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Thugs Are Just Drawn That Way

(This  Stripped column originally appeared in the October 15-21, 1998 Long Island Voice. Click on the artwork for a larger image.)

by Beth Hannan Rimmels


"Guys like you tend to cling to the bowl no matter how many times you flush."

— Nick Fury in the TV movie Nick Fury: Agent of SHIELD 

President Clinton probably thinks he took a pummeling in Congress last week on the impeachment inquiry vote. But back in the good old days, politics was an even rougher business, and a senator once was savagely beaten right on the Senate floor by a congressman. So things could be worse, Bill.

On May 19, 1856, Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts deliver a fiery, abolitionist speech that singled out Senator Andrew Pickens Butler of Sough Carolina for having made the "harlot slavery" his mistress. Three days later, Rep. Preston "Bully Boy" Brooks, who was Butler's nephew, charged into the Senate chamber and began beating Sumner with his walking cane. Not only did none of the members of the legislature attempt to intercede, but the senators from Georgia also laughed through the entire attack. Brooks continued the assault even after Sumner fell unconscious and only stopped when he was exhausted. Sumner, permanently blinded in one eye, took three years to recover. From the day of the attack until secession, pistols and knives became a common accessory in both houses of Congress.

That's just one of the fun stories in The Big Book of Little Criminals (Paradox Press, $14.95). Like the rest of the Big Book series, it's a collection of black-and-white illustrated true stories that are as entertaining as they are hard to believe. the introduction defines "little criminals" as "those minor-league characters who, through perseverance or simple circumstance, managed to earn a place on the roster of big-time criminals" I'd disagree slightly since it also lists well-known perpetrators like Ma Barker and Leona Helmsley, but most fit the above definition.

A prime example is "Mr. 880: The One-Dollar Counterfeiter." Emerich Juettner was an Austrian immigrant who supported himself and his dog by fixing up old junk. Making a living was hard though, so in 1938, he decided to make more money by making money. The forgeries weren't very good, particularly since Juettner was a poor speller, but he took care to pass them at busy times, such as rush hour on the New York City subway system. A nickel fare paid by one of the phony dollars netted Juettner a 95-cent profit. Juettner was also careful to never spend one of his fakes in the same store twice..

Due to his careful habits and lack of greed — the Secret Service had never had someone forge singles before — Juettner escaped arrest until 1947. His undoing was a fire in his apartment building that not only killed his beloved dog but led to the discovery of his counterfeit plate. He served a nine-month sentence and was so well-lied that the guards and cons chipped in to buy him a present when he was released..

Another cool true-crime tome is The Big Book of Thugs (Paradox Press, $14.95). The main difference between Thugs and Little Criminals is that, as writer Joel Rose says in his introduction, "thugs" come in groups...there were no singular thugs." The first illustration is, appropriately, of the Thuggee secret society of assassins that plagued India from the 1550s to the 1880s, from which the word "thug" derives.

The tales cover notorious street gangs, vigilantes, crime gangs from the Old West and more. The Civil War origin of the dispute between the Hatfields and the McCoys is recounted, a savage feud much more bloody than the Hollywood version.

Not all of the thugs profiled are ill-educated, uncouth loots. Mother Marm Mandelbaum, a Prussian immigrant, amassed power and wealth as the "queen of fences" in 1840s New York. She even set up a training program for children to become pickpockets. Talented students graduated to advanced classes in safecracking, burglary and blackmailing. Marm was an early feminist who passionately promoted female criminals and took pride in teaching them the tricks of the trade. Infamous pickpockets Darby Kid, Black Lena Kleinschmidt and Sophie Lyons, the latter considered the most renowned confidence woman of all time by the coppers, were all devoted students of Marm. Not exactly what Susan B. Anthony had in mind when she preached equality of the sexes but excellent proof nonetheless.


Column 1998 Long Island Voice. Artwork 1998 Paradox Press.