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gangsters, 1930's crime, ransom kidnappings, South Dakota history


On January 31, 1934, three federal agents and three policemen converged upon a barbershop on Chicago's North Side. Positioning themselves in the shop's rear room and in a funeral parlor next door, they waited with an expectant air. Before long a bald, unshaven man ambled into the shop, waved hello to the proprietor, and settled into the chair. The barber lathered up the man's face and wrapped it in a hot towel; then, with the customer completely at ease, he turned to pick up his razor and quietly pressed a buzzer hidden beneath the shelf. The special agents and policemen charged out from their hiding places, guns drawn. Two of them pressed the barrels of their weapons against the customer's head. "Don't move, Verne," one of the lawmen said. "You're under arrest." 1 With that, the agents apprehended Verne Sankey, widely considered to be "Public Enemy Number 1." Although his reputation has faded in the intervening decades, Sankey was notorious in the early 1930s, one of the most celebrated gangsters in an era full of them. Sensationalized media coverage, coupled with a federal "war on crime," turned men such as Al Capone, Machine Gun Kelly, John Dillinger, and Pretty Boy Floyd into household names, fixtures at the top of the much-hyped "Public Enemies List." Radio listeners and newspaper readers eagerly tracked the careers of these infamous men, greeting each new exploit with a mixture of alarm and fascination. As Richard Gid Powers observes in G-Men: Hoover's FBI in American Popular Culture, "[N]o sooner was [one] culprit killed or captured than another 'mastermind of crime' was nominated to take his place as 'public enemy number one. Verne Sankey earned this unofficial title in 1933 after kidnapping wealthy Colorado businessman Charles Boettcher II. For ten months he remained at large while a national audience intently followed the case. No crime, it seemed, engrossed the public quite like ransom kidnapping. The abduction of Charles Lindbergh, Jr.- "the crime of the century"- had dominated the headlines for months in 1932, and it followed a string of earlier kidnappings of wealthy Midwestern businessmen.

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Colorado History



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Colorado Historical Society


© 2004 the Colorado Historical Society.


This article originally appeared in Colorado History, 10, 37-56. Posted with permission.