Dated Definitions: The Tri-State Gang Murder & Robbery in the Great Depression

Dated Definitions: The Tri-State Gang Murder & Robbery in the Great Depression

The 1930s was a tough decade, one made even tougher by Prohibition.

During this lawless time in American history, a group of criminals called the Tri-State Gang emerged from Philadelphia and spread their operations south, through Baltimore to Richmond, wreaking bloody havoc and brutally eliminating those who knew too much about their heists.

Once termed the “Dillingers of the East,” Robert Mais and Walter Legenza led their men and molls on a violent journey of robberies, murders, and escapes up and down the East Coast. Senior Writer Harry “The Hat” Kollatz Jr. at the Richmond Magazine introduces this whirlwind of crime:

“The world [Selden] takes us into is one that many Richmonders are unaware ever existed. Alongside the cultural foment of the 1930s that ultimately creates the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and novels by Ellen Glasgow and James Branch Cabell—in that world a part of, yet separate from, Richmond’s higher social scene, its clubs and soirées—there existed a criminal underworld, one the shadow of the other. The Tri-State Gang wasn’t as large or sophisticated as many of the other crime syndicates of the Northeast and Midwest and, indeed, functioned as a subsidiary of a larger organization.

But Selden’s knowledge of the landscape is such that you’ll get taken into this time when men wore hats, gangster groupies were known as “molls” and the Depression-era press conveyed on criminals flamboyant nicknames like “Ice Wagon” and, more infamously, “Pretty Boy” and “Baby Face.”

Walter Legenza’s mug shot, taken in June 1934 after he was arrested in Baltimore and brought to the Richmond City Jail. Legenza’s deadly, impassive expression and his trancelike self-control were often noted in the press. Author’s collection.

[…] Selden studies the mug shots of Walter Legenza and Robert Mais. He asks how these men got this way and what in the world could have brought them to Richmond. The answers, in part, are found in the failed experiment of Prohibition, the deprivations of the Great Depression, and the never-quenched all-American desire to make a fast buck. Mais and Legenza turned outlaw to accomplish that end. And they did indeed cause murder and mayhem in deceptively restful Richmond.

They entered a dark corner of Richmond’s lore, and here, for the first time, you’ll get the whole true crime story, rendered in page-turning prose.”

We hope you’ll enjoy these Dated Definitions, pulled from the book to give you a glimpse into the colorful history of vice and subterfuge in the Tri-State region!

Tony the Stinger: Famed Great Depression-era criminal who got his nickname from his well-deserved reputation for killing those who posed a danger, even a perceived danger, to the gang, a policy of protection that extended to his fellow gang members.

Moll: A woman companion of a gunman or gangster (more). Successful molls such as the Tri-State Gang’s Marie McKeever had the trappings needed to play the part and possessed the elusive skill to remain at large. However, in the end, it was McKeever’s intense loyalty to the two men that proved the undoing of all three.

Shockoe Bottom or The Bottom: Richmond has a long history of consigning people it wanted to confine, sell, kill, or forget to the low ground of the Shockoe Valley that splits the city in two. For centuries, since Richmond’s founding in 1742, Shockoe Valley was where its outcasts all finally arrived. Although the modern Shockoe Valley is not the scene of confinement and punishment that it once was, nevertheless, the Richmond city jail is still located there, about 3,500 feet north of where the first city jail stood.

Richmond’s Ninth Street Robbery:  $60,000 were stolen in a successful daylight holdup on March 2, 1934. The Tri-State Gang was named as having carried out the robbery, but that claim was later discredited and no one was ever prosecuted for the crime.

John Dillinger:  Perhaps America’s most famous criminal at the time, who escaped jail merely a day before the Ninth Street robbery. The Times-Dispatch quoted Ohio attorney general John W. Bricker, blasting the jail officials who had the key: “Either cowardice, corruption of public officials or ignorance permitted John Dillinger to escape.” John Dillinger’s infamous exploits led to the Tri-State Gang’s nickname, “Dillingers of the East.”

Crime Does Not Pay comic book: In 1948, the dialogue and illustrations by Bob Wood and Charles Biro in this “dime novel” captured the spirit, if not the facts, of Mais and Legenza’s escape from the Richmond jail.  “You’re crazy, Legenza—you haven’t got a chance of getting out of here!”


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