Many working-class kids who grew up in Manhattan in the Forties, as I did, played a nasty game that went like this. With your pals watching from a distance, you waited on the sidewalk for an automobile to roll along. As it passed, you ran out toward the trunk-end and smacked the fender hard with your hand. Then in the same moment you spun around crazily. To the poor driver inside it looked and sounded as if he had hit a child. He usually jammed on his brakes and jumped out – as the bunch of kids ran away, laughing hilariously. Such were our joys.
It turns out we were only imitating our elder, more larcenous fellow Americans, the army of injury-fakers described in Ken Dornstein’s Accidentally, on Purpose. Over the last century their staged crashes, fires and nosedives have defrauded insurance companies of billions of dollars. Their originals were English ship-scuttlers of the 17th century, shipowners who grew rich by grossly overburdening unseaworthy brigs, the crew often going down with the overinsured cargo. Personal injury scams came to the US two hundred years later, along with railroads, trolleys, automobiles and densely populated cities. Many poor people and immigrants, especially, earned loose change or a livelihood as arson mechanics, slip-and-fall experts or baby-farmers, in the last case boarding outcast children and feeding them on sour milk until they died, for the sake of collecting a 15-dollar insurance benefit. From modest beginnings accident-faking in America burgeoned into organised rings involving corrupt lawyers, doctors, police, reporters, hospital clerks, ambulance-drivers, insurance agents, and assorted shopkeepers and lookout men.
Los Angeles, the national capital of drive-by shootings, is also, says Dornstein, the present hub of accident racketeering – not surprisingly since it has long been home to more cars per person than anywhere else in the country. Not surprisingly either, injury frauds in the Southern California autopia are showier than elsewhere. In the Seventies, for instance, a benevolent Catholic priest there founded a volunteer group called Friends of the Friendless, to assist Mexican immigrants. Local political leaders and diplomats at the Mexican Consulate helped out. Under their influence the Friends of the Friendless evolved into a gang of ambulance-chasers masquerading as do-gooders who eventually controlled the largest hospital in Los Angeles County. They roamed the hallways in lab jackets distributing candy, magazines, cosmetics and other comforts to just-admitted victims of car crashes and other accidents, especially Latinos who spoke little English, preferably illegal aliens. In return, they induced the uncomprehending and sometimes semiconscious patients to sign over their right to compensation at a fraction of its worth.
Insurance companies do not stand around waiting to be taken. They compile indexes of fakers, look for rip-off indicators (e.g. the claimant’s address being a PO box), and form such alliances for mutual protection as the National Insurance Crime Bureau, which has a 24-hour accident-fraud hotline (800-TEL-NICB). They also hire professional snoops such as InPhoto Surveillance, which employs more than a hundred agents nationwide, equipped with cameras, custom vans and jumpsuits camouflaged to look like shrubbery. Dornstein himself was a private investigator in Los Angeles, work that he says he found mostly safe and dull. He spent his time examining patient signatures in medical-clinic logs or photographing wrecked cars in junkyards. The sleuthing often left him uncertain about the legitimacy of the claims he investigated.
Accidentally, on Purpose is something of a masquerade itself, a miscellany done up as a work of history. Although the book professes to trace the rise of the personal injury underworld it makes little headway. Some chapters cover periods of time but others treat places or groups, and the result is much overlap and repetition. Like themes in a musical round, the same frauds come in over and over, now as executed in the Thirties, later as practised in Los Angeles, yet again as undertaken by Hungarians. We read on but stand still. Timely issues are raised but quickly shuffled off: for instance, the increasing use of the American legal system to solve problems that citizens used to work out among themselves. (The US Bureau of Labor Statistics recently predicted that by the year 2005 the country would have 839,000 working lawyers, which represents job growth at twice the average projected for all occupations.) The only trends the book demonstrates are that over the last century the centre of insurance fraud, like much else, migrated west from New York to Los Angeles; that the LA accident gangs, like drug-dealing street gangs before them, have spread to San Francisco, Seattle and the cities of the South-West; and that the swindles, like the country, have grown more vicious, more often ending in homicide.
On the other hand, the book is often howlingly funny if read for what it is – an anecdotal ramble through a human zoo. Among Dornstein’s zaniest specimens are the slip-and-fall artistes. They file claims to have suffered partial paralysis, hernial conditions or loss of bladder control from falls on railroad-track bolts, sticky movie-theatre floors, torn cruise-ship carpets, chili-ooze at the entrance to fast-food shops. No less highly specialised than sword swallowers or snake charmers, some slip-and-fallers concentrate on Catholic-church, manhole-cover, or cellar-door flops. This way to ‘Banana Anna’ – the famed New Jersey boarding-house keeper Anna A. Strula – linked to 17 banana peel-related skids; Mrs Shirley Hill of Dallas, partial to faking falls on pats of butter in restaurants; the nicely named Kenneth Arnold Parsley, maestro of supermarket tumbles on broken eggs and melted ice cream; the extraordinary ‘Mint Jelly’ Ridge, often found lying on the floor of a restaurant or hotel bathroom covered in blood and gashed, having slithered on a square-inch plastic tub of jelly served with toast – always (which got him caught) mint jelly.
Over here, lookee, the capper, specialist in freeway Swoop-and-Squats. In this profitable but risky scam, the ‘squat’ car swerves in front of another car or truck and suddenly stops, trapping the victim into rear-ending it. (Crasher and Crashee are also called ‘quarterback and receiver’ or, among Los Angeles Latino practitioners, ‘el toro y la vaca’, the bull and the cow.) The capper works out of parking-lots, mini-malls, a booth at McDonald’s, procuring the actors and scripting the event. Looking for big and easy payoffs, he may recruit pregnant women as passengers in the cow car, or target cars driven by men who have just picked up prostitutes, to embarrass them into admitting fault immediately. The Ramblin’ Man, a former cop who staged more than 150 crashes in Kentucky, Mississippi and Tennessee, dealt almost exclusively in getting rammed by elderly drivers changing lanes. To blunt the impact, the squat-car’s trunk is often stuffed with tyres, sandbags or both. But since even flatbed tractor-trailers are lured into a swoop-and-squat, someone sometimes gets killed.
The exhibits in this Loony Tunes cabinet of curiosities can also produce the evidence of injury necessary to establish their insurance claims. The luckiest have anatomical anomalies that allow them to throw a hip joint out of place, pop an eye from its socket, or haemorrhage at will. The great Edward Pape (fl. 1906) turned a nice profit from his malformed neck. He would alight from a slowing trolley, fall down, roll toward the gutter, and be taken to a hospital, where X-rays disclosed what seemed a neck fracture. In one particularly successful month he conned various streetcar companies out of $75,000. Grace E. Walker (‘Rimrock Annie’), a Sixties slip-and-faller, cashed in on an old mastoid operation that enabled her to dilate her left pupil at will. By biting her lip and shaking her head convulsively side to side she could also make blood seem to come from her ear, indicating skull damage.
Fakers unblessed by prefab defects must perforce injure themselves. Dornstein tells of a Pacific North-West gang in the Thirties whose forte was pushing old cars off cliffs, then running down and positioning themselves as if they had been inside. They ‘would prepare for their roles by beating each other with rubber hoses for bruises, scraping themselves with stiff-bristle brushes, rolling on broken glass, doping their eyes with belladonna and, finally, inducing unconsciousness with sleeping powders’. Other self-mutilators have been known to scald their bodies with hot towels then rasp bricks across the sensitised skin; lacerate their gums so that they can spit blood; inject mineral oil into a joint to give the appearance of a badly swollen sprain; eat soap to produce nausea and fever; manufacture fake vomit out of apple chunks and Thousand Island salad dressing; shoot up digitalis to bring on spasmodic heart palpitations; and rub their limbs raw with sandpaper, razor blades, or graters fashioned from punctured tin. ‘Mint Jelly’ Ridge maintained self-inflicted wounds on his arm for years, turning it gangrenous. The most reckless, desperate, or perhaps simply masochistic fakers extract teeth, remove an eye, submit a leg to being crushed by a passing freight train, shoot off hands and feet at close range to simulate a hunting accident (Vernon, Florida – a centre of such self-amputees – became known among investigators as Nub City).
This trade in advantageous cracked pates and bloody eye-sockets has a long history outside the United States. As Dornstein shows, some English and Continental soldier-beggars of the early 17th century and later made pitiable spectacles of themselves when pleading for alms. They blistered their skin with a blend of harsh lime soaps and iron rust, rubbed bay-salt and gunpowder into skin punctures to mimic pustular eruptions, stuffed their nostrils with sponges soaked in offensive juices mixed with decayed cheese to give off a stink of putrefaction.
The many transatlantic examples in Dornstein’s book, to return to its problems, blur his portrayal of accident fakery as le vice américain. So do his soft numbers. Although otherwise carefully documented from newspaper articles, court records, interviews with highway patrol officers and the like, the book offers no dependable figures on the amount of money or number of Americans involved in bilking insurers. Nor does it explain why the injury underworld is larger and more organised in the United States than in other countries, beyond pattering about ‘the deep American impulse to make a market in anything (even in fake accidents) in order to get ahead’. That ends up being enough of a premise for the book to go on, however. Whether or not pie in the sky has driven so many Americans to flop on pie in the street, their accidents on purpose make a cheerfully grotesque entertainment, a zonked-out all-in-one freak show, booby-land and grand guignol.