Tommy Gun Winter

Jewish Gangsters, a Preacher's Daughter, and the Trial That Shocked 1930s Boston

By Nathan Gorenstein

ForeEdge. 344 pp. $27.95

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Reviewed by Glen Macnow


Every family has its secrets, its shame - the cousin with a drug problem, the long-past extramarital affair that still opens wounds. You just don't talk about those things at Thanksgiving dinner.

But Nathan Gorenstein's family scandal was different. The former Inquirer reporter heard whispers as a child that someone up the family tree was a robber. Three decades later, he saw his mother explode at a party when someone mentioned some long-gone great uncles. So he did what any good reporter does. He dived into the Internet and old microfilm. He traveled to find public records and long-lost relatives.

And he discovered there wasn't just a robber in his ancestry. There were two uncles, Murt and Irv Millen, who, along with a cohort, staged a "veritable crime tsunami" in 1934. They held up more than a dozen banks, taking hostages and murdering two suburban cops with a machine gun stolen from the state police.

Their spree that winter grabbed headlines over John Dillinger and Bonnie and Clyde. It led to a prolonged police pursuit, culminating in one of those "trials of the century" that, today, would crash Twitter and leave CNN's talking heads breathless.

Gorenstein's story has all the elements, from Jewish gangsters in an era of anti-Semitism to a partner with an unlikely background as an aeronautical engineering graduate of MIT. Add gang leader Murt's wife, Norma, a coquettish 18-year-old minister's daughter. Like any good moll, she enjoyed buying fancy clothes, and got to show them off to the press amid exploding flashbulbs.

Mobsters had the edge over the police in the 1930s: faster cars, better guns, and, often, more smarts than the Barney Fifes of small-town police forces. It took a team of state detectives known as the "Four Aces," working with a pair of savvy newspapermen, to crack the case.

The crimes and the chase are more interesting than the trial of the three murderers. But there are nuggets even there. It's a can't-miss story Gorenstein found hidden in his family's attic. And he pulls it off. The research is meticulous, and the book puts you smack in Depression-Era New England.

And I'll warn you against reading Tommy Gun Winter in bed, because as each chapter ends, it pulls you into the next - not the best prescription for a full night's sleep.

Glen Macnow, former Inquirer reporter, is coauthor with Ray Didinger of "The Ultimate Book of Sports Movies."