Back in the days, many feared and loathed Christmas. In the 1600s, the Massachusetts Bay Colony made celebrating Christmas a criminal offense. The Puritans were not upset so much by the religious devotions, as by the disorders and crime sprees that accompanied Christmas celebrations. While many American families tended to commemorate the holiday with wholesome outdoor activities such as skating or watching horse races, Christmas for single men was a time to get wild.
The tendency to get wild on Christmas – and the corresponding concern about the out-of-control loud and frequently violent celebrations – reached a peak in the nineteenth century. In cities such as New York and Philadelphia, marked by sharp racial, ethnic, and economic divisions, Christmas was a time for dangerous mob actions. Working-class young men would get liquored up, dress up as women or put on blackface, hit the streets looking for trouble, and commit sundry crimes during the Holiday Season.
Many of Philadelphia’s young and drunk Christmas celebrants donned masks – a forerunner of Philadelphia’s Mummers Parade. That led contemporaries to label them “fantasticals”. They were also referred to as “callithumpians” – partly from their habit of thumping things (and people). The celebrants would gather in groups, and mock real music by banging on pots, cowbells, improvised horns, and singing off-key, make their way from tavern to tavern. There, they would demand free drinks, and beat up anybody who objected.
Forming themselves into gangs, the drunken celebrants, many of them unemployed, would often parade – or stagger – into rich neighborhoods, to indulge in crimes petty and grand. They sloshed and often belligerent celebrants would beat drums, sing loudly, ring doorbells, express social discontents, smash windows, fire their guns, and otherwise make themselves disagreeable and “make the night hideous“. Such nuisance crimes were just the tip of the iceberg. Stabbings, shootings, arson, and other acts of mayhem and murder were also common. It was a reminder to the day’s one percent that class conflict and violence seethed beneath America’s surface.
The authorities were largely powerless to do anything about the Christmas crime sprees and disorders. Understandably, respectable citizens back then condemned Christmas as a disgrace. Newspapers railed against “the drunken men and boys in the street” and the “black sheep … who made night hideous with Galathumpian doings“. In 1844, an editorial in the New YorkLedger deplored the streets being overrun with a “riotous spirit … our city has almost daily been the theater of disorders which practically nullify civil government “.
Pressure from above finally led to the creation of modern police forces capable of effective crowd control. They kept the crime spree relatively controlled by keeping the celebrants out of the business districts and wealthy residential areas. Instead, they made sure that the Christmas rowdies confined their disorders to their working-class neighborhoods. Eventually, a cultural shift took the wild partying from holy Christmas, and made the secular New Year’s the time for cutting loose instead.
Charlie Birger, born Schachna Itzik Birger to a Jewish family in Russia, settled in a coal mining region in rural Southern Illinois in 1913. It was a “dry” part of the state, but local rules did not eliminate drinkers’ thirst. Birger was not above making money through crime, so he forged an alliance between hill people who manufactured booze in illicit stills and the miners who drank it, and set up shop as a small-time bootlegger and pimp.
National Prohibition arrived in 1920, and Birger graduated from a two-bit bootlegger to a major one, with a network that stretched from Florida to the Canadian border. A ruthless operator, he crushed the local Ku Klux Klan – not out of altruism, but because they impeded his bootlegging operations. Whatever his motives, crushing the KKK made Birger a local hero, until things went haywire when he fell out with his business partners. The result was a crime wave that engulfed Southern Illinois, and a conflict that was fought with homemade tanks and aerial bombings.
Charlie Birger became partners in 1925 with another bootlegger gang run by Carl Shelton and his brothers, to jointly transport imported booze from Florida to Chicago. The partnership quickly fell apart, however, because while the crime of bootlegging paid, and paid well, there was widespread cheating in the collection of the proceeds and divvying up of the profits. Things escalated – quickly. In one incident in 1926, Birger’s gang was attacked by a Shelton homemade tank: a two and a half-ton truck covered in steel armor, with a turret from which numerous firearms protruded.
A month later, the Sheltons upped the ante and escalated things some more, when they hired an airplane to drop sticks of dynamite over a Birger hideout. Nobody was hurt, but it made history as the first known aerial bombing in the US. Birger fought back in a more traditional way, with assassinations and ambushes.
Southern Illinois’ bootlegger war lasted six months, during which dozens of bodies were left across the region in culverts, floating in streams, or sitting in bullet-riddled cars along the road. Charlie Birger was remarkably open about his gang’s crime spree, broadcasting messages over local radio to assure the public that they were safe, because only gangsters were getting killed. He also publicly boasted of his intent to kill a Shelton ally – the mayor of a small town – then had him murdered.
Birger was arrested, but might have walked if his gangsters had not also abducted and murdered a state trooper and his wife. The state trooper was dirty, but his wife, a popular schoolteacher, was seen as innocent. That finally turned public opinion against Birger. He was tried, convicted, and on April 19th, 1928, was hanged before a crowd of 5000 – Illinois’ last public hanging.
19. The Crime Wave of Beating Up Kids Over Fashion Choices
Zoot suits were all the rage among the fashionable and hip in American cities in the 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, Chicago, and Detroit. They 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.
Zoot suits were luxury items, as significant materials and tailoring effort went into making them. When America entered WWII, the US War Production Board criticized the outfits for wasting materials and production time better used in the war effort. Zoots 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 youth 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 costs and price tags of zoots, and linking their wearers to crime or aspirations to becoming criminal.
A backlash thus began building against zoot suits. Those clad in the outfits were often berated and verbally assailed in public, and sometimes physically attacked. Policemen often stopped and hassled zoot wearers, and ruined their suits by slashing them. However, the most dramatic manifestation of the backlash occurred in Los Angeles in June, 1943. During what came to be known as the Zoot Suit Riots, many zoot-wearing teenagers, most of them Mexican-Americans, were beat, and some were killed, over their fashion choices.
In the year preceding the Zoot Suit Riots, Los Angeles 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 police 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 the 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, but in the trial’s aftermath, racist hatred against Mexican-Americans reached a peak in LA.
LA became a major military hub during WWII, as hundreds of thousands of servicemen were stationed there or passed through en route to other postings. 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 were actually overrepresented in America’s armed forces, serving at a higher rate than whites. As a group, they also had one of the highest percentages of Medal of Honor recipients.
Racism does not do logic, however, and soon, many responded to an imaginary crime wave by Mexican-American youths with an actual crime spree. Rioting erupted in June, 1943, when mobs of white soldiers and sailors roamed LA, beating up allegedly “unpatriotic” Mexican-American’s wearing zoot suits. While the rioters focused on Latino youths, young African Americans and Filipinos were also targeted. Copycat riots by European Americans against Latinos 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.
Since his early youth, Ken Rex McElroy of tiny Skidmore, Missouri, was bad news. Born in 1934, the 15th of 16 children of poor sharecroppers, McElroy fell off a hay wagon on his parents’ farm when he was a kid, and cracked his skull bad enough to require a steel plate implanted in his head. Many attributed the horrible person he became to that childhood accident.
McElroy became a delinquent before reaching puberty – a bad kid who grew into an evil adult, who launched a one-man crime wave. He started small with petty thefts, graduated to livestock rustling, and soon escalated into violent assaults and vicious mayhem. He was helped by an intimidating appearance. The adult McElroy stood at over six feet, weighed about 270 pounds, had bushy eyebrows and bushier sideburns, and heavily lidded, crazy-looking, cold steel-blue eyes that sent shivers down spines.
Indictments were a constant of Ken McElroy’s life, and during his life of crime, his list of indictments was impressive. They ranged from burglary to child molestation to rape to attempted murder. His lawyer, Richard McFadin, estimated that he defended McElroy from an average of three or four felonies each year. However, the indictments produced no convictions: McElroy so terrorized the residents of Skidmore with his brutality and threats of the revenge he would exact, that none dared to testify against him.
Farmers looked the other way when some of their hogs or cattle vanished, or if the gas barrels used to fuel their farms were emptied. On the rare occasion that a case did make it to trial, jurors received unsubtle warnings, such as rattlesnakes in their mailboxes or shotgun blasts shattering the quiet of the night near their homes. The result was a series of mistrials followed by the eventual dismissal of charges, or outright acquittals.
Crimes of theft and violent assaults were just part of what made Ken McElroy a bad person. He was also a raging alcoholic and a notorious womanizer. Although, “womanizer” might not be the most accurate term, seeing as most of the females he was attracted to were underage – technically children. Over the years, he fathered fifteen kids with many women, both in and out of wedlock. Most of his baby mamas were barely past puberty.
In 1971, a 37-year-old McElroy met his youngest and last wife, Trena, when she was twelve years old. Two years later, she was pregnant. When she gave birth, Trena tried to escape McElroy’s mistreatment by fleeing with her newborn son to her parents’ home. He had no intention of letting her get away.
Trena’s flight to her parents’ home did not last long. Ken McElroy went there, demanded her return, and would not take no for an answer. Astonishingly, although this was in mid-1970s America, not the 1670s or 1270s, he got what he wanted. When Trena’s parents refused, McElroy shot their dog, burned down their house, then forcibly took her and the baby back home, where he punished her for her defiance.
Trena told a local doctor about the abuse and arson, and he contacted social services. Facing child molestation and statutory rape charges, McElroy discovered that if Trena was his wife, she would be exempt from having to testify against him. Since she was a minor, he needed her parents’ permission. He had no trouble getting it, after threatening to burn their new house to the ground if they said no. McElroy got a child bride, and the statutory rape charges vanished.
Although Ken McElroy was illiterate – he had dropped out of school at age thirteen, without mastering basic reading and writing – he was still quite cunning. He knew that his intimidating reputation was his greatest protection, so he carefully went about cultivating and enhancing that rep. As the author of a biography that chronicled McElroy’s life and death put it:
“He knew which people to pick on — the weak people — and he followed through on his threats just often enough to make people believe he was going to do what he said he was going to do. He had a legendary status, and it all got to be bigger than he was. Somebody would hear his name, and the legend grew bigger. When he got off on a trial, it grew even bigger. It went beyond just hammering people and being mean-spirited“.
Ken McElroy firmly established himself as Skidmore’s reigning thug and town bully. People were intimidated into putting up with his crimes and violent antics for so long, that his presence and depredations just became an accepted part of life in that part of Missouri. That changed in April, 1980.
It began with McElroy’s wife and erstwhile child bride, Trena, now grown up into a nasty piece of work in her own right. She told him that 70-year-old Bo Bowenkamp and his wife Lois, owners of the local grocery store, had accused the McElroys’ four-year-old daughter of shoplifting some penny candy. Accompanied by her husband, Trena McElroy returned to the store, and subjected the elderly owners to a profanity-filled-tirade, while her husband vowed vengeance for the affront to his family. Following through on that vow is what finally did him in.
Ken McElroy offered the elderly Lois Bowenkamp cash to fight his much younger and stronger wife, Trena. When she refused, he commenced a crime spree intended to turn the Bowenkamps’ life into a hell. His antics included parking his pickup truck outside the Bowenkamps’ home at all hours of the day and night, and firing off his gun into the air.
The Bowenkamps put on a brave face and tried to go about their normal lives. That lack of fear – or at least pretense of lack of fear: in reality, the Bowenkamps were terrified, even if they refused to show it – infuriated McElroy, and led him to steadily ramp things up even more. Finally, one July night in 1980, Bo Bowencamp was standing outside his store, when McElroy drove up, pulled out his shotgun, and shot him in the neck with a deer slug.
Bo Bowenkamp miraculously survived the shooting, and the senseless murder attempt on their beloved elderly grocer finally snapped Skidmore out of the terror spell cast by Ken McElroy. After years of intimidation and ceaseless crime, the locals had had enough. McElroy was tried and convicted of first-degree assault – his first felony conviction. However, he remained free on bail pending appeal.
The residents banded together and wrote to every authority figure they could think of. Letters went to state legislators, the state attorney general, and the governor, letting them know that Skidmore lived in fear of the psychopath in its midst, and asking the authorities to do something about it. Their pleas were ignored. In the meantime, soon after his conviction, McElroy was seen in a local bar brandishing an M-1 rifle with an affixed bayonet – a clear violation of his bond – and vowing bloody revenge on the Bowenkamps and all who sided with them. It was the final straw.
Witnesses who saw an armed Ken McElroy told the county prosecutor to request a bond revocation hearing. The people of Skidmore organized a caravan to escort the witnesses to the hearing, but McElroy’s lawyer got it postponed. As a resident put it: “That was the last straw. That was the last failure of criminal justice“. If the authorities would not save them from McElroy’s crime spree, then maybe it would take a crime of their own to fix the problem.
On July 10th, 1981, the infuriated townsfolk gathered in Skidmore’s American Legion Hall. When word arrived that McElroy was in town, two men met him in his truck, and told him to leave Skidmore. They were followed by a crowd. As McElroy started his truck, some men hustled his wife Trena out of the passenger seat, and gunfire erupted. When the shooting stopped, McElroy lay slumped against the steering wheel, the engine revving at maximum RPMs with one of his feet jammed down on the accelerator. Nobody called an ambulance, and everybody just… went home.
State troopers finally arrived in Skidmore, to find that the streets were deserted. All was quiet, except for the rumbling and smoking engine of McElroy’s pickup, that nobody had bothered to turn off. Shell casings from at least two firearms were recovered, but the weapons were never found. Although at least 40 people had witnessed the public killing, the people of Skidmore kept mum.
State and federal grand juries were convened to address the crime, but other than McElroy’s wife Trena, nobody was inclined to say anything, and her testimony was deemed too weak by the prosecutors. To this day, although it happened in broad daylight in front of dozens of witnesses, the killing of Ken McElroy remains an unsolved homicide. As his lawyer put it: “I know why they didn’t talk – they were all glad he was dead. That town got away with murder“.
5. Leo Tolstoy and Canada’s Nudist Russian Terrorist Cult
Russian Doukhobors, or “Spirit Warriors“, were a pacifist and anti-materialist Christian sect that formed in the seventeenth century. Their belief that a divine spirit resides in everybody raised eyebrows. What raised eyebrows even higher was their penchant for nudity to emulate Adam and Eve, a tendency to swap wives, plus a notion that nobody has any right to worldly goods. The result was centuries of persecution. Officials especially detested the Doukhobors’ pacifism, which led them to refuse conscription into the Russian military.
The persecution’s intensity waxed and waned over the years, and ranged from beatings to imprisonment to exile to death. In the nineteenth century, the Doukhobors won over Leo Tolstoy as a patron, but his patronage was not enough to shield them. So early in the twentieth century, they emigrated to Canada in search of religious freedom. Unfortunately, they morphed in Canada from an odd sect and into a dangerous one, famous for mass nudist protests, and infamous for arsons on a massive scale and one of Canada’s weirdest crime waves.
In 1902, the Doukhobors first arrived in Saskatchewan, their emigration facilitated by Leo Tolstoy and the Society of Friends, or Quakers. At first, the Canadians saw the industrious Doukhobors as ideal settlers. However, their religious beliefs prevented them from swearing allegiance to the Crown, which led to their deprivation of title to lands that had been allotted them.
They viewed that as a breach of promise by the authorities. Embittered, the Doukhobors trekked to British Columbia, where they established drab little communal villages on government land. The sect’s leader, a charismatic figure named Peter Verigin, maintained a semblance of control over his nudist followers by flogging them with brambles. Then some Doukhobors blew him up with dynamite in 1924. With their leader’s demise, the Doukhobors fractured into rival factions, and things swiftly spun into a downward spiral of crazy and crazy crime sprees.
A radical splinter broke off from the Doukhobors in 1924, following the sect leader’s assassination. This radical splinter of what was already a radical splinter of the Russian Orthodox Church eschewed the modern world. Or what little there was of the modern world in the Canadian sticks, where they dwelt.
The splinter group encouraged their brethren to avoid the trappings of modern society in everything, from exploiting animals to electricity. Their “encouragement” went beyond adopting a simple life for themselves. Those who refused became victims of a religiously-driven crime wave. Like a deranged Quaker Al Qaeda in Canada’s back of beyond, the splinter group terrorized other Doukhobors who partook of modernity by burning their homes and destroying their material goods, while parading nude to emulate the simple lives of Adam and Eve.
Authorities were flabbergasted about what to do with the radical Russian religious migrants. Mass nude parades would probably raise eyebrows even today. Back in the early twentieth century, the Doukhobor splinter – who eventually named themselves The Freedomites – shocked sensibilities when they took to protesting in the buff. In one nudist epidemic, police sprinkled itching powder on the protesters. In 1932, the Canadian Parliament criminalized public nudity, and the courts began to penalize the Spirit Warriors’ naked protests with prison sentences of about three years per offense. When another march in the buff scandalized British Columbia in 1932, over 600 men and women were banished to serve prison terms in Piers Island, BC.
In a way, the naked protesters’ passive resistance exasperated Canadian authorities like Gandhi’s passive resistance was exasperating the British in India. More worrying was when the Freedomites went from passive protest to actively persecute other Doukhobors for being too worldly. Time after time, Freedomites turned to violent crime and raided the villages of other Doukhobors, to burn their homes and dynamite their factories as punishment for straying from the simple life.
The Freedomites waged a virtual guerrilla war in British Columbia against the modern world for decades, especially against other Doukhobors whom they viewed as backsliders. From 1923 to 1962, the Freedomites’ crime spree included over 1100 bombings and arsons. The authorities fought back with sentences of up to three years imprisonment for nude protesters and seizing the sect’s children to send to state institutions.
The violence continued, however, culminating in a series of 259 bombings in 1962 in just one region of British Columbia. Targets included ferries, railways, power lines and stations, hotels, courthouses, and the destruction of entire villages. The authorities finally decapitated the sect in March of 1962 by arresting sixty of its leaders, and charging them with conspiracy to intimidate the Canadian Parliament and the Legislature of British Columbia. With their leaders behind bars, the remaining Doukhobors rapidly assimilated into Canadian society. Relative peace has reigned since, while Canadian Doukhobor numbers dwindled from a peak of 40,000 to about 2,200 in 2011.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading