Forensic Fashion
(c) 2006-present R. Macaraeg


>Costume Studies
>>1934 Ang.-Am. public enemy
Subject: "public enemy" outlaw
Culture: Depression-era Anglo-American
Setting: Great Depression / Dust Bowl, America 1930s

Context (Event Photos, Period Sources, Secondary Sources, Field Notes)

* Ellis 1975 p157
"[T]he next crime wave that really caught the public imagination was the outbreak of bank robberies, kidnappings and gun battles that flared across the mid-West of America in the 1930s.  To some extent the violence was attributable to the poverty and desperation occasioned by the Depression, and certainly for many poor people living in the area at the time the bandits' exploits made them into Robin Hood figures.  They were indeed rather akin to latter-day 'western' heroes.  At that time all police forces in America were tied within their state boundaries, and the new-style bank robbers used fast automobiles, instead of the traditional horse, to make their getaway from one state to another.  Many now notorious names were involved: John Dillinger, Bonnie Parker, Clyde Barrow, 'Baby Face' Nelson, 'Pretty Boy' Floyd, 'Machine Gun' Kelly and 'Ma' Barker.  The story of their exploits is punctuated with the fire of 'tommy guns'."

* Prassel 1993 p273-274
"But exploits of mythic bandits from the past loom far larger than those of the present.  Today there are about thirty bank robberies in the United States every business day.  Bandits of the frontier and mobsters of the Depression never approached such figures.  Crime to others remains more a matter of popular misconception than one of objective analysis.
    "Mobsters of the 1930s and their deeds were real.  Murders, kidnappings, and robberies certainly occurred, as they always have.  Still, the era is perceived with the end of Prohibition driving bootleggers to desperate measures.  The Depression added to the problem, throwing millions out of work and toward lives of crime.  Little evidence supports such relationships, but they nevertheless provide a persuasive setting.
    "Whatever the reasons and the facts may have been, late 1933 and 1934 were -- and still are -- viewed with particular relish and rejection.  Rather than endangered by a single outlaw or gang in some isolated corner of the nation, the entire country appeared to swarm with marauding bands of criminals.  All parts of the United States seemed threatened, although a remarkable number of the brigands came from the nation's heartland.  These mobsters tended to have familiar-sounding names, rural backgrounds, and attitudes marked by desperation, fearlessness, and malice.  Their foremost opponent described them in words as suited to a director of casting as of investigation:
[The] typical desperate criminal must not be of foreign country, but of American stock with a highly patriotic American name.  He must not come from the slum of a great city ... but from a small town ....  He must not be hounded by police or suffer any of the terrible afflictions with which our sob-sister patent-medicine criminologists immediately endow any foul murderer.
Such characteristics, shared by virtually all notorious mobsters of the day, had several likely causes.  The marauders could not be dismissed as insignificant or impotent; they represented a large portion of middle-class white society.  And, like the bandits of the frontier, they posed a grave danger, thereby creating the need for straight-shooting and courageous heroes.
    "Still, these ascribed traits attracted public appreciation.  In the worst of the Depression, banks seldom appeared as friends to farmers and the poor.  Gunmen who stole from mercenary financial institutions posed no direct threat to most people.  The gangster enjoyed celebrity status and some of the benefits of the good life when such remained beyond the dreams of ordinary mortals: 'Because they were characterized as simultaneously glamorous and brutal, the criminal lords gained a respect that ordinary tycoons could never have.  They were Faustian heroes who had acheived the American dream through an explicit contract with the devil."

* Wallace 2003 p9-10
"[H]ardly had the smoke cleared from the gun battles of the 1920s when a new breed of misanthrope stepped into the existing socioeconomic climate.  These were not the pseudo-business types possessed of the boardroom brilliance of Capone, Accardo or Luciano.  Most were the ill-educated sons (and daughters) of farmers and hillbillies.  Unlike their big-city counterparts, these criminals had not honed their skills through youthful (yet profitable) extortion and protection rackets.  Rather, they embarked on their lawless pursuits with reckless abandon, taking their cue from the outlaws of the Old West.
    "With the Depression at its height, these back-road bandits, driven by hunger and desperation, set out on robbery and kidnapping sprees that saw them emerge from the plains of Indiana, the dust bowl of Oklahoma, the hills of the Ozarks, and the open fields of Texas.  They moved swiftly and hit without mercy.  In 1933, the country recorded 12,000 murders, 50,000 robberies and 3000 kidnappings."

* Toland 1963 p36-37
"Even bootlegging suffered from the Depression.  Moreover, since it was also evident that President Roosevelt would soon be able to effect the repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment, many criminals were already turning to other fields.  Bank robbery was becoming so commonplace that some communities formed their own vigilante committees, and kidnaping [SIC], inspired by the still unsolved kidnap-murder of the Lindbergh baby, was increasing at an alarming rate.
    "Significantly, as repeal drew near and the Depression deepened, there appeared -- especially in the cities and towns of the Midwest -- a different type of criminal.  These were men who, unlike Capone, actively participated in robberies and kidnapings [SIC].  Theirs was a philosophy of personal action.  Some were even descendants of the outlaws from the Ozarks and Cookson Hills: the James brothers, the Youngers.  Almost all were native-born Americans.
    "Instead of horses, these modern bandits used fast cars and the intricate system of highways was their escape route  This was crime based on the earlier frontier pattern of strike and run.  Armed with machine guns, these new prototypes of the old outlaw breed operated openly, insolently.  They could rob a federal bank, gun down the tellers, and flee to the next state for sanctuary.
    "They shuttled between distant cities like commuters.  Local police were helpless.  They had few machine guns; their cars were old and often broke down during pursuit; they were undermanned and underpaid, often even having to but their own guns and provide their own transportation.  In addition, police chiefs were frequently changed by new political administrations at the cost of efficiency and morale."


* Wallace 2003 p10
"They truly were modern-day cowboys, although advanced in the tools of their trade.  Thompson submachine guns capable of dispensing 550 slugs a minute replaced the Winchester rifle."