Every major American city produces its own share of organized crime figures: Chicago’s Al Capone, New York’s John Gotti and Las Vegas’s Bugsy Siegel are all firmly entrenched in the lore of those cities.
To discover their own master of infamy, Philadelphians need look no further than Temple professor Allen M. Hornblum’s latest book, Confessions of a Second Story Man: Junior Kripplebauer and the K&A Gang.
“Despite their ninth-grade educations and inability to hold down a steady job,” writes Hornblum, “the K&A Gang proved they were the real deal, burglars par excellence.”
From the intersection of Kensington and Allegheny avenues in East Philadelphia, to the ritziest neighborhoods of New England and the Gulf Coast, the K&A burglars cut a swath of crime across the American continent that baffled police and injected millions of dollars into the economy of a primarily Irish, working-class Philadelphia neighborhood.
Kripplebauer and his compatriots were the originators of “production work,” a particularly simple and lucrative method of burglary. Rather than simply burglarizing one house a night, the K&A used nerve and easily obtainable tools to rob up to five or six houses within a few hours.
Hornblum’s account of the burglar’s exploits is as unsteady as the fortunes of the K&A burglars. At times gifted and luminous, Hornblum has a penchant for repetition and reuse of quotes that begins to wear on the reader.
Additionally, Confessions seems jumpy and unsteady, reading more like a collage than a coherent story. Given a bit more editing, however, Hornblum’s book could have been a real standout in the true crime genre.
Culled primarily from police files and interviews with the burglars themselves -particularly with Kripplebauer, the most legendary of the K&A men – the jargon-filled Confessions offers an intriguing, glimpse into the world of organized crime.
If that peak behind the curtain isn’t enough to get the reader going, then the almost Dickensian rise of the K&A burglars should pique one’s interest; indeed, Confessions powerfully evokes the underside of the American Dream.
Hornblum’s otherwise exciting book drags primarily when the author seems to struggle for control of the text. Though a painstaking researcher, Hornblum is by no means a grandmaster of literature. His attempts at analogy and imagery often miss their mark, and the text as a whole suffers from Hornblum’s failed attempt to match the artistry of Truman Capote’s true crime masterpiece, In Cold Blood.
For all its literary faults, Allen Hornblum’s Confessions of a Second Story Man is an interesting and potentially engrossing read for any lover of true crime or Philly history aficionado.
Though Kripplebauer is no John Dillinger, this chronicle of his criminal exploits provides an entertaining, voyeuristic look into the sordid life of a master thief.
Peter Chomko may be contacted at email@example.com.