Why are outlaws a provocative bunch, their criminal endeavors enticing? What is it about lawbreakers that popular culture has embraced, whose cold-blooded exploits of criminal, vicious behavior against innocence and humanity are illuminated, even celebrated, in various mediums such as television, film, and music? Perhaps it is the criminal’s cruel gift to silence decency and conscientiousness that allows the animal inherent within all of us to roar, to intimidate, to frighten . . . a feat many of us would love to exercise, but few are actually willing to practice, since normal people worry that their peers might think them mad. Scary. After all, it was Stephen King who wrote, “I think that we’re all mentally ill; those of us outside the asylum only hide it a little better-and maybe not all that much better.”
In fact, the thesis of King’s essay, “Why We Crave Horror Movies,” focuses on “exorcising” the demons living inside each of us, which are born from the constant pressures of living in a modern, increasingly more difficult, dog-eat-dog society. As members of a civilized, rational society, we release these demons by riding roller coasters or watching scary movies, things that makes us feel as if we’re on the verge of real danger. It’s better to feel as if our own demise is eminent or watch someone else’s torture from the safety of a roller coaster car or cushioned theater seat…or else indeed go mad. Normal folks, that is, even-tempered, civilized people, relish in their private fantasies about inflicting the highest degree of pain (without getting caught, of course), to those who have wronged them—such as the shameless employee who gains favor with the boss by gossiping about others, or the driver cruising in the passing lane, or the teacher who intimidates and shames their kid. But “normal” people don’t act according to the masochistic schematics conjured in their own imaginations; normal people squelch these inner desires to torture and kill, passing them off as exactly what they are: fantasies. But criminals are not normal people.
They don’t subscribe to the same ideals of right and wrong. Unlike “normal” people, criminals do live their lives according to their own philosophies; their roadmaps for life are grooved with dark, twisted, uninhibited tendencies constructed in the recesses of their mind, a space where the rules of the common, decent populace don’t exist. Lawbreakers are provocative for these reasons; it’s why we normal folk want to discover what makes them tick, what drove them over the edge, and what makes us want to ride along with them on their journey over the precipice of human decency.
Reading the title of T. Lindsay Baker’s book Gangster Tour of Texas (2011, Texas A&M University Press, 318 pages, index, B&W photographs, paperback, $21.00), it seems readers are in for an dark dive into the sociopathic makeup of Bonnie and Clyde, The Newton Boys, Machine Gun Kelly, and other perhaps lesser-known, but nonetheless, “legendary” criminals of the late 20th century, like doctors Hartman and Kitchen who, together with the clandestine assistance of a local sheriff, managed to establish one of the most successful morphine drug rings in Texas. This is the stuff of American lore and legend, but it’s not a key element in this book. Instead, Gangster Tour of Texas details various locations in Texas, from small towns to major urban areas in the early 20th century, where some of America’s most infamous criminal exploits took place.
Each chapter focuses on gangsters who were active in the early part of the 20th century, when times were tough economically; and Prohibition and the Great Depression served as the social milieu against which some of America’s most infamous crimes were committed. Early in each chapter Baker provides a biographical sketch of legendary criminals like Bonnie and Clyde, names woven into the fabric of American popular culture. Baker offers brief expositions regarding when and where the criminals were born, and what they were doing with their lives just before they began a career in crime; but not to the extent that the book becomes a biography of the perpetrators’ lives. Just before the details of the lives of the likes of such celebrated criminals like Bonnie and Clyde get interesting, Baker switches the narrative focus from the human interest factor, and peppers the story with numbing specifics about the physical location of actual crime scenes. The author provides addresses and other specific details relative to the scene of the crime; which is why the book is aptly titled a “tour” of Texas, but it is not quite a “gangster tour” as the title suggests. Gangster Tour of Texas focuses more on the places in which crimes were committed, rather than providing character studies of the people responsible for the crimes. It is this imbalance which stops Baker’s book from being a stellar altogether interesting composition about what drove some of America’s most famous criminals to live on the wrong side of the law.
However, the book is at once a handsome showpiece rich in historical black and white photographs, mostly featuring private homes, places of business, as well as various civic buildings like city halls. There are also several images of the criminals themselves, various witnesses, as well as members of the law, some directly or indirectly connected to the criminals’ death or eventual capture. The photographs of buildings offer readers focal points in which to physically place specific crimes, such as the home of Lillian McBride, where Clyde Barrow shot and killed Deputy Sheriff Malcom Davis on January 6, 1933. Baker explains that the McBride home was the backdrop for a trap—although not intended for the Barrow gang; instead, the law was there to apprehend Raymond Hamilton, McBride’s brother. Baker also relates the fact that inside the McBride home was another Hamilton sister, 18 year old Maggie Farris, as well as an infant and young child, and that they were caught in the crossfire, though the only one shooting was Clyde Barrow. However, Baker skims past yet another interesting story about crime and lawlessness, and moves quickly onto another crime scene, thus staying true to book’s title, a Gangster Tour of Texas.
As in the case with the McBride home, when Baker focuses on place, the narrative—although intriguing, is too intent on superfluous detail regarding the heuristics of the crime scene, especially as it is relative to the next scene, without taking the time to concentrate on the human stories embedded within each incident. Baker’s book falls short of delving deeper into the motivation behind the crimes. Physical places, coordinates, and addresses, suffocate the viability of the human element Baker minimally retells; though there are places in Baker’s narrative where this shines.
For example, early in the book Baker provides readers with a brief insight into Clyde Barrow’s personal history. Most intriguing is what transformed Clyde from a penny-ante thief into a bonafide hardened criminal, someone capable of cold-blooded murder, relentless and vengeful. Clyde, trying to dodge a prison term, had his sweetheart Bonnie “smuggle a pistol” in her breasts, and she delivered it to him while he was in jail for a charge of burglary and auto theft he’d committed in Denton, Texas. But Clyde would not be so lucky as to serve his time in a Denton jail cell. Instead he was transferred to the Eastham Prison Farm in Huntsville, a place “not fit for a dog,” infamous for its cruel and inhuman treatment of prisoners. There, Clyde was repeatedly beaten and sodomized by a building tender trusty named “Big Ed.” It is this incident that changed Clyde from a “’schoolboy to a rattlesnake’” (3). At Eastham, Clyde Barrow learned not only to reject authority, but to loathe it. And everything he did after he was released from Eastham shaped his life’s purpose; he sought his own version of justice: to kill as many Eastham guards as he could, freeing as many inmates in the process. Baker’s focus on the personal, criminal motivation inherent to Clyde Barrow’s infamous outlaw persona is short lived however. The author briefly explains Clyde’s difficulty adjusting to life outside a prison system, explaining that “with time on his hands and no steady source of income Clyde went back to what he knew well—burglary” and Baker once again delves into specific geographical details about the crime scenes relevant to Clyde’s failed attempt at life outside prison walls (4). Baker’s tendency for exposition regarding various crime scenes interrupts the transmission of the very interesting, albeit criminal, personal histories of the human element behind the criminal façades. There is too much effort spent on deciphering extraneous details of just where a criminal escapade unfolded, which is in itself the meat, the juiciness of the story: it’s not so much where the crime took place that is relevant but how and why.
Another example of the author’s attempt at making his book a gangster tour is when he relays the story of Bonnie and Clyde’s desire for meeting up with family. Baker explains how, after trying to coalesce while on the lam after a serious road accident, where the vehicle Bonnie and Clyde were riding in fell down a 30 foot embankment, the couple decided on making a quiet event out of Clyde Barrow’s mother’s 55th birthday, meeting “in a quiet spot near the crest of a hill about midway between Dallas and Fort Worth Baker on unpaved State Highway 15 just east of its intersection with Esters Road” (17). Again, the details about the physical location of the family meeting for a birthday celebration—to heal the body and soul, most likely, interrupts the transmission of the interesting details of the story itself. Specific coordinates Baker inserts within the narrative don’t complement the already provocative story the author is trying to tell. And because Baker provides separate sub-chapters titled “Visit the Crime Scene,” after the narrative of the crime has been laid out, a section replete with specific directions as to how to get to the different places where the crimes took place, readers are better served if Baker would have altogether omitted directions and other tiresome details about the crime itself. The “Visit the Crime Scene” sections are more than sufficient in their capacity to guide readers to actual scenes of lawlessness, if they so choose to visit them firsthand. Additionally, Baker provides specific inlets of maps, detailed down to the ¼ mile, where some of the crimes took place. And in case you doubt the stories Baker is retelling, the author provides yet another sub-section in addition to the “Visit the Crime Scene” titled “Judge the Evidence for Yourself” wherein he provides readers with original sources, should they want to research the incidents further.
Baker’s loose grip on maintaining a provocative narrative is not limited to Bonnie and Clyde’s story; it permeates throughout the book, as evidenced by Baker’s retelling of the Newton Boys, the most successful gang of train and bank robbers in American history, whose humble beginnings stem from their birthplace of Uvalde, Texas. As with Bonnie and Clyde’s story, Baker begins with a very superficial biographical sketch regarding the four Newton boys and their family history. Readers come to know that the boys’ parents were named Jim and Janetta, and had their sons not become the notorious thieves they became famous for, Mr. and Mrs. Newtons’ sons would have grown up to be cotton famers or cattle ranchers (66). Readers are never given a chance to find out why their parents’ lifestyles didn’t suit the sons, or whether they even tried to live a life free of crime. Instead we are whisked forward to how Willis “Doc” Newton, the gang’s leader, went to prison for stealing a bale of cotton, then again for burglary, before we realize that these early prison terms are what gave him valuable occupational experience with explosive materials used to open bank safes (66). Baker then takes readers on the road with the Newton Boys, providing details about where and when various robberies and burglaries took place. But unlike Baker’s retelling of Bonnie and Clyde’s criminal adventures, the Newton Boys’ story is not riddled with the smallest detail regarding directions and coordinates of crime scenes. When Baker tells us about how the Newton Boys robbed not one, but two banks in tiny Hondo, Texas one night, then went on to stick up another bank in broad daylight in New Braunfels, readers are finally given the chance to read about the personal angle behind the infamous criminals they’ve seen illuminated on the silver screen or on TV and in books. (Who could forget the 1998 dramedy, The Newton Boys, starring Matthew McConaughey about the real life family of four outlaw brothers?) Unfortunately, the majority of Baker’s book does not reflect this careful balance between maintaining geographical coordinates and directions with the entertaining qualities of historical biography. It’s clear the author had intentions of creating something more like a guide/tour book, where readers could trek their way to the very front steps of one of the many banks visited by some of America’s most notorious criminals. But in the age of Google and digital GPS systems, Baker’s faithful efforts in providing directions to the Texas locales are not only of little use to a modern day reader, they are also a distraction. Perhaps the only time these directions are really useful is when Baker provides them to guide readers to the gravesites of Bonnie and Clyde, The Newton Boys, and others.
I think Stephen King had it right when he said that in order to stay sane, we have to “feed the gators,” in effect, exorcise the demons we polite folk harbor behind our own masks of sanity and civility, or else we risk becoming as nasty and yet as natural as sin. T. Lindsay Baker’s book offers just a peep into the dark realm of criminal psychosis. Perhaps since the book does not fully satiate an appetite wanting more of this dark world, it speaks to something personal about who we really are; that maybe, we’re really no different from the celebrated icons of the criminal underworld we’ve been reading about.Rosemary Briseño, PhD, Assistant Professor of English Sul Ross State University Rosemary is a native of the border city of Eagle Pass, Texas. She is a first-generation college graduate, earning her BA (English) from The University of Texas at Austin, a Master’s degree (English) from Sul Ross State University, Alpine, Texas, and a PhD (English) from Washington State University in 2008. Her research interests are Chicana/o Literature and identity politics, particularly how the formative sense of self is reflected, transmitted, and transformed in popular culture. She is a proud mother of two precocious sons, Thomas Henry and Brody Christopher, and is married to Bryan C. Green, a Senior Web Developer. When she is not teaching, writing, or researching as an Assistant Professor of English at Sul Ross State, Rosemary is busy tending to the family’s two dogs and three cats–all rescues, or she’s watching reruns of 70s and 80s sitcoms, which she collects on DVD.