How Much $$ Can Fit in a Suitcase in 1926?

20-dollar-bill-061My fourth mystery, MURDER IN DISGUISE (due out in 2016), involves a suitcase full of cash from illegal bootlegging and drug sales. I found myself at a loss when trying to estimate how much money would be in that suitcase. How much money would fit into an average suitcase? Of course, it depends on the size of the suitcase and the denomination of the bills, but even then, I had no earthly idea. Would it be tens of thousands of dollars? Hundreds of thousands? Millions? 

To find out, I took a trip to my local bank and, after carefully explaining that I was neither crazy nor a bank robber, I asked the manager how many bills to an inch were in a stack? I explained why I needed to know, and after she stopped laughing, she got a teller to bring out several packets of cash. I whipped out my ruler and measured–turns out there are about 200 bills per inch when the bills are used. Crisp new bills lie flatter and would measure more per inch, but I figured the money in my fictitious suitcase was used bills, coming from bootleggers and drug dealers, not from banks. 

Back home, I measured the length and width of a dollar bill, then plotted how many could fit in a suitcase of approximately 30″ x 20″ x 8.” There would be 1,600 bills in each 8″ stack and 35 stacks arranged 5 rows by 7 rows. Now, depending upon the denominations inside the suitcase, it would hold about 5 1/2 million dollars if they were all hundreds. But my story takes place in 1925, and hundred dollar bills would be rare and difficult to spend (and would be worth about $1,365 in today’s money), so I figure most are twenties and some are tens, still large bills in those days but easier to use. With a hypothetical mixture of mostly twenties (see illustration) and some hundreds and some tens, I came out with about $1.68 million. That sounded reasonable. So that’s what I’m going with. 

Then I learned that bills from that era were slightly larger than our today. I could either redo my calculations or imagine a slightly larger suitcase. Lazy me.




Published in: on August 30, 2014 at 2:46 pm  Comments (1)  

Now Available in Paperback

adaf6-impersonatorHooray! My Roaring Twenties mystery, THE IMPERSONATOR, originally published by St. Martin’s/Minotaur Press last September in hardback, has just been made available in paperback form at all bookstores and online. The paperback version has a section at the end with suggested questions for book clubs, something they don’t do in hardcover versions, for some reason . . . probably because most book clubs choose books that are available in paperback to keep costs down. 


Published in: on August 23, 2014 at 3:07 pm  Comments (6)  

How Much $$ Was Made during Prohibition?

255_10000_1934_face_large_2This is a famously difficult question, one that historians and economic historians have played with for decades. Still, it is fun to speculate. According to Daniel Okrent, the historian who wrote the marvelous book, Last Call, the annual sales from bootleg liquor reached about 3.6 billion dollars by 1926. To put this into perspective, that was about the same amount as the entire federal budget that year, including the military. 

Another way to look at the question is to measure the increase in printed bills by the Bureau of Printing and Engraving. In 1925, they printed $300 million MORE large-denomination bills than they had five years earlier, before Prohibition started. As NY Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia said, “What honest businessman deals in $10,000 bills? Surely these bills were not used to pay the salaries of ministers.” 

Surely not. They were more likely to go to pay for things like Al Capone’s armor-plated car ($350,000 in today’s dollars) or bootlegger Terry Druggan’s solid silver toilet seat, not to mention bribes for the judges, politicians, lawyers, policemen, juries, federal agents, and bureaucrats in every town and city. 

The introduction of electronic money transfers between banks and credit cards meant the end of large bills. Nothing larger than a $100 bill has been printed in America since 1969. 

Published in: on August 15, 2014 at 2:28 pm  Leave a Comment  

Douglas Fairbanks, Creator of Zorro

220px-FairbanksMarkofZorroOkay, I know that Johnston McCulley wrote the original story of Zorro in 1919 in a weekly magazine. He titled his tale “The Curse of Capistrano,” and it didn’t get much notice. It would have died an obscure death had not the great swashbuckling actor, Douglas Fairbanks, happened to read the magazine on his way to Europe for his honeymoon and decided it would make a great movie–with himself as the star, of course. 

I recently re-read “The Curse of Capistrano” and re-watched “The Mark of Zorro,” Fairbanks’s 1920 film, to compare the two. I wanted to see just how much of the Zorro persona Fairbanks invented and just how much was McCulley’s. 

Turns out, Fairbanks accounts for as much or more than McCulley. McCulley is not a great writer and is particularly weak on descriptions. While he describes Don Diego as “lifeless” and the character is always complaining about being exhausted, it was Douglas Fairbanks who turned that into a vivid image. He shows Don Diego in his first scene entering a tavern during a storm with, of all things, an umbrella–that highly effeminate tool. He is dressed in fancy, decorative clothing. He yawns constantly and slumps. At least 5 times, he shows a stupid magic trick while asking, “Have you seen this one?” He wears a beauty spot on his chin and in one scene, makes shadow puppets on the wall. None of these details appear in the original magazine. 

Douglas Fairbanks also put details into Zorro. It is he who invented the black outfit, the Z on the cheek and, in one case, on the seat of the pants. Endowing Zorro with his own athleticism, he swings on a rope from balcony to balcony, leaps walls and rooftops, conducts sword fights over tables, while walking over a chair, and crouching on the fireplace mantel. Douglas added the secret, underground lair beneath the de Vega household where Zorro can hide his horse as he is being pursued (sort of like the Bat-cave), and the hidden passageways in the deVega mansion by which Zorro/Don Diego come and go in secret.

Conclusion: Our notion of Zorro, nurtured through many more movies and television series, stems largely from Douglas Fairbanks’s vision of the hero. I’ll be using this in the talks I’m scheduled to give this fall. 


Published in: on August 5, 2014 at 5:55 am  Comments (7)  

Mostly Lost: A Silent Film Identification Project

mostly-lost-bannerI heard about this from a piece on NPR, unfortunately too late to participate. The Library of Congress National Audio-Visual Conservation Center in Culpeper, VA, had a workshop in July for film experts, archivists, and anyone with expertise on early silent movies, where they show films and partials that they can’t identify and hope the audience can help. This isn’t a quiet, respectful audience; this is a shout-out audience whenever someone thinks they recognize a particular actor, the model of a car, a geographic location –anything that would help pinpoint a date or help ID the work. The 3-day event is open to anyone, but one must register and be admitted in advance. I believe it happens every year, so I’m going to try to attend in 2015. I’m no big-time expert, but I have learned something from my research for my Roaring Twenties mysteries, and I might be able to supply a clue or recognize something historical that could help. Anyway, spending a couple days with other people who share my interest in silent film would be a treat!

Read more about this unusual event at

Published in: on July 26, 2014 at 11:06 am  Comments (7)  
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Medical Liquor Prescription

Look what I bought on eBay! A prescription for liquor dated 1929. Medical Liquor Prescription It’s a duplicate and the handwriting is sloppy, so it’s a bit hard to read, but it was made out to Albert Long of ???, Pennsylvania for Thatcher’s Drug Store in West Chester. The doctor prescribed a quart of some liquor that the second word begins with Fr . . . ti. Anyone know a liquor that would fit those letters? On the back, rules say that the prescription is only good for 3 days, and that this duplicate had to be retained by the drug store. No doubt, the pharmacist saved these in a binder (see the 2 hold punches?) in case the Prohibition cops wanted to check. Since one of my characters in Silent Murders and the book following that (Renting Silence 2015) is involved in legal drug store liquor sales, I wanted to have one of these for my “show and tell” folder when I appear at book signings and at book clubs. It makes history really come alive.

Published in: on July 20, 2014 at 8:22 am  Comments (9)  

How did waiters fare during Prohibition?

margaret-bourke-white-waiters-serving-at-marlborough-house-a-speakeasy-haven-for-drinking-socialites-during-prohibitionHere’s an interesting tidbit I stumbled upon–how Prohibition affected waiters.

During Prohibition, especially in the cities, a restaurant that didn’t sell booze was doomed to fail. Obviously, customers preferred the ones who flouted the laws, but it was more than that. According to Daniel Okrent in Last Call, labor economics favored the illegal speakeasies, “because tips in speakeasies were so much larger, so was the earning power of their waiters and chefs; this attracted the best in the business.” 

Others flocked to hotels where they could drink in the privacy of their own rooms. So many people were using hotel rooms in this fashion that the practice led to the installation of wall-mounted bottle openers which were fastened to a door jamb so they wouldn’t be stolen. 

These are both nuggets I can use in my mysteries.

Published in: on July 12, 2014 at 7:49 am  Comments (1)  

Cocktails for the Twenties

imagesProhibition changed drinking patterns a lot during the Twenties. Before 1920, most Americans had enjoyed drinking hard cider, beer, or wine; relatively fewer drank gin, whiskey, or other spirits. In fact, many people initially supported the proposed prohibition of alcohol thinking that it was only going to outlaw hard liquor, and that beer and the rest would still be available. Not so. For the hard-core Prohibitionists, it was all or nothing.

After everything was all illegal, there was an uptick in hard liquor sales. Why? Because speakeasies found it was  easier to transport, store (hide), and sell liquor than it was the lower alcoholic-content beverages like wine and beer. One bottle of gin could go a lot farther than the same size bottle of wine. That’s what led to the proliferation of the cocktail during this decade.

images-1In my mysteries, I show a lot of drinking, mostly at private parties and speakeasies. My main character’s beverage of choice is champagne, which she doesn’t get very often, and she drinks beer and cocktails as well. Which ones? She likes gin rickeys, which first appeared around the turn of the twentieth century. A 1903 recipe calls for the juice of one lime, a small ice cube, a wine glass of gin, and the rest seltzer. Many other gin cocktails were developed during these years. Mix a shot of gin with lemon juice, sugar, and seltzer and you have a Gin Fizz. The Bennett used gin with lime juice and bitters; the Bee’s Knees with honey and lemon juice; the Southside with lemon juice, sugar, mint, and seltzer. 

Readers often ask if I modeled Jessie after myself. Some authors do that. I did not. I have Jessie drinking beer because it was more popular than wine in those decades. Personally, I dislike beer and I don’t drink liquor at all. I’m too happy with a glass of wine, red or white, to venture into the cocktail world. One drink we both like–champagne! 

Published in: on June 23, 2014 at 2:38 pm  Comments (4)  
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Hooray! Cover art for SILENT MURDERS is here!

You can’t judge a book by its cover, but we all do. So I’m pleased that I’m pleased with the cover for my next book, SILENT MURDERS, which will be released on September 23.

The art director for St.Martin’s/Minotaur has been working on the cover for some time, and I thought you’d like to see how the process works. Here’s the first attempt. I’m fortunate that my publisher listens to its authors when designing their book covers–many (most?) do not. I wondered about the use of denim as a background for the title–blue jeans in the 1920s didn’t seem to fit. It was meant to look like the hardcover below the torn book jacket, but to me it said “blue jeans.” And the face was a little cheesy, too innocent, too modern, too much like a romance novel, which SILENT MURDERS certainly is not.

silent murders 1

The second attempt was more authentic and more interesting. In fact, they chose to use an actual  photograph from the mid-1920s. This woman looks less “ingenue,” more mysterious. I liked it very much, but thought it was drab. I wondered if they had designed it that way on purpose to mimic the black and white silent movies of the era, which form the backdrop for the story. But still, I asked if they couldn’t inject a little color. 

silent murders

Third time’s the charm, right? Here are the final results–I think it’s terrific. Now all I have to do is wait until September to see the finished product.  




Published in: on June 6, 2014 at 8:49 am  Comments (8)  
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Prohibition: Pot v. Liquor

two-new-books-explore-wine-bootlegging-during-prohibition_3566450_40I’ve found Prohibition to be the most fascinating aspect of the utterly fascinating Roaring Twenties. In the course of my research over the past several years, I’ve learned a lot, most of which does not fit into my mystery series (hence this blog). What shocked me most was not the hypocrisy of the era, not the violence, not the wholesale corruption, but the parallel between the prohibition of alcohol and the prohibition of marijuana. All I had to do was substitute the word “pot” for the word “liquor” and the story reads the same.

During Prohibition, there were exceptions for medical liquor, just as there are exceptions in many states for medical marijuana. And those exceptions were flagrantly abused. During Prohibition, some people (farmers, for instance) could legally make hard cider or wine at home for home use. Similar exceptions exist in some states for small amounts of homegrown marijuana plants. During Prohibition, the medical community switched from saying that alcohol had no medicinal value to saying that it had significant medical value. Most doctors now say that pot has medicinal value.

Prohibition led directly to the rise of an international crime syndicate that smuggled liquor into the United States from Mexico, the Caribbean, and Canada. The prohibition of pot has led to the creation of an international crime syndicate that smuggles pot into the U.S. from Mexico and the Caribbean (not so much from Canada). The gangsters during the 1920s were gruesomely violent, the murder rate almost doubled, many innocent bystanders were killed. The drug cartels of today are gruesomely violent, turning entire countries or parts of countries into narco-states, and many innocent people are being killed.

During Prohibition, the vast amounts of money corrupted the legal system, bribing policemen, judges, lawyers, juries, and politicians, and buying murders. Today in many countries and parts of the U.S., drug money is corrupting the legal system, bribing or  terrorizing policemen, judges, lawyers, juries, and politicians, murdering many. During Prohbition, imprisoned gangsters could operate from inside prison; today, many of the imprisoned drug dealers operate from inside their prisons. Prohibition of alcohol cost the country millions and millions of dollars over 13 years to enforce–and was unenforceable. Prohibition of pot costs our country billions of dollars to enforce and is not enforceable. In the 1920s, courts and prisons overflowed with people who had broken the Prohibition laws but who were otherwise not criminal or violent. Today our courts and prisons are overflowing with nonviolent people who have broken our drug laws. 

I used to be one of the majority of Americans who believed that marijuana should be illegal. My immersion in the 1920s has convinced me I was wrong.

In hindsight, Prohibition looks so stupid to all of us, so doomed to failure, so utterly wrong that most of us wonder how on earth such a law came about. (Read LAST CALL of you want the shocking details.) So now I’ve come to believe the prohibition of marijuana is equally stupid. 

Do you know what surprised me? It was actually HARDER to get a drink after Prohibition ended in 1933 than it was during Prohibition (1920-1933). Why? Because of regulation. When government regulation came back into effect in 1933, there were once again rules–laws limiting the number of bars in a particular area, the days of the week they could operate (not on Sunday), the hours they could operate (not 24 hours a day), the sort of people they served (not children), and where they could go (not near schools or churches). Legal booze, unlike illegal rotgut, was made by legal breweries, distilleries, and wineries where quality could be monitored; illegal booze killed people because it was often made with poison. Alcohol-related deaths declined once alcohol was legal. And people started drinking more beer and wine and less hard liquor. The crime world was removed from the liquor supply system and violence declined. (Unfortunately, the gangster organizations didn’t disappear because there were still plenty of illegal moneymaking opportunities in drugs, prostitution, gambling, and extortion.) 

So oddly enough, my research into the Prohibition era has had the unexpected effect of changing my opinion about legalized pot. What about you? 

Published in: on May 31, 2014 at 8:33 am  Comments (1)  

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