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the snatch racket

1 october 2021

I always figured that kidnapping, in the U.S., was a federal crime. Period – any kidnapping, interstate or otherwise. This seems not to be so, technically, but to be the working principle anyway. Hold someone for ransom, even if you cross no state lines, and the FBI will literally be on your case.

The legal technicalities are probably still beyond me, and the current state of affairs is unclear to me, even after reading Carolyn Cox's exciting description of the history of kidnapping and kidnapping law in America, The Snatch Racket. As best I can tell, kidnapping is only a federal crime if you do take your victim across state lines, or use the US Mail to demand ransom (hardly something a 21st-century kidnapper would do). But if you do kidnap someone, apparently the legal presumption is that you'll take them across a state line, so the FBI gets involved immediately.

There is some historical rationale for this, as Cox demonstrates. In the heyday of American kidnapping, the early 1930s, a typical gangster move was to seize a rich person and run with them from, say, St. Louis to East St. Louis, Kansas City Mo. to Kansas City Kansas, Detroit to Toledo. Police cooperation across these open borders ranged from weak to nil. Police efficiency even intrastate was sketchy, and many departments were in the pay of gangsters.

Enter J. Edgar Hoover. Even 90 years later, Hoover's intervention in the kidnapping racket raises live concerns, and inspires both admiration and unease. Kidnapping was a real scourge, the stuff not just of occasional shock headlines but of constant fears of a breakdown of social order. Local authorities couldn't control kidnappers. Rich families mistrusted the police and preferred to just see ransom as one of the drawbacks of great wealth, or to hire their own fixers and protectors to fend off the villains. (Which didn't really work, since sometimes the fixers were just advance scouts for the kidnappers.)

The problem for governments at all levels in the 1930s United States was that the public perceived them as being ineffectual in dealing with crime. In the South, the white majority was quite happy that governments both local and federal turned a blind eye to the Reconstruction Amendments and civil-rights laws. Elsewhere, when the effects of lawlessness fell on white victims and especially wealthy white victims, sentiments were less sanguine.

White Americans who at best ignored the lynching of blacks were appalled in 1933 when a mostly-white mob lynched two white men suspected of kidnapping white department-store heir Brooke Hart in San Jose, California. Even more appalling was that the governor of California, Jim Rolph, egged on the lynch mob by promising to pardon them. Even for the 1930s, Rolph's position seemed extreme. But there seemed no way for California authorities to control organized crime and its many disorganized imitators.

As would be the case later with the dismantling of legalized segregation, the one authority with the potential ability to crack down on kidnappers was the federal government, in the person of Hoover and his burgeoning FBI. Civil liberties and correct results were often secondary, in Hoover's practice, to strong and violent reactions that were meant as much to deter future gangsters as to solve current crimes and punish the actually guilty.

In the wake of the Lindbergh kidnapping in 1932, Congress passed the Federal Kidnapping Act, still on the books and the basis for my confusion above. Kidnappings conducted across state lines could now be prosecuted by U.S. attorneys. Hoover decided, says Cox, that though the feds couldn't prosecute intrastate kidnappings, they could always move in and investigate them lest they suddenly turn into federal cases. No sense trying to start an investigation midstream; the presumption became that any kidnapping could become a federal crime, so the FBI got involved. Hoover even asked the families of kidnap victims to call him on the phone. Quite a few did, and he answered them personally. It was a different era.

Hoover's strong-arming of the dubiously-cherished principle of states rights has echoes down into the 2020s, in the way the federal government tries to promote COVID vaccines, to ensure the eroding right to abortion, to interact with state authorities trying to police the international border. One may applaud or deplore Hoover's actions, depending on one's sense of how homogenous the United States should be, or how civil-libertarian, or simply how fair to those accused of crimes. If you were a kidnap victim you probably applauded. Within a few years, the "snatch racket" was history, its most prominent practitioners bundled together on the island prison of Alcatraz. Or dead. The FBI shot "Ma" Barker to pieces at her hideout in Florida, even though later reports were that the supposedly murderous matriarch had little to do with the criminal operations of her gang. Hoover would construct a demonizing narrative about "Ma," one that resonated ever after through popular culture, in order to justify his trigger-happy G-Men in retrospect.

Cox's narrative is briskly told, mixing crime stories with tales of institutional infighting as a way of engaging while informing the reader. The Snatch Racket is first-rate true-crime and legal history, with a significant horizon of implications for other issues.

Cox, Carolyn. The Snatch Racket: The kidnapping epidemic that terrorized 1930s America. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2021. HV 6598 .C69