Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Joy Riders and Professional Auto Thieves in the U.S. Before WWII


From a National Insurance Crime Bureau Brochure, 1921

Wanted, Robert G. Brady 

Wanted James Roy Brock

From the FBI "Notorious Offenders File -- Gabriel Vigorito."


Joy Riders and Professionals 
Quite different in terms of criminal intent were the activities of the so-called joy rider.  Joy riders stole for thrills. In 1917 Secretary to the Detroit Chief of Police, George A. Walters estimated that ninety percent of Detroit’s auto thefts were performed by joy riders.[1] Joy riders were often groups of young men in pursuit of fun, and had a “taste for motoring.”[2] One author argued that joy riders (in all cases male) had a sexual motivation, “Some young fellow with sporty tendencies and a slim pocketbook wants to make a hit with some charming member of the opposite sex...he thinks an automobile would help him in the pursuit of her affections.”[3] After a joy ride, automobiles were often found damaged and out of gas. Historian David Wolcott has noted that in Los Angeles, “Boys approached auto theft with a surprisingly casual attitude – they often just took vehicles that they found unattended, drove them around for an evening and abandoned them when they were done – but the LAPD treated auto theft very seriously.”[4] Joy riding, usually the act of a delinquent, was so serious that young boys were prosecuted under the Dyer Act of 1919. The Federal government did not draw a distinction between joy riding and professional auto theft until 1930.[5] Congressmen Dyer called for the repeal of his own law, and to convince the U.S. House of Representatives of the need for repeal, he read a letter from the superintendent of a penitentiary:        
Of the 450 Federal Boys in the National Training School here in Washington, nearly 200 are violators of the Dyer Act, with the ages distributed as follows: Two Boys 12 years of age, 6 boys 13 years of age, 19 boys 14 years of age, 31 boys of 15 years of age, 64 boys 16 years of age, 48 boys 17 years of age, 19 boys of 18 years of age, 1 boy 19 years of age, and 1 boy 22 years of age.[6]
            Due to the capricious nature of theft for a joy ride, policemen and journalists surmised that it could be easily prevented: “It is against this class of thief that the various types of automobile-locking devices and hidden puzzles are effective…since the joy rider does more than half the stealing it follows that car-locks are more than 50 percent effective in protecting a car.”[7]
            However, more elaborate means would be necessary to stop the professional thief. Apparently the joy riding problem temporarily declined during the 1930s, but organized gangs emerged as a more serious threat and, in the process, vex authorities.  Car theft gangs or rings could be found in virtually every American urban center during the 1920s and 1930s.
              University of Chicago social scientist John Landesco spent five years during the late 1920s and the early 1930s studying organized crime, including auto theft.[8]  Landesco focused on two generations of youth who were a part of a neighborhood, the ethnic Italian "42" Gang.  One of its members described his experiences in considerable detail.  From small boys who knew each others as playmates to young adults working various rackets, Landesco's work traced the evolutionary nature of criminal behavior. Young men in the "42" Gang started their criminal activities by stealing silk shirts off of clothes lines located in the Western suburbs, only later to graduate to the theft of cars for bootleggers.  In between they shot dice, broke into vending machines ("peanut machines"),and  stole bicycles, car and truck tires, and butter and egg trucks.  Gang members quickly learned that if caught they were to keep quiet, endure beatings, and buy off the cops.  Rocco Mercantonio, a prominent member of the "42" Gang, recounted that his auto theft activities involved stealing cars to order and getting paid “$75 to $200 per car -- Fords $75, Buick or Chrysler for $150, a Peerless and Packard for $200.”[9]
Writers who addressed auto theft from 1915-1938 admitted that the professional thief could not be stopped. Professional thieves employed an array of tactics to steal automobiles. Often chauffeurs, mechanics, and garage men became thieves. Even though locks supposedly prevented theft by joy riders, professional thieves would simply cut padlocks and chains with bolt-cutters.[10] In a May, 1929 article “Tricks of the Auto Thief,” Popular Mechanics described an array of tactics. Thieves stole accessories, unlocked and started cars with duplicate keys, “jumped” the ignition by placing a wire across distributor and coil to the spark plugs, ripped-off car dealerships, and towed cars away.[11]  “Some thieves make a specialty of buying wrecked or burned cars as junk…they receive a bill of sale, salvage parts which they place on stolen cars, and so disguise the finished automobile as a legitimate car for which they have the bill of sale.”[12]One method was called “kissing them away.” It involved an individual breaking into a car, and being unable to start it, a “confederate” would push the stolen car with his own from behind. The car would be moved into a garage or alley and promptly dismantled.[13] Thieves used interchangeable parts to confuse authorities. In 1925, Joe Newell, the head of the Automobile Theft Bureau in Des Moines, Iowa, stated, “the greatest transformation that takes place in the stolen machine is in the clever doctoring of motor serial numbers…this is the first thing a thief does to a car.”[14] Automobiles were branded with a serial number that corresponded to a factory record, a number that preceded what is now known as a Vehicle Identification Number (VIN).  However, thieves used several tactics to change the numbers. The “doctoring” of numbers involved filing down numbers and branding a new number into the car, or changing single digits. In a detailed article entitled “Stolen Automobile Investigation,” William J. Davis noted, “It is possible for a thief to re-stamp a 4 over a 1; an 8 over a 3 where the 3 is a round top 3; a 5 over a 3; to change a 6 to an 8, or a 9 to an 8, or an 0 to an 8.”[15] In Popular Science Monthly, Edward Teale noted that: "the automobile stealing racket in the United States has mounted to a $50,000,000-a-year business. During the first six months of 1932, 36,000 machines disappeared in seventy-two American cities alone. In New York City, $2,000,000 worth of cars was reported stolen in 1931."[16]
            Over time professional auto thieves came up with their own lexicon.  A "Bent" or "Kinky" was a stolen car; "Breezer," an open tourer; "Clean One," a car from which all identifying numbers were erased; "Consent Job," an automobile stolen with the owner's consent for the purpose of collecting insurance; "Dauber," was a car painter who worked quickly; "Dog-House,"" a small garage used as a safe house for stolen cars until they cooled; "Right Guy," a dealer who buys stolen cars; "Slicker," a stolen car newly painted; and finally a "Stranger," a stolen car taken from a distant location. Additionally, auto thieves purportedly had their own proverb, namely "Never steal anything you can't steal right away."[17]
            Gangs developed sophisticated automobile theft operations from the expert driver to expert mechanic.[18] The “clouter” actually stole the car and the “wheeler” drove it to the “dog house.” The thieves were concerned with stealing the popular, middle priced, widely used makes. Gangs often specialized in a certain make or model. One New York gang “scrambled” the stolen automobiles: “a number of machines of the same make and model are stolen at the same time…wheels are switched, transmissions shifted, bodies’ changed, and engines transferred from one car to another.”[19]  Other times gangs would use the “mother system.” Under this system, thieves stole a certain make, had a fake bill of sale made, and changed all of the serial numbers to be identical with the bill of sale. Ultimately, four or five of the same car, with the same serial numbers and bill of sale, existed.[20]
            Rings existed in virtually every major American city during the Interwar years, and several of the more sophisticated organizations had connections in multiple major urban areas as well as business links to affluent suburbs.  With the coming of the Great Depression, desperation caused even the respectable to participate in the gangs, often in leadership roles.  For example, William Stanley Hayes, a 44-year old Yale graduate was arrested in 1930 for acting as a "high-powered salesmen for a gang active in New York, Chicago, and the Connecticut suburbs. Hayes, who claimed to work for two persons higher up in gang hierarchy whom he could not positively identify, joined the ring after his work as a jewelry salesmen had dried up and he found himself several months behind with his hotel rent.  Uncovering prospects, demonstrating cars that were already in stock, or arranging for the stealing of cars to order, Hayes offered stolen vehicles at attractive prices -- some 40% off list value.  With altered license plates and motor numbers, these cars were often difficult to trace. Indeed, it was only by chance that Hayes was caught. As it turned out, an unlucky Hayes happened to be walking down the street when a duped customer, in the company of police, ran into the erudite crook.[21]
            Professional auto theft rings often offered stolen cars to order for its customers.  One well-equipped gang  of three in Brooklyn, for example, used its supply of bogus bills of sale, Motor Vehicle Department forms, and an ingenious "jumper box" to steal and sell some 25 cars in only two or three months. Guaranteeing delivery within 24 hours of order, the trio included a Brooklyn Sanitation Department worker who served as "spotter," while the other two used an assortment of tools to pry open locks and connect starter motors. The "jumper box," which police described as being unique, featured a magneto and wires to connect a vehicle's distributor with its starter, thus by-passing the ignition switch. [22]
            The more sophisticated the gang, the more sophisticated the technology employed and the broader its geographical sweep. [23] One New York City gang stole most of its cars in Connecticut and then brought the vehicles to Manhattan. [24] Another ring took vehicles from the suburbs and then disassembled them in a plant in New York City. [25] If auto parts were not readily disposable or were too bulky to process, they were dumped on what became the site of the 1939 New York World's Fair. [26] In both of the above cases, the rackets were family affairs, employing husbands, wives, and brothers, whose day jobs were car salesmen, chauffeurs, and garage owners.  Finally, there was the New York City based gang that operated in a number of adjacent states and that possessed, among other things, notary seals and a stamping machine. The New York Times reported that this group of car thieves and dishonest dealers had profited some $750,000 in a complex operation involving precisely counterfeited motor and serial numbers as well as the paper and ink for registrations and bills of sale.[27]
            The American mafia certainly had a presence in auto theft activities before World War II, but F.B.I. leadership continued to deny the existence of a widespread tight knit organization of criminals until the late 1950s.  Indeed, as one author has asserted: “J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI on one hand, and the Mafia on the other, grew and prospered together, neither causing the other the slightest anguish. This has been the greatest, most obvious and most inexplicable failure of the FBI.”[28] The success of the Mafia was its ability to gain political protection for its activities, and until that political protection broke down in the late 1950s, it was immune to prosecution and the curtailment of its various illegal activities.[29]
             Hoover's primary target in the years both before and after World War II was undoubtedly in the Mafia circle. In 1936, J. Edgar Hoover penned an article about the gangster and international car thief Gabriel Vigorito (a.k.a. Blah-Blah Blackman). He had amassed a $1,000,000 fortune from automobile theft.[30]   Blah-Blah's Brooklyn-based business marketed his “hot cars” to Persia, Russia, Germany, Norway, Denmark, Belgium, and China.  In 1934, authorities convicted Blah-Blah to ten years in prison, but that would not end a career that extended to the mid-1950s.  Historically, the point is poignant; the automobile trumped not only state lines, but national lines.
            The rise of the global automotive industry paralleled the growth of global theft rings. In 1936, the Roosevelt Administration made a treaty with Mexico for “the recovery and return of stolen or embezzled motor vehicles, trailers, airplanes or the component parts of any of them.”[31] The treaty prompted a convention with Mexico in 1937 to address the stolen automobile problem, a problem which went back to the time of the Mexican Revolution, and intensified after World War II.[32]



[1] Roy Lewis, “Watch Your Car,” 169. W.S. Rowe Chief of Police of Cleveland estimated that in 1916 that a majority or autos were stolen by joy riders.
[2] The All-Conquering Auto Thief and a Proposed Quietus for Him,” 112.
[3]“Two Kinds of Motor Thefts – Real and Imagined,” 50. 
[4]David Wolcott, “The Cop Will Get You,” p.358.   
[5] The official distinction was drawn in Impson v. State, 47 Ariz., 573, 1930. See also William R. Outerbridge et al, “The Dyer Act Violators: A Typology of Car Thieves.” School of Criminology, Univ. of California  (January, 1967), iv-v
[6] Quoted in Jerome Hall, “Federal Anti-Theft Legislation.” Law and Contemporary Problems, 1 (Oct., 1934), 428.  See also “Undoing Dyer,” Time Magazine, (March 24, 1930), 13.      
[7] “The All-Conquering Auto Thief, and a Proposed Quietus for Him.” 112.
[8] John Landesco, "The Life History of a Member of the "42" Gang," Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, 23 (March-April, 1933), 964-998.
[9] Ibid., 980-84.
[10] Edward C. Crossman, “How Your Automobile May Be Stolen.” Illustrated World, (March 1917), 34.
[11] “Tricks of the Automobile Thief,” Popular Mechanics Magazine, May 1929, 772-773.
[12]Ibid, p.774. 
[13]Ibid, p.773.
[14] “Joe Newell Recovered 630 Stolen Automobiles Last Year,” American Magazine, February 1925, 67.
[15]William J. Davis, “Stolen Automobile Investigations.” Journal of Automobile Investigations, 28 (Jan.-Feb. 1938), 732.
[16]Edwin Teale, “Auto Stealing Racket Now $50,000,000-a-Year Racket” Popular Science Monthly , January 1933), 13.
[17] Atcheson L. Hench, "From the Vocabulary of Automobile Thieves," American Speech, 5(February, 1930), 236-7.
[18] See Thomas J. Courtney, “Hot Shorts,” Saturday Evening Post, Nov., 30 1935, 12. See also William G. Shepard, ”I Wonder who’s Driving her Now?” Colliers, (July 23, 1927), 14.
[19] Edwin Teale, “Auto Stealing Racket Now $50,000,000-a-Year Racket,” p. 96.
[20]“Joe Newell Recovered 630 Stolen Automobiles Last Year,” p. 67.
[21] “Prisoner Says Ring Stole Cars To Order,” New York Times, September 18, 1930, p.1.
[22] Ibid., p.1.
[23] “Auto Gang Seized; Guaranteed Loot,” New York Times, January 13, 1932, p.31.
[24] "Seized as Car Theft Ring," New York Times, October 12, 1935, p.3.
[25] "Held as Auto Theft Ring," New York Times, October 13, 1945, p.25.
[26] "6 Arrests Expose Big Car Theft Ring," New York Times, July 24, 1937, p. 3.
[27] "Big Car-Theft Ring Bared by O'Dwyer," New York Times, January 4, 1942, p. 42.
[28] Fred J. Cook, “Organized Crime: The Strange Reluctance,” in Pat Watters and Stephen Gillers, eds., Investigating the FBI (Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, 1973), p. 140.
[29] Thomas A. Reppetto, Bringing Down the Mob:  The War Against the American Mafia (New York:  Henry Holt, 2006, pp. 8-9.
[30] J Edgar Hoover,   “Bla-Bla Blackman.” American Magazine, (September 1936), 32.
[31] Mexico—providing for the recovery and return of stolen or embezzled motor vehicles, trailers, airplanes, or the component parts of any of them: message from the President of the United States transmitting a convention between the United States of America and the United Mexican States for the recovery and return of stolen or embezzled motor vehicles, trailers, airplanes, or the component parts of any of them, signed at Mexico City on October 6, 1936 (Washington: G.P.O., 1937).  The Bush Administration made similar treaties with Panama (2000), Honduras (2001), and Guatemala (2002).
[32] Convention with Mexico providing for the recovery and return of stolen or embezzled motor vehicles, trailers, airplanes, or the component parts of any of them: report to accompany Executive A, 75th Cong., 1st sess. (Washington: G.P.O., 1937).



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