Saturday, February 5, 2011

I Need a Better Nickname

Like most people, I've been called a variety of things over the years. Families in particular tend to assign affectionate monikers to people (my sister used to call me "Bitsy"), and a lot of the guys I work with come from military backgrounds where nicknames seem a requisite part of the bonding ritual. In more recent times I've been called "Stacky" by some of my pilot friends--a play on my last name--and, of course my little web handle, wunelle, is a nickname, albeit one which no one ever uses (the name is, for those two who haven't figured it out, a play on my having for three decades now spelled the name "Bil" with one L).

But these names are child's play alongside gangster names. Hoodlums, especially Mafiosi and Jazz Age yeggs, seem to have the clever naming thing worked out. I wonder if this stems from the necessity of not using a fellow criminal's real name in public or the fact that working crews typically had shifting memberships. Maybe there is another reason altogether.

The use of nicknames is one of the things I'm left chewing on after Bryan Burrough's Public Enemies: America's Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-34 (2004). The book was adapted into the 2009 Michael Mann film Public Enemies. The book, naturally, covers more ground than the film, which concentrates primarily on the story of John Dillinger; the book looks at Dillinger plus a number of armed gangs which were active at the same time. All these gangs were noteworthy for operating in far-flung locales across the country, and this interstate criminal commerce effected a rather rapid transformation of law enforcement in this country.

This high mobility was one of this crime wave's key characteristics. Gangs would break apart in one location and reform days later and hundreds of miles away, sometimes in places unfamiliar to anyone involved. Crimes were often planned and committed in locations remote to the gangs' current hideouts, and at other times the gang would move to a place and study it for a while (or send a single member or two to do so) before making their play and then quickly moving on. But the immediate aftermath of the crime would almost always involve the gang disappearing across state lines. In addition to little collections of photos showing the members of each of the gangs, Burrough includes maps showing the dates and locations of each gang's most significant criminal doings, and each map is striking for its geographical spread. The Barker-Karpis gang: 11 major robberies in 10 states with hideouts in several others, covering an area from Minnesota to Cuba, the Dakotas to New Jersey; John Dillinger: 15 incidents in eight states, plus hideouts in two others; Machine Gun Kelly: five incidents in as many states with operations in at least as many more; Bonnie and Clyde: seven robberies or shoot-outs in five states; Baby Face Nelson: seven incidents in seven states. Not long before this kind of mobility was impossible. Now with the rapid advancement of the automobile, society was on the move.

Most of the gangs were centered in the Midwest, with Indiana and Missouri seeming to draw criminals like a magnet. Many gangs used Chicago as a hideout, and St. Paul was also popular, as were Toledo and Cleveland and Kansas City. My own little home town of Brainerd, MN was actually the location of Baby Face Nelson's second bank robbery, and the teller involved is curiously the same odd name and approximate age of a friend's father (odd we've never discussed it).

Probably the biggest single thing that struck me: I had no idea previously that so many of the big names of America's criminal underworld were active at the same time, and that the time period in question was so short. But John Dillinger, Baby Face Nelson, Machine Gun Kelly, Ma Barker, Bonnie and Clyde and Pretty Boy Floyd were all robbing banks in this period from 1933-1934. Nor did I fully grasp how the FBI arose from this particular crime wave. Before the Bureau, criminals crossed state lines to avoid prosecution; the state in which they committed the crime had no jurisdiction, and police forces in the asylum state had no complaint. But the widespread use of this escape mechanism meant that a solution must be found.

And so the book is not simply about the crime wave itself, but also about how the FBI was convulsed into being. The Bureau was not birthed in an instant and in its present form, but rather bumbled its way into existence rather tentatively and precariously. J. Edgar Hoover was an unusual figure to be sure: vain and fastidious and eager for glory; he was to go on to become one of America's most powerful and controversial figures, but the power of the Bureau he created was forged over several years and by numerous failures and blunderings.

The book is blurbed on the front by Time Magazine as being "ludicrously entertaining," and so it is. The subject is naturally a bit pulpy and lurid, and Burrough has a great style--business-like, but fast-moving. It helped that this is one of my favorite periods of history, and the figures are colorful and deliciously antisocial. The Jazz-age style with long coats and fedoras, the ubiquitous Tommy Gun, stylish cars with running boards on which gun-toting gangsters sped away from their crimes--these things have helped fuel one of Hollywood's most fertile genres, and have featured in some of my favorite films: Miller's Crossing, Road to Perdition, The Sting, The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep, Key Largo, The Big Combo. This book knocks the romantic sheen off the period, but the story is still larger-than-life (even if not as nattily attired).

And about those names. George Barnes became known as "Machine Gun Kelly." Fred Goetz was "Shotgun George Ziegler." Charles Arthur Floyd was "Pretty Boy Floyd." Lester Gillis used the pseudonym George Nelson, and became "Baby Face Nelson." And so many others. Michael LaCapra, a.k.a. "Jimmy Needles" (LaCapra was a heroin addict); Alvin "Ray" Karpis; Arthur "Dock" [sic] Barker. And then there were some very colorful actual names: detective Dutch Akers; night club owner Nugent LaPlumma; cop Glenn "Curly" Mongomery.

But really: Shotgun George Ziegler! I mean, how do you top that? Jimmy Needles! But maybe my favorite is "Jelly." Frank "Jelly" Nash. Apart from my penchant for sweets (which might make the adoption of Joseph Negri's moniker "Fatso" more appropriate), it just rolls off the tongue.

Uncle "Jelly" Wunelle. I like it!


payingattention said...

If you want a great list of nicknames, look up old blues guys! Although "blind" ... something,something,something...wouldn't be a great handle for a pilot.

dbackdad said...

Hey Bil. Going to the big VNSA charity used book sale this weekend that I go to every year. Need some recommendations of books in a few areas: non-fiction, culture or politics, science.

wunelle said...

"...your flight this evening is being commanded by Captain Ol' Blind Jelly, assisted by First Officer Jimmy Needles."

[insert screaming riot here]