Babe, Bad Guys and Bootleggers

“This was a period of gangs in the big cities and big time gangsters such as Dillinger, Bonnie and Clyde, Machine Gun Kelly and Al Capone.

John Dillinger

I remember seeing the pictures in a magazine of the famous Valentine’s Day massacre when Al Capone had seven gangsters shot, and hearing the grownups talk about the Leopold-Loeb trial for the thrill murder of fourteen-year-old Bobby Franks. We were living in Jackson when the Lindbergh baby was kidnapped. Most of the crime was taking place in the larger cities, and we were pretty far removed from it.

“During Prohibition alcohol was illegal, but people continued to make it and there was more drinking than ever. We would see men limping around, and Mama would say they had ‘jake leg’ from drinking homemade beer. Then the law was repealed and it became legal in many states but not in Mississippi. Bootleggers flourished, and you could buy it from small stores and service stations all over the state. There was never any shortage of liquor in Mississippi. The bootleggers paid off the sheriffs, making them about the highest paid officials in the state.

“We were not afraid to be out at night or to walk home from somewhere at ten o’clock. Most of the time doors were left unlocked, and we would never have thought of locking one in the daytime. If a salesman came to the door, which they frequently did, you thought nothing of inviting them into the living room. In those days, magazine salesmen knocked on the door almost daily, as did vacuum cleaner salesmen, book salesmen, etc. Drugs were unheard of except for a few derelicts who were known as ‘dope fiends’ because they were addicted to things like paregoric.

“There was a lot of emphasis on sports, with boxing or prize fighting and baseball being the most popular. Heroes like Babe Ruth in baseball and Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney in boxing were household names.

“The Depression was brought home to us when nearly every week some man would show up at the kitchen door asking for something to eat. All across the country this was happening as men wandered around looking for work. Some of them were not bad looking, but were just down on their luck. Mama would always fix them something and then they would go on their way. It was pathetic. One time Mama got taken in, though, when this woman came to the door with a pitiful tale of not being able to feed the children and begging for some groceries. It turned out her daughter or granddaughter, Pinkie, was in my class, and Mama said she was sure Pinkie would be so embarrassed if she knew. So she went to the cabinet where she kept the canned goods and loaded up a box of food for her. She found out later that the woman had gotten groceries from numerous other people as well as several churches.”

Pinkie is identified in that 1930 class picture from previous posts, but I just can’t bring myself to enlarge her image and put it online. She may still be alive and scarred by the indignities of the Depression and her mother’s desperation. Sara and Jessie may have been a bit harsh in their judgement after discovering the woman’s scheme. With luck on one kind doorstep, and no telling how many hungry children at home, perhaps she just kept going until someone slammed the door in her face, gathering as much food as possible when the future promised no relief. Who could blame her?

Sara never knew riches, but she never seemed to feel that she lacked for anything, either. There was one memorable episode when our East Adams refrigerator went on the blink, and Sara made some comment in front of Cathy about not having the money to buy a new one. Cathy came down to the neighbor’s house where I was playing, crying and saying we were going to be poor. Naturally, I scooted right home and confronted Sara about this developing calamity. By then she had composed herself and shuffled some of those cash envelopes and was headed to J.D. Lanham’s. She reassured me that the Criss clan could handle this bump in the road, and we did. Daddy, who had spent an entire year living off field peas and crows in the mid-’30s, knew that there’s more to life than a new refrigerator or the latest car. I’m grateful for their diligence and their example, and I honestly can’t think of one thing I ever needed growing up that I didn’t have. Maybe we should put a committee of Depression Children, armed with an accordion file and cash envelopes, in charge of the American Treasury.

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About sec040121

Hello....I'm in possession of a priceless collection of memoirs and memorabilia left by my mother, Sara Evans Criss. She was a native and lifelong (88 years!) devotee of our small town, who covered this peculiar and volatile corner of the world for 30 years as the Memphis Commercial Appeal's Greenwood bureau chief, a job that started out with debutantes and high school football and wound up spang in the midst of one of the twentieth century's most enduring social upheavals. This blog is dedicated to her memory and the legacy she left behind, both for her family and her community.
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