By Daniel Waugh
Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2010
ISBN # 978-1-59629-905-4
285 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
March 2012

The Gangs of St. Louis has a fascinating subject matter and great stories. We follow various gangster factions in St. Louis from about 1900 to the end of prohibition in December of 1933. For most part there were four primary factions: Irish, Italians, Syrians and gangs of sort of mixed nationalities, but lots of Italians always. The author identifies seven specific gangs to follow.

Despite the fascination of the tales, I was disappointed in the book’s organizational structure. However, the he book begins marvelously with a very useful three page chart of the primary gangs and major actors in those gangs. After than, the structure of the book is more chronological and even a day-by-day account. I had a strong feeling the author went through the newspapers day-by-day took the most interesting (and violent) events and stories.

This makes for fun and informative episodes, but I found it very difficult to keep the whole picture in mind of who’s who, especially when it came to gang warfare, which was significant in scope.

I would have preferred a structure that was simply gang-by-gang in each major period. However, such a structure would be especially difficult in periods of gang warfare. Fortunately the reader does get such a treatment at the very end, albeit in shorter form.

What I found especially interesting and surprising was how seemingly dumb and incompetent the gangs really were, especially when dealing with each other. They planned “raids” poorly and shot miserably – there were gang encounters with a dozen on a side, bullets flying like in a war movie, and it would end up with 2-3 guys slightly wounded.

Another fascinating revelation for me was that the police seemed to work better, shoot better and have incredibly better results when they attacked the gangsters. Yet, they just could almost never get convictions. They would seem to have the bad guys red-handed, and the courts would end up with no convictions. In one place we read:

Defense attorney Paul Richards was merciless in his cross-examination, hammering home Silsby’s [a witness] life of crime and a newspaper expose he had sold to the St. Louis Star the previous year. Flustered by Richards’s questions about his criminal past, Silsby admitted that some of his Star tales were fabricated, saying that it was a ‘newspaper’ story written for profit. It is only approximately correct. In some places it is just imagination.

Needless to say, the accused walked.

I kept wishing the author would help me better understand the structure of organized crime. Just how did they make their money? The bits and pieces are all there, but Waugh decided to concentrate on the stories of individual acts, and not put them into a more systematic account.

In memory from my reading I can see that they made money by:

  1. Straight out extortion – give us this amount of money or ELSE, and this could even be a monthly amount.
  2. Protection – you give us this amount of money and no one will bother you (including us)
  3. Robbery, especially banks, larger businesses and mail shipments of money.
  4. Burglary of homes and businesses.
  5. Through the use of unions as a front. First of all being “officers” in the union was a way of shielding money from government inquiry. But the mobsters would get cuts of deals they made with businesses, and they provided protection for the unions from the likes of the Pinkerton guards, even corrupt police and other gangs working for the businesses.

The list goes on, but I kept wishing Waugh would have given us a more systematic insight into how all this was organized and operated.

Despite these carpings and complaints, the book ends with distinction. From pages 228 – 244 the author sums up the lives of most of the leading figures in the crime world, and even the major law-enforcement officers who fought them, detailing their lives after the days of the gangs had waned. That chapter, and the final short epilogue were very informative and, for me, especially interesting.

Bob Corbett


Becoming Reading Thinking Journals


Bob Corbett