Critics, Crooks, and Crime Fighters of the 1930s

The 1930s spawned a gaggle of colorful critics and crusaders who made themselves heard above the hard times. Following are just a few of them:

Huey Long

He was a traveling salesman, a lawyer, and a world-class demagogue. Huey Long was elected governor of Louisiana in 1928 on a populist platform, and he actually did some good things for the state, such as making school textbooks free and improving roads and highways. But he also ran a corrupt administration that was not above roughing up, blackmailing, or slandering those who opposed him.

By 1930, the “Kingfish” was as close to an absolute dictator as there was in the country. He controlled the legislature and, after winning a U.S. Senate seat, refused to promptly vacate the governor’s office, thus holding both jobs for a while.

Originally an FDR supporter, Long broke with the White House mostly for egotistical reasons. He proposed a “Share Our Wealth” program that called for confiscating family fortunes of more than $5 million and annual incomes over $1 million and guaranteeing every family $2,500 a year, a homestead, and a car.

Long had a national following and announced he would run against FDR at the head of a third party in 1936. Private polls showed he might garner 4 million votes, enough to tip the election to the Republicans. But he never got the chance. In September 1935, Long was shot to death on the steps of the Louisiana capitol by a man whose family he had ruined.

Francis E. Townsend

Francis Townsend was an elderly California doctor who was selling real estate in Long Beach in 1935 when he had an idea that he just couldn’t help sharing: providing $200 a month for life to everyone 60 or older. It would be financed by sales taxes, and every pensioner would have to spend his entire pension every month, which Townsend said would stimulate the economy.

Actually, more experienced economists pointed out the scheme would take half the national income to provide for 8 percent of the population.

Despite the crackpot smell of the idea, “Townsend Clubs” sprang up all over the country, with as many as 5 million members. The idea gradually died out after Roosevelt proposed the Social Security system.

Charles E. Coughlin

A Roman Catholic priest, Charles Coughlin was, after Roosevelt himself, the best radio orator in America. Broadcasting from the Shrine of the Little Flower in Royal Oak, Michigan, Coughlin was a super-patriot who ripped into Wall Street, big business, and oppressive bosses. Originally, he supported FDR, but soon he became an ardent foe, advocating the nationalization of banks and ripping into Roosevelt as a communist tool of Jewish bankers.

Coughlin created the National Union for Social Justice, which drew more than 5 million members in less than two months. But his increasingly shrill attacks on Jews and Roosevelt created a backlash, and by mid-1940, the bombastic cleric had quieted down considerably.

Despite the fact that their schemes were pretty looney-tunes, FDR’s more vocal and visible critics did put some pressure on him to continue to press for reform, especially during his first term.

“I am fighting communism, Huey Longism, Coughlinism, Townsendism,” FDR said with some exasperation. “I want to save our system, the capitalist system [but] I want to equalize the distribution of wealth.”

Meanwhile, a guy named Hoover was fighting “outlawism.”

Bad guys and G-men

While some were coming up with political proposals to redistribute wealth, others had a more pragmatic approach: They stole it. The 1930s saw the rise of the modern outlaw. Instead of six-guns and horses, they used Tommy guns and Fords. Some of them became folk heroes, robbing banks that many people felt had robbed their customers.

There was Charles “Pretty Boy” Floyd, who reportedly robbed more than 30 banks and killed ten men before he was gunned down in 1934. There was Arizona “Ma” Barker, whose gang consisted mainly of her four sons and who died in a shootout with the law.

There were Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, a pair of Texas lovers-robbers-murderers who became folk heroes despite the fact that many of their fellow desperadoes regarded them as trigger-happy bunglers. And there was John Dillinger.

An Indiana native, Dillinger robbed a grocery store in 1924 and was caught. He did nine years in prison, and when he got out he started a 14-month crime spree that made him one of the most famous, or infamous, men in America. Dillinger killed ten men, engineered three daring jailbreaks, escaped from two gun battles with the law, and stole as much as $265,000.

He also became something of a Robin Hood. “Dillinger does not rob poor people,” a fan wrote to the newspapers. “He robs those who became rich robbing poor people. I am for Johnnie.” In the end, such popularity did Dillinger little good. Federal agents killed him in 1934 as he left a movie theater in Chicago.

Fighting the bad guys were the G-men, a nickname given to Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agents by George “Machine Gun” Kelly. The G stood for government, and the head G-man was an owlish-looking, fiercely intense man named J. Edgar Hoover. As head of the FBI, Hoover combined a fanatical sense of duty and a flair for public relations to make his agency a beacon of heroism and integrity.

Serving as director from 1924 until his death in 1972, Hoover was one of the most powerful figures in 20th-century America. His almost pathological hatred of communism, his dictatorial manner, and his unethical and, quite probably, illegal use of the bureau against political and personal enemies eventually stained his name. But in the 1930s, millions of American boys wanted to be him.

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