Criminals as Celebrities
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, certain criminals became celebrities in American culture primarily through news accounts of their escapades but also through such media as dime store novels, stage plays, and even early films. Such criminals and their violent acts became part of the American mythology and helped define an element of the American identity. Some of the criminal cultural icons of this time period included Jesse James, Butch Cassidy, the Dalton Gang, and Bill Doolin. They represented an outlaw culture that became part of the literature and mythology about the way the American West was settled.
Many of these criminals were bank and train robbers who became glamorized, even idealized, as folk heroes. Some critics believe that such criminals were seen in a positive light because the banks and trains they robbed seemed symbolic of the powerful and wealthy, and ordinary Americans liked the idea of brave, rebellious men of their own social class causing trouble for the wealthy and powerful. One of the first American bank/train robbers to capture the American imagination was Jesse James, who was seen as a sort of American Robin Hood because of his exploits between the 1860s and 1880s. He committed dozens of robberies and killed at least six people before being murdered himself by a member of his gang at the age of thirty-four.
While James became the first bank/train robber around whom a celebrity mythology was created, more soon followed. Butch Cassidy headed a gang called the Wild Bunch which robbed a number of banks and trains with flair beginning in 1889. Cassidy and his cohorts found success in the United States but also lived and robbed in South America as well.
The Dalton gang, led by Bob Dalton, staged four successful train robberies in 1891 and 1892 before meeting their end in a gun fight when they tried to rob two banks simultaneously in October 1892. Only one of the five gang members who participated in this crime survived. By this time, Bill Doolin—who had once been a member of the Dalton gang—had formed his own gang, which committed robberies between 1892 and 1895. He was killed by a posse that ambushed him in 1896.
The exploits of these criminals were celebrated in various ways, besides newspapers and popular songs. Dime store novels became popular in the late nineteenth century. These novels were inexpensive, cheaply produced, widely available, and often featured sensational stories. The topics of dime store novels were not limited to criminal activities. Tales of the lawless Wild West, detective stories, and historical fiction were common in the late 1800s, and more genres were added in the early twentieth century. While the motion picture industry was in its infancy in the early 1900s, one of the most popular films was The Great Train Robbery (1903). This silent film was based on a crime committed by Cassidy, and showed the robbery as well as the chase that ensued. It is generally considered one of the first westerns ever produced and was quite influential.
O. Henry’s ‘‘A Retrieved Reformation’’ both reflected this trend and contributed to it. The 1909 stage play Alias Jimmy Valentine was based on ‘‘A Retrieved Reformation’’ and surpassed it in popularity, further spreading the concept of criminal as celebrity. A 1915 film version of the play was also influential in the development of filmed depictions of criminals. ‘‘A Retrieved Reformation’’ continued to indirectly inspire more plays and films about criminals over the next few decades of the twentieth century.
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the United States was transforming from a predominantly rural society to a predominantly urban one with cities of every size throughout the country. While cities began gaining greater population than rural areas as early as the 1830s, it was not until the 1880s that the United States became a predominantly urban country. By 1890, the American frontier had disappeared, and by 1900, the United States was the most rapidly urbanizing nation in the West. Within two decades, the majority of Americans would live in urban communities.
The shift to city life was not without controversy. Some believed cities of all sizes offered opportunities unavailable in rural areas for better quality of life and greater opportunities for work and business. Other believed that cities were crude and exploitative, representative of the worst America had to offer.
Prisons and Prison Reform in Early Twentieth-Century America
While a number of Americans had tried to improve and reform prisons and prisoners in the United States before the early twentieth century, the Progressive Era (a period in the early twentieth century in which social reform efforts intensified) saw profound changes in attitudes toward crime as well as the institutions that housed them. Reformers in this time period came to believe that people broke the law because of their environment or mental health and not simply because they wanted to commit a crime. Administrators of prisons began to analyze why inmates had broken the law and used their findings to determine how each inmate would be treated behind bars. O. Henry himself was allowed to write and submit stories for publication while serving his prison sentence. His time in prison also led him to meet colorful characters and affected the whole of his literary life directly or indirectly.
Rehabilitation in prison was not seen as possible by many progressives. Instead, the concept of parole was introduced in the first decade of the twentieth century. When sentenced to probation, the person convicted of a crime did not go to jail but underwent counseling and was supervised by a probation officer. Probation was often given to offenders who were well-groomed, young and middle class, however. Another problem with parole was that its cost was the responsibility of city governments—not state governments, which paid for prisons. Because cities often could not or did not fund probation programs well, the parole system was flawed in this time period.
In the early 1900s, other reforms such as indeterminate sentencing and parole were also becoming more common. This time period saw states creating laws that allowed prisoners to earn reductions of their sentences through good behavior. Thus, inmates only stayed in prison for the amount of time it took to be reformed. Prisoners with indeterminate sentences were given a range of time, then could bring their case before the parole board. Parole, or supervised freedom, was given to model prisoners who showed that they had been reformed by their prison experiences. While indeterminate sentencing and the parole system was as flawed in practice in this time period as probation, they marked progress in thinking about prison.
Reformers also affected how inmates were treated in prison. Chain gangs were introduced in the South in the late nineteenth century. Reformers objected to prisoners being chained together and forced to perform manual labor at gunpoint, but it took decades for chain gangs and similar forms of forced prison labor to be outlawed in some states. The practice continues in a few states to this day. Some reformers, even in the 1800s, believed that prisoners should not work at all; they believed such labor was similar to slavery. Others were sure that it was beneficial for prisoners to work, but that prisons should not benefit from inmate labor or use it as a form of punishment. Laws restricting labor were passed in the late nineteenth century, and the movement gained strength in the early twentieth century. It is unclear if Jimmy in the story was forced to do labor in prison, but he did gain early release from the institution.
Sara Constantakis – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 31, O. Henry, Published by Gale Group, 2010