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Herbert Asbury, The Gangs of Chicago

Herbert Asbury's The Gangs of Chicago: An Informal History of Chicago's Underworld is a fascinating account of Chicago's most notable criminal elements, from the city's 1830s inception as a desolate prairie outpost through 1931, when Al Capone was convicted of tax evasion, thus effectively bringing the Chicago mob's Roaring Twenties heyday to a close. (Ending the heyday, but not eliminating the mob entirely, of course.) The book was originally published in 1940, with the rather ironic title Gem of the Prairie. The renaming of the Thunder's Mouth Press reissue was clearly meant as a tie-in to The Gangs of New York, the Scorcese film which was based on Asbury's similar NYC crime survey; however, it's unclear why the reissues of Asbury's San Francisco and New Orleans surveys, The Barbary Coast and The French Quarter, weren't similarly renamed.

Asbury provides exhuastive detail on the colorful personalities from the first 100+ years of Chicago's underworld, as well as the districts where vice was allowed--either officially or unofficially--to flourish, as well as the quixotic moral crusades which endlessly fought to shut them down. Interestingly, to Asbury's credit, he devotes no more than 40 of the books's 374 pages to Capone, who was by far the best-known Chicago hoodlum. In fact, Asbury doesn't even glorify Capone, as he does numerous other mobsters; in fact, as Perry Duis points out in his introduction, "Asbury credits Johnny Torrio (Capone's predecessor) with being the organizational genius who turned bootlegging into a massively profitable business, while dismissing Al Capone as a ruffian who substituted brutal force for intelligence." And yet, Capone somehow comes across as a mildly sympathetic character, one who became a prisoner to the very empire he helped create:

On the night of his arrest (in 1929) Capone told Major Lemuel B. Schofield, Philadelphia's Director of Public Safety, that he had been trying to retire for two years. "But once in the racket," he said, "you're always in. I haven't had peace of mind for years. I never know when I'm going to get it. Even when I'm on a peace errand I must take a chance on the light going out. I have a wife and an eleven-year-old boy I idolize, at Palm Island, Florida. If I could go there and forget it all, I would be the happiest man in the world. I want peace, and I'm willing to live and let live. I'm tired of gang murders and gang shootings."

Of course, it was the lack of peace, all of those gang murders and gang shootings that he ordered, that brought him the immense wealth and power that he enjoyed for many years. Though it's obviously very self-serving for him to say, after gaining all that wealth and power, that he suddenly wanted out of the whole dirty business, it's still somewhat poignant to see that he knew he'd never escape. The book's only drawback is that, in adopting a biographical, personality-based focus, Asbury the journalist fails to present his otherwise fascinating information into a larger sociological context. As a result, the book comes across as largely anecdotal, without an overriding sense how Chicago vice and society as a whole impacted each other. This is a weakness that Duis notes as well:

History built on the deeds of a series of individuals tends to be episodic and to ignore long-term trends and similarities in different time periods; Asbury's (vice) innovators, then, generated change--not industrialization, immigration, communication, or a host of other social forces. Thus, while the book remains an excellent account for the popular reader, it is for the historan a detailed compilation of information on which to base interpretive ideas.

Overall, however, the lack of sociological context detracts little from the sheer enjoyability of Asbury's accounts of Chicago's most incorrigable characters, including wry gems like this one:

The name of Chicago's pioneer thief is now unknown, but a record of his wickedness remains--he stole thirty-four dollars from a fellow-boarder, one Hatch, at the Wolf Tavern, and was arrested by Constable Reed on a warrant issued by Justice Russell E. Heacock. He was taken at once to Reed's carpenter shop for examination, and the Justice held court sitting on the workbench. Since there was no state's Attorney to handle the prosecution, Hatch engaged John Dean Caton, afterward a noted judge, and the defendant employed Caton's partner, Giles Spring, who likewise became a well-known jurist and City Attorney as well. Despite Spring's objections, Caton compelled his partner's client to strip, and at length the stolen money was found wadded in the toe of the accused man's sock. The defendant was held for trial, which got under way next morning in the Wolf Tavern, "where the public could hear the young lawyers to the best advantage." After much argument and speech-making by counsel, the prisoner was found guilty, but was released on nominal bail pending action on a motion for a new trial. He promptly disappeared, thus establishing a precedent which has been followed more or less regularly in Chicago ever since.

The Gangs of Chicago is a must-read for students of Chicago history and anyone who, like myself, enjoys the guilty pleasure of witnessing the machinations of the criminal underworld.

November 26, 2005 in Books, Chicago Observations | Permalink