Deceased, Well-Dressed Gangsters

gangsterI‘m a big fan of the Dead Guys in Suits blog. Pat Downey posts regular stuff about 1920s bootleggers, coppers, and gangsters meeting their various makers. The blog pretty much has a gangster death for every day of the year. It’s good stuff, macabre and chilling but ancient enough you don’t feel too sleazy about the rubbernecking.

Downey’s style is spiced with prohibition slang and a touch of cynical disrespect that nicely undercuts the glamour we tend to give men who standover for a living. He’s also written some full length books, like Bad Seeds in the Big Apple: Bandits, Killers & Chaos in New York 1920-1940 and Legs Diamond: Gangster. Anyone who likes the idea of blasting  tommy guns out the windows of a Model T Ford will get a good read.

Men With Gats

Incidentally, if you ever wondered why so many roaring 20s gangsters carried a Thompson submachine gun then blame the US Army. It was designed for trench-clearing in the First World War. The war finished before tommy guns saw any action so the inventors targeted them at the civilian market.

Submachine guns were classified as sporting goods back then so you could pick them up no questions asked. It was even possible to buy a Thompson mail order by clipping a coupon out the back of a magazine. They weren’t cheap at $200 each and not much good for hunting or any other kind of sport. But they were fine for spraying a lot of lead at human shaped targets.

The only customers who needed a gun like that and could afford it were US marines, various police forces, Irish Republicans, and the gangster world. Guys like Legs Diamond, Dutch Schultz, and Al Capone were loyal customers until the government cracked down in the 1930s.

The war was also responsible for the barnstorming air shows of the period. The air force sold off its surplus $5,000 Curtiss JN-4 biplanes for $200. More than a few barnstormers (like Hubert Julian of Katanga fame) had a nice sideline in smuggling booze and dope across the border from Canada for New York gangsters.

These days it’s all fascinatingly retro but back then the Thompson and biplane were cutting edge technology. And a lot of guys died. But they looked sharp when they hit the pavement.

For more warlike weirdness, you can buy my  books in paperback or ebook:

Lost Lions of Judah: Haile Selassie’s Mongrel Foreign Legion [or]


Katanga 1960-63: Mercenaries, Spies and the African Nation that Waged War on the World  [or]


Franco’s International Brigades: Adventurers, Fascists, and Christian Crusaders in the Spanish Civil War [or]




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