Sullivan had died suddenly of a heart attack in his apartment on 4 April 1938 at the age of 49. He was found several hours later by an employee, slumped in a chair. His wife, Margaret White Callahan Sullivan, had been visiting relatives in Connecticut and was on a plane heading west when the body was found.
Sullivan had been a resident in Hollywood for only a few years, working as an uncredited scenario writer for X Marks the Spot (1931) and as an also uncredited contributor to the screenplay of the Wallace Beery and Clark Gable drama Hell Divers (1931). His screenwriting credits included Hellbound (1931), about the discovery of an old book of magic, starring Leo Carrillo, Lloyd Hughes, Ralph Ince and Lola Lane. With Gordon Kahn (who received a story credit on X Marks the Spot) he adapted his own story for The People's Enemy (1935, a.k.a. Racketeers) starring Preston Foster as gangster Vince Falcone. A number of films based on screen stories by Sullivan appeared posthumously, including screwball comedy There Goes My Heart (1938), gangster drama Big Town Czar (1939) and the musical Ma, He's Making Eyes at Me (1940).
Born in Connecticut in 1888, Sullivan was a police reporter, feature writer and sports editor working for the Herald-Examiner in Chicago in the 1910s/20s. He was married to Margaret Sullivan, an Ohio-born writer of Irish parents, in around 1918. In 1930 the two were living on Fifth Avenue, Manhattan, and both were writing for magazines.
Sullivan had made his name with the book Rattling the Cup on Chicago Crime, published in May 1929 by Vanguard Press. Although not the first book on the subject – Chicago Gang Land: The True Story of Chicago Crime by Chicago Tribune journalist James O'Donnell Bennett (1928) and It's a Racket! by anti-unionist Gordon L. Hostetter* & Thomas Quinn Beesley (Chicago, Les Quin Books, Mar 1929) both preceded it – Sullivan's book had a wider impact.
"Rattling the cup" was a slang term that meant the same as "squawking" and Sullivan had much to squawk about as he knew personally many of the gangsters. In his introduction he set out that the intention of the book
is to explain what the whizzing bullets of Chicago's Gangland are aimed at—and why. To give insight into the combustion which bombs political candidates out of their homes; to show why a legion of Chicago policemen have been slain, why an Assistant State's Attorney was murdered with two dead gangsters in the automobile beside him, and how it happened that seven men were lined up in a garage gang headquarters and torn to pieces with three hundred machine gun bullets.Sullivan detailed many of the deaths in connection with booze, beer, gambling and vice and revealed that in only one instance had the alleged slayers been brought to trail. Similarly, Hostetter & Beesley compiled information on no less than 157 bombs that had been set or exploded in Chicago in the fifteen months between 11 October 1927 and 15 January 1929 with none of the perpetrators brought to book. Sullivan's book ended on an optimistic note that then recent events would bring an end to the crime wave.
In some ways, Sullivan's pessimistic outlook proved to be true and was explored in Sullivan's next book on racketeers: The Snatch Racket, published in the UK as This Kidnapping Business in 1932—publisher John Lane perhaps feeling that the American slang term for kidnapping had not yet penetrated deeply enough into British culture.
Criminal slang was certainly gaining some momentum in Britain. In America, articles on criminal language and glosseries of the latest argot appeared widely in popular magazines Saturday Evening Post, American Mercury and Liberty, and in book form in such titles as A Vocabulary of Criminal Slang (1914?) by Lewis E. Jackson & C. R. Hellyer, Henry Leverage’s Flynn’s Dictionary of the Underworld (1925) and Underworld and Prison Slang (1933) by Noel Ersine. Jack Lait included an “underworld glossary” as an appendix to his three books Gangster Girl, Put on the Spot and The Big House, all published in 1930.
Here in the UK, Eruera Tooné, as Spindrift, privately published Yankee Slang in 1932, which included a glossary of criminal terms and many examples of how various terms were used, misused and misunderstood (e.g. "Discreet girls should avoid requesting any man to knock them up in the morning — awaken is much better.).
In his new book, Edward Dean Sullivan attacked the
Anyone with the slightest insight into the organized crime situation in America knows that bootleg millions gave the American underworld its nation-menacing bankroll. That money has been used in thwarting the law, corrupting elections, bribing the judiciary and buying opposition to crime in all its nuances. Booze funds have provided the sound support for two hundred rackets now in operation in the United States, and among them is kidnapping—the "snatch racket."The book's publication in the UK was greeted with shock at the scale of a "racket" only brought to wide attention less than twelve months earlier:
The kidnapping and inhuman murder of Colonel Lindbergh’s infant son deeply shocked a large proportion of the inhabitants of the civilised world. For apart from the international celebrity of the father and the tender age of the victim, it was rightly felt that of all crimes kidnapping is perhaps the meanest and most cruel. It is, therefore, with considerable disgust, and no little sympathy for the unfortunate inhabitants of America, that one learns from Mr. Sullivan that this abominable crime, known among its perpetrators as the “snatch rachet,” is by no means uncommon in the United States, two hundred and eighty-two cases being investigated in the course of one year, while, naturally, many more never come to the notice of the authorities. (The Yorkshire Post, 15 February 1933)"An impression to be got from this book is that kidnapping has become a definite business in America," began another review (Aberdeen Journal, 7 March 1933). It is likely that, despite the title change, Sullivan popularised the term "snatch racket" in the UK; it was certainly picked up by reviewers who used the book to discuss the growth of the problem in the US. In the three years ending 1932, 2,500 cases were reported in the United States and there were likely many times that number unreported. The crime was seen as particularly vicious as the target was often the children of the wealthy and a high proportion were never returned, whether the ransom was paid or not.
Sullivan believed that there would be no improvement in the enforcement of this kind of crime while crime paid such astonishing dividends:
So long as organized politics has a grip on court machinery, and upon police organisation as well, there will be scant improvement in the crime situation. Especially is this true under Prohibition, where the tremendous financial needs of modern politics furnish an almost irresistible temptation to accept large contributions without prolonged questioning of the sources. To-day American gangsters are equipped, through booze and its associated rackets, with an annual income of more than 5,000,000,000 dollars. They will pay money for political influence quicker than for any other single item in the category of gangster necessities. And that is a perfectly square account of a vicious circle.Sullivan went on to write a well-received biography of playwright Wilson Mizner and a book on labour racketeering, covering some of the same ground as Hostetter & Beesley and other titles that appeared in the early 1930s (e.g. Muscling In by Fred D. Pasley, Enemies of Industry by Ferank Dalton O'Sullivan and Labor Unions and the Public by Walter Chambers). In 1935 he was a columnist for the New York Post before heading for Hollywood, where he was engaged to write two scenarios for M-G-M at the time of his death.
He was survived by his wife, Margaret, an adopted son, Edward White, and his brother, Frank Sullivan.
Rattling the Cup on Chicago Crime. New York, Vanguard Press, 1929; as Look at Chicago, London, Geoffrey Bles, 1930.
Sold Out!. New York, Vanguard Press, 1929.
Chicago Surrenders. New York, Vanguard Press, 1930; London, Geoffrey Bles, 1931.
I'll Tell My Big Brother. New York, Vanguard Press, 1930.
Benedict Arnold, Military Racketeer. New York, Vanguard Press, 1932.
The Snatch Racket. New York, Vanguard Press, 1932; as This Kidnapping Business, London, John Lane The Bodley Head, 1932.
Romeo Reverse (by Alum Hardly), illus. Adolf Dehn. New York, Vanguard Press, 1934.
The Fabulous Wilson Mizner. New York, The Henkle Company, 1935.
This Labor Union Racket. New York, Hillman-Curl Inc., 1936.
* Hostetter, incidentally, probably coined the term racketeer. According to Andrew Cohen, "In 1927, Employers' Association secretary Gordon L. Hostetter conceived the term to direct growing public concern about bootleggers like Al Capone against the officials who enforced prices and wages in trades like construction, laundry and cosher foods."