When I was a young boy, in the 1940s, our main source of entertainment was radio (though I also spent an inordinate amount of time at our local movie theater).
But most nights found me stretched out in our living room next to the large, floor-model radio, listening to such things as "Superman," "The Lone Ranger," "Allen's Alley" and "Fibber McGee and Molly."
For awhile, another favorite radio program was "Gang Busters," which dramatized stories of how law enforcement agencies were rounding up the nation's most dangerous criminals. The broadcasts ended with advisories about criminals who remained on the loose.
Memories of this radio program were stirred up by a project that consumed a lot of my time over the past two years. The project began while I was looking for stories about my hometown, Solvay, New York, on newspaper pages available via fultonhistory.com. While reading newspapers from 1933, it became clear I had found one of history's wildest. most interesting years. I kept going back.
"Gang Busters," originally titled "G-Men," did not go on the air until 1935, but it entered my mind while researching 1933 because of the way the newspapers I was reading covered crime and criminals. Well, certain criminals, such as John Dillinger, "Pretty Boy" Floyd, "Baby Face" Nelson, "Machine Gun" Kelly. They became household names, and newspapers reported their movements as they sought to elude capture.
These "movements" often were based on unreliable reports from people who thought they had spotted one of these criminals driving through town, casing a local bank or hiding in a nearby farmhouse. Some of these reports probably were phoned in by the criminals themselves, attempting to mislead police.
It has been said and written that one reason these outlaws became celebrities is there wasn't much else to occupy the lives of Americans during one of our country's most desperate and depressed periods. (I've read that the lack of thing to do in the '30s prompted a huge increase in funeral attendance.)
AFTER WORLD WAR 2, when I came along and started listening to "Gang Busters," criminals weren't as notorious as they used to be. The only name I remember from my youth is Willie Sutton, bank robber and escape artist. All of the best-known villains — Dillinger, Floyd, Wilbur Underhill, etc. — were long since dead and buried.
But even in 1933, outlaws were merely supporting players. The year is best remembered for these three events:
• The first inauguration of Franklin D. Roosevelt, the President who permanently changed the way the United States government operates. He promised to get the United States out of the depression, and assured Americans there was nothing to fear but fear itself.
• The rise to power of the crazed German Fuhrer, Adolf Hitler, who massacred millions when he set out to create a master race and conquer Europe and parts of Asia, Africa and the Americas.
• Finally, the end of our "great experiment," when voters overwhelming said "Enough!!" to prohibition. Not that Americans hadn't been drinking ... but now it was legal again.
When 1933 ended, our nation — and the world — was a far different place than it had been 365 days earlier. Different, but not necessarily better.
ALSO MUCH in the news in 1933 — as they had been for several years previously — were the world's aviators, determined to fly faster and further than anyone had ever done before. It seemed hardly a day went by without a new distance record being set, or, unfortunately, a plane crash. (At the time, a "giant" plane carried only about nine passengers.) Lighter-than-air zeppelins also made headlines, some good, some tragic.
With prohibition on its way out, bootleggers and big city mobsters looked for other sources of income. Some turned to robbing banks, some tried kidnapping for ransom. Many kidnapping cases in the early 1930s involved gangsters abducting gangsters, which is why most incidents were not reported.
But in 1933 there were several cases where the victims were law-abiding citizens. Brewery executives were a favorite target. The most famous kidnapping of them all occurred in 1932 when 20-month-old Charles Lindbergh Jr. was abducted and killed.
The fact that case remained unsolved through 1933 may have given the impression that kidnapping was a safe crime, as well as profitable. However, almost all who attempted a kidnapping that year were caught and punished. It became a federal crime, and the United States bureau of investigation — not yet known as the FBI — soon was equipped to deal with criminals, many of whom began the year with faster and stronger getaway vehicles and more powerful weapons than any law enforcement agency.
AS WITH most years, 1933 had its share of widely publicized murders, plus a whole lot more that didn't attract much attention, either from the public or police, and were never solved. However, most of the newsworthy cases at least went to trial. A large percentage of these murders were committed by women, and some of these cases were strange beyond belief.
Because so many people were unemployed, suicides were commonplace. Many were reported as front-page news. Worse, many who took their own lives did so after killing members of their family.
Many other deaths resulted from the careless handling of guns and explosives. People had relatively easy access to dynamite.
Terrorism was a problem, perhaps more so than today because the threat came from many directions for many reasons.
Labor unrest, which fostered the growth of unions, also attracted communist agitators, some of whom were truly dedicated to the philosophy, but others who were trouble-making Soviet agents. There were a record number of labor strikes in 1933, with more to come the next year.
Some labor union activists weren't above using bombs to make a point. There also was mob warfare, some of it in the labor movement, much of it simply over turf.
Black Americans were frequent targets of the Ku Klux Klan or Klan sympathizers. Immigrants also were targeted, sometimes by other members of the same ethnic community.
Terrorism may have been different in those days, but it was terrorism just the same.
CELEBRITIES, most of them from the entertainment world, made their share of news for the usual reasons — marriage, divorce and scandal.
Also classified as celebrities were members of various European royal families, or people who claimed to be royalty. Times were tough in Europe, and eligible, adult "royals" tended to consider it their occupation to marry a wealthy American. The three Mdivani brothers from Georgia — the country, not the state — claimed to be titled princes; they specialized in romancing rich women, who'd invariably file for divorce a year or two later. The Mdivanis were not legitimate princes, but had this in common with bona fide "royalty" — they knew how to woo, so long as it was not on their dime. "Work" was not in their vocabulary.
THE WORLD of sports was far different in 1933 than today. There was no March Madness, no National Basketball Association. Pro football was struggling, college football ruled, though even college football attendance wasn't impressive.
There were only two recognized post-season college bowl games at the end of the 1933 season — the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, where Columbia (yes, Columbia) beat Stanford, 7-0, and the Dixie Classic in Dallas, which ended in a 7-all tie between Arkansas and Centenary (of Louisiana). (This game would become the Cotton Bowl.)
There also was a game called the Palm Festival in Florida, where host team, the University of Miami, was badly beaten by Duquesne, from Pittsburgh, 33-7.
As a further indication of how topsy-turvy football was in those days, Alabama's only loss came at the hands of Fordham, 2-0.
MAJOR SPORTS, so far as newspapers were concerned, were boxing, tennis, golf and, of course, baseball, where the New York Giants won the World Series over the Washington Senators.
Oh, yes, there were only 16 major league baseball teams in those days.
In Hollywood, "Cavalcade" would win 1933's Academy Award for best movie. Other top films that year were "King Kong," "Little Women," "Duck Soup," "42nd Street," "The Invisible Man" and "Flying Down to Rio."
NEWS WAS GRIM on the international scene, but as interesting and important as overseas events were, they've been covered elsewhere more intelligently and in much more detail than anything I could offer.
My 1933 project is about people involved in interesting, often tragic events, most of them in the United States, but few of them covered in an American history class.
Think of it more like People than American Heritage magazine.
A very long and wordy People. And not a Kardashian in sight.