Re: RARA-AVIS: Johnson-brothers?

K. Harper (
Wed, 21 Jan 1998 08:10:28 -0500 Emerging from lurkdom--and study for comprehensive exams--to answer a
slang-related question...

Joe Kraus asked:

>in Hammett's "Red Harvest"...When the Op is questioning Captain
>Noonan about the men killed in the
>shootout between Reno Starkey and Lew Yard's men, Noonan tells him, "[It
>was] A pair of Johnson-brothers named Blackie Whalen and Put Collings that
>only got out on bail around five yesterday, and Dutch Jake Wahl, a
>guerilla." (It's p. 96 in the collected novels.)
>Does anyone have any idea what "Johnson-brothers" means in this context?
>If so, any idea about the derivation of it?

A Johnson brother is just another name for a criminal. According to the
_Dictionary of American Underworld Lingo_ (1950), the term "Johnson family"
first referred to an actual large family whose members included both crooks
and lawmen who would let their brethren off. I've also heard "Johnson
brother" used to describe a combination hobo and safebreaker, a.k.a. a
"yegg," I think because one of their most frequently used tools was called
a Johnson bar.

Hope this helps.


Katherine Harper
Department of English
Bowling Green State University
Visit the W.R. Burnett Page at

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