Saturday, July 18, 2015

When the Depression really started -- the 1920s

Farming was hard work, often unproductive.
The strange decade of the 1920s could easily be defined as a time when good intentions usually led to bad results.

A brief period of uncertainty that followed World War I was quickly settled when the nation's spiritual, moral and political leaders decided that America was better off if it was managed by ... well, nobody in particular. Grand ideas don't need real support, it was believed.

So the people who rose to the role of manager were often less concerned with the outcome than with the process. Theory could simply be implied because anything else was morally wrong, so the thinking went.

The long-range agenda was to make America 100 percent pure, strong and righteous.

Soon, work began to come to the larger towns and cities, giving rise to a form of prosperity that one could never imagine. It seemed as if Brother Billy Sunday's prediction had come true, that the end of the sale of alcohol would indeed turn jails into factories, that "Hell would forever be for rent."

Unless you lived in rural America.

There, life was still not so grand. The Great Depression had already begun in rural America and it would endure for 20 years.

The Roaring Twenties became essentially the product of an Eastern society that had little or no bearing on how rural whites from Indiana were faring amid what seemed to be an economic boom. Rural blacks weren't even part of the conversation.

Life would be far worse in some parts of Europe, namely Germany, which absorbed the blame for World War I.

As America turned its resources toward controlling two obvious vices -- immigrants and alcohol, the country's political leaders all queued up to pad their prestige. Not much got done. Roads were not paved, schools were not built, and virtually no energy was directed toward the poor.

Of which there were many.

But nobody was buying or selling booze, and the "normalcy" that the Warren Harding administration promised was in full swing.

Meanwhile ...

Elliot Gorn, who wrote a fascinating study of Depression-era John Dillinger ("Dillinger's Wild Ride", 2009) explores some of the conditions that allowed such a criminal to exist.

While most of Gorn's book deals with a single year in which Dillinger ran rampant, some of his assertions help clarify the world that Dillinger knew, as well as the villain himself.

"The early 1930s were a good time to be robbing banks in the Midwest, especially Indiana. Robberies doubled in the state in the 1920s, and the number rose higher with the onset of the Depression (1929). Officials blamed indulgent parents, lax discipline in schools, the erosion of public morality induced by motion pictures, and new technology that produced cars, highways, and machine guns."

Yeah, just like the 1970s, the 1990s and the 2000s.

People were robbing banks in Indiana because they were poor. In those days, bank robbery was not considered a federal crime. Often, robbers could actually get away with the loot.

Gorn identifies some of the more practical causes of an increase in crime, part of it related to the propped-up myth that the shady Ku Klux Klan essentially wielded enough power to control the criminal forces of the state. Arguably, there is some evidence to defend that point of view, though only in highly selective moments.

Law enforcement wasn't considered as useful, since the root of crime -- the evil liquor -- had been abolished. Indiana police were outgunned by the bank robbers.

The era of the running-board gangster would emerge from that, though it hardly illustrated life in rural Indiana, which would have included the Whitewater valley.

Dillinger, who will be explored in another blog item, can scarcely be identified as a victim of the time. Millions of boys suffered in poverty, and no others emerged to become "Public Enemy No. 1."

But the 1920s is a world that includes two Americas -- and the one most recognizable in the Whitewater valley had little to do with flappers, speakeasy bars and the Charleston.




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