Showing posts with label Jesse James. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Jesse James. Show all posts

18 June 2013

Jesse James and Meramec Caverns: Another Route 66 Story

The guest column by John Edward Fletcher that filled this spot two weeks ago – and particularly an anonymous comment to that article – got me thinking.  As noted in John’s column and Leigh’s earlier article exploring the mysteries underlying the death of Laura Foster, the subject was popularized in a 1960s hit song, Tom Dooley, performed by the Kingston Trio.  But the trio had another at least near hit when they recorded a new version of the anonymous 1920s song Jesse James.  And at least some cloak of mystery surrounds the death of Jesse as well.  The story involves Missouri (the State where I grew up), one of the largest and most popular “show caves” in the midwest, a 102 year old man and a flamboyant entrepreneur named Lester B. Dill.  Oh yeah -- the story is also sort of a follow-on to Dixon’s musings last Friday on iconic Route 66.

We’ll get to all of that.  But let’s start out with Jesse James. 
Jesse and Frank James, 1872
     Until the late 1940s, the story of Jesse James’ life was pretty much set in stone.  Jesse Woodson James was born in 1847 in Clay County, Missouri.  During the Civil War Missouri was a border state.  While slaveholding was not prevalent in the State, it was in Clay County, which was known then as “Little Dixie.”  The James family owned slaves, and when it came time for lines to be drawn Jesse and his older brother Frank looked south and became active Confederate guerrillas.  By all accounts the Civil War was fierce and personal in Missouri -- indeed, in some of the southern counties of the state, particularly Shannon County, it went on at a guerrilla level for many years after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox.  

After the war, Jesse and Frank, perhaps as early as 1866, began their infamous run of bank and train robberies.  By and large the James-Younger gang targeted banks run by Republicans who had stood against the Confederacy during the Civil War, and they didn’t shy away from killing anyone they suspected of Union sentiments.  (It’s little wonder that the Kingston Trio’s version of Jesse James added a new line – “Jesse never did a worthwhile thing.”)  In any event for years the gang eluded capture with the assistance of Confederate sympathizers in Missouri – indeed, in the 1870s the rivened state legislature only narrowly defeated a bill that would have granted full amnesty to the gang notwithstanding those robberies and murders.  But the authorities, outraged by an 1876 robbery of the First National Bank of Northfield, Minnesota and the accompanying bloodshed, eventually mounted a relentless manhunt.  Within weeks most of the gang was either killed or captured;  only a very few, including Jesse and Frank, were still alive and at large.
Robert Ford
(The Dirty Little Coward)
      Following a retreat to Tennessee, the James Brothers re-surfaced in St. Joseph Missouri in 1881.  There Jesse resumed life under the assumed name of Thomas Howard.  On the morning of April 3, 1882 Robert Ford, who had been serving as one of Jesse’s bodyguards, shot and killed Jesse in the living room of his home.  Apropos of the words of that Kingston Trio song (which, rather than naming Robert Ford refers to him as “the dirty little coward who shot Mr. Howard”), Jesse’s tombstone contains an epitaph penned by his mother:  “In loving memory of my beloved son, murdered by a traitor and coward whose name is not worthy to appear here.”  Robert Ford went on to tour with carnivals as “the man who shot Jesse James.”  When he himself was shot and killed by Edward Capehart O’Kelley in 1892 O’Kelley toured the same circuit as “the man who shot the man who shot Jesse James.”

And so the story of Jesse James ends, right?  Well not quite.  Still a few carnivals to go.

Lester B. Dill
A little over 50 years after that shot by Robert Ford, a man named Lester B. Dill enters the story.  In 1933 Dill, a local Missouri entrepreneur, who had some experience owning and managing a small “show cave” in Missouri, was looking for a larger cave to acquire and promote.  He eventually bought Saltpeter Cave in Stanton Missouri.  The cave, as its name suggested, contained rich deposits of saltpeter, a necessary component of gunpowder.  During the Civil War the Union had mined saltpeter in the cave, and the operations were eventually dynamited by a Confederate guerrilla force -- which quite likely included Jesse and Frank James.  

Saltpeter, however, was far from Dill’s interest.  He renamed the cave Meramec Caverns, after the Meramec River that flows nearby, and began remodelling the huge cavern, which had earlier been used for dance parties by the residents of Stanton, into a show cave, open, for a fee, to the public.  Over the years Dill aggressively sought to expand the caverns, and achieved notable success in this regard in 1941, with a discovery that (at least in Dill’s mind) tied the cave to the exploits of the James Gang.  The discovery is explained as follows in an article by Phil Dotree at InterestingAmerica.Com. 
The connection between Meramec Caverns and Jesse James remained obscure until the summer of 1941, when a rather severe drought hit the area and the water table dropped. Cave guides noted a change in a small pool of water that spilled out of a “dead end” wall. The ever-inquisitive Lester B. Dill decided to go under the wall, through the water, and see what was on the other side.  . . .  Dill found yet another large network of subterranean passages that fanned out into the limestone . . . .
       Acting on his discovery, Dill immediately began constructing an access tunnel that would allow the new section of the caverns to be opened to the public.  Dill also claimed that he had found various artifacts in the new caverns, although it is unclear when that claim was first made.  But what is clear is that by 1948 the artifacts and Meramec Caverns were linked to Jesse James when a 100 year old man named J. Frank Dalton woke up one morning in his cabin in Oklahoma and declared that he was in fact Jesse. 

J. Frank Dalton (Jesse James?)
According to Dalton, Robert Ford had actually shot  a man named Charles Bigelow, a Pinkerton Detective who resembled Jesse and purportedly had been committing robberies under Jesse’s name.  Dalton’s explanation of how the hoax surrounding his “death” came about was transcribed in a 1949 newspaper account written by Robert C. Ruark for The Evening Independent of St. Petersburg Florida:
Stanton, Mo. - The old man who looks, acts, and talks like Jesse James, and who claims, at 102 years of age, to be Jesse James, says that the man who was killed and buried as Jesse James was a fellow named Charlie Bigelow.
. . . The old man says he had him a string of runnin' horses, and two come down with distemper. 'I fetched 'em to St. Joe to isolate 'em,' he said. 'I had a house there I was not usin' for a spell - not until after some runnin' races at Excelsior Springs. This fellow Charlie Bigelow looked enough like me to be my twin, and he was huntin' a house. I told him and his wife they could use my place for a spell, until after the races, and he moved in.
One day I was out in the barn doctorin' my horses when I heard a gunshot in the house. When I heerd that gun go off I knowed it wasn't no play-party, because we argued with guns in them days. I run into the house and there was Bob Ford, standing over Bigelow with a gun in his hand and blood on the floor. I said to Ford, 'Looks like you killed him, Bob,' and Bob says, 'Looks like I did, Jesse.' Then I says, 'This is my chance, Bob. You tell 'em its me you killed. You tell my mother to say so, and you take care of that Bigelow woman. I'm long gone.'
The old man says he got on one of his horses - a good horse, a four-mile horse - and he lit out.
       Thereafter, according to Dalton, he assumed his new identity, eventually settled in Oklahoma, and lived a relatively peaceful 60 years in anonymity.  

Meramec Caverns brochure from the 1950s
featuring Frank Dalton and his story
Dill, together with his son-in-law Rudy Turilli, who handled publicity for Meramec Caverns, heard 
about Dalton’s claim and realized the potential of an alliance.  He arranged for Dalton to be brought to Meramec Caverns, where Dalton ended up living for the next two years in a cabin at the adjacent motel.  While there the elderly Dalton toured the cave, met surviving members of the James Gang, convinced at least some of them in varying degrees that he could be Jesse, and declared that the gang had in fact used the caverns as a hideout between bank robberies.  

       Thereafter, the artifacts that Dill claimed to have found in the newly opened section of the caverns were displayed at the entrance of the cave, and they included a strong box purportedly linked to a train robbery the James Gang orchestrated at Gads Hill, Missouri, in 1874.  Dill also collected various sheriffs’ reports and eyewitness accounts that purportedly linked Jesse James to the caverns, and began an extensive billboard advertising campaign along old Route 66 -- generally painted, for free, on the roofs of barns along the highway -- proclaiming that Meramec Caverns was, in fact, Jesse James hideout.  

       Although J. Frank Dalton had various scars consistent with wounds that Jesse had reportedly received, and seemed to know many details about Jesse’s exploits, he ultimately was discredited in the eyes of many by a host of inconsistencies in his story.  In the late 1960s Dill's son-in-law Rudy Turilli offered a $10,000 reward to anyone who could prove that Dalton was not Jesse.  Relatives of Jesse James, including his daughter-in-law, responded with affidavits from family members who had previously positively identified the man shot by Robert Ford as Jesse.  A Missouri court agreed with their proof and ordered Turilli (and presumptively Meramec Caverns) to pay the amount as damages for having falsely used Dalton's story, and Jesse James' "good" name, to advertise the caverns.  But Dalton's story, along with legends of lost treasure and secret Confederate societies, continues to run rampant on the internet. 

J. Frank Dalton's tombstone
       So what happened to Dalton?  He eventually left his cabin at Meramec Caverns, traveled to Texas and died there on August 15, 1951 three weeks shy of his 104th birthday.  His tombstone, notwithstanding that Missouri court ruling, is inscribed with the name "Jesse Woodson James."

       There have been at least two attempts to exhume Dalton’s body for DNA testing, the first of which, in 1995, purportedly showed a 99.5% chance that Dalton was not Jesse James.  Similarly, an early exhumation of Jesse’s body – the one shot by Robert Ford – yielded a DNA sample consistent with that of Jesse’s then-living descendants.  But the legitimacy of the DNA tests has been debated feverishly, and the conspiracy theorists persist, as any trip to that same friendly internet will reveal.

       Was Dalton’s tale, and Dill’s use of that tale to advertise his cave, pure fiction?  As noted above, there is still debate on that subject.  What can we as mystery writers and readers add to the discourse?  Maybe just a few things.  Let’s look at some of the evidence discussed above. 
Postcard map of Meramec Caverns.
Note Loot Rock at center, previously inaccessible
except by swimming under a stone barrier wall

     First, the hideout theory. Dalton claimed, to the joy of cave owner Lester B. Dill, that the James Gang regularly used Meramec caverns as a hideout. Indeed, guided tours of the cave to this day proudly display “Loot Rock,” where Dalton claimed the James gang divided up their ill gotten gains. But take a look at the map on the right, and remember the story of how Dill found the portion of the cave in question in 1941 -- the entrance was under water until a season of heavy drought.  And the entrance now used by tourists to get to that portion of the cave was carved out of the rock, by Dill, in the 1940s.  So how did Jesse’s gang get to Loot Rock in the 1870s?  Guides at the cave, at least in the late 1950s when I toured it as a child, explained that the gang swam under the obstructing rock. Some renditions even claimed this was accomplished on horseback.  That would mean diving underwater in pitch dark, in a cave that averages sixty degrees, hoping for air (even they could not hope for light) on the other side.  Does this make a lot of sense?

       Second, the evidence from the cave.  Dill claims that he discovered strong boxes from the Gads Hill robbery in the cave near loot rock.  There are basically three possibilities here -- the boxes could have been left in the cave by someone else, they could have been left there by the James Gang, or the whole story could have been concocted after the fact.  Which was it?  Well, I leave you to guess. There is at least one problem, however, with Dill’s explanation.  There seems to be a tendency of some storytellers to lose track of distances in Missouri.  Most recently even Missouri native Gillian Flynn did this in her best seller Gone Girl, where her central character drives from Hannibal Missouri to Ladue Missouri, a distance of 107 miles each way, for lunch. Similarly, the distance from Gads Hill Missouri to Stanton, where Meramec Caverns is located, is 100 miles.  And the James Gang lacked automobiles and interstates.  Does it make a lot of sense that a strong box would be carried, presumably unopened, 100 miles or more in the 1870s, and then toted underwater into a dark cave only then to be opened?  You can be the judge here.
       Third, Dill’s own reputation.  Lester Dill used to say that he would do “anything” to promote Meramec Caverns.  He invented the bumper sticker -- and the only way to avoid having one plastered on your car advertising Meramec Caverns when you visited the cave back in the 1950s was to leave your sun visor down as a signal to the roving parking lot crew.  Dill once sent two men dressed as cavemen to the top of the Empire State Building in New York City where they stated they would remain until everyone in the world had visited Meramec Caverns.  He engaged in a heated billboard feud with Onondaga Caverns, several miles down the road, as to which was the better cave, without revealing that he in fact also owned Onondaga and that the "feud" was an orchestrated publicity stunt.   This is the man who championed the story that Jesse James survived and that he and his gang had used Meramec Caverns as a hideout.  

       Oh yeah, Dill’s billboards advertising that “competing” cave, Onondaga, which he also owned, proclaimed that Onondaga had been discovered by Daniel Boone.  Sound familiar?  The State of Missouri now owns Onondaga, so the cave's advertisements are now a bit more restrained. The cave’s website addresses Dill's Daniel Boone claim as follows: “there is no valid source hinting this may be true.”  

       Members of the James family who were still alive gave no credence to Dalton’s tale and contested his assertions in that Missouri court case.  At the conclusion of the trial  of that case, during which Dill had unsuccessfully attempted to prove that Frank Dalton was in fact Jesse James, the following statement from Jesse’s daughter-in-law, then still alive but too frail to attend, was read by her lawyer:   "Dalton was probably a derelict all his life, and in his waning years he wanted to get a little publicity."  

       Regardless of who he was or might have been, in that, at least, J. Frank Dalton succeeded.  He got his publicity thanks to Lester Dill, Dill's show cave, and a whole lot of signs painted on the roofs of a whole lot of barns along old Route 66.

05 February 2013

Criminal Connections

I begin with an apology: For reasons beyond my ken, I have been unable to upload photos for my last several postings--sorry; I just don't understand it.  It used to be no problem at all.

Here's a pop quiz for you.  What do Jesse James, Cole Younger, Louis Dalton, Bill Doolin, Bill Cook, Henry Star, Al Spencer, Frank Nash, and Pretty Boy Floyd all have in common? 

If you answered, "They were all criminals," you get half credit.  You're on the right track, but it's not the answer I'm looking for.  The correct answer is cunningly concealed in the title of this post--there's a line that runs through the careers of these outlaws that begins during the Civil War with Quantrill's Raiders and extends right into 1933 with the Kansas City Union Station massacre.  How do I know these things?  Let's just say that having been a crack police officer that I've got my sources ...

Okay, I read a book--a very well-researched and fascinating history of American outlawry by Paul I. Wellman titled, "A Dynasty of Western Outlaws," and published by Bison Books.  It's a great read for those interested in crime and its practitioners, and their effect upon our society.  While telling some fascinating stories along the way, Mr. Wellman details the human chain that entends, link by link, from that era to the stunning massacre in 1933 of four law enforcement officers, and their prisoner, in a failed escape plot that signaled the beginning of the end of one of America's most notable crime waves. 

As I've written in an earlier posting titled "Criminal Fashion," a lot of the tactics employed by modern criminals were originated during the Civil War by guerrilla fighters.  These "irregular" cavalry were employed by both sides during the conflict and operated mostly in the western theatre of Missouri and Kansas. Their methods were harsh and bloody, employing ambush and sudden raids against both military and civilian targets (mostly civilian) and frequently involved the liberation of money, goods, and effects from the "enemy". 

One of the most successful, and notorious, of these hard-riding units was William Quantrill's Confederate raiders.  They are the ones that conducted the infamous raid on Lawrence, Kansas.  They are also the ones that had Jesse and Frank James amongst their riders, as well as Cole Younger and his brothers.  These fellows learned their trade well and when the war ended in their defeat, refused to come in from the cold and resume what passed for normal lives at that time. 

The James-Younger Gang became their very own crime wave, originating the practice of both bank and train robbing that would become the standard for decades.  During the lengthy career of this bloodthirsty band, which continued from 1865 until Jesse's assassination at the hands of turncoat, Bob Ford, in 1882, many members came and went; learning their violent trade from the James brothers.  Several of these graduates went on to have their own less notable, if no less violent, careers.  One such example being Bill McCarty, who taught his younger brothers the art of armed robbery, and went on to provide training and experience to novice Butch Cassidy of whom you may have heard.

But the next important link in the chain was more tenuous, being the aunt of the Younger brothers and a cousin to the Jameses, Adeline Younger.  It was she that gave birth to the Dalton boys that grew up vowing "to beat Jesse James" whose legend they had been fed on since their nursery days.  And they certainly took a good whack at it, engaging in numerous hold-ups and shoot-outs.  Their careers culminated (and ended) in a final attempt to beat the James-Younger Gang at their own game, by attempting to rob two banks at once in Coffeyville, Kansas.  This division of forces ended no more happily than it had for Custer at the Little Big Horn.  An outlaw by the name of Bill Doolin would likely also have died in this fiasco had his horse not gone lame on the ride in.  Young Mr. Doolin survived to found the next link in the criminal chain--The Doolin gang.

Taking his experience with the Daltons, Bill and his long riders went on to terrorize Oklahoma and the Indian Territory during the 1890s, quickly proving themselves the equal of, if not better, than their predecessors.  Interestingly, one of the surviving Daltons, Bill (yes, there seem to be a lot of outlaws named Bill), was a member of this new outfit, but did not contest leadership with Doolin.  Perhaps the fate of his brothers dissuaded him from a leading role. 

The Doolin boys committed one bank heist in a manner that may strike you as startlingly modern--they kidnapped the teller from his home and had him open up the next morning, as was usual, then hand over the cash to the gang.  After tying him up and gagging him, they rode out of town without having drawn the least suspicion.  This was an exception to their more usual method of guns drawn, and often blazing, during the course of a robbery.  And it was in this manner that nearly every member of the gang met their fate.  All, save one--Little Dick West (I don't make up these names).

Little Dick was to provide the gravitas required for a band of extremely unlikely, and spectacularly unsuccessful, bandits--The Jennings Gang.  The brains of this operation was one Al Jennings, attorney-at-law, a poor lawyer and a worse outlaw.  What possessed this scion of a family of lawyers to abandon his practice and throw in with the likes of Little Dick will probably never be fully understood.  What is known is that he was a rather weak-willed and histrionic character who relished notoriety.  This he would attain...but not much else other than a prison term.  The brief, almost comically inept reign of the Jennings gang lasted but two years, during which they accomplished little more than becoming impoverished and hunted fugitives.  Even lucky Little Dick West grew so embarrassed by his association with this amateur troop, that shortly before their capture, he mounted up and rode away--lucky once again.  But his luck ran out when two lawmen got the drop on him while he was grooming his horse.  Game to the end, Little Dick went for his guns and was killed.

Though it may appear the through line of outlawry would have come to a close with the death of Little Dick, this would not be true.  In order to pick up the thread that continues the chain of connections, it is necessary to return to Cole Younger for a moment.  Cole of the roaming eye and reported good looks, and a young courtesan by the name of Belle Shirley, later and more famously known as Belle Starr--the last name of one her later amours.  For it is through Belle and and Sam Starr that the Belle Starr Gang originates, undoubtedly having benefited from association with the seasoned Youngers and Jameses.  And it is through this line that we arrive at a descendant, Henry Starr, who having practiced his trade of robbery and murder with the Cook Gang (contemporaries of the Doolin boys), forms his own little band of wealth redistributors.  Amongst those stalwarts was a young fellow by the name of Al Spencer, the outlaw destined to bridge the gap between the revolver-wielding, horse-riding bandits of the previous era with the automobile driving, machine gun artists of the next.

In 1921, Henry Starr, known for his good looks, refined manners, and a sense of restraint when it came to violence, was nonetheless visited with it, having his handsome head blown off with a double-barrelled shotgun during a bank robbery gone wrong (or right, depending on which side of the counter you were standing at the time).  And so young Mr. Spencer, having survived his association with Henry and graduated with honors, so to speak, took his trade into the new and exciting industrial age; there to meet one Frank Nash.  Nash, well-respected planner of heists, and now number two in Spencer's gang, is the last, save one, of the more important figures of Wellman's narrative.  It is Nash who provides the flashpoint for the next great crime wave after the lawlessness of the Reconstruction era.

Nash went on to head up his own gang after the death (yes, another one bites the dust) of his one-time boss, Spencer.  In fact, after learning a few tricks of urban banditry from an old Fagin named John Callahan, he set up in Kansas City and became wildly successful as a 30's style gangster.  Yet, in spite of the spiffy face work he had received from an underworld doctor, Frank was recognized by a lawman while vacationing at Hot Springs, Arkansas and arrested.  The officer, along with two of the newly minted FBI agents, loaded him on board a train bound for Kansas City's federal court and a reckoning with justice.  Enter Pretty Boy Floyd (any relation, John?).

Sadly, for Frank, Pretty Boy and his two associates, all three of whom knew Nash through the Moriarity-like, Callahan, were tapped to act as his rescuers.  Their coming into the unfolding events surrounding Nash occurred less than twenty-four hours prior to his up-coming demise, and was hastily organized.  Not known for extensive planning (totally unlike the man they were told to rescue), the three apparently did what they did best: they showed up with guns as the police were placing Frank into the back seat of a car and shouted, "Up! Up!"

The result was not a happy one: Pretty Boy and crew managed to kill both the person they were supposed to be breaking out, and four of the officers transporting him.  Additionally, two other officers were wounded, and Pretty Boy took a round through the shoulder.  The gang escaped and were never identified at the time to stand charges for their crimes.  Pretty Boy Floyd, however, like almost every other human link in this chain that ran from the bloody days of Quantrill's raiders to the Kansas City massacre, met his end in a hail of bullets, brought down at last by the law they all hated.

In keeping with the old adage that, "It is an ill wind that blows no good," out of the carnage at Union Station a new era in law enforcement was born.  The public's reaction to the cold-blooded brutality shown by Pretty Boy, and his fellow gangsters of the time (Bonnie and Clyde, Baby Face Nelson, Machine Gun Kelly, etc, etc...) was swift and mostly unanimous--they demanded action.  The government rapidly enacted new laws granting the FBI actual arrest powers (they were largely advisory up to this point) and arming them.  Bank robbery and kidnapping became federal crimes when state lines were crossed, freeing the officers to pursue their quarry anywhere they might flee.  The murder of federal agents also became a federal crime.  Once enacted these laws forecast the end of the roving bandits that had plagued America for over seventy years, and brought to a close a long, bloody era of lawlessness and violence that had begun in the "Bloody Kansas" of the Civil War.      


24 January 2012

Criminal Fashion

During my years as a policeman I noticed that there appear to be fads, or fashions, if you will, within the criminal world. Not fashion as in clothes (though, now that I think about it, that might be true, as well) but criminal techniques and tactics that flare into life, then fade away with time. It also became apparent to me that many writers incorporate these trends into their books and stories which might make the subject a worthwhile blog. But first let me issue the disclaimer that I am neither a criminologist, nor a historian, though I have slept in a Holiday Inn Express. What follows is strictly opinion.
I doubt that I'm telling you anything, dear readers, that you haven't already noticed, consciously or no; it's actually quite apparent when you consider it. A recent example that leaps to mind is carjacking. Whereas car theft has been with us for almost as long as there have been automobiles, carjacking was a new wrinkle. Here in New Jersey we pride ourselves in always placing at the top, or damn near, of the national car theft and carjacking stats. In fact, carjacking may have been invented in Newark– in your face, New York!

Carjacking didn't appear until the eighties and already shows signs of having run it's course. In many ways it never made a lot of sense to me, as both the theft and the thief's description were almost immediately available to the police unless he decided to up the ante to murder. Even so, the jacker had only made his situation more dire. Once murder enters into it the police are going to devote every effort to apprehending him, and now, if and when he's caught, the stakes are far more serious. Cross state lines with the car and occupants and, God help him, the FBI is now involved– it's kidnapping! All of this for the theft of a car that probably wouldn't fetch more than a few grand at the most. Remember, once the fence or chop shop owner gets wind of the jacker's antics, they have him over a barrel and can set their prices. It just doesn't make sense to me in the grand scheme of things. Yet, people do it. It's a little like the fad of the extremely baggy, low-riding jeans that expose one's lack of taste in underwear, while rendering headlong flight from the police a near impossibility. Why? Fashion, of course.

As a side note, carjacking spawned a curious criminal phenomenon that, thank God, was less wide-spread or utilized– the carjacker alibi. I'm sure that most of you remember the heinous case of Susan Smith of South Carolina. She murdered both her children by allowing her car to roll down a boat ramp and into a lake with her sons. She claimed that a carjacker (a black man) had taken her car at gunpoint, along with her kids. A savvy police investigator blew this story up when he was able to prove that her route and timeline were wholly inconsistent. After that, it was just good interrogation techniques.

She was not the only one– a husband in Boston alleged a carjacker (yet another mysterious black male) had attempted to take his car but only succeeded in shooting his wife to death. This was wholly untrue… he had done it himself. There were others, as well. Sometimes it seems, what is bad spawns what is far worse.

But I digress. I'm not saying that a crime fad can't be profitable or successful, I'm just positing that some fads make a lot of sense to begin with; then, due to technology, societal factors, improved policing techniques, etc… they fall to the wayside; some only to be resurrected when conditions once more become favorable. Take piracy…

The heyday of buccaneering, at least in the Western world, was during the 16 and 1700's. It wasn't really a new idea, even then. Both the ancient Greeks and Romans complained of, and did combat with, pirates. The pirates' goal was simply to remove any and all items of value from one boat, or town, and place them onto another– theirs– a redistribution of wealth, if you will. Naturally this required violence, or the threat of it. The payoff could be quite handsome. Some historians believe that piracy on the high seas was simply a nascent expression of man's desire to be truly free of the strictures of class, poverty, and… let's face it, the law… a floating Utopian republic, if you will. I take a slightly more jaundiced view. I think that they were criminals playing the main chance for the most returns and the least possibility of getting caught. And it worked like gangbusters for a little less than two hundred years (that's not to say piracy died out completely, just that the heyday of sea-thieving had drawn to an end): the rise of more efficient navies and tactics, including improved cooperation between nations, had made it a lot less fashionable to go around saying, "Arrgg." Thank God, as this can really get on your nerves after a while.

It must be pointed out, that while buccaneering went largely the way of the dinosaur in the Western Hemisphere, it has remained for very many centuries a threat in the Eastern one. It was never just a fad there. The Somalis are late-comers when compared to the persistent piracy in the China, Malay, and Philippine Seas. The factors necessary for the cessation of sea-thieving have never arisen in these places, it would seem.

Anybody remember train robbing? You can thank those stalwarts the James-Younger gang for the invention of both that and bank robbing. I sometimes wonder where crime would be today without Jesse and crew. These were true innovators. Their kind doesn't often come along… and we should all be glad. They were bloody minded and ruthless disciples of Captain William Quantrill of 'Bloody Kansas' fame during the Civil War. Janice Law recently wrote a very interesting blog on this historical niche.

In essence, Jesse and friends translated the lessons they had learned as confederate guerrillas and applied them to outlawry. The mounted ambush applying superior and accurate firepower with overwhelming force was their speciality. It was a 'shock and awe' technique that worked quite well on both banks and trains. It also helped that lawmen were pretty thin on the ground in those parts and that the local populace was largely supportive. Those that weren't kept their opinions to themselves. The unsettled atmosphere of Reconstruction provided a perfect breeding ground for crime, just as Prohibition and the Great Depression would in the years ahead.

In fact, it could easily be argued that the roving, and now motorized, desperadoes of the thirties, such as Bonnie and Clyde, John Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd, etc… simply applied the James Gang's tactics to the age of the automobile. Whereas, Jesse and crew had armed themselves with the best revolvers and lever-action rifles of their day, it was their numbers that was overwhelming both in terms of firepower and intimidation. The Depression-Era gangsters, however, didn't need to spread the loot so widely, as they arrived with fully automatic weapons, such as Clyde Barrow's infamous .30 cal Browning automatic rifle. Local police had nothing to match it… not even close. This was one of the reasons the bad guys chose to shoot their way out of tight spots with the cops so often– the odds were definitely in their favor.
Bonnie and Clyde

I'm not implying that armed robbery is a fad, far from it; it's always been around and is here to stay. It's the techniques and tactics that have changed to suit the times. Today, a bank robber is most likely a single perpetrator wielding a note. It's an effective technique that would not have been very convincing or fashionable amongst the 'Long Riders' of yesteryear– you would have been laughed out of the saloon… or worse. Apparently, bank and railroad employees of their day were made of sterner stuff, and not likely to yield to the power of the written word, however well-crafted. The enforcement of federal statutes across state lines, the creation of the FBI, and improved armament for the police, effectively brought to a close the era of the roving bank and train bandits.

During the sixties and seventies you could hardly pick up a newspaper without reading about another series of gruesome homicides– serial killers appeared to be everywhere and hard at work. Non-fiction writers had a field day with writing biographies of the likes of Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, The Hillside Strangler (there were two of them as it turned out– uncle and nephew), the Night Stalker, and the rest of this particularly repulsive crew. The fiction crowd followed up, and from the eighties on it seemed every other book and film was about a serial killer. Thankfully the torrent appears to have tapered off to more of a trickle these days, and I, for one, am not sorry.

Ted Bundy
I'm certain that there are still serial killers going about their deadly business, but either the reporting of it has fallen off, or this unique species of crime has slackened. Perhaps there was something about the groovy days of flower power that incensed these creatures. Certainly, law enforcement's tool box, specifically the use of DNA, the Violent Criminal Apprehension Program (a national data base for the collection, collation, and analysis of disparate information concerning criminals, victims, and homicide methods in an effort to discern patterns of violent crimes and their perpetrators), and profiling have impacted the serial murderer's freedom of action to some degree.

Now here's twist on my theory– what about all those Satanic cults of the eighties and early nineties? Remember? Again the media played a big role in this, publicizing what were believed to be cults practicing ritual murder and serial abuse. In one case it was a child care facility believed to be staffed by the devil's spawn. Hell, I was even trained to recognize cult clues at crime scenes. Know what? Almost none of that stuff actually happened. Though perhaps Satanic influence was responsible for the mass hysteria that produced this peculiarly insubstantial crime phenomenon.

As for new trends in crime, I have one word for you, and no, it's not plastics– metal. Metal thieving is rampant and growing. Thieves are stealing everything from the copper plumbing from beneath vacant houses to the grounding wires for utility poles. Some have even been fried while attempting to rip the copper out of power company substations. Manhole covers, lawn ornaments, wind chimes, and, yes lawn lovers, even brass sprinkler heads are fair game. As for this fad… my guess is that it's the economy. But don't go waxing all sentimental about folks stealing to feed their kids; the ones my officers apprehended were mostly feeding their drug habits; kids be damned. Recessions are hard on druggies too. Metal theft doesn't jump out at me as the most fascinating subject for crime fiction, but who knows?

So there you have it, my thesis on crime fads, fashions, and trends. My rundown is by no means comprehensive, as other fads and fashions are occurring to me even now: drive-by shootings and people smuggling to name but two, but I must stop somewhere. Perhaps you've thought of a few yourself.