New Book on Prohibition Gangsters Lurid and Lively

Marc Mappen
Rutgers, 2018, 258 pages.

There’s something about outlaws that many people find attractive—even when those outlaws are bloodthirsty murderers. Maybe it’s because they appeal to the darker impulses of law abiders who dream of setting their own ids free to roam. Or maybe it’s the lingering suspicion that laws and economic systems are not really designed for the prosperity and well-being of the proverbial Average Joe, so we admire those who machine gun their way fortune and infamy. Still, public curiosity is odd given the fact that most gangsters and outlaws were not Robin Hood types that shared their ill-gotten wealth. For every Pretty Boy Floyd, there were dozens of Mafiosi more likely to run protection rackets on Joe than to look out for his interests.

By nature gangsters thrive on vice, which is why historians usually see the Prohibition era (1920-33) as the golden age of American crime. The great Western experiment with outlawing booze quickly shed its utopian skin and revealed the inner sinners. In the United States, urban officials and journalists such as H. L. Mencken warned as early as 1925 that the 18th Amendment outlawing the manufacture, transportation, or sale of alcohol was a failure; had Al Smith won the 1928 presidential election, it might have been repealed five years earlier. As it was, many cities only half-hardheartedly tried to enforce Prohibition. Who could blame police and politicians—even those not on the take—for treading warily? Much as in the case of battling today’s gangs and drug kingpins, law enforcement was out-gunned. Consider the cast of characters that come to mind when we think of Prohibition era gangsters: Al Capone, Meyer Lansky, Legs Diamond, Dutch Schultz, Lucky Luciano, Bugs Moran, Frank Nitti, and Bugsy Siegel are enough to strike fear into any heart. Moreover, as writer/editor Marc Mappen argues in a chapter titled “Smaller Cities,” the famed crime waves we associate with Chicago, New York, and Atlantic City were merely the tip of the iceberg.

As Mappen notes, many gangsters lived short and brutish lives; their partners in crime often meted out what passed for justice. However, he also draws our attention to the fact that just one Prohibition era crime racketeer, Louis Lepke Buchalter, was executed for his crimes. A few, most famously Al Capone, were brought down by methods that did not involve mano e mano battles between cops and gangsters; Capone went to jail for tax evasion and several others fell prey to new racketeering laws. For the most part, though, those who survived inter- and intra-gang violence died in their beds. As Mappen puts it in his concluding chapter, “For them, crime did pay” (213).

Mappen gives context for Prohibition era crime, but the deep background is not the main focus of his book. He is clearly one of those who are fascinated by gangsters. That’s not to say he admires them; as his subtitle suggests, he sees them as part of a “bad generation” driven by greed and violence. But he’s also a chronicler of the minutiae that surrounds his central figures. If, like me, the details of who attended what syndicate conference and who pulled the trigger on whom does not satisfy some innate curiosity, you may find yourself skimming sections of the book. As a social historian, I was more drawn to themes that are largely glossed in Prohibition Gangsters, such as the fact that Jewish and Italian mobsters often assumed Irish surnames in twisted assimilation attempts. I also wanted much more discussion of race and gender, two topics that were (if you will) little more than drive-bys in Mappen’s study. In like fashion, I found his suggested connections between pre- and post-World War Two organized crime to be more dotted lines than solid ones. I was left unconvinced that the links are as straightforward as he suggests, but maybe he has more in mind than he showed in discussions of postwar mobster figures such as Frank Costello and Vito Genovese.

These, however, are critiques of Mappen’s fascinations as refracted through my own. If you share his desire to peel the inner lives and details of infamous prewar thugs, Mappen is a go-to source. His text is concise and lively, and his research is sound. He doesn’t glamorize his subjects, but he does make them interesting. That alone is a delicate balancing act upon the running board of a speeding car.

Rob Weir   

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