meanings and history of ‘the usual suspects’

CONTENTS
MEANINGS
FOLK ETYMOLOGY
ORIGIN
NOTES

 

MEANINGS

 

The phrase the usual suspects designates:
– the people habitually suspected, detained or arrested in response to a crime, especially regarded as scapegoats rather than plausible perpetrators;
and, by extension:
– those people, ideas, etc., that would be expected in a particular context.

 

FOLK ETYMOLOGY

 

It is generally and erroneously said—for example by the Oxford English Dictionary (3rd edition, 2006)—that this phrase originated in round up the usual suspects, spoken by Captain Louis Renault in the 1942 film Casablanca [note 1].

 

ORIGIN

 

However, and while Casablanca did popularise the phrase, the usual suspects was in usage earlier, in connexion with the impunity enjoyed by gangsters when one of them was murdered.

This is exemplified by the following, published in The Detroit Free Press (Detroit, Michigan) of Sunday 19th June 1932:

FOUR HUNTED IN GANG DEATH
Usual Suspects Face usual Grilling

Four names were selected from the Detroit police list of standard suspects Saturday and proclaimed candidates for questioning and publicity concerning the execution of Milford (Man Killer) Jones, who was slain Wednesday in a tawdry speakeasy called the Stork Club.
Sighing Pete Corrado, one of the best professional suspects in Detroit, realized that it was time for another of his periodic visits to Police Headquarters.
“I see by the papers that I’m the River rum lord who killed Jones,” he telephoned Inspector John I. Navarre. “Where do you want me to be found when the police drag net is spread over the City?”
“Call me back in 20 minutes and I’ll let you know,” said the harried inspector.
Thus also went the search through the City’s underworld, court corridors and telephone booths for Joe Mascie, Joe Bommarito and Pete Licavoli. Chuckling in the cell which has been his for a week, Harry Fleisher, Collingwood Ave. massacre suspect, was reported ready to issue a statement saying that this was the first murder in years in which his name had not been mentioned.

Likewise, in “Finis” Is Written In D’Agostino Case, published in The Daily News (Passaic, New Jersey) of Wednesday 27th January 1932, ‘Observer’ explained that—just like in every case of gang killing—the authorities would not be able to solve the murder of a mobster named Johnny D’Agostino:

Assistant Prosecutor Charles Schmidt was quoted yesterday as saying he expects to clear up the mystery, but I’ll bet his tongue was in his cheek when he made the crack. Schmidt has had too much experience in similar cases to believe the present one can be solved.
[…]
There was the usual amount of police activity last Thursday night and Friday morning. Detectives hurried here and there to question a few of the “regulars” who are picked up in every gang shooting. The prosecutor made the usual number of predictions and named the usual suspects and then one by one he eliminated them from the case. It happens in every gang slaying in the country and ends the same way in every case.
Of course it would be poor policy for the authorities to admit they are licked and so they keep the case alive for a few days and make a great outward splurge to let Mr. and Mrs. Public know they are on the job.
But it doesn’t mean much in the final analysis.

The phrase to round up the usual suspects was also in usage before the 1942 film Casablanca. The following, for example, is from the column Around the Town with the Free Press Staff, published in The Detroit Free Press (Detroit, Michigan) of Friday 8th July 1932:

“This big car with tightly closed side curtains drives down toward the River on Orleans St. As it gets near the water the lights are turned out and the two women and man in it huddle down in their seats. It makes a quick turn and something big is thrown in the water. I heard the splash.”
It was a citizen talking to the police at 10:15 p. m. Wednesday.
A few seconds later, the Harbor master’s boat put out to recover the “body.” Just when detectives were ready to order the usual gangland suspects rounded up, the grappling hooks came into contact with a heavy object. Raised, it proved to be a cigaret vending machine which had been rifled.

The phrase to round up the usual suspects also occurs in the column Dottings of a Paragrapher, by Ebenezer Ray, published in The New York Age: National Negro Weekly (New York City, N.Y.) of Saturday 9th November 1935:

The news which occupied the front pages of the metropolitan newspapers of late has been as varied as it has been interesting. Letters of bold relief told of the shooting and ultimate death of Dutch Schultz [note 2], New York’s Officials’ Headache No. 1, and reputed baron of illicit beer and policy playing [note 3], the latter an ineradicable activity of Negroes in Harlem and thereabout. […]
The rubbing out of Schultz and a few of his aides by their hoodlum contemporaries, as usual leaves its aftermath. New York’s “criminologists” are rounding up the usual suspects, accompanied by the stereotyped threats of ridding New York of racketeering—and as a finishing touch we have a crusade against policy playing. In the meantime Schultz’s successor will replace him as spontaneously as night follows day, and policy playing will continue—even until the next police crusade.

 

NOTES

 

1 At the conclusion of the 1942 U.S. film Casablanca, Louis Renault, the cynical French prefect of police, deflects the police from arresting the obviously guilty Rick Blaine for the murder of the German officer Major Heinrich Strasser by instructing his men: “Round up the usual suspects.
This film was directed by the Hungarian-born U.S. film director Michael Curtiz (Manó Kaminer – 1886-1962); Louis Renault was played by the British-born U.S. actor William Claude Rains (1889-1967); Rick Blaine was played by the U.S. actor Humphrey DeForest Bogart (1899-1957).

2 Dutch Schultz (Arthur Simon Flegenheimer – 1901-35) was a New York City mobster.

3 In policy playing, policy denotes a form of gambling in which bets are made on numbers to be drawn by lottery.

 

Humphrey Bogart and Claude Rains in Casablanca (1942):

Humphrey Bogart and Claude Rains in Casablanca (1942)

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.