In the late fall of 1941, a murder case involving two 16-year-old boys hit the front pages of newspapers nationwide. The duo was charged with the robbery-killing of a prominent Washington tax expert in his Leesburg, Va., home. They escaped temporarily by hurrying across the Potomac River to Frederick County but were caught later near their home base in Kentucky.
Today, such a case might not make the same splash except in the state or locale where it occurred. Fifty years ago there wasn't a parade of incessant violence on television, in the movies and out on the streets. Today, a murder case has to involve something more than a simple stickup or family row or even a gun-toting 12-year-old to hoist it into the big time.
The fact that major crimes received spectacular coverage years ago has a lot to do with there being fewer of them. And that in part could be tied to the severe criminal penalties often meted out in the early parts of the century.
Meet Judge Eugene O'Dunne, the holy terror of all wrongdoers in the early years of the 20th century.
Judge O'Dunne was a strict interpreter of U.S. laws and he used them without demur to punish transgressors. Eugene "the fearless," as he was known, had an eagle eye for "marauding gangs of ruffians," according to one report. He handled hundreds of such cases and had the following achievements to his credit:
He once sent 50 stevedores to prison en masse for cheating on unemployment compensation, collecting it fraudulently while still employed. He believed, optimistically perhaps, that prison was the place to cure young thuggery. In one triple-header sentencing by the Supreme Bench judge, he gave 10 years each to three young thugs involved in violence. One purse-snatching and yoking rated a 60-year jail sentence, and one Wilbur Coates, 18, was given 90 years in jail for six robberies and a burglary in town.
"There are," his honor said, "mad dogs in the community," and society "must put them away for the rest of their lives." The Sun applauded the judge's get-tough policy and the long sentence for the violent purse-snatching. "It was and is a good notion," the newspaper said editorially. The fact was that the crime rate, and especially the repeat-criminal rate, had been blossoming along with Baltimore's big population jump early in the century. By 1923, the crime rate for repeaters had doubled from the 1900 rate.
What worried sociologists the most was that juvenile crime seemed to be snowballing. Stiff sentencing seemed not to be a cure-all to the deepening urban violence.
The year 1940 would see auto theft coming into its own as a juvenile caper. The same year would also see Judge O'Dunne reversing himself quickly after succumbing to mercy in the case of a burglar named Harry Fisher. The judge noted that Harry was an "Alcatraz graduate" but granted a suspended sentence after a guilty plea. Two days later, Fisher was arrested and charged with two other burglaries. Ten years in the pen was the new sentence. The whole affair moved the judge to term the prison system a "boarding school in which the taxpayer paid tuition" while the inmate "is learning nothing but a postgraduate course in crime."