Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Automobiles and Singing the Blues during the 1930s

Sleepy John Estes

Singing the Blues about Automobiles and Life
            In the 1920s and1930s it was Blues artists – often coming from humble and racially restricted worlds – that recognized the car as being symbolic of freedom and unrestricted mobility. As Blacks living in a world of very limited freedom in the Jim Crow American South, their artistic expression – the Blues – contained the message that the car was liberating in terms of personal privacy and social and financial emancipation. It was a message of hope to those living in the Mississippi delta, connected as it was by U.S. Highway 61.
            Post–WWI Blues singers often sang about Fords, and especially the Model T. It was a hard working and durable machine, built by workers who included those who were Black. It was a car ignored for its virtues, as were the African-Americans who were working the cotton fields in the vicinity of Greenville and Natchez, Mississippi. One musical example expressing the notion of neglect was Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “DB Blues,” released in 1928. One lyric proclaimed “A Packard is too expensive, Ford will take you where you want to go.” Seven years later, Sleepy John Estes echoed a similar theme in his 1935 “Poor Man’s Friend.” Jefferson sang, “The Model T Ford is the poor man’s friend.” Indeed, while a Cadillac might have been in their dreams, it was more than likely a Ford that was the friend of African-Americans living in the Delta who were fortunate enough to purchase any car before WWII.
            As E. C. Widmer has so insightfully pointed out, there were strong sexual innuendoes in Blues songs, and that included tunes referring to cars.43 In 1926 Virginia Liston lamented that her “Rolls Royce Papa” had a bent piston rod:
Daddy I'll drop you in my garage: and that's no doubt
I'm going to wipe your windshield: cut your taillight out
Your carburettor's rusty: this I really mean
Your gas tank's empty: won't hold gasoline
Your windshield is broken: it ain't worth a cent
Your steering wheel is wobbly: your piston rod is bent
Your fender's all broken: your wheels ain't tight
And I know doggone well: your spark plugs ain't hitting right44
A year later Bertha Chippie Hill, in “Sports Model Mama,” claimed to receive punctures everyday.
The most important car-related song of the period was the 1936 Robert Johnson hit, “Terraplane Blues.” Johnson used the car-human being metaphor to the limit:
And I feel so lonesome, you hear me when I moan
When I feel so lonesome, you hear me when I moan
Who been drivin' my Terraplane, for you since I been gone.

I'd said I flash your lights, mama, you horn won't even blow
(spoken: Somebody's been runnin' my batteries down on this machine)
I even flash my lights, mama, this horn won't even blow

I'm gion' heist your hood, mama, I'm bound to check your oil
I'm goin' heist your hood, mama, mmm, I'm bound to check your oil
I got a woman that I'm lovin', way down in Arkansas

Now, you know the coils ain't even buzzin', little generator won't get the spark
Motor's in a bad condition, you gotta have these batteries charged
But I'm cryin', pleease, pleease don't do me wrong.
Who been drivin' my Terraplane now for, you since I been gone.

Mr. highway man, please don't block the road
Puh hee hee, please don't block the road
'Cause she's reachin' a cold one hundred and I'm booked and I got to go

Mmm mmm mmm mmm mmm
Yoo ooo ooo ooo, you hear me weep and moan
Who been drivin' my Terraplane now for, you since I been gone

I'm goin' get down in this connection, keep on tanglin' with your wires
I'm gon' get down in this connection, oh well, keep on tanglin' with these wires
And when I mash down on your little starter, then your spark plug will give me fire45
            Johnson’s songs served to lift the spirits of those oppressed and downtrodden during the bleak Depression years. It would be after WWII, however, with unparalleled prosperity and automobility, that music would take on broader societal significance to a far broader audience. And it would be the Blues tradition, drawn on by both Black and White artists after the war that would set the stage for the birth – in the back seat of an automobile, so to speak – of rock and roll.46

Stealing Cars -- Brands most likely to be stolen during the 1920s

Hot Cars
Thieves stole a range of models, but mostly low-priced Chevrolets, Plymouths, Chryslers, and Fords.[1]  For example, in Buffalo, New York, between May 15 and July 15, 1924, the following makes of cars (and numbers) were reported stolen:[2]
Make of Motor Vehicle
Number Reported Stolen, May 15 to July 15, 1924
Wills St. Claire
Willys Knight
The Automobile Protective and Information Bureau reported a similar distribution of makes and models stolen during 1920-21 on a national scale; recovery figures averaged less than one third of the vehicles initially taken, with Ford’s being her overwhelming choice of car thieves, followed  by Buick, Hudson, Cadillac, Chandler, Studebaker, and Overland.[3]
Place mattered.  Automobiles were most likely to be stolen in business or entertainment districts, where individuals parked the same models in the same place. Often a thief caught red-handed simply claimed that they had hopped in the wrong car. When interrogated by a judge, one thief explained why he was in the wrong Ford: “Because both cars are Fords, and all Fords look alike, not only to me but to their owners.”[4] Charges were dropped. Despite preferences to steal the commonplace vehicle, elite and unusual automobiles such as the Auburn, Cadillac, Franklin, and Packard, were not exempt from the threat of theft. Expensive cars were stolen, disassembled, and repainted.

[1] William J. Davis, “Stolen Automobile Investigations.” Journal of Automobile Investigations, 28(Jan.-Feb. 1938), 731-732.
[2] “Automobile Record Book for 1924,” Buffalo New York, in possession of author.
[3] Automobile Protective and Information Bureau, Annual Report, 1920-21, pp. 19-21.
[4]  The Literary Digest, July 17, 1920.              

Monday, December 15, 2014

The 1919 Dyer Act and the Curbing of Automobile Theft

Pierman McCoy, inmate at Leavenworth Prison 1927 for the Dyer Act
The Dyer Act (1919)
“To cope with this problem,” Arch Mandel wrote in 1924, “police departments have been obliged to detail special squads and to establish special bureaus for recovering stolen automobiles…this has added to the cost of operating police departments.”[1]   Consequently, the increase in mobility was matched by a growth of government. The cost of police work in cities with populations over 30,000 rose steadily from approximately $38,000,000 in 1903 to $184,500,000 in 1927. The cost of police work in state governments also rose from approximately $98,000,000 in 1915 to $117,000,000 in 1927.[2] To combat auto theft, state governments created license, registration, title, and statistical bureaus and urged the federal government to become involved. E. Austin Baughman, Commissioner of Motor Vehicles of Maryland, cited 1919 as “the climax of an epidemic of car stealing” with 922 cars stolen, 709 recovered, and 213 missing.[3] Baughman urged the country to adopt a Title Law; indeed, by 1919 the states of Michigan, Indiana, Virginia, Delaware, Missouri, North Carolina, Florida, Pennsylvania, and Maryland had such laws on the books. The title law assured all motor vehicles could be identified and located through the name and address of the owner on record.  In 1920, Massachusetts developed a similar program under the used-car department of the Department of Public Works.[4] States that did not pass title laws were a nation-wide liability and became alleged “dumping grounds” by neighboring states.[5]
Given the losses incurred by insurance companies and the interstate nature of automobile theft, federal intervention was forthcoming. The automobile nullified state boundaries and contributed to the nationalization of crime fighting. Arch Mandel wrote in 1924 that: “State lines have been eliminated by the automobile [and the] detection of criminals is becoming more and more a nation-wide task.”[6]  In 1919, Congress passed the National Motor Vehicle Theft Act, which received the appellation of its sponsor, Senator Leonidus Dyer. In a speech promoting his bill to the Congress, Dyer asserted that "It is getting so now that it is difficult for the owners of cheaper cars to obtain theft insurance due to the great loss that insurance companies have sustained.  During the past year, automobile theft insurance on this class of cars has increased 100 percent."[7]
            Yet if we are to believe one source, it was not Dyer but the insurance industry that should be credited with this important piece of federal legislation. [8]   In essence, it was the motor vehicle that greatly extended federal crime fighting power across state lines.  In 1918, Chicago insurance investigator E.L. Rickards visited Michael Doyle of the American Automobile Insurance Company, and it was Doyle's connection with Dyer that resulted in a law that was a response to the problem of the interstate transportation of stolen vehicles.  Dyer Act enforcement became the responsibility of the United States Attorney General and the Bureau of Investigation, although it took several years and some prodding on the part of insurance interests before federal authorities became actively engaged in enforcement.[9]   Details remained over jurisdiction and venue.  One question that quickly surfaced centered on where would an automobile thief be prosecuted: namely, at the point where the car was stolen or at the point of apprehension? NATB officials went to Washington and met for two days with Bureau of Investigation Director William J. Burns, Bureau of Investigation Assistant Director J. Edgar Hoover, and Assistant Attorney General Jess Smith.   As a result of the conference, it was decided that prosecution would take place at the place where the thief was caught. Furthermore, the Dyer Act promulgated that thieves receive fines of $5,000 and 10 years in prison, or both. The American Automobile Association and the insurance industry lobbied Congress to pass the Dyer Act, which proved to be key to federal policing in all kinds of crime, especially bootlegging and bank robberies during the 1920s and early years of the Great Depression.[10]
            Controversy followed the Dyer Act from its beginning to the post-WWII era.   One main point of contention in the courts and coming from many an accused auto thief centered on the phrase "knowing to be stolen" written in sections 3 and 4 of the law.[11] Yet, did the word "stolen" in the statute also apply to embezzlement and common law larceny?  Local, state, and federal courts, and the Department of Justice, would be asked to interpret the intent of Congress in numerous cases involving both joy riders and organized rings.  While the phrase "knowing the same to be stolen" was sufficient to include the act of joy riding, post-WWII legislators, concerned over juvenile delinquency and the rise of white, middle class crime among youth, would discuss the narrowing of the Act to restrict the offense to more serious crimes. Indeed, there are hundreds of boxes of correspondence at the National Archives in which the documents reflect the ambiguity of the law and the subtle nuances involving everyday people.[12] Cases involving misunderstandings concerning the use of a car, the purchase of vehicles not known to be stolen, and harsh justice directed towards juveniles were frequent and painfully recounted in letters to the Attorney General, J. Edgar Hoover, and President Roosevelt.  On local and state levels, the wording of legislation was often rephrased so as to constitute a new offense, namely "the operation of a car without consent of the owner."[13] Whatever the motives and legal wrangling, consequently between 1922 and 1933, auto thefts were the most prominent federal prosecution of interstate commerce.[14]
In 1926, Henry Chamberlin reported a considerable increase in legislative activity in various states in the face of the ever-increasing incidence of car theft.  This increase in legislative activity at the state level reflected the beginnings of a modification in the general perception as to the identity of the car thief.  Up to this time, fairly general agreement was to be found among experts and the public. He was perceived as a professional criminal who worked largely in gangs -- a predator who would be deterred by the threat of severe punishment.  By the late 1920s, however, some correctional administrators and legislators began to question the single image of the car thief. In a few states this questioning became reflected in legislation which recognized the difference between an auto theft by an offender bent on financial gain, as opposed to that by a youngster bent on pleasure.

[1] Arch Mandel, “The Automobile and the Police,” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 116 (Nov. 1924), 193. 
[2] Bennet Mead, “Police Statistics.” pp. 91- 93.
[3] E. Austin Baughman “Protective Measures for the Automobile and Its Owner,” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 116(Nov., 1924), 197.
[4] “Checking Automobile Thefts As Massachusetts Does It,” Literary Digest, (October 9, 1920), 84.
[5] James E. Bulger, “Automobile Thefts.” Journal of Criminal Justice and Criminology, 23 (Jan.- Feb., 1933), 808. 
[6]Mandel, “The Automobile and the Police,”p.193.
[7] From the Congressional Record, 66th Congress, 1st sess.,1919, LVIII, Part 6, 5471
[8] NATB, p.24-5. William R. Outerbridge, Joseph D. Lohman, Albert Wahl, and Robert M. Carter. Supplemental  Report. The Dyer Act Violators:  A Typology of Federal Car Thieves. Typescript, School of Criminology, University of California, January, 1967, p. ii.

[9] Automobile Protective and Information Bureau, Annual Report 1920-1921 (N.P.: n.p., 1921).
[10]Ernest M. Smith,  ”Services of the American Automobile Association,”  Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 116 (Nov.1924), 273.
[11]  Clipping, "U.S. Agents Prepare to Hunt Auto Thieves," 1919, Vertical File "Theft Prevention," National Historical Automobile Collection, Detroit Public Library. "Federal Courts Divided over Meaning of the Dyer Act," Columbia Law Review, 57 (January, 1957), 130-2. Congressional Record, 58 (1919), 5470-8.
[12] Record Group 60, General Records of the Department of Justice, Formerly Classified Subject Correspondence, 1910-1945. Class 26, Dyer Act.  For example, see Mrs. T.E. Young to Director, April 4, 1933, Box 1870, File No. 26, Folder 3; A.J. Roberts to Homer S. Cummings, October 8, 1934, File No. 26, Folder No. 4; Morris Rockway to President of the United States, January 9, 1937, File No. 26, Folder No. 5; Antoinette Aleanor Paveligo to President Roosevelt, July 18, 1940, Box 1871, HM 1991.
[13] Leonard D. Savitz, “Automobile Theft,” The Journal of Criminal Law, Criminology, and Police Science, 50 (July-August, 1959), pp. 132-143.  See also United States Senate, 84th Congress, 1st session, Committee on the Judiciary, Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency: Report 61 (Washington: GPO, 1955).
[14]Edward Rubin   “A Statistical Study of Federal Criminal Prosecutions” Law and Contemporary Problems, Vol. 1 Extending Federal Powers over Crime (Oct., 1934), p. 501.  

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