The Jazz Age of the 1920s had its dark stories, too, and these modern authors have exposed the truth behind some of the wildest crimes of the early 20th century.
The Bobbed-Haired Bandit: A True Story of Crime and Celebrity in 1920s New York
In the spring of 1924, 19 year-old laundress Celia Cooney robbed multiple New York grocery stores, making national headlines as the thief with a “baby automatic,” a fur coat, and a fashionable bobbed hairstyle. Together with her husband, the lovebird bandits ignited one of the largest manhunts in New York; they also raised serious questions about wealth and poverty, gender biases, and social class conflicts. In this book, Duncombe pulls from newspaper reports, court documents, interviews, and even popular culture songs and jokes to help explain the celebrity status of the fashionable bandit.
The Last Madam
Norma Wallace rose from lone streetwalker to glamorous madam in 1920s New Orleans. As the Queen of the Crescent City, she entertained numerous gangsters, politicians, and movie stars at her lavish brothel – until the long arm of the law came pounding at her door. Author Christine Wiltz vividly recreates Norma’s scandalous reign in this thrilling work that combines in-depth research with Wallace’s own reflections recorded shortly before her death in 1974.
Rothstein: The Life, Times, and Murder of the Criminal Genius Who Fixed the 1919 World Series
Best known as the man who rigged the 1919 World Series, Arnold Rothstein was a real-life con man ripped straight from The Great Gatsby. The notorious criminal fit every stereotype of a Roaring Twenties hood: loan shark, thief, Wall Street swindler, political fixer, rumrunner, and major player in the modern drug trade. Pietrusza’s narrative careens through secretive speakeasies and lavish parties with political shakers, showgirls, and gang lords before ending abruptly with Rothstein’s 1928 murder in a Times Square hotel room.
For the Thrill of It: Leopold, Loeb, and the Murder that Shocked Jazz Age Chicago
In the same year as Celia Cooney’s robbery spree in New York City, two young, privileged university students in Chicago attempted to get away with the “perfect crime.” Believing themselves too intelligent to be caught by the police, Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb brutally murdered 14 year-old Robert “Bobby” Franks. Later, they would claim they did it just to prove that they could outsmart the law. They spent seven months planning the murder, pouring over every detail – only to be caught soon after police found Leopold’s eyeglasses at the scene of the crime. While Leopold and Loeb’s combined wealth secured a formidable defense attorney, both were sentenced to 99 years in prison for the heinous crime. Baatz details their sordid story in his book, showing the arrogance and excess of the rich in the 1920s.
Over two days in late June, 1922, 23 men were killed in a violent clash between union miners and strike busters in Herrin, Illinois. Eighty years later, the small Williamson County town still struggles to make sense of the massacre. Author Scott Doody spent years examining just how the brutal crime altered Herrin, and chronicled his findings in this revealing book.
Secrets of the Herrin Gangs
For even more information about the bloody history of Williamson County, check out this book by Jon Musgrave, which investigates the gang scene of 1920s southern Illinois. Compiling archival interviews with Ralph Johnson, an insider with the Shelton Gang, Musgrave sheds light on the rough-and-tumble world of Illinois’ Jazz Age gangland.
Tinseltown: Murder, Morphine, and Madness at the Dawn of Hollywood
The 1920s were a wild time for cinema – Hollywood sparkled with the appeal of a new and stylish industry. Yet in the midst of its shimmering success, the movie business suffered numerous brutalities: such as the mysterious murder of William Desmond Taylor, the president of the Motion Picture Directors Association. Bestselling author William J. Mann puts his detective skills to the test, pulling from FBI files and newspaper accounts to unravel a story with a diverse cast of characters: from beautiful actresses to devoted valets, a gang of thugs to Adolph Zukor, the founder of Paramount. Mann’s true crime tale moves a electrifying pace of a thriller novel, unraveling a crime that remained unsolved for decades.
Photo: AFP / Getty; "Rothstein" cover: Basic Books; "For the Thrill of It" cover: HarperCollins