Our Murderous Ancestors

Original: Eduardo Angulo (2017) Nuestros ancestros asesinos. Translated and adapted by Julio Nicanor Ozores, M.D.

Could it be that even our hands show traces of having evolved for violence? The unique structure of human hands has been extolled as marvelously adapted for precise control and tool use. But they may also betray in their proportions and structure having been selected for killing. This, at least, is a hypothesis posed by David Carrier, a biologist at the University of Utah. Striking blows with our closed fists could be the most primitive kind of violence between individuals of our species. Fists, structured as a reinforced buttress of digits folded and capped by the thumb, are dangerous weapons capable of causing serious damage.

Targeting the face or head in general inflicts the greatest damage. Taking this into account, it has also been proposed that, in early hominins at least, the bony structure of the face betrays an evolutionary arms race of defensive resistance against blows. Statistics show that the head is the main target of aggressive blows, which cause 53% of head hematomas, 66% of lacerations, and 85% of fractures, according to a study published in 1990. Most fights are still between men, much as in other great primates – patterns of behavior that go back millions of years, down to Australopithecus, and other primates that preceded them.

The potential lethality of a fist punch to the head is illustrated in fiction by a dramatic scene from Herman Melville’s novella Billy Budd, Sailor. In this scene, Billy, a low-ranking seaman on a warship, has been accused by Claggart, the ship’s master-at-arms, of plotting a mutiny. This malicious , groundless calumny outrages Billy so much that, in the presence of the captain and his accuser he can’t defend himself by speaking- the outrage has exacerbated his stutter. This impotent vocal paralysis brings to his face “… an expression which was as a crucifixion to behold.”, then, “The next instant, quick as the flame from a discharged cannon at night, his right arm shot out, and Claggart dropped to the deck. Whether intentionally or but owing to the young athlete’s superior height, the blow had taken effect full upon the forehead, so shapely and intellectual-looking a feature in the master-at-arms; so that the body fell over lengthwise, like a heavy plank tilted from erectness. A gasp or two, and he lay motionless.”

Our next case history does not illustrate the killing power of the fist, but reminds us of how, even in up to our times some of society’s subcultures maintain murder as a way of life.

Virginia Hill: The fists as a means of coexistence

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Virginia Hill never killed anyone, but she led a life of excess surrounded by the toughest gangsters of the postwar American Mafia, gangsters who were adept at killing as part of business. After living most of her dramatic life in the United States she moved to Austria, where she would die at the time and in the manner of her choosing – by suicide at the age of 49. Middle age may have robbed her of her charms, and perhaps she, who had been celebrated as the “queen of the gangsters”, could not live without her former sex appeal. There is also speculation that she may have been murdered, fueled by accounts that shortly before her death she had been visited by Joe Adonis, a former lover and boss of the New York Genovese family, who declared that he had walked her to her front door. Be that as it may so much time has elapsed that the enigma of her death will never be clarified, and it will remain counted a suicide.

Hill was born in Alabama in 1917, the seventh of ten children. The family relocated to Marietta, Georgia, always dirt poor – Hill claimed that until her mother kicked her out of the house she never wore shoes. When all of 17 years of age she left home and made it to Chicago, dreaming of getting a job at the 1933 World’s Fair. She started to make a living as a waitress and occasional sex worker, and in these circles came to meet Joe Epstein, the tax evasion expert allied with Jack Guzik, who was a financial and legal advisor to Al Capone. Epstein and Hill became lovers, and – though some sources claim Epstein was gay – he would declare about Hill “when this girl gets under your skin it’s like a cancer, she’s incurable”.

At some point early in her association with the underworld, Hill took on the job of serving as a courier for the Mafia, a job that included trips to Switzerland to deposit money in secret bank accounts. During such travels she met and became the lover of several notorious figures – Frank Costello, Frank Nitti, Charles Fischetti and Joe Adonis. Besides her international job as a courier, she also transported cash to horse races – races that were usually rigged, allowing her to make money betting on her own, as she was often in the know. Virginia began doing well enough to buy her family a house in Marietta, Georgia, paying the $11,000 dollars in cash by pulling wrinkled one-hundred dollar bills one by one from her purse.

She moved to New York, where she presented herself in society as the heiress of a Georgia petroleum empire, throwing the most spectacular parties in town. She appeared in the society press as “that glamorous Manhattanite”, proudly declaring that she was the woman in the country who owned the most fur coats.

This was all happening around 1941 when, seemingly in another world, World War II was being fought. It was around this time when Hill met the gangster Bugsy Siegel, one of the bosses of the New York gang known as the Bugs and Meyer (Meyer of Meyer Lansky fame). Siegel came from a poor Jewish family originating in the Ukraine. Born in Brooklyn in 1906, he was given the name Benjamin Siegelbaum. By the age of 14 he had organized a protection racket “for” the shopkeepers of his neighborhood and soon joined forces with Meyer Lansky, another Jewish youth. Together they “grew the business” into the realms of gambling and auto theft. As members of the gang, Lansky was the brains and Bugsy was the tough guy. He was not the kind who would merely give an order to assassinate someone – he would take part in the deed. By the age of 21 Bugsy was already involved in kidnapping, theft, drug trafficking, sex trafficking, tax evasion, gambling, extorsion, and several murders. In 1930, the Bugsy and Meyer gang joined forces with the mafia of Lucky Luciano, Frank Costello, and others (some of whom had been Virginia Hill’s lovers), creating an organized crime network that had continental reach and beyond, even unto the Caribbean and Europe.

Bugsy was known for his good looks, his great sexual appetite and a violent temper. He would make quite a volatile couple with the volatile Virginia Hill. She became his steady lover, even though Bugsy never divorced his wife, Esta Krakower. Bugsy and Hill seemed to base their relationship on tremendous fistfights, during which Hill would return slug for slug. She would end up bruised and, in the aftermath, attempt suicide by ingesting an overdose.

In 1937 they began their sojourns to California, where Siegel was charged with carrying out extorsions, drug trafficking and other schemes to make money from the increasingly powerful Hollywood movie industry. The good life in California took off. Siegel would try to bed as many aspiring young actresses as he met – and there were many. Virginia, flush with cash derived from her work as courier, would give fabulous parties at her Hollywood mansion where she would scoop dirt on the private life of movie stars – information that could be used to blackmail.

The proximity of the riches of Hollywood to the State of Nevada, where gambling was legal, would inspire in Siegel a visionary creativity that created the phenomenon that is today’s Las Vegas. He picked the town as the future site of the most luxurious casino in America, to be named The Flamingo – legend says, in honor of the leggy Virginia Hill. Money flowed in from New York’s Genovese family and from Meyer Lansky, and in equal parts from the Bugs and Meyer Gang. The Las Vegas venture, unfortunately for the investors, became a bottomless pit where millions of Mafia dollars disappeared. Needless to say these investors were not the kind known for patience with deadbeat debtors. It’s possible that some of the loot ended up in Siegel’s pockets, and that Virginia helped to spirit the money away in Swiss bank accounts during one of her many trips to Europe.

Hill tried her hand at becoming a Hollywood actress and she did have a minor role in the 1941 move High Tension, but her name is not mentioned in the credits, and she never got far in the acting world. She continued living luxuriously, though less so as her relationship with powerful gangsters faded. At one point she had to answer to the Department of the Treasury for failing to pay her taxes. The Treasury seized her house and auctioned it off, but she continued to get financial remunerations – a kind of pension- from Joe Epstein, the first lover she had that connected to the Mafia. Perhaps she was still getting paid for services, given her frequent trips to Europe – trips that raised suspicion she was still acting as a courier.

Virginia took a notable trip to Paris in June 10,1947. The rumor was that after suffering violence yet again from Siegel, she went to seek escape and recuperate. Ten days after her voyage Siegel was assassinated in Virginia’s Hollywood mansion. He had been shot nine times and died on the spot. Virginia immediately returned from Paris, horrified and scared – or at least, so it seemed. During questioning by the police, she denied being Siegel’s lover and disavowed any connections with the Genovese group. But one wonders whether Siegel’s repeated abuse, aimed at a woman who had been the lover of many Mafia capos precipitated an order to kill Siegel. Or perhaps the disappearance of money invested in The Flamingo… The matter was never clarified, and no one was charged for the crime. We’ll never know who killed Siegel, upon whose directive, nor why.

Hill settled down after marrying her fourth husband Hans Hauser, a ski instructor she met while vacationing in Sun Valley, with whom she had a son. Her legendary story however still has a dramatic chapter dated to the decade of the 1950’s.

In 1950 the US Senate established the Senate Special Committee to Investigate Organized Crime in Interstate Gambling, to be headed by then Tennessee senator Estes Kefauver. In March 1951 the Commission held eight days of hearings in New York, and in one of those sessions Virginia Hill was summoned to testify, in an appearance that was seen by millions on television. Kefauver commented on Hill’s looks, noting that she was dressed with class. He adds that her beauty was not what it had been, but still the photos documenting her testimony show her looking beautiful and relaxed. During questioning she played the role of a simple-minded naïf, but despite that her savvy intelligence shone through . As did her sense of humor: The senators were convinced that Hill was still getting plenty of money from the Mafia. At first Virginia denied it – she knew nothing about any money, and furthermore, her famous friends weren’t gangsters. But New Hampshire senator Charles Tobey still pressed her regarding why she kept getting paid. Finally, Virginia challenged him: Did he really want to hear the answer? Tobey said, yes. Virginia responded, “Because I’m the best cocksucker in town!”. This response, of course softened with various euphemisms, was reported in the scandalized New York press.

Hill lived in Europe in the company of her son Peter during her last years. In March 1966 her body was discovered beside a brook near Salzburg, Austria. A possible suicide note explained that she was simply “tired of life.”

Since time immemorial, brutal violence has been a companion to humanity. Cultural documentation, such as texts and images from ancient Rome, Greece, Egypt, India and the American continent testify ancient and habitual violence of our species. One might have supposed that when humans left behind nomadic lifestyles, establishing permanent dwellings amidst agriculture and domesticated animals, violence would have declined. But that was not the case- before long one sees evidence of fortifications to defend towns and an ever-improving weaponry.

Let’s review some examples that document prehistoric violence, receding further and further in time as we go.

In 2016 the journal Nature published a report by anthropologists who had excavated a 10,000-year-old site near Lake Turkana, in today’s Kenia. The site contained 27 skeletons that suggested inter-group violence between hunter-gatherers. The remains show evidence of violent death caused by blows, subsequent fractures, and arrow wounds. Two of the individuals seem to have been executed with their hands bound together.

In Jebel Sahaba, in what is now North Sudan, a 13,000-year-old burial site was discovered. It contained the remains of 59 humans, approximately half of whom were killed by weapons, especially arrows, whose points were scattered amongst the remains. Similar “cemeteries” have been unearthed in Germany and France.

Archeologists have documented 200,000-year-old human bones that appear to belong to a victim killed by blows. A rock painting from about the same time, found in Provence, depicts a human figure pierced by arrows or spears.

And one can go further back, to around 430,000 years ago. In 2015 an article titled Lethal interpersonal violence in the Middle Pleistocene claims to have found “the earliest evidence of lethal interpersonal violence in the hominin fossil record.” This was deduced from a cranium, dubbed Cranium 17 that was recovered from Sima de los Huesos (Abyss of the Bones), a Middle Pleistocene site in Atapuerca, Spain. Cranium 17 was reconstructed from 52 fragments yielding a very complete specimen preserving the facial skeleton – the solution of a jigsaw puzzle that took 20 years to piece together. It shows “two clear perimortem depression fractures on the frontal bone… produced by… blunt force trauma.” The authors conclude both were produced with the same weapon, and with intent to kill in face-to-face combat.

In hominin fights weapons for hunting were most likely also used for conspecific violence . Let us remember an imaginative recreation of this in the first part of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, A Space Odyssey, where we see how the weapons first used to hunt tapirs were soon used to massacre kindred hominins.

Cranium 17. Image: Fundación Atapuerca

Cranium 17 was found among the remains of 27 other individuals in the Atapuerca site, a 13-meter-deep pit. According to the authors, eight other crania in the pit evidence signs of perimortem trauma. But it is Cranium 17 that shows the clearest evidence of intentional mortal blows. With its 430,000-year-old, Middle Pleistocene time depth, it the oldest crime we know of. At least until older specimens are found, this victim, together with the traces of his killer’s blows, are our encounter with Cain and Abel.

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Added references

The New York Times; August 23, 1947: Virginia Hill Near Death, Friend of Bugsy Siegel is Critically Ill From Potion;. Accessed: https://timesmachine.nytimes.com/timesmachine/1947/08/23/87808185.html?pageNumber=15

The New York Times; March 25, 1966: History: The Woman Who Asked for Too Much

The Sydney Morning Herald; March 15, 2016: From gangster’s moll to Hollywood hostess: the life and death of Virginia Hill

Virginia Hill page from The Mob Museum

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