Street Poison: The Biography of Iceberg Slim by Justin Gifford delves deep into the life and crime of author Robert Beck, whose works have had profound influence black culture (available August 4, 2015).
The first and definitive biography of one of America's bestselling, notorious, and influential writers of the twentieth century: Iceberg Slim, ne Robert Beck, author of the multimillion-copy memoir Pimp and such equally popular novels as Trick Baby and Mama Black Widow. From a career as a, yes, ruthless pimp in the '40s and '50s, Iceberg Slim refashioned himself as the first and still the greatest of “street lit” masters, whose vivid books have made him an icon to such rappers as Ice-T, Jay-Z, and Snoop Dogg and a presiding spirit of “blaxploitation” culture. You can't understand contemporary black (and even American) culture without reckoning with Iceberg Slim and his many acolytes and imitators.
Drawing on a wealth of archival material including FBI files, prison records, and interviews with Beck, his wife, and his daughters Justin Gifford explores the sexual trauma and racial violence Beck endured that led to his reinvention as Iceberg Slim, one of America's most infamous pimps of the 1940s and '50s.
Published by arrangement with Doubleday, an imprint of The Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.
PRISON (1936 – 1942)
Beck returned to Milwaukee in December 1936 and immediately began his pimp career. He knew he was never going back to school. Tuskegee, with its military-style discipline and air of bourgeois self-importance, had shown him that. The education he sought was hidden away in the minds of those boss players who frequented Milwaukee’s jazz joints and cabarets. Beck was determined to infiltrate these clubs and steal secrets from well-heeled pimps. He knew he would have to be careful; he had already been arrested eight times between the ages of fourteen and seventeen. He was a notorious small-time criminal with a lengthy rap sheet. As a minor, he had always managed to talk his way out of prison, but he was a legal adult now, and for his next offense he would likely be sent to the Wisconsin State Reformatory or prison. He didn’t really care; he was young and handsome, overconfident, and ignorant of the double-crosses that awaited him in the complex world of sex work. “I was eighteen now, six feet two inches tall, slender, sweet, and stupid. My maroon eyes were deeply set, dreamy. My shoulders were broad and my waist as narrow as a girl’s. I was going to be a heart breaker all right. All I needed was the threads and a whore.”
Beck moved back in with his mother, who now lived at 1865
Eleventh Street in Milwaukee. He had no money to live on his own, and Mary always had room for him. She worked as a domestic servant and nurse for an older white woman. Domestic service was one of the few jobs available to black women during the first half of the twentieth century. Even in the industrial powerhouse of Milwaukee, over 60 percent of black women worked in domestic labor. Domestic and personal service was grueling and often humiliating work. Women were required to wash clothing and bedding, scrub floors, cook and serve meals, dust homes, and perform dozens of other tasks. Wages were as low as five dollars a week, and a typical workday lasted between twelve and fifteen hours. At the height of the Depression, jobs were so scarce in northern cities that many black women gathered at so-called “slave markets” or “slave pens” each morning to seek daily employment. White employers drove up in cars and hired whichever woman bid her services at the lowest price. This forced black women into competition with one another for already limited work, driving down their wages during one of the greatest economic crises in American history. Like many women in this line of work, Mary lived in her employer’s servant’s quarters six days a week. She was a caregiver as well as a housekeeper, so she lived on the property to fulfill her many duties.
Mary’s absence gave Beck the perfect chance to explore the gambling dens and taverns in Milwaukee’s red-light district. He had neither the money nor the flash to try to break luck at any of the big-name clubs like the Congo Club and the 711 Club, so he made for the underground speakeasies instead. In one unnamed dive, Beck found a fraternity among a group of has-been pimps and gamblers. The old men had enjoyed moments of glory as the neighborhood’s top ass-kickers, but now they were broken down from a lifetime of prison, drugs, and scheming. They had stories to tell, though, and Beck memorized as many of them as he could. Diamond Tooth Jimmy, so named for the “two-carat stone wedged between the upper front rotting teeth,” used to brag “he was the only Nigger pimp on Earth who had ever pimped in Paris on French girls.” Another character, named Weeping Shorty, was a notorious “gorilla” pimp, who controlled his women through brute force. He was a longtime junkie; he shot heroin regularly to cope with the stress of the pimping. Even at the relatively young age of fifty-five, Beck recalled, Weeping already looked like a “breathing corpse.” He was reputedly so cruel that, when it rained, he told his prostitutes, “Get out there and work.
Don’t worry about the rain. Walk between the raindrops, bitch.”
Beck found a second home in this gambling joint, and got his first real glimpse into the complex rules of the pimp game. He got a job cleaning up the bar for the nine o’clock opening. He slept on an old army cot in the back room rather than return to his mother’s hotel room. The old pimps introduced him to marijuana in after-hours rap sessions, and they often stayed up until dawn telling stories about the glory days. Beck kept quiet and listened, mostly. He had an ear for dialogue, and he mentally copied down their stories and jokes for his future interactions with prostitutes. This informal mentorship came with a price, however. The veterans berated him constantly; Beck, in order to learn the rules of the game (have his “coat pulled”), put up with a steady string of insults and name-calling. Weeping Shorty was particularly vindictive in this regard, naming him “the whore’s pet and the pimp’s fret.” During this era, pimp mentorship was a complex hazing ritual. The teacher tested the fortitude of the would-be pimp by hurling creative insults at him. If the young pimp could keep his cool, the mentor revealed to him secrets from the legendary “pimp book.”
The pimp book—like playing the dozens, toasting, and sidewalk songs—was an African American oral tradition that started around the time of the Great Migration. It was a set of unwritten rules, rundowns, gambits, and codes of conduct created by the first pimps who came to northern cities after the end of slavery. They adapted the physical and mental cruelty of the slave system in order to control a stable of women. These strategies were handed down to younger pimps through oral storytelling and instruction. Although Jimmy and Weeping were no experts in the ways of the book, they knew some of the basics. For example, the pimp had to be, above all else, cool. “The career pimp lives by a rigid code of self-discipline which projects an image of icy composure in the face of constant stresses, and threats of the turf. He keeps his cool despite the voluptuous sexual temptations within his stable or in the streets.” Furthermore, it was not the pimp’s electric sexuality that attracted women to his stable, but rather the fantasies of fame and wealth he concocted for them. Because would-be prostitutes were usually working-class women with little access to wealth or social capital, they were drawn to the pimp who provided the illusion of success. “I also discovered that whores need and use the flashy front, notoriety and phony glamour of pimps to get a sense of personal importance and worth,” Beck remarked later in life. “I don’t think I ever got a dime from a whore because of any sexual prowess I possessed.” Finally, Beck learned in these early rap sessions that there was a high turnover rate of sex workers. “[The pimp] doesn’t try to keep a stable of whores happy, either. He can’t even keep himself happy. What he does is keep them conned, confused, bamboozled and fascinated so that they will continue to hump his pockets fat with greenbacks. Life for a whore if she’s got a pimp is around-the-clock-pressure, terror, and constant fear of death traps in the streets.” Beck put up with the older pimps’ slurs and jabs in order to figure out the essentials of the game. “Weeping Shorty was an old man, and he had gotten past the questions and had worked out a few answers, but even so he knew a thousand times more than I did. So I fought for control. I couldn’t show anger. If I did he would cut me loose.”
It didn’t take long for Beck to find himself in trouble after running with this new crowd. On the morning of March 19, 1937, only a few months after his return from college, he was arrested for “advising a felony.” There is no more specific information in the case file, so it is impossible to know for sure what the nature of his crime was. However, it is more than likely that Beck was arrested for some charge relating to the sex trade. Given his own accounts of his activities during this period, as well as his arrest record, it is plausible that Beck was involved in some form of pimping from the age of eighteen onward. Whatever the circumstances, Beck told the judge that he was recently home from Tuskegee, and that he was a laborer looking for work. The judge was lenient and gave him three years’ probation on the condition that he take a job with the Works Progress Administration. Beck agreed.
During the Depression, the WPA was the largest and most significant federal agency connected to President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal program. It was created to put America’s massive numbers of unemployed to work building highways, bridges, schools, and parks. Nearly every city and town in America benefited from the WPA construction projects; the agency employed over eight million people between 1935 and 1943. In Milwaukee, WPA ventures were responsible for laying six miles of sewers and repairing 175 miles of roads. Municipal buildings, museums, and schools were renovated and repaired. There was a sewing project, through which 750 workers fabricated garments for Wisconsin institutions; a toy-lending project, in which workers repaired over forty thousand toys for needy children; and a microfilm enterprise, created for the preservation of the city’s journalistic history. Mary herself worked for what would become Milwaukee’s most celebrated WPA venture, the Handicraft Project. It was designed to employ women who had not been able to get financial relief. The women made quilts, toys, dolls, and books for underprivileged people in hospitals, schools, and on relief rolls. It was unique among the WPA projects, as it consisted of an integrated workforce of whites, African Americans, and new immigrants. Even unskilled laborers made as much as sixty dollars a month, and amazingly, the WPA made no wage distinctions between black and white employees. Mary worked in the sewing unit, and she no doubt preferred this work over the drudgery of domestic service. Beck, on the other hand, found his job exhausting. He was employed as an unskilled laborer in Milwaukee’s ambitious parks project. The city expanded the park system through the construction of playgrounds, swimming pools, pavilions, and numerous ornate buildings. New roads and pathways were created in nearly every park in the county, while miles of parkways were laid in and around Milwaukee. Beck most likely worked as a common laborer for these projects, digging ditches and clearing brush.
Beck used the WPA job to plan new and exciting heists. Sometime in the summer of 1938, he met a burglar and ex–con man named Orin Brasted while working at the WPA. Beck was fifteen years younger than Brasted, and he looked up to the older man as a mentor. Beck had a plan to rob a jewelry store owned by a local businessman named Herbert L. Palzer, and he decided to bring Brasted in on the plan. In December 1938, Beck put the scheme in motion; it was only later that he realized it had been foiled from the beginning.
According to Beck’s statement to the police, “I planned a job with a white fellow while we were working together on WPA. Told him of a jewelry store and how we might tie up the proprietor and rob him. He was a former inmate at WSP [Wisconsin State Prison] and told me of the jobs he’d pulled, but I didn’t know he had a brother on the police force. The police were waiting for us when we went to rob the store. He tipped them off and two weeks later got a job as a health officer.” Although Beck had been the mastermind of the caper, he tried to convince the judge that he was a victim of Brasted’s influence. It seemed like a plausible enough story to the judge, given Brasted’s age and his former record. Besides, nothing had actually been stolen, so he decided to continue Beck’s three-year probation.
During this period in his life, Beck consistently, almost compulsively, sought out the mentorship of older men and women in the pimp game. In each instance, he gained some knowledge, but he also ended up in handcuffs. It was nothing short of a miracle that he had not yet been sent to prison. By now he had been arrested ten times, and on every occasion he had managed to talk his way out of it. This good-luck streak ended only a few days after his botched jewelry heist. On December 8, 1938, Beck was picked up by the police and charged with advising a felony for “having sexual intercourse with a married woman and accepting money tendered him by her but belonging to her husband.” In his memoir, Beck called this woman “Pepper Ibbetts,” though I could find no record of anyone by that name, or any variation of it. (But again, Beck used few real names in his autobiography.) However, there are records substantiating that Beck was involved with an older married woman at this time, one who had an enormous influence on his life. In his 1945 prison record, for instance, his mother reported that her son met the woman as early as 1936, and that she was even responsible for convincing Beck to drop out of Tuskegee. The file states: “Mother indicates he became involved in his present trouble due to contact with an older woman who influenced him into the life which caused him to become arrested when 17 years of age. This original trouble has caused him to be arrested numerous times.”
The woman known as Pepper Ibbetts provided Beck with a significant education in the sex trade, one he could not get from his pimp teachers. Because of his traumatic past, Beck was drawn to surrogate parents of both genders, and the more mature Ibbetts fulfilled his deep need for a mother figure. In his memoir, Beck described her as an “ex-whore who had worked the jazziest houses on the Eastern Seaboard.” He had had extensive sexual experience with girls since he was thirteen, but Ibbetts was a street veteran who taught him all the sexual tricks of the industry. It was from Ibbetts that Beck learned how to use sex as a weapon, and as a form of control. As he recounted later, “I was just a hep punk, I wasn’t in her league, but one of my greatest assets has always been my open mind. That freak bitch cajoled and persuaded me to do everything in the sexual book, and a number of things not listed.” With her, Beck snorted cocaine, and he learned the art of “circus love,” an exhausting ritual in which every possible erotic act was performed. “She was a hell of a teacher all right, and what a performer,” he later exclaimed. “If Pepper had lived in the old Biblical city of Sodom the citizens would have stoned her to death. She nibbled and sucked hundreds of tingling bruises on every square inch of my body. Fair exchange, as the old saw goes, is never robbery.” After a few weeks of this routine, Beck was exhausted. He was staying up all night, and his nerves were shot from constantly snorting cocaine. “When I got home and looked into the mirror, a death’s head stared back at me. That vampire bitch was sucking my life’s blood all right. I also knew that crystal cocaine wasn’t exactly health tonic.”
Beck finally realized that he was being played. He was breaking one of the first rules of the book: a pimp always gets his money upfront from his woman. He knew now he had handled it all wrong from the beginning. “I was green all right and twice as soft, and Pepper knew it. Here was a hardened ex-whore who knew all the crosses, all the answers, who handled lots of scratch and wasn’t laying a red penny on me.” Beck went back to his mentors seeking advice. They all told him the same thing: he was wasting his time. As one pimp put it, “The suckers in Hell want ice water, but it’s late for them. They ain’t never going to get no ice water. The way you start a bitch is the way you end with a bitch. You can start pimping hard on a bitch and then sucker out and blow her. But ain’t no way you can turn it around and pimp on Pepper after starting with her like a sucker. Forget her and get down on a fresh bitch.” This was one of the well-known axioms of the pimp book, but Beck wouldn’t listen. He was ashamed that he had let Pepper manipulate him, and he was angry at himself for betraying the pimp code. Beck was determined to make some money off of her.
According to his own account, Beck first tried to muscle the money out of Ibbetts. He had seen neighborhood pimps do it before. He waited until he was in bed with her, and then he asked her for money to buy a new suit. When she refused as usual, Beck went into action. “I reached down and slapped her hard against the side of her face. It sounded like a pistol shot. On impact a thrill shot through me.” For a brief moment, Beck felt power and a sense of control. He felt he understood now why pimps hit their women. It gave him a feeling of omnipotence, and all of his insecurities drained out of him. However, the feeling lasted just a split second, as Ibbetts fought back like an old pro of the streets. “I should have slugged her with a baseball bat,” Beck said later. “The bitch uncoiled from that bed like a striking yellow cobra, hooked her arms around my waist, and sank her razor sharp teeth into my navel.” Bleeding and bruised, Beck left Ibbetts to devise another plan. Little did he realize that she was already putting together a con that would land him in prison.
What happened next is not entirely clear, as records are scant and contradictory. According to the police report of December 8, he was caught “keeping company with a married woman and receiving three hundred and eighty dollars from her.” In his memoir, Beck explained that he was arrested for these charges after he and Weeping tried to blackmail Pepper for five hundred dollars. They supposedly took photographs of her having sex with Beck without her knowledge and then threatened to show them to her husband. Beck got the payoff, but then the police immediately arrested him. He suspected that Pepper and Weeping had together set him up for a fall, but he couldn’t be positive. In the official prison records, we find Beck giving a slightly different version of events: “I was placed on probation but got to running around with a married woman and was sent here when her husband turned me in for accepting $380 she had taken from his private gambling fund, and which we planned to get married on as soon as she could get a divorce.” Given that Beck many times embellished and exaggerated his stories in both his autobiographical writings and his testimony to prison officials, it is difficult to say what exactly happened here. Adding further to the mystery is the fact that Beck had attempted to rob a jewelry store two days before he was arrested for the Ibbetts situation. Did he do this to finance his marriage to Ibbetts? Did she give him the money because of blackmail or because she was trying to help him after his jewelry store arrest? We will probably never know the whole truth. However, in light of Beck’s lengthy rap sheet, as well as his writings about this period in his life, the most likely scenario is that he was trying to run a variety of swindles all at the same time, and they all backfired on him at once. That Brasted ratted him out to the police is clear from records, but it also appears that Ibbetts also helped get him busted days later by informing on him to her husband. Beck could no longer hide behind the defense that his actions were merely youthful shenanigans; this time he was going to jail.
For two weeks, Beck awaited his trial. His mother wrote him every day, and she came to visit once per week at the Milwaukee Detention Center. She was becoming more religious, and threatened him with fire and brimstone if he didn’t change his ways. In Rockford, Mary had attended church, but she had never been a religious zealot. Now she was so saddled with guilt that she had an actual nervous breakdown. “I realized that poor Mama was becoming a religious fanatic to save her sanity,” Beck remarked in retrospect. “The pressures of my plight must have been awful.” On the day of his trial, December 23, 1938, Beck pleaded guilty to the charge of advising a felony. He had been caught red-handed with Ibbetts’s money, and he hoped that if he threw himself on the mercy of the court, the judge would be lenient. Instead, the judge sentenced him to one to two years at Wisconsin State Reformatory, a prison for first-time offenders. Mary was sick with grief, and she sobbed as Beck was taken away in handcuffs. He felt a stab of guilt for what he had done, but it was too late to change anything now. For five days, he was locked up in county jail while he waited for the bus to take him upstate. The older cons tried to scare the new prisoners with tales of horror about the reformatory. He was so worried about his mother that he just ignored them. “There were several repeaters from the reformatory on my tier at county jail, who tried to bug the first offenders with terrible stories about the ‘hard time’ up at the reformatory, while we were waiting for the van to take us upstate. I was too dumb to feel anything.” Three days after Christmas, Beck boarded a bus heading for Wisconsin State Reformatory.
Originally commissioned in 1897 for the purpose of treating first-time offenders, Wisconsin State Reformatory was created as a model of prisoner rehabilitation in Wisconsin. Prior to the late nineteenth century, American prisons were based on the Pennsylvania model—named after America’s largest prison of that era, Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia—which emphasized isolation and prisoner penance. Early American prisons like Eastern State were fashioned after Jermey Bentham’s panopticon design, in which a single watchman in a tower observes all of the prisoners in the institution at once, without their knowing if they are being watched. The fact that prisoners cannot see the guard motivates them to police themselves. Penal philosophies shifted in the 1890s during the Progressive Era and began instead to emphasize discipline, group labor, and vocational training as the path to prisoner self-betterment. Wisconsin State Reformatory was created to keep young, impressionable convicts away from the harsh realities of the mainstream prison system and provide them with the educational and vocational tools to rebuild their lives once they were released. It was a system that stressed the possibility of parole over a strictly punitive flat sentence, and in the decades between its opening and Beck’s arrival in the late 1930s, WSR increasingly focused on education, psychiatric treatment, and vocational training for prisoners.
The reformatory was set up like an experimental city. It was built on the banks of the Fox River in northern Wisconsin between Green Bay and De Pere. The convicts themselves had built all of the buildings on the prison grounds. In the first few decades of its construction, WSR added a power plant, hospital, school, machine shop, tailor shop, and a farm. In the years just preceding Beck’s arrival, new trade schools were implemented for automobile repair, plumbing, cabinet making, and painting. As the first superintendent of the prison, James Heg, envisioned it, discipline and hard work were the key components to rehabilitation at WSR. A prisoner’s normal day consisted of a strict schedule. “Five hours of some productive work for the state, three hours of technical training in some industry whereby a trade may be acquired, one hour of military drill and setting up exercises and one and one-half hours of school, wherein at least the rudiments of education [are learned].”
On a snowy, frigid day in late December, Beck arrived at WSR. The sight of the prison unnerved him. A twenty-two-foot concrete wall completely encloses the prison on four sides. Two massive cellblocks made of granite spread out nearly two hundred feet in each direction like wings from a central administration building. This building, which also serves as the entrance to the prison, is an imposing example of Romanesque architecture, four stories tall and also made of solid granite. It features arched gothic windows adorning the front, and a pair of eagles perched ominously over the front door. As Beck’s bus made its way up the long drive through rows of trees to the main entrance, the terror of this fortress city struck him. “When those high slate grey walls loomed grimly before us it was as if a giant fist had slugged the breath from us all. The van went through three gates manned by rock-faced hacks carrying scoped, high-powered rifles. Three casket-gray cell houses stood like mute mourners beneath the bleak sunless sky. For the first time in my life, I felt raw, grinding fear.”
Beck was processed into the prison in the central administration building. In the intimidating central rotunda, the floors are made of rose terrazzo, a durable form of composite marble imported from Italy. The columns are made of the same marble, and they stretch from floor to ceiling, nearly twenty feet high. The rotunda is a massive open rectangle, seventy feet by seventy feet, featuring poured concrete staircases and ornate spindles. The room is filled with a number of twelve-foot-high murals of dramatic natural landscapes painted by prisoners: Mount McKinley, Mount of the Holy Cross, and the Wisconsin Dells. It looks like the entrance to a mausoleum. As Beck would learn during his incarceration, the classical architecture and beautiful artwork hid darker realities within the so-called reformatory. “This was part of the shiny, clean skin of the apple. The inside was rotting and foul.”
Beck spent the next few weeks in quarantine, and his every move was documented and recorded. He was given a medical exam and dental checkup. His medical history was thoroughly documented, as his chart indicates: “Measles, mumps, chicken pox, pneumonia 1928, small pox vaccination, circumcision.” Upon entering the prison, Beck was rail thin; he stood at well over six feet, and he weighed only 145 pounds. He had a few cavities and high blood pressure, and he scored a 109 on his IQ test. He was interviewed by the vocational director, psychiatrist, and chaplain. He did not leave the psychiatrist with a positive impression; the chief examiner wrote, “His delinquency was due to deferred mental development of reasoning powers and judgment with indications of mental defectiveness and possible morbid impulsiveness or psychopathic personality.” The report went on to state, reflecting the subtle institutional racism of the period, “This colored boy is introverted, shallow, superficial, and lacking in moral and social sense. He has poor reasoning, insight, and judgment. His home environment, training, and race, have been against proper socialization in the past. He is defective in appreciation of his past societal behavior. With a period of training and discipline he may develop sufficiently to make a more proper adjustment in the future.” Beck was given a temporary work assignment—probably performing manual labor—and then observed by the Social Service staff and assistant superintendent, who assessed his work habits, attitudes, and adjustments. Finally, before being released into the general population, he was given a stern warning by the Warden: “We are here to punish you smart-alec bastards, so if you fuck around, two things can happen to you, both of them horrible. We got a hole here that we bury tough punks in. It’s a stripped cell without light, twenty feet below ground. Down there, two slices of bread and a pint of water twice a day. You can go out that North gate in a box for your second choice.”
After quarantine, Beck was moved into cellblock B. This was where he realized that WSR was a reformatory in name only. The design of the cellblocks was based on the so-called Auburn or New York system. In this model, seventy prison cells are lined up side-by-side in a row, and then these rows are stacked on top of one another four tiers high. The cells face a concrete wall, and guards patrol the narrow corridors between the cells and the wall. This design minimizes contact between prisoners and maximizes guard control when transporting inmates from cell to workplace or mess hall. The conditions in cellblock B were absolutely vile. It was racially segregated, and the only one without toilets. The prisoners used buckets that they dumped in a trough behind the cellblock. Furthermore, the food was barely edible. On his first night, Beck discovered why inmates wolfed down their rations so fast. “It was barley soup with a hunk of brown bread. It would have made great shrapnel in a grenade. I was new and learning, so instead of just gulping it down, I took a long close look at the odd little things black-dotted at one end. I puked until my belly cramped. The barley in the soup was lousy with worms.” At night, guards shined their lights on inmates once per hour in order to monitor any potential escapes or interrupt any masturbating. Convicts also fought off bedbugs, as the cellblock was infested with them. Night after night, countless bedbugs invaded the cells. “I slapped the itching sting on my thigh. I pulled the sheet back. Lord, have mercy! How I hated them. It was a bed bug I had smashed, but he was only a scout. When that flashlight jarred me awake an hour later, a division of them was parading the walls.”
Movement and socialization were tightly controlled. First of all, prisoners were marched in silent lockstep to and from every location. The sound of hundreds of feet shuffling in the cavernous hall-ways made a haunting impression, one Beck would never forget. “I heard it before I saw it. A loud scraping, thunder laced with a hollow roar. Never before had I heard anything like it. Hundreds of gray-clad cons were lock-stepping from the mess halls into the three cell houses. They were an eerie sight in the twilight marching mutely in cadence like tragic robots. The roaring thunder was the scrape and thump of their heavy prison brogans.” This would have been particularly haunting, as the prison followed a silent rule. Convicts were not to speak to one another while marching, in their cells, or at places of work. They could talk for ten minutes during the evening meal, but otherwise the prison was quiet except for the sound of prisoners marching in unison.
There was an air of violence about the entire place. All the rules were strictly enforced by the prison’s guards, an all-white staff who wore dark blue uniforms in order to emulate the police. They were a violent, uneducated lot of thugs with a propensity for racism. They put prisoners in solitary confinement for crimes like “gazing about while working” and “general crookedness.” Beck remembered that one poor inmate went into the hole for looking at a guard the wrong way: “One of those arrogant repeaters went to the hole for a sassy look in his eyes. His charge was visual insubordination.” More often than not, however, the guards corrected inmate behavior with a swat of a wood cane with a brass tip. When Beck encountered a guard with a cane for the first time, the guard didn’t even speak. He just directed the prisoners with the motions of his weapon. “A tall silent screw, dazzling with brass buttons and gold braid on his navy-blue uniform, slashed his lead-loaded cane through the air like a vocal sword directing us.” Beck privately called this guard the Dummy, because he never spoke. However, his instructions were always clear to Beck. “He didn’t pass out an instruction leaflet running down the lingo of that cane. If you misunderstood what it said, the Dummy would crack the leaded shaft of it against your skull.”
Although designed to operate as a center for rehabilitation, WSR was not much better than the punitive systems of the nineteenth century. Forced to work and eat in silence, sleep in bug-infested cells, and march under constant threat of physical violence, the prisoners at the reformatory were terrorized into compliance.
For the year that Beck spent in the reformatory, he kept to himself and tried to stay out of trouble. He spent a lot of his time in the prison library, reading fiction and civic theory. His records do not indicate which works he read. However, his writings and interviews suggest that his tastes were wide-ranging, from the philosophical works of Aristotle to the romantic poetry of John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley. He loved the fin de siècle novels for their decadence and perversity. He admired Oscar Wilde’s novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, the story of a young man whose face stays young forever, but whose cursed portrait grows more hideous as he gets older and more corrupt. Unsurprisingly, Beck also had a deep respect for George du Maurier’s 1894 Trilby, which introduced the character of Svengali, a swindler who seduces and controls young women through hypnosis. Like Malcolm X and Claude Brown, Beck used his time in prison to educate himself by reading a broad range of literary texts, and this reading would later serve him in his respective careers as pimp and author.
He participated in other prison activities as well. He played basketball, as well as bass in a beginners’ band. He was written up once, on March 20, 1939, for “leaving place of work,” but committed no other transgressions during his stay. As for his social life, Beck mostly hung out with the aspiring pimps and petty hustlers in the prison. They gathered in a self-segregating racial clique out in the prison yard during recreation time. These self-described “mack-men” were sent down from the overcrowded state prison to serve out their terms, and Beck attempted to learn everything they had to teach. He followed them and listened quietly to their rap sessions. “I was fascinated by the yarns they spun about their pimping ability. They had a lot of bullshit, and I was stealing as much of it as I could from them to use when I got out.” He memorized their speeches, and started practicing his own performances. “I would go back to my cell excited. I would pretend I had a whore before me. I would stand there in the cell and pimp up a storm. I didn’t know that the crap I was rehearsing wouldn’t get a quarter in the street.”
Beck served out his time this way, sharpening his reading skills, improving his proficiency as a pimp, and learning to adapt to the discipline of prison life. Over the course of a few months, he gained about five pounds and his blood pressure dropped from dangerously high into the normal range. On August 16, 1939, he had a parole hearing. Parts of the review reported Beck’s strengths, noting that he studied hard in classes and was generally “well adjusted.” The chief medical examiner, Peter Bell, however, didn’t believe that he had really changed. In the report, he wrote, “This individual possesses normal intelligence and demonstrates no symptoms that would indicate the presence of mental disease. In makeup he is rather weak and shallow, but appears honest and truthful. He is rather flighty and his moral judgment is defective. He is devoid of proper insight into the fallacy of crime and we believe can be further benefited by continuation for a longer period of time of his present detention.” Despite this recommendation to keep Beck longer in prison, on December 9, 1939, he was paroled for good behavior. He had learned a bit of self-control and restraint, and was eager to test his new skills. In truth, Beck was about to learn that the ideas he had picked up in prison were “half-baked criminal, pimping theories” from a bunch of amateurs—or, as they were known in the business, “chili pimps.”
These were “small-time one-whore pimps,” and there was a reason that prisons were crowded with these wannabe players. Beck would soon find out why.
Copyright © 2015 Justin Gifford.
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Dr. Justin Gifford is an Associate Professor of English Literature at the University of Nevada, Reno. His teaching and research focus on American and African American literature. His book, the first literary and cultural history of black street fiction, Pimping Fictions: African American Crime Literature and the Untold Story of Black Pulp Publishing, was a finalist for both the Edgar Allan Poe award for literary criticism and Phi Beta Kappa's Christian Gauss Award for scholarship.