Brother Can You Spare A Dime? The Impact of the Great Depression

Despite the fact that I’ve got a whole category dedicated to this one, major event in history, this is the first time I’ve actually written about the Depression specifically for my blog, probably because the Depression was just such a big thing and because it lasted so damn long! A whole decade!

In recent months, talk of depression has been on the rise, and since the original Great Depression is still within living memory (just!) and since this is just such a massive and pivotal moment in history, I think it’s time to write about it.

They Used to Tell Me they were Building a Dream…

The 1920s have not been given the name the “Roaring Twenties” for nothing. The end of the Great War in 1918 meant that people were free once again to live their lives as they chose. And in the 20s…people chose to party! The economic caffeine-shot of the First World War meant that technology was rapidly advancing, evolving and developing, giving folks new ways to have fun. Now, people found time and money to explore new things such as the motor-car, radio, jazz-music, the cinema, the talkies, the theatre and the roadtrip. Jobs created by new industries in music, entertainment, film, the automotive industry and radio, meant that money was plentiful and with money, people wanted to buy things. Prosperity and fun were the watchwords for the 1920s.

…And so I followed the Mob…

For nine years, the world enjoyed dizzying and euphoric prosperity, glad to leave the troubles of the Great War, which had killed millions, far behind. For nine years, people rode the thrilling and amazing rollercoaster that was the 1920s. The new jobs and new industries meant there was plenty of money, work and prosperity to go around. In the USA, Prohibition brought even more spice into the mix, with gangsters, crime-waves, illegal liquor and underground bars and nightclubs called ‘speakeasies’. However, all this glitz and glamour would not last and sooner or later it had to collapse.

Perched on the Precipice

With so much money changing hands and spinning around the world in the 1920s, people wanted to get their hands on as much mazoomah as they could. To do this, thousands of folks, from big city businessmen to Mr. Fenwick who ran the local general store, wanted to get in on the stock-market to buy shares, sell shares and make money on them. Share-values had been rising and falling steadily throughout 1929 and people became more and more excited, trying to make larger, grander and more impressive profits.

In essence, what caused the Crash of 1929 was the simple rule of “Supply and Demand”. The fewer products there are, the higher the prices are, the more products there are, the lower the prices are. Similarly, the fewer products there are, the higher their values will be; correspondingly, these values would drop if there was a sudden abundance.

With so many shares being bought in 1929, share-prices and values skyrocketed! With values up so high, people started selling shares to make as much money as they could. The only problem was…they were selling too many…too fast. With the market flooded, share-values dropped and soon, Wall Street was in freefall as people frantically tried to sell off their now worthless shares, while others tried to buy back more, to raise their value again!

Wall Street, Manhattan. End of October, 1929. The large building on the right is the New York Stock Exchange

Despite the best efforts of big investors and bankers, however, the Wall Street Crash was now spiralling out of control, whizzing downwards in an unstoppable freefall from its lofty perch, just a few months before. October 29, 1929, the date of the Wall Street Crash, led to the onset of the Great Depression.

The Start of Something Great

The Great Depression wasn’t called “Great” for nothing. Wall Street, as the center of the financial world, affected finances all over the globe. If America sneezed, the rest of the world caught a cold, as they say. And right now, the world was in hospital with a bad case of pneumonia. With the Crash and the loss of literally billions of dollars (a unit of measurement probably thought unimaginable in 1929!), the effects started being felt all around the world, within weeks, months and in rare cases, a couple of years.

Because the United States was rapidly losing money, the rest of the world started losing money, too. International deals broke down due to a lack of payment. International investments fell through and soon, the catastrophe was worldwide as international trade starting sliding further and further down towards calamity. But what was it like on a more local level? How could a disaster of this scale in the worlds of big business and finance destroy everything beneath it?

With the loss of shares, companies went bust. Lots of them. With the closure of their places of business, employees were out of work. With the slowing production of consumer-goods, shops started getting fewer and fewer products. Unable to sell their goods to a population which had no money, shopkeepers were forced to lower prices, which caused their shop-assistants to have to take pay-cuts, which meant they couldn’t buy as many goods as they could before, which caused further price-reductions, which…You get the idea. Granted, this is a rather simple example of how things panned out, but it was what happened, nonetheless.

Brother Can You Spare A Dime?

Unemployment began to spread rapidly once the Depression properly took hold. Especially hard-hit countries included the United States (unemployment 25%), Australia (30%), the United Kingdom (20%), Canada (27%) and Germany (30%). Tariffs on imported goods were meant to encourage people to purchase goods made by their own, national companies and businesses, but this failed to work when competing countries started increasing tariffs as well, grinding international trade to a halt.

When the Depression hit, many people had to sell their most prized posessions to stay afloat. Here, bankrupt investor Walter Thornton is trying to sell his luxury roadster automobile in Manhattan after losing all his money in the Wall Street Crash

Industries that were affected included the big money-spinners like shipbuilding (the famous White Star Line and the competing Cunard Line only survived bankruptcy due to a merger), the entertainment industry (several piano-manufacturers went out of business when people could no-longer afford to buy such expensive instruments) and construction. The vast amounts of money required for public works simply wasn’t there, causing thousands of people in the construction-industry to lose their jobs.

…When there was Earth to Plough…

A big contributing factor to the severity of the Depression in the United States was the coming of the “Dust Bowl” in the early 1930s. Years of overgrazing and poor farming techniques in the rural areas of states such as Oklahoma, Texas and Kansas, had stripped the land of its vital topsoil and vegetation, which was crucial to keeping the fragile terrain in balance. Severe drought in during the first half of the 30s caused much of what was once fertile farming-land, to dry up and turn to dust, quite literally. This left thousands of farmers and their families homeless and without a source of income. Many of them packed up their worldly goods into their cars or trucks and drove West, towards California to find jobs, which put even more strain on the already fragile job-market, which could barely keep Californians employed, let alone all the Texans and ‘Okies’.

A photograph taken during the Dust Bowl. The wind whipped up huge sandbanks that blocked doorways and could trap people inside their houses

But the ‘Dust Bowl’ could not possibly be so bad as to actually FORCE people to leave their farms and homes…could it?

Yes, it could. The Dust Bowl was not just a mere inconvenience. It was a life-threatening environmental disaster. With no grass or trees to hold down the dried out topsoil, strong breezes whipped up the sand and created highly damaging sandstorms, which could make it impossible to see what you were doing or where you were going. Even hiding inside your house wasn’t any good, because the sand and the wind would be forced in through any cracks or crevices in the woodwork, the window-frames or the doorframes. Sand could get into your eyes, ears, nose, mouth…and worst of all, down your throat and into your lungs!

…When there were guns to Bear Arms…

As if the Great Depression couldn’t get any worse, with farming folk charging into the cities, and with cities having no jobs for their own people, let alone farmers, another group of people were about to take up the fight to try and earn some money, or at least get any money at all! This group of people was known as the Bonus Army.

The Bonus Army received its name because it was made up of former U.S. Army soldiers, who had served in the First World War (then called the Great War). It was called the ‘BONUS’ Army because these war-veterans wanted their bonuses! Or to be precise, they wanted their army-pensions and government entitlements. Unfortunately, with the U.S.A. rapidly losing money, the government was in no position to start giving handouts to retired soldiers. Frustrated by this lack of action, many members of the ‘Bonus Army’ set up shanty-towns and camps in the U.S. capital of Washington D.C. They named their camps “Hoovervilles”, a derisive term aimed at then-president Herbert Hoover, who never accepted that the Depression was as bad as people said it was.

The Bonus Army was a real pain in the neck and by mid-1932, the government was getting sick and tired of it. But the thing was, the Army wasn’t a bunch of grumpy old men banging walking-sticks on the doors of the U.S. Capitol…it was a real army made up of real soldiers! At its peak, it had some 43,000 members, made up of war-veterans and their famlies, who demanded cash-payments for service rendered during the War. Eventually, everything erupted when then Attorney-General William D. Mitchell ordered the Washington D.C. police-department, together with soldiers from the United States Army, to evacuate (a nice little euphamism for ‘force out’) the Bonus Army from the nation’s capital.

Initially, the army-veterans thought that the U.S. Army was there to help them, but when their commanding officers (General Douglas MacArthur and then-Major George S. Patton) ordered the troops to charge the camps, anarchy ensued! Fires were lit, shots were fired and hundreds of people were injured in the confusion to follow.

When President Roosevelt came to office in 1933, he didn’t want to pay the army-bonuses either. But he did try to find work for the unemployed war-veterans, and both Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt encouraged the former soldiers to enlist in the various civil-works programs which were being created under the “New Deal” scheme, to get Americans back to work.

Once I Built a Railroad, I Made it Run…

During the Depression, people found work any way at all, that they could. If a man was lucky, he found a job. But it was usually just the one, small job, working part-time. Some people managed to scrape things together and make ends meet for their families by working two or three part-time jobs a week, to make up a regular wage. With everything on a knife-edge and with so little money going around, employers could not afford to hire any staff full-time. People busked on the streets, playing music, doing magic-tricks or other forms of street-performance to try and scrape a few pennies together. Others went hunting to try and shoot or trap animals to feed their families. And this was provided that their families had places to live: A lot of landlords evicted entire families into the streets after they were unable to pay their rents.

But for those who could not hold onto their jobs, for those who couldn’t find jobs (even part-time ones on half-wages), for those who had no homes, the only alternative to starving to death or begging, was to become a hobo.

A hobo is a wandering worker, going from town to town, looking for employment. It’s thought to come from the term ‘Hoe-Boy’, a generic farm-worker who tilled the land with a hoe. For many hobos, travelling great distances to find work was the only way to survive. Many of them did not have cars (with no money for petrol, could you blame them?) and probably didn’t have bicycles as well (and if they did, probably couldn’t afford tyres). Thus, to travel around the vast stretches of the United States, many of them took to riding the rails.

Hobos sneaking into a boxcar of a stopped railroad locomotive

Riding the rails was a dangerous thing to do. It involved hobos climbing into box-cars attached to railroad locomotives as they travelled across the countryside, since hobos couldn’t afford tickets to ride legally. This practice of jumping into box-cars was dangerous for several reasons. The most obvious one is the speed of the train. Although steam-powered locomotives don’t go anywhere near as fast as what trains do today, the big ones could still top 90 miles an hour going full steam ahead on full-throttle. Managing to swing yourself into an open box-car when it’s thundering along at 70 or 80 miles an hour was not easy, and several hobos were killed falling from box-cars and being thrown under the wheels of the train, to be crushed to death.

Another less-obvious danger was that of being arrested. Many railroad-yards and stations employed railway police whose job it was to ensure safety and to make sure that there were no illegal activities going on (such as hobos trying to ride a train without a ticket!). Getting arrested was a big inhibitor to finding work, so hobos had to be doubly-careful not to be caught by a railroad policeman or ‘bull’ as they were commonly called.

Once I Built a Tower Up to the Sun…

One of the biggest consequences of the Great Depression was the ending of public works projects. Without money, construction companies ground to a halt and after their current building-project was finished, many hundreds of construction-workers found themselves out of a job. Schemes such as the construction of the Boulder Dam (which was its original name, today known as the Hoover Dam) were designed to get people back to work. It didn’t necessarily matter what kind of work, so long as people were working and earning money. Other famous buildings and structures constructed during the Depression included the Sydney Harbour Bridge in Australia, the Golden Gate Bridge in California, USA, and the Chrysler and Empire State Buildings in Manhattan, New York City. In Germany, the construction of the famous autobahn highways gave many people much-needed jobs, which had the unfortunate backlash of making the Nazi Party increasingly popular in pre-war Germany. Similar road-building projects in the United States helped to put more people back at work.

Why Should I Be Standing in Line?

One of the best-known photographs of a Depression-Era breadline

In the days before government handouts and social security, people relied heavily on their neighbours for support if they found themselves unemployed. With the Depression and so many thousands of people out of work, feeding the homeless and unemployed became a real challenge. Breadlines and soup-kitchens opened up in major cities, offering cheap or free food for the poor, homeless and unemployed. They were run by charitable individuals, religious groups and in one instance…even members of the criminal classes! To escape the nosy faces of the boys in blue, infamous Chicago gangster Al Capone opened up soup-kitchens and breadlines to feed the unemployed to look good in the public eye, and draw away attention from his criminal activities.

Surviving the Depression was not easy. People faced constant fears and hardships, not knowing what would happen to them the next day. On a domestic level, housewives learnt how to be thrifty and cheap. Children learnt how to do without, and husbands and fathers learnt how to make their limited dollars stretch further. People who were able to hold onto their houses and jobs ate incredibly simple and cheap food, surviving on eggs, bread, flour, potatoes and vegetables. Foodstuffs such as fish and meat were hard to come by and were significantly more expensive (unless you managed to hunt or fish for your meat, that is).

Nothing was wasted in the Depression. Clothing was recycled over and over and over again, until it literally fell to pieces. Dress-shirts or business-shirts which were too old, worn out or dirty, became summer short-sleeeved shirts by chopping off the sleeves and sewing new hems and cuffs. Worn out summer short-sleeved shirts became handkerchieves by cutting up the fabric into squares. Worn out trousers became shorts. Any clothes worn out beyond use would be picked apart for its buttons and thread, and then probably scrunched up and used as fuel for the stove or fireplace. Jars and bottles were saved up to be reused for storing food, drink or anything else that might need a container to hold it. When the family car ran out of petrol or broke down and couldn’t be fixed for a long time, it was sometimes “put up on blocks”. This meant to put bricks or concrete blocks under the car’s axles to lift it off the ground, the purpose of this being to prevent damage to the tires and the suspension.

In the Depression, one of the main ways to forget one’s troubles was to go to the cinema. Cinema tickets were cheap and they allowed ordinary people to enjoy a couple of hours’ entertainment in a comfortable movie-theatre…even if they weren’t able to afford the popcorn, chocolates and coca-cola that would usually have made the experience complete. The motion-picture industry was one of the few big, expensive industries that managed to survive in the Depression because people bought millions of film-tickets to take their minds off their troubles. The famous adventure film “King Kong” was single-handedly responsible for saving film-studio RKO from imminent bankruptcy in 1933.

We’re In the Money!

The Depression was not universal, though, and some people and countries were very minimally affected by it. In industrialised western countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada and other places, if you managed to hold onto your wealth and your job, the Depression became an easy time for you. With such cheap prices everywhere, people who weren’t ruined by the Wall Street Crash or its after-effects, were now able to afford things that they weren’t previously able, such as new clothes, automobiles and consumer goods. During the Depression, luxury car-makers such as Duesenberg and Pierce-Arrow, survived long enough (Duesenberg was defunct in 1937, Pierce-Arrow in 1938) to give the wealthy elite of the United States (who were able to hold onto their millions) some truly stunning vintage luxury automobiles and limosuines.

The Soviet Union was one of the few countries not affected in some way by the Great Depression. Due to the Union’s rejection of capitalism, the ripple-effect of the Wall Street Crash, which hit every other capitalist state in the world, was largely unfelt in the USSR, and as a result, emerged from the Depression largely unscathed.

Old Man Depression, you are through…

The coming of the Second World War in 1939 was what ended the Depression, be it a rather unfortunate catalyst for getting the world out of a jam. The necessity for mechanisation, mobilisation and workers to run factories and machines quickly put people back to work all over the world. The recovery was slow, however. Although the War did springboard many countries out of the Depression, it took several years for the global economy to recover from the battering it had received from the Wall Street Crash of 1929.

— — — —

The subheadings used in this article come from the lyrics of two famous Depression-era songs:

“Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” (1931).
“We’re In the Money” (1933).


Oop-Boop-A-Doop! The History of Betty Boop

One of the most famous and iconic cartoon characters of the 20th century, up there with Donald Duck, Mickey Mouse, Bart Simpson and Peter Griffin (or not), Betty Boop hit the movie-screens of the world all of a sudden in the early 1930s, bringing untold joy and laughter to thousands of Americans who were out of work in the struggling times of the Great Depression. This article will explore the history of Betty Boop and what she meant to the world.

Made of Pen and Ink…

Betty Boop was created by animator Grim Natwick in 1930 as a character for the animated-film company Fleischer Studios (founded in 1921 as Inkwell Studios, reflecting the company’s area of production of animated films). She was originally a female cartoon dog (as in those furry things that go ‘woof!’), made to go with the cartoons then being produced and directed by brothers and company-founders Max and David Fleischer.

Betty Boop made her first appearance in the short film “Dizzy Dishes”, on the 9th of August, 1930. She had a more dog-like face, with long, flapping ears, to reflect her original role as an animal character in the studio’s line of films. Betty Boop was modelled after then-popular singer Helen Kane, whose distinctive scat-singing style gave rise to Betty’s well-known “Oop-boop-a-doop!” catchphrase. The fact that Kane was an inspiration for Betty was so well-known that in 1932, Helen Kane tried to sue Fleischer studios for the stupendous sum of $250,000! No that’s not a typo, that’s two hundred and fifty thousand dollars; an absolute fortune in the struggling, Depression-era years of the 1930s. Unfortunately for Kane, she wasn’t able to prove that her singing style was uniquely hers (other singers besides herself, who also sang in a similar ‘oop-boop-a-doop’ scat-style were brought forward as proof of this) and she was also unable to prove that her appearance had been copied by the artists at Fleischer studios (who had based Betty’s appearance on the likeness of equally-famous 1920s actress Clara Bow). Ultimately, Kane lost the lawsuit and Betty was here to stay.

Throughout the early years of the 30s, Betty’s appearance continued to change. Originally drawn as a dog, she eventually became more and more human until by 1932, Max Fleischer had decided to make her totally human. In keeping with 20s and 30s contemporary style, Betty was drawn up as a stylised flapper girl; a good dancer, young in appearance, innocent and with a short, above-knee length flapper dress. Her long, doggy ears became ordinary-sized ears, with large, hoop earrings.

…She can win you with a wink…

One of Betty’s biggest claims to fame was as one of the earliest known sex-symbols! Now I’m sure to many people today, the idea of getting your jollies on a hand-drawn, black-and-white ink-and-pen cartoon character sounds absolutely ludicrous! Betty surely had no more sex-appeal than Mickey Mouse! But therein lies the very reason. Betty wasn’t Mickey. Betty wasn’t an animal. She wasn’t a mouse. She was drawn as a person. As a human being. As…a woman.

Previous to Betty, all female characters were crudely drawn, basically looking like male cross-dressers. No thought was given to the female form…it wasn’t really seen as being necessary. But with Betty, that all changed. She was drawn with hips, breasts, big, batting eyes and a proper female figure, something which nobody had ever done before. This, combined with her (then) skimpy outfits, which showed off her arms and most of her legs, added to her sex-appeal.

Betty Boop, showing off her legs, shoulders and arms and sporting her signature hoop earrings

There was a great deal of sexual exploration in the 1920s and early 30s, with women dressing up in men’s clothing and men dressing up in clothing intended for females! Men tried on makeup and women smoked cigarettes, in a day and age when only men smoked! The popular song “Masculine Women, Feminine Men”, from 1926, shows that sexual exploration was nothing new in the 20s and 30s!

Because of all this, Fleischer studios were simply going with the times and decided to make a more overtly sexual character than had previously been allowed. Don’t forget that this was 1932; not too long before in the Victorian era, the mere glimpse of a woman’s arm or leg by anyone other than her husband or a medical doctor was considered scandalous!

Betty was also somewhat controversial because of her age. She is supposed to be only sixteen, although if you look at some cartoons, she does some very adult things such as running hotels and boarding-houses, and if you watch a few more cartoons, it’s implied that she is still a virgin and it’s been suggested that her ‘oop-boop-a-doop’ as a euphamistic nonsense term created to allude to her virginity.

…Ain’t She Cute?..

Betty was an instant screen sensation. Her popularity soared and she became famous the world-over. The Betty Boop cartoons had a cast of supporting characters which only added to the comedy and hilarity of all the insane and crazy situations that Betty found herself in. Most notably amongst these were Koko the Clown, a friendly, if clumbsy clown, Bimbo, a dog-like character and another one of Betty’s friends, and probably most famously, Professor Grampy, an eccentric, elderly inventor who helps Betty out of numerous jams. He was famous for his skittish dance and for putting on his thinking-cap (a mortarboard hat with a lightbulb on top) when trying to figure out solutions. The hat’s lightbulb would light up when he got an idea which invariably led him to jump up and cry out: “Haha! I’ve got it!”

Grampy with his thinking-cap on, hard at work


Betty’s nonsense catchphrase, “Oop-Boop-A-Doop” was taken from the singing-style of Helen Kane, who was a popular 1920s vocalist, but probably more famous was Betty’s signature, high-pitched, teenage voice. This was provided by numerous voice-actors over the years, but Betty was most famously voiced by Mae Questel, who won the role of voicing Betty in a talent-contest when she was only seventeen, by imitating the singing-style of…you guessed it…Helen Kane!

From 1931 to 1939, Mae Questel voiced Betty in over 150 animated cartoon shorts, gaining worldwide fame as a voice-actress. Questel also voiced several other famous cartoon characters, including Casper the Friendly Ghost, Felix the Cat, Minnie Mouse and Olive Oyl, the longsuffering girlfriend of Popeye the Sailor.

Apart from voices, Betty’s cartoons were famous for including new and popular songs in their soundtracks, most notably, Cab Calloway’s “Minnie the Moocher”. Several short theme-songs were also written for the cartoon series. If you’ve been linking up all the subtitles in this article so far, you may have already figured out what one is.

Made of pen and ink,
She can win you with a wink,
Ain’t she cute?
Sweet Betty!

That short ditty was played at the start of several of the Betty Boop shorts, occasionally substituted with this one:

She’s our little queen,
Of the animated screen,
Ain’t she cute?
Sweet Betty!

A significantly longer theme-song went:

A hot cornet can go *wah-wah-wah!*
Playing hot and blue,
But a hot cornet can’t,
Like Betty Boop can do!

A saxophone can go *doo-doo-doo*
Playing all night through!
But a saxophone can’t,
Like Betty Boop can do!

This little miss,
Would never miss,
A chance for vocal tuning,
And anytime and anywhere,
You can hear this lady crooning!

An old banjo can go *plink-plink-plink*
That’s no news to you!
But an old banjo can’t,
Like Betty Boop can do!

Sweet Betty!

For the past eighty years, Betty Boop remains one of the most famous and popular animated characters ever, with her distinctive voice, appearance and singing style. But Betty wasn’t always this sweet. While she was originally rather scantily clad, the Motion Picture Production Code (more famously known as the ‘Hays Code’, after the man who instituted it) put an end to all this. In the late 30s and into the 40s, Betty Boop’s figure had to be changed to meet the new, stricter censorship laws. Most notably amongst these changes was in Betty’s wardrobe. Betty’s dresses became less revealing, changing from the 1920s, sleeveless flapper dresses which showed off her legs from her knees down, to more conservative dressing which covered up her arms, back, shoulders and brought the hemline of her dress further down to below her knees.

This 1935 film-poster for a Betty Boop animated short, shows how the Hays Code affected Betty Boop’s appearance under the new censorship laws

Despite these changes though, Betty Boop has remained a popular and beloved character by thousands of people around the world.


Public Enemy #1: The Birth of the ‘Public Enemy Era’.

If you’re a fan of the “golden age of gangsters”, if you’re a fan of the Roaring Twenties and the Great Depression in the United States or if you’re a fan of criminal history, you’ll probably know that from 1920 until the end of the Depression in 1939, the United States of America experienced its biggest-ever crime-wave. Maybe you’ve watched that new film “Public Enemies”? What is a ‘public enemy’ and where did they come from? How were they viewed in society and what was done to stop these crooks?

Before the Public Enemy.

The 1920s was an exciting time to be alive. Hot jazz, sweet jazz, flappers, smokes, new inventions, radio, film and flashy nightclubs! People had money to burn and it was believed that this era of prosperity would go on forever. There was just…one problem. There was nothing to drink. During WWI and the late 1910s, the Temperance Movement had gained considerable steam in the United States. Various groups demanded a prohibition of alcohol on a natonal level, saying that it was for the nation’s own good. The government bowed to popular pressure and in January of 1920, one of the most controversial ammendments to the Constitution in American history, became law, creating national prohibition.

Prohibition was not popular. In fact, it was very unpopular. So unpopular that some people started doing something about it. Gangsters. The 1920s saw a dramatic rise in crime in the United States, as gangsters fought to gain control of the million-dollar illegal liquor industry that popped up almost overnight, all over the United States. Gangsters such as Johnny Torrio, Bugs Moran and the legendary Al Capone became bigtime bootleggers, smuggling and seling liquor illegally throughout America for the next decade. Just how lucrative was the bootlegging business? Why was it so popular and why were people fighting so much to get in on it? Well, in 1928, Al Capone was making…wait for it…$100,000 a year, from bootlegging. If that doesn’t sound like much, perhaps I should convert it to 2009 dollars? Imagine making $1,200,000 a year from illegal booze. It’s suddenly looking a lot nicer now, isn’t it?

Prohibition brought all kinds of hell to the authorities, such as corruption, bootlegging, gang-wars, shootouts and assassinations…but most people didn’t care, so long as they got their booze. Police-officers didn’t worry about the gangsters breaking the law, because they wanted booze just as much as everyone else! And a few, carefully-placed banknotes ensured that officers suddenly developed temporary blindness in the presence of alcohol.

The Great Depression.

If prohibition was what concieved the Public Enemy, then the Great Depression was what gave birth to it. Up until 1929, people tolerated the corruption and greed and vice and the gang-wars and everything else. All they wanted was their booze! But a tiny event called the Wall Street Crash of 1929, changed that forever. Suddenly, hundreds, thousands of people, were out of work. They had no money for booze and they didn’t care for it. Now, they were struggling to survive. Struggling to scrape together enough pennies and dimes to appease the landlord before he threw them out, trying to find enough nickels to get something to eat at the local restaurant or to buy their groceries. And of course, this lack of money and the desperation that it caused, brought up a whole new kind of criminal who was both loved and hated by the American public.

The Rise of the ‘Public Enemy’.

The term, ‘Public Enemy’, was popularised by a man named Frank J. Loesch who, in April of 1930, was the chairman of the Chicago Crime Commission. ‘Public Enemies’ was the name he used for notorious gangsters who were making the headlines of newspapers every other week, and who he saw as a threat to the safety of the American public. They were quite a crowd of gangsters, too. Maybe you recognise some of the names? The original top-ten “public enemies” were:

Alphonse Capone.
Ralph Capone.
Franklin Rio.
Jack “Machine Gun” McGurn.
Jake “Greasy Thumb” Guzik.
George “Bugs” Moran.
Joe Aiello.
Edward “Spike” O’Donnell.
“Polack” Joe Saltis.
Myles O’Donnell.

Al Capone became Public Enemy #1 after an infamous massacre, which was carried out under his orders. Maybe you’ve heard of it? It’s called the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre of February, 1929. On that day, members of the rival gang belonging to George ‘Bugs’ Moran, were lined up inside a garage by Capone gangsters (posing as policemen), who machine-gunned them down in cold blood. Moran would have been snuffed too, but he accidently showed up late to the meeting and so missed the one-way ticket to the graveyard.

The ‘Public Enemy Era’, which is the subject of this posting, was a period of roughly five years, from ca. 1930-1935, when police officials and gangsters fought out vicious running gun-battles with each other, that spread all over the western USA. Names such as “Baby Face” Nelson, John Dillinger, The Barker Boys and Bonnie & Clyde, became famous, nationwide. Public enemies were viewed with a mixture of admiration and disgust by the American public. They were admired because they attacked institutions such as banks, robbing them throughout the American Midwest. Banks were popular targets for crooks, obviously, because that’s where all the money was, in a time when money was hard to find. Folks admired the gangsters’ balls and courage for raiding banks and sorta tolerated this, because they couldn’t stand banks either. Banks stole their houses and possessions when they couldn’t pay off their debts, so gangsters targeting banks were supported by the public.

On the other hand, gangsters also robbed ordinary people and performed kidnappings and murders. This made the public turn against them, and they began to lose their liking for these modern folk-heroes pretty quickly after that. It became clear to the American government that something serious had to be done.

Tracking Down the Enemies.

Tracking down the Public Enemies and dispatching them or capturing them, fell to the BOI. Wait…surely you mean the…FBI? No, I mean the BOI. The Bureau of Investigation, which was its name from its creation in 1908 until 1932, when it became the DOI (Division of Investigation), until 1935, when it was finally given its current name…the FBI. The Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Working with local police-forces, the FBI, or the BOI/DOI as it was known back then, set about tracking down the various Public Enemies and either arresting them or killing them in gun-battles or ambushes. The FBI was responsible for tracking down such notables as John Dillinger, Baby-Face Nelson, Pretty Boy Floyd and the Barker Boys.

Thanks to the persistence of the FBI and the police-forces which collaborated with it, FBI agents were able to close in on the gangsters. The Barker Boys, Bonnie & Clyde and John Dillinger were killed in shootouts or ambushes with either the FBI or local law-enforcement…but what happened to the crooks who weren’t killed?

The Biograph Theater. FBI photograph taken in 1934, shortly after Dillinger was shot dead outside the theater, by FBI special agents.

The Bonnie & Clyde death-car. Texas and Louisiana Sheriff’s officers opened fire on this vehicle in an ambush, killing Bonnie & Clyde as they tried to escape.

Fighting with the Enemy.

Killing Public Enemies was not easy. They were often heavily-armed with shotguns, pistols and machine-guns. One of the most famous machine-guns in the world made a name for itself during the 1920s and 30s; they called the Chopper, the Chicago Piano, the Chicago Typewriter…they called it…the Tommy Gun.

The Tommy Gun, or the Thompson Submachine Gun, was the brainchild of General John T. Thompson. He envisoned a compact firearm, capable of firing bullets in quick succession, and which was light enough to be used by one man. His invention was the Tommy Gun. The first prototypes came out in 1918, and they were meant to be used by Allied soldiers fighting in the Western Front of WWI, but by the time the guns were ready for shipment, the war was over. However, gangsters soon found that the Tommy Gun, being easy to operate, relatively light, compact and with a high rate of fire (600rpm!), answered all their prayers about an efficient killing-machine. The Tommy Gun came in several designs, but the most famous one was the M1928, with the distinctive, drum-magazine.

The Thompson M1928.

The Thompson was used extensively by both gangsters, police and FBI agents in their war against crime and against criminal agents. It was a gun that remained popular well into WWII and Vietnam, even though by that stage, it had already been declared obsolete. Even though the Tommy Gun performed admirably during WWII, it remains as the iconic weapon of the gangsters of the 1920s and 30s and the Public Enemy Era.

The End of the Line.

In the event that lawmen or FBI agents actually arrested these robbers and kidnappers, thieves and murders, these gangsters, these…Public Enemies…what happened to them after the trial?

It was pretty clear that they couldn’t just be chucked in jail. Oh no. Not just any jail. Regular jails weren’t good enough for these guys. And I mean that literally. John Dillinger alone, busted out of at least two. It became abundantly clear to the FBI and other law-enforcers, that a special place had to be created for these bozos. And so…they did create a special place. A special place that still exists today. You can even go and visit it. I’ve done it myself. What is this special place?

A little island off the coast of San Francisco, California, located in the middle of San Francisco Bay. A tiny, little island with a big past and even bigger residents. A little joint called…Alcatraz Island.

Alcatraz had been a prison almost from the day European settlers discovered it. It was a military prison, it was an army barracks, it served as a temporary prison after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake…but in the 1930s, it recieved a new name. US. Federal Penitentiary: Alcatraz Island; popularly known as…The Rock.

And Alcatraz Island really was a rock. When US. law-enforcement and prison officials decided to build a prison there, they had to ship EVERYTHING that they wanted to be on the island, TO the island; even the soil! Alcatraz was a rock in the truest sense of the word, in that barely anything grew there, as there was no soil for it to grow in! But by 1934, the prison was opened. It recieved some very famous inmates, such as Al Capone himself. Such as Robert Stroud, Machine-Gun Kelly and Alvin Karpis, to name but a few of the famous, 1920s and 1930s crimnals who contributed to the Jazz-Age and Depression-Era crime-wave. A famous line from the film “Escape From Alcatraz” summed up Alcatraz’s role very nicely: “When you disobey the laws of society, they send you to prison. When you disobey the laws of the prison, they send you to US. Nobody has ever escaped from Alcatraz…and nobody ever will”.

Alcatraz Island as it appears today. At the very back you can see the lighthouse (still operational today). In front of it is the main cellhouse, where prisoners were kept. In front of that is a high, walled yard, which was the exercise yard. Prisoners arriving on the island got off at the dock, located on the east side of the island (on the left, in this photo).

And yet, despite these bold words, no less than 14 escape-attempts, involving a total of 36 inmates, were carried out, during the prison’s 29 years of operation. Of these, only one was ever truly successful (if you can call slumping ashore in San Francisco half-dead from hypothermia ‘successful’). But despite this, for nearly 30 years, Alcatraz was America’s dumping-ground for its most hardened crooks. Some prisoners were sent straight there, while others were transferred from other prisons. When the prison was opened, messages were sent out to all the prison-wardens throughout the US, inviting them to wash their hands of their most dangerous inmates, and to send them on to Alcatraz where they could be locked up, safely and securely.

The End of the Public Enemy.

By the end of 1934/35, the FBI had risen to prominence. With its brutal efficiency and fast actions, it had managed to sweep up nearly all the major players in the Public Enemy game, and a legendary crime-wave was soon a thing of history.