Thursday, October 6, 2011

Gangster Ghosts and Conspiracies

I've had a lot of reasons to think about 1920's-30's era gangster culture over the past month. I finally got around to watching Public Enemies, learned what a sawed off "gangster gun" looked like on History Detectives, and last night I finished watching the final segment of the Ken Burns Prohibition special on PBS. Have any of you been watching that series? It really presented American History in an entertaining way!

I would also highly recommend seeing Public Enemies. You will learn so much about how the FBI was operating during the 1930s, and Johnny Depp did very well in his role as John Dillinger.

Here's the real Dillinger. There's more of a resemblance than you might think between these two!

Apparently, I'm not the only one who thought Johnny Depp made an excellent Dillinger. According to Depp, he felt Dillinger's presence throughout the filming of Public Enemies. He said he had a general feeling that Dillinger approved of his performance and how he was portrayed. This makes perfect sense to me! Dillinger was portrayed as a sympathetic, good humored character throughout the film. (Also, I assume most guys wouldn't mind Johnny Depp playing their role in a movie.) Depp told BANG Showbiz:

It was magical to be able to literally walk in the same steps that he took. You could almost feel him. I did feel him, not to be spooky or anything, but there were moments when I felt his presence. There were moments when I felt a certain level of approval from the guy.

There is another interesting John Dillinger story out there. This story involves a theory that Dillinger was not shot dead in 1934, but instead went on to live a life in hiding. At first it sounds bizarre, but the more you learn, the more this theory makes sense. I found an excellent article claiming that although someone was shot that night in 1934, it wasn't Dillinger:

Film wrong! Dillinger not killed by FBI! Fact: Hoover coverup!

I would like to write more in depth about this theory, but I don't want this to turn into the never ending blog post! The Cliff Notes version is this:

There was a lot of pressure on the FBI to get Dillinger.

A man was shot dead by the FBI in front of the Biograph movie theater in Chicago in 1934. The FBI stated the dead man was Dillinger.

John Dillinger had blue eyes, while the dead man had brown eyes.

John Dillinger had scars and bullet wounds, while the dead man did not.

John Dillinger was not as heavy set as the dead man.

John Dillinger did not suffer from the rheumatic heart condition the dead man was shown to have had.

A local man went missing the night John Dillinger was shot.

When you have a little time on your hands, check out the entire article. I would like to hear your thoughts on it. The FBI has put together a list of Dillinger "myths" on their web site and lists this conspiracy theory as one of them. They don't go into disproving the points above, but they do state that the dead man had Dillinger's finger prints.

I also ran into this old video clip from 1985. There are a few John Dillinger ghost stories here as well as a few points from the conspiracy theory:

You don't get more 80's than that!

I am yet to meet a person who is not interested in John Dillinger or Al Capone. Gangsters are fascinating. During their time, they served as Depression era entertainment. Their stories may be even more popular today! I don't know if it's because I live in Wisconsin (which is next to Illinois and where Capone used to vacation), but almost everyone I know says they have an Al Capone connection. What's funny is that people want to have a connection to a gangster! Having a grandparent who knew the Capones seems to make people feel just the tiniest bit more exciting or dangerous.

I ran into quite a few Al Capone ghost videos, but the one I liked best, I could not post here. You'll have to visit this link to watch it:

Al Capone's haunted safehouse

The video is about one of the places Capone hid during the prohibition days. Speaking of prohibition, I learned from the Ken Burns special that Chicago was even more corrupt and dangerous than I thought it was during the 1930s, and that it was not at all difficult to get a drink in Wisconsin during that time. We even keep the speakeasy tradition alive in Milwaukee with the Safe House bar! You too can relive the daring days of Prohibition by walking into an old alley and knocking on the random door of a seemingly abandoned building. Just be sure you have the password or they make you do silly things! Anyway, here's the trailer for the Ken Burns Prohibition special:

For anyone who is curious about the 1920's-30's "gangster gun" I mentioned earlier, this is what one looks like:

These sawed off shotguns were shorter, and therefore easier to hide under a coat. They could also be used to shoot a person at close range. A man had called the History Detectives show to ask if the gun he had was a gangster gun. He had been told that it was used in The St. Valentine's Day Massacre. The History Detectives were unable to determine if it was fired that day, but said there was a definite possibility that it was.

By the way, the owner of this gun had to have its barrels changed, so that it would be legal. It is illegal to own an antique sawed off shotgun where this man lives, although different laws seem to apply to different areas. Of course sawed off shotguns have their own Wikipedia page like everything else, so if you need to check up on the rules for any reason...

The sawed off shotgun wikipedia page

It's difficult to imagine the world these gangsters lived in. Can you envision men walking the streets of Chicago with sawed off shotguns under their jackets, on their way to a hidden speakeasy in an alley somewhere? I can only imagine the fear of being caught or shot by someone else. Not that the lifestyle didn't have its glamorous and exciting moments too. There were mass amounts of money, fancy cars, nice suits, and of course lots of liquor. Still, the closest I want to get to the underground gangster life is watching movies and reading old ghost stories!


  1. Awesome, very informative! Love gangster era stuff. I'm going to have to check out Public Enemies, for some unknown reason I haven't seen it yet.

  2. This was so interesting! I remember my Daddy having a replica of one of the sawed off shotguns and that thing was bad arse!


  3. Halloween Man ~ Thanks! Yeah, it's a fascinating time period. It's weird that you haven't seen Public Enemies, since you're into the old gangster stuff. You should really check it out! Let me know what you think of the movie.

    LuLu ~ Thank you! Really? Are you sure it was a replica? It could have been a real antique!

  4. Joe Coleman did an intricately details painting, chronicling the life of John Dillinger, as more or less a devilish trickster god.

    I tried to find a nice hi-fi copy to link, but I failed. It must be out there somewhere.

  5. Very interesting! We don't do a lot of American history at school in Australia (more British), so whatever I know about gangsters comes from t.v. and movies. I haven't seen 'Public Enemies' but I remember really enjoying 'The Untouchables' movie, about Al Capone.

  6. This post is very interesting and I now have lots of things to read and watch today! I'm with Little Gothic Horrors on this one. We didn't learn much about American history in school which is a shame as I love history and my dream is to live in America!

    I have definitely seen films about Al Capone but I don't think I have heard of John Dillinger although I do recognise the name Dillinger but that could be because of the hardcore punk band The Dillinger Escape Plan.

    I'm looking forward to learning more about American gangsters!

    I did know what a Sawn-off shotgun was because of the British film Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. If you haven't seen that film then I highly recommend it, it's quite insane and funny in places!

    Our most notorious gangsters are probably The Krays. They were twin brothers that were at the head of organised crime in London's East End during the 50s and 60s. The Krays were involved in armed robberies, arson, protection rackets, violent assaults including torture and murder and they had big celebrity status amongst people like Frank Sinatra.

    If you've never heard of them then they have a Wiki page..

    I'm off to watch some of these YouTube videos. xxx

  7. Justine, I love this post! My parents would always tell me stories (stories that they've heard, anyway, nothing from personal experience, hahaha) about the airway the gangsters would use up in Mackinac (sp?) island whenever we would go up north to visit my grandparents. Very weird and oddly cool that northern WI was such a popular "hang out" for the gangsters in the early and mid 20th century.

    @VainGlorySinner-just curious, where in America would you like to live? I used to live in Germany, and all of my German girlfriends told me it was their dream to live in NYC or LA, mainly because of all the hype. I live in Boston right now, but even though I'm American I've always felt the NYC appeal myself. :)

  8. Great post. Lots of information. I love the HBO show "Boardwalk Empire" set in the 20's-30's era. Al Capone is one of the characters featured.

  9. this is yet again another great post! I didn't know all of that about Dillinger! It's exciting to think that he might have lived, although I feel sorry for the man who got shot in his place...

  10. Mantan ~ A "devilish trickster god" is a good description of Dillinger! I searched for the Joe Coleman piece online and found a picture of it. It was probably the same image you found. I could tell there was a lot of writing and a series of portraits, but the writing was too small to read. I hope to find a larger, legible image of this. I could probably learn more about Dillinger from it. It looks like a number of his girlfriends made it on there. I found a web site once that was dedicated to all the women in his life. It was an interesting read!

    Little Gothic Horrors ~ After posting this, it occurred to me that not everyone reading my blog is American. I was curious if you guys would know about these gangsters. Actually, our American History classes didn't exactly focus on gangsters either. Too bad, because that would have been cool! So what I know comes from TV and movies too. Although there are a lot of personal stories handed down through the generations around here.

    Vain Glory Sinner ~ I can see that my friend Marisa is wondering the same thing: Where in America do you want to live? If you're ever nearby for some reason, we should hang out! :)

    As I said to Little Gothic Horrors above, I wondered if people from other countries would recognize the American gangsters. It makes sense that you wouldn't. I'm sure that every country has their own gangster stories that people from other places don't know about. For instance, I had no idea about the Kray brothers! What an interesting read. How funny that Frank Sinatra hung out with British gangsters too! He certainly was involved enough with the American gangster scene... You guys had the added twist of the paranoid schizophrenic gangster brother! Probably not the best person to be carrying weapons.

    It's interesting that both you and Little Gothic Horrors know about Al Capone but not Dillinger. I can only think that The St. Valentine's Day Massacre put Capone on the map more.

    I don't know about The Dillinger Escape Plan band. I'll have to look them up! Well, now you know where the band's name came from. :)

    I'll have to check out Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. I've heard a lot of great reviews of that movie.

    So I take it that neither Australia nor England was crazy enough to try the whole prohibition of alcohol thing?

    Marisa ~ Hey there! How are you doing? Thanks! I'm glad you liked this post. :) You know, I actually don't think you ever told me that story before. That's some neat info to know! Yeah, northern WI was definitely a gangster hangout. I'm not sure if you know about Little Bohemia, but there was a big shootout there. The FBI was trying to shoot Dillinger, but didn't. Baby Face Nelson was there too. You can see a depiction of all that in Public Enemies. You probably already know this, but a lot of that movie was filmed in Wisconsin!

    Adsila ~ Thank you! I would definitely be watching Boardwalk Empire if I had cable! I love Steve Buscemi in anything he does and that's just an interesting time period to show. I'm really curious about who is portraying Al Capone in that. I think I'll try to find a Boardwalk Empire Youtube clip online today.

    Stacey ~ Thanks! :) Well, I felt sorry at first too. Then I learned the part of the story where the dead man had a terminal illness. As the story goes, he volunteered to give his life for Dillinger, since he wasn't going to live very long anyway.

  11. This is a great post, honey! I do love anything to do with Speakeasies, and these gangsters are right up there. My family has bootlegged everything from alcohol to tires because we are bad, bad people. So I have a speakeasy window on the door of my house.

    This post is great, and made me want to watch Public Enemies despite my MASSIVE Johnny Depp overload in recent years. Thanks!

  12. To answer yours and Marisa's question, I would love to live in or near Maryland.

    I would chose Maryland because of it's rich haunted histories and legends i.e. The Blair Witch! I would love an old wooden farmhouse too which is impossible to get in the UK. American houses are always much bigger! It's also close enough to Washington DC and New York for fun weekend breaks.

    I would also love to visit the old plantation houses in Mississippi and Louisiana, I love reading ghost stories about them and find their history fascinating!

    America has some of the most interesting legends and folklore like the Jersey Devil and the Mothman. I love the Mothman Prophecies!

    If you know of any other interesting legends I may like to read about please tell me!

    I read about speakeasies yesterday as I recall watching a ghost hunting series on TV where they visited a Speakeasy but I didn't really know what the word meant!

    I don't think we have ever had a prohibition here in the UK but I could be wrong. I read about the American Prohibition on Wikipedia yesterday and it was very interesting! Banning alcohol was obviously a very stupid move on the governments behalf. I don't know what they thought it would accomplish! It would obviously have lead to crime because people would do anything to get some alcohol and the people making the illegal alcohol would have a lot of power! It's such a dark interesting piece of history.

    I found this old newsreel from 1933 when the prohibition was repealed in America..

    Everybody was obviously very happy about the repeal!

    No sane government would prohibit alcohol nowadays as its a large part of our economies.

    I've now got the urge to read some American ghost stories. English ghost stories just don't have the same appeal to me.. probably because I live here and have heard them all! xxx

  13. I have never heard that theory about the wrong man being shot. That's craziness!!

  14. Pensive ~ Thank you! :) Really? Tires? How does that work? And is a speakeasy door like a dutch door? I suddenly have so many questions! Pretty much any American is going to have a connection to prohibition. No matter what side of it your family was on. If they were living in America during the 1920's-1930's, they will have a story! I had a great-great grandfather who owned a saloon. At least it is listed as a saloon in census records before prohibition. After the prohibition law was passed, he is listed as owning a grocery store. :)

    A "massive" Johnny Depp overload? Come on! You can never get enough of him! At least I can't...

    Vain Glory Sinner ~ Yeah, I would agree that the East Coast of the United States has a lot of great old ghost stories. Although, we're not too shabby in the Midwest either! :) There are plenty of Southern Gothic stories out there, not to mention all the ghost towns of the West. Anywhere you go, you can find ghost stories here.

    I find this funny, because I'm jealous of people who live in Europe! You guys have the REALLY old ghost stories. I guess this is one of those "grass is greener on the other side" situations!

    I will give some thought to American legends to share with you...

    Oh, well there is a lot of interesting speakeasy info out there! I really recommend watching the Ken Burns Prohibition special I mentioned. I'm not sure if you'd get that in England, but maybe it's online somewhere. You'll learn everything you need to know!

    Thank you for posting the old newsreel! I was seriously laughing through this one. "It's going to be a cold winter for the barrel busters!" Love it. I got a kick out of the clip being sponsored by the NRA too. I know watching this and knowing how much people like their beer/booze, the whole idea of banning it seems insane. There was a real problem with messy alcoholism before Prohibition, though. At least, in hiding their drinking during those years, people learned to keep it more quiet. So after alcohol was legalized, they weren't so out of control.

    The U.S. government didn't want to give up the taxes from liquor, in fact 70% of their total revenue came from liquor tax. To solve the problem, they introduced income tax. Otherwise we couldn't have afforded prohibition! Learning about prohibition makes me think about the legalization of all drugs. Marijuana sales could be taxed, and it would be nice if our jails were used to hold more violent offenders, instead of people who are just hurting themselves. It just makes you think after watching the same thing happen with alcohol.

    You know what's really shocking? Prohibition stayed in force for nearly 14 years.

    Vapid Vixen ~ Welcome to my blog. :) Yeah, the story is pretty shocking, but it also makes a lot of sense. John Dillinger was successful in evading the FBI so many times. This could have been his final get away plan!

  15. One of our Australian morning TV shows is currently broadcasting from New York (out of the Good Morning America studios, I think), and interestingly, they did a big story this morning on the history of organized crime in NYC and prohibition!

    I'm sure we've never had any kind prohibition here. It would have started a revolt!

  16. How cool! I like Good Morning America. Maybe the Australian morning show people are connected somehow to ours? Is your show called Good Morning Australia? :)

    Did you learn anything new from the show? It's funny how much prohibition is being talked about lately. The topic is showing up everywhere! A friend of mine mentioned watching a TV show about vampires the other night, and the plot involved the vampires going back in time to prohibition days! They were hanging out in a speakeasy. So I guess that prohibition is the hot topic lately. :)

    Yeah, it's amazing that it didn't start more of a revolt here. I guess most people had the attitude of "Meh. We'll just hide our drinking parties." Drinking was fairly accepted with the local police. Only the federal agents got involved with putting a stop to drinking. So as long as the federal agents didn't come to town, the parties continued.

    There was more of a revolt against prohibition as our country went into a Depression. People wanted the jobs that were taken away when alcohol manufacturing stopped. They also thought it was a waste of money to pay men to destroy barrels of beer, when people were starving! So after some time, people really started standing against prohibition.

  17. Yes, our show is the sister show of 'Good Morning America', yet ironically, it's called the 'Today Show'. Whereas the Australian sister show of the US 'Today Show' is called 'Sunrise'. It's bizarre! We did have a 'Good Morning Australia' but it is off the air because of poor ratings (and it had no connection with the US GMA). I think it may be coming back soon, though.

    It's funny because there's an episode of 'Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles' that is partly set during prohibition. I loved that show and it was a great episode. A terminator had been sent back in time but overshot the date and his arrival caused a fire in a speakeasy, which in turn messed up history for Skynet. The scenes in the speakeasy are gorgeous with all the dancing and champagne fountains.

    I just looked up prohibition in Australia. Apparently, there was some prohibition, but I don't think it was universal. I'll have to try and find out more because I didn't know anything about it. I also didn't know that some suburbs in Melbourne have no liquor licenses as a result of prohibition 'dry areas' set up in the early 1900s. Huh... you learn something every day!!

  18. How funny! That's a lot to follow with the morning show names. I have to wonder why the two Today Shows aren't related. "Sunrise" is a nice name for a morning show.

    Really? Even a terminator visits a speakeasy! I guess that is the time and place of choice for TV show writers. Although, I can see how the danger and glamor of the setting would make it a popular choice.

    That's surprising! I had no idea that there was any kind of prohibition in Australia. I'd like to learn more about that, so let me know as you find out more. Yeah, we all do learn new things each day! A lot of what I learn daily comes from other bloggers. :)