Squizzy Taylor and Other Notorious Australian Gangsters of the 1920s
Al Capone - Australian-style
The city of Melbourne was Australia's Chicago of the 1920s and its Al Capone was a jockey-sized gangster with the rather grandiose name of Joseph Leslie Theodore Taylor -- better known to cohorts, victims and detectives alike by his nickname, 'Squizzy'.
For almost a decade Squizzy was a kingpin in Melbourne crime, involved in everything from vicious assaults to murder, blackmail, gambling rackets, robbery and theft. He died as violently as he had lived, allegedly gunned down in a shoot-out with a fellow criminal named 'Snowy' Cutmore on 27 October 1927.
What kind of man was this 'larrikin gangster'? 'His crafty eyes leered at you from under a rakish bowler hat,' wrote veteran Australian crime reporter Hugh Buggy, who came to know Squizzy quite well while covering his amazing career in crime.
"He had a nasty mouth that curled in a perpetual sneer. He was flashy and ostentatious, clad always in the best of suitings, and the most iridescent of shirts and ties. He was just a dapper little braggart, but he wielded amazing influence over gunmen, burglars and pick-pockets. They elevated him to the stature of a demi-god. To an assorted crew of morons he became a hero, a legendary figure, an exemplar of all forms of criminal derring-do."
Born on 29 June 1888, the second youngest of five children of a Melbourne coach builder, Squizzy Taylor's diminutive stature soon saw him become an apprentice jockey -- and gain a reputation as a racecourse crook. But it was a liking for acquiring goods not his own that brought him into contact with the law for the first time. He was only 19 when he was arrested for stealing a gold breast pin worth £2 12 shillings and fined £2.
As convictions for theft and pick-pocketing piled up, Squizzy regularly went to jail for short periods, on his release rejoining his criminal mates - who were all members of the notorious 'Bourke Street Rats'. As he stepped up the criminal ladder, Squizzy turned to blackmail, and discovered that he could make more money -- and stay out of jail himself -- by getting others to do his dirty work for him. He employed baby-faced molls to lure winning punters from the racetracks to their rooms, where one of Squizzy's male accomplices would burst in at a compromising moment and pretend he was the girl's husband. The punter usually paid up to soothe the 'husband's' hurt feelings. If not, he was told bluntly that 'Mr Taylor' would take up the aggrieved husband's case; this was enough to make the most stubborn punters dig deep into their hip pockets.
Blackmail became murder in January 1913 when one of Squizzy's close friends, Harold 'Bush' Thompson, and a 'small man' robbed and fatally wounded a commercial traveller named Arthur Trotter. Thompson was charged with murder but acquitted. His jockey-sized accomplice was never found, but the Melbourne underworld identified him as Squizzy Taylor.
Less than three years later Squizzy was again identified by the underworld as the leader of a daring robbery at the Melbourne Trades Hall, during which Constable David McGrath was shot dead. Three of the robbers were caught and one of them, John Jackson, admitted he had fired the fatal shot -- claiming it was to protect himself from being killed. He was sentenced to death. The other two were tried twice, but each time there was a hung jury. At the third trial they were convicted of committing a felony and jailed for five and six years respectively. Police were convinced that Squizzy had paid off members of the juries.
While Australians by their thousands were dying on the battlefields of far-distant shores, Squizzy Taylor remained in Melbourne where he continued to spill blood for his own criminal ends. Eyewitnesses identified Squizzy and John Williamson as the occupants of a cab whose driver, William Haines, was found shot dead in February 1916. Piecing together the evidence, police found that Taylor and Williamson had been on their way to rob a bank manager, but Haines had refused become involved, and had been killed as a result.
Squizzy seemed doomed by the weight of evidence against him, but as the murder trial progressed, his enormous talent for persuading people to change their minds became apparent once more. Witnesses who had sworn at the inquest that Taylor had been in the car, now discovered that they could not identify him with any certainty. The jury soon returned a verdict of not guilty on the murder charge, and instead of going to the gallows, Squizzy went to jail for vagrancy.
Living in clover
His close encounter with the hangman's noose was enough to deter the little crook from future active involvement in crime. He moved into the background as the criminal mastermind, pulling off one daring robbery after another. As the World War ended and the 1920s dawned, Squizzy's mob continued to do battle with revolvers and shotguns to win control of Melbourne's gangland by killing off their rivals.
Squizzy became a household name -- and, it has been said, a hero to many -- in 1921 when he broke bail after being charged with breaking and entering, and embarked on a year-long game of hide-and-seek with police. Australian newspapers, hungry for sensation and intrigued by the cheek of the diminutive gangster, gave prominence to his open letters in which he alternately taunted police or promised to give himself up, once he had 'fixed up my private business'. He even wrote poems which were eagerly read by his admiring public. One, which seemed to sum up his philosophy, read:
While you live, live in clover,
For when you're dead,
You're dead all over.
When he finally did give himself up in September 1922, Squizzy made sure all the major newspapers were there to record the event, which made splash headlines on the front pages. Once again, his jury-rigging powers were demonstrated: no verdict was reached at the first trial for breaking and entering, and he was acquitted at the second.
Fatal encounter - Snowy Cutmore
For the next five years Squizzy dominated the Melbourne underworld, sending thugs to beat up or gun down anyone who dared oppose him. Usually Squizzy left it to his gang to do his dirty work, but an argument over a woman caused him to pay a personal call to a fellow gangster named Snowy Cutmore on the evening of 27 October 1927.
A volley of revolver shots met Squizzy as he walked into Cutmore's bedroom. Cutmore was killed by a bullet to the heart, while Squizzy was hit in the right side over the lungs and died within minutes. Cutmore's mother was wounded in the right shoulder. The Melbourne Sun reported under screaming headlines:
"Cutmore, who was suffering from influenza,...is believed to have risen to a sitting posture, and drawn the revolver from under his pillow, aimed at Taylor and fired. The latter also fired, and both men were hit...Wild, indiscriminate firing followed the wounding of the two principals..."
Squizzy Taylor's vicious stand-over tactics were continued after his death by a notorious criminal colleague named Henry Stokes, for many years Melbourne's two-up king. He, too, specialized in rigging juries and bribing police, at one time operating a gambling casino on board a 22-tonne yacht once owned by King Edward VII. When Stokes died of a heart attack in 1945, his gambling empire was still flourishing.
Sydney, too, had its gangsters during the 1920s. Until 1927, anyone could own a pistol in New South Wales, making it the weapon of choice for gangsters, but when firearms licensing was introduced, the cut-throat razor became more the norm. Razor Gangs caught the public imagination as they literally slashed one another to pieces to capture the lucrative vice markets - ranging from prostitution to drugs. Cocaine, in particular, became Sydney's 'in' drug after the First World War, offering vast profits for criminals.
Perhaps the most successful of these drug runners was British-born Harry Newman, a once-respectable businessman who became the harbour city's cocaine king. Newman was soon making a fortune importing 'snow' at £1 a packet and selling it for £50, using a stall at Paddy's Markets where he sold gramophone records as a front. Police were powerless to act unless they actually caught him selling, because until 1927 possession of cocaine was not an offence. When a new law was introduced, complete with the State's first drug squad, life became more difficult for drug runners. But by then Newman was so well organised, and had bought so much protection, that he seemed untouchable.
Unlike his customers, Newman never touched cocaine, but his love for gambling eventually brought him within reach of the law. Desperate for money, he took wild risks and when caught he tried to bribe a policeman. He was arrested with 18 packets of cocaine in his possession, which sent him to jail for nine months. By the time he was released from jail, his cocaine empire had been taken over by rivals, ending his days as the city's leading drug pusher.
Gangsters invariably died as they lived -- violently. George Wallace, Sydney's most notorious razor gang leader who specialized in robbing drug pushers by intimidating them with a slash across the cheek, was himself knifed to death in a dark nightclub in 1948.
Most gangsters of the 1920s were seen by the Australian public for what they really were - brutal thugs. Only Squizzy Taylor stood out, winning public adulation as he thumbed his nose at the law -- some people even compared him to Ned Kelly. Although notorious in their day, other gangsters were soon forgotten - but the diminutive crook has remained a hero to many despite harsh indictments such as that written by Melbourne Herald crime reporter Tom Kelynak the day after Squizzy Taylor died:
"Taylor lived on his wits and on the credulity of others rather than by any bold action of his own. He made capital out of the fear that his reputation as a gunman inspired, but when anybody showed violence toward him he wilted and became a cringing sneak, although he usually tried to 'get even' for any affront -- usually by inducing someone else to do the dirty work for him ... One thing is certain, he had never put his life to any good or useful purpose."
- Buggy, Edward Hugh (1896 - 1974) Biographical Entry - Australian Dictionary of Biography Online
Buggy, Edward Hugh (1896 - 1974) Biographical Entry - The Australian Dictionary of Biography Online, or ADB Online, is a biographical dictionary featuring concise, informative and fascinating descriptions of prominent Australian men and women from al