MARCH 2021


Look back, ninety years back, and you can see a Long Island village to which the Red Cross is sending boxcars, filled to the brim with 24-lb bags of flour, so that people can better fend off starvation.  Although you won't easily notice them, a few speakeasies and secret distilleries are tucked away here and there.  Recently, a gang from the City picked the village as the right spot in which to rub out its leader, and leave his body in the open.  Some prominent villagers have just started organizing Long Islanders, hoping to offer support to a baker's dozen of County police, who have been arrested for manslaughter.

This is the era of the Great Depression, and there are many places where life has turned cruel, where morality seems an unaffordable luxury, and where death waits nearby.  Hicksville is among them.



The Hands of Death

The Depression years were tailor-made made for the lurid noir pages of the New York Daily News.  Every day, they offered readers new stories, ranging from the dreary lives of the impoverished to the frivolous lives of the celebrated.  They offered vivid pictures of life, from inescapably ugly moments to magnificently beautiful ones - and of death, often steeped in tragic failure, but occasionally bedecked with dazzling accomplishment.

Now and then, Hicksville - either the village itself or, as in this case, the Aviation Country Club - provided suitable fodder:

His head hanging forward, the dying pilot sits in his cockpit.

  New York Daily, News June 6, 1930

New York Daily News, December 31, 1931

There were many ways in which people could die during the nadir of the Depression.  The Daily News regularly focused on three that were too commonplace.  Each day, it published year-to-date totals of New York City deaths that had been attributed to automobile collisions, to improperly distilled (and not only illegal, but also poisonous) alcohol, and to gunfire.

New York Daily News, December 10, 1929


Although Hicksville was not big, now and then its stories managed to push the City off the front page, as each of these did:

The body of Pretty Steve Sweeney, a victim of his own gang,
lies dumped on the grounds of the Aviation Country Club.

New York Daily News, December 22, 1930

Presumably, photographers all over Long Island kept one ear
open for nearby sirens, so that they could photograph mishaps
before the bodies were removed, and send the film to the News.

New York Daily News, October 17, 1932



The Dismal Texture of the Depression

The Great Depression ate away the flimsy glitz of the 1920s, and left grim despair in its wake.  Let's try to imagine how it felt to live amid that despair.

Obviously, unemployment was a problem, and the basic statistics are overwhelming.  National unemployment peaked at an incredible 25%, and though it began to drop, it would remain above normal for more than a decade.  In 1930, New York City was home to 7,000,000 people, and its unemployed numbered 1,000,000.  My very rough and unverifiable calculations based on these figures suggest that 2,500,000 NYC households had no income, or only a diminished income, due to unemployment.

People who had relied on non-employment income (pensions, stock dividends, rental properties, proceeds from owning businesses, etc.) also suffered.  At the outset of the Depression, both the dividend income and the asset value of many stocks simply evaporated.  Consumers (happily debt-ridden and dependent on constant easy credit throughout the 1920s) all had to curtail their expenditures at once.  Because almost everybody stopped buying things, businesses failed, pensions dried up, rent and mortgage payments disappeared.  Banks failed - with no money being deposited, they ran out of funds with which to pay the withdrawals that everyone was making from their savings accounts.

Many people were forced to sell whatever hard assets they had.  With so few people able to buy what they offered, however, sales of valuable jewels, cars, and real estate returned only "pennies on the dollar."  Many lost their homes and were forced to move in with relatives.  Others began to live as the homeless always have, squatting in empty buildings, or in makeshift shacks.  The 1930s became the decade of the hobo, as men without jobs tried adopting a nomadic lifestyle, riding freight trains in search of work and handouts. 


Evidently, it was possible for a man
to become a celebrated hobo.

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, October 13, 1932

As might be expected, the nation's suicide rate doubled, spiking sharply to an all-time high.  It would not return to normal levels until the end of World War II.  Note that the official statistics do not tell the entire story, for they omit failed suicide attempts, or intentional deaths disguised as accidents or misadventure.

Nassau Review Star, July 10, 1934


The word "starvation" is rarely used when a qualified doctor records the cause of someone's death.  Instead, a specific life-ending medical condition (e.g., heart failure) is recorded as the cause.  In fact, those who de facto starve to death die from any number of official causes, including infections and conditions which arise because of severe malnutrition.  Thus, it impossible to know accurately from official records how many Americans died of starvation during the Depression.

The picture is also complicated by the likelihood that people who became convinced of their impending starvation may have chosen to end their lives without waiting for the final suffering, and thus are considered as suicides, not victims of starvation.  And finally, there also is a probability that, in a severe state of starvation, a person may accidentally fall or otherwise sustain fatal trauma.

Whatever the numbers don't say, people did go hungry in these years, and some of them died for want of food.

New York Daily News, December 8, 1931

By 1932, communities all over the country were responding, working with charities, clerics, and the Federal government to distribute what they could to keep people alive.

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, March 31, 1932


Nassau Daily Review, March 15, 1932

Nassau Daily Review, April 22, 1932




Most people would think that the crime rate increased significantly during the Depression.  It did not.

Although there is a correlation between crime and economic hardship, especially when the latter is measured in terms of unemployment, it is not a question of simple arithmetic.  The precise relationship is not universal.  It differs from country to country, and even in a given country, it is different in different eras.  Sometimes, similar changes in employment have had opposite effects on crime rate.

Violent, brazen murder was nothing new; the crime wars of Prohibition had started long before the Great Depression.  What was new was where the battles occurred.  Crime, like water, flows along the routes of least resistance.  It may move from city to city, or from city to suburb, rising in some locales and receding in others, as new opportunities and impediments arise.  If, in a given town, almost nobody has any cash to steal, random muggings will soon stop.  If the local factory shuts down, there is no payroll to rob.

There are other factors, too.  Some sociologists hypothesize that people in need feel less desperate when they live cooperatively under the same roof as their extended family, and benefit from emotional support.

Whatever the reason(s), the national crime rate remained flat - which is another way of saying that during the Depression there was as much crime around as ever.


There were some new developments.  Economic hardship did lead to new "amateur criminals" setting up stills in their basements or garages (a fact which helps explain why so many people died from "poison booze").  The Hicksville octogenarians named below were likely in this category.


Brooklyn Daily Eagle, June 20, 1929

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, April 20, 1932

Many amateurs may have decided that they were not sufficiently desperate to dabble in other crimes, such as prostitution or armed robbery.  Of course, one cannot tell from the news items below if the people involved were professional criminals or needy amateurs.  


Brooklyn Daily Eagle, March 8, 1932

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, December 19, 1931


Long Islanders, even those who patronized speakeasies, grew worried about an incursion of gangsters from the Big Bad City .  Although criminals had always traveled between, say, Brooklyn and Hicksville , improved cars and roads now made it easier.  Believing that the NYPD had of late become better at combating crime, the Nassau County Police felt obliged to prepare for a predicted flood of fugitive City criminals.  They were ready to take action, even if that meant using machine guns to safeguard the County line.

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, August 29, 1931



Crime and Punishment,
but Hold the Justice, Please

Early in August, 1932, some prominent citizens of Hicksville got together with friends who lived elsewhere in the Town of Oyster Bay, and they established a local chapter of an organization called the Nassau County Police Protective Association.  Per its name, no ambiguity seems possible: a group with that name must have been created so that its non-police members could band together to protect the police who were protecting them.  What in the world was going on?

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, August 7, 1932

I can't pretend to know the precise agenda the group was pursuing, but the article above contains a couple of clues about why it was formed.  Some policemen were going to be put on trial, and the Nassau County Police Department's morale was allegedly suffering.

Before getting into the gist of the matter, I'll comment about the latter point.  The nation was struggling to emerge from the worst point of the Depression, and about 20,000,000 desperate people were still unemployed.  If I had been one of them, and someone had asked me to do something for, or donate money for, people who were employed but had a morale problem, my reaction would have been blunt, vehement, and definitely unprintable.  What about my morale, Bud?

All right, back to the facts....  What was the Hyman Stark story, and why did it matter?


In mid-July, four men drove to an address in Roslyn, knocked on the door, and rushed inside to rob the homeowner.  She was alone, and - contrary to their expectations - she had no hoard of jewels and cash profits from speakeasies for them to take.  Intimidation did no good; the old (64) woman had nothing.  They left the home, and she reported the robbery attempt.

The next day, the press were told by the police that she lay in Nassau Hospital , dying from having been pistol-whipped insensible.  Nassau Police had arrested the men, and had begun interrogating Stark, their leader.  Later in the day, there was a second and hurried announcement: Hyman Stark had confessed, and almost immediately afterwards, he had died without warning.

It should be added that the hospitalized woman was the mother of a County Police Detective.



New York Daily News, July 16, 1932

The following day, the police said little.  The District Attorney announced that he was investigating the police involved in the interrogation, and he hinted that he already had incriminating evidence against some of them.

Meanwhile, the press had investigated further, and it had found discrepancies between fact and the police statements.  According to physicians at the hospital, the woman had never been pistol-whipped, had never been insensible, and - with no evidence of injury - would have been released from the hospital had the police not intervened.  Hyman Stark, on the other hand - having arrived at Mineola headquarters a healthy man in his early 20s - had been brought to the hospital with fresh bruises all over his body, a severely bulging eye, and a newly fractured larynx.  He had died from a cerebral
hemorrhage of "terrible" proportions, caused by his having been beaten about the head.

The press also learned that Stark's interrogation had lasted for eight solid hours, and that for part of the time, Stark lay on the floor, while Deputy Chief Tappen (shown above), who weighed 300 pounds, had rested his foot on Stark's throat.


All these facts were known by the public when the District Attorney levied manslaughter charges against Tanner and seven policemen, and assault charges against five more.  And yet, the article about the new Protective Association refers to Stark's death as accidental.  It also implies that the District Attorney's action, rather than an unmerited and vicious beating by rogue policemen, is the cause of the Department's declining morale.

Looking back almost a century, I don't know what to make of this situation.  With the facts widely known, I don't understand why prominent and mostly well-educated men would want to hinder the prosecution of renegade policemen, who with forethought had perpetrated an unlawful killing - but then, I've seen comparable things at other points in history.



Misplaced Romanticism

It was hard to be upbeat without a job or money.  Your life had been derailed so badly that you couldn't even find the right track, let alone get back on it.  Discouragement was inevitable, and it made things even worse.  People really needed "mental health breaks," distractions that entertained and refreshed them.

If you had a radio at home, you knew that radio broadcasting was just entering its Golden Age, and it was there for you - but radios were expensive in the early 1930s.  If you couldn't afford adequate food, you were not about to buy a radio.  Movies were more affordable, if you went only once in a while, but that was a sometimes thing.  The most affordable, and also the most abundant, font of diversion was the daily newspaper.  In terms of entertainment, the newspaper was the Internet of the 1930s.  Reading it lifted you out of the dreariness of your daily existence.  The comics gave you laughter.  You could choose to follow, day after day, the life and adventures of anyone you met in the newspaper: a movie star, a socialite, a baseball player, a comic strip hero - or just maybe, a criminal.


I'm not sure that anyone followed the day to day exploits of, say, Legs Diamond, but many a small-time criminal's arrest and trial grabbed the public's attention for weeks, or even months.  People were eager to read the next day's exciting "episode," especially if the people accused were young - older readers already were very worried about how their own children or grandchildren were going to survive the Depression.

Following the latest attention-getting crime, reporters would quickly focus on one or two of those involved (if possible, young, attractive, and female).  They would collect biographical information by interviewing friends and relatives, and use what they learned to stoke public interest until a trial began - at that point, the trial would supply new material to report, and perhaps a nice conclusion.  For many readers, reading a continuing series of articles about a crime was like watching a soap opera.

New York Daily News,
March 22, 1931

New York Daily News,
January 12, 1931

Thus, when the bloodied remains of Pretty Steve Sweeney appeared on the front page - we looked at that picture earlier - although his life had just ended, his story had just begun.  From that day forward, readers would be treated to whatever the Daily News could scrounge up.  They learned that his gang had committed approximately 500 armed robberies of speakeasies in the greater New York area, pulling in an estimated $100,000.  They read that the gang members were young, some of them under 20.  Many of them had taken direction not from Sweeney, but from Peg, his gun moll, 17 years old, who - despite living with Pretty Steve - was a virgin (the doctor who examined her at the jail was happy to confirm that fact for the newspaper's readers).  The moll's mother lamented to a reporter that it was tough being an impoverished mother in Hell's Kitchen, but that Peg was still a good girl, who often attended Sunday Mass after a full Saturday night of stick-ups.

One thinks of the grandparents who read her sorry tale, dabbing away their tears, and thanking God that their own families were not like hers.



Is there a Conclusion?

Well, there's no profound one.  Let's just say that during the Depression, some people tried to help each other, some tried to prey on each other, and some people probably did both.  It was a remarkably gruesome time to endure.



The material at this educational link

provides an excellent and concise narrative of how the Depression changed America , forcing a great many working class people into a dehumanizing survival mode.


OK, this one's over.
I wonder what I'll write about next month....