Gangbuster: One Man's Battle Against Crime, Corruption, and the Klan
“Operating under its law and order banner but hiding behind dog whistle rhetoric and white hoods, the Klan infiltrated nearly every aspect of daily life throughout post-World War I Colorado, including the political landscape.”
A confidence man—or as we know it better, a con man—is someone who gains the trust and confidence of another and then uses that trust to cheat, trick, or swindle them. The world is full of con men, floating hollow promises and bogus facts, seeking ill-gotten gains from the naïve and trusting. They run the gamut from small-time grifters playing Three-card Monte on street corners for nickels and dimes to politicians perpetuating lies to obtain campaign contributions.
On the heels of its post-Civil War metamorphosis from a gold-mining camp to a metropolitan area, Denver, Colorado, became an unlikely—or perhaps likely—hotspot for cons of all types. As Alan Prendergast tells us in Gangbuster: One Man’s Battle Against Crime, Corruption, and the Klan, Denver’s transformation included providing “a gauntlet of services and investment opportunities designed to separate newcomers from their cash.”
In fact, wide-open Denver became known as “The Big Store,” a euphemism for the façade established to set up a scam, often employing multiple con men as part of a team. Paul Newman and Robert Redford fit that bill in the blockbuster movie The Sting. Sadly, law enforcement was as complicit in the corruption as were the con men.
It was into this hotbed of corruption that attorney Philip Van Cise inserted himself at the outset of the Roaring Twenties as Denver’s district attorney. Though he served only one term, from 1921 to 1925, his tenure lasted long enough to wage wars against two “big cons,” and his legacy continued thereafter. Prendergast tells the reader that “[t]he first battle made him one of the most admired and feared gangbusters in the country. The second cost him his job and almost cost him his life.”
That first battle was against a criminal enterprise created, and ruled over, by Lou Blonger, whose tentacles reached into the police department, the courts, and even the mayor’s office. Known simply as the “Fixer,” Blonger was the man “who could spring crooks with one phone call and whose own operations were so well-protected that [police chief] Armstrong was powerless to oppose him.”
Undaunted, Van Cise brought Blonger down in a courtroom, even overcoming reputed efforts at jury tampering or jury fixing. Following a nine-week trial, justice was served in the form of guilty verdicts across the board for Blonger and his allies. Chalk up a win for Van Cise.
But difficult though it was, taking down Blonger and his con man cohorts paled in comparison to the second battle, the one against the biggest con of all: the Ku Klux Klan, a proverbial wolf in sheep’s clothing. In a letter to the Denver Times, the Klan hailed itself as a “’law and order organization, assisting at all times the authorities in every community in upholding law and order.’” In reality, it subverted law and order, having simply “figured out how to market hate as a brand, and their efforts proved to be wildly successful.”
As far as Van Cise was concerned, the Klan was perpetrating another big con on the people of Denver. Or, given the Klan’s predilection for “kl” sounds, perhaps klon might be a better term.
Most readers might associate the KKK with the deep South, but no geographic area of the country was immune to its poison, and Colorado seemed particularly susceptible to the snake oil the Klan peddled. Prendergast notes that, while that state didn’t have the slavery legacy of the South, it had its own history of troubled racial relations, like the near genocide of Native American tribes, such as the Sand Creek Massacre of Arapaho and Cheyenne women and children, and other outrages against Blacks, Chinese, Catholics, and Jews.
Against that backdrop, the author tells us that “[t]he fault lines of racism and religious bigotry were already there, waiting to be exploited”—the Klan’s particular specialty. Operating under its law and order banner but hiding behind dog whistle rhetoric and white hoods, the Klan infiltrated nearly every aspect of daily life throughout post-World War I Colorado, including the political landscape.
It even infiltrated the grand jury of Denver and used that as a bludgeon against its enemies. As Prendergast writes, the Honorable Clarence J. Morley—a Klan stooge for whom the use of the honorific almost seems obscene—used the grand jury as a “star chamber . . . to unleash the powers of the grand jury against the Klan’s enemies, alien or internal. To hell with the rule of law, to hell with due process.”
But Van Cise wasn’t one to roll over and play dead, even in the face of misguided popular opinion. Though he wasn’t able to claim total victory before leaving office, he laid the groundwork for the ultimate result of largely delegitimizing the Klan.
The details and frustrations of Van Cise’s fight against the Klan make up the second half of Gangbuster and, quite frankly, is the more compelling portion of the book. Maybe that’s because the stakes were higher. Or, perhaps because it seems to have more particular application today, when corrupt politicians and race-baiters have resurrected many of the same, and some would say time-tested, ideals and techniques of the Klan of a century ago.
It seems the battle is never really over. Like Michael Myers in Halloween, the bogeyman always seems to resurface somewhere else just when we think we’ve beaten him. Eternal vigilance is the watchword for a free society, and we need role models for the struggle.
Gangbuster offers a fascinating look at one of those role models: Philip Van Cise, an honest man in a dishonest world who, without regard to the consequences to himself, demonstrated the power of integrity in the incessant battle against corruption.