We mention “rackets” and “racketeers” frequently here in The Big Blog o’Fun for the simple reason that racketeers were frequent antagonists in 1940’s superhero and adventure comics. But just what is a “racket”, really?

People who grew up during the Great Depression used the word “racket” a lot. My father used to toss it around nearly constantly (and I do mean pretty much all the time). When I wanted to send away for something by mail, he would say, “Aw, that’s a racket!” (In pre-Internet days, before you could order pretty much anything at the click of a mouse, anytime somebody ordered something by mail we’d say that he or she “sent off” for it. That differentiated it from something bought at a physical store. As children of the Depression, my parents were very reluctant to “send off” for anything that wasn’t out of the Sears or J.C. Penney catalogs; they did not want to put a check in the mail if they possibly could avoid it.) If a school club or organization had a membership fee or fundraiser, he’d say, “Aw, that’s a racket!” When I first brought home from school the monthly newsletter of books I could buy from Scholastic, he said, “Aw, that’s a racket!” It’s tough to blame him, as he grew up during hard times. But looking back it’s kind of hilarious now, especially because he wasn’t even using the term “racket” correctly. (Today we would say “rip off” instead of “racket”.)

Technically, “racket” is a broad term but most rackets tend to center on a person or group profiting financially from a condition that they artificially create (or threaten to create). Probably the oldest racket in the book is the “protection” scheme: “Nice store you have here. It’d be a shame if something happened to it.” The shop owner then pays the racketeer to not trash the place or burn it to the ground. Oddly, paying protection was a semi-legitimate practice a century or more ago when urban police didn’t much care about what happened in ethnic immigrant neighborhoods. Shopkeepers would pay the local underworld for actual protection from other underworld figures; the local Don would take care of his neighborhood – that’s why he was the Don. As the years passed, greed took over and now a protection scheme is quite a different thing. It truly is a “pay me to not ruin your business” thing these days; the “squeeze” payments start small but grow larger and larger until the owner can no longer afford them. Then the crooks burn him out, literally. It’s even worse when two organizations put the squeeze on a shopkeeper and, unlike the old “local Don” days, neither group does anything about the other. Then the store owner just goes broke twice as fast.

Another tried and true racket is to artificially create a demand for a product or service, then profit from providing it. You’ll see that in our Golden Age comic book story later on down the page, but it might also be something as simple (and unimaginative) as stealing an item from someone and then selling it back to the victim of the crime. So, for example, a racketeer might make it a habit to steal lumber shipments being transported to a sawmill, then offer to sell the lumber to the mill at a grossly inflated price. The mill would have no choice but to buy it back; without the shipment, the mill would close, and the police would be no aid as the shipment might be held as evidence and the mill would close anyway.

Now let’s use that sawmill for another example, this one illustrating how a really creative racketeer might operate. Let’s say that three separate lumber camps supply that mill with product. The owner/operator of one of those camps might hire some toughs to attack (or even murder) the workers at the other two camps. Over time, the climate of fear created would ensure that the competing camps would go out of business, as no one would want to risk his life by working for them. The crooked camp operator would have a monopoly on the lumber trade in the area and could sell his lumber for rapacious prices. This might ultimately have the effect of eventually driving the mill out of business, but by that time the crooked camp operator will be prepared to pull up stakes and move on to bigger things.

A variation of the “monopoly” theme is for a racketeer to corner the market for a commodity and then sell a counterfeit or watered down version of the product he’s monopolized. Harry Lime, selling impure “cut” penicillin in the movie The Third Man, is an example of this type of racketeer.

These are all hypothetical situations, but to a really creative criminal mind the possibilities are infinite. So, too, to the writers of 1940’s comic books; a catalog of the racketeering schemes depicted in Golden Age comics would be a hefty tome! The Green Hornet alone ran for years in comics form with a new racket foiled by the titular hero in every issue (and even that’s not including the character’s popular radio series and a couple of movie serials).

Considering the sheer volume of racketeering enterprises depicted in comics of the era, it shouldn’t be at all surprising that some of them were fairly weak sauce. An issue of The Green Hornet saw the titular hero breaking up a racket in which crooks would steal pets from children to sell the animals back to them, which is probably the lamest racket I’ve seen in a period comic. The racket in today’s story isn’t quite that weak, but it’s close.

The story was featured in the second issue of Cyclone Comics and again stars the subject of our last blog post, Tornado Tom, the Human Whirlwind. It comes to us courtesy of The Digital Comic Museum. As always, right-click on a page to open it in a new tab for a larger view.

Cyclone Comics #2,  July 1940

Cyclone Comics #2,  July 1940

Cyclone Comics #2,  July 1940

Cyclone Comics #2,  July 1940

Cyclone Comics #2,  July 1940

Cyclone Comics #2,  July 1940

Have fun! — Steve

Copyright 2015, Steven A. Lopez. All rights reserved.

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