Crime Waves and Savage Fads From History That Were Just Unnatural
Crime Waves and Savage Fads From History That Were Just Unnatural

Crime Waves and Savage Fads From History That Were Just Unnatural

Khalid Elhassan - June 18, 2020

Crime Waves and Savage Fads From History That Were Just Unnatural
Police hassling a kid in a Zoot suit. History Channel

18. Wartime Backlash Against Teens

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.

Crime Waves and Savage Fads From History That Were Just Unnatural
Teenagers wearing Zoots in 1942. Aventuras na Historia

17. Mounting Anti-Mexican Racism

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.

Crime Waves and Savage Fads From History That Were Just Unnatural
Servicemen rampaging during the Zoot Suit Riots. History Channel

16. America’s Biggest Fashion Riot

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.

Crime Waves and Savage Fads From History That Were Just Unnatural
Two Mexican-American kids, one stripped of his suit and the other badly beaten, were victims of a rampage by servicemen during the Zoot Suit Riots. Associated Press

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.

Crime Waves and Savage Fads From History That Were Just Unnatural
Ken Rex McElroy. Jupiter Entertainment.

15. The One Man Crime Wave That Terrorized a Town

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.

Crime Waves and Savage Fads From History That Were Just Unnatural
Skidmore, Missouri. Medium

14. Scaring a Community Into Silence

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.

Crime Waves and Savage Fads From History That Were Just Unnatural
Ken McElroy. A&E

13. A Thing For Underage Girls

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.

Crime Waves and Savage Fads From History That Were Just Unnatural
Ken McElroy’s wife Trena, after she grew up. Talk Murder With Me

12. A Forced Marriage

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.

Crime Waves and Savage Fads From History That Were Just Unnatural
Ken McElroy. YouTube

11. “He Knew Which People to Pick On

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“.

Crime Waves and Savage Fads From History That Were Just Unnatural
Bo Bowenkamp. Morbidology

10. The Beginning of the End

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.

Crime Waves and Savage Fads From History That Were Just Unnatural
Skidmore. Sundance TV

9. A Campaign of Terror

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.

Crime Waves and Savage Fads From History That Were Just Unnatural
Ken McElroy’s blood-stained and bullet-riddled pickup truck. Washington Post

8. The Final Straw

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.

Crime Waves and Savage Fads From History That Were Just Unnatural
Locals inspecting the crime scene. Harry n Mclean

7. Ending the One Man Crime Wave

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.

Crime Waves and Savage Fads From History That Were Just Unnatural
Trena McElroy, center, is led to a car with her stepson Ken McElroy Jr. and an unidentified man following Ken Rex McElroy’s funeral in Maryville, Mo. in July 1981. At far right is McElroy’s former wife Alice Woods. Associated Press

6. Getting Away With Murder

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“.

Related: The Town That Got Away With Murder and Other Largely Forgotten Historic Events.

Crime Waves and Savage Fads From History That Were Just Unnatural
Leo Tolstoy. Encyclopedia Britannica

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.

Crime Waves and Savage Fads From History That Were Just Unnatural
Nineteenth-century Doukhobor women. Wikimedia

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.

Crime Waves and Savage Fads From History That Were Just Unnatural
A 1902 publication introducing Canadians to the recently-arrived Doukhobors. Prints and Ephemera

4. A Russian Cult in Canada

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.

Crime Waves and Savage Fads From History That Were Just Unnatural
Naked Doukhobors in 1903, protesting materialism in Canada. Alienest and Neurological Journal

3. The Naked Violent Terrorists

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.

Crime Waves and Savage Fads From History That Were Just Unnatural
A burning Doukhobor barn. Global News

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.

Crime Waves and Savage Fads From History That Were Just Unnatural
Freedomites. Shrine of Dreams

2. Naked Fanatics

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.

Crime Waves and Savage Fads From History That Were Just Unnatural
A Doukhobor watching a building set on fire. Pintrest

1. The Freedomite Crime Spree

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.

Crime Waves and Savage Fads From History That Were Just Unnatural
A Doukhobor child sitting by his burning home in 1962. Matador Network

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

Chicago Tribune, October 7th, 2001 – King of the Hills

Churchill, David, History and Societies, 18(1) 131-152 – Rethinking the State Monopolisation Thesis: the Historiography of Policing and Criminal Justice in Nineteenth Century England

Churchill, David, Social History, 392:2, 248-266 – ‘I Am Just the Man For Upsetting You Bloody Bobbies’: Popular Animosity Towards the Police in Late Nineteenth Century Leeds

Clement, Dominique – Canada’s Rights Revolution: Social Movement and Social Change, 1937-82 (2008)

Cracked – 6 Real Crime Waves From History That Were Hilariously Insane

Davis, Susan G., American Quarterly, Volume 34.2 (Summer 1982) – Making the Night Hideous: Christmas Revelry and Public Order in Nineteenth Century Philadelphia

Encyclopedia Britannica – Sumptuary Law

History Collection – Panic Outbreaks That Shaped History and Controlled the Masses

Gizmodo – In the 18th Century, Wig-Stealing Bandits Roamed England’s Countryside

Los Angeles Times, June 4th, 2018 – Zoot Suit Riots: After 75 Years, LA Looks Back on a Violent Summer

New York Times, September 16th, 1922 – City Has Wild Night of Straw Hat Riots

New York Tribune, September 16th, 1922 – Straw Hat Smashing Orgy Bares Heads From Battery to Bronx

Slate – The 1922 Straw Hat Riot Was One of the Weirdest Crime Sprees in American History

Taylor, Troy – True Crime Illinois: The State’s Most Notorious Criminal Cases (2009)

History Collection – Bonkers Crimes and Criminals In History

Wikipedia – History of the Metropolitan Police

Wikipedia – Straw Hat Riot

Wikipedia – Zoot Suit Riots