Richmond, Virginia, native and noted historian Richardson (Built by Blacks: African-American Architecture and Neighborhoods in Richmond, 2008) vibrantly captures the essence of the infamous Tri-State Gang and how his hometown briefly morphed into a mob town.
In swift prose and exacting detail, Richardson revisits America’s gangster days in the 1930s, focusing on a particularly elusive group of gun-toting criminals who terrorized the East Coast. Richardson also impressively sets the grim scene in 1931 Richmond, a once-prosperous area now ravaged by the Great Depression and Prohibition, circumstances that sparked criminal activity borne out of financial desperation in the region. A criminal triumvirate—Walter Legenza, a sharp-featured, sociopathic felon; his younger bootlegger sidekick, Robert Mais; and Mais’ sweetheart, Marie McKeever—wreaked bloody havoc across Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia as the core of the notorious Tri-State Gang. They collaborated on a series of lucrative robberies and ushered in a wave of gangsterism from their hideout in a Goochland nightclub. Their first serious offenses were the coldblooded murders of 23-year-old Madelyne Whelton and a Federal Reserve Bank mail truck driver. Witnesses popped up amid the senseless bloodshed, which Richardson narrates with breathless precision, and Legenza and Mais were identified as main perpetrators in the gang’s illicit activities. While both were embroiled in dramatic court proceedings, their club sanctuary exploded and burned to the ground; eventually, both were sentenced to the electric chair. The gangsters attempted one last fight for freedom in a prison shootout and a daring jailbreak. Months later, with expert work by police detectives, both men were eventually recaptured and executed in 1935, Legenza remorselessly “surrounding himself with a fog of aliases, half-truths, and outright lies, even with only hours to live.” Richardson, who seems to have taken great pleasure in poring over the events, offers fascinating details about those personally affected by the Tri-State Gang’s wave of violence. Black-and-white photographs of the nightclub, its subsequent ruin, and various other locales are generously sprinkled throughout the text, adding new shades to the history.
Richmond-area readers and true-crime enthusiasts will find much to savor in this rousing, vivid report on a shocking crime spree.