MAKING THE TWENTIES (AND THIRTIES) ROAR
By Charles M.B. Smith
The St. Valentine's Day Massacre in Chicago, 1929. (UPI)
Although the proportion of Thompson submachine guns misused by Prohibition-era gangsters and Depression-era bandits was minuscule compared to the thousands used by American soldiers and lawmen, it is their lurid employment by hoodlums that is perhaps best remembered.
In part we can thank the likes of Jimmy Cagney and Edward G. Robinson for this (personally I prefer Robert Taylor defiantly blazing away at the Japanese in the final scene of "Bataan"). Another reason is that the Thompson saw the most misuse in a day and age when some bandits actually sent out press releases (Remember "The Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde"?). The bandits loved the notoriety and a Depression-weary public ate it up.
The fact that the Thompson featured in a few spectacular front-page crimes did nothing to help its image. The best known of these is no doubt the notorious "St. Valentine's Day Massacre" of 1929 when henchmen of the sinister Al Capone, who had conveniently alibied himself to Florida, mowed down seven members of the "Bugs" Moran gang in a Chicago garage.
The truth was, the tommy gun was no more popular during the Beer Wars of the Twenties than "assault weapons" are with criminals today, for much the same reason -concealment (The tommy-gun-in-the-cello-case ploy probably worked for about a week). Gangland assassins, then as now, generally preferred a pistol at close range, or if silence was needed, an icepick or garrote.
The Thompson was popular with most of the Depression-era bandits; most, but not all. The Barrow gang preferred 1918 BARs looted from National Guard armories, which they used to hose down pursuing police cars. Their nemesis, Capt. Frank Hamer of the Texas Rangers, preferred the model 8 Remington, and when his posse shot down the murderous couple in 1934, only one Thompson, wielded by a Louisiana deputy, was in use.
John Dillinger posing with a Thompson and the wooden pistol he claimed he used in breaking out of the Crown Point, Indiana, jail in 1934. (Wide World)
The infamous George "Machine Gun" Kelly got his nickname from the Thompson he used on a summer night in 1933 to kidnap oilman Charles Urschel from his home in Oklahoma City. Ursehel was later released unharmed. Kelly did not have his Thompson, or much else, on him when agents of the FBI caught up to him. The terrified outlaw is reputed to have screamed "Don't shoot, G-men, I give up!!!" when they put the collar on him, thus accounting for the Feds' famous nickname.
Thompsons, generally looted from small town police stations, along with early-day body armor were a favorite item for Public Enemy No.1, John Dillinger. The Dillinger-Nelson gang, along with their sometimes-cohort, Charles Arthur "Pretty Boy" Floyd (Oklahoma's contribution to the blemishes on the backside of society) liked to carry Thompsons with the buttstock removed and a 20-round clip in place of the familiar drum magazine. This way the gun could be concealed under an overcoat, and, if shooting was involved, fired one-handed, leaving the other hand free to carry loot, grab hostages, or steer the getaway car.