BOOK REVIEW: News Weekly
Low-life or lovable larrikin?
, August 17, 2013
THE RISE AND FALL OF SQUIZZY TAYLOR:
A Larrikin Crook
by Hugh Anderson
(Sydney: Pier 9 / Murdoch Books)
Paperback: 288 pages
Reviewed by Michael E. Daniel
When I was growing up, older family members and friends would tell me tales about a charismatic Australian gangster who was constantly in the headlines in 1920s Melbourne, Leslie “Squizzy” Taylor.
This was a time when criminal gangs roamed Melbourne’s streets, robbed banks, ran houses of ill repute, supplied illegal grog on the sly and, on occasion, exchanged gunfire with the police. Squizzy Taylor was a criminal mastermind, who seemed always a step ahead of the law and who fascinated the public with his sharp tongue and bravado.
His criminal career is the subject of the latest Channel Nine Underbelly series, which premiered on July 28. It stars Jared Daperis, 22, as Squizzy.
Despite the coverage his outlaw activities received in the newspapers of his day, comparatively little was written about him afterwards.
Hugh Anderson, a prolific and gifted author, repaired this deficiency in 1971 when he first published The Rise and Fall of Squizzy Taylor. That same year Anderson was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society of Victoria.
Joseph Leslie Theodore “Squizzy” Taylor was born in the coastal Melbourne suburb of Brighton in 1888. However, while he was still young, his family suffered a reversal of fortunes and relocated to the inner-city working-class suburb of Richmond.
His first brush with the law occurred when he was only 16. For the rest of his life, until his violent death in 1927, aged 39, he frequently appeared in court.
However, prosecuting lawyers were seldom able to secure convictions, owing to a range of strategies employed by Taylor. He was not only an adept thief, responsible, it seems, for masterminding and/or stealing large amounts of cash and valuables, but he also possessed an instinctive knack of being able to outsmart police and cover his tracks. Furthermore, he intimidated potential witnesses, and bribed or intimidated jury members.
He commenced his criminal “career” with pickpocketing and petty theft, but soon progressed to committing more serious felonies. Anderson, for example, contends that Taylor was the accomplice in the robbery and murder in 1913 of Arthur Trotter, a MacRobertson’s confectionary salesman, and was involved in the break-in of Trades Hall in 1915, which led to the fatal shooting of a policeman who went to investigate.
However, Taylor’s involvement in the 1916 murder of a hire-car driver William Haines is more certain. It is generally believed that Taylor or his accomplices murdered Haines after the driver refused to give them a lift to the eastern suburbs to rob a bank.
The murder charge against Taylor was dropped. Instead, he was sentenced to one year’s jail on charges of vagrancy and of obstructing police.
Some time after his release, he became embroiled in a gangland war which lasted for several months in 1919. It originated in an argument between the Fitzroy and Richmond armed gangs after they collaborated in a successful robbery (believed to have been planned by Taylor) of a jewellers in Melbourne’s Collins Street.
Two members of the Fitzroy gang were arrested and charged with the robbery, prompting immediate suspicions that someone from the Richmond gang must have tipped off the police. The two gangs clashed in a long-running shooting battle, which in many respects foreshadowed the gangland wars that beset Melbourne eight decades later.
A 1921 robbery of a warehouse in King Street, for which Taylor was arrested, confirmed him as a media sensation. He managed to skip bail and eluded police capture for the next 15 months, while the press had a field day speculating on his whereabouts, fuelled by Taylor’s letters to The Herald.
He was ultimately acquitted. He was also acquitted of the next major charge brought against him, namely of being an accessory to the murder of Thomas Berriman, manager of the Hawthorn branch of the Commercial Bank.
Taylor’s luck ultimately ran out. On October 27, 1927, he called on a rival gangster, standover man John “Snowy” Cutmore, who was recovering from influenza in his mother’s house in Carlton. Taylor’s exact motive in visiting the sick Cutmore — was it to intimidate or kill him? — and the exact sequence of events which resulted in the two men being fatally wounded in a shoot-out, have never been clearly established. Although Cutmore had a weapon on him, someone else may have shot Taylor.
Squizzy Taylor’s career has tended to be eclipsed by Melbourne’s gangland wars of recent decades, and younger generations of Australians know little if anything about him.
Nevertheless, Anderson has performed a valuable public service in painstakingly consulting documents, particularly newspaper reports and court records of the period, to put together, as far as it is possible to do so, an accurate record of Taylor’s astonishing life of crime. To contextualise Taylor, Anderson provides additional important elements of the socio-historical background of that era.
High unemployment, low wages and uncertainty about the future might explain why so many turned to criminal activity. Perhaps one of the most interesting episodes Anderson describes is that of the Melbourne police strike in 1923, which unleashed mayhem as hooligans vandalised and looted shops.
Anderson’s classic study of Squizzy Taylor, now in its third edition, is a fascinating study of one of the more infamous characters in the history of “Marvellous Melbourne”.