Did you know that an American vice president notorious for lacking self confidence had the daylights scared out of him by getting pranked into believing that the president had died? Or that a rural West Virginia community requested foreign aid from the Soviet Union? American history is full of interesting but little known episodes like these. So here are forty things about fascinating but lesser known facts from the history of the U S of A.
40. Hard Scrabble and Hard Luck Vulcan – The Town That Sought Soviet Foreign Aid
The tiny West Virginia community of Vulcan, in Mingo County, sits on the state’s southwest border with Kentucky. Surrounded by mountains on three sides, and the Tug River on the fourth, Vulcan would probably never have been inhabited if coal had not been discovered there in the early twentieth century. A coal mining camp sprang up, and eventually gave rise to a small but thriving community. Thriving, that is, until the coal ran out in the early 1960s.
Soon as the coal was gone, Vulcan’s population began shrinking, until it was reduced to a few dozen families – stubborn holdouts unwilling to leave the place they knew as home. To the extent the outside world had ever taken notice of Vulcan, it forgot about it soon as the coal dried up. That was a problem for the locals, seeing how they were all but cut off from the rest of the world.
As a 1972 book described Vulcan, WV: “Their biggest problem was that the state had forgotten to build a road into the community. Although state maps showed a road into Vulcan, it was nowhere to be found. The only way people could get in and out was to drive up the Kentucky side and walk across a swinging bridge, which was too narrow for a vehicle. The bridge had been built by the coal company years before and was on the verge of collapse; although there were boards missing, the children had to walk across it to catch the school bus on the Kentucky sideâ¦”
Lack of a road forced Vulcan’s children to crawl under parked railroad coal cars – which often blocked the community’s sole bridge – on their way to and from school. A kid lost a leg doing that. There was a side road that ran through Vulcan. However, it belonged to a railroad that placed it off limits, and vigorously prosecuted those who used it for trespass.
For years, the people of Vulcan pleaded with county, state, and federal officials to repair their rickety bridge, but were ignored. In the meantime, their bridge kept on deteriorating, and becoming an ever greater hazard to life and limb. Feeling forsaken by their own government, the Vulcanites opted for a drastic move that soon garnered international headlines.
In 1977, their mayor wrote the Soviet embassy in Washington, DC, as well as officials in communist East Germany, describing Vulcan’s plight and requesting foreign aid to build a bridge. The Soviets jumped on the opportunity to embarrass the US, and dispatched journalists to Vulcan. By interviewing and broadcasting the locals’ woes, the Soviets finally brought attention to the ignored community.
It did not take long before newspapers from coast to coast were talking about Vulcan. E.g.; The Spokane Daily Chronicle, which wrote: “Soviet officials were amused today by reports that the small town of Vulcan, W.Va. has appealed to the Kremlin for foreign aidâ¦ The town, with a population of 200, asked the Soviet government for financial help to build a bridge after the town was turned down by the U.S. and West Virginia governments“.
Many anticommunist types did not see the humor and were not amused. Radio stations and local newspapers received a flood of bomb threats, threatening to blow up any bridge built with Red foreign aid.
On December 17th, 1977, the Soviet embassy in Washington, DC, dispatched a senior journalist to meet Vulcan’s mayor and survey the problem. He was authorized to promise the locals that his government would keep an eye on the situation, and that if their own government did not build them a bridge soon, the Soviets would foot the bill for building one.
Within an hour of that visit, word filtered down to reporters milling about Vulcan that West Virginia’s government had agreed to build a bridge. The state legislature authorized $1.3 million for the task. Today, a one lane graffiti covered bridge connects the people of Vulcan to the outside world.
Thomas Marshall, Woodrow Wilson’s vice president, won a second term by joking about the position’s “utter uselessness and frivolity“. He liked telling a story about having two sons, one of whom went to sea and drowned, while the other became vice president. The punch line was that “neither son was ever heard from again” He often referred to himself as “the Wilson administration’s spare tire – to be used only in case of emergency“.
So on the one hand, Marshall was not the type to take himself or his position too seriously. On the other hand, Marshall had zero confidence in himself, and lived down to that self assessment when the country needed him the most. When Wilson was incapacitated by a stroke in 1919, Marshall became incapacitated by fear of actually taking the reins of government. It was against that backdrop that somebody pulled a cruel prank, by convincing Marshall that the president had died.
Thomas Marshall was a well liked man, but not a highly respected one. He did not mind, and seemed to revel in his irrelevance, telling those passing his White House office: “If you look on me as a wild animal, be kind enough to throw peanuts at me“. As a contemporary described him: “Marshall made friends, not enemies. But they looked on him as jester“. Wilson put it more succinctly, dismissing Marshall as “a very small caliber man“.
On September 25th, 1919, Marshall’s low stature became a problem. Wilson, exhausted from his travels to Europe to negotiate the Versailles Peace Treaty, followed by weeks of crisscrossing the country to drum up support for America’s joining the League of Nations, collapsed. Within a week, he was felled by a stroke. Wilson’s wife Edith stepped in and took the reins, secretly running the government until the end of his term. While admirable on her part, that should have been the vice president’s job – but he was paralyzed by fear of stepping up to the plate.
33. Discombobulating the Vice President With a Prank Call
On November 22nd, 1919 – two months after Woodrow Wilson was felled by a stroke – vice president Thomas Marshall was delivering a speech in an Atlanta auditorium. Mid-oration, a policeman approached a man sitting onstage, telling him to interrupt the vice president and direct him to call Washington immediately: the president had died.
A stunned Marshall froze, before muttering: “I cannot take up the burden of the great chieftain“. As he confessed later: “I dreaded this task“. As an organist played “Nearer, My God, To Thee”, audience members sobbed, prayed, and left. However, when Marshall reached the telephone in the lobby, the line was dead. Inquiries revealed that no long distance call had come through from Washington: the vice president had been cruelly hoaxed. Relieved, he resumed his role as a non entity, and finished his term paralyzed by fear, alongside a president paralyzed by stroke.
32. The Armed Uprising of WWII Veterans Against a Corrupt Southern Sheriff
In the 1940s Athens, Tennessee, was a small town of 7000 souls between Knoxville and Chattanooga. The seat of rural McMinn County, Athens was a community that the modern world had seemingly passed by without stopping. Most streets were still unpaved, and most houses still lacked electricity. The backwards county and its seat exuded bucolic serenity, but beneath the seemingly placid surface, trouble was seething.
During the preceding decade, new local and regional political machines had cropped up in rural East Tennessee. Lacking the sophistication of urban political machines, they relied on violence and intimidation to control their constituents. They got away with it for some time, until the end of WWII, when returning young veterans, many of whom had experienced combat, decided to do something about their local oppressors.
At the end of WWII, American veterans were often welcomed home with parades and the warm embrace of a grateful nation. Not so the veterans of Athens, Tennessee. They returned to the nightmare of a corrupt local Sheriff, Paul Cantrell, head of a dirty political machine – venal even by the prevailing southern local governments – that rode roughshod over the locals.
Sheriff Cantrell’s income depended on the number of prisoners in his jail, so he used predatory policing to keep his jail full. People were routinely victimized by overbearing deputies, looking for any excuse to lock them up. If they were unable to find something, Cantrell and his deputies would simply beat up a victim, then toss him in jail for “resisting arrest”. When deputies subjected returning veterans to the same treatment, it backfired. Having recently crushed tyrannies overseas, the veterans were not about to submit to tyranny at home. They took up arms and went to war.
As the returning veterans saw it, violence was the only way to vindicate their rights in McMinn County. Complaints went nowhere, as local officials and the local judge were corrupt. The entire government machinery was on the take, getting a cut from various illicit activities, from moonshine stills to misappropriation of public funds. And presiding over it all was Sheriff Cantrell, who turned a blind eye to official corruptions, and acted as enforcer to intimidate dissenters.
Things had gotten worse during WWII: with nearly the entire fit male population in uniform and away, the Sheriff’s deputies had a free run of the females. As they endured the depredations, “wait ’til the boys get back!” became a mantra amongst the locals. As the vets drifted back home, they determined to change things. So they formed “The GI Nonpartisan Party” to contest the elections scheduled for August 2nd, 1946.
With all county offices on the line, especially that of Sheriff, the stakes for the 1946 elections were high. The veterans were confident that their GI Nonpartisan Party would sweep to victory. However, the incumbents were equally confident that they would win: they knew that who counts the votes matters more than who votes, so all they had to do was control the ballot boxes.
Thus, the election hinged on poll watchers: Sheriff’s deputies for the incumbents, and veterans for the challengers. Trouble began when a black man tried to vote at an Athens precinct, only for deputies to shoot him on the spot. They then shut down the voting precinct, and held the veterans’ poll watchers captive. Soon, the Sheriff and other deputies arrived, sirens blazing, to seize the ballot boxes and move them to the jail. Word then spread throughout McMinn County that voting was to be cancelled, and all ballot boxes were to be taken to the jail.
As Sheriff Cantrell and about 200 deputized henchmen barricaded themselves with the ballot boxes in the fortress-like county jail, it was put up or shut up time. The veterans decided to put up. 45 of them seized the local armory and the weapons therein, and headed to the jail for a showdown. Although heavily outnumbered, the veterans had the advantage of military training, and many had recent combat experience. So they seized the tactical advantage by seizing a ridge overlooking the jail. When night fell, gunfire suddenly erupted from the jail, and what came to be known as “The Battle of Athens” commenced.
The violence escalated when a veteran blew up the jail’s front with dynamite. That was when the goons inside realized that they were faced with a level of violence that their years of bullying defenseless civilians had not prepared them for. White flags were stuck out of the jail’s windows, and the corrupt officials and their henchmen surrendered. The ballot boxes were recaptured, and by sunrise the following morning, they had been counted: The GI Nonpartisan Party won in a landslide.
At age fourteen, Jacklyn Harrell “Jack” Lucas (1928 – 2008) lied about his age to join the US Marine Corps during WWII. At age seventeen, he displayed such extraordinary heroism during the Battle of Iwo Jima to save the lives of fellow Marines, that he earned the Medal of Honor. It made Lucas the youngest Marine to ever receive the country’s highest award for valor.
When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, Lucas, of Plymouth, North Carolina, was a thirteen year old cadet captain in a military academy, and captain of the school’s football team. Eager to join the action, when Lucas was fourteen he Lucas forged his mother’s signature on a form that granted permission for her “seventeen year old” son to enlist, and used that to join the Marine Corps Reserves.
Jack Lucas completed boot camp, but when his true age was discovered, he was restricted to driving a truck in Hawaii while the Marines decided what to do with him. Facing the threat of being sent back home, he stowed aboard a troop transport headed for combat.
Once the ship was underway, he turned himself in to avoid a charge of desertion, and volunteered for combat – without disclosing his true age. The ship was part of the task force headed for Iwo Jima, and Lucas was duly assigned to a rifle company and placed on its roster.
In February of 1945, seventeen year old Jack Lucas was in a trench in Iwo Jima with three other Marines, when a firefight erupted against 11 Japanese in a nearby trench. When two enemy grenades landed in Lucas’ trench, the teenager saved his comrades by shielding them with his own body. As he described it: “I hollered to my pals to get out and did a Superman dive at the grenades“.
Lucas landed atop one grenade, and grabbed the other to place it beneath his body as well. One grenade was a dud and failed to explode, but the other went off beneath Lucas and severely injured him. “I wasn’t a Superman after I got hit“, he added, recalling how he screamed after the explosion.
Jack Lucas was lucky to survive, but was left with over 250 shrapnel bits in his body. It took 26 operations spread out over several months to repair the damage. In October of 1945, President Truman personally placed the Medal of Honor around Lucas’ neck during a ceremony on the White House lawn, before the teenager was discharged from the Corps.
Lucas went on to get a business degree, and in 1961, enlisted in the US Army. He joined the 82nd Airborne as a paratrooper, and survived a training jump in which both parachutes failed to open. He was commissioned, reached the rank of captain, and was assigned to train paratroopers in Fort Bragg. He volunteered to serve in Vietnam, but after his request was denied, he resigned his commission in 1965. He died of Leukemia in 2008, and in 2016, the USS Jack H. Lucas, an Arleigh Burke class destroyer, was named in his honor.
The Ice Bucket Challenge, planking, and similar viral crazes have a long history. Their 1950s equivalent was the phone booth stuffing craze, in which people competed to see how many folk they could cram into a phone booth. It began in 1959 in Durban, South Africa, where twenty five students tried to see if they could fit into a phone booth. They pulled it off, and submitted their accomplishment to the Guinness Book of World Records. Word of their bizarre stunt spread, and before long, a fever of phone booth stuffing had spread to England, Canada, and the US.
To participate, people – usually college students – would squeeze themselves into a phone booth, one after another, until nobody else could fit in. While seemingly straightforward, there was a lot of complexity involved. In 1959, college kids began skipping class to devise plans to beat the record. Schematics were drawn to try and figure out the optimal configuration for cramming the highest number of human bodies into a phone booth, like a 3-D Tetris.
In Britain, some students went on diets to reduce their bulks. In MIT, some turned to geometry and advanced calculus to figure out the most efficient configuration for cramming bodies into a tight space. As the competitive juices flowed and the competition heated up, accusations of cheating were hurled. Some universities’ claims were challenged because of violations of supposed rules that should have been followed.
Some argued that a booth stuffing was valid only if somebody inside was able to make a phone call. In some universities, the count was based on any part of a competitor’s body placed inside the booth. They were challenged by other campuses, who contended that it only counted if all participants had their entire bodies inside. Eventually, amidst heated recriminations, the fad died out by the end of 1959.
21. The Scheme That Sent Hundreds of Thousands of Unfit Soldiers to Vietnam
When President Lyndon B. Johnson assumed office following JFK’s assassination in 1963, the US had 16,000 troops in Vietnam. The following year, the figure grew slightly to 23,000. In 1965, however, in response to requests from American commanders in Vietnam for ever more troops, the figure mushroomed to 185,000. By 1966 America was getting sucked ever deeper into a quagmire, as the troop count more than doubled from the preceding year to 385,000.
That insatiable demand for ever more American troops put the LBJ administration in a bind: where to get them, without risking a public backlash? The answer was to cut corners – drastically so – to send unfit draftees to Vietnam.
20. Kids of the Privileged vs Everybody Else’s Kids
The way the draft system was set up back then, college students got deferments. Ending student deferments would furnish enough bodies to meet the military’s manpower shortage, but college students were predominately the kids of the middle and upper classes. That is, the people whose opinion counted the most with Congress and the media. Without their support, or at least acquiescence, American involvement in Vietnam could not continue.
Such support or acquiescence would not last long if their kids’ student deferments were cancelled, and they were drafted and sent to fight and die in a far off country most Americans could not place on a map. Mobilizing reservists could also furnish enough bodies, but it posed a similar dilemma: the reserves and National Guard were overwhelmingly filled with the children of the well off and connected, and sending them to Vietnam would produce a fierce backlash.
To solve the military’s manpower shortfall without antagonizing middle and upper class Americans by sending their kids to Vietnam, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara came up with a shameful brainchild: Project 100,000. It was touted as a Great Society program that would take impoverished and disadvantaged youth, and break the cycle of poverty by teaching them valuable skills in the military.
In reality, Project 100,000 simply amounted to lowering or abandoning minimal military recruitment standards, to sign up those who had previously been rejected by the draft as mentally or physically unfit. Recruiters swept through Southern backwaters and urban ghettoes, signing up almost anybody with a pulse, including at least one recruit with an IQ of 62. In all, 354,000 were recruited.
It goes without saying that the Project 100,000 recruits were not given any special skills or training. Once they signed on the dotted line, “the Moron Corps”, as they were derisively called by other soldiers, were rushed through training, then bundled off to Vietnam in disproportionate numbers. Once in Vietnam, they were sent into combat in disproportionate numbers.
In combat, the mental and physical limitations that had caused the Project 100,000 recruits to be rejected by the draft ensured that they were wounded and killed in disproportionate numbers. The toll fell particularly heavily on black youths: 41 percent of Project 100,000’s recruits were black, compared to 12 percent in the US military as a whole.
In an ever changing world, there are some constants, such as death, taxesâ¦ and teenage fashion fads that tick off their elders and the rest of society. Whether neon spiked hair, colored Mohawks, body piercings, Goth getups, or sagging pants, teenagers seldom have trouble annoying older generations – who had forgotten how annoying they had been in their teens.
However, few backlashes against teen style were as extreme – or violent – as that which occurred during WWII. Known as the Zoot Suit Riots, they combined negative fashion feedback with a huge dollop of racism, and led to hundreds of assaults and acts of violence in cities as far apart as LA and NYC.
Zoot suits were all the rage among the fashionable and hip in American cities in the late 1930s and early 1940s. The outsized Zoots had a distinctive look, with a long coat featuring wide lapels and broad shoulder pads, and pegged trousers that were high waisted, wide legged, and tight cuffed. Pointy French style shoes, plus a watch chain dangling from the belt to the knees, then back to a side pocket, were de rigueur. Finally, a pork pie hat or fedora, color coordinated and sometimes featuring a long feather, completed the ensemble.
The outfit was first associated with African Americans in Harlem, then crossed over and became popularized by Jazz singers and entertainers. In addition to African Americans, Zoots became hugely popular among Italian Americans, Latinos, and Filipinos. While also worn by many whites, the Zoot suit’s “ethnic” origins and aura did not sit well with many of the straitlaced and traditional, or just plain racist.
Because many materials and significant tailoring effort went into making them, Zoot suits were luxury items. When America joined WWII, the US War Production Board criticized the outfits for wasting materials and production time better used in the war effort. The outfits were seen by their young wearers as declarations of their individuality, freedom, or even rebelliousness. They were seen by others as self indulgent and unpatriotic extravagances during wartime.
Life magazine did a feature on youths sporting Zoots in 1942, and concluded that “they were solid arguments for lowering the Army draft age to include 18-year-olds“. The rest of the media joined in with sensational accounts, often wildly exaggerating the suits’ costs and price tags. That kicked off a backlash against Zoot suits. Those clad in the outfits were often berated and verbally assailed in public, and sometimes physically attacked. Cops sometimes stopped and hassled Zoot wearers, ruining their suits by slashing them.
The most dramatic backlash against Zoots occurred in Los Angeles in June of 1943, in what came to be known as the Zoot Suit Riots. In the preceding year, local newspapers had whipped up racial tensions by harping on a non-existent “crime wave”, allegedly caused by Mexican-American youths. Soon, a media campaign was in full swing, calling for action against “Zoot suiters”.
LA’s cops responded with frequent roundups and arrests of hundreds of young Mexican-Americans, guilty of nothing more than wearing oversized outfits. Tensions were further exacerbated by the conviction for murder of nine young Mexican Americans of murder, following a controversial trial amidst a wave of anti Mexican-American hysteria. The trial had been a travesty, and the convictions were overturned on appeal. However, in the trial’s aftermath, anti Mexican-American racism reached a peak.
13. Servicemen Rampaged Against Mexican-American Teens
WWII Los Angeles became a major military hub, with hundreds of thousands of servicemen stationed there or passing through. To many white military personnel, the wearing of Zoot suits was viewed as a public flouting of the war effort. Mexican-Americans came to be seen as unpatriotic – even though they actually served in the military at higher rates than whites. As a group, they also had one of the highest percentages of Medal of Honor recipients. Unfortunately, racism seldom cares about facts.
Rioting erupted in June of 1943, when mobs of white soldiers and sailors roamed that city, beating up allegedly “unpatriotic” Mexican-Americans wearing Zoot suits. While the rioters focused on Latino kids, young African Americans and Filipinos were also targeted. Copycat riots spread throughout California to San Diego and Oakland, then across the country to Chicago, Philadelphia, and New York City. It was the first time in American history that fashion caused literal rioting and widespread civil unrest.
One cold February evening in 1879, a man surnamed Fain entered the lobby of the Veranda Hotel in Nicholasville, Kentucky, accompanied by a friend. As described by the Court of Appeals of Kentucky in Fain v. The Commonwealth, 78 Ky. 183 (1879), the duo shook the snow off their coats, and sat down. Both were tired, especially Fain, who had not slept much lately because of sick children at home whose care kept him awake at night. It was warm inside the hotel lobby, the lights were dim, and soon Fain and his friend fell asleep where they sat.
Eventually, Fain’s friend woke up and tried to wake him, but could not. He went to the reception desk and booked a room with two beds, then sent the receptionist to wake his friend. The receptionist tried, but could not, and told Fain’s friend that he thought the defendant was dead. The friend told him to not be silly, and to get on with it. The receptionist got on with it, only to get shot to death for his troubles when Fain woke up. Arrested and tried for murder, Fain turned to a sleepwalking defense.
11. A Grumpy Sleeper and an Unfortunate Receptionist
In describing Fain’s actions, the Kentucky Court of Appeals wrote: “The [receptionist] shook him harder and harder until [Fain] looked up and asked what he wanted. The [receptionist] said he wanted him to go to bed. [Fain] said he would not, and told the [receptionist]deceased to go away and let him alone.
The [receptionist] said it was getting late, and he wanted to close the house, and still holding [Fain] by the coat, the latter either raised or was lifted up, and, as he arose, he threw his hand to his side as if to draw a weapon. A by stander said to him, don’t shoot; but without noticing or giving any sign that he heard what was said, he drew a pistol and fired. The deceased instantly grappled him to prevent him from shooting again, but a second shot was fired almost immediately, and a third soon followed “.
Shouting “How-wee!” after shooting the Veranda Hotel’s receptionist, Fain rushed out of the lobby and into the street, pistol in hand. He thrust the pistol into a bystander’s hand, asking him to defend him because he had just shot somebody, but did not know who.
The receptionist died of his wounds, and Fain was arrested. He was tried, convicted of manslaughter, and sentenced to two years in prison, from which sentence he appealed.
Kentucky’s Court of Appeals reversed Fain’s conviction. It held that the trial court had erred by not allowing Fain to introduce evidence by medical experts of somnambulism, or of his being a lifelong sleepwalker. The lower court had denied Fain’s request to introduce evidence that he had to be watched since infancy to prevent him from injuring himself while asleep.
Additionally, he had witnesses who were prevented from testifying that when aroused from sleep, Fain frequently got up frightened and resorted to violence as if resisting an assault. For minutes thereafter, Fain would seem unconscious of what he did or what was going around him. The appellate court concluded that if Fain had been unconscious or nearly so of what he was doing or what was being done to him, and thought he was being attacked and so resisted an attempt to kill or injure him, then he should be acquitted.
Johnny Torrio, AKA “The Fox” and “Papa Johnny” (1882 – 1957), is best known as the founder of the Chicago Outfit – the criminal empire inherited and made infamous by his protege and successor, Al Capone. Torrio started his criminal career in an NYC street gang, became its leader, and steadily worked his way up the criminal world’s ranks with gambling and loan sharking. He eventually caught the eye of Paul Kelly, leader of the Five Points Gang, who took him on as a protege.
Torrio was invited to Chicago by his aunt’s husband, “Big Jim” Colosimo, who owned over a hundred brothels, to deal with extortionists preying on his businesses. Torrio did, and stayed on as Colosimo’s right hand and muscle. When Prohibition began in January of 1920, Torrio recognized the opportunity for fabulous riches to be made in making alcohol and selling it at a steep markup, now that it was illegal.
Johnny Torrio came up with the idea of buying breweries, now shuttered and thus readily purchased for pennies on the dollar. He would then operate them illegally to supply the thousands of speakeasies, brothels, and nightclubs in Chicago and the surrounding region. However, when he ran the idea by his boss, Colosimo rejected it.
Torrio’s boss reasoned that all of Chicago’s criminals were thinking the same thing, and involvement would invite troubles and drag him into confrontations he would sooner avoid. When Torrio proposed running it on his own, assuming all the risk and splitting the proceeds with Colosimo, his boss prohibited him, decreeing that nobody in his organization was to participate in bootlegging. The potential profits were huge, however, so Torrio, aided by his protege, Al Capone, went ahead and bought breweries without informing Colosimo, and began operating them and raking in the profits.
6. Getting Rid of the Boss and Creating the Chicago Outfit
Juggling the books, which were regularly inspected by Colosimo, started getting tricky, and when Colosimo started getting suspicious, Torrio struck first. He called in an NYC colleague, Frankie Yale, who shot Colosimo dead in May of 1920. Within hours of Colosimo’s death, Torrio took over his empire, creating what became known as The Chicago Outfit. He became the city’s biggest Mafioso and one of its most powerful criminal kingpins.
As the Outfit expanded its operations from its base in Chicago’s South Side, it came into conflict with the Irish-American North Side Gang. After initial attempts at peaceful coexistence failed, Torrio ordered the murder of the North Side boss in November, 1924, sparking a bloody gang war. In retaliation, Torrio was ambushed outside his apartment with a fusillade of gunfire, taking bullets to the jaw, lung, abdomen, groin, and legs. Severely wounded, he was spared from a kill shot to the skull when the assassin’s gun jammed.
5. The Mob’s Eminence Grise and the National Crime Syndicate
Johnny Torrio’s near death experience frightened him, and convinced him to get out while he still could. So in 1925 he handed control of the Outfit to Capone, and moved to Italy. His retirement did not last long, however – Benito Mussolini launched a crackdown on Mafiosi, forcing Torrio back to the US in 1928. Back home, he became a mob consultant and respected emeritus figure.
A visionary and one of the American mafia’s most talented and intelligent leaders, Torrio branched out from traditional crime and went into the boardrooms, becoming the godfather of corporate crime. He also set up the National Crime Syndicate – a loose confederation of several ethnic organizations, mainly the American mafia and the Jewish mob, and to a lesser extent, Irish-American outfits and African-American gangsters, among a total of fourteen different organization, which cooperated from 1929 until the 1960s. He died peacefully, of a heart attack on a barber’s chair in 1957.
One of the nuttiest cases ever handled by the FBI was the bombing of Harvey’s Resort Hotel and Casino in Stateline, Nevada. It began on the morning of August 26th, 1980, when men in white jumpsuits pretending to deliver a copying machine, rolled a big bomb into the hotel, deposited it in the middle of the employee lounge, and left.
Sometime later, an employee noticed a note attached to the delivery. It read in part: “STERN WARNING TO THE MANAGEMENT AND BOMB SQUAD: Do not move or tilt this bomb, because the mechanism controlling the detonators in it will set it off at a movement of less than .01 of the open end Richter scale. â¦ Do not try to take it apart. The flathead screws are also attached to triggers, and as much as 1/4 to 3/4 of a turn will cause an explosion“. It went on to add that for $3 million in used $100 bills, delivered via helicopter, the bomb maker would provide a combination of switches, allowing safe removal for a remote detonation.
The FBI’s bomb squad used X-rays to examine the mechanism’s inner workings. It consisted of two steel boxes containing 1000 pounds of dynamite, perfectly balanced and leveled above trigger mechanisms. It was an extremely complicated and sophisticated piece of machinery, unlike anything that explosives disposal experts had ever seen before.
The bomb squad concluded that the device could not be safely removed, and had to be dismantled at the hotel. After studying the machinery for 30 hours, a C4 explosive shaped charge was used in an attempt to disarm the bomb, but failed. The explosives went off, creating a five story crater in the hotel.
The blackmailer was John Birges, a Hungarian immigrant who had flown for the Luftwaffe during WWII. He built a successful landscaping business, opened a few restaurants, and became a millionaire. However, he then wrecked himself with a gambling addiction, losing about $750,000 (equivalent to about $2.3 million today) at Harvey’s alone.
With his businesses on the verge of bankruptcy, Birges decided to recoup his losses by extorting $3 million from the casino (roughly $9 million today). So he enlisted his two sons, and another two accomplices, and set his extortion plan in motion.
Much of the Harvey Casino extortion plan – particularly the bomb design – was genius. However, Birges was no criminal mastermind, and sloppiness proved his undoing. Among other things, he used his own van to deliver the bomb. An alert clerk at a nearby hotel had jotted down the license plate, and that put investigators on to Birges.
His choice of accomplices was even worse: one of his own sons blabbed to a girlfriend that his father had placed a bomb at Harvey’s. He then broke up with her, and she contacted the FBI after learning of a reward for information about the bombing. When confronted, Birges’ sons snitched on their father and agreed to testify against him. Birges was arrested, convicted, and got life in prison without parole. He died behind bars in 1996.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading