Nelson Algren, Nathan Kantrowitz, and David Maurer discuss language and characteristics of the criminal underworld
BROADCAST: Jan. 29, 1967 | DURATION: 00:55:33
Nelson Algren, Nathan Kantrowitz, and David Maurer discuss language and criminal subculture, including the development of institutional slang at different prisons, the nature of drug addiction and its influence on criminal language and vocabulary, and the myth of the criminal mind. Includes an Interview with an inmate at a Chicago prison.
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Studs Terkel The theme is the criminal man. You may have heard the comments of David Maurer who's an eminent linguist, in fact, he and Raven McDavid did a new edition of H.L. Mencken's "American Language", he's University of Louisville, Department of English, and Nathan Kantrowitz, sociologist Columbia University and Fordham who recently offered a paper at the American Language Association convention here in Chicago on race relations in prison, and I think he was at Joliet Stateville. He was an inside out, outside in, and Nelson Algren, who knows the field quite well, indeed, Nelson Algren, novelist. The subject is a very simple and broad one: the criminal man, which is wide open. Who is a criminal? The mores, the language, customs, whatever might -- race, and perhaps we hear the voice of a guy, this is a fellow was in Cook County Jail. Let's hear him talking a bit. I'd met him about a year ago and through the good offices of Warden Jack Johnson of County Jail, I got to see this man. He was talking; perhaps hearing his voice he might give us the catapult.
Unnamed prisoner I never thought I would hurt nobody in the first place, you know. And well, as far as my opinion on every human being I, I'm neutral, really, tell you the truth. I've noticed a lot of different patterns and I always tried to handle myself in a different way than I see other people do when I see them do the things that I dislike, you know. Like you said, it's no purpose in being self-righteous or anything like that because we all have faults. The only difference between what society knows as the criminal is that the majority of the criminals get caught the majority of the time, you know, and the rest of them are either fortunate enough that Lady Luck comes along and creates a situation where the criminal side of life isn't necessary and I guess we call us victim of circumstances or societies and neighborhoods, and after so long it forms a pattern, and you get accustomed to the things you're doing. And then when you get out of here you're faced with the same thing all over again. Like myself. I went to school. I got about two years' training in the blacksmith trade so I go out and I try to get a job.
Unnamed prisoner Where I get the training? I got the training in jail, when I was in the penitentiary I got 38 months training. So quite naturally, that goes without saying that I had to accomplish something out of 38 months training. So they gave me a diploma and I go and apply for a job. And when I get the job, the man, he hires me and I work for two weeks. Then he lays me off, and from then on I haven't been able to get another job in the blacksmith trade. I always apply as a welder when I'm trying to get a job. But still and all, it still doesn't do no good. Now all of that training and effort and time spent on a man's vocational trade it's all up to no no no purpose and no use at all.
Nelson Algren Well, I am glad you mentioned Warden Johnson and, because I'm very much with him in his awareness that the people whom he's got jailed don't form a criminal class. They are simply the ones who either didn't have enough money to defend themselves or it's -- I mean they're the ones, they're not really criminal because there is one they've -- It is, these are the ones who have failed at criminality, and the ones who haven't had a lawyer to get them to plead to the right charges, you know, to get off. And what they are, are the people who haven't been able to make crime work. As Johnson knows, when crime works, you don't get jailed for it. These are the guys who have failed to be criminals.
Nathan Kantrowitz I must say that I agree with Nelson that these are, this guy's, well, I don't want to talk about this particular individual, but the guys in the Cook County Jail in the penitentiary for the most part are the 'lames', the guys who didn't make it.
Nathan Kantrowitz I thought all square johns knew that. Here's a recent thing you catch on TV very recently. He's a 'ding-a-ling', meaning the same thing as a brain, as a 'lame.' But do addicts use that?
David Maurer It means, it means an addict that isn't too sharp, it isn't too good on the rackets, who doesn't have a good girl on the blocks, who doesn't have a way to support his habit real good. Who isn't real hip, you see.
David Maurer Yeah.
Nelson Algren I don't know the kind of people you -- I don't know where you meet these people! I don't know -- Besides, who are you introducing me to? I don't associate with jailbirds. I'm uneasy here.
Studs Terkel It's interesting about Dave Maurer's comments here, and the comments of Nelson Algren and of Nathan Kantrowitz is, the language we're talking now, so much of what is called criminal becomes part of the American vocabulary itself, doesn't it?
David Maurer It ferments and comes right up, feeds of it, constantly freshens up the standard language. In fact, a tremendous percentage of our slang has origin in criminal subcultures and this is one reason why linguists are interested in the kind of work that I do, because I get at these words before they emerge often, before they come out. It's very difficult to trace the origin of a slang word after it's come out of a subculture and it's loose, and we don't know where it came from.
Studs Terkel It's very funny, that comment of Mr. Maurer, of Dr. Maurer, is this that same book of subculture, criminal sub -- Yet we know many Negro words for example, jazzmen, Negroes, are also so much part of American slang today, young --
David Maurer They came out of the, out of the barrel-houses and the joints in New Orleans and in Chicago in the early days. Now, you take a word like "gut bucket," came right out of the old brothels in New Orleans where they had a band and where people congregated. And the bartender, whenever he had any drinks left on the tray, he poured them in a bucket under the bar and then about 1:00 in the morning, the one of the waiters took the bar out to the band, took the bucket out to the band and they all got a glass, and they started drinking out of the "gut bucket," and then they really loosened up, you see, in a jam session, and these words all have a meaning in the subculture, but when they come out in a dominant culture, frequently they don't mean the same thing that they did in the end.
Nathan Kantrowitz Well, I think that you have to also say that the language you get in the prison isn't really a criminal language, it's -- Partially derives from it, but it's not -- Some of it comes from the criminals that Dave is talking about.
Studs Terkel Chow.
Nelson Algren I asked a guy who just did six months, I asked him, "How'd you make it? " He said, "I made it from bell to bell." But you can -- When you stop to consider that he lives by bells and that there are no clocks, which is pretty poetic.
Studs Terkel This is interesting, isn't it? This belt of the language, you mentioned Genet, who of course has been in, Genet speaks institutionalized language so in a way it's language of a society itself. Very conventional then, isn't it?
David Maurer We're the ones who know how to make crime work. But some of them really do, as you know. But most of your jails and prisons are filled up with people who are, they're amateurs and they're suckers, really, and I define a "sucker" as a man with all of the instincts of a criminal and none of the technology and he'd like to steal but he doesn't know how. So he's clumsy at it, and he gets caught. And what this boy says on the record is true for this kind of people, you see, they get caught, and they do time and then they go in, then they try it again, they learn a little bit in stir. But I think there, I would divide all kinds of criminals into two groups and I don't think they have much in common. And these are the professional criminals, on the one hand, who don't do anything else for a living but crime, as a rule, and they're recognized for this, they are known throughout the criminal world, they grew up in a subculture, they know how to pay their way, they know how to use the fix, they do very little time, and this is their life. And the other, the amateur who belongs to the dominant culture, and he goes through life in conflict with his own culture because he's violating the mores of his own culture, this worries him, and he suffers loss of prestige, if he's caught, he gets in jail, the professional criminal doesn't doesn't worry about going -- He figures he, you're going to go to jail a certain amount of time as a matter of, just a matter of percentages. And so, but he doesn't suffer any conscience. A good a good thief, a good pickpocket, doesn't worry about stealing pocketbook from anybody, and he'll tell you if a man hasn't got sense enough to protect his pocketbook he doesn't deserve it.
Nathan Kantrowitz I think there's one other distinction you once made, I think, when you were writing something up there, you mentioned that a lot of people writing on crime don't differentiate between habitual criminals and habitual losers.
Nelson Algren I remember talking about, you know, lack of conscience, a conscience could even act in reverse, that is, I have sat among addicts who who had become thieves and one of them, one of the addicts couldn't steal and he couldn't beg, and he can't steal. I mean he he holds two jobs. He he says, "I gotta get a boom in my tail." But they -- He was embarrassed by it.
Nelson Algren I mean he, you're talking about the subculture here, here they put them, here's a man who's who's got a working conscience, he can't steal, and he's ashamed of it, he's ashamed of it. He says, "I try," very apologetically to the other -- he said, "I do try, I try to steal" --
Nathan Kantrowitz Well, you know, like this is the kind of guy who's likely after a certain number of years on a needle to go off, too, isn't he? I mean in terms of the -- What we know about guys who are addicts --
Nathan Kantrowitz Yeah.
Nelson Algren No.
Nelson Algren No. No. He was, of that whole group, he was the one who said I'm I'm, who never made any pretense about being an addict. He said, "When I hit that that's it, I'm made for, is to be an addict, I'll always be an addict." And he never never lied about it. He said, "When I get out of here," when he went to Lexington, "I get out of here, I'm going right back on." He told the doctors, that's it.
Nelson Algren and they say "that stuff comes up in his throat." That's the idiom they use. Oh, that's very good. That's very close. Of course, it's a very contemptuous thing to say about it, I always heard this as a -- I think it's limited to a baseball pitcher --
David Maurer It is now, yes. It didn't used to be, but it is now. But when you were writing on the addicts, Nelson, like "The Man with the Golden Arm" this word, I think, was not in among addicts, was it, they were using, they were using --
Nelson Algren I first heard that phrase "monkey on my back" from a 30-year-old addict. He was trying to, it was early in the morning and he was, you know, jumping from one bar to another, and, you know, was tired of it. And I said, "Well, you know, why don't you just forget it or something?" He said, "You don't know what it's like to have a 30-pound monkey on your back." Of course that caught on right away. You know, I mean that's --
David Maurer Well, you know, before this, back before you wrote "The Man With The Golden Arm," I'm going, I'm an old man now, I'm going way on back here, they didn't use that term, they used "a Chinaman on my back," and this is when they were all on opium, before they went to the needle, before the Harrison Act, you see. And you had "a Chinaman on your back" and then after the opium was outlawed and they went to the needle, then they used a monkey.
Studs Terkel I wondered why a monkey, this -- "A Chinaman on my back," I could see that because of the fact that opium is Oriental in its breeding and culture and origin. But why monkey? I wonder why.
David Maurer I've heard that the addict philosophers talk about this. You see, what does a monkey do when he gets on your back? He scratches your head. He pulls your hair. He looks for lice. He sticks his claws in your back. And this is exactly what happens to an addict. He starts to, and they say he's itching and scratching, see, when he takes a shot of opiate, takes a shot of morphine, heroin or whatever, it's the first sensation he gets. And here's what you will see him do: you've seen him do this, I'm sure. [Sound of vigorous scratching.]
David Maurer hitting that vein. Oh, is that it? Is that it? 'Cause this guy would always -- So what comes out of this -- There's a tingle goes, they get a tingle, they call it "whips and jingles," "whips and jingles."
Nelson Algren How do you account for this, that that the condition of the the drugs making the man or woman's mind so remote, they get a remoteness about them. I mean, that's the whole point of the thing. You know, to get high as it were, get off the ground. And yet, the language that they develop is so concrete, so concrete. I mean, like this whips and jingles or the monkey on the back. It's so much more concrete.
David Maurer Well, this is one reason why, you see, that I think it's very valuable to study this language because it is extremely vivid and extremely descriptive. But part of the reason among addicts that this takes place I think is that addicts spend their lives thinking about drugs. If they're not taking drugs, they're thinking about drugs or talking about drugs. I've been interviewing addicts actually where I'd be talking to them on a tape recorder and I'd be able to do to develop withdrawal syndromes right on the, right on the recorder in their voice. Their nose would clog up, their eyes would water, they'd drool at the mount and finally they'd say, "Doc, you got my habit coming on me again," you see. You can actually develop it by suggestion.
David Maurer Yes.
Studs Terkel Fascinating!
Nathan Kantrowitz I think you're trying to carry that too far. Remember when you were talking about the "Whiz Mob" that the pickpocket is actually a rather gentle soul in terms of the way he makes his money. He doesn't hurt anybody taking their money. But if you look at the pickpocket argot, it's all full of violent --
Nelson Algren What Dave touched on, the effect of mere words, Dave just reminded me of a situation where I was I was with a girl who was in withdrawal and it got pretty serious. And in fact, she'd gone blind, she couldn't see. You know, she was just, and I couldn't I couldn't get a doctor to take care of her. And I finally found a pusher her pusher, and it was a long trip. I left her hollering, you know, and he came in, I made him come with me. He had to come. He said, "She'll come down here. I mean, she'll crawl down if she has to." I says, "No, she ain't going to crawl down. You're gonna go up there." Anyhow, he did, and he came in the door. And I said, "Hey, she couldn't see you." And all he said is, "What do you think you're trying to do?" And the color starts coming back in her cheek, and he hadn't -- He was just fixing the needle. And she started -- He said, "Do you see that?" She was almost well before he gave her the needle.
David Maurer You see, she started to -- Mentally she started to withdraw, to correct the withdrawal syndrome simply because she knew she'd anticipated this, you see. But now addicts are a little different and I should say here lest anybody get the wrong idea, I don't think addicts are funny or the scum of the earth or anything like this. I think addicts are sick people and I think they should be treated as sick people and not as criminals. I do not believe that a narcotic addict is a criminal. I don't think he should be so treated. And I've just released a book last spring in which I make a very strong case for this. I think that the addict deserves every consideration of a legitimate society in trying to help him with his problem. Although he's difficult to help sometimes, I'll tell you that. Now, the addict thinks and talks about drugs, if you go in a prison and you find addicts all congregate together and they just talk about junk. They do what they call "punch junk."
David Maurer That's a bad name. Yeah, that's a pejorative name, you see. They don't use this word at all except when they're very hateful toward another addict. But now with thieves, this whole image pattern is different. You see the addict. This is a kind, almost a kind of what we might call psychological masturbation, that the addict is indulging in and he doesn't know it. But this is what's happening to him. But this other thing that we're talking about with the thieves and imagery of their language, this is a different thing, because this is their profession, they're devoted to this, you see.
Studs Terkel There's an underlying theme to this discussion, and the theme is the professional as against the amateur, basically, isn't it? The thief, the man who is a pro; the addict, really, is an amateur, he's caught. He's hooked.
Nelson Algren I remember a girl who was not a criminal, but she was one of these people that didn't have any technique as you suggested, but she complained. She said, "I never hurt anybody in my life. I never stole anything, but I'm in and out of jail like a fiddler's elbow."
David Maurer They weren't criminals until the law forced them into the underworld. I was just working in England last summer and they're developing a whale of a drug problem there, and this is the English are being very sensible about this; they are not, they're not treating the addicts as criminals, and they're providing them with medical drugs in a limited way in order to try to keep them from thieving, you see, because of the hundreds and hundreds of addicts I have known, a great proportion of them were not criminals before they were addicts. A considerable proportion were criminals before they were addicts, but the British are trying to keep --
Nathan Kantrowitz Another thing I think that we don't really know but I think we could speculate fairly well, that when we're talking about drug addicts it's not some sort of constant, it's kind of a floating population. I think there's a good guess that you have sort of a change through age, that is you talk about drug addicts. A kid may enjoy pop go on the needle say in his 20s. That doesn't necessarily mean out of every thousand kids that are on a needle in their 20s that if you follow them through life that by the time they're 40 that they're still going to be on the needle. I think there's, we don't know, but I think we can suspect from a lot of the evidence we have that there's a lot that go off the needle and a core of them may remain on.
David Maurer Well, there's a difference here, if they're addiction-prone, the chances are they'll stay or they'll come back to it. If they're not addiction-prone, and this is a type that Dr. Vogel and I isolated at Lexington a number of years ago --
David Maurer No, you can identify these people very definitely and you can identify them among your friends, where they've taken a shot of morphine in the doctor's office and suddenly they felt this is what they're looking for all their life. This is an addiction-prone person. That's what it that's what that boy on the tape was saying, that when he got that first shot, when he's got that first shot of heroin he knew he was made for it, he said. And that is an addiction-prone personality.
Nathan Kantrowitz I don't dispute that this is a possibility, you know, it could exist, but on the other hand if you have, say, addiction concentrated in certain kinds of populations, like, say, the young adult Negro male living in large cities in the north, I wouldn't want -- I don't think you can make a case for saying that somehow or another addiction proneness is somehow or another genetically built into this population.
David Maurer It's very obvious in a certain percentage of the population. And you can tell because they're hard to take off, they're really fast to go back, they are difficult to cure, the non-addiction, the non-addict-prone personality is easier to take off, he stays off better and he's harder to get back on.
Nelson Algren Oh, I was going to say what, I said you're talking about the criminal man, who is a criminal man, who is not a criminal man? So often it can depend on just the use of one word pinning the pinning the word "narcotic" on the use of marijuana means that the, when it isn't a narcotic, classifying it with the addictive drugs means that a teenager automatically becomes a criminal by its use which would be about the same thing as as, deciding, making it making it a federal law that a certain brand, if you will, if you buy a certain brand of toothpaste and everybody, every teenager, he -- Then he then he becomes in the criminal class, he's a he's a member of the criminal class and then you're talking about being forced. I mean the thousands. I'm not saying anything that nobody everybody here doesn't know. But these kids are forced into the criminal class by doing a non-criminal thing. The other criminality -- Then they can become real criminals. That's how I got my start. You want a drag?
David Maurer This is the tragedy of our handling of the narcotic problem in this country. We have forced everybody who happens to be an addict or be tied up with drugs into the criminal, into the underworld, and this is a tragic thing and I don't know whether we ever will solve this problem.
Nathan Kantrowitz I'm not so sure it's that stupid. I don't agree with it, but in terms of say, our past history before the Harrison Act, we weren't very successful in controlling opiates. The fact that we're less successful now and we're maybe in a bind, we don't know what to do.
David Maurer Well, there wasn't any way to control opiates before the Harrison Act, you could buy morphine in any country and drugstore, buy it in a paper sack for 25 cents, you could get a half an ounce of it, worth what today, five thou-- Five hundred dollars. We didn't have any controls before the Harrison Act and the reason we got the Harrison Act was that people got panicky, and you see, in our culture, our tendency is always when we have a problem, to pass a very strict law and then we put it we put it in the hands of Congress, they pass a law, now it's solved. Well, that doesn't solve anything, it only makes criminals out of the people who who violate the law.
Nelson Algren Well, I think we'll get around to solving these problems after we've brought Southeast Asia around to our way of life. I think the the the Western needle had a great deal to do with putting this old Chinese opium thing where you have to carry about 11 pounds of the stuff --
Nelson Algren With our technological know-how we've got heroin down to where you can get a whole trunkful in, and then a needle is much cleaner, too, you don't have to go to these smokey joints -- And hurting your side,
David Maurer Oh, they resisted the needle, the Chinese, the old-time Chinese, they're still -- I encountered in California last summer. There's still some opium joints in California where old-time Chinese still smoke opium.
Nelson Algren They say something about the the declassification of the addict. What I'm referring to at the time say, I think about the turn of the century when opium wasn't, opium smoking a a class thing, that is, an upper-class thing?
David Maurer Upper-class criminals and upper-class dominant culture. The big-time criminals would mingle, they'd meet all kinds of people in the opium, they call it, the dominant culture calls this the "opium den," but this word was never used in the underworld. The word they had was a "lay-down joint," see, a "lay-down joint," where you could go and it'd cost you, and it would cost you, you could get a two-dollar lay, get a three-dollar lay, get a five-dollar lay, and you smoked it by the card, a pop, you got a playing card with a pill on it, and your pills went from a birds'-eye, a small pill which is now a small shot, to a high hat, to a fireplug, on up in size.
Nelson Algren Well, I've heard of what you said, a lay-down joint, of a guy, you know, a member of the upper class, you know, in New York and going in coming out of a bar or something he went to the john and he came out and really he was enraged, he says, "There's there's a drug fiend back there with a needle sticking himself in the arm." I mean, he was enraged. I mean, they despised this, the opium smokers, I understand that they despised this needle.
David Maurer And they of course, they ostracized the needle user and then the needle user ostracized the marijuana smoker, but today they're all together, and you find out today many heroin addicts who accept the the the the pot user, the marijuana smoker, because he was once a marijuana smoker, too.
Studs Terkel Isn't this isn't this one of the undercurrents here of this conversation, aside from the language and what's happened to the addict, is the fact status is involved here just as the dominant culture of the subculture --
Studs Terkel Even though this parody is occurring here, how easy it is for a parody to be a reality, isn't it? We're talking now about a pipe tobacco that that Nathan Kantrowitz is smoking, and how easy just by our talking, in the very language, how a law, someone says, "This is a law," can make something a crime that may not by its nature be a crime. So this very tobacco you have here it could be criminal to smoke, but we have this tobacco, as Nelson said earlier, you know --
Studs Terkel I want to head back to this gentleman, back to the theme of status in prison, in prison as outside. Nelson's friend, Jimmy Blake, who is a veteran, speaks always of status, certain people have a higher status than others.
Nelson Algren We don't have to dwell on this, I don't want to get off the subject, but Blake has a very has a very good phrase to describe himself. He's he conducts a flight into custody because he goes back to the same penitentiary, Raiford, Florida. He gets two or two to three years, he gets out --
Nelson Algren Yeah.
Nelson Algren This is this is partly it, partly it, but partly I think mostly it is simply that outside he doesn't want to compete. All he wants is enough to eat; he wants -- He doesn't want to, he doesn't want to take -- He wants somebody else to take responsibility to see that he has clothes and that he eats and he has a place to sleep.
Nelson Algren Yeah, he can't handle this very well. And then the added incentive is that he's homosexual and he has relationships there. And another thing is, he's a musician. And here he also, he is able to organize. He has a band and he's able to work as a musician because it has everything, it has everything he needs outside and he much prefers, incidentally, the southern penitentiaries to the northern because they're more paternal.
Studs Terkel He made the interesting comment, James Blake did, Jim Blake, to the effect that when he was outside, a few times when he is outside, I remember I met him through Nelson. He says, "I watch the people outside walking along State Street; if they're free, why do they look like that?"
David Maurer Well, you know, I have a wonderful tape in which I have a mob of thieves -- We hold a little seminar, you see, and they get to talking about rehabilitation and what what do prisons do to you. And one of these, they're gettin' in this argument about what the prison ruins you for the outside, it doesn't help you, that if you've got movies and everything in prison, you've got three squares a day, and a 21 dealer deals them off the arm, three times a day, seven days a week. You got, you got movies two to three times a week. You got books to read. And in two or three years in stir you go to pot, you got no competition, you got no incentive, and you turn out on the streets, and no good as a thief anymore and you lose your -- And in a way it was tragic, but in a way it was comic, too, because these men were sort of blaming the system, you see, for the fact that it -- Rehabilitation ruined them.
Studs Terkel Of course, that's the other aspect raised by our friend in the very beginning, his voice we heard, he says he learned to be a blacksmith there after 38 months, he says, but the reason he was laid off is the fella found out his record, you see. He already has the mark on him.
Nathan Kantrowitz Well, not always. Don't forget, you take a look at the ages at which guys fall, and you look at the ages at which men go into prison, and you find that after the age of 30, the rates that you find men going into prison, men being arrested, starts dropping. And by the time you get past age 40 it's dropped down considerably. Now, they're not all dead. I don't think the mortality among ex-cons is any higher than the rest of the population or if it's any higher it is not much higher. They wander off into all kinds of jobs.
Studs Terkel Let's return to this one theme that fascinates me that the prison life, I think Jimmy Blake pointed this out, Hans [Madec?] has, worked as assistant to Warden Johnson for a number of years, is that there's a very definite conventional pattern followed there as in the outside world, the dominant culture, they have their own status symbols and the quite conventional -- Their own mores. Well, it's no
Nathan Kantrowitz Mores. Well, it's no more unified than, say, the society of Chicago though, that is, you go down into, say, a local penitentiary here and you're going to find, say, the drug addict or dope fiends they'll constitute what they would call a subculture. You'll find the thieves of various sorts and they're mostly amateur thieves, you might find a few professional thieves, they'll constitute another group. You get the square john embezzler down there, you get the rape-o. You don't you don't find a convict culture, you know, any more than you find, say, a culture, you know, in Chicago, you can talk about Chicago and you can talk about Chicagoans, but it's no simpler there. Maybe it's a little
David Maurer In what kind of prison? You have all kinds of prisons now. For instance in federal stir, you take a big shot in there for evasion of income tax, he's sort of isolated because there are also big shots from the Mafia occasionally or from big gangs from the syndicates and they don't have anything to do with him, you see, they're afraid of him and don't know what to do with him.
David Maurer But in some penitentiaries, now it differs from others, as you know, Nate, in certain penitentiaries the heavy guys are the top dogs. In Ohio Penitentiary it used to be they had what they called "White City" there, and "White City" was a white cellblock where they housed all the stickup guys, the payroll stickup men, bank robbers ,the safecrackers, and the outlaws and the guys that were -- Heavy guys on the heavy rackets and these guys had real status. And the warden, Warden Thomas there used to have this we used to have what they called a "goon squad," and he got this from the labor unions, and I forget, I think this is one of the first uses of it outside the labor unions. These were men that wandered up and down the halls with sawed-off shotguns and anything that moved, they mowed it down.
David Maurer No.
David Maurer I think it came from the labor unions where they used "goon squad", to break a strike you know, and got a guy named, a guy named Pearl in the long from between 1915 and 1925 but that used to take them by the trainload and he'd use ex-convicts and --
Nathan Kantrowitz The other thing about status is, you also get all kinds of funny things, like I was surprised when I came across this name, the guys like Ray Fielders, I don't know whether that's that's a name that came out of junkie language or not.
David Maurer Rayfield come -- Is a man's name. Rayfield. And this -- You have a number of other men's names like this, I'll think of some more in a minute, that are used for -- Now, they've got the verb "Bogart" now among junkies --
Nathan Kantrowitz A lot of the current news gets picked up as argot, that is in the race slang that goes on in a prison. Now, let's see, I finished this glossary, I think at 62. At that time, there were names for a, I guess we use the name commonly out here, a "race man" among Negroes. That is a Negro who insists on equal rights with, equal status with whites. Now at that time they had common names, Mau Mau, Lumumba, Martin Luther King --
Nathan Kantrowitz I would be willing to bet if you went back to Stateville now and just checked the same vocabulary, these names probably all disappeared and you might find the Stokeleys, and I'm just guessin' now, but I would imagine these names move in and out just as they move in and out of newspapers.
Nelson Algren Maybe I invented something, I recently named a kitten Stokeley because he was all black but he had little white paws. He was so little, you know, so absolutely almost powerless. He could, you know, barely mew, that I thought, "Well, he is a black cat who really needs more power."
Studs Terkel Coming back to Nathan Kantrowitz's point here about how, then, a popular image, mass communications, popular arts now enter institutional prison. It works two ways, then, the prisoners provide the language to the outside, the subcult-- And then you got dominant culture.
Nathan Kantrowitz I would guess that nine-tenths of the prison language -- Again, we're not dealing with professional criminals, but nine-tenths of the prison language is just the same language you're going to get in an army camp. I've shown this glossary, some of the stuff I've gotten, to people, and they say it's just the same as saying it in the Merchant Marine.
David Maurer A Shaw Davis pardon, which means you got electrocuted, because Shaw Davis is an undertaking firm that gets all the contracts throughout, you see. You would find that only at Ohio Penitentiary.
David Maurer Now here's an example of that, Terk. I think you guys will recognize this because you are you're familiar with the language but this goes 'way back to "toss a Brody"; you know "to toss a Brody"? To throw a wingding on the street so a doctor'll give him a shot to quiet him, you see. That's "to toss a Brody." Now, who was Brody? That was the guy, the guy that jumped off Brooklyn Bridge. And that was the last resort, you see.
Nelson Algren So, I mean, there's a distinction between the criminal man and the neurotic man is very, a shade off, maybe it's the same thing. I mention that because I remember talking to a man who had never worked up to the time he was 35. He'd been a pimp, and he'd been a thief, and he'd been an addict, and until he got to prison, and he did did two years and in Michigan and during that interval an analyst went to work on him, and he began to see how neurotic he was. And he he got along very well. He was very cooperative, he's a man who had a lot of insight into himself. And by the time after these sessions for two years he came out and he went to work and he got married and had two kids and he worked as a painter legitimately strictly legit. And after that was about two three years when I knew him he was married and was raising these kids and was going to work and he was starting to fool around with junk again and he came over one morning and he was very, very worried, he said, "I don't know," he says, "I just," he says, "I don't know that I'm beginning to feel, you know, and I haven't done any more stealing, but if anybody came along and said, 'Come on, Willy, let's go stealing," he said, "I'd go." He said, "I don't -- I just feel it. And if anybody came along with a needle, says, well, you know, give me your arm, I'd give him my arm." Says, "I'm scared." I said, "Well, you know, you'd better, why don't you tell your wife about it?" "She said, oh I told her about it, and and she said, well, go back to that analyst." I said, "Well, why don't you?" He says, "The only joy I ever had in my life was out of my neurosis. You don't know what those people do to you."
David Maurer It's a wonderful story. You know this, we talk about the criminal man and just so people don't get confused here, I think we all realize that there is no such thing as what's sometimes referred to as "the criminal mind." There is no such thing as a criminal mind. The criminal is made by his culture and he either develops it through through association and practice and skill and indoctrination.
David Maurer Well, there are always people that'll grab power and misuse it. And I suppose this is a this is a form of criminality, too. But it's an interesting thing that the how different this idea of crime is in our culture, the dominant culture, and all the different subcultures where they have a different idea of crime, you see, where anything we do, where we, if any one of us here did something serious in this room, it would worry us. I mean, if we embezzled some money, we'd lose some sleep over it, you see, we'd worry about it and when we got caught we'd suffer retribution from society, our families would suffer, and maybe our whole lives would be ruined by this.
David Maurer But in the, in the thief culture, this isn't true at all. He doesn't suffer. I know when I was working with a big con man some years ago. One question I always ask him, and I always ask a good thief this, too. I asked him, "Did you ever -- Did you ever feel sorry, as you've taken a lot of money from a lot of people," I was talking to a man who had taken several million dollars on the con rackets, "Did you ever feel sorry for a sucker, you know, after you robbed him?" and he thought and thought and he said, "Doc, that's a damn interesting question," he said. He said, "I did. One time," he said, "I felt terrible about it." He said, "For days afterward," he said, "Every time I'd think of it I'd get sick." And I thought, "Boy, I've latched on to something here," you know, and I said, "Well, what happened?" "Well, he said we took this man and his wife in Miami to the big store and we took we took a hundred and thirty-eight thousand dollars, which was their life savings," and he said, "On the way back when we took them to the hotel in the limousine and they were taking -- letting him out at the hotel," he said, "The chauffeur we had in the limousine slammed the door on that woman's hand and mashed it." And he said, "Doc, you never saw such a mess in your life." He said, "I couldn't stand to look at it," and he said, "I never felt so sorry in my life for anybody as I did for that woman."
David Maurer It was the hand that bothered him, and not -- Also, for instance, thieves, thieves have all kinds of taboos. A thief won't steal from a blind man if he can help it. A pickpocket will not rob a blind man if he can help it. And I know one very very skilled pickpocket who told me that it bothered him, for he said, this happened 15, 20 years ago, and it still bothers me, he said he robbed this blind man in a crowd and he had passed him when he saw the white cane. He robbed him from behind and when he passed him he saw the white cane and immediately he swung in the crowd and tried to get -- tried to, what to do, kick it back, to put the wallet back, and he couldn't make it. The crowd, he saw he was going to get exposed if he did it, and he avoided kicking it back, and he said, "That happened 10 or 15 years ago," he says, "And it has bothered me ever since."
David Maurer Well, I would say that the college professor very often is just exactly doing what you described with the flight into custody; that is, he doesn't know that he should get out in the world and battle with it, and so he goes back into graduate school and then he's really hooked. Now he's got a monkey on his back and then he becomes a professor and after he's been a professor for some time --
Studs Terkel Just touching on, it seems to me just how this can go on, this is an endless subject, the idea of the of the argot, of mores, of customs, of flight into custody, flight from freedom, to use an Erich Fromm phrase, all this applies, does it not? I think of Jack Gilbert's "The Connection," and the connections [says? is?] more than junk. Everybody is hooked on something, basically, he's saying.
David Maurer This is so right and everybody has got larceny in him for some particular thing. It may not be for money but it's something else. Everybody's got larceny in them for something. And this larceny in people that makes that crime possible in the sense of the grift, that is the nonviolent rackets. Of course, larceny won't get you stuck up by a stickup man. But it'll take you on the con rackets every time.
Studs Terkel A social benefactor. So, gentlemen, perhaps a last go-round. Any thoughts occur to you on the subject of the myth of the criminal mind or this such thing. Any, anything, language, your own thoughts, referring our friend at the very beginning.
David Maurer I'd like to throw in this idea, that that many professional criminals have lots of the characteristics that that make for success in the dominant culture if they're channeled into certain areas. In other words, if they're kept barely on the inside of the law, it's crossing over that that boundary line that gets them in -- And I believe as the frontier closed, you see, in the frontier days there was always room for the psychopath, he could always move West and become successful. Australia did very well with the psychopaths from Europe. We did very well with them. Now the frontier closes. I think the increased, so-called increase in crime which I don't think is out of proportion to our population at all, is probably reflected in the close of the frontier.
Nathan Kantrowitz Well, not necessarily make it, he could just sort of live that way, that is, we were talking before about the southern Illinois area where the old Nashville trail ended where men made their lives killing travelers and they just were able to make their lives that way. They weren't doing anything different. And if the U.S. Marshal had ever gotten a hold of them they would have been strung up. So there are still criminals there who are just sort of a looser society where they can live that way.
Nelson Algren I would just like to sum our discussion up by offering the advice that it's better -- You should never play cards with a man called Doc, you should never eat at a place called Mom's, and you should never sleep with anybody whose troubles are worse than your own.
Studs Terkel I think with that philosophical thought of Nelson Algren we say, "Thank you, sir." And to Nathan Kantrowitz, who offered a fascinating paper here at the American Language Association on life in some of the penitentiaries, sociologist, Columbia University and Fordham, and the man who was so up on the argot of the other world and this world, the --
Studs Terkel I'll save you the snipe, David Maurer of the University of Louisville who's written scores of books and papers on the very theme. Gentlemen, let's call this 'Chapter 1: A Criminal Mind, If There Is Any Such Animal.' Thank you very much, indeed.