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Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Sister of the Road: The Autobiography of Boxcar Bertha (Drama)

Author: Dr. Ben Reitman

Publisher: AK Press; New edition edition (May 1, 2002) (originally published in 1937).

Paperback 207 pages

          This is in fact a work of fiction, presented as an autobiography. The main character is an amalgamation of several hobo women that the author had met and interviewed over the years. The main character is an unconvincing personality who takes to the hobo lifestyle to experience everything she can of the world. Being raised by her mother to believe in free love and communism (though that word is not actually used), she has an odyssey through America as a tramp.
          While the story of female hobos was not often discussed in the literature of the time, the impact of the realities of life for them (prostitution, the possibilities of rape, etc.) is minimalized by the obvious fact that the author is pushing an agenda. He was a devout communist/anarchist and if you had only read his account you could easily believe that the whole of the hobo community was made up entirely of freewheeling labor union communists, struggling against religion and society, trying desperately to redefine dignity in existence. That every woman on the road had chosen to be there, was revolted by marriage, and an advocate of “free love”. That they were all one happy family, going to lectures at the International Workers of the World clubs, swinging their legs off of edge of speeding trains, and singing protest songs.
The author Dr. Ben Reitman
But, as we have seen in the autobiographies of Jim Tully and Carl Panzram, this was not the case. While it is true that a leftist agenda had been infused in the poorer sections of the United States populace in the 1930s, a natural result of the Great Depression, it was not as uniform as the author represents. Also it must be noted that once the depression was over and many of those people gained jobs, they felt their need for communism slip away.
He does offer us many case histories of the actual women hobos at the time and gives us snippets of their background. He collected these working in the public sector for relief agencies and the Chicago Society for the Prevention of Venereal Disease. And several historical figures from the underbelly of American life and the labor struggle may have been forgotten had they not been included in the text.
It is interesting that many of the things the author advocates for have come into being. The most obvious one is abortion. Reitman himself was an abortionist and perform many of the then illegal operations (according to him) as he offered free services to the poor, hobos, and prostitutes. The other is birth control and the distribution of methods of it, which also was outlawed at that time (except for the rhythm method). The author had previously served six months in prison for advocating and distributing pamphlets on birth control. In fact his life story is much more interesting that the book he wrote.
However the author constantly returns to the subject of free love and the idea that marriage was slavery for women. One of the characters stating that, “If I had a baby, I would feel free to dash its brains out.”  He goes into so much detail in fact that it seems like fantasy wish fulfillment. The main character swaps lovers easily, sharing one with her sister and mother, happily works as a prostitute giving most of her money to a pimp (she just wanted “the experience”), contracts syphilis and gonorrhea, but it “doesn’t bother her too much”, and so on.  While the ideas and descriptions of women working as prostitutes might have been shocking in 1937, it is almost mundane nowadays. Fifty Shades of Grey having inured us to many of these ideas. I often reflect how people back in the day would react to that text.
Amazingly this book was made into a feature film in 1972, starring David Carridine and Barbara Hershey, and directed by Martin Scorsese.  Called Boxcar Bertha, it is only loosely based on the book as there is no real narrative to speak of in it. In it she is a labor-organizer who fights against corrupt railroad companies then gets sucked into a life of crime. This is nowhere in the text. Most reviews give it a solid “ehhh”.

           For more readings, try books by Rex Hurst. 

Monday, January 23, 2017

Panzram: A Journal of Murder (Crime, Autobiography) (True Crime)

Author: Thomas E. Gaddis & James O. Long (with additional  material written by Carl Panzram)

Publisher: Amok Books (November 1, 2002) (original published as Killer 1970 by Macmillan Company)

Paperback 312 pages.


“In my lifetime I have murdered 21 human beings. I have committed thousands of burglaries, robberies, larcenies, arsons, and last but not least I have committed sodomy on more than a thousand male human beings. For all these things I am not the least bit sorry. I have no conscience so that does not worry me. I don’t believe in man, God nor Devil. I hate the whole damned human race including myself.”- Carl Panzram
Mass Murderer Carl Panzram
          An incredibly brutal, partial autobiography of Carl Panzram, amass murderer and serial sodomist. His confession was written in prison and given to a guard, Henry Lesser, that he had befriended. Due to its very shocking content and roaringly immoral tenor (even more appalling in 1930 when Panzram was executed) it was not published for 40 years.
          The author’s back up Panzram’s account with official files and information as available, occasionally making corrections in the chronology or adding details that he was not aware of. Included is also much of the correspondence (written independently of his confessional autobiography) between Lesser and Panzram, which gives a much rounder view of the killer’s character. The letters show intelligence and a jaundiced affection towards the only person Panzram “didn’t wish ill upon.”
          Gaddis and Long do a very detailed and interesting background account of the various prison’s Panzram is interred within. From Dannemora to Levenworth, the display the commonplace brutality and punishments, the inedible food, and the overcrowding of a system bent completely towards punishment, rather than rehabilitation.
Cover of the original edition
          Panzram’s case story takes a strange turn during his murder trial, he crushed a foreman’s head in with an iron bar while imprisoned at Levenworth. He decided to represent himself and plead not guilty, but openly stated his intent was to gain the death penalty and be executed. Similar to Gary Gilmore in the 1970’s this caused quite a stir at the time and questions of sanity were brought into play.
          The popular perception is that state executions happened every other day back in the old times and were almost a routine matter. Kansas, where the prison was located, had abolished capital punishment as had seven other states. Even then implementing a death sentence was much rarer than it is today.  Panzram had killed a federal employee however so his trail went before a federal judge. As such he is eventually executed in a state that had no death penalty.
          Several attempts are made by various anti-death penalty groups to appeal to the president to have Panzram’s sentence commuted to life imprisonment. These attempts angered the inmate and he wrote several letters threatening them, claiming his motto was, “Rob ‘em all, rape ‘em all, and kill ‘em all.” He even sent a letter to then President Hoover informing him that he would reject any amnesty or commutation of sentence, stating that it was his constitutional right to be executed.

          Also of interest is the large number of historical individuals that Panzram seems to have run across over his life. Beginning with him burglarizing the apartment of former president William Howard Taft. He also indirectly crosses paths with Henry F. Sinclair, the richest man in American history to go to prison. He was given one year for contempt of Congress due to his refusal to answer questions about the Teapot Dome Scandal. Lesser was his guard and mentions Panzram to him. Apparently he worked for Sinclair's company, Sinclair Oil, in Guatemala and when fired, burned the rig down. Finally, Panzram was also locked up in Levenworth with Robert F. Stroud, the famous Birdman of Alcatraz. Stroud mentions Panzram in his book and unsuccessfully tried to get him a razor so Panzram could commit suicide, rather than be hanged by the state.
         While the material is fascinating, Panzram often follows into patterns of self-aggrandizement typical of many prison and criminal memoirs. He hates all of society, blames it for being who he is, blames his upbringing (which is believable), and in the end hates himself most of all. He yearns for his death because he could never not be who he is.

           For more readings, try books by Rex Hurst. 

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Beggars of Life: A Hobo Autobiography (True Crime)

Author: Jim Tully

Publisher: AK Press; 1st Nabat Ed edition (November 1, 2003) (original printing 1924)

Paperback 256 pages.

          “The imaginative young vagabond quickly loses the social instincts that help to make life bearable for other men. Always he hears voices calling in the night from far-away places where blue waters lap strange shores. He hears birds singing and crickets chirping a luring roundelay. He sees the moon, yellow ghost of a dead planet, haunting the earth.” – Jim Tully
          An autobiographical romp of the nearly forgotten writer Jim Tully who started his formative years as a tramp riding the rails, dodging railroad detectives, and begging for food on every stop. Tully is considered the co-father, along with Dashiell Hammet, of hard boiled literature. He writes with a blunt, brutal style, occasionally mixing in similes to offset the amoral attitude of the author and his companions. This is the first in the author’s five volume autobiographical underworld collection.
Jim Tully
          It is in itself a slice of life of a long dead slice of Americana. An underground society that no longer really exists. Showing the inner workings of the transient hobo society pre-WWI. Its vagaries, brief friendships, and the often violent encounters between hobos and regular society and amongst themselves.
           He describes the three different strata of the drifter class in those days. The hobos who were poorly paid workers, field hands, who drifted from one poorly paid harvesting season to the next, and who rode the rails clandestinely to save money. The bums who were pure beggars, inclined to do as little work as possible (which describes the author). And the yeggs, the criminals, who went about breaking safes and robbing at every stop. The yegg were at the top of the pecking order, as they usually had the most money and were the most willing to beat down anyone who opposed them.
Cover of the 1928 edition
          It has no true plot and is strung together as a series of vignettes of the author’s remembrances from the road. This is presumably because he did very little but beg, hop trains, and read books stolen from public libraries. There are several other characters whose background he describes in detail, but only a few. The author didn’t seem particularly friendly to others.
          The book, a smash hit in 1924, was made into the film Beggars of Life in 1928 starring Louise Brooks and Wallace Berry. It is a very loose adaptation of the book, stringing together several of the vignettes into a tale of a girl who, after killing her abusive step-father, tries to escape the country with a young vagabond. She dresses as a boy, they hop freight trains, quarrel with a group of hobos, and steal a car in their attempt to escape the police, and reach Canada.  It is notable mainly for being Paramount’s first feature film with spoken words.
Film Poster for 1928's Beggars of Life
          This may not be for everyone’s taste. It has very little detail and a short abrasive style. Not at all nostalgic and extremely open about the criminality and evilness lurking beneath the surface of society, the book is well presented and rightly considered to be a classic.

           For more readings, try books by Rex Hurst. 

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Out of the Night: The Memoir of Richard Julius Herman Krebs alias Jan Valtin (Autobiography, Crime)

Author: Jan Valtin (nom de plume)

Publisher: AK Press; 1st Nabat Ed edition (May 1, 2004) (original printing 1941)

Paperback 720 pages.

Finished Reading: 1/12/2017

Amazon Listing, or Original Hardcover Edition

          A very detailed and interesting autobiography of Richard Kreb a well-traveled man who had in his life worked for the communist, fascist, and capitalist causes (the International Comitern & the GPU, the Gestapo, and the American Army). His life begins in in post-World War I Germany during the 1920’s where there is political chaos, runaway inflation (a loaf of bread costs 1,000,000 marks) and massive unemployment.
             The young Kreb follows in his father’s footsteps becoming both a sailor and a communist agitator. Enthused by the idealism of the communist cause he participates in much picketing, strike organizing, outright sabotage, mutiny, and open rebellion (ie the doomed Hamburg uprising of 1923). As time goes on he feels the crunch of the soviet boot on his neck. He views with disgust the upper levels of the communist leadership in the free counties with their fine living and hypocrisy.
He describes how the leftist influence, under the direction of the Soviet Union, spent as much time undermining organizations with similar goals, but were not under their control, as fighting the systems they were supposedly against. He demonstrates again and again where the communist agitators would be ordered to cause a strike only to have their superiors subvert said strike by ordering Soviet ships in the striking port to be the only ones loaded and unloaded, improving the finical stability of Russia, but cutting the throats of those striking.

Hitler rises to power and he is captured, tortured, and imprisoned by the Gestapo. Eventually he is ordered by the GPU (the pre-KGB) to attempt to infiltrate the organization. He convinces Hitler’s henchmen that he has renounced his former faith and is welcomed aboard as a new Gestapo agent. 

The author Richard Krebs, alias Jan Valtin
As time goes on his beliefs are eroded away, especially during the Stalinist purges of the early 30s, where many of his friends were recalled to Moscow and shot for petty reasons.  He describes the atmosphere as one of constant suspicion where all of his former close knit comrades not denounced and gathered information on each other.  He is especially savage in his descriptions of Ernst Wollweber who he saw turn from a passionate revolutionary into a corrupt bureaucrat. But the author had by then spent so much of his life, even sacrificing his wife and child, in the Comitern’s employ he does not know where else to go.

He presents here the revolutionary’s dilemma where ideals and rhetoric give way to practicality and inevitable corruption. For every populist movement eventually gives birth to a demagogue and the requisite cult of personality. Which always leads to the destruction of its most faithful followers, prison camps, and firing squads. We have seen this again and again: Hitler, Lenin, Stalin, Castro, Pol Pot, Franco, etc. And all of them have succeeded on the backs of men like the author, who gave up everything only to then be betrayed.

His story doesn’t end here though. Krebs followed up with a further book after he defected to the US and was drafted into the army, fighting with the 24th infantry in the Phillipines for World War Two. The second memoir is called Children Of Yesterday: The 24th Infantry Division in the Philippines, which I plan to read and review at a later date. The author died in 1951 of an undefined illness, which may have been in part psychosomatic.

       For more readings, try books by Rex Hurst.