to them over the decade and a half of their spectacular banditry. In all that time, however, they entered only a dozen banks (counting their misadventure at Northfield) and held up only seven trains. Add to that the Kansas City Fairgrounds robbery and you have the complete score of their major undertakings–twenty in all…
“Many estimates have been made of how much money they got away with. The popular reckoning is half a million dollars. Cole Younger, who was the only one of the bandits to say anything about it, claimed that they never got half of what they wee supposed to have taken. … The best answer as to what became of the money is that it was spent. A little simple arithmetic is all that is required to arrive at that conclusion. If in fifteen years the loot totaled half a million dollars,t he yearly take was less than $35,000. Divided among eight to ten men, all it amounted to was handsome wages. Cole Younger says they got nothing like half a million dollars. ..
“Turn back to the robbing of the bank at Liberty. Greenup Bird, the cashier, in a sworn statement, says the outlaws rode off with $57,072, of which $40,000 was in bonds, $15,000 in gold coin an the balance, scarcely more than $2,000, in silver and greenbacks. The bonds were nonnegotiable, hence worthless to the bandits. The gold was an even more tantalizing problem, since there was so little of it in circulation that to start spending it was certain to fasten suspicion on whoever possessed ti as a member of the robber gang. The only way out of the dilemma was to dispose of the gold to a “fence”…
“all commentators agree that they got $9,000 for their $15,000 in gold. …
“If, as claimed, twelve men took part in the Liberty bank robbery, a little more arithmetic reveals that each man netted only a little over a thousand dollars.”
EvX: I note that this is the exact same problem many pirates had. It’s one thing to capture a galleon, and quite another to walk into town and buy a farm using a chest full of stolen doubloons without getting noticed.
“Though the proceeds of the Gallatin robbery added up to very little, it unleashed a veritable hornet’ nest of trouble on the James-Younger Gang. … It was high time t get out of Missouri again. By twos and threes, they crossed the line into Indian Territory and holed up in old Tom Starr’s domain, east of Eufala. They knew old Tom from guerrilla days. He had ten brothers, several sons and daughters. With all of his progeny and kinsfolk, he was the head of perhaps the largest of all Cherokee clans, and he ruled it with a cruel, iron hand. The “Starr country” was wild, desolate, without roads, and no one attempted to cross it who was not known to be friendly with its overlord. Its limestone cave were a perfect refuge for men on the scout. Then, too, a man could turn a dollar by stealing horse and cattle for Tom Starr.
An Amusing Incident:
“On June 3, 1871, the world heard from the James-Younger Gang again. This time it was the prosperous town of Corydon, Iowa… Several blocks from the Ocobock Brothers Bank, their objective, a political rally was in full swing. … When they walked out, the grain sack was bulging with $45,000 in assorted bonds, gold and paper currency.
“It was one of the gang’ richest hauls. Jesse felt so good about it that as they passed the meeting on their way out of town, he stopped and interrupted the speaker.
“‘What is it?’ the Great Man demanded with understandable annoyance…
“I’m sorry to interrupt,” Jesse called back, “But there’s something wrong down at the bank. In fact, it’s just been robbed. Maybe you better look into it, sir.”
“With a mocking laugh, he and his fellow conspirators put spurs to their horses and dashed away.”
Jesse’s First Train Robbery:
“…on July 21, Jesse had his way about it and they did the “spectacular”–their first train robbery. … Securing a spike bar and a sledge hammer, they went east of town a short distance, to a curve, pried off a fishplate, removed the spike and attached a rope to the loosened rail so that it could be pulled out of alignment. Hiding behind an embankment, they had nothing to do but wait until the express came panting around the bend.
“It was after midnight when it hove into view. Years later, Cole Younger said that they expected the train would stop when the locomotive left the tracks. Instead it plowed ahead a few feet and toppled over… the engineer was caught in the cab and scalded t death. …
“The express car yielded less than $3,000. … “Railroad records show,” says Croy, “that $75,000 went through the following night.” The gang had missed the jackpot by only twenty-four hours. …
“In the four weeks following the Gads Hill holdup, the Pinkertons sent their best men into Missouri. But no arrests were made. They complained to their superiors that they could get no cooperation from the inhabitants of the border counties of western Missouri, where the outlaws had a number of hiding places, that the James-Younger Gang had friends in every crossroads village and on every farm. It is true that there were many who, for one reason or another, were sympathetic to Jesse and his men, but the overwhelming majority kept silent because they were afraid to inform on them.
“What was more to the point, Jesse had perfected a secret intelligence system that worked so well that whenever a stranger appeared in Clay County word of his presence was quickly conveyed to him by his hangers-on.”
Frank and Jesse’s Weddings:
“Jesse and Frank were back in Missouri in April. It was marriage, not robbery, they had on their minds this time. Not too much is known about Frank’s marriage in 1874 to Annie Ralson, the daughter of a respectable Clay County family, other than that her people objected so strenuously to her marrying Frank that she had to elope with him. On April 24, 1874, Jesse married Zerelda Mimms, who had been waiting for him for eight years. No elopement for him. Dressed in the finest raiment money could buy, he boldly came into Kansas City and was married by a minister.
“What kind of women were these who married famous outlaws, men with a price on their heads, wanted dead or alive? They were a far cry from what today we call “gun molls.” They lived on “outlaw” money, but on no other count can they be faulted. They took no part in the lawless deeds of their husbands … They were loyal to the men they married, and Frank and Jesse were true and loyal to them. If there is one untarnished page in the life of the James brothers, it is to be found in their marital relation with Annie and Zerelda.”
EvX: Things went pretty well for the James-Younger Gang until they decided to head north to Minnesota. They thought the Swedes would be easily-robbed pushovers, but instead they fought back. Of the 8 outlaws who walked into town that day, only two escaped. The three Younger brothers, Jim, Cole, and Bob, were captured and sent to prison, and three other men were killed.
Jesse and Frank went into hiding. Frank appears to have adjusted to settled life, but Jesse soon attracted a new gang of followers.
“…Tucker Basham, well-heeled with his share of the Glendale lot, did some foolish bragging that led to his arrest. William H. Wallace, the newly elected and vigorous prosecuting attorney of Jackson County, put the screws on young Basham and got a full confession from him. …
“[Outlaw] Bill Ryan was picked up near Nashville, Tennessee, in the course of a week-long carouse… The description of him that was sent out caught the eye of Deputy U.S. Marshal Whig Keshlaer. … Ryan was brought back to face trial in Missouri.
“People shook their heads in consternation–not over the outcome, which they regarded as certain, but at the prosecutor’s audacity in pushing through an indictment of Ryan. Never before had a member of the gang been brought to trial in Jackson County. There was not a chance in a million, they said, that he could impanel a jury that would bring in a verdict of guilty.
“Wallace’s life was threatened. …
[Jesse James then robbed a train and killed its conductor, Westphal.]
“In Independence, Wallace proceeded with the trial of Bill Ryan. Basham’s confession was introduced, and it created a sensation. … That night Tucker Basham’s home was burned to the ground. And now, unexpectedly, a remarkable thing happened. A score of men who had fought for the Confederacy, many under Quantrill, and who in their hearts were still as “unreconstructed” as on the day Lee surrendered at Appomattox, rallied behind Wallace. … The wavering jury took courage and stood firm. The evidence against Ryan piled up and he was sentenced to twenty-five years in the Missouri Penitentiary. …
“Frank was the only one Jesse had left… Of the men who had ridden with him since Northfield, four were in prison… Two were dead–Ed Miller and Wood Hite. Why he didn’t call it a day and get out of Missouri, even out of the United States, no one will ever know. …
“It happened on the morning of April 3, in the modest house in St. Joe in which Jesse was living with his wife and children, under the alias of J.D. Howard. A single shot was heard by the neighbors. They ran in and found the bearded man, whom they knew as Mr. Howard, lying dead on the floor.
“Bob Ford says in his sworn statement:
Jesse and I had a talk yesterday about robbing the bank at Platte City, and which Charley and I both agreed to assist.
“Between eight and nine o’clock this morning while the three of us were in a room in Jesse’s house, Jesse pulled off his coat and also his pistols, two of which he constantly wore, and then got up onto a chair for the purpose of brushing dust off a picture. …
“So as quickly as possible, I drew my pistol and aiming at Jesse’s head, which was no more than four feet from the muzzle of my weapon, I firered, and Jesse tumbled headlong from the chair on which he was standing and fell on his face.
“Bob Ford’s moment of glory was brief. A wave of revulsion at the cowardly manner in which the treacherous asssassination had been accomplished swept over Missouri. In the outburst of feeling Jesse’s crimes were temporarily forgotten, and men and women spoke of him as “our Jesse” … Bob Ford fled the state, only to be reviled wherever he went. … Four years after the slaying of Jesse, Charly Ford, in ill health and worn down by the stigma attached to him, committed suicide with a pistol in a clump of underbrush near his home in Richmond, Missouri.”
EvX: After Jesse’s death, Frank James turned himself in to the authorities, was tried, and acquitted.
Cole Younger was later pardoned and released from prison–a fascinating story, but too long to recount here. I urge you to read the book if you want to hear it.