After penning nine gangster books, including the latest that Maverick House has published as The Bangkok Connection: Trafficing Heroin from Asia to the USA, I can say with confidence that, despite all the songs and the movies supposedly based on the true stories of the kingpins and the dope boys, the truth is far harder to discern. Documenting the history of organized crime can be a tedious and often frustrating experience. Reliable information is scarce. Most lazy journalists (and law enforcement) pass off myth and folklore as fact, and supposedly reliable media sources allow themselves to become breeding grounds for misinformation. Criminal sources lie or spin their recollections. Moreover, they don’t generate many records. Ever heard of a gangbanger keeping a diary or writing instructions to his lieutenants? That is both the challenge and fun in writing about gangsters, but I love it. What can be more interesting than writing about the underworld and the characters who populate it?
Along the way, though, I’ve learned a few things on the subject. So let me help dispel some of the myths regarding the history of organized crime. Here are three of the biggest myths:
1) The amount of money gangsters are supposed to make.
The media routinely report wildly inflated figures as how much money gangsters make. The truth is nobody really knows because we dealing with the underworld. But there is an invested interest on both sides of the law to inflate the figures. Law enforcement does it to justify their budgets and to get promotions. Gangsters exaggerate because of their egos.
Frank Lucas, the subject of the blockbuster movie, American Gangster, bragged that he was making a million dollars a day in Harlem in the early 1970s peddling smack. First of all, can you imagine trying to haul away in a car $1 million a day in street money? Also, Lucas was on welfare when they published that New Yorker magazine article that caught the attention of Hollywood. So what happened to the million bucks a day? I know for a fact from sources whom I interviewed for The Bangkok Connection that Lucas was in constant trouble with La Cosa Nostra because he owed them money.
2) African American organized crime does not exist, or at the least, African-Americans are not smart enough to organize crime.
Racism has affected all aspects of American society, including how it perceives Black gangsters. Four decades ago, many criminologists did not believe African-Americans were smart enough to organize crime. And it was not just the academics. Blacks were able to control lottery or policy racket in their communities because La Cosa Nostra thought it was just a petty ante criminal enterprise. The Mob was shocked to learn about the money being made and subsequently moved in to take it over. Frank Matthews, who jumped bail in 1974 with 15 million and has never been found, was able to operate under the radar of law enforcement for several years because at first they didn’t investigate him seriously. But by the late 1970s, with names like Matthews, Robert Stepheney, Zack Robinson, Nicky Barnes, and Goldfinger Terrell operating as big-time drug lords, law enforcement knew that African-American organized crime existed.
The truth is, to be a successful drug dealer at the higher level, you need to exhibit entrepreneurial skills and have brains. Some of the big names in Black organized crime have been really complex multidimensional characters.
Take Bumpy Johnson, for example. Remember him in the opening scene of American Gangster. Bumpy was sophisticated, cerebral and self-educated. Black gangster Nicky Barnes was well read and had a brilliant business mind. The Bangkok Connection is about the life story of Ike Atkinson, the Black gangster from whom Frank Lucas stole much of his story. The word law enforcement officials use to describe Ike is intelligent. One former prosecutor said he could have been a CEO of a major corporation.
3) Errors, omissions and distortions are okay in a gangster movie about a real life gangster because the movie is just based on a true story.
That’s essentially a cop-out rationale for Hollywood to make a lot of money without having to worry about its credibility. The key word is “based”. Given that qualifier, Hollywood can take all kind of liberties with the story. It has led to a lot of myths and distortions about gangland history. The recent movie, American Gangster, is a prime example. Unfortunately, moviegoers don’t take the time to check out the movie’s accuracy and the myths prevail.
Well, that’s it. There are other myths about organized crime, but take these three for a start.
– Ron Chepesiuk