aka Bootleggers, Racketeers, Organized Crime
aka Bandits, Armed Robbers, Kidnappers
Using the terms gangster and public enemy to describe both Al Capone the racketeer and John
Dillinger the outlaw reflects a popular misconception of criminals, which also bedevils the U.S.
legal system. The confusion lies in the failure to distinguish between consensual crime and
violent crime, and to recognize that the strategies for combating one are largely ineffective
against the other.
Capone was in the business of supplying illegal goods and services to willing consumers. This is
consensual crime – too often called “victimless” -- which involves violence only to the extent
that the business itself is unlawful and any territorial or personal disputes require settlement
"out of court." Laws against gambling, prostitution, drunkenness, drugs, private sexual acts and
even illegal firearm ownership are hard to enforce because the only complainants are the law
enforcers themselves; so long as the crime goes undetected, there is no "victim" in the legal
sense of the word, only customers. As Capone once complained, "When I sell liquor, they call
it bootlegging; when my patrons serve it on silver trays on Lake Shore Drive, they call it
Robbery, on the other hand, is by definition a crime of violence from which unconsenting
victims seek the protection of the law. Dillinger was a professional criminal whom the police
and the press could declare a "public enemy" (a term wrongly ascribed to the FBI), but he was
not a gangster in the style of Al Capone. More precisely, he was an outlaw -- indeed, among
the last of the outlaws in the Jesse James tradition: a fugitive whose survival depended on
avoiding recognition and capture. Outlaw (or bandit) gangs were not “racketeers” but raiding
It's true that the criminal community in the 1920s and early '30s had not yet clearly divided into
separate populations. The neighborhood bootlegger might be more an adventurer than a career
criminal, but he did business with professionals, including gunmen, and some who normally
were robbers also did their share of bootlegging. So whether they worked together or not, the
gangsters and outlaws often knew each other socially from frequenting the same taverns and
roadhouses, and from patronizing the same doctors, lawyers, bail bondsmen, mechanics and
fences who constituted an underworld support group. Professional courtesies and services were
readily exchanged (unless the bandits generated too much “heat”) and some criminals divided
their time between armed robbery, kidnapping, and working for a crime "syndicate" trying to
control a specific territory or a labor union.
Following this little lectures gangsters and outlaws who achieved notoriety in one type of crime
instead of (or more than) the other. But their notoriety, like the crimes listed in the chronology,
commonly reflected the public's perception of the problem rather than actual crime conditions.
Some bandits robbed between fifty and one hundred banks during Prohibition, when the
country was preoccupied with bootleggers and beer wars, and the police had not yet developed
an effective criminal-identification system. Al Capone went to the brand-new Alcatraz federal
prison not for killing anyone in a robbery but because had become the Babe Ruth of American
Gangsters and the U.S. Government wanted to show off. Nearly all the other inmates were
prominent armed robbers and kidnappers. With Repeal and the increasing police
professionalism promoted by the newly-formed FBI, public excitement shifted to the new
national game of cops 'n' robbers--outlaws whom  the Bureau could readily name, widely
publicize, and then track down or kill (partly to demonstrate the inability of local police to deal
with "auto-bandits."
Ironically, it was Prohibition that had hampered local crime control by closing the joints where
criminals routinely congregated, and where police and their informants could easily keep tabs
on thieves, burglars and robbers. Following Repeal, it was the FBI's preoccupation with
interstate banditry and new law enforcement technology that enabled local racketeering to
expand into nationally organized crime.
The country's first "public enemies" were locally-organized criminals spawned chiefly by
Prohibition and so-named by the Chicago Crime Commission. After Repeal and the arrival of
federalized crime control, they became the handful of newsworthy kidnappers and bank
robbers whose careers were as short as they were colorful, thanks to the New Deal Justice
Department’s J. Edgar Hoover. So the criminal celebrities who earned a place in the history
books as “Pretty Boy” or “Machine Gun” or “Baby Face” did not necessarily represent the
type or extent of lawlessness occurring at the time they were making news. Virtually forgotten
are the earlier outlaw gangs who thrived in the Twenties and made only local news as the
unidentified gunmen who could hold up the town bank and make good their escape.
Just to make it easy, think of Prohibition-era Gangsters and Depression-era Outlaws as the type
of criminals on the public's attention was focused during the Roaring Twenties, under President
Hoover, and the Crash of 1929, which led to the election of FDR who empowered the FBI to
pursue bank bandits as well as kidnappers.
This is a happy MOBSTER (a "gangster"
given to consentual crime) recreating in
public at a Chicago baseball park, without
fear of arrest and backed up by a few
bodyguards to protect him from rival
"gangsters" (it's okay here) who might wish
break the law by doing violence to him!
This is an unhappy OUTLAW, Buck Barrow,
member of the Bonnie & Clyde bandit "gang"
(given to violent crime), lying on the ground
mortally wounded following a shoot-out with their
pissed-off pursuers at Dexfield Park in Iowa. The
freaked-out lady is his wife, Blanche, whose
second cousin has a dandy website.
OKAY... See if you can distinguish between the Consentual
Criminals and the Bank Robbers. Answers will be found in the
by William J. Helmer and Rick Mattix
Let's try to get this straight, because the term "gangster" is applied
willy-nilly to almost every lawbreaker who doesn't hold public office
(except, of course, in Chicago). For our purposes, for clarity, for
history, and, mainly, in
The Complete Public Enemies Almanac, where
we distinguish between the two.

THE MOBSTER is a "consentual" criminal who provides the public
with illegal goods and services like bootlegging, gambling, and
houses of ill repute. He can walk the streets, head high, even
swagger, immune from arrest, unless some unbribed authorities can
prove something. Al Capone never killed nobody, once he became a
leader and a pioneer of Organized Crime.

  • THE OUTLAW is violent criminal--a bandit, a bank-robber, a
    kidnapper who confronts victims, threatens or uses force, and
    becomes a wanted fugitive.... His little gang is a raiding party
    that has to outrun the cops, like John Dillinger's.

Which is not to say there weren't plenty of thieves, burglars, fences,
safe-crackers, hired gunmen, drug-dealers, extortionists, embezzlers,
con men, and other nogoodniks, including bad cops, as well as
mobsters who also robbed banks, robbers who turned to bootlegging,
and--God forbid--the occasional corrupt politician in cahoots with
wicked lobbyists and dishonest businessmen.
But here we distinguish between the urban gangster/mobster who was
largely into "consentual" crime and the small-town robber/outlaw who
engaged in crimes of violence.
It's still okay to refer to either type of criminal as a "gangster" in
casual conversation so long as we keep the real distinction straight,
because their may be a pop quiz...
    So what's the big deal as to the difference between a mobster and an
The big deal is that FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover had a great itch to
chase violent criminals who robbed banks and were therefore easy to
shoot or to prosecute; but he had to be hammered into acknowledging the
very existence of nationally-organized criminals whose lawbreaking was
"consentual" (meaning no complainant except the cops themselves) and,
he insisted, were therefore a problem for local authorities.
Besides, he didn't want his G-men getting corrupted by
politically-protected racketeers who in modern times have become the
respectable but gutless white-collar blood-sucking con-men who know
how to get stinking rich by cooking the books and screwing up huge
corporations, as soon as they've sold their shares--once they've
out-sourced everything to the goddam Chinamen and...and...well, I see
we're getting a little carried away here....  
"They're all
is not the right answer.