Leslie Przybylek, senior curator, Heinz History Center:
If there is one weapon that symbolizes the activities of bootleggers and gangsters in the 1920s and 30s it has to be this. It’s a Thompson sub machine gun, more popularly known as the Tommy gun and it’s actually a weapon that was developed in connection with World War I, but it wasn’t ready for the market until 1921, so it arrived on the scene at just the perfect moment to usher in Prohibition.
The catch is that the gun was rather expensive. It was $200 for a Tommy gun, and that’s the equivalent of about $2,700 today. That was frankly a lot for local police departments to pay at the time for this kind of weapon so what happens is that with the gun’s appearance on the market in 1921, it arrives just in time to see the rise of bootlegging, which, as the ‘20s go on, reaps in huge amounts of cash for bootleggers and gangsters, and they become the people who first start buying the Tommy gun.
It erupts into a large public furor and really this gun is part of that story as it relates directly to Pittsburgh. We know that this is one of two Thompson sub machine guns that was purchased by the city and shipped here in November 1929.
Now anybody who knows anything about kind of Prohibition and gangster history in the ‘20s knows that 1929 was a watershed year. On February 14, 1929 seven men from Bugs Moran’s gang in Chicago were executed in an auto garage and this mass execution became known as the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. It attracted headlines across the country and really focused public attention in a new way on what kind of violence was being spawned by illegal bootlegging and vice activities caused by Prohibition.
Here in Pittsburgh, the 1929 period also saw the beginning of local gang land activity. There was a building that was bombed and in August 1929 local racket king Steven Monastero was assassinated in broad daylight. So you see here as well as nationwide letters to the editor saying why are we allowing carloads of gangsters to travel through the city.
Local cartoonist Cy Hungerford even published a cartoon in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette showing the return, he was evoking the specter of the return of vigilante justice to Pittsburgh complete with a cowboy on a horse with his rifle and a little hanging tree in the background.
These are really explosive symbols and it’s that context behind which the conversation here in Pittsburgh took place about maybe it’s time for us to purchase a couple of tommy guns. Well ironically for Pittsburgh, guns may have been more of a symbolic gesture than a real impediment to crime, in fact 1929 ushered in a three-year period of high level activity in Pittsburgh which culminated in 1932 in the assassination of the three Volpe brothers in the Hill District to really mark that high point in the end of Pittsburgh’s gangster crime related to Prohibition, but the gun is still a wonderful artifact and it’s a real serious reminder of just one of the unforeseen consequences that ultimately helped usher in the demise of Prohibition.