The Kidnap Years: The Astonishing True History of the Forgotten Kidnapping Epidemic That Shook Depression-Era America (Hardcover; on-sale April 7) by David Stout, an Edgar award-winning author and veteran journalist, has received its second STARRED review.
“At turns fascinating and heartbreaking, this expertly crafted history is a must-read for true crime aficionados.” – Library Journal, STARRED Review
This follows other stellar early reviews including…
“A thrilling account that puts the 1932 Lindbergh baby kidnapping case, billed as ‘the crime of the century,’ in the context of the thousands of other kidnappings that occurred in the U.S. during the Prohibition and Depression eras… will enthrall true crime fans.” —Publishers Weekly, STARRED Review
“In this extensively researched and smartly focused true-crime compendium, award-winning Stout delves into the who, what, when, where, and how, if not necessarily the why, of this most frightening and exploitative of ordeals.” —Booklist
Using newspaper accounts from the Great Depression era, Stout delves into the little-known epidemic of kidnappings and details a number of forgotten abduction cases throughout the U.S. in that time period.
While the Lindbergh kidnapping is woven throughout the narrative, Stout also examines the social and economic factors of the time that made this crime of opportunity appealing to gangsters and desperate families alike.
The Organization Man
- Edgar Hoover was born in Washington, DC, on New Year’s Day, 1895, the youngest of three children of Dickerson Hoover, who worked for the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey, and his wife, Annie. Dickerson Hoover was hospitalized for a time because of mental illness, a taboo subject at the time, and Annie Hoover dominated the household, instilling in her children her own uncompromising ideas of Christian morality and right and wrong.
Young Edgar’s first job was as a messenger boy in the Library of Congress. Soon, he was promoted to cataloger, then to clerk, a position in which he mastered the Dewey decimal system, which later became the basis for the filing system of the agency he would rule.
Attending classes at night, he earned his law degree from George Washington University in the capital and passed the bar exam. On July 26, 1917, when he was twenty-two, he became a clerk in the DOJ’s Bureau of Investigation. One of his initial tasks was assembling a card file on suspected radicals and Bolsheviks.
Fears of these shadowy and threatening people were heightened on June 2, 1919, when a bomb exploded in front of the Washington home of the U.S. attorney general, A. Mitchell Palmer, demolishing the front of the house and rattling windows for many blocks around. The only casualty was the bomber himself, over whose remains Palmer’s neighbor, Assistant Navy Secretary Franklin D. Roosevelt, had to step as he rushed to make sure Palmer was unhurt.
The incident helped to spur the attorney general’s “Palmer raids,” in which federal agents, acting with no regard for constitutional rights, arrested, harassed, and even deported people who were deemed radical, subversive, or…well…not sufficiently American.
In his new job in the Bureau of Investigation, Hoover impressed those around him by assembling a file of some 450,000 such people. He also impressed with his utterly serious demeanor and his impeccable wardrobe. He seemed marked for bigger things. His chance came with the 1923 death of President Warren G. Harding, under whose lax administration the Bureau of Investigation had been a haven for political hacks.
In fairness to Harding, the bureau’s sorry state predated his lamentable tenure. Founded in 1908 during the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt, the bureau was supposed to be the DOJ’s main weapon for combatting crimes that threatened national security so that the department would not have to “borrow” investigators from other agencies, like the Secret Service. But the bureau quickly became a swamp of incompetence as its “investigators” devoted themselves to crimes on Indian reservations and other obscure cases.
Roosevelt, who had been police commissioner of New York City for two years in the 1890s where he was frustrated by the corruption that permeated the force, wanted his attorney general, Charles Bonaparte, to improve the bureau. But cronyism persisted, either because Bonaparte wasn’t strict enough or the culture was too deep-rooted or both.
Perhaps a hard-nosed outsider was needed.
Harlan Fiske Stone, who became attorney general under President Calvin Coolidge in 1924, was determined to clean up the bureau. Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover, a scandal-free holdover from the Harding administration, recommended J. Edgar Hoover (no relation) as “a lawyer of uncommon ability and character.”11
Edgar was just twenty-nine. He was a bachelor (and would remain one for life) and was thus undistracted by problems at home. In short, he seemed perfect for the job, but he said he would take it only if it could be free of political influence and if he, as director, had power over hiring, firing, and promotions.
Stone agreed. So in 1924, the Federal Bureau of Investigation was reborn. At the time and for several years thereafter, its agents were not authorized to carry firearms, which may have been a good thing, considering how inept some of them were with weapons. Agents were not even authorized at first to make arrests, having to turn that chore over to local police. But Hoover envisioned larger roles for himself and his men (almost always white men), whose ranks he wanted to fill with lawyers and accountants.
For someone who never ran for public office, Hoover had good political antennae. He sensed that crime would endure as a national issue and that declaring war against it could inflate reputations and boost careers. The crime of kidnapping offered great opportunities, especially after the Lindbergh baby was taken.
Hoover knew that people feared for their safety (the kidnapping of a prominent citizen typically spurred hirings of bodyguards and purchases of firearms), and he knew which victims and families had friends in the White House or a governor’s mansion. Nor was he above sitting next to the FBI’s kidnapping telephone hotline in truly big cases.
“Too many habitual criminals are at liberty,” Hoover told a meeting of the International Association of Chiefs of Police in 1933, warning that lawbreakers were “roaming our streets and highways intent upon violence, kidnapping, murder or any crime that will enable them to inflict their bloody will upon society.” He likened kidnappers to “sewer rats.”12
Initially, the maximum punishment for interstate kidnapping under the Lindbergh Law was life in prison. But members of Congress sensed that more and more Americans did indeed believe in smiting murderers and outlaws into the dust, as the House chaplain had urged after the Lindbergh baby was found dead. So the Lindbergh Law was amended in 1934 to allow the death penalty to be imposed if the jury so recommended.
The lawmakers presumably wanted the ultimate punishment to be imposed on interstate kidnappers who killed their victims or did them great harm. And that is how the law has almost always been applied. The Death Penalty Information Center lists five defendants who have been put to death by the federal government for kidnapping. Four of those defendants killed their victims.
And then there was a luckless, dim-witted career criminal who broke out of an Oklahoma jail with another prisoner in November 1934. The pair drove into Texas, where they pulled off a robbery, then kidnapped two local policemen. The escapees drove a short distance before freeing the cops, unharmed.
One of the escapees was soon killed in a shootout. Within weeks, the surviving fugitive was caught in Oklahoma City and no doubt expected to go back behind bars for a long spell, a prospect that probably did not scare him. But the cops had been kidnapped in Texas, then driven into Oklahoma. Because they had been taken across a state line, the hapless fugitive was prosecuted under the Lindbergh Law and hanged in 1936, becoming the only kidnapper executed under the Lindbergh Law who hadn’t killed a victim.
The fugitive probably didn’t deserve his fate. But not many people were voicing compassion for habitual criminals in those desperate times.
Of course, you see similarities between then and now as you travel back to the 1930s via newspaper microfilm, following daily life. Presidents and governors and mayors wrestled with choices day after day, knowing they were living through history, making history, yet not knowing how it would turn out.
Then as now, there was no shortage of the sad and bizarre. A high school student hanged himself because he felt overwhelmed by pressure to succeed. A teenager killed his mother with an ax because he didn’t want to weed the garden.
This book is about kidnappings of long ago, but it can’t be only about them. After all, some big-time criminals in that era were bank robbers and kidnappers.
And two major crimes of the era intersected in a way that seems unbelievable—except that it really happened. The central figure was a young woman named Mary McElroy whose father was a high official in Kansas City, Missouri. She was kidnapped by gunmen who invaded her home on Saturday, May 27, 1933, while she was enjoying a bubble bath. Her father paid a $30,000 ransom, and she was freed after a brief but deeply traumatizing captivity.
A few weeks later, Mary heard a rumor from one of her father’s gangster friends that something big would happen at the Kansas City train station on the morning of Saturday, June 17, 1933. The prospect of excitement and danger had a moth-to-the-flame lure for her, so she persuaded a friendly gangster to accompany her to the station that morning.
As Mary and her companion sat in a car in the station parking lot, there was an explosion of gunfire about fifty yards from them. They were witnessing what would be called the Union Station Massacre: the death of an FBI agent, two Kansas City cops, an Oklahoma lawman, and the fugitive they were taking back to prison.
Immediately, J. Edgar Hoover proclaimed that the ambush had been carried out by the notorious bank robber Charles “Pretty Boy” Floyd and another thug, Adam Richetti. The pair had been trying to free the fugitive, who was their friend, according to Hoover.
Hoover was eager to link Floyd and Richetti, who were already wanted for robbery, to the Union Station Massacre. And he wanted the FBI to get them with as little help as possible from local police. That way, he could boast that his men had avenged the death of one of their own, the agent killed at the train station.
Yet Mary’s gangster companion said he recognized two of the ambushers as brothers who worked for a Kansas City gangster, John Lazia, and that Floyd and Richetti were not there.
Floyd was gunned down in an Ohio cornfield in 1934. As Hoover had wanted, his agents were in on the kill. Richetti was captured in Ohio, convicted of murder in Missouri, and sentenced to death. He maintained his innocence in the Union Station shooting right up to the day in 1938 when he breathed in the cyanide in Missouri’s new gas chamber.
The identity of the train station ambushers is a question that lingers to this day. Maybe the answer isn’t important in the eternal scheme of things all these years later. Back then, the issue was vitally important to the FBI chieftain. For nothing—nothing—was more important to Hoover than image.
The mostly admiring press of the era helped Hoover paint himself as a lawman who was at once incorruptible and avuncular, as when he was happily pictured in the midst of children whom he christened junior crime fighters. That he was a wily and ruthless bureaucrat; that he could be tyrannical, petty, and vindictive; that he tried to avoid cases that looked like “losers” for his bureau—these were truths that were unknown to the general public for decades.
Journalists’ treatment of Hoover in the 1930s seems remarkable, considering that he never subjected himself to the give-and-take of a news conference. (If he had, his volcanic temper might have erupted, since Hoover never learned to tolerate criticism. Years later, when he heard that the columnist Jack Anderson, whom he detested, might be preparing to write something unflattering, Hoover told associates that Anderson was “a flea-ridden dog” with a mind “lower than the regurgitated filth of vultures.” On another occasion, Hoover told a confidant that Anderson was “lower than dog shit.”
In the 1930s, some reporters and lawmen had symbiotic relationships of a kind gone forever. If reporters got on the good side of police, they were alerted about raids and perp walks. In return, reporters sometimes wrote about lawmen in prose that smacked of gag-inducing hero worship, at least to my ear. They didn’t write about police brutality, an idea whose time was yet to come.
Hoover has been rightly credited with injecting a degree of professionalism into an agency that had been a haven for incompetents. He oversaw the establishment of a national crime laboratory and instituted scientific methods still relied upon by police agencies. But early on, some of his agents were shockingly ignorant of basic investigative techniques.
And Hoover was not averse to more traditional, unsavory policing methods. In recent years, old memoranda in FBI files have surfaced in which the director demanded “physically vigorous” questioning of some suspects. Nor did Hoover and his acolytes shy away from occasional evidence tampering and perjury.
A half century after his death, Hoover remains a creature of baffling contradictions. He expressed Victorian views on sexual behavior (although suspicions about his personal proclivities persisted), yet he reveled in listening to tape recordings of public figures overheard in strange bedrooms. He railed against gangsters and racketeers while long denying the very existence of organized crime.
And while he warned his agents to take care in their personal relationships lest they create even a whiff of embarrassment for the bureau, he was a familiar and very public figure at the Stork Club, the Midtown Manhattan nightclub frequented by gossips, glitterati, and gangsters. The club was owned by Sherman Billingsley, an ex-bootlegger, and one of its most prominent regulars was Walter Winchell, the immensely popular gossip columnist of the era who promoted Hoover’s image and got occasional scoops in return. And Hoover wasn’t above turning to shady figures for tips on which horse races might be fixed. (Betting on the ponies was one of his pleasures.)
It is not too much to say that while he expressed hatred for criminals, Hoover needed them—killers, bank robbers, and kidnappers—as targets for the national police force he was creating. And he did build a national police force, something that probably would have horrified the Founding Fathers, for better and worse.
In the early 1980s, when I was a journalist at the Record newspaper in New Jersey, there was a resurgence of interest in the Lindbergh kidnapping. The widow of Bruno Hauptmann, the man who was convicted of kidnapping and killing the Lindbergh baby and was executed in 1936, sued in federal court in a vain attempt to show that her husband was innocent.
Her suit went nowhere. But it brought a spirited response from David Wilentz, who was a fiery little bantam rooster of a prosecutor in 1935 when he convicted Hauptmann. Well into his senior years at the time of the widow’s suit but in possession of all his wits, Wilentz rebutted the widow point by point. He said he had never doubted Hauptmann’s guilt.
I lived in Englewood, New Jersey, from 1977 to 1987. My house was near a school that was once the mansion of Dwight Morrow, the banker, U.S. senator, and one-time ambassador to Mexico who was Charles Lindbergh’s father-in-law.
My backyard abutted Brookside Cemetery. Every time I let my dogs out, they rushed to the cemetery fence and barked, as if to chase away ghosts. I found out later that Brookside is the resting place of Dwight Morrow and of a maid in the Morrow household who took her own life when she came under suspicion, unjustly it seems, soon after the Lindbergh baby was kidnapped.
I don’t believe in ghosts, or I don’t think I do. Then again…
The more I have dug into the past, the more people I have found who deserve to be rescued from obscurity. They were not just pawns in Hoover’s power games, not just stick figures in the purple prose of journalists of the time. Some of the people rest in manicured cemeteries, others in paupers’ fields. For some, their ashes are sealed in urns or were scattered at sea.
When you gaze at photographs in newspaper microfilm from back then, the people are frozen in time, yet they almost seem alive again. Radiant brides on the society pages. Kindergarten children with crayons. A family huddled around the living room radio, ready to listen to—what? A detective story? One of Franklin Roosevelt’s fireside chats? News of omens of war in Europe and the Orient?
Or perhaps there is news of yet another robbery or kidnapping or murder. One doesn’t have to search hard to find images of grim-faced cops wearing rumpled suits and weary faces.
Even the children in the photographs are dead now or very old and frail. Their elders are all long gone, including the kidnapping victims and their abductors, cops and prosecutors. Gone, too, are the reporters and photographers who chronicled life back then, sometimes becoming actual players in kidnapping dramas in ways that seem inconceivable today.
As I said, I traveled back in time to meet the people in this book. I just had no idea how many would stay with me as I returned to the present. Ghosts?