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Al Capone and His American Boys: Memoirs of a Mobster's Wife
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
Like gangster Gus Winkeler, this book is a real killer. William Helmer, who has been one of the true experts on Prohibition-era crime for four decades, hits the mark again with a well-crafted, beautifully written and researched work. Helmer rescued Georgette Winkeler's intimate memoir from FBI files and subsequently brought to light a wealth of first-hand knowledge that names the four shooters of the Saint Valentine's Day Massacre, who were not the usual suspects in Chicago, but imported, fresh faces, mostly from Saint Louis - now known as "The American Boys." Moreover, he has illuminated August "Gus" Winkeler, who stayed in the city after the killings in the Clark Street garage on Feb. 14th, 1929 to become a force in the Outfit until his own death in 1933.
Winkeler's widow, a shattered but nevertheless cogent and credible witness, wrote her rather dynamic manuscript after her husband's murder at the hands of the Nitti-run mob. Helmer, who in 2004 with Art Bilek wrote "The Saint Valentine's Day Massacre - The Untold Story of the Gangland Bloodbath That Brought Down Al Capone," (another must read) has completed the historical deconstruction of the denouement of the Chicago Outfit of the 1920's with this latest treatise. Along with Georgette's recollections, Helmer has basically tied up the post-massacre gangland years with a culminating addendum of all the relevant players who have become household names, including Capone, Frank Nitti, and the rest of the infamous crowd who made Chicago rumble. Of all of the journalists who have taken on this epic, Helmer has added to his forty-years of contributions with his best and most revealing efforts in this book, defining the profile of the true historian.
For those of us who never get enough of the elusive truth and who ourselves research those hypnotic times, this book is, simply put, pure pleasure. Georgette's memory of seeing her husband and the other American Boys parading around in their Chicago Police costumes before mowing down George "Bugs" Moran's men in 1929, is the most scintillating solution imaginable to one of the world-changing crimes of the 20th century. Along with his 1969 history of the machine-gun (The Gun That Made the Twenties Roar) and his almanac of public enemies (co-written with the late, great gangsterologist Rick Mattix), William Helmer has once again proven himself as a premier authority on the Prohibition decade. This is an elegant book (buy it in hardcover - it's beautiful) issued by the University of Indiana Press, with no stone left unturned. I admit to being a great Helmer admirer; however, as a researcher myself, I must also say that he sets the standard for all of us. I give this one an unabashed five stars, but it deserves six. It is more fun than a barrel of booze.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on July 7, 2011
First let me say that anything written by William Helmer is going to be a great read. His book on Baby Face Nelson is one of the very best crime books in my library. His latest book Al Capone and His American Boys which includes the memoirs of the wife of mobster Gus Winkeler provides us with a detailed analysis of those who were associated with the Capone gang and the individuals who took part in the St. Valentine's Day Massacre. I feel this book got it correct as to those who were actually involved in that infamous February 14, 1929, bloodbath at 2122 North Clark Street. Some sources include the Murder Twins, Albert Anselmi and John Scalise, as being involved, but based on what I have read I would have to say neither of those thugs were involved.

Gus Winkeler's wife, Georgette, repeatedly emphasizes her frustrations with her husband and his gangland activities. Gus vows to terminate his illegalities telling her, "I will make it up to you, honey," but it never turns out that way.

I did find the book very attentive to detail to the extent that I felt it belabored the point. An example would be the various names and spelling of names used by an individual. However, in doing this I appreciate the fact that this was done to emphasize accuracy as much as possible. Even though many of the photos are small I appreciate having a face to connect with a description of a mobster's role in the story. Each of the chapters are short, and the book includes newspaper headlines from the times. If you are looking for a book on mobsters during the Capone era and how they met their demise this book will not disappoint you. I base my rating of four stars on how it held my interest, whereas for accuracy I feel it deserves five stars. To me, the book reads more like a textbook of gangland activities.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
In 1934 Georgette Winkeler determined to write her memoirs. They were so hot the publisher decided that they could not be issued. Georgette, you see, was the wife of Gus Winkeler, a mobster who had been gunned down the year before, and the publisher thought that her revelations about actions by and to members of Al Capone's Chicago Syndicate could have brought, perhaps, bricks through bookstore windows. The thwarted memoirist turned over her manuscript to the famous G-Man Melvin Purvis, a federal agent she thought she could trust, but she didn't realize that Purvis was on the outs with J. Edgar Hoover because Purvis had gotten broad publicity after the deaths of such figures as John Dillinger and Baby Face Nelson. Mrs. Winkeler thought the FBI would use her manuscript to crack down on the mobsters that had lead to her husband's rise and eventual death, but she was much too optimistic about this. The manuscript sat forgotten on FBI shelves and was only found decades later. Now it is published as _Al Capone and His American Boys: Memoirs of a Mobster's Wife_ (Indiana University Press). Confusingly, although it is Mrs. Winkeler's memoir, the byline on the book's cover is William J. Helmer. Helmer is actually the editor of the memoir, and the photo of one page of Mrs. Winkeler's typescript seems to show that he has edited lightly, or had little editing to do on the text. He does provide notes which are useful, and he is fully qualified to do so, being a historian of the gangland era who has written about Dillinger, the tommy-gun, and other subjects. The memoir lasts 250 pages, and then Helmer has supplied an additional hundred pages of epilogue, useful descriptions of what happened to the players after 1934. He has also provided some sidebars to explain important events, so it is clear his contribution is considerable, but the real story here is that a gang moll wrote a memoir; no one else who knew Capone ever did.

Mrs. Winkeler is not a pre-William Holden version of Judy Holiday in _Born Yesterday_. She is able competently to use such words as "querulously," and also words such as "yeggs." It does make one wonder what a nice girl like this is doing in gang like Capone's. The only explanation is Gus, the younger version of whom she describes as "big, fearless, and friendly." She met him in a boarding house she and her sister operated. He gave her a whirlwind romance, including a visit to what he said was "the swellest cabaret in St. Louis County." When she got there, she was frightened: "The plain walls and ceiling were perforated with bullet holes, which Gus said was a result of `target practice.'" Despite this, they were quickly married, and she had the classic wife's goal of reforming her husband, a goal that if you believe her memoir she kept all through their marriage, trying to get him to give up crime and get a real job. It never worked, although it must be said that her husband had the same goal as well, or at least he let her think so. Toward the end of the book, as she reflects on how hard he was working for The Syndicate, she remembers that he was also making plans for his own enterprises. "As I have said before, it was his intention to relinquish the syndicate business as soon as he was sufficiently entrenched in his own interests." One thinks of poor, doomed Michael Corleone who assured his wife Kay, "In five years the Corleone family will be completely legitimate." She really did love him, and gives him credit for years of working hard and trying to improve his grammar, clothes, and gentility. His was nonetheless a career with considerable lows; Gus was a hired hand for Capone, and was involved in such bloodletting as The St. Valentine's Day Massacre (although the killing of the seven members of a rival gang remains officially unsolved). Much of the book finds Mrs. Winkeler scared for her life; she often got an emergency telephone call from her husband saying something like, "Pack everything, and hurry if you ever did in your life."

After Gus's death, Helmer lets us know, Mrs. Winkeler cooperated with the FBI and avoided any repercussions from doing so. She married a preacher and had what sounds like a completely normal life, along with stepchildren who were fond of her. That's not the way things work out for most molls in the movies; think of poor Gladys George over Jimmy Cagney's body in _The Roaring Twenties_, explaining, "He used to be a big shot." For me, it was impossible to read this memoir without finding that it was in true accord with the movies of the period. Someone here actually warns, "Fade, gang, it's the bulls," and it isn't Hollywood overwriting. The screen myths are undying, and Mrs. Winkeler's voice gives them an unexpected authenticity.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on August 30, 2011
When Georgette Winkeler first met her future husband Gus in 1922, she had to help drag him out of a bathtub after he had passed out drunk. Not exactly the best first impression. Nevertheless, she couldn't help but be swept off her feet by the dashing St. Louis gangster who was just beginning his climb up the criminal ladder. "For better or for worse", to use her term, Georgette would become Gus Winkeler's intimate confidant as he cut a bullet-riddled swath through Prohibition-era America.

After Gus met his untimely demise at the receiving end of a shotgun barrage, Georgette fought through traumatic grief to author a detailed, fascinating account of her life as a Jazz-Age moll. Her book was written in the mid-1930's to serve both as a deterrent to like-minded women and to get revenge against the Chicago Syndicate gangsters who killed the man she loved. Georgette turned her manuscript over to famous G-Man Melvin Purvis in the hope that he would get justice for her murdered husband. She (like the rest of the country at the time) didn't realize that Purvis was now on the outs with FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and that her vengeance would not be forthcoming. Deemed "too hot to handle" by mainstream publishers, Georgette's memoirs languished in obscurity for over seventy years until they were re-discovered by historian William J. Helmer.

The country's pre-eminent authority on Prohibition and Public Enemy crime, Bill Helmer has done a masterful job of bringing Georgette's remarkably articulate voice to life once again. We journey with her as she marries Gus during his initial criminal education in the St. Louis underworld, where he and his buds surreally mix Keystone Kops-style pranks with pitiless brutality. As the decade progresses, the Winkelers move onto Chicago where Gus hitches his wagon to the Capone syndicate and evolves from low-level hood to polished mobster. While Georgette is obviously worried about their safety, she steadfastly sticks by Gus in the vain hope that, ala Michael Corleone, he will one day reach legitimacy.

Despite having no formal training, Georgette is a competent writer and gives a evocative look at many notorious crimes that her husband Gus had a hand in. When he reluctantly discloses his participation in a "one-way ride" killing, one can't help but share the tension as Gus transitions from thief to murderer. We share her disgust when Killer Burke cuts a bullet out of her husband's arm with a safety razor. We feel Georgette's apprehension when she sees Gus and his pals clowning around in stolen police uniforms and see that apprehension change to sheer terror when, mere days later, she reads of the St. Valentine's Day Massacre killers using the very same disguises and realizes that her beloved was involved.

In spite of the bullets and considerable bloodshed, she and Gus have their good times. One can almost feel Georgette's delight as she describes Gus's gala 33rd birthday party, which was thrown at the height of his power within the Chicago mob. And one nearly winces when Gus's world comes crashing down in the ensuing pages. Georgette grapples with long, tense separations from her husband while Gus is gone on one criminal mission or another. She isn't shy about relating her disdain for his associates; men with nicknames straight out of an old-timey gangster film (Killer, Gander, Gimpy, Lefty Louie). Unlike James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson, however, these boys are the real deal. Also in the mix are the bigger players of the Chicago Syndicate, namely Al Capone (who recruited Gus and trusted him implicitly) and Frank Nitti (who did a 180 from his former boss in 1933 and ordered Gus's murder). Winkeler himself, while fiercely loyal to his friends, recognized their shortcomings and turned to his wife when he needed someone to confide in. After reading this manuscript numerous times, I couldn't help but get the impression that Gus sought Georgette as an oasis of sanity in a desert of madness.

While Al Capone's photo graces the cover of this wonderful book, the real subject would seem to me to be Gus Winkeler himself. Usually mentioned only in passing (if at all) as a murder victim of the post-Capone Chicago Syndicate, Winkeler's considerable evolution from lowly St. Louis thief to boss of the North Side rackets is chronicled first hand in his wife's memoirs. Although he is a criminal and can never quite fulfill his promises to Georgette to go legit, Gus is intelligent and a natural leader who got his first taste of violent death not on the streets but on the Western Front during World War I. Charismatic and charming (indeed, Al Capone trusted Gus enough to post a $100,000 bond to bail him out of a 1931 bank robbery case), Winkeler was that rare Prohibition-era criminal that was able to successfully bridge the considerable gap between motorized bandits and big-city racketeers.

Right there with him most of the way were his pals such as Fred "Killer" Burke, Bob Carey, Raymond "Crane-Neck" Nugent, and Fred Goetz. Most of them were, like Gus, former members of the St. Louis-based Egan's Rats gang and formed the heart a crew that has become known to history as "The American Boys". Unfamiliar to both Chicago police and gangland rivals, the St. Louisans proved to be a frightfully effective special assignment squad for Al Capone. Having proudly worked as a fact-checker for this book, I have been able to personally verify much of what Georgette reveals about her husband's career and those of his associates; while the feds may have officially shelved Georgette's manuscript, they questioned her for the private record and were able to confirm her story right down the line.

In addition to Georgette's considerable writing skill, Bill Helmer has added voluminous footnotes, sidebars, and summaries of all the main players and events. In fact, Mr. Helmer's re-discovery of Mrs. Winkeler's long-lost manuscript ranks right up there with the similar 1989 unearthing that Helmer made (along with the late, great Joseph Pinkston) of an unpublished manuscript by attorney G. Russell Girardin that provided a previously unseen look at bank robber John Dillinger's career. In addition to an inside examination of a little-known yet lethal group of criminals and their crimes, this book (as well as a 2004 work by Mr. Helmer and Art Bilek) should put to rest, once and for all, the identity of the St. Valentine's Day Massacre killers.

Georgette Winkeler's memoir is also, conversely, a love story. A tale of a courageous woman who deeply loved her husband despite his often homicidal imperfections and stuck with him to the bitter end. It's obvious from the manuscript that Gus loved Georgette just as dearly; at the time of his October 1933 murder, he was finally beginning to make his long-promised transition to legitimacy. Such facts add an additional layer of complexity to Gus Winkeler who, along with the rest of the American Boys, proceeded to slip through the cracks of history in the ensuing decades.

Now, with the assistance of Bill Helmer, Georgette's voice has reached beyond the grave to tell their story.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
This is a most unique prohibition-era gangster book because it is told through the eyes of a woman. Of course this includes extreme amounts of drama, emotions and plenty of details!!!! Honestly, the truly fascinating aspects are her descriptions and character portrayals of Gus's inner circle. I have never read anything more honest than the words of Georgette Winkeler brought back from the grave by William J. Helmer. Although questions have arisen as to Georgette's motives for writing this memoir in the first place, I do believe in my heart that she intended to clear her conscious to some degree and warn other "molls" about the fearful, dangerous life she lived as the wife of a mobster. She was an intelligent woman who captured an amazing piece of history that I personally am forever grateful for!
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on February 24, 2013
I enjoyed reading Al Capone and His American Boys because it was not about just Al Capone. It was realistic although there was a slight bias in favour of Gus Winekler but this would be expected as it was based on his wife's memoirs. I would recommend reading it as the book provides a realistic history of the 1920's and 30's.
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on December 14, 2013
Everyone thinks of Al Capone's partners in crime as being Italian or Sicilian. The books give a great account of the men that carried out the St. Valentine's Day Massacre and what happened to them afterwards. Winkler was the lone participant that flourished in Capone's empire.
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