2013 has been a year of fine reading for me. I have turned the pages through one
wonderful book after another. Here on October 1, if I had to pick the one that was the most fascinating, the most intriguing, this would be it. OH, my
goodness! What an eye opener! And not only is it interesting to read, but it is filled with really great photos.
It's a look back through the Roaring Twenties, and not a very flattering look, to be sure. We think all this corruption of the government, bankers, sports stars, and super wealthy that is going on now is the worst it's been for this country? Read this book. You'll get a jolt, I guarantee
Though there were undoubtedly some good things that happened in this era, Sann has focused on the scandals, the crime and corruption, sensational court scenes, and the seediness of the time. And the money, way too much, acquired illegally or immorally, wasted with wild abandon by people who didn't deserve it.
And as a final reward, then came the Great Depression. . .
Sann begins with the end of the war and the return of American soldiers. President
Woodrow Wilson left office broken in spirit with his body half paralyzed. Warren G. Harding became the next president. His corruption and lack of ethics
fit the immorality of the times, followed by Calvin Coolidge, who let the country runs itself, setting up a colossal mess for Herbert Hoover.
1920 saw the beginning of Prohibition—a real error in judgment because it couldn't (and wouldn't) be enforced—it simply created more crime, corrupted officials, and an era probably unsurpassed in mob violence.
Think we're losing constitutional freedoms now? On January 1, 1920, "The Red Raids" began. It was illegal to say anything against the president or government, and those even remotely suspected of not being patriotic, being a radical or a socialist or any other type of "subversive" were rounded up and thrown in jail, (or assassinated). Immigrants were looked upon with distrust.
One case that drew international attention was the murder/robbery trial of Nicola Sacco, who worked in a shoe factory, and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, a fish peddler. The arrest took place in 1920 in Massachusetts, and the crimes happened in two neighboring towns, Braintree and Bridgewater. Both were known radicals, (but not criminals), and overwhelming evidence placed them elsewhere at the time of the crimes. Yet they were both found guilty. When their appeal came up in 1927, Judge Webster Thayer was known to be prejudiced, referring to the men as "Dagos," "Anarchist Bastards," and "Sons of Bitches." Riots broke out all over the world in protest and people such as Albert Einstein, George Bernard Shaw, and H. G. Wells spoke out in their behalf, to no avail. They were executed in August of that year.
Meanwhile, others were taking advantage of the new wealth. Enter Charles Ponzi, one of the first of a long list throughout the decade to hop on the "Get-Rich-Quick" bandwagon. He (supposedly) was shipping money overseas to buy International Postal Union reply coupons which were then resold at a higher rate, thus making an investment of $1.00 yield $2.50. Within eight months, he had 40,000 people (mostly little suckers) invest $15,000,000. There was only one little problem—he had invested only $30 of this money. He was eventually thrown in jail until 1934, then deported to Italy. Move over, Bernie Madoff. . .
Even worse were the sports heroes who went corrupt. Such as the case of the betting scandal of eight Chicago White Sox players, who rigged the 1919 world series against themselves, allowing Cincinnati to win. The facts came out in 1920, and the trial in 1921. Hmmm. . .seems to me there was a another little problem involving Cincinnati back in the '80s starring Pete Rose. . .
Perhaps saddest of all were people of great artistic talent who could not control their lust and greed. F. Scott Fitzgerald, author of The Great Gatsby, among other well known works, could not escape the "high life." Though well paid, he and his wife Zelda spent money faster than it came in, along with their inability to control their drinking and carousing. Sann writes that "stock taking in 1924 showed that the happy couple had run through $113,000 in four years" Yet they considered themselves poor. They both suffered mental breakdowns. He died of a heart attack in 1940, she, in a fire in a sanitarium in 1948.
While the war was still going, girls changed here at home. Boys came home to a much more liberated female than they had left, hence the emergence of the "Flapper." Sann writes:
"Jauntily feather-footed in her unfastened galoshes, her flesh-colored stockings rolled below the knee and her skirt barely touching it, slender and boyish, the flapper came in to the tune of 'I'll Say She Does'—and frequently she did."
And along with that were sex-scandals aplenty, many involving murders that would
make O.J. blush.
Of course, with all this sex, drinking and corruption, as you would expect, the Church stepped in to have a say, but it often wasn't much better. Some scandals involved sex, murder, and the Church.
For instance there was the murder trial over the death of Reverend Mr. Edward Wheeler Hall, and his lover Mrs. Eleanor Mills, the choir soloist, complete with lusty correspondence. It was believed the wife and her brothers did it, but never proved.
Then there was Aimee Semple McPherson of the "International Institute of Four-Square Evangelism," her own very profitable creation. So profitable, in fact, that she built the $1,500,000 Angelus Temple. In 1926, while vacationing outside Los Angeles, she sent her secretary Emma Schaeffer on an errand, and headed for the water. When Miss Schaeffer returned, Aimee was gone, and feared drowned. However, she eventually returned, and claimed she had been kidnapped across the border into Mexico, then broke free and walked thirteen hours through the desert. The truth probably was, however, that she had temporarily run off with her radio operator, Kenneth G. Ormiston.
There were a few heroes that were not filled with the greed and corruption of the era. Enter Charles A. Lindbergh, the humble young pilot who crossed the Atlantic in The Spirit of St. Louis in 1927.
About him, Sann writes:
"With seven years of scandal, crime, and the Prohibition Follies under its belt, America was ready for a genuine All-American pin-up. It was ready for a collective love affair with someone nice, like a clean-living boy from the Midwest who wouldn't know a hip flask from a nightclub doll. Lindbergh fit the bill perfectly."
Perhaps the epitome of evil, greed, and corruption of the Roaring Twenties can summed up in one name: Scarface Al Capone. A graduate of fourth
grade from Naples, his life and deeds are described in the chapter entitled "Public Enemy No. 1," and he's undoubtedly the world's most notorious mobster.
Brought to Chicago by Johnny Torrio as a bodyguard, he quickly moved up the ranks, fighting (and winning) the competition against the other big Chicago mob,
led by Deanie O'Banion. After O'Banion's assassination, a war of revenge broke out. Capone always claimed he wanted peace and cooperation between the two
gangs. He wrote, "Forty times I've tried to arrange things so we'd have peace and life would be worth living but he couldn't be told anything."
It was estimated that Capone's empire in 1927 was worth about $105,000,000—income from liquor, gambling, brothels and other rackets. After payroll, Scarface was left with $30,000,000, although he claimed he lost $10,000,000 on horses and dice. He was eventually imprisoned and sent to Alcatraz, then released in 1939, but syphilis had taken its toll. He retired to his Miami estate and died in 1947.
There is so much interesting material in this book, I could go on and on. One other point I will make, and this is a personal observation: I was surprised at how many corrupted people came from my state of Ohio. President Harding surrounded himself while in office with the "Ohio Gang," (a group of political and industrial leaders), a number of whom eventually were convicted of criminal offenses.
And on a closing note, Sann's last section deals with the Great Depression. There are many people today who think that the wealthy will survive another financial collapse if and when it happens in our time. That may not be true. The old saying about "the bigger they are the harder they fall" would apply, because the stock market crashed so fast (beginning on September 5, 1929) that even many wealthy (including bankers) lost everything. Goldman Sachs "withered along with the old-line corporations." (Hmmm, that rings a bell.) In fact, too many incidents in this book sound more familiar than they should. One is the illusion that everyone was prosperous during this era. No, only the rich and corrupted were prosperous. The farmers and everyday normal people struggled as they do now. In any case, when the Crash was over, 30 BILLION dollars in open market values had disappeared.
This book should be required reading!
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