- Gangster Tour of Texas
As someone who has had the privilege of traveling through parts of the state with T. Lindsay Baker on more than one occasion, I can attest to the fact that Gangster Tour of Texas gives the reader a sense of what such a road trip might be like. Baker is a premier yarn spinner and a consummate historian, and his writing accurately conveys his remarkably honed sense of place, as well as his enthusiasm for a historical tale well told. What draws the reader in immediately whether the stories are familiar (such as Bonne and Clyde, Machine Gun Kelly, or the Newton Boys) or perhaps lesser known (like the Flapper Bandit, the Rum King of San Antonio, or the Post Morphine Ring), is the personal voice of the author. By that I mean he has crafted each story in a way that conveys the experience of following along with him on his historical investigations. At the end of each chapter, he ups the personal approach by offering a universal challenge: “Judge the Evidence Yourself”—a unique way of presenting his list of sources.
Gangster Tour of Texas is site-based history at its most compelling level. In his [End Page 207] dogged pursuit of history, Baker follows the research trail through publications, archives, oral histories, and courthouses, as one would expect, but like a gumshoe historian he also strikes out on extensive truth treks that take him down back alleys, out to rural crossroads, underneath overpasses, inside historic buildings, across front yards, and back beyond the fences. What he finds, he carefully documents, photographs, and maps so heritage tourists can literally follow the crime spree.
This is not the usual overview of outlaws and lawmen, although those who favor such studies will find more than enough here to warrant their interest. The book instead explores new layers of gangster stories, from the personal and poignant to the lasting effects of crime on communities—and even the state. Embedded within the layers are clearly-defined bits and pieces from the past that speak to broader contexts of economics, politics, the legal system, families, society, and the cultural landscape, both rural and urban. It is, as the title suggests, a tour, but a tour unlike any other.
An important aspect of the book is that it appropriately reflects Texas crime in its broadest sense, yet Baker clearly provides parameters by focusing on organized crime, which he defines as “any activity in which two or more people conspire to break the law for personal gain” (xiv). As a result, there are some of the usual suspects in the book, but some that might also seem surprising to find there, including General Land Office Commissioner Bascom Giles; the noted goat-gland charlatan, Dr. John R. Brinkley; and Becky Rogers, who began her criminal career as a troubled employee of the Texas State Historical Association. The chronological span of the book stretches from the era of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow forward to the demise of the extensive gambling operations in Galveston.
Gangster Tour of Texas makes a significant contribution to our collective understanding of the recent past by exploring one important aspect of social history. The book will appeal to those who appreciate well-crafted stories solidly grounded in the historical record and to those who like to take a leisurely literary tour around the state reflecting on the past. It is a study that is, at once, engaging, comfortable, rewarding, and unforgettable.