Tuesday, January 06, 2015
Examining the Nexus of History and Legend
I became first aware of this phenomena with Davy Crockett. I had learned that he was probably taken prisoner of war after the Battle of the Alamo (1836), and later killed. Both the Alamo and Crockett loom large in people’s imaginations for different reasons. The Battle of the Alamo became a powerful story of martyrdom for Texas independence. Meanwhile Crocket was famous for his tales of his frontier exploits. Since the Disney series of the 1950s featured him dying during the battle, various people have objected to the notion of Crockett being a prisoner. However, there is confusion about where and when he died. Perhaps because of this murkiness, people refer that Crockett died a heroic death. His dying at the Alamo would number him amongst the Texan martyrs.
Then there is the story of how Eliot Ness brought Al Capone (Alphonse Capone) to justice. Because of “The Untouchables,” the memoir of Ness during his days as a U.S. Treasury Agent in Chicago, and later the TV program that featured his exploits, people believed that he had put the notorious gangster Capone in prison. However, it was the IRA agent Frank Wilson, and his special task force who brought the charges of income tax evasion against Capone in 1931. Few people realize that Capone was convicted for not paying his federal income taxes, and not for his other heinous crimes.
Did this epic story come from Ness igniting the public imagination with his colorful memoir? His writing makes for a compelling story of good overcoming evil. Since Capone seemed to be such a monster, and Ness so incorruptible and heroic, the two men became yoked together in a Christian morality play of good versus evil. Becoming larger than life, Ness and Capone morphed into equal and opposing forces locked in a titanic struggle.
Is there a nexus between notoriety and mystery that propels someone to be a legend? Consider the continual popularity of the infamous mobster, Lucky Luciano (Salvatore Lucania (1897-1962)). What makes him memorable while his contemporaries are relatively forgotten? Although Frank Costello (Francesco Castiglia), a friend of Luciano, became known as the “Prime Minister of the Mob,” few outside of crime history have heard of him. Meanwhile, popular culture made Luciano “Public Enemy Number One.” Stories about his scars, attempted murder, and gangster life abound. Often, these tales have been embellished around a small grain of truth. Many people viewed Luciano as the successful antihero, who thwarted authority. By living vicariously through his exploits, they could feel powerful themselves.
Various historians have studied to understand how Luciano could have such a broad effect society and economics. How did he have a lasting impact that Capone did not? If Crockett was not connected to the Battle of the Alamo, how would he be remembered? How did one person become a name mentioned in passing, whilst another is a subject of serious study and fascination?
I would like to explore how someone like Luciano became a factor in people’s lives. Was he, the catalyst who changed organized crime and law enforcement? What was his archetypical role in crime, history, and culture? What was the difference between Luciano and the others? What is the power of archetypes in history? With a focus on the crime history of the U.S. during the 1920s and 1930s, I would compare and contrast Luciano with other colorful gangsters to understand why.
Cipollini, Christian, “Lucky Luciano: Mysterious Tales of a Gangland Legend.” 2014. Strategic Media: Rock Hill, SC. Print.
Minister, Christopher, “The Biography of Davy Crockett.” About.com. 2014. Web. http://latinamericanhistory.about.com/od/thehistoryofmexico/p/Biography-Of-Davy-Crockett.htm .
“Did Davy Crockett Die At the Alamo?” 2014. Web. http://latinamericanhistory.about.com/od/TexasIndependence/p/Did-Davy-Crockett-Die-In-Battle-At-The-Alamo.htm .
Tucker, Neely, “Eliot Ness and Al Capone, The Men, the Myths, and the Bad Man in the Dark.” The Washington Post. 18, February 2014. Web. http://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/eliot-ness-and-al-capone-the-men-the-myths-and-the-bad-man-in-the-dark/2014/02/18/8223c47a-95aa-11e3-afce-3e7c922ef31e_story.html .