The Last Resource by Arthur Conan Doyle
The Last Resource
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Published in Liberty, August 16, 1930
First book appearance in The Unknown Conan Doyle, 1982
The Last Resource
Kid Wilson’s natural home would seem to be the Atlantic, since neither England nor America showed the least desire for his presence. However, in some way he got himself smuggled to London, and there found his level instantly on the edge of the criminal classes. Waldren and I used to meet him occasionally at a small and very disreputable joint at the back of Soho—a place which opened with the last postman and closed with the first milkman. One certainly heard conversation there which was worth while. You can never, unfortunately, make virtue as interesting as vice, for virtue is negative and vice is positive. The man who does not do certain things is the better citizen, but he has not the glamour of the man who does do them. It is sad but true.
When Kid Wilson got talking we were content to listen, for the world of which he spoke was one which was unknown to us, and yet he had, in his own rough way, the art of bringing it home to us. Sitting with chair at perilous angle and a black cigar thrusting out from the corner of his mouth, he would lead us into that strange underworld of the great American cities, where he was clearly a very competent guide. Looking across the water, it was not, so far as we could gather, the sheriffs or chiefs of police of whom he was afraid, but it was his own confederates and fellow-criminals who had it in for him. It was a silent lesson to us to watch him as he made his way out of our dive in the early mornings. With his hand slipped beneath his coat tails, he would take the sharp, quick glances of a hunted animal round each side of the door, before ever he ventured his unsavoury person into the street.
Either his experience or his imagination was very great, and he could hold us spellbound when he wished. On this particular night he started out upon a long story. Waldren says that it is no use my repeating it, because the snap of it depends upon the great American language. Well, perhaps I can talk a little of that, too. Anyhow, I will try to get some suggestion of Wilson even as he spoke.
“I could have done better”, said he, “if it had not been for that old skirt with the slop-pail. I’ll give you what I can while it is clear in my mind.
“It’s all about a certain burg in Amurrca. I won’t give it a name, for it might make trouble, and what I say would fit any one of a dozen. You’ll just figure it for yourselves as a wide-open burg, so wide open that it didn’t seem that as if any power on earth would ever get it shut again. The whole city seemed to have gone rotten, from the mayor down to the bellhops. The crooks had it in their hands, the bootleggers, the hi-jackers, the thugs, the racketeers, the hold-up men, and the likes. You’ll understand that the bootlegger and the hi-jacker are mostly the same person, bootlegging on his own, and hi-jacking the booze of the other guys. The police were got at, the judges were made safe, the district attorney was squared, the mayor was seen. An honest juryman wouldn’t have a chance with an insurance office. The gangsters would take him for a ride within a day of the verdict. It’s no wonder that you would call fifty venire men before you got one that would stick. There was no safety anywhere. Even the State attorney was swinging a racket in gambling machines in drug stores. Yes, sir, the lid was fairly off that old burg. I was there helping, and I know, for I was beer-hustling myself till the police bought me up.
“It came sort of gradual. It rather amused the decent citizen at first to see these wops and dagoes laying each other out with automatics and Thompsons. There were gang quarrels, where some guy with three i’s in his name would claim part of the city for his work, and another guy with three o’s in his name would come muscling in. Then there would be shooting, good and proper, and whoever got hit there was one crook the less. But presently the decent citizen began to understand that he was the next bird to be shot at. That woke him up some. Then came the racketeers, and every store was put under blackmail, or the gorillas would be let loose and the stuff thrown into the street with the owner on the top of it. The money, too, was all on the side of the crooks, and money counts over in God’s Own Country. Oh, yes, it was fierce, and no one could see any way out of it. But there was a way, and Gideon H. Fanshawe was the guy who found it. I’ll hand it to Gideon, I will.
“He was a strange man, was Gideon H. Fanshawe. Some thought he was loco and some thought he was genius. He was rich, very rich, for he had been junior partner of Gould and Fanshawe, the real-estate folk. He spent his life in the library among books, sort of dreaming, but every now and then he kind of woke up from his dream and then things began to happen. He woke up once and climbed the highest peak in Alaska. Another time he woke up and killed three burglars in his house. Then he woke up at the War-time, and no one saw him for a year, when he came back with one foot missing and a French medal. Yes, he was a queer guy and not too safe to handle—with a big think-box on the top, but a mouth like a rat-trap and a man-eating jaw. He was awake now and takin’ notice, and somebody was goin’ to hear about it. Lookit here, you folk, you can take it from me that there are plenty of dangerous men in Amurrka, but the most dangerous of all is just the ordinary citizen when you drive him in a corner and there ain’t no escape, except what he can horn out for himself. You’ve heard tell of Vigilanties of San Francisco? Well, that’s what I mean.
“For a month or more Gideon was just snooping round in his machine, interviewing this man and interviewing that man, and feeling his way. Then there were all-night meetings in his library, where the records of the big shots of the law and the police were debated and addresses taken and plans formed and everyone given the layout, and charged a grand each for the expenses. At that time I was stool-pigeon for the police, and I was had up at one or two of those meetings, where maybe a couple of hundred prominent citizens were present, and where I would be asked questions about what I knew. I was well paid, but I was told to keep my mouth shut or they would shut it for me, and, by George, those boys meant what they said.
“There was one clean honest man in the office, and that was old Jack Barlow, the Chief of the Police. He wasn’t what you would call a strong man —they would have had him out or shot him cold if he had been—but he was white all through. One night Gideon Fanshawe went down to see John Barlow, and I’ll tell you what passed between them, but I have to tell it in my own way of talking.
“After greetings Gideon looked round the room.
” ‘Lookit here, John,’ he asked, ‘there ain’t no detectiphones? No stenog. round the corner?’
” ‘Not with you, Mr. Fanshawe,’ said the Chief, smiling and pushing over his box of cigars, friendly like.
” ‘Word of honour, John?’
” ‘Yep. You may take it so.’
” ‘Now, I’m talking turkey, John. Every word has its face value. First of all, did you ever hear of the G.T.S. Society?’
” ‘Can’t say as I have. I’m fair hazed with all these societies.’
” ‘Well, I’m here to tell you about it. There are two thousand of the best citizens in this town in it, and the letters meat “Got to Stop.”‘
” ‘Meaning the crooks and bootlegs?’
” ‘Just so. Now, John, you know as well as I do that something has got to be done. We all trust you. We know you are straight. But your power has gone. Your own force is rotten from end to end. Is it not so?’
” ‘I’d soon set it right, Mr. Fanshawe, if I had support. But what can I do? These people have the money and they’ve bought up the whole crowd.’
” ‘Except yourself.’
” ‘No, Mr. Fanshawe, nor a few more that I could name. But what can we do?’
” ‘You can do nothing, John. That is why we are coming in to do it for you. Now, first of all—excuse my plain talking—I know what your place is worth.’
” ‘Well, you can read that in city accounts. It is about the only true figure you’ll find.’
” ‘Well, then’—Mr. Fanshawe drew a bundler of papers from his pocket —’these are bearer bonds in first-class securities and you keep them.’
” ‘Mr. Fanshawe, you are insulting me. How can you say I am a white man and yet put such a proposition before me?’
” ‘Don’t lose your hair, John. You don’t quite see my meaning. You will keep these bonds, John, as a guarantee that you don’t suffer though anything we may do. If you don’t suffer, then you hand them back. But if you were to get fired on account of what we did, then it is clear justice that we should make good what we have caused you to lose. What have you say against that?’
” ‘Well, as you put it, that sounds fair enough, Mr. Fanshawe. If I should agree to risk my place for your sake—well, I’m a married man with a family, and I’ve got to live. But it all depends on what you want me to do. If it’s crooked—cut it out. Forget it.’
” ‘If it is against the crooks it can’t be crooked. First of all, John, are there any men at all under your orders who are straight?’
” ‘Sure. I could name two hundred that I could swear by.’
” ‘Then form these into one squad and order them to do as they are told on a night I shall name. Keep all the others at head-quarters or any other place so long as they are not on the streets. We don’t want to hurt any cops if we can help it, and they’ll get hurt for sure if they horn in between the crooks and us. Could you manage that?’
” ‘Well, it would seem good sense.’
” ‘Then I want you just to go for a joy ride that night where no telephones can reach you, with orders to you deputy to touch nothing till you return. That gives us a free hand, and that’s all we ask.’
” ‘But what are you trying to do, Mr. Fanshawe?’
” ‘Well, just leave it at that, John. If you don’t know then you can’t be held to be a partner. Just go and leave the rest to us. If all goes smooth, then you hand back those bonds. If there is trouble and you get fired, then you’re none the worse. See?’
” ‘Well, that’s a bit fierce, Mr. Fanshawe. But there’s my hand on it, and I’ll do as you say.’
“So that was that. And when May 14th came round, honest John simply did a fade-away, while two hundred good harness bulls—that means cops in uniform—reported to the Auditorium Hall, which was the head-quarters of Gideon H. Fanshawe and his G.T.S. boys on that night.
“It was twelve o’clock when the whistle blew. All the crooks had been tabbed down days before and there was no difficulty in finding them. Three hundred automobiles full of hard-boiled citizens were after them, and the greater part was rounded up. No wrens were touched. It was reckoned wiser to deal with the men only. All over the city there were struggles and shootings, but all went as planned. By one o’clock or after there was a row of machines two deep for four blocks from the Hall, with heavily armed guards to each, and the prisoners without arms inside. Then Phil Hudson, he was the man who led the raid, a little hard guy that had been a flying ace in the War, reported to Fanshawe that all was ready and in order.
“The Auditorium Hall was all lit up, and at one end Fanshawe was seated at a high table with a dozen of his crowd, his lists and papers in front of him, and every man with a gun on the table beside him. Behind him was his guard, twenty men with shotguns, each with the G.T.S. badge on his arm. They were mostly ex-service men in the G.T.S. Society. In the Hall were two or three hundred more of them, and some of the general public such as myself. I told you I was stool-pigeon for the police at the time, and I, like others, was there just to give a nod here or there when it was a question of some guy identity, or shake if he was talking blah.
“Phil Hudson, he came to the foot of the dais and saluted.
” ‘We have all we could find, Chief,’ said he. ‘Some were tipped off, but not too many.’
” ‘How many have you, Phil?’
” ‘A thousand or more.’
” ‘Anyone hurt?’
” ‘We had to shoot up ten or twelve of them. Six citizen were shot.’
” ‘Too bad! Too bad! Well, we had best get to it. Send in the mayor first.’
“Fat old Tom Baxter, a very surprised man, was led up, with a guard on each side of him. He was a silly old butter-and-egg man, never done with the wrens, and he was as corrupt as a graveyard.
” ‘You shall pay for this, Mr. Fanshawe. What is the meaning of this outrage?’
” ‘We are here to clean up this town, Mr. Mayor, and we begin at the top. The committee of the G.T.S. have examined the evidence in your case. You have sheltered the crooks. You have taken their money. You have used your office as it should not have been used. Take him away!’
” ‘Take me away! Take me where?’
” ‘To the Odeum. You’ll have all your friends round you there. You won’t be lonely. Remove him.’ ”
So the mayor with a gat stuck into his ribs was walked down the aisle, and then came the whole procession. First it was Burgess, the district attorney, and a fine rage was in.
” ‘I’ll have the law on you for this, Mr. Fanshawe. Are you aware that I was dragged out of my bedroom by these ruffians of yours, and that I have only my pyjama suit underneath this slicker?’
” ‘Too bad! Too bad!’ said Fanshawe. ‘But the citizens of this town are dissatisfied with your conduct of your office, Mr. Attorney. They have examined your case and it has gone against you.’
” ‘What right have you?’
” ‘The right of the people. All power springs from the people, Mr. Attorney, and all power must answer to the people. You have taken money to let crooks slip though the law. You have condoned murders. You have been the paid servant of the gangsters. Take him to the Odeum.’
” ‘What for?’ The little overfed guy was shaking like a jelly.
” ‘Let us say it is to have a photograph taken,’ said Fanshawe. ‘Anyhow, we want you all in a bunch. Take him away.’ ”
“Then came Moltak, the big black Polack, boss of the South Side beer racket who was said to have made five million bucks in two years. He was a great giant of a man, all hair and muscles, and he glared murder at the men on the dais.
” ‘I get you. I get you for this,’ he cried.
” ‘Looks as if we had got you, Mr. Moltak,’ said Fanshawe, with his quiet smile. ‘We’ve got twenty killings against you and your outfit. How many of them have we, Hudson?’
” ‘There are seventy-six outside.’
” ‘Well, we can’t make distinctions. They’ve all got to go. I’ll see you again at the Odeum, Moltak. Take him away and his whole gang along with him.’
“The fellow tried to make a rough house, but they had his arms twisted and he was helpless. There were some man-handlers, I tell you, among those ex- service men. They raced him down and he made way for Genaro, boss of Societas Meridionale. This slick little Southerner with his evening dress and his sissy ways was up to his eyes in murder. He had been snapped up at some swell gathering and he was very sore about it.
” ‘You take me from my guests, Mr. Fanshawe. What you dare do? You take me from the best society in this town. Six judges dine with me to-night, and you drag me away from them.’
” ‘Got those judges, Phil?’ asked Fanshawe.
” ‘Yes, Chief.’
” ‘Let them go in with the others. All right, Genaro, we won’t talk about it. We’ve got you down for near fifty murders. You didn’t do them with your own hands. You had your choppers and your gunmen. But they were yours all the same. Have you the gang?’
” ‘Sixty of them.’
” ‘That’s enough to go on with. Off with them to the Odeum.’
“All night they were being led in, gangsters of every kind, thugs, gunmen, booze-hustlers, hi-jackers, racketeers, con-men, scratchers, common yeggmen, and hold-uppers—crooks of every size and shape. Fanshawe had them all tabbed, ran his finger down the list, had the man’s record in a moment, and dealt with him in a word or two. Often he had a consultation with his friends, and once or twice he looked across for a nod from me or some other who was in the inside of things. Here or there a man was set free with a few stern words of warning. Far the greater part were sent on to the Odeum. At last, just as dawn was breaking, Fanshawe rose, stretched himself, threw down his half-smoked cigar—he had smoked a chain of them through the whole night—and came down from the dais. The other followed, and so did I.
“There were crowds in the street, but the cops and the G.T.S. men had made an avenue, and Fanshawe, with his committee, drove down to the Odeum, which was only three or four blocks away. For my own part, I made my way on foot through the crowd, and reached the place after they had entered. There was a guard at the door, but MacDonovan, who was a pal of mine up at police head- quarters, caught me by the shoulder as I tried to squeeze in.
” ‘Not in your life, kid,’ said he. ‘These guys know you for what you are, and if you get among them I guess there wouldn’t be enough of you left to be worth a funeral.’
” ‘Can’t I get a look in anywhere, Mac?’
“There was a little metal-faced door just inside, and he opened it.
” ‘Get up this stair,’ said he. ‘You are taking a chance from the President’s guards, but if you get up there you will see all there is.’
“So up I went, only to find a gat flushed into my face from a sentry at the top. I got friendly, however, and he let me stop where I could get a view.
“The Odeum is a big square dancing hall with no furniture. It just has a gallery at one end where the band would play—and that is where I was. There was the one stair leading to the gallery, with the guarded and locked door at the bottom. There were two or three other guarded doors faced with metal down below, and the windows, which were high, were all boarded up. Down in the body of the hall were about twelve hundred people, some in dress, most in any sort of rough clothes, but all of them just dancing with rage. They were shaking their fists up at the gallery and yelling out every kind of abuse and threat of what they were going to do with the G.T.S. folk when they got loose.
“Dancing mad—that was how they were—and as you looked down under the bright top lights you could just see open yelling mouths, and twisted faces, and fists held up shaking at the President. I’ll hand it to him for being cool. There he sat with a few of his committee looking down in silence on the mob, as quiet as a fish in ice. On each side of him was a big brass tripod, and a velvet cloth over each such as photographers use. Half-a- dozen G.T.S. were at the back, and if ever I saw hard-bitten soldiers it was there.
“Presently Fanshawe rose and held up his hand for silence. There were some yells of hatred, but as the man stood and looked down at them with a face like death and eyes like icicles, these died away, and there was such utter stillness that there might have been no one in the room. Then he began to speak with a voice that crackled like electricity.
” ‘There are a few Amurrcans in this room, more shame to them,’ said he. ‘They have been corrupted and led away, and yet they were the very ones chosen by the people and trusted to look after their affaires. I am sorry for them, but they have only themselves to thank. As to the rest of you, you are nearly all from foreign lands, whence you were driven by want or tyranny. You came here and Amurrca welcomed you. She could not have been more generous. Within a year she put you on an equality with the oldest citizen. She gave you all her broad lands that you might find a place for yourselves and use every gift that was in you. That is what Amurrca has done for you. And what have you done for Amurrca? You have broken her laws, made the name of her cities a scandal, corrupted her citizens with your ill-got money, broken down her legal system, killed her guardians of the peace when you could not corrupt them. In a word, you have done such things that at long last we, who are the real people, have had to come forth and show you that there is a live Amurrca which has been good and liberal and generous, but which has in it also the power which can punish those who abuse what has been given. You have forced it on us. You have left us no other way but this. Enough said! Cut loose!’
“As he spoke a man on either side pulled the cloth off the machine-guns. The hard-bitten citizens behind sprang to their positions, and in an instant the massacre began.
“I only had a glance at it. I saw them rushing for the doors. I saw them climbing to the sealed windows. I saw them piling up in the corners as rats do when a terrier is loose. I saw them running and screaming, and tripping and falling, and some hiding behind the others, and the dead piling up, and the judges all going down in one heap, and the mayor running forward with his hands up. All this I seemed to see, and then—and then—
“Well, what then?”
“Well, as I said at the beginning, the rattle of that skirt’s slop-pail carried on the tapping of the guns, and then she was bobbing and scarping, and saying that she thought I had been up and out.”
We sat in disgruntled silence.
“Do you mean to say,” I cried, at last, “that this has all been a dream?”
“Well, you can call it that if you like,” he answered, taking the sodden cigar from his mouth. “A vision, maybe, is a better word. It hasn’t happened just like that yet. But wait a bit, folk, wait a bit.”
Poor old Kid! We felt that the end of his story had been a bit of a flop. But his own end was dramatic enough. Only a few days later we saw the curt paragraph in a morning paper:—
“An American named Wilson was found by the police early yesterday morning in the portico of a common lodging-house in Carlisle Street, Soho, suffering from several knife wounds. His assailants had apparently waited for him in the shadow of the door, and attacked him as he returned, according to his wont, in the early morning. He was alive when found, but refused to make any statement, and died on his way to the hospital. There is no clue at present to the assassins, but there are reasons to believe that the tragedy is part of that gangster system which has wrought such havoc in America.”