Sunday, 31 January 2010

Musings: Old Age or Early Death?

My father celebrated his 93rd birthday last October. In past centuries it was extremely rare for anyone to reach such an age. George II, who died in 1760, was the first Britsh monarch ever to pass the age of 70 (and only three have managed it since), which suggests that most ordinary people led even shorter lives.

Many famous people are seen so much as products of their time that it is difficult to imagine them living into a later era. For instance, if Mozart had lived as long as my father, he could have read the Communist Manifesto, and so could William Pitt the younger. And can we imagine William Shakespeare coming out of retirement at the age of 85 to comment on the execution of Charles I?

In some cases, it is an early death which paradoxically serves to immortalise someone's reputation. Nelson's legend climaxes with his death in the moment of victory at Trafalgar: his reputation would surely be different if he had survived the battle and lived as long as the Duke of Wellington. Max Beerbohm imagined Lord Byron living till the 1850s, and writing long letters to the "Times" about the repeal of the Corn Laws; Byron's image, like those of Keats and Shelley, is linked with early death, without which they might have ended up like Wordsworth or Coleridge. We could hardly envisage Oscar Wilde, aged 85, being evacuated back to England from Paris in 1940 ahead of the German invasion; and I fear Marcel Proust, aged 68, would have refused to leave, and would have perished in Teresinstadt concentration camp around 1943. The thought of Aubrey Beardsley (1873-98) as a war artist in either World War makes one shudder: equally, the mental stability of Van Gogh (1853-90) would not have been helped by witnessing the First World War, and Raphael (1483-1520) was spared the sack of Rome by the Imperial armies in 1527. One wonders what D. H. Lawrence (1885-1930) would have made of Nazism, and Evelyn Waugh (1903-66) would surely have considered Mrs Thatcher and her supporters appallingly vulgar.

It is best for a romantic hero to die young, because:-

"Now you will not swell the rout
Of lads that wore their honours out
Runners whom renown outran
And the name died before the man"
(A. E. Housman: "To an athlete dying young")

At the opposite extreme are those who achieved their finest successes late in life, or kept working well into old age: Gladstone and Churchill, Milton and Goethe and Tolkien, Titian and Michelangelo. The greatest of such people appear not as anachronisms left over from an earlier age, but as products less of a single period, but of all time.

Monday, 25 January 2010

American Gangsters; part 5: Mafia

Even more so than in the case of Chicago, New York was too big ever to be controlled by a single gang. The city authorities were as corrupt as in Chicago, and the profits to be made from organised crime even larger, but New York never became as famous as a gangster centre. Partly this ws because the city lacked a gangster as fond of self-publicity as Al Capone, but also because the New York gangsters managed to avoid large-scale public shootouts like the St. Valentine's Day massacre. There were of course plenty of killings, but they took place in private, away from the public gaze.

Arnold Rothstein, "the Moses of the underworld", was shot dead in a hotel in November 1928: an unsolved crime probably resulting from a dispute over gambling debts. (His death is brilliantly described in a short story byDamon Runyon: "The Brain Goes Home"). He left a fluid situation, with various gangs active in different parts of the city, Manhattan and the Bronx and Brooklyn, and acros the river in New Jersey, engaging in different operations: bootlegging and drugs and labour racketeering. Their members were mostly Italian or Jewish; the city's police and politicians had traditionally been Irish.

The origins of the Mafia remain obscure. Sicily had long been bandit territory; an island of desperately poor peasants whose rulers were mostly foreigners, where an enterprising and ruthless man could make a living supporting landlords against tenants or vice versa, or more likely playing them off against each other; but as for the Mafia as such, there is no agreement amongst historians as to when it started, or what the name means, or indeed whether it should be regarded less as a body with some organisational structure, more as a code of behaviour and an attitude to life. (Al Qaida would be an interesting modern comparison) When before the First World War G. M. Trevelyan wrote his famous trilogy on Garibaldi and Italian unification, he made no mention of the Mafia in the section on Sicily, though he well aware of the Camorra, the equivalent organisation in Naples.

There was certainly a Mafia in New York before the First World War. It was led by such sordid characters as "Lupo the Wolf" and Pete Morello, "The Clutching Hand". They conducted protection rackets within the Italian community, killed anyone who threatened them, and were also heavily involved in forged currency. There were frequent and violent feuds between Sicilian and Neapolitan gangs, and between Mafiosi originating from different regions of Sicily. Another of these internal wars erupted in the late 1920s, between the followers of Guiseppe Masseria, "Joe the Boss", an uncouth slob of a man, and those of Salvatore Maranzano, a late arrival on the New York scene, whose followers mostly hailed from the Castellamare district. But to the younger generation of Mafiosi such doings were regarded as a dangerous waste of time, irrelevant to the situation in America. The leading light of the young men was Salvatore Luciano, generally known as "Charlie",or as "Lucky", following a mysterious episode when he was savagely beaten and tortured but then inexplicably released alive. Luciano and his friends contemptuously nicknamed the older leaders the "Moustache Petes": they regarded themselves as essentially Americans; they had been initiated into bootlegging by Arnold Rothstein and had forged working relationships with the leading Jewish gangsters, like Meyer Lansky and Benny ("Bugsy") Siegel, and Louis Lepke and Jake Shapiro, the racketeers of the Lower East Side. Their ambition was to take control, stop the stupid feuds, and start making serious money.

In April 1931 Luciano and Masseria had a private meal together in an Italian restaurant on Coney Island. After a while Luciano excused himself to go to the lavatory, at which point four men entered the room, shot dead "Joe the Boss" and then departed. Their identities of course are not known for certain, but theyare believed to be three young stars of the Mafia; Vito Genovese, Joe Adonis and Albert Anastasia, plus Benny Siegel. Following this, Maranzano proclaimed himself to be "Capo di tutti capi", Boss of all the bosses, and held a kind of celebration jamboree. It is said that part of his victory speech was delivered in Latin, since he had been trained for the priesthood and prided himself on being an educated man, unlike the crude thugs who surrounded him. It was Maranzano who divided up Mafia operations in New York between the legendary Five Families. He set up his headquarters in a luxurious and well-guarded apartment near Grand Central Station.

But Maranzano showed dangerous delusions of grandeur, and his reign lasted less than six months. In September of 1931 his offices were visited by men in police uniform, supposedly to examine his tax accounts. In fact they were professional killers: Bo Weinberg of the Dutch Schultz mob and Red Levine, a gunman who, being an Orthodox Jew, would never commit murder on the Sabbath. The Boss of all the bosses was shot and stabbed to death.

Luciano and his friends were now in charge, but he refrained fromtaking the title of Capo di tutti capi, preferring to see himself as analagous to a chairman assisted by a board of directors, and he preached Johnny Torrio's old message of peace between the gangs and the avoidance of open warfare. As early as 1929 a "national crime convention" had been held in Atlantic City, New Jersey, under the protection of the city's boss Enoch "Nucky" Johnson. Now links were established between the Italian and Jewish gangs of New York and further afield too, with Boston and Detroit, with Abner "Longy" Zwillman of New Jersey and Moe Dalitz of Cleveland (This gentleman had begunhis career smuggling Canadian whiskey across Lake Erie; an operation nicknamed "the little Jewish navy"; and ended up owning much of Las Vegas). Thus the "National Crime Syndicate" was born.

Friday, 15 January 2010

American Gangsters; part 4: Chicago

If Arnold Rothstein was the founding father of modern organised crime in New York, his equivalent in Chicago was Johnny Torrio, who has even been dubbed, provocatively, "The one man of true genius to emerge in America in the 20th century". He was a New Yorker of Neapolitan stock, who began his career with the notorious "Five Points" gang of contract killers based near the southern end of Manhattan (the original "downtown" district). In 1909 Torrio was called to Chicago to help out his cousin, "Big Jim" Colossimo. Big Jim had begun as a street sweeper, but had risen to own a string of nightclubs and brothels, centring on "Colossimo's Cafe"; an upmarket joint on South Wabash Avenue where he hobnobbed with city aldermen and entertained the great Italian tenor Caruso on his visit to Chicago. Big Jim had an income of over $1/2 million and successfully paid off the police and politicians, but was threatened by a kidnapping gang called the Black Hand, who were believed to have murdered at least 90 people who refused to pay their demands. So Torrio was called in to help, and quickly disposed of the Black Handers by ambushing and shooting them.

When Prohibition came in, Torrio at once saw the possibilities, but Big Jim did not. He was too set in his ways, besotted with his latest mistress, an obstacle to progress. In May 1920 Big Jim was gunned down in the foyer of his own nightclub: a crime that was never solved. He was given the most lavish of funerals; his coffin borne by three judges, two congressmen, eight city aldermen and the assistant state's attorney; though the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Chicago was less apppreciative and refused the use of a church for the service -- because Big Jim had been divorced! Torrio now took over the running of the organisation and brought in some bright young men from New York to assist him, one of whom was an unprepossessing-looking, rather pudgy chap in his twenties, with a scar across his cheek. His name was Al Capone.

Despite this start, Torrio was never a man of unnecessary violence. He knew that Chicago was too big to be run by a single gang, that pointless wars over territory achieved nothing, and that if too many bodies were left littering the sidewalks the public would be upset and might even force the cops to take action. It wouldn't do to get crime a bad name! So in 1922 he called the gang leaders together and spoke of the advantages of peace: there was enough money around to make them all rich provided they could behave sensibly, keep to agreed frontiers and settle disputes by arbitration instead of by gunfire. The trouble was that Dion O'Banion and his North Side gang refused to play ball. "Tell them Sicilians to go to hell!" said O'Banion. He had to be eliminated. The great Chicago gang war began when three hired killers shot O'Banion dead in his flower shop in November 1924, and continued up to and after the St. Valentine's Day massacre in 1929. Torrio did not stay till the end: after he himself was shot and seriously wounded in a revenge attack in January 1925 he retired back to New York, handing over his operation to Al Capone.

In 1919 Capone had only been a bouncer in a brothel, in which trade he acquired the long scar across his cheek that he always tried to conceal from the photographers. Now he headed an organisation of around 700 men with an annual turnover of $100 million, of which more than half came from alcohol (and of which at least a quarter was distributed in bribes to police, politicans and other interested bodies). He also ran, amongst other operations, the Coal Drivers' Union and the Motion Picture Operators, and was big in the dry-cleaning business. He was effectively the dictator of the borough of Cicero; in reality just a suburb in the west of Chicago, but legally outside the city boundaries. It was all very impressive for a young man still in his twenties, from a poor background and with little formal education; and suggested to some contemporaries that he had all the necessary talents to be high-powered business executive: clearly no organisation this size could be run by thuggery alone. But Capone was a man of extreme violence too, and his reign was marked by continuous warfare on the sreets of Chicago as he tried to eliminate his rivals: not just the North Siders but also the Gennas, Aiellos, O'Donnells and other local crime families.

The other reason Capone became the most famous gangster in America, or even the world, was that he was a relentless publicity-seeker. He was always ready with a quote for the press; he loved hanging around with sports stars; he flaunted his exotic lifestyle and gave ostentatiously generous public donations to charities. It was almost as if he saw himself as a kind of tourist attraction for the city, which of course in a sense he was. Crowds flocked to see him drive through the streets in his seven-ton armour-plated Cadillac with bullet-proof glass in the windows. He never made any attempt to conceal his bootlegging: what, he would ask the journalists, was the problem with that? He was only supplying the public with what they wanted, like any businessman would do!

Johnny Torrio would not have approved of all the publicity, nor would he have approved of the shootouts on the Chicago streets. To his mind, gangsters should always keep to the shadows and avoid the public gaze as much as possible: anything else was asking for trouble. And of course Torrio would have been right. Attempts to covict Capone for his numerous murders (at least 70 being attributed to him) had always failed, but the St. Valentine's Day massacre was the last straw as far as the government was concerned, and the order went out from President Herbert Hoover himself: "Get Capone!"

Capone's downfall began just weeks after the massacre. He was arrested in Philadelphia for carrying a concealed weapon, and found to his surprise that the Deputy Sherrif's badge he showed the police carried no weight outside the state of Illinois. He was sentenced to a year in prison: his first-ever spell behind bars. Meanwhile back in Chicago Eliott Ness, aged just 26, was making a nuisance of himself closing down Capone's speakeasies, and in 1931 Capone's political ally "Big Bill" Thompson was defeated in the mayoral election. Furthermore, the federal authorities had come up with an ingenious new scheme: to prosecute gangsters for non-payment of income tax!

Now Capone found himself on trial under this charge, and his lavish public lifestyle proved his undoing: it was clearly shown that for several years he had spent enormous sums of money yet had never filed a tax return. Capone's lawyers had no answer to this. In October 1931 he was sentenced to eleven years' imprisonment for tax evasion and was dispatched to the dreaded gaol of Alcatraz. It can hardly be doubted that the severity of the sentence was wholly disproportionate to the offence, and was imposed purely because he was Al Capone, the world's most famous gangster.

Capone did not serve out his full sentence. By the late 1930s his brain was becoming fogged; a mental degeneration caused by untreated syphilis. It was reported he now had the mentality of a six-year-old, and in November 1939 he was released as no longer any threat to society. Back in Chicago an enterprising reporter asked the gang's old business manager, Jake "Greasy Thumb" Guzik, whether Capone would resume his role as boss of the organisation. "Nope!" said Guzik, "Al is as nutty as a fruitcake!"

Al Capone died of a stroke at his home in Florida in 1947, failing to reach his fiftieth birthday. By contrast his old mentor Johnny Torrio died peacefully at the age of 75. It is Torrio, not Capone, who really merits the title of the world's greatest gangster.

(The best book I have read on this subject is Kenneth Allsop: "The Bootleggers" My next chapter will deal with the Mafia in New York)

Friday, 8 January 2010

American gangsters, part 3: Prohibition

Before the First World War, both alcohol and drugs were more or less freely available for sale in both Britain and the USA, and the former generally caused more concern than the latter. Thus, John Stuart Mill ("On Libery") discusses at length whether alcohol should be banned (he thinks not), but does not discuss drugs at all, and there was a strong overlap between the temperance movement and the Labour Party in its early days. In the early Sherlock Holmes stories, Holmes is shown injecting himself with cocaine, while Dr Watson makes little more than a token protest (Imagine the furore if a modern popular fictional hero, such as James Bond, was portrayed taking cocaine!). After the war Britain banned drugs but not alcohol: America, more logically but disastrously, banned both. Under the Volstead Act and the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, the manufacture, transportation and sale (though not the consumption) of alcohol became illegal throughout the United States. This law came into force on January 1st 1920. The first booze-related crime occurred within hours.

It ts amazing that anyone imagined the law could be enforced. Hatred of alcohol was an ideology of small-town non-immigrant Protestant America, where the campaign for Prohibition had originated; but the cities were full of immigrants, and who was going to persuade the Italians to give up their wine, the Germans their beer, the Irish their whiskey? Would a mere law make them change their habits of a lifetime? Of course not! Furthermore, a great many respectable Protestant Americans approved of the law in general terms, but felt that somehow it should not apply to them (an attitude well illustrated in Sinclair Lewis's "Babbitt"). From the start the law was openly flouted, even in the very highest circles, right up to President Harding himself, who announced, "I'm as wet as the middle of the Atlantic ocean!" Many judges and policemen continued to want a drink. America's vast frontiers with Canada, Mexico and the oceans could never be adequately patrolled against smugglers. There were never enough Prohibition agents to enforce the law, they were not well paid, and being answerable to the federal government in Washington they often faced non-co-operation or even outright obstruction from the local authorities. The main outcome was that anyone who wanted a drink would now have to buy it from criminals. It was the greatest bonanza the gangsters ever enjoyed.

One of the first to benefit was a very un-gangster-like lawyer called George Remus. By using his connexions and distributing $20 million in bribes, he was able to obtain legally-produced alcohol from government bonded warehouses and then distribute it as drinks, supplying even the White House. He made a gross profit of $35 million before in 1927 he murdered his wife and was judged to be insane. But more typical, and much more important for the history of organised crime, was Arnold Rothstein, "Arnold the Brain", from New York.

Rothstein was a well-known figure in smart society. He appears in Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby" as "Meyer Wolfsheim", and in Damon Runyon's Broadway stories simply as "The Brain". From a respectable Jewish background but with underworld contacts, always impeccably dressed, he was a highly successful gambler and, it was believed, a fraudster who had fixed the 1919 Baseball World Series by bribing the favourites to lose. Two Jewish crooks, Maxie Greenberg and Irving Wexler (alias "Waxey Gordon") first interested him in bootlegging, and the potential for making huge profits captured his interest. But Rothstein despised the rotgut homebrew produced by lesser criminals; his vision was on an altogether greater scale, involving only top-class products; and he had the money and the organisational ability to realise this. In 1920 Rothstein's agents in Britain bought 20,000 cases of Scotch whisky and put them to sea. According to the Bills of Lading the shipment was bound for the West Indies, but in fact anchored off a lonely beach in Long Island, New York. With the help of a team supplied by "Big Bill" Dwyer's Dockworkers' Union, it was taken ashore by fast speedboats, loaded onto trucks and driven into central New York. Rothstein had paid off the cops all the way along the route.

Paying off the cops was the easy part: it was much more difficult to prevent lesser criminals from raiding his distribution points or hijacking his shipments (The word "Hijack" was coined at the time to describe this sort of operation). So for protection Rothstein turned to the street gangs: to Owen Madden of the Gophers, to Benny Siegel and Meyer Lansky of the Broadway Mob, to killers like Legs Diamond and Dutch Schultz, to rising young stars of the Mafia like Lucky Luciano, Frank Costello and Joe Adonis. A whole generation of gangsters learnt their trade working for Rothstein: they provided him with muscle, he arranged political protection, showed them how to make serious money and even taught them some social graces. Meanwhile the older generation of criminals who were too inflexible to grasp the new possibilities were simply rubbed out if they got in the way; like Monk Eastman, boss of the prewar Jewish gangs, or the old Mafia leaders, nicknamed the "Mustache Petes".

After making eleven successful booze runs, Rothstein decided the field was getting too crowded and he diversified into heroin and diamond smuggling. In 1928 he was shot dead, probably in a dispute over a gambling debt, but by then organised crime in New York had been changed for ever. Not for nothing has Arnold Rothstein been dubbed "The Moses of the underworld".

(For Rothstein, see Rich Cohen's "Tough Jews". There is a good fictional portrayal of Rothstein and his relationship with Lucky Luciano in the movie "Mobsters". Rothstein's death is described in a Damon Runyon short story: "The Brain goes home")

My next chapter will be about the gangs of Chicago.

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Global warming: some thoughts

It is a pity that discussion of global warming has fallen victim to politics: the political right wing (and only the political right wing) has taken to denying it entirely. Any discussion of the topic really needs to consider the following:-

*Is there evidence that the climate of the world is actually warming? And is there reason to believe this is a long-term trend?

*If so, is this phenomenon in any way unusual or unexpected?

*If so, can it definitely be attributed to human activity?

*That being the case, can anything be done about it?

Not being a scientist, I cannot answer these questions, but can only make a contribution as a historian:-

1. The world's climate has always been in a state of flux. Indeed, in the long term, the whole of recorded human history may only be taking place in an interval between Ice Ages

2. It appears likely that the collapse of the Egyptian Old Kingdom (the pyramid-builders) around 2,200 BC was due to climate change. There is evidence for a serious long-lasting drought in Egypt, which seems to be linked with unusually cold sea temperatures in the Atlantic at the time.

3. There have been signficant changes even in the last 2,000 years. It appears that there was a cold spell lasting a few centuries at the end of the Roman Empire, followed by warmth in Viking and Norman times, and then a "little ice age" starting in the early 14th century, with particularly cold decades in the 1590s, 1670s and early 19th century. The early 20th century saw warmer weather, but until recently, some scientists were anticipating the coming of another cold period.

4. There have been many sudden climatic changes caused by natural disasters. For instance, the human race was almost wiped out around 74,000 years ago, by the gigantic eruption of Toba on Sumatra, Indonesia. Probably only a few thousand humans in total survived the catastrophe. Again, the sudden disappearance of the Clovis people in North America, together with the extinction of the largest mammals (mammoths etc) around 15,000 years ago seems to be linked with dramatic climate change, perhaps caused by an asteroid impact.

5. It is now widely accepted that the collapse of Minoan civilisation in ancient Crete around 1600 BC was linked with the eruption of Santorini and a resultant tsunami. An event like this would not only cause massive loss of life and economic devastation, but a complete breakdown of morale and confidence, as the survivors thought their gods had abandoned them.

6. The real end of the classical world occured not with the fall of Rome to the Goths (410 AD) or the deposition of the last western Roman emperor (476), but in the reign of the Byzantine emperor Justinian (527-565). Not only did he attempt a reconquest of Italy, which resulted in vastly more damage to the city of Rome that the Goths and Vandals ever did, but there was also a devastating outbreak of plague (542) and in 535-6 reports by chroniclers of "darkened skies" and other strange phenomena which, when combined with evidence from tree-rings of very restricted growth, suggest a sudden deterioration of climate, possibly caused by major volcanic eruption (Krakatoa, perhaps?) or a meteorite strike. The Arabian peninsula was also badly affected.

7. More recently, the social and economic distress immediately after the Napoleonic Wars clearly resulted from the gigantic eruption of Tambora, and the resulting lurid skies that inspired Turner's paintings were no compensation for widespread crop failures and resultant mass starvation in 1816; "the year without a summer".

I would conclude that we have always been subject to climate change, sometimes with devastating effect