Greetings from 1933

In my reading on the 1933 Union Station Massacre in Kansas City, I also learned some things about the country at that time.

First, it was a desperately corrupt place. Entire cities were run by the mob, or other criminal enterprises, and everywhere else seemed strongly affected by organized crime of various kinds.  We tend to underestimate the parasitic load of corruption through most of the twentieth centurey, from concrete contracts to uneven enforcement of the law, a load that, despite a lot of rhetoric, is way lower now than it used to be.

For example, the two federal agents who grabbed Frank Nash in Hot Springs faced a gantlet of corrupt police forces on their way out of town. All of their movements were known, though they threw off pursuit by telling one bunch of corrupt cops they were heading to Joplin, when they actually went to Fort Smith, to catch the train to KC. Of course, they didn't do themselves any favors by then answering the questions of a curious reporter, revealing who they were and where they were going. They proved that not all publicity is good publicity by walking into the ambush when they got there the next morning.

KC, or course, was run by the Prendergast machine. The local mob boss, Johnny Lazia, held court at the Fred Harvey restaurant at the train station. Though the Fred Harvey company (famous for its Harvey Girls) is long gone, the restaurant at Union Station is still a going concern, though I suspect it doesn't resemble Lazia's late-night hangout much, and I don't know who actually runs it. I had lunch there with some old friends from college.

Lazia supposedly gave sanction to the Massacre, and helped clean up afterward. Like many of these guys, he was killed by his fellows, rather than by the cops or the feds, the next year.

Another thing was how dangerous driving was. Now, most of the driving in the various books I read is being done by desperate and low-attention-span thrill killers and bank robbers. Still, they keep spinning out, going off the road, crashing into things, and ending up in ditches. Just as one example among many, Clyde Barrow missed a sign warning of a missing bridge and drove off into a dry river bed--on June 10, a week before the Massacre, to show how everything was happening at once. Bonnie's leg was severely burned by spilled battery acid, and she was never really able to walk again. She was carried, or hopped around on one leg.

Roads were poorly marked, curves sharp, lights rare, and car tires exploded or shredded unexpectedly. No seat belts. And, yeah, people were insane drivers. As with homicides, the 1930s were a peak in automobile vehicle fatalities. The rate for most of that decade was near three per thousand population. The current rate is a third that, and there are vastly more cars per population than there were then. The death rate per million vehicle miles was around 15 in the 1930s. Now it is one.

And people, lacking other distractions, really got into things. If a bank robbery got at all delayed, the street outside would fill with curious onlookers. Posses were a real thing, and bandits were pursued by huge numbers of armed citizens, as the Clyde gang was in Dexter, Iowa, where they had camped out to recuperate. And as I mentioned before, people weren't shy about taking souvenirs, whether it was blood, bullets, or clothing.

It was a wild time, and weirder than we usually think.