When it came to news about criminals in the 1930s, the United States seemed divided into three sections.
Northeastern states, though they had many remote rural areas, generally were fed stories about big city mobsters — from Al Capone of Chicago to Detroit's Purple Gang to Dutch Schultz, Legs Diamond, Waxey Gordon and others who were prominent in New York City.
They were part of a new breed — criminals organized into what seemed a loosely operated corporation. However, "employees" who encroached on another's territory were usually rubbed out. This gangland violence, which made news throughout Prohibition when bootlegging was big business, continued in 1933, even as states voted overwhelmingly to end the failed experiment that had made alcoholic beverages illegal.
There were new crimes to commit, old scores to settle, which is why Mrs. Alice Diamond, widow of "Legs" Diamond was murdered July 1. A few weeks later, a former Diamond bodyguard, James Dolan, also was killed.
In Chicago, "Diamond Louie" Cowan, a friend of Al Capone, was murdered, prompting a reprisal that resulted in the killing a man suspected in Cowan's death.
Two Pittsburgh mobsters were killed, and two more gunned down during a war between gangs in Buffalo and Cleveland.
OUT WEST there were big-city mobsters, but California's crimes often seemed like something out of the movies. Murders, such as the Siever and Lamson cases, were unusually mysterious, almost unreal, as if plotted by screenwriters.
With the exception of Chicago and Kansas City, Missouri, site of 1933's horrific massacre of four lawmen, the Midwest — and the Southwest — fostered a different breed of criminal. This was outlaw territory, still alive with the spirit of Jesse James, the Daltons, the Youngers and other bank robbers and train robbers of the Old West.
Two of 1933's most notorious outlaws were, appropriately, Texas-born brothers, Marvin ("Buck") and Clyde Barrow. Their notoriety rested more on killings than criminal ingenuity. As thieves, the Barrows were relatively inept, so much so that "Buck" Barrow's time in the spotlight spanned only four months. Clyde Barrow's now-famous crime spree covered 25 months, but in his lifetime he was never as famous an outlaw as John Dillinger.
(On November 27, 1933, the day after Bonnie and Clyde escaped a trap set for them by Dallas lawmen, their story, at least in the northeast, was small news compared with the killings of two members of Detroit's Purple Gang.)
FOR OUTLAWS, however, the most important thing that happened in 1933 was the federal government's declaration of war against those responsible for a crime wave that had gotten out of control, particularly in the Midwest and Southwest where banks in small cities and towns might as well have had targets painted on their windows.
Leading the way for the government was 38-year-old J. Edgar Hoover, head of the U. S. bureau of investigation, which in 1935 would be renamed the Federal Bureau of Investigation, better known as the FBI.
Hoover was an opportunist whose argument for more power was well-fed by the recklessness of criminals who exhibited a shocking disregard for innocent people caught in the crossfire. Again, this was especially true in the Midwest and Southwest, where there were frequent gun battles between escaping bank robbers and local police, with well-armed citizens often assisting.
The so-called "Kansas City Massacre" in June, 1933, helped Hoover convince Congress and President Franklin Roosevelt that federal agents should be armed, and by the time the year came to an end, it was clear the outlaw gangs, at least, were suddenly an endangered species.
Big city gangsters were a different matter. They were killing each other, which didn't upset the public all that much, and after these murders, they disappeared like rats into a sewer. It was when they left the city that they ran into trouble, as mob hitman Leonard Scarnici learned when he plotted a kidnapping in Albany and robbed a bank in Rensselaer, New York.
But outlaws such as Dillinger, Wilbur Underhill, "Baby Face" Nelson and "Machine Gun" Kelly (shown in handcuffs at the top of the page), grabbed most of the headlines, and as they were eliminated, one by one, the press and the public came to believe Hoover's war was being won.
The following story is from 1934, but is mostly an account of progress made the year before.