The peculiar nature of Southern crime..

By BENNY HORNSBY,

A cynic might say that the popular song “Hail, Hail, the Gang’s All Here,” loosely associated with the comic opera Pirates of Penance (1879), has taken on new meaning in the Hub City.

Now it refers to the Simon City Royals, the Vice Lords, and the Gangster Disciples.

Drive-by shootings, random robberies, and senseless murders are becoming the order of the day.

I don’t consider myself an authority on gang-related activity, but as a long-time college sociology teacher, I have more than a passing interest in the subject.

Apologists who study gang pathology conclude that individuals join gangs for various reasons: identity or recognition, protection, fellowship and brotherhood, and because of intimidation.

I would add another obvious reason: the opportunity for criminal activity motivated by greed. Someone said that all great novels are about three things: love, hate, and death.

To this list I would add avarice, which for time immemorial has been included on the list of seven deadly sins.

My interest in gangs was rekindled a couple of summers ago when I served as a volunteer auto mechanics instructor for a local community college which had received a grant to teach county jail prisoners basic auto repair skills.

During the course of the program, I grew very close to several of the prisoners as did the other instructors.

Every Wednesday, for example, we would escort the men to the college cafeteria where we would pay for all twenty of them to chow down on fried chicken, which was a welcome diversion from the two bologna sandwiches and six vanilla wafers wrapped in cellophane that they brought to lunch each day.

On the last day of the program, one of the young men, from Biloxi, came to me and said that he “wanted to give me a present.”

He said that the only thing he had to give was his jail-issued hat, bright orange with a big “P” on the front. Touched, I accepted it.

He went on to say: “You see this symbol drawn on the bill of the hat? Well, that represents the Aryan Brotherhood, and if any gang member messes with you, just show them this hat, and they will back off.”

Impressed, I said, “What if they are not members of or afraid of the Aryan Brotherhood?”

He smiled and replied, “Well, dude, then you are on your own.”

My wife won’t let me wear the hat outside of my own garage.

She’s afraid that I will be mistaken for an escaped convict and arrested.

Another young man who didn’t have a hat then came up and said that he wanted to give me something, too, and he asked for a pen and paper.

I got it for him, and he wrote this Bible verse, from memory, which I’m now reading, and gave it to me: “Then shall the king say unto them on his right hand, come, ye blessed of my father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry, and ye gave me food; I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink; I was a stranger, and ye took me in. Naked, and ye clothed me; I was sick, and ye visited me; I was in prison, and ye came to me.”

I’ll be honest with you, that made me cry.

The Navy had a big gang problem in the early 1990s, mostly drug related. In fact, a drug-related murder took place on one of my ships, and the body was found in a compartment I was in charge of.

Naturally, I found the body. The murder was tragic enough, but since it happened on my turf, it generated a tremendous amount of bureaucratic paperwork that I was responsible for.

The crime happened while we were in port, Long Beach, California, about the time the adjacent community of Watts was coming apart over the arrest and beating of Rodney King.

Some of the riots and unrest leaked over to our neighborhood, and we got to calling Long Beach “Watts by the Sea.”

I actually came across a few “Mara Salvatrucha” (MS-13) members in the military.

“Mara” is slang for “gang,” and “Salvatruchas” has been explained as a reference to Salvadoran peasants trained to fight as guerillas in their 1992 civil war.

With these guys, as with other Latin gang members, there’s a strange conflation of gang protocol with Christian symbols.

For example, the most common  tattoo I noticed during twelve years in and out of Los Angeles was Our Lady of Guadeloupe, the Patron Saint of Mexico.

Things were much simpler in L.A. back in the 70s and 80s. It was usually just the Bloods vs. the Crips, and they were basically killing each other.

Everywhere you go, you run into gangs of some sort: the Cosa Nostra, the tongs, the Yakuza., etc. 

When I was 21, on a ship out of Boston, my mates and I hung out at a bar in the old Charles Town section of the city, infamous as a center of Irish immigrant gang activity.

It was just our gathering place off the ship and, being a teetotaler, I was there for the fish and chips. We were all surprised when the FBI closed the place down.

It turned out that our home away from home was a collection point for donations to the outlawed Irish Republican Army.

It’s an odd thing to say, and really indefensible, but with all of the gratuitous violence and bloodshed that we’ve experienced lately, one almost wishes people would again commit crimes more out of passion than greed, hate, and racism.

While there’s no such thing as a “victimless crime,” some crimes and some criminals, particularly in the South, tend to get romanticized. Let me give you some examples, first from literature, and then from history.

In my college English class this week, we’ve been studying William Faulkner’s short story, “A Rose for Emily” (1930).

It’s a classic Southern Gothic story with flawed characters, in decayed settings, acting out the grotesque circumstances of their lives.

In this case, Miss Emily, a once rich but now poor and aged spinster living in the fictional town of Jefferson, Mississippi, poisoned the suitor who rejected her when she was around 40, and then slept with his dead and decaying body for many years.

Although his body wasn’t discovered until her death when the local townswomen couldn’t wait to “see inside her house,” my students seemed to think that she would have been forgiven because of the demands of “noblesse oblige.”

Although broke, she would have had enough political “nous” to remain free.

I can remember, when I was a child, my mama singing along with the radio when it played the “Ballad of Kenny Wagner,” a murderer from Sunflower County whose first crime was stealing a watch in Lucedale, but who robbed banks as far away as Mexico during the 1920s.

He murdered five people, was released from jail by a female sheriff who fell in love with him and escaped from Parchman Penitentiary by teaching the bloodhounds to ignore his scent while serving as a trusty.

Yet, he somehow gained something of a “heroic” persona in the process, and folklore, song, and legend painted a picture of him as chivalrous to women, generous to the poor, and the stereotype of an “honorable” Southern outlaw.

When I was about ten years old, some entrepreneur brought the “original, genuine, guaranteed to be the one” Bonnie and Clyde Death Car to Lumberton and parked it on Main Street.

It was roped off, but for 25 cents, you could put your fingers in the bullet holes and wonder at the many blood stains still visible in the car.

Although I knew that Bonnie and Clyde were stone cold killers, and that this refugee from a carnival show had bought an old car and shot it full of holes himself, and then poured catsup all over the seats, I was impressed.

Many of the public had earlier thought of them as the Maid Marion and Robin Hood of the Great Depression years.

Much later, Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty perpetuated this romantic myth.

Growing up, we all heard the story of poor Will Purvis, the innocent man who was hanged in Columbia in 1894 for a murder out around Oloh that he didn’t commit.

Fortunately for him, the rope broke, and he fell to the ground unhurt.

The sheriff was going to hang him again, but a preacher in the crowd of onlookers proclaimed that it was “an act of God,” the hanging was cancelled, and he ended up sentenced to life in Parchman instead.

Eventually pardoned, he returned to Purvis, which had been named after his uncle, and nineteen years later, another man confessed to the crime on his death bed.

When Purvis died a natural death in 1935, he was one of the most well-known men in Mississippi.

I had a cousin who served as the Police Chief of Lumberton, back long before the job was a revolving door, and he spent his spare time down on Red Creek with his metal detector, searching for the lost gold of the notorious James Copeland gang.

Born in Jackson County, and described variously as an “outlaw, hog thief, horse thief, slave-stealer, smuggler, pirate, counterfeiter, burglar, looter, arsonist, murderer, and criminal gang leader,” Copeland got himself hung at Old Augusta (now New Augusta, east of Hattiesburg) in 1847.

However, before he died, he allegedly buried a large amount of gold in what is now Pearl River County.

Generations of determined treasure hunters have dug holes all over south Mississippi seeking what probably isn’t there.

And, of course, you can go see Al Capone’s house, “Del Castle,” in Ocean Springs. It was for sale, unless Katrina got it.  

Capone reportedly lived there while his henchmen lived at the nearby Gulf Hills Hotel/Dude Ranch, which was later a favorite of such stars as Judy Garland, Elvis, and Marilyn Monroe. 

Back in 2005, a fisherman pulled a billfold from an Ocean Springs bayou that had Al Capone’s name on it. It only contained five coins dated from 1899 to 1917.

Contrary to popular belief, Capone didn’t die of syphilis at Alcatraz; he died in Florida of heart failure, which was probably brought on by venereal disease. 

If you are ever in San Francisco, take the tour out to Alcatraz. The boat ride through the fog is worth the price of admission. I was once on a ship stationed at Mare Island, across the bay.

When Alcatraz closed in 1963,  the government moved the maximum security prisoners to Marion, Illinois, and  then to the Colorado ADX “Supermax” prison in Florence, Colorado, which todays holds such characters as Theodore Kaczynski, the  “Unabomber;” Terry Nichols, Timothy McVeigh’s co-conspirator in the Oklahoma City bombing; the Boston Marathon bomber, who is awaiting execution; the principle designer of the B-2 stealth bomber who unpatriotically sold the plans to the Chinese; the Shoe bomber, a terrorist who was going to blow up an airplane with a bomb in his tennis shoe; and, most recently, Joaquin Guzman, aka “El Chapo,” the head of the Sinaloa drug cartel.

All of these thugs register pretty high on the Likert Scale for Meanness.

They are probably holding a cell for D. B. Cooper, but personally, I hope they never catch him. I offer his action up as a “romantic crime,” no harm, no foul; just a sum of money changing hands. 

I’d like to think his parachute opened when he went out the back of that hijacked Boeing 727-100 back in 1971, and that he’s living on a mountain top, with his honey, somewhere between Seattle and Portland, enjoying the $200,000 ransom money.

He’d be about 88 years old now. When fact and legend conflict, print the legend.

I guess he picked that airplane to hijack because the third engine sits on top the fuselage as part of the tail, and perhaps the turbulence wouldn’t affect his parachute as bad. I remember when we jumped the four-engine C-141 Starlifters, they warned us not to bounce out past the wind baffles on the side of the door or the jet engine blast would melt our parachutes. 

As for me, trying to make sense of it all, last night I totally gave up, forever and ever, the unhealthy and unsavory things that have held me back for so long.

It was the longest 15 minutes of my life. Who knows, in another time and place, I might have been just another desperado, waiting for a train.

Light a candle for me.

Hattiesburg’s Benny Hornsby, a native of Lumberton, is a retired Navy captain. Send him a note at: villefranche60@yahoo.com. Read previous columns online at bennyhornsby.com.