By Taylor Owens
Michael Witzel explores the flip side of Route 66 in his new book to offer details on the infamous Route 66 locations that once served as hideouts for the James Gang (Meramec Caverns), Bonnie and Clyde (Baxter Springs, Kansas), and Al Capone (Cicero, Illinois).
In Strange 66: Myth, Mystery, Mayhem, and Other Weirdness on Route 66 Witzel tells the stories of the many unspeakable crimes that were committed along Route 66, such as the Stafflebeck “murder bordello” in Galena, Kansas, and Arizona’s “Orphan Maker of Route 66.”
Strange 66 also explores the various different people that passed through the region, including the Dust Bowl exodus and the Trail of Tears tribute in Jerome, Missouri.
Witzel gives each reader a look beyond the all-American sheen of Route 66 to see the seedy, creepy, and just plain weird stories behind America’s most famous highway, the one and only Mother Road.
However, Route 66 is not all crime and seediness. Witzel also takes a look at the memorable offbeat structures and attractions along Route 66, as well as roadside tributes and monuments. These have entertained, astounded, and sometimes confused hundreds of thousands of travelers through decades.
These places include locations such as the Wigwam Motel in Holbrook, AZ, the Cadillac Ranch in Amarillo, TX, Galloway’s Route 66 Totem Poles in Foyil, OK, and of course, exactly what corner you’ll want to stand on in Winslow, AZ.
All of the stories in this book come together to give a raw look at Route 66 that is unlike any other. Strange 66 is illustrated with modern and archival photography and written by a known authority on Route 66.
Excerpt from the Book, Strange 66
“Al Capone on 66 (Chicago and Cicero, Illinois): Al “Scarface” Capone was known as many things: gangster, mobster, criminal, lawbreaker, bouncer, bootlegger, racketeer, tax-evader, modern-day Robin Hood, and ‘Public Enemy Number One.’ What isn’t widely known is that at one time he reigned as the de facto king of Route 6 town of Cicero, Illinois–or ”Caponeville,” as some called it.
It all started in New York City, in a section of lower Manhattan known as Five Points, a slum where nothing good ever came of anything. Capone grew up there and cut his eyeteeth on illegal activities, starting out as a small-time hoodlum in gangs such as the Bowery Boys. In his early twenties, he moved to Chicago, Illinois, to further his career.
There he signed on as a bodyguard for Johnny Torrio and under Torrio’s tutelage worked as a bouncer at brothels.
After Torrio took a bullet in a retribution hit by the competing North Side Gang, he relinquished control of his operation to Capone. Only twenty-three years old, Al took charge of a sprawling distilling and sales operation that covered the entire Chicago area and stretched all the way to the Canadian border. Scarface was now at the top of the heap.
Eventually, the mayor of Chicago had enough and kicked Capone out, so he slithered off to do business in the nearby suburbs of Cicero, hoping to continue his bootlegging operation unimpeded. Naturally, he used his illicit earnings to grease the wheels of the local government, once boasting, ‘Graft is a byword in American life today…The honest lawmakers of any city can be counted on your fingers.’
In 1924, when someone ran against his shill, Mayor Joseph Klenha, Capone unleashed his fury on the opposing candidate. Henchmen shop up the Democratic candidate’s office and strong-arm men known as ‘sluggers’ beat up campaigners. Outside polling facilities, voters were intimidated by Capone’s thugs and quizzed about their allegiance. Anyone voting the Democratic ticket was hit with a billy club, kicked down the street, or knee-capped.
‘Bullets Fly in Cicero on Election Eve,’ read the Chicago Tribune headline. As it happened, brothers Frank and Ralph Capone led a motorcade of shooters on a mission of reelection mayhem. Their orders? Kidnap election workers or literally punch them out in the streets. Stanley Stankievitch was the first to get nabbed.
According to the paper, he was ‘blindfolded, carried to a basement, and held prisoner until eight o’clock last night.’ A total of twenty men were taken against their will, strong-armed to another side of town, and then chained to the pipes and posts in the basement of a city plumbing shop.
As the sun went down, election officials sent out an urgent call for help: Cicero was in a state of complete and total anarchy! The response from law enforcement was quick, and a small army of seventy Chicago cops and five squads of detectives from a nearby bureau rolled in Cicero on Route 66.”
If you want to hear more stories about the places and people that have played a role in the history of Route 66, you can purchase Michael Karl Witzel’s book Strange 66: Myth, Mystery, Mayhem, and Other Weirdness on Route 66.
About the Author
Michael Karl Witzel is a photographer, historian, and folklorist devoted to American roadside culture. An award-winning author, he has penned several books, including American Drive-In, The American Gas Station, The Sparkling Story of Coca-Cola, Cruisin’: Car Culture in America, and The American Diner.
Taylor Owens is a Tennessee native who is currently calling the Massachusetts Berkshires home. She is passionate about the classics, folk music, and coffee. Taylor spends her days as a ski instructor at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, paddling plenty of rivers, skiing the slopes, sipping coffee, or on the hunt for the best breakfast.