King recaps the forgotten criminal career of a pack of violent robbers who roamed pre–Jazz Age America, possibly killing more than 20 people.
True-crime veteran King (The Rise and Fall of the Dillinger Gang, 2005, etc.) unrolls the harrowing rap sheet of the Lewis-Jones gang, briefly notorious brigands who terrorized the central and western United States from 1912 to 1918. The founding members were the Lewis brothers, who were mentored in crime by a father who worked all his life as a shady lawman/security guard in Kansas boomtowns. When divorce split the family, the children went to live with their illiterate, but apparently law-abiding, mother and photographer stepfather in Tulsa. There, Frank, Roy and Ora Lewis fell into larceny of all sorts, including stealing merchandise from a fence and selling it back to him. The early years of automotive culture created fine opportunities for mayhem, King writes, and easy access to stolen getaway vehicles. In 1916, ringleader Frank began recruiting new members; one was Dale Jones, a young car thief with a habit of disguising in female drag, who racked up a cruel body count. The gang held up banks, a train, even an early Hollywood studio—and may have targeted the U.S. Mint in Denver. During police firefights, they made incredible escapes, inflicting far more casualties than they sustained. After the slaying of a popular Colorado officer, police finally caught up with the Lewis brothers, and Jones and his wife were killed in a California shootout, à la Bonnie and Clyde. King writes in short, staccato chapters and prose so procedural that the late actor and Dragnet star Jack Webb could have done the audiobook in his clipped Joe Friday diction. Despite a few, sometimes-puzzling background sidebars (what’s Pancho Villa doing here?), King’s breathless, richly footnoted storytelling delivers. Readers may wish for more material about the molls—especially the lone Lewis sister, a glamorous St. Louis showgirl who used her entertainment bookings to help support her brothers. This corker of a true-crime story rediscovers historic villains whose deeds, though bloody, would soon be eclipsed by the outlaws of Prohibition and the Depression. Several pages of photos and wanted posters are included from the Pinkerton Detective Agency archives.
A brief, bracing, action-packed bio of some memorable badmen.