Irish-American Crime Films: Irish Luck (1939)

Frankie Darro and his Irish mother in "Irish Luck."

Frankie Darro and his Irish mother in “Irish Luck.”

Irish Luck (11939)

Written by: Mary McCarthy (screenplay), Charles M. Brown (story)
Directed by: Howard Bretherton
Starring:  Frankie Darro, Dick Purcell, Mantan Moreland
Summary: Frankie Darro produced a comic turn as a bellhop breaking a bond theft ring; the first film to pair him with African-American comic Mantan Moreland, but far from the last.

As this project progresses, there will probably be more reviews of films that star Frankie Darro, as “Irish Luck” does. The athletic, diminutive actor isn’t well remembered today, but he was a legitimate star in his day, albeit typically of juvenile films and b-movies. He even was responsible for one of the best-loved performances in film, even if it was uncredited and unrecognized at its time: He was the man wearing the Robbie the Robot suit in “Forbidden Planet,” which makes him to a previous generation what Kenny Baker, the man in the R2D2 suit, is to ours.

Darro has already come up a few times in these reviews: He played the young Cagney (sort of) in “The Public Enemy” and played a juvenile delinquent is Cagney’s “Mayor of Hell.” Although I can’t tell whether Darro actually had Irish blood or not (his real name was Johnson), he played an awful lot of Irish youth — here’s a brief list of character he played: Barnie Finn, Tad Dennison, Mickey Grogan, Billy Ryan, and “Orphan” McGuire. He even provided the voice of Lampwick in Disney’s “Pinocchio,” the only redheaded character in the film, and his casting is likely based on his long career of playing Irish delinquents.

But if Darro could often put himself forth with a budding criminal’s swagger, he was also a skilled comic actor, on display in “Irish Luck.” The film is a bit of a nothing, telling of a bellboy named Buzzy O’Brien who can’t help but stumble into mysteries in his hotel. But it’s an entertaining nothing, helped by pairing Darro with African-American actor Mantan Moreland. I’m a fan of Moreland, and even visited his grave when I lived in LA, and his reputation deserves reexamination. He’s notorious for playing bug-eyed, frightened African-Americans, which became something of a noxious cliche in Hollywood. But Moreland’s bug-eyedness was natural, and his comic skills impeccable and understated. He never plays his character’s fear as an exaggerated burlesque, but instead as a perpetually fretfulness.

If Darro could often put himself forth with a budding criminal’s swagger, he was also a skilled comic actor, on display in “Irish Luck.”
Darro and Moreland would go on to star in a series of films together, and they were a good pair, with Moreland acting as a sort of weary commenter on Darro’s boundless enthusiasm. In fact, in this film Darro is almost nothing but enthusiasm. Dressed in a bellhop outfit that would look right at home at the Grand Budapest Hotel, he’s determined to be a boy detective, and his hotel, which is the center of a bond-theft ring, given him ample opportunity.

The title, “Irish Luck,” is deliberate. Darro has an Irish mother in this, and, moreover, when he meets a female suspect in this, he decides she must be innocent, as her name is Monahan. Now, my name at birth was Monaghan, so I sympathize, but I also have to admit this is an odd plot point. After all, at the start of the movie he manages to capture a pair of bond robbers, and while they are unnamed, they are played by Pat Gleason and Gene O’Donnoll, so it’s not as though Irish criminals are unheard of, even in this film’s universe.

But the kid has an instinct that Monahan is okay, and, in general, his instincts are right on the money — there’s some suggestion that he literally inherited his genius for deduction from his deceased father, who was a policeman. His father’s former partner, player by Dick Purcell (who himself would make a terrifically entertaining film with Moreland called “King of the Zombies”), is nonplussed at Darro’s boy detective ambitions. But if there is one thing Darro demonstrated in films, it was that he tended to get swept up in things, and once swept was unstoppable.

If only the same could have been said of his career. He did a stint in the military during World War II and contracted malaria. Reportedly, he suffered long-term effects, which he attempted to manage with alcohol. Although he managed to make regular, often small appearance on film and television, he was broke for much of his adult life and struggled with alcohol. This was probably exacerbated when he opened a bar on Santa Monica Boulevard called “Try Later” and named after the response he typically got when he contacted Central Casting.

I worked as background talent for Central Casting several years ago, and I know how frustrating those calls are to this day. Boundless energy and enthusiasm doesn’t stand a chance against the drudgery of making tens or even hundreds of calls per day, hoping a job has opened up and that you’re right for it. It’s just murder, and it’s a murder that even a former boy detective couldn’t solve.

Television: Daredevil

Daredevil on Netflix: The hard life of a neighborhood superhero.

Daredevil on Netflix: The hard life of a neighborhood superhero.

I want to talk about Hell’s Kitchen for a bit, and of course I do. It is the primary setting for Netflix’s new series “Daredevil,” and this little neighborhood, less than a square mile in total, might as well be the whole world in the series.

That’s unusual in a superhero story, especially from Marvel, whose heroes are often international (think of the X-Men, always jetting around the world in their Blackbird spy plane), intergalactic (Guardians of the Galaxy), inter-dimensional (Howard the Duck), and some others that I have to invent names for. Dr. Strange could only be described as inter-occultic. And what would you even call Thor? Inter-mythic?

Sure, there are some regional heroes. Spider-Man mostly takes care of New York, while The Punisher’s singleminded war of revenge mostly takes place in New York. But in the Netflix series Daredevil — especially in this series — barely strays outside the border of Hell’s Kitchen, and, when he does, it’s usually on neighborhood business. He’s like a superhero version of a community organizer or, I don’t know, a locavore chef.

A caveat: The television Daredevil’s Hell’s Kitchen isn’t much like the real Hell’s Kitchen. For one thing, at the start of the show, it has been pretty well smashed up by the events of the last “Avenger’s” movie, and is in the middle of a messy renovation. For another, nobody ever calls Hell’s Kitchen by the name redevelopers offered for it: Clinton. Some of this is understandable, as superhero movies exist in a parallel version of reality that not only allows for superheroes, but also, say, newspaper reporters who have their own offices but whose computers do not autosave, and where a modern superheo has a backstory that seems borrowed directly from a 1940s boxing movie.

If he grew up in the real-world Hell’s Kitchen of the 90s, he would have been there for some of the most miserable years of Hell’s Kitchen’s very own Irish-American gang, the Westies.
The blind hero Daredevil, we are told, is not merely the defender of Hell’s Kitchen, but its creation. And so his father was an Irish-American boxer named Battlin’ Jack Murdock, murdered by Italian-American mobsters after refusing to throw a fight. Daredevil’s age in the show is probably a bit younger than the actor who plays him, Charlie Cox, who is in his early 30s, which puts the era of Battlin’ Jack Murdock’s murder in the 90s. The series offers extensive flashbacks to Battlin’ Jack’s last days, and, boy, it sure doesn’t seem like the 90s. You half expect newsmen with press passes in their fedoras to rush out after the fight to bark their stories into wooden phone booths.

Daredevil, or Matt Murdock when he isn’t in costume, is one of comic’s most famously Irish-American superheroes (the other being Captain America), and he’s the most flagrantly Catholic. If he grew up in the real-world Hell’s Kitchen of the 90s, he would have been there for some of the most miserable years of Hell’s Kitchen’s very own Irish-American gang, the Westies. The neighborhood was then experience a radical shift in demographics — it was the first of several waves of gentrification that pushed out the older working class ethnic communities. The Westies found themselves under the leadership of a Serbian named Bosko “The Yugo” Radonjich, who built a partnership with the Gambino crime family, but seems to have repeatedly been distracted by events in Serbia. He owned a nightclub in Belgrade and ran guns during the Bosnian war.

All this would be terrific backdrop for Daredevil, but, as I have said, the show takes place in an alternate Hells’ Kitchen, not the real one. So there is no Bosnian — no Westies at all — and the neighborhood is just starting to be gentrified at the start of the show.

I’m going to continue to parallel the show with the real history of Hell’s Kitchen, but I want to take a moment to say that, in general, it is a show I like a great deal. Netflix takes very seriously the idea that television can be novelistic, and tell its story over many episodes, and not just one. This is well-used in “Daredevil,” where almost every character gets a detailed background, including the criminals. There are Russian mobster brothers who mostly exist to be murderous criminals, which might feel like a side-mission in Grand Theft Auto, but we are treated to a flashback of their grisly experiences in a Russian prison. It’s not much backstory, but it is enough to make them unexpectedly sympathetic, especially as their operation goes pear-shaped and one loses his head while the other finds himself hunted.

If the show’s minor villains get backstories, the main villain gets an entire, operatic arc. He is Kingpin — never called that in the show, which insists on referring to him by his non-supervillain name, Wilson Fisk. He is played by Vincent D’Onofrio — a great, quirky character actor who makes Fisk a great, quirky character. He’s a giant of a man who is as much a product of Hell’s Kitchen as Daredevil — his father was an actual community organizer! But Fisk had a bad childhood and if Daredevil wants to protect the neighborhood, Fisk wants to tear it down. His vision of a better Hell’s Kitchen is a new one, built for yuppies on the ruins of the old neighborhood. Sadly, the current Hell’s Kitchen more closely resembles Fisk’s version than Daredevil’s.

The show’s Hell’s Kitchen is also deeply influenced by an era where the comic book was written by Frank Miller, who is most famous for having revitalized Batman in the “Dark Knight” series. Miller’s version of Daredevil had him inhabiting a world largely informed by Japanese manga, and so Daredevil — a blind superhero with augmented senses — suddenly became a ninja. Netflix’s “Daredevil” is this too, and there are hints that he lives at least as much in the world of Japanese comics as Hell’s Kitchen, including a psychic child and a Chinese woman who may be a supernatural creature.

It’s never really clear on why Hell’s Kitchen is appealing to Samurai-like Yakuza or Chinese demons, but, then, I’m not sure why Hell’s Kitchen was once deeply connected with ethnic conflict in Serbia. Crime, it seems, is a world of strange bedfellows and much as politics is. But it feels a little out of place in the story Netflix is telling, in which Matt Murdock was forged by his neighborhood into being a neighborhood defender, while his nemesis was likewise constructed by the neighborhood into being its destroyer.

I would like to suggest to Netflix, which has already declared a second season, that they consider letting the show be informed by the real Hell’s Kitchen, and less by the pretend one. Just as the great crime film “Chinatown” borrowed directly from Los Angeles’ history, there is a great deal of potential inspiration in the real Hell’s Kitchen for the show. The neighborhood was once one of illegal gambling and corrupt unions, and it is a neighborhood that has repeatedly been blighted by real redevelopment, not the fanciful version that the show presents. The Lincoln Tunnel tore off a chunk of the south side of the neighborhood, and changes in the shipping industry decimated an entire industry of longshormen who lived and worked in the neighborhood.

The show also makes quite a fuss about Matt Murdock’s Irish Catholicism, but, at the moment, this feels more like something written into his character description than his character. There is a priest he regularly goes to when he’s struggling with questions of morality, but there’s nothing that feel especially Catholic — or particularly Irish Catholic — about these interactions. There is none of the elaborate ritualism you find in the crime films of Catholic filmmakers like Martin Scorsese or Francis Ford Coppola. And while Daredevil takes quite a beating in the show, this is credited to his being the son of a boxer, and not to the mortification of the flesh that you find in strains of Catholicism, where sin and redemption is intimately linked to suffering and bloodletting.

It’s not easy to be a local hero, and the show shouldn’t be afraid to look to the Irish saints when telling Daredevil’s story, any more than they should be afraid to look to the real history of Hell’s Kitchen.
And if Daredevil is to live in a world of monsters and demons, the fact that he is an Irish Catholic could yield especially rich metaphoric ore. It sometimes seems like a layer of Catholic ritual lightly spread atop a long history of paganism, where saints and sea monsters and folk devils and blessed and cursed places all coexist.

There is a moment when a nurse, who is helping Daredevil (played by an underused Rosario Dawson), compares the hero to Catholic saints, and reminds them that they ended up both bloodied and alone. This is the most overtly Catholic moment of the show, but is not an especially Irish Catholic one.

After all, who are the Irish Saints? There was Áed mac Bricc, who protected nuns, something that will be important in Daredevil’s life. There was Andrew the Scot, who was known for his boundless charity to the poor, which seems like a good saint for a story set in a Hell’s Kitchen still filled with urban poor. There was Brendan of Clonfert, who voyaged to strange places.

And, of course, there was Patrick, who drove evil from his land. Many Irish saints are defined by being regional heroes, building up their villages, and for protecting those in their care.  There was even a saint, Dymphna, who is often showed bearing a sword with the devil chained at her feet — if Daredevil ever needed a patron saint, she’s it, especially as the is the saint of the nervous, emotionally disturbed, and the mentally ill. The comic book Daredevil is one of enormous suffering, and his physical agony has already been explored by the television show, but there is also endless emotional torment and madness ahead for him.

It’s not easy to be a local hero, and the show shouldn’t be afraid to look to the Irish saints when telling Daredevil’s story, any more than they should be afraid to look to the real history of Hell’s Kitchen. Both have a lot to offer a neighborhood superhero.

Irish Travellers in America: Scam! Inside America’s Con Artist Clans

Who's scamming who?

Who’s scamming who?

Author Don Wright wrote and self-published “Scam! Inside America’s Con Artist Clans” back in 1996, and for some reason it is still kicking around. As you can guess, Wright had a specific meaning when he used the phrase “America’s Con Artist Clans” in the title: He was talking about Irish-American Travellers. And he would continue to talk about them for years afterward, popping up here and there in the media when the subject was discussed, claiming he had spent 15 years researching his book, claiming that he had interviewed dozens of Irish Travellers, and claiming every single one of them, man, woman, and child, was a con artist. As an example, here are a few quotes from a 2002 interview Wright did with CNN:

I’ve never met an Irish Traveler who wasn’t a con artist, and I have been associated with them for about 25 years now. …

If you talk with an Irish Traveler that you know and one who knows you, as I’ve done, and you ask that person if he has ever known an Irish Traveler who wasn’t an con artist, the answer is no. …

As you can tell from Wright’s quotes to the media, he considers the Travellers an inherently criminal enterprise, and Travellers as a whole are held to be collectively responsible for any single crime committed by anybody that Wright identifies as a Traveller.
Wright has said this sort of stuff for a while to whatever news outlet would listen. In the Dallas Morning News in 2000: “They have no legitimate source of income.” In 2002, speaking to the St. Louis Post Dispatch: “Irish and Scottish Travelers go around swindling people.” In the Indiana Post-Tribune the same year: “Their scams are just never-ending … These people are con artists from the cradle to the grave. They’re always thinking of ways to scam people.” And again in 2002, in The State in Columbia, SC: “That’s the way they were trained from birth – to be master scam artists. They are taught that anyone who is not an Irish Traveler is a potential victim.”

I don’t know what has become of Wright. There hasn’t been a peep from him in quite a while, and perhaps he is no longer with us. His book is, however, and it claims to be an in-depth look at the private world of this American ethnic group. The claims Wright makes in the book still have considerable currency and are still parroted into the unmoderated comments section of online versions of newspapers. I am convinced that Wright’s book — or his earlier writing on the subject, which appeared in RV enthusiast magazines — are the uncredited sources for the 1997 movie “Traveller,” which duplicates many of the claims of the book.

So I read the book. It was, I must say, quite a slog: Almost 500 gormless pages, with a few storylines arbitrarily spread out over the course of the book, which doubles back, again and again, to several claims: That Irish Travellers regularly engage in RV scams (this subject is worried to death over the course of the book), that they are responsible for a majority of home improvement scams in America, and, in their free time, they engage in hundreds of little con jobs and regularly shoplift.

As you can tell from Wright’s quotes to the media, he considers the Travellers an inherently criminal enterprise, and Travellers as a whole are held to be collectively responsible for any single crime committed by anybody that Wright identifies as a Traveller — although his identification is fraught with problems, which we will discuss in a moment. There are endless examples of contradictory and incomplete reportage in the book, and there is some remarkably unethical reportage as well. And this may be understandable in regards to the author, as he experiences as a writer seem limited to publishing in RV magazines — but it is simply astonishing that the mainstream press has ever treated Wright as a credible source, especially since all he had to say to them is that an entire ethnic group is simply a collection of criminals. I find it hard to believe that anybody saying the same thing about any other ethnic group would be given ink or airtime, and it says a lot about how poorly understood Irish Travellers are that Wright was not simply thrown out of the press room as a racist.

I don’t know Wright’s motives in writing this book. Charitably, I think they were honorable. I think he had seen people lose money to con artists and wanted to write a book to expose the fact. I think he stumbled on a few bad sources, a few renegade lawmen who were engaged in a mixture of conspiracy theorizing and group profiling, and he just went down a rabbit hole that he refused to leave. I expect it was exciting for Wright to believe that he had cracked a secret, that he was privy to an otherwise unknown gang of outlaws, and this is where my charity ends. Because Wright did not author a true crime book. He authored a vicious slander, supported by a chain of weak and questionable evidence, and spent years demonizing an already despised minority group. This does not make him a lone truthteller, revealing a hidden, evil world. It makes him just another version of Henry Ford republishing the anitsemitic “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” or Lothrop Stoddard publishing the anti-Asian “The Rising Tide of Color.”

There are a few insurmountable problems with Wright’s book, and the largest is one of sources. He mostly relies of law enforcement and victims of scams for his interviews, and the only usable information he gets from them is that there are indeed itinerant con artists engaged in a variety of scams in the south. The people in law enforcement have wildly different and often contradictory theories about what is going on, with some calling any itinerant con artist a “gypsy,” some crediting most of the cons to the near-mythical Terrible Williamsons, and only a few evidencing any knowledge of Irish Travellers. The victims just know they have been conned. It is Wright himself who glues all of these stories together into an overarching narrative of a rampantly criminal ethnic minority.

But he doesn’t show his work. He tells of con after con after con (again, mostly involving the sales of RVs), and, whenever he names a con artist, he appends the word “Traveler” to the front of their name. But how does he know? It’s not as though the Traveller population in America has some sort of master list of members that he can consult, and he admits that the con artists travel under a variety of false names and IDs, and that few of them are ever caught. So, again, how does he know who these con artists are, where they come from, or what their ethnicity is? I suspect he worked in reverse: That is somebody engaged as a con Wright had identified as being something typical of Travellers, he went ahead and blamed them for it, especially if they had an Irish name. Never mind that the Irish are the second-largest ethnic group in America, and that much of the south was settled by Scots Irish, so it is no surprise to hear Irish names down there, and there’s no reason to assume that they are Travellers.

There are a few issues with Burke’s testimony. The first, and largest, is that Burke is a compulsive liar.
Wright does have one Traveller as a source, a character he becomes obsessed with. This is Jimmy Burke, a career con artist who Wright meets when Burke is in jail, and Burke proceeds to obsessively badmouth Travellers to him. At the outset, there are a few issues with Burke’s testimony. The first, and largest, is that Burke is a compulsive liar. Burke’s tells Wright a number of stories in which Burke lies to get what he wants, and yet Wright never seems to think that Burke might be lying to him too. This is the case even when Wright investigates the South Carolina Traveller neighborhood of Murphy Village, which Burke had described as a sort of criminal slum, and discovers it to be filled with middle class homes and professionals who are in the middle of putting down long-term roots. And yet Wright continues to believe everything that Burke tells him about Travellers, even when he admits that he had paid Burke for his testimony and sent him care packages in prison. There is reason to believe that Burke was simply telling Wright what he wanted to hear, and Wright gives us little reason to think he isn’t a gullible stooge for these stories. Burke’s own life stories feel improbable and largely fabricated, but they are reprinted without any indicated that Wright investigated them. Additionally, as a reporter, you are generally not supposed to pay your source, and if you do, the fact should be highlighted, rather then mentioned as an aside.

But even by his own testimony, Burke was an outside in the world of Travellers. He was a product of mixed marriage and spent much of his childhood away from other Travellers, who he had painful memories of treating him as a non-Traveller. His stories of adult criminality have him inevitably partnered with non-Travellers — there are points in this story when non-Traveller con artists seem to outnumber Traveller con artists two to one. But they are treated as supporting characterd, their presence unremarkable, and this is one of the most damning things about the book: For author Wright, when most people commit crimes, they are individually responsible for it, and it reflects back on nobody but themselves; when Travellers (or even outsiders with Traveller roots, like Burke) commit crimes, it condemns all Travellers, and they are collectively guilty for it.

Burke was involved in a notorious scam, an attempt to defraud Disneyland in Florida by staging a rape and then suing the company for a then-predictable incompetence in their response. This is a story that Wright returns to again and again, in florid but frequently numbing detail. The scam is inconsistent with any of those Wright describes elsewhere in the book, was cooked up by Burke and a few of his family members, all of whom were as distant from the Traveller world as he was. And yet, because Wright bookends the story with this failed con, it is held up as being some sort of culminating event, a necessary and inevitable outcome of a certain type of criminal lifestyle. Wright claims, or Burke claims, that the reason for the scheme was to pull some sort of ultimate Traveller confidence game, something that would be legendary in Traveller communities. This is never supported by any other Traveller that Wright speaks to.

Although, frustratingly, he speaks to very few. His list of acknowledgements at the end of the book spans several pages, but lists only “[s]everal members of the Traveler clans.” He does not name them, and, indeed, they do not appear in the book as unnamed sources. They are apparently just floating in the background of the book, verifying Wrights’ reportage in a way he does not feel he needs to do in the text, despite some claims that are so dubious as to be idiotic.

Most egregiously, because Travellers have a well-documented tendency to marry within their own group, Wright repeats claims that this leads to higher rates of retardation in the Traveller community. He provides no sources for this, and later claims it is common for Travellers to be born with one leg due to inbreeding. Now, there is an increased likelihood of genetic disorders in tight-knit groups, but almost all documentation regarding Travellers insists they do not marry first cousins, and neither is there any evidence of an increase in these disorders. In fact, in 2003, the National Traveller Health Strategy concluded a two year “Traveller Consanguinity Working Group” by determining that intermarriage in the Traveller Community of the British Isles had not proven to be inherently harmful and that the risks of two parents carry the same genes for certain illness can be addressed with health counseling — which was true of both the Traveller and non-Traveller communities.

A few actual Travellers do show up in the book, always protesting their innocence, always met with scoffing by Wright. Several of them contacted him after he initially published his exposes in the RV magazines, livid, accusing him of bad reportage and racism. He dismisses these, insisting that the critics are not credible, mostly because they are Travellers. It’s a wonderfully circular world wright created, where Travellers are, by their natures, con artists, and so the only thing that they can be trusted to be truthful about is their criminal activities. It doesn’t really make any sense — if anything, a con artists is more likely to lie about his or her crimes, rather than less. But it means that Wright could accept any information that supported his thesis and reject anything that didn’t, which you see him do again and again in the book. If a Traveller claims to be honest, they are a liar; if a Traveller claims to be a liar, they are telling the truth.

If a Traveller claims to be honest, they are a liar; if a Traveller claims to be a liar, they are telling the truth.
Once in a while there is a voice that contradicts Wright, and this bewilders him. Regarding the RV scam, despite Wright going on an on about it, it’s sort of hard to get a handle on what his complaint is. The con artists buy RVs directly from the manufacturers — often knock-off brands — which they then sell to the public, generally with a hard-luck story about having to let the RV go at a vastly reduced price. It’s a sketchy way to make a hard-sell, yes, and I dislike hard-sells as much as the next person. But it’s hardly unique to these so-called Travellers, as anyone who has been pressured into making car repairs they do not need can attest, as can anyone who found their car salesman tacking on all sorts of unneeded extras when a car is being sold.

Instead, the complaints mostly come from RV dealers, who complain they are being undersold. Now, firstly, despite Wright’s repeatedly claims that this is one of the primary sales ventures of Irish Travellers, he doesn’t prove it. No, these unlicensed dealers are referred to as “Gypsy” dealers by both the RV industry and law enforcement, and some of them have Irish names. Additionally, Burke claims he occasionally stole and sold RVs, and Wright just connects the dots. In his world, it must be Irish Travellers.

But he speaks to one of these RV dealers, who says that what is happening is that established RV companies are trying to lock down competition by spreading rumors, and also seem to have created a licensing system that benefits them but not independent dealers. There is some proof of this, too: One law enforcement agent advises a young couple not to buy one of these, or at least to check it out to make sure everything works on it, and is astonished when they check it out and buy the RV anyway. Wright names several of these gypsy dealers who eventually start their own licensed RV dealerships, and he reports with amazement that they have good reputations with the local Better Business Bureau. Wright and local law enforcement scratch their heads over the fact that so few of these gypsy RV owners lodge criminal complaints, and theorize that they are embarrassed to have gotten scammed, or are too ignorant to realize that they were scammed at all.

I have an alternative theory, and it is that the buyers were simply happy with their purchases. That they bought perfectly functional RVs at well below the costs they would have had to pay at an RV dealer, and even with the questionable sob story, they weren’t unhappy with their transaction. That what Wright obsessively describes as a “con” is just independent RV dealers creating their business in an environment stacked against them by an established industry. I might be wrong about this, of course, but, then, Wright hasn’t proven his case either. He hasn’t even proven these salespeople are Travellers. And, ultimately, if there are so few complaints about these RV sales, how serious is the crime? Is it really serious enough to take up so much of such a large book? Is it really so much that, by a process of inept amateur sleuthing, it should be enough to damn an entire ethnic group.

We find similar problems with Wright’s stories about home improvement scams, shoplifting, and other con games: Wright relies repeatedly on rumor, conjecture, and questionable sources. He insists criminals are Travellers without showing how he knows this to be a fact. He ignores other participants in these cons if he cannot insist they are also Travellers, as though they are incidental to the story. We end up not with a document of criminal conspiracy, but with an elaborate conspiracy theory, and any value it might have had as a warning about certain criminal activities are thoroughly undermined by the fact that Wright only cares about them if they support his thesis: That Irish Travellers are, in his words, “con artists from the cradle to the grave.”

There are a few very serious crimes described in the book. In one, a man named Billy O’Roarke wins several games of pool in Tampa and is confronted by a gang of men in the streets, demanding their money back. They beat O’Roarke so severely that he wanders into the street, where he is struck by a speeding car and killed. O’Roarke was Jimmy Burke’s brother in law.

Disgustingly, Wright treats these crimes as cautionary tales, as just being the sort of thing you should expect when you live a criminal life.
There is also the story of Peggy Burke, who reported having been raped by a police officer in Florida. The officer stalked Burke and murdered her, shooting her three times while she was sitting in a car. Peggy was Jimmy Burke’s sister.

Disgustingly, Wright treats these crimes as cautionary tales, as just being the sort of thing you should expect when you live a criminal life. There are other ways to look at it. One way is that it demonstrates that there is no racial or ethnic component to crime, but that terrible deeds are done by all sorts of people, and it is just as preposterous to claim that all Travellers are con artists based on Jimmy Burke and his family as it is to claim that all police are rapists and murders based on Peggy Burke’s awful ending. Another is that the life of any itinerant — con artist or honest dealer — is a fraught one, filled with danger, and, regardless of who you are, if you are on society’s margins you can be driven into oncoming traffic by a mob or raped and murdered by those in power.

Those are lessons worth learning. They represent a humane way to see the world, a way to see the world that is easy to research and demonstrate, a view of the world in which people on its margins are sometimes victims and sometimes victimizers, regardless of their background.

That’s not the story that Wright wanted to tell. No. Over the course of fifteen years, in what he admits in the book (but conveniently forgets to mention everywhere else), in fits and starts, with long gaps when he did no research at all, he concocted a conspiracy. And he dumped every single scrap of supposed evidence he could find, and cobbled it together with suppositions and rumors and gossip. And, from this mountain of mediocre journalism and incompetent policework, he pointed a finger at an entire ethnic group. He didn’t write a crime book, or an expose of scam artists.

He wrote a piece of hate literature.

Irish-American Crime Films: Men of Boys Town (1941)

Men of Boys Town: A two-fisted priest fights for juvenile offenders.

Men of Boys Town: A two-fisted priest fights for juvenile offenders.

Men of Boys Town (1941)

Written by: James Kevin McGuinness
Directed by: Norman Taurog
Starring:   Spencer Tracy, Mickey Rooney, Bobs Watson
Summary: Embedded in this beat-by-beat retelling of the first Boys Town movie is a genuinely harrowing look at abusive reform schools.

“Men of Boys Town” is about as overstuffed a film as I have seen. Much of it is almost a plot-point-by-plot-point rehash of the original “Boys Town.” Father Flanagan’s colony of in-need youths suffers from financial troubles, a tough kid is humanized by the school, and a car accident sets the climax in motion, although this time it is a dog, and not cherubic actor Bobs Watson, who is run down.

And the script is thick with sentiment. The New York Times could not have been less charitable when they reviewed it, saying:

[The film is]an obvious and maudlin reassembly of cliches out of the cabinet marked Pathos, lacking completely the sincerity which did distinguish the first, and so frequently punctuated by close-ups of blubbering boys that one finally feels an embarrassed inclination to look away.

And yet, stuffed right in the middle of the film, book-ended by so much plot that it feels like an aside, is a look at a brutal boys reformatory that is utterly harrowing. There’s too much plot, really, for me to explain it fully. Suffice it to say that Mickey Rooney’s character, a former swaggering delinquent named Whitey, is adopted out-of-state and accidentally gets himself sent to the reformatory there. We already know about the particular reformatory, as the film starts with a boy named Ted remanded to the care of Boys Town. He was crippled by a guard at the reformatory, and murdered the guard in revenge.

There aren’t many scenes at the reformatory, but they are all of brutality, much of it rained down on Whitey’s head. He has turned into an honorable boy, and that’s a liability in this place, where standing up for another child will get you knocked unconscious. Worse still, Whitey witnesses a boy die in solitary and refuses to keep quiet about it, and so he finds himself likewise exiled to solitary, where, the film intimates, terrible things happen unwitnessed. White has been given another tiny sidekick in this film, a boy named Flip, played by Darryl Hickman with exaggerated gestures of bravado, slinging dime-store tough-guy lingo, and it’s mostly played for laughs. That is, until Flip ends up in the reformatory, at which point his bravado dies up and he weeps with terror. In a film of exaggerated sentiment, these scenes feel unforced and terrifying.

It resolves itself pretty quickly: Spencer Tracy, reprising his role as Father Flanagan, shows up and physically threatens the warden, and almost immediately the place is shut down. Unlike the original “Boys Town,” which at least borrowed from the real story of Father Flanagan, this one barely glances at history, making its story up whole cloth.

12-year-old murderer Herbert Niccolls.

12-year-old murderer Herbert Niccolls.

What the film does get right is Father Flanagan’s disgust with the juvenile reformatory system. In 1931, Flanagan fought to have a 12-year-old murderer in Washington named Herbert Niccolls remanded to Boys Town. Niccolls had shot a sheriff who had surprised him during a robbery, but Flanagan argued the boy never had a chance. “He went to the reformatory at the age of 9 and stayed there 15 months,” Flanagan told the press. “He’s no criminal; he’s simply like any other hungry, neglected boy.”

Martin paroled Niccolls in 1941, and the former child murderer eventually found work at the MGM movie studio as an accountant — the very studio that produced “Men of Boys Town” the year after Niccolls’ release.
Flanagan’s pleas were ignored and Niccolls was sentenced to life imprisonment — an unusually harsh punishment for a minor. Fortunately for Niccolls, a new governor was elected in Washington named Clarence Martin, and Martin took a personal interest in Niccolls, visiting him in his cell. Niccolls received unusual treatment for a prisoner — he wore street clothes instead of prison denims, ate with the guards instead of his fellow prisoners, and received homework from the school district. He excelled at his studies, receiving a high school diploma and took correspondence classes from Washington State College.

Martin paroled Niccolls in 1941, and the former child murderer eventually found work at the MGM movie studio as an accountant — the very studio that produced “Men of Boys Town” the year after Niccolls’ release. Niccolls lived to 1983 and was reportedly a model citizen, and its hard not to wonder if his 10 years in prison was necessary — with just the slightest amount of discipline and opportunity, he made a good life for himself, and he would have found that at Boys Town.

“Men of Boys Town” was a moderate financial success, but hasn’t left much of a legacy — even at Boys Town itself, where the film was shot, there is scarce mention of the film. There also isn’t much mention of Flanagan’s stance against reform schools, although there is brief mention of a tour he did of such school in Ireland in 1946, which Flanagan decried in no uncertain terms: “[A] scandal, un-Christlike, and wrong.” Perhaps this is because 1930s-style reform schools seem like a throwback to an earlier era, of boys in newsie caps threatening Italian store-owners with homemade Saturday night specials.

Of course, they never actually went away, although the phrase has become passe, replaced with “juvenile correctional institutions” and similarly sterile phrases. The legacy of abuse is still around too: In January of this year the Nampa, Idaho juvenile corrections center was rocked with allegations of sexual abuse, and newspapers reporting on the story pointed to statistics from national inmate surveys that show that juveniles suffer sexual abuse at the hands of staffers at almost three times the rate incarcerated adults do.

I don’t know if I believe the moment in “Men of Boys Town” when Spencer Tracy takes off his collar to threaten the warden of a juvenile facility. It seemed very out of character for Father Flanagan. But, gosh, it sometimes feel like somebody needs to be ready to put up their fists and fight for children, even those charged with serious crimes, and Flanagan has been gone a long time.

Irish-American Crime Films: Great Guy (1936)

James Cagney in "Great Guy": The housewife must not be cheated.

James Cagney in “Great Guy”: The housewife must not be cheated.

Great Guy (1936)

Written by: James Edward Grant (story), Henry McCarty, Henry Johnson
Directed by: John G. Blystone
Starring:   James Cagney, Mae Clarke
Summary: An odd but fascinating story of a two-fisted inspector for the Department of Weights and Measures battling organized corruption in machine politics

This film is an undeniable oddity, in that it is about a two-fisted inspector for the New York Department of Weights and Measures, based on a series of stories by fiction author James Edward Grant. One wouldn’t initially think the Department of Weights and Measures is the sort of place where violence would be common or necessary; instead, one would think the worst you might expect is an occasional slide-ruler accident.

But this is 1936, and, in the film’s New York, it is dominated by two things: The Great Depression and machine politics. As a result, petty graft has gotten into everything, tacitly supported by ward aldermen, all of whom seem to have their own gang of thugs on hand to put down an upstart. As a result, anywhere that a weight or a measure can be massaged, it is massaged. Chicken is weighed down with lead pipes to sell for higher prices. Gas stations charge for four gallons and pump three. It’s as though the whole economy is kept afloat by Peter robbing Paul, and, in this instance, Peter is the small businessman and Paul is his client. The amount this costs the nation, we are told, is greater than the war debt.

“The housewife must not be cheated,” Cagney tells his men, and he’s not kidding, and neither is the film.
And so the Department of Weights and Measures has hired its own enforcer, a former pugilist named Johnny Cave, played, appropriately, by James Cagney. Cave is straight-talking and hard to bully — he needs constant reminders to keep his fists in his pockets, lest he start punching, which he does anyway. Every time he catches a businessman cheating a customer, they offer him a bribe, and then attack him. It’s a marvelous structure, and one can’t help but think the film might have had more fun with it, like those Japanese manga that take backgammon or couples dance and treat it like urban warfare.

Still, this is a film with a surprisingly daffy sense of humor about its subject. As tough a guy as Cagney is, he’s a bit henpecked by his finance, played by Mae Clarke, the woman on the receiving end of his grapefruit in “Public Enemy.” She bosses him around relentlessly and keeps a tight reign on their joint bank account, and while this is presented as comedy, it also serves as a subtle reminder of how cautious people were with money during the Depression. Cagney is also partnered with a giant, garrulous Irishman named Patrick James Aloysius Haley, played by James Burke with a terrible Irish accident but marvelously understated comic timing — he tends to start grand, overlong folk tales and then just peter out when people get sick of him talking, muttering an extra line of dialogue that I feel sure was improvised and is often the funniest part of his story. When Haley attempts to talk about fairy folk who live under strawberries, Cagney interrupts him with a curt “There are no strawberries in Ireland.” “I feel sure I saw a few at the farmer’s market,” Haley mutters.

Cagney pushes back, and it escalates until Cagney finally gets the drop on him, and then Cagney locks him in a room and beats him insensible.
The plot mostly revolves around one especially aggressive ward alderman, Marty Cavanaugh, who doesn’t think twice about sending his goon squad out to enforce his wishes. There’s not terribly much to say about this story — he tries to push Cagney around, and Cagney pushes back, and it escalates until Cagney finally gets the drop on him, and then Cagney locks him in a room and beats him insensible. The villain isn’t especially villainous — he’s more oily than anything — and his goons are pretty nondescript, both of which are a pity considering how odd this movie is. With a dash more melodrama, or a dash more pulpy two-fisted men’s tale, it could have been a spectacle.

But, then, it’s a film that takes very seriously the costs of this sort of endemic political corruption. “The housewife must not be cheated,” Cagney tells his men, and he’s not kidding, and neither is the film. Still, the blame for this sort of corruption is placed squarely at the feet of machine politics, as though there were something about a political machine that will inherently cheat the common man and housewife. American was in the process of busting political machines just then, which was sold to America as a way to preserve democracy but today reads as just a way to sabotage effective Democratic politicking. After all, we didn’t get rid of corruption or cronyism, neither did we end the system of quid pro quo whereby political supporters get favors from their candidates. If anything, it is worse now than it ever is. But machine politics, which made votes — not money — the important currency in politics, at least gave the everyman some power.

But, the film argues, the housewife was getting overcharged every time she went to buy a chicken! Well, that still happens, and has become institutionalized. If I buy food in the city, where it is hard to find a supermarket and the closest thing available is a corner bodega or convenience story, I am likely to spend as much as 37 percent more on my food purchases. No weights have been tampered with, no scales have been altered, and there is no James Cagney punching out a store manager for cheating me. They just get to charge more and I have to take it. But now I don’t even have a ward heeler knock at my door at Thanksgiving to give me a free turkey.

Come to think of it, I don’t even have a department of weights and measures in my town. Maybe they are sticking lead pipes in the chickens and pumping three gallons of gas for every four purchased. How would I know, and who would I talk to?

It’s enough to make a man vote Tammany.

Irish-American Crime Films: The Mayor of Hell (1933)

The Mayor of Hell: Pre-code brutality at a reform school.

The Mayor of Hell: Pre-code brutality at a reform school.

Mayor of Hell (1933)

Written by: Islin Auster (story Reform School), Edward Chodorov
Directed by:
Archie Mayo
Starring:
James Cagney, Madge Evans, Arthur Byron
Summary:
It’s James Cagney versus the reform school in this sometimes shockingly violent pre-code melodrama.

For certain viewers, the phrase “pre-Code Hollywood” brings a certain shiver of pleasure, an expectation of a certain barbaric era of early filmmaking, before the Motion Picture Production Code began to be strictly enforced in 1934. The so-called Hays Code, named after Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America head Will Hays, clamped down on offenses both big and small, including profanity, nudity, the illegal traffic of drugs, and white slavery. Anything to do with sex was banned, while anything to do with violence was treated as something to be cautious about, but generally less of an offense. As a result, in post-Code Hollywood, people still regularly murdered each other, but they no longer made love, at least onscreen, and if they did so offscreen, it was only hinted at.

But the Code did offers cautions about certain things, and those cautions were taken seriously. Among these were “brutality and possible gruesomeness,” “Third-degree methods,” “sympathy for criminals,” “apparent cruelty to children,” and demonstrating a negative “Attitude toward public characters and institutions.”

As a result, in post-Code Hollywood, people still regularly murdered each other, but they no longer made love, at least onscreen, and if they did so offscreen, it was only hinted at.
Well, there, in a few sentences of cautious, is the essential plot to “The Mayor of Hell.” Although the film’s producers promoted the presence of James Cagney in the movie, the real star is juvenile actor Frankie Darro as Jimmy, who sort-of played the young Cagney in “Public Enemy” (a complicated story; the character he played was supposed to grow up to be Cagney in a supporting role, but Cagney was bumped to the lead immediately after the film started shooting.) There is a Cagney quality to Darro as well — he’s small and mean and tough. At the start of the film, Jimmy’s in charge of a juvenile gang that runs a protection racket, demanding quarters to watch cars and slashing the tires of those who don’t pay. His whole gang ends up in a juvenile rehabilitation center that their judge describes as being like a mix of school and camp, but it isn’t.

No, the facility is very much like a prison, and an abusive one at that. The children are marched around in military lockstep, fed unpalatable gruel (there is much suggestion the warden has stolen from the food budget), and beaten with leather straps if they misbehave. The warden (Irish actor Dudley Digges) is incompetent, corrupt, and cruel, and he’s played with a constant Dick Cheney snarl. This cruelty is mostly alluded to, including a scene in which the camera pans along the beds at the facility’s infirmary to show child after child with bandaged heads, arms, hands.

But the cruelty becomes explicit at an inopportune moment — the moment James Cagney comes to visit. He plays Patsy, an essential but small cog in a political machine. He’s an effective ward heeler in a pretty shabby district, but because he can successfully mobilize a vote to go wherever he wants it, he has been rewarded with a the job of deputy commissioner for the juvenile system. It’s supposed to be a job that involves visiting the reform school once per year, rubber stamping his approval, enjoying some small payoffs, and otherwise tend his business of looking after his ward’s votes.

Unfortunately, the night Patsy visits, Jimmy makes a break, desperately trying to climb a barbed wire fence while the guards beat him with straps. Jimmy intercedes, meets the institution’s frustrated do-gooder nurse (Madge Evans), listens to her Boy’s Town-style dream of a reform school as a miniature democracy, and decides to do something.

Rather incredibly, he does. Now, it’s not too hard to believe that Cagney would be able to take charge — he storms through the film with an enviable impatient, take-non-nonsense attitude; would that we all be able to just snarl at the world and it snaps to our attention. And so, in a few quick scenes, the warden is sent on a long vacation, the guards have all been fired, the food is now edible, and the reform school runs like a high school student council, including its own sheriff, treasurer, and even mayor. The kids nominate Jimmy, who clearly has no desire to play along, but starts developing a grudging affection for Cagney when the man encourages Jimmy’s latent skills as an illustrator.

Of course, everything can’t go so well without it then going badly, and so, one after the other, bad things happen. Cagney shoots another ward heeler in a dispute and goes on the lam, and, in his absence, the warden and his whole corrupt system return, immediately firing the nurse. But because the kids have had a chance to run things themselves, and did a better job, they’re relationship with the warden grows increasingly — and mutually — antagonistic. The warden starts sticking kids in solitary, which just seems to be a freezing room in a barn, and one of them, a pathetic kid named skinny who suffers a hacking cough, does not survive the night.

They chase the warden to a barn, and, when he climbs to the roof, set it on fire. It ends badly for him — so badly that his last moment is genuinely shocking.
And here is where the movie explodes in its pro-code glory. Because the kids riot, and the riot is tremendous. They take out the guards and steal their guns and then capture the warden, who they put on trial for Skinny’s murder in a scene that eerily recalls the kangaroo court assembled by criminals in Fritz Lang’s “M,” and then, when the kids break out a bunch of torches, suddenly turns into a horror movie. They chase the warden to a barn, and, when he climbs to the roof, set it on fire. It ends badly for him — so badly that his last moment is genuinely shocking.

And this is when Cagney shows up. The next few scenes should be unbelievable — the kids put out a fire and suddenly there are three men in suits and a judge standing nearby, declaring that the official decision is that the warden was responsible for his own death. It just seems impossible to believe that this group of juvenile delinquents would get off the hook in so easy a way, and that the equivalent of an armed, full-scale prison riot would get brushed aside so easily.

But, then, I guess this is the advantage of boss politics, and having an effective ward heeler in your corner. It’s the one thing that the miniature democracy in the reform school didn’t recreate: That when you can muster up enough votes, with a snarl and a pointed word, you can get your way.

Irish-American Crime Films: Little Tough Guy (1938)

dead-end-kids-little-tough-guy

Billy Halop in “Little Tough Guy”: Before the movie ends, a boy will be dead.

In 1938, Universal Studios absconded with a handful of Dead End kids to make their own juvenile delinquency film, “Little Tough Guy,” which resulted in the young actors being briefly rebranded as the Little Tough Guys. They made four films under this name, and then a series of serials under the name Dead End Kids and Little Tough Guys.

This first film is a doozy. It is, at the moment, the darkest of the films starring these young actors that I have seen — darker than the superlative “Dead End,” which traced a direct line from juvenile poverty to career criminality.
This first film is a doozy. It is, at the moment, the darkest of the films starring these young actors that I have seen — darker than the superlative “Dead End,” which traced a direct line from juvenile poverty to career criminality; darker than “Angels With Dirty Faces,” which ends with a mobster screaming in terror before he goes to the electric chair. Because — and this is a spoiler — “Little Tough Guys” ends with juvenile actor Huntz Hall getting gunned down by the police. Hall had already established himself as a lovably dim and dingbatish sidekick, although his role is tougher here, as a street kid who is not above bullying his friends. They are generally pretty rough but have an appealing habit of collectively engaging in clownish dumb shoes in the background, mirroring and mocking the action of the film.

The story really belongs to Billy Halop, however, and he’s terrific in it. The film puts the young actor front and center and watches his progression from innocent Irish-American boy (his name is Johnny Boylan) to snarling, gun-toting criminal. He’s pretty great at acting like a sort of teenage Jimmy Cagney, with whom he would appear in “Angels With Dirty Faces” the same year.

Halop starts the film poor but cheerful, with an older sister (Helen Parrish) who is slowly working her way toward marriage, a poor but hardworking father who happens to be on strike when the film begins, and the same mother Humphrey Bogart had in “Dead End,” Marjorie Main. She’s a bit livelier that she was in “Dead End,” where she seemed positively brain-damaged by her life experiences, speaking in a slow, faraway monotone that nonetheless dripped with contempt. She’s a smart casting choice here, because, as Halop starts going bad, she starts turning more and more into her “Dead End” character, signaling that there is a risk that Halop is going down the same doomed road Bogart trod in the earlier film.

The cause of Halop’s fall is twofold, the first believable, the second preposterous. His father gets beaten by strikebreakers and then arrested by police, who insist he murdered an anti-union thug; he gets the chair. The finally spirals quickly out of cheerful poverty and into dire straights, moving to a tougher East Side neighborhood, where Halop finds work as a newsie and his sister goes to work as a burlesque dancer, breaking off her engagement out of shame. Halop falls in with a much tougher crowd — Huntz Hall’s — and quickly establishes himself as the toughest in the group. Halop is able to follow his father’s progression to the electric chair through the newspapers he sells — at one point he pathetically finds himself shouting out the day’s news, which is that his father’s appeal has been denied and he will die in the chair. He starts acting out, at one point throwing a rock at a judge, and here things get weird.

Halop and his gang are approached by a rich sociopath, a sort of Richie Rich with a larcenous streak, played by Jackie Searl, an actor with the face of a spoiled brat, and so that’s the sort of role he tended to play. He has a proposition for the gang: He’ll underwrite whatever crimes they commit. It’s out of pure boredom, he explains, and with a quick, spinning newspaper montage, the gang are dressed in juvenile gangster costumes and committing a series of petty crimes.

It all goes south quickly, leaving Halop and Hall trapped in a grocery store, blasting pistols out the window as cops approach, ready to shoot. The scene is genuinely great — there’s an Italian grocer trapped with them, mutely muttering prayers in abject terror, as Hall pleads with Halop to let him surrender. But Halop has gone whole “top of the world, ma,” clutching his pistol, grimacing, spitting out his words, and telling Hall that they’ll both die before the get caught. One of them does, in a genuinely shocking moment of gunfire.

The film should have ended here, as “Rebel Without a Cause” did, with a shocking and senseless death and a grieving friend. It doesn’t — there’s a protracted courtroom coda that consists almost entirely of a dour judge moralizing, and then a brief, happy ending at a juvenile facility, where even the spoiled sociopath has improved his lot in life. (Bizarrely, however; he has demanded a black eye every time he mentions his family’s money, and the other kids have been only too happy to oblige.) It’s a strangely cheery ending to such a dour film, especially since juvenile detention facilities were so often treated as an abusive training ground for adult criminals. But, then, Halop’s entry into the world of crime was the result of a bizarre, unlikely plot twist, reliant entirely on the odd moods of a spoiled millionaire. Perhaps it is appropriate that he exits the life of crime in an equally bizarre, unlikely way, the millionaire by his side, socking him in the eye every so often.

Irish Travellers in America: The Terrible Williamsons

A rogue's gallery of Williamsons.

A rogue’s gallery of Williamsons.

It is impossible to study the history of American Travellers without realizing that their history runs parallel to, and is often conflated with, that of a collection of con artists collectively known as the Terrible Williamsons. While this group certainly existed, it’s a bit hard to separate fact from fiction with them, as they existed as an oversized bogeyman for the police in the mid-20th century. Their legend is an appealing one, as they were supposedly a dynastic family of con artists who could look back to a single ancestor, who was described by the Saturday Evening Post in a story in 1956, reproduced, in part, below:

The first Williamson to cross the Atlantic Ocean and arrive in the United States was Robert Logan Williamson. He first lived in Brooklyn, NY, about 1890 and there he married a woman, who had emigrated from Scotland. He and the little woman had many children. He wrote to family back home in Scotland about how easy it was to con people here. Assorted related family named; McDonald, McMillan, Gregg, Stewart, Johnston, and others also moved here in large numbers and by 1914 and set about their unique employment.
The Williamson story is so large, so majestic, that I have no idea how much of it to take with a grain of salt
According to the article, the Williamsons claim to be Presbyterian but do not attend church, they speak with thick Scottish burrs, and they marry their cousins.  They belong to Masonic lodges and they tend to use the same first name and surname to confuse police. “There appears to be a connection with a company named Sweeney & Johnson in Cincinnati, Ohio, founded in 1865 by a pair of Irish born salesmen,” the article states, “which dealt in wholesale by mail order.”

Finally: “The bulk of the clan return yearly to Cincinnati, Ohio, to honor their dead and hold a convention. Each family owns and maintains a family plot in Spring Grove Cemetery, Cincinnati.”

The Williamsons do tend to show up a lot in newspapers, and tend to be treated as semi-legendary creatures. I have been seeing them a lot as I research Irish Travellers. For instance, I wanted to track down the earliest example I could of the notorious driveway repaving scam which is now presented by law enforcement as being a signature Traveller scam. I found it in the Cleveland Plain Dealer from June 16, 1961. The perpetrator was a Williamson, sort of. His name was Reid, but by that time, newspapers were calling the Terrible Williamsons the Williamson-Reid clan.

The Williamson story is so large, so majestic, that I have no idea how much of it to take with a grain of salt, but it is worth exploring, as one of two things happened. Either a relatively settled group of Irish Travellers in the south with no history of organized criminal activities just decided to collectively become con artists and borrowed every single element of the Williamson playbook, or the legend of the Williamsons was lifted wholesale and attached to Irish Travellers. The latter seems more likely to me, especially as law enforcement in the mid-20th century was obsessed to the point of lunacy with cross-country racketeering conspiracies. But we will return to that.

businesscard

“Business Card” for the gang doesn’t mention that “treated” California roofs leaked worse than ever before.

For the moment, I would like to start with a long article published in the Baton Rouge Advocate on September 11, 1955, and authored by Sid Ross and John Devaney. It is a very long article, so I won’t reproduce it in entirety, but I would like to summarize it. The story is titled “Beware the Terrible Williamsons: Hundreds Strong, They Are Rolling Across the Nation, Cheating Americans Out of Staggering Sums. Here’s a Current Report on an Amazing Gang.”

The article inventories the sorts of scams the Williamsons engaged in: They pretended to be Scottish salesmen and offer bargain wool that turns out to be mostly rayon, and in doing so demonstrated a mastery of dialect that includes Scottish, Irish, and English accents. They also sold “Irish linen,” posing as destitute Irishmen and women, pleading poverty and claiming they were forced by circumstance to let the linen go. The linen, of course, was actually low-priced Chinese cotton.

Let me interject here to say that this is the first place where it becomes possible to see why their might be a tendency to conflate the Williamsons with Irish Travellers. Another is that the Williamsons reportedly engaged in an aluminum paint scam, but the paints was either crankcase oil or gasoline. Irish Travellers from Murphy Village had moved into a sort of corporate profession of repainting barns with aluminum sealant, and this is an obvious place where the two groups might be mistaken for each other. According to the article, the Williamsons also sold fake lightning rods — interesting, although that scam was not shown in the 1997 film “Traveller,” when star Bill Paxton was promoting the film in Austin, this is a scam he insisted Irish Travellers engaged in.

The article lists the Williamsons as being several hundred strong, and likewise claims they are all descended from Robert Logan Williamson, although the clan has been replenished with “fresh blood from Scotland, Ireland, and elsewhere.” The surnames common to the clan include McWilliams, McMillans, Stewarts, Johnstons, Keiths, McGavins, and Carrolls, along with Williamson, of course. The article does not name them as Travellers — although later articles would, but has this enormously bigoted thing to say about them:

The Williamsons are strikingly similar to Gypsy families; they have the same itch for travel, craze for fancy cars, morbid love of opulent funerals — and the same talent for larceny in their womenfolk. Yet the Williamsons despise gypsies, won’t come within a mile of their camps.

The cars, according to Ross and Devaney, are Buicks and Cadillacs, and the Williamsons “swarm out of the south” in spring, invading the east, midwest, and west, with many basing their operations in Cincinnati. They winter in Florida and Texas.

The article’s authors reprint text from a series of letters sent to the Better Business Bureau (who has, we are told, been receiving various complains about the Williamsons since 1915!), credited to different authors but, according to the story, all written with the same handwriting. They speculate the author was a Williamson as well, but one who wanted to go straight. Here is the text of one they quote:

The Terrible Williamsons are traveling in big 1955 late model cars and some have big house trailers and put up at Motels and Trailer Courts .. They teach their children from infancy up the rackets and con games. They have a head man who guides and keeps them in line [and tells them] where … the rackets are good. Each Williamson family pays the Big Boss so much each season according to their take and they do not dare to gyp him … as he has three muscle men that make their rounds with the Boss Man and collect [from] each family …

The Boss [is] Uncle Isaac and his wife is the Black Queen, Jennie … They live in Florida all winter … These people live in a world by themselves and only mix with the public when they are out fleecing …Williamsons only marry Williamsons and don’t mix …

The Williamsons racket is not a 5-10 dollar racket … Two of them fleeced $28,000 in 3 months in Iowa and Minnesota … As a Williamson myself I am ashamed of the way my people live and I want to … stop these … con games.

The article’s authors cite a number of newspaper stories about Williamson scams, angrily declaring that the legal system tends to bungle the cases — generally by releasing the Williamsons for relatively little bail, at which point the culprits just run off.

The Williamsons, we are told, tend to pick older middle class targets who are likely to be too ashamed to contact the police, embarrassed to admit that they were fleeced, and even when they are arrested, the Williamsons benefit from a legal system that has more interest in getting them out of town than prosecuting them.

frisking

Frisking by Miami Beach police follows Williamson family battle on New Year’s Eve, 1952. Battlers went free.

The article closes by saying that the entire clan converges on Cincinnati every Memorial Day to “honor their dead,” a practice similar to Irish Travellers in the south, who famously had two mass funerals for their dead every year. The Williamson funerals are a source of intense competition within the clan — some spend as much as $25,000 on a funeral — and their competition can sometimes turn violent:

In Oklahoma in 1937, a George Williamson, 31, was convicted of murdering another clan member; the sentence was changed to manslaughter and he only served two years. The most recent battle was in Miami Beach late in 1952. Williamsons, McGavins, McMillans, Stewarts and Johnstons got involved in a Donnybrook that ended with Matthew Carroll having an eye gouged out and 31 members of the clan in jail.”
It is not my intention to get sidetracked into an exploration of the Williamsons, but it may end up happening anyway, as they seem likely to be the sources of many of the popular complains about Irish Travellers.

To begin with: Robert Logan Williamson, the Scottish-born, Broooklyn-raised paterfamilias of the clan? Well, he doesn’t make his first appearance in the news until September 11, 1955, in this very article — and it doesn’t credit its source. I have searched the publicly available genealogical and newspaper records for the man, and, if he immigrated here, lived in Brooklyn, committed crimes, and died in America, he did so with a remarkably low profile.

Unsourced guesswork turns into paraphrased statements of fact, and a mythic group of American con artists with a vague and undocumented past becomes Irish Travellers.
It’s worth pointing out that we don’t actually know the origin story for the Williamsons, but for some unsourced statements and some guesswork, and I think the deadliest was the guess that appeared in  Newsweek in 1956. Keep in mind, the article was published only a year after the one in the Baton Rouge Advocate, which lists the Williamsons’ point of origin as Scotland, their starting point in America as Brooklyn, and never suggests the Williamsons were Travellers. Well, somehow, in an article that mostly seemed to be rereporting, without credit, the Baton Rouge piece, Newsweek produced this sentence:

Historically they are thought to be descendants of Irish Gypsies who fanned out from Rhode Island to plunder the gullible.

The very next line in the story is “nobody knows much about them,” but the article went ahead and printed supposition, and the article was widely reprinted. Without a source, the author made the Williamsons not just Traveller but also Irish, and you’ll see that, from this point on, Irish Travellers are the first to be blamed for the various scams outlined in the article above.

I have two examples of this. The first is from Greensboro Record from February 12, 1971, and is entirely written in a sort of awkward style that sounds authoritative but carries no facts. The story is about the sorts of cons perpetrated by the Williamsons, who are name-checked in the story but then disregarded as suspects. No, instead, as the first sentence informs us, “The Irish Travelers were here.”

“They are reported to come from Aikin County,” the author continues — from Murphy Village, no less — and any reporter who writes this sort of passive sentence should have his or her typewriter smashed. Who reported this? What evidence is there?

The story is that someone painted a barn, and it was a bad paint job, probably just tinted water, which is, as we have learned, a classic Williamson scam. And what was the name of the painter? “[T]he man reported that a young fellow by the name of Carroll did the painting.”

Carroll. Let me quote from my summary of the Baton Rouge Advocate: The surnames common to the clan include McWilliams, McMillans, Stewarts, Johnstons, Keiths, McGavins, and Carrolls.

Now, I will note that Carroll is also an Irish Traveller name — there was Carroll, Riley, and Co. But Carroll is also a very common name, and it was an enormous leap to insist that man was a Traveller.

Finally, let me quote from the Washington Evening Star from March 24, 1978, in an article titled “Ready for the Rip-Off Artists,” about the various scams reported earlier. “Little is known about the Williamsons,” the author says, paraphrasing the Greensboro Record, “who are also called Irish Travelers.”

And so it happens. Unsourced guesswork turns into paraphrased statements of fact, and a mythic group of American con artists with a vague and undocumented past becomes Irish Travellers.

Did I ever mention that I worked as a journalist? I did, for two decades. I’ve written for Village Voice Media and for The Guardian. I was editor-in-chief of a newsweekly. I even won an Award: The Frank Premack Award for Public Affairs Journalism.

I say this to preface my next comment:

Journalism is a great, necessary institution in America, but when it is done wrong, when it consists of journalists quoting journalists, when it’s made up of unsourced suppositions, when it blindly references police sources who are themselves simply passing on received but unvetted wisdom, you end up with trash. This isn’t just bad journalism. This is journalism that recreates a historic slander against a despised minority group.

There are a whole lot of typewriters that should have been broken.

Irish-American Crime Films: They Made Me a Criminal (1939)

John Garfield in "They Made Me a Criminal"

John Garfield in “They Made Me a Criminal”

“They Made Me a Criminal” is a remake of 1933’s “The Life of Jimmy Dolan,” and, in most ways, plays as a better second draft. It had a better director: Busby Berkeley instead of Archie Mayo, and the film benefits from Berkeley’s background as a choreographer and as a director of film musicals. Berkeley had a talent for striking compositions and directing crowds, and so “They Made Me a Criminal” takes place in a crowded world packed into a crowded frame. The film’s black and white is sumptuous, with Berkeley taking advantage of shadow to create mood; if “Jimmy Dolan” felt like noir, “They Made Me a Criminal” looks it.

The story, to recap, tells of a boxer who is involved in a murder, takes it on the lam, and winds up in rural America working with kids in trouble.
Star John Garfield is better suited to the material as well. “Jimmy Dolan’s” Douglas Fairbanks Jr. never really looked or moved like a boxer, while Garfield actually had boxed, and this is a film with a boxer as its lead. He movies with the easy authority of an athlete, and, in the boxing scene, both delivers and receives punishment like a pro. Fairbanks was born to Hollywood royalty, and while his performance is suitably furtive, he never shook mannerisms that seemed acquired in prep school. Garfield came from a rougher background, and had the mannerisms of a street tough. Garfield was Jewish, and so his character is changed from Jimmy Dolan to Johnny Bradfield, which, frankly, doesn’t seem to fit him either, but there were a lot of Jews who gave themselves English names. Heck, John Garfield, born Jacob Julius Garfinkle, did.

But if Garfield’s boxer is less Irish than Fairbanks’ was, the film’s youth actors are more Irish. The story, to recap, tells of a boxer who is involved in a murder, takes it on the lam, and winds up in rural America working with kids in trouble. The first film was a bit odd, in that there were only four kids, all on a sprawling ranch. This film replaces them with an entire mob, specifically the Dead End Kids. The gang actually came from a tremendously diverse background, but they played impoverished kids from New York’s largely Irish east side, and the two actors who were most identified with the group, Huntz Hall and Leo Gorcy, were authentically Irish-American New Yorkers. (Gorcy was also half-Jewish.)

Although the previous film’s children included Mickey Rooney being very Mickey Rooney, the Dead End Kids work better here. They always seemed teetering on the edge of true juvenile delinquency, and, as a result, they seem like younger versions of Garfield. He becomes chummy with them right away, and, because he’s a bit of a louse, it isn’t exactly a beneficial relationship. The kids have been shipped out west to pick dates in one of those believably misconceived social welfare programs, this one thought up and underwritten by a neighborhood priest. The priest died, however, and funds have dried up. One of the kids — Billy Halop, one of the better but lesser remembered Dead End Kids — has a genuine scheme to make the date ranch independent by adding a gas station, but they’re going to need money.

It’s the same essential setup as in “Jimmy Dolan,” but it’s a bit smarter. The boxer will have to box, and by doing so, may show himself to the cops who are still looking for him. But in “Jimmy Dolan,” the fight offers a temporary reprieve, paying off some back taxes. In this film, it will make the ranch sustainable. And our boxer hero is given a scene in this film that did not appear in the previous one — a moment when he is shocked out of his essential cynicism and forced to help the kids. He encourages them to play hookey and swim in a neighbor’s water tower, but they become trapped in it when the farmer starts irrigating the soil and the water levels drop low enough so that neither Garfield nor the kids can escape. It’s a believable moment of jeopardy, and Garfield stays cool throughout, taking charge and making sure the kids don’t panic. He remains a louse about the whole affair, even lying about it to the pretty young rancher responsible for the kids. She is played by Gloria Dickson; this was an early starring role for both her and Garfield, and both would be dead under awful circumstances (she died in a fire; he was hounded by HUAC and died of a heart attack) within 13 years, and the film is unavoidably shot through with a sense of forthcoming tragedy as a result.

Speaking of the film’s improvements, there’s even a subtle finessing of a minor character, a detective who has taken a person interest in our boxer’s case. He was a bit of a bumbler and a laughingstock in the earlier film, where he was played by Guy Kibbee, who looked like a doddering old man. Here he is played by Claude Rains, who gives the role a contemptuousness that plays as haunted eyes and a perpetual snarl. You get the sense that he is a very good detective who made a mistake once — a mistake that sent an innocent man to his death — and he’s been exiled to working in the morgue. None of the other cops take him seriously, even though he makes a very strong case. The boxer is supposed to be dead, but he has evidence that the man is alive. You would think that police would trust somebody who works with stiffs when they say there was a misidentification, but, in fact, the other police have a pretty good rebuttal to every piece of Rains’ evidence. They don’t want him to railroad another innocent person.

As it turns out, neither does he, and he’s a good enough detective to know that the boxer is actually still alive, be able to find him, and to know that he’s actually innocent of the crime he is charged with — a significant change from Jimmy Dolan, who was guilty. So even though both films end much the same way, with much of the dialogue exactly the same, because it hinges on the detective, the character’s motivations are clearer and less motivate by sentiment.

But with all these improvements, I find myself preferring “Jimmy Dolan.” For whatever reason, it feels like an angrier film, and its essential cynicism plays out as sharper and meaner. “They Made Me a Criminal” is better polished, but the lack of polish on the earlier film gave it an accidental urgency, and a stronger sense that the film was discovering itself as it was being made, while “They Made Me a Criminal” feels deliberate, clear, and unsurprising. There’s something to be said for rough drafts, I guess.

Irish-American Crime Movies: Bad Boys (1983)

Sean Penn in "Bad Boys": Penn in the pen.

Sean Penn in “Bad Boys”: Penn in the pen.

Bad Boys (1983)

Written by: Richard Di Lello
Directed by: Rick Rosenthal
Starring: Sean Penn, Esai Morales, Ally Sheedy
Summary: Sean Penn establishes his star power by playing a moody juvenile delinquent in a broken criminal justice system.

Sean Penn has always been a bit of a ping pong as actors go, bouncing between acting moody and behaving eccentrically. I prefer his eccentric characterizations. Examples: The cheerful stoner Jeff Spicoli in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” “Groovin’ Larry” Huff from “The Beaver Trilogy,” damaged jazz guitarist Emmet Ray from “Sweet and Lowdown,” and corrupt lawyer David Kleinfeld from “Carlito’s Way.”  Penn can seem like such a dour man in life, and these roles show he has a genuine daffiness to him, a willingness to make odd choices and then have fun with them.

But Penn demonstrated early on that he was more than capable of being credibly wounded and credibly violent, and so he has a parallel career playing brooding antiheroes who communicate worlds of anguish with a few quints. These characters of often criminals, and, more often than not, they are explicitly or implicitly Irish. Penn himself is part Irish — about a quarter Irish on his mother’s side. And when you can believably play these sorts of roles, there are going to be a lot of them.

“Bad Boys” was Penn’s first. He’s not just coded as being Irish in this film, he’s called Mick O’Brien, and that couldn’t be any more Irish unless he were named Paddy O’Ireland. He’s a teenager in a bad neighborhood of Chicago, and has a mob of two, himself and Alan Ruck, an actor later famous for playing comical sidekicks, but here looking panicked as an aspiring juvenile delinquent. Penn, in the meanwhile, has moved beyond aspirations — he regularly smashes car windows to steal purses with the drivers still in the car, and assaults and robs whoever tries to chase him down.

There’s another kid in the neighborhood who has likewise moved past aspiration, the elegantly named Paco Moreno, played with nervy energy by Esai Morales. Moreno is moving up toward being a neighborhood drug dealer, and they collide early on, and violently, with a shootout in the streets and an incompetent car chase that manages to kill Morales kid brother, who had spent the night surreptitiously following Morales.

It’s a strange film, careering wildly between exploitation, the cheap morality lectures of Evangelical crime nonfiction like “The Cross and the Switchblade,” and some meticulously observed details that feel almost documentary in their precision.
It ends in a juvenile detention center for Penn, and this is where most of the film’s action takes place. It’s a strange film, careering wildly between exploitation, the cheap morality lectures of Evangelical crime nonfiction like “The Cross and the Switchblade,” and some meticulously observed details that feel almost documentary in their precision. The detention center is small — it’s about the size of a high school gym — and barely staffed, mostly overseen by two men. The first is a bespectacled counselor that oozes contempt at the boys one second and begs them to tell their feelings the next. The other is a muscular disciplinarian that is barely removed from the angry school teachers played by Keegan-Michael Key.

Mostly, the kids are left alone, where they have their own society with their own rules, some of it transposed from adult prisons, such as a complex economy that seems to resolve around buying and selling cigarettes. But most of what goes on is simple bullying, most of it from a massive young man with blond hair that they call Viking (played by Clancy Brown, who has spent most of his acting career in prisons), and a surly African-American boy named Tweety. For some reason, they have the run of the place, including semi-official authority from the wardens, despite the fact that they relentlessly abuse and sometimes sexually assault the other kids. One gets the sense that the juvie officials allow this mostly because the other kids fear these two, and so, if they are given some authority, it will be respected, never mind that they will immediately abuse that authority.

They knock around Penn a little, but aren’t really sure what to make of him — he sometimes responds to their bullying by just smiling at them, like he has a little secret. And he does. He’s far more capable of brutality than they are, which he demonstrates with a pillowcase full of soda cans one night when they come to call.

“Bad Boys” tries to be a story of Mick O’Brien’s redemption. There are a lot of things pushing him toward the life of a career criminal, including the fact that once he establishes his facility with violence, things get pretty cushy for him in the detention center. But he’s in love with someone — specifically, Ally Sheedy at the start of a half-decade of being the go-to actress for scrappy, slightly odd girlfriends. Now, I’m not much of one for juvenile romances, but director Rick Rosenthal adds some more pressure. It’s not just that O’Brien seems to genuinely care about his girlfriend, it’s also that she’s a fairly easy target without him to protect her, as both discover when Paco Moreno assaults and nearly murders her as revenge for the death of his brother. O’Brien breaks out to see her, and when he finds her, her face is a mass of bruises. So he decides to go straight.

But the film has a neat if improbable trick up its sleeve. As punishment for the rape and near-murder, Paco Moreno is sentenced to the same detention center O’Brien is in, and immediately promises to kill him. Even the staff at the detention center consider this an unlikely development, but they explain it away as the inevitable result of an overburdened and unconcerned bureaucracy, and when they put it like that, it does seem like the sort of thing that might happen. And so the film starts moving toward the inevitable confrontation between these two neighborhood villains, with the other delinquents taking bets about who will win. It does come, and the fight is protracted and brutal, the whole of its moving toward the moment when O’Brien must decide what sort of future he will have, although mostly he’s simply trying not to have a future where he’s dead.

I‘ve been including juvenile delinquency films in this series because I don’t think there is a clear line separating them from Irish gangster movies, and the movies often behave as though there is a direct path from juvenile offender to career criminal, with juvenile detention centers serving as a necessary weigh station between the two. But there is a subgenre of films explicitly about juvenile detention centers, and they are almost always horror stories of prison-on-prisoner violence and institutional abuse. This is a late entry into the subgenre, and is interesting for a hopefulness that plays against the essential brutality of the story. There is a sense that the officials genuinely want to help the kids, but have neither the qualifications nor the institutional support to do so effectively; they will, nonetheless, sometimes bend the rules in order to give a kid a break, teach the kids to read using comic books, and demand that they talk about how they feel.

The detention center is its own world, with its own arbitrary and capricious rules, and following them means the only thing you’re ready for on release is to try to live out those rules in the real world.
None of this seems to help much, and, in the end, the film makes the case that the only thing that can save a child is having something in the outside world more important than anything happening inside the facility. We see almost none of this — the children are not visited by their parents, and, although we see them get letters in one scene, we do not know who they are from or what the contents are. The detention center is its own world, with its own arbitrary and capricious rules, and following them means the only thing you’re ready for on release is to try to live out those rules in the real world. We see one kid get out, Tweety, and he’s almost immediately killed in a robbery that goes wrong. Mick O’Brien has somebody on the outside, but he only gets one letter from her, and only hears her voice when she calls to tell him she’s been raped.

He immediately escapes to see her, as I mentioned, and this is one of the things that the staff forgives. It seems an odd thing to forgive, as generally a prison break is treated with enormous gravity. But it’s the only time he gets to see the person he loves face to face, and it’s the only thing that gives him something to work for outside the system, to set him on the straight and narrow. So it is forgiven. One gets the sense that the staff understand what is going on with O’Brien, and, if they can’t directly help him, at least they can get out of the way of him helping himself, in the hopes that he will be that rarest of things in the juvenile detention center narrative: A boy who doesn’t turn into an adult criminal.