Joseph “Fatso” Negri, left, is shown kissing his wife Betty Morgan in an article about his marriage around the time Negri began cooperating with federal authorities. (Courtesy photo)

‘Fatso’ Negri earns his stripes in crime world

Joseph Negri was born in San Francisco in 1905, and he gravitated to the Barbary Coast at an early age. He was rolling drunks by the age of 9 and soon graduated to stripping cars and running crooked craps games.

In 1925, Negri was convicted of armed robbery and sent to San Quentin. Released in 1929, he got into rum-running by hijacking liquor trucks coming up from Half Moon Bay. He was soon hired by bootlegging king Joe Parente to protect his booze shipments.

It was the heyday of colorful gangster nicknames: “Pretty Boy Floyd,” “Bugsy Siegel,” and “Lucky Luciano.” Negri, who stood 5-foot-8 and weighed 200 pounds, soon became “Fatso Negri.”

In 1932, Negri was teamed with “Jimmy,” a little-known bank robber who had recently escaped from a Midwest prison. Jimmy and Negri would drive, heavily armed, behind the liquor trucks to make sure they reached their destinations safely. But Jimmy was destined for bigger things and would soon become the most famous gangster in the country, known by a nickname he hated: “Baby Face Nelson.” Nelson and Negri often hung out at the Andromeda Bar at the site of the current Comstock Saloon on Columbus Avenue.

The height of the depression, from 1933 to 1935, was the golden age of bank robbing. Many people blamed the banks — which had failed and taken their money or had foreclosed on their houses and farms — for their problems. A new class of daring criminals with fast cars and automatic weapons were often more than a match for local police.

The newly created FBI was given great resources to end this crime wave.

Millions breathlessly followed the exploits of bank robbers, such as Bonnie and Clyde and Alvin Karpis. But no one was as celebrated as John Dillinger. With matinee looks and an athlete’s grace, he would jump effortlessly onto the bank tellers’ counter and confidently announce, “This is a holdup.” To add to his legend, Dillinger was an escape artist and broke out of two “secure” jails.

In 1933, when Negri spent six months in jail for rum-running, Nelson joined Dillinger’s gang in Illinois. It was the underworld version of the 1927 Yankees. But Baby Face had what one might call “severe anger issues” and a pathological love for machine guns. Even Dillinger was wary of Nelson’s hair-trigger temper.

After killing a policeman and an FBI agent following an abortive raid, Nelson fled back to California and recruited Negri, who was working as a bouncer at Spider Kelly’s joint on Pacific Street. They returned to Chicago, where Negri worked as Nelson’s driver and assistant.

On July 22, 1934, when Dillinger was gunned down by FBI agents, Nelson became the FBI’s most-wanted criminal. Nelson and Negri fled to California, but police pressure was too great, and no one would hide them. On November 27, 1934, Nelson met his fate in Barrington, Ill., when he died in a shootout after killing two FBI agents. 

The FBI soon captured Negri and, under intense pressure, Fatso “sang,” revealing all aspects of his life with Nelson. In 1935, protected by scores of federal agents, Negri’s testimony helped convict nine people of harboring Nelson.

In exchange for his cooperation, he was given probation. Many predicted a short lifespan for Negri, convinced he would be murdered for violating the underworld code. Instead, he found love.

“Ain’t Love Grand” reads an article about his marriage to Betty Morgan. “Mr. and Mrs. Fatso Negri, He’s a good boy now,” read the caption.

In 1940, Negri wrote “In the Hinges of Hell,” a three-part article in True Detective Magazine about his time with the Nelson-Dillinger gang. The article — part truth, part FBI public relations — was subtitled “How G-Men Ended Crime’s Reddest Chapter.”

Fatso Negri served in the Merchant Marines during the World War II and then faded from sight.

Paul Drexler is a crime historian and director of Crooks Tour of San Francisco,
Fatso Negrijimmy nelsonJohn DillingerJoseph NegriNotorious CrooksPaul DrexlerSan Francisco

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