Esposito close-up

Gangsters

Michael O'Malley, Associate Professor of History and Art History, George Mason University

Assignment

Background

Gangsters had an image in the first three decades of the twnetieth century, and in this exercise we will analyze that image. Begin by going to the American Memory page (clicking this link will open a new window). Then click on "Collection Finder."

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Then Click on "Photos and Prints."

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Then enter the search term "gangsters."

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You will get about 90 results. You can choose to display them as thumbnails, which will make browsing easier. IMPORTANT: the next few pages describe the rest of the assignment, and give examples of how to think about it.

For this assignment, pick a single gangster or associated figure (lawyers, girlfriends, journalists, police, etc.) and try to figure out as much as you can about him or her from the photographs and the captions. How was the person depicted? Sympathetically? With hostility? Were the images candid or posed? Were they flattering, or unflattering? Then, after you have found as much as you can, do a search of the web for that person. Is the treatment of that person different now than it was then? Use the following steps:

Your goal here is to consider how gangsters were portrayed in the popular media. Most of these documents are newspaper photographs, though there are also some personal recollections about gangsters and some speeches and pamphlets about the dangers of organized crime.

Gangsters had an image in the first three decades of the twnetieth century, and in this exercise we will analyze that image. Begin by going to the Collection Finder at American Memory. Click on “Photos and Prints,” then enter the search term “gangsters.” You will get about 90 results. You can choose to display them as thumbnails, which will make browsing easier. From here, follow these steps to complete your assignment:

Task

Step one: Browse the images, and choose a person the caption names. For example: Louise Rolfe, Joseph Esposito, Jack McGurn--pick whoever you think is interesting-looking.

Step two: Analyze the image. Most people look at images quickly, but using photos as historical documents requires close analysis. You need to examine every aspect of the picture, and see what each small piece of information can tell you. It's often helpful to mentally divide the image up into a grid. Use Example 1 for guidance.

Step three: look for other images of the same person and compare them to build a broader story about their life. Use Example 2 for guidance.

Finally, consider these questions. How have Americans depicted gangsters, and why do you think the depictions have been the way they are? What role were gangsters playing in popular imagination?

One Conclusion.

Updated | April 2004