Not long ago we here at the DGIS studio were pleasantly surprised when gangster author and criminal historian Rick Mattix stopped by the studio. Rick is the co-author of The Complete Public Enemy Almanac as well as the founder and editor of the On the Spot Journal. Since Rick is interested in both early law enforcement as well as the criminals I thought it would be fun to interview him in true early 20th century New York Detective fashion. To that end Rick was escorted into a sound proof room with a solitary light bulb. Fifteen minutes later I entered with a couple of brutes. Following is a transcription of the actually tape.
Dead Guys In Suits: Well, well, well. Look what the cat dragged in.
Rick Mattix: Yer getting’ nothin’ from me, copper. Get that light outta my face! I’m no rat.
DGIS: Ok Mattix, make it easy on yourself. When did you get into 1920’s and 1930’s gangsters and what attracted you to the subject?…come on quit stalling….fine that’s the way you wanna play it.
SFX – fists connecting with flesh.
Rick Mattix: OW! -- WHAT THE -- ? O.K., I'll spill it. Enuff of the rough stuff, already. Ever since I was a little tyke, I've had a historical bent. Always fascinated with the likes of Napoleon, Davy Crockett, Battle of New Orleans, etc. Somehow got even more bent, only in the direction of historical crime.
Part of this I attribute to a near-fatal overdose of the old Untouchables TV series with Robert Stack, when I was ten or so -- those old cars and guys shooting from the runningboards with Tommyguns are evocative images at that age. And I was always hearing stories from my mother, Mom, and my father, Dad, about John Dillinger. What a clever sumbitch he was, always evading the cops and when they did catch him breaking outta jail with a wooden gun. "Smartest bank robber since Jesse James," they say and they could only trap cuz some tramp girlfriend put on a red dress and spotted him for the cops, who shot him coming out've a Chicago movie house. At this point Mom would pontificate that obviously CRIME DOES NOT PAY. Dad would insist that the country would be better off today if we had more Dillingers instead of street punks holding up gas stations. He insisted that John had done good for the country by getting the money outta the banks and back into circulation during Hard Times…
DGIS- Hate to interrupt but just realized we haven’t hit you in awhile, boys…
SFX- Smack, punch, crash
DGIS- Please continue.
RM- Course in 1967, the movie Bonnie and Clyde came out. My parents remembered them too tho my first thought when they dragged me to a theater to see it was "Who the f--k are Bonnie and Clyde anyhow?" Not being from Texas I'd never heard of 'em but gathered from my parents' talk that much of the story took place in our home state of Iowa at about the same time as Dillinger and guessed they must be local legends.
The film, historically inaccurate as it turned out to be, was great entertainment for a teenager and a flood of sensational detective magazines appearing on the newsstands afterward confirmed for me that B&C had once been as well known as Capone, Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd, Baby Face Nelson, Legs Diamond, and a horde of others whose names at least were already familiar to me thru late-nite TV showings of old gangster movies. I started collecting and reading books to learn the truth.
DGIS- Hear that boys? We got ourselves a reader. Well see if you can read this.
SFX- Punch, slap, crunch
DGIS – Ok, get on with it.
RM- In later years, between making a mundane honest living, I started spending my vacations visiting the sites of old robberies, shootouts, etc., and doing serious research which eventually led me to the late Joe Pinkston at the old Dillinger Museum in Nashville, Indiana. I passed some of my findings on to Joe, he shared his many years of research with me and also put me in touch with a crazy sumbitch in Chicago named Bill Helmer, who worked for Playboy and spent his free time running down Dillinger, Capone, and Barker-Karpis Gang addresses in his neighborhood. Helmer I already knew by reputation as the author of the definitive classic history of the Tommygun and as founding member of the John Dillinger Died For You Society. We shared our findings and Bill put me in touch with other lunatic gang researchers around the country.
DGIS – Yeah, well let me introduce you to another crazy sumbitch. Rubberhose, please say hello to Mr. Mattix’s kidneys.
SFX – Fwaap, fwaaap, fwaaap
DGIS- Anymore about this Helmer guy?
RM – Bound by a similarly warped sense of humor, and common interests in horror films, hillbilly music, firearms, sex and violence, plus a common passion for learning the truth behind the gangster legends of old, a Helmer-Mattix literary partnership was inevitable. Hence, The Complete Public Enemy Almanac.
DGIS: Good now we’re getting somewhere. It seems that in the past ten years or so this subject has really exploded with numerous new books on various gangsters as well as legions of people who are fascinated by the era and the hoodlums themselves. What do you think accounts for the new wave of interest?....Well?...Fine, boys.
SFX – a sap slapping a skull
RM: OWWW! #^$@$*@/+=&@#!!! Cut it out. Lemme alone. I'll talk already!I think there's always been an interest. Publishers have just been slow to catch on. The release of FBI files in the 1980s I think rekindled a lot of spark in folks like us. I know it did me. It made it possible to confirm or deny a lot of the old legends we'd grown up with. And small presses and vanity publishers made writing suddenly accessible to many. A lot of the "Old West" buffs are also into gangsters and I think they provided some of the drive there too, as many of them of them belong to organizations such as NOLA or WOLA or Oklahombres who publish journals that members contribute to. It's always exciting to turn up new details or revise old accounts and writing articles is just a step toward writing a book. Now major publishers are starting to show interest, not just in gangsters but in historical crime generally.
DGIS: That’s better. Here’s a handkerchief clean yourself up.
RM: Gimme a broom handle instead and I'll show you where you can put that hanky!
DGIS: Oh, smart guy eh? Boys.
SFX – Head repeatedly knocked onto table top.
RM: OUCH!!!!!!! Motherf--ker! Enough already, I'll talk!
DGIS: Ok Mattix, I want you to spill everything regarding the On the Spot Journal. C’mon now, I’m tired of playing footsies.
RM: On the Spot Journal is a quarterly mail-order publication. Scholarly yet entertaining, it covers crime and crime control in the early Twentieth Century tho the focus is on the classic gangster era of the 1920s and '30s, a period in which technology, politics, and other factors caused a mushroom growth in both industries.
We don't glorify gangsters. We cover both sides, cops and robbers, as well as non-gangster crimes, prisons, criminology and forensics, capital punishment, the legal system, "yellow journalism" media of the day that elevated common thugs into folk heroes, etc. Our articles are as factual as possible and professionally documented.
Our contributors include both noted crime historians and talented newcomers, even relatives of a few personalities of the day. Each issue also carries a tribute to a fallen law officer whether famous or not. Besides historical articles we also carry news features on things like the Johnny Depp movie Public Enemies, the annual Bonnie & Clyde Fest in Louisiana and so forth, and book reviews.
In some ways it's an extension of The Complete Public Enemy Almanac. Too much happened in the era to ever cover in the pages of any book. Plus, publishers are mainly interested only in the headliners (Capone, Dillinger, B&C), who really comprise only a minute portion of what was happening back then. Some of the most interesting stuff is material that'll never be covered in detail in the books. And with the demise of American detective magazines, we're one of the few regular articles outlets available these days to crime historians.
We've been in business for a couple of years now and have subscribers throughout North America and Europe. Currently, it's a 50 to 60 page journal in stapled magazine format. Some past issues have varied greatly in length and until recently it was spiral bound.You can check us out at here. Tell us you saw this at DGIS or that Pat Downey sent you and we'll knock ten per cent off the subscription price.
DGIS: Ok, I lied, I actually like playing footsies, but if you tell anyone It’ll be just to bad for you. Time for some fun stuff, if you were a Prohibition era gang boss which 20’s-30’s gangsters would be on your dream team and why?
RM: Capone for sure, just for the intimidation value of his name. Legs Diamond, who I understand you're biographing at the moment, always ahead of the law with a knack for making witnesses disappear and a tough guy to kill besides. Dutch Schultz, who rose to power in an incredibly short time, had a great talent for organizing new criminal enterprises or muscling into old ones, and who probably would've saved everyone in NYC a lot of trouble if he had been allowed to knock off Tom Dewey. Gus Winkeler, who seems to have been the brainiest of the St. Valentine's Day hit team. Dean O'Banion, Bugs Moran, and all that fun North Side crowd in Chicago. I'd throw in a few outlaw types too: Alvin Karpis, the brains of the Barker-Karpis combine; Verne Miller, who'd go to any insane length to help out a friend or get revenge; and maybe Barker-Karpis gangster Lawrence DeVol, the epitome of the stone killer. I'd include Dillinger too for name value and because he seemed to get along so well with his partners. He and Karpis could handle the robbery department.
DGIS: Now, before we let you go, is there anything else we should know? Planning on writing any books? Articles? Bad checks?
RM: Only certainty is the last. Just kidding. For now On the Spot keeps me busy. I did intend at one time to do a book on the Barker-Karpis Gang and might yet, either on my own or in collaboration with someone. A couple of authors have suggested teaming with me on this project. It needs to be done but I'm not really much into book writing. I is better as an editor. But that's another thing I've considered is editing an anthology volume, possibly of old detective mag articles. There was a lot of good information in those, along with a lotta bullshit. On the Spot keeps me off the streets and outta mischief tho. Keeps the wife busy too as she's the Creative Editor and Gal Friday.
DGIS: That better be the truth or else. What the hell, give him one for the road.
SFX – Hamfist to stomach
DGIS: Ok, well that was fun. Thanks for stopping by Rick. How’d you like your authentic 1920’s NYPD grilling…Rick?....Rick? Quick turn off the re-