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.

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