When outlaws like the Barker-Karpis Gang, the Clyde Barrow Gang, John Dillinger, Baby Face Nelson and Pretty Boy Floyd began to attract national attention in 1933, the FBI was an under-funded, amateurish organization. A series of celebrity kidnappings and the massacre of four law enforcement officials in Kansas City in June 1933 led to calls for a national police force, and the FBI would lead the war on crime. In 1934, the many bank robbers would be divided into five nice, clear groups: the family of kidnappers, the lovers on the run, the charming escape artist, the psychotic killer and the misunderstood country boy. A year later, almost none of them were still alive and the FBI was a national institution.
- 1 Background
- 2 Bonnie and Clyde become famous (April 12, 1933)
- 3 William Hamm is kidnapped by the Barker-Karpis Gang (June 15, 1933)
- 4 Kansas City Massacre (June 17, 1933)
- 5 The War on Crime is declared (June 29, 1933)
- 5.1 Buck Barrow is captured by a posse (July 24, 1933)
- 5.2 The FBI’s first victory-Machine Gun Kelly (July-September, 1933)
- 5.3 John Dillinger becomes a bank robber (September 1933-January 1934)
- 5.4 Verne Miller, the leading suspect in the massacre, is found dead (November 29, 1933)
- 5.5 The end of Wilbur Underhill, the Tri-State Terror (January 6, 1934)
- 5.6 Eastham Farm Breakout (January 6, 1934)
- 5.7 Edward Bremer is kidnapped by the Barker-Karpis Gang (January 17, 1934)
- 5.8 John Dillinger escapes from the Crown Point Jail (March 3, 1934)
- 5.9 Dillinger joins Baby Face Nelson’s Gang (March 6-early July, 1934)
- 5.10 The Raid on the Little Bohemia Lodge (April 22, 1934)
- 5.11 The end of Bonnie and Clyde (May 23, 1934)
- 5.12 The Death of John Dillinger (July 22, 1934)
- 5.13 Pretty Boy Floyd’s Final Run (October 11-22, 1934)
- 5.14 The Death of Baby Face Nelson (November 27, 1934)
- 5.15 The end of the Barker-Karpis Gang (January 8-16, 1935)
- 6 The end of the Public Enemies
- 7 The end of the outlaws
- 8 Related Movies
- 9 Further Reading
When Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) became president in March 1933 it seemed likely that J. Edgar Hoover would be fired as director of the Justice Department’s Bureau of Investigation because he was unpopular with the new administration. This seems unfair since the Bureau had previously been considered to be a nest of corruption and political influence peddling, but Hoover had cleaned it up. He had driven out the bad apples, hired motivated, young men with law degrees and enforced an extremely strict adherence to regulations to ensure that corruption did not have a place to fester. While the agents became effective investigators, they had to rely on local police to make the actual arrests, since they were not permitted to carry guns.
A wave of celebrity kidnappings, especially the kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh’s son a year earlier, had led to calls for a national police force. When the recently appointed attorney-general, an elderly senator with a very young wife, suddenly died of a heart attack, he was replaced by Homer Cummings, who was in favor of a national police force. Hoover knew that his survival depended on his department becoming the core of such a force.
It is a common misconception that the wave of bank robberies between 1933 and 1934 was caused by the Depression. Fueled by technological advances, namely the V-8 car engine and the Thompson submachine gun, which enabled outlaws to outrun and outgun local police, the number of bank robberies had grown rapidly in the early 1920s, peaking in the period between 1925 and 1932. The war between the Bureau and the bank robbers that received national attention was actually the end of the wave of bank robberies.
The robberies were concentrated in the “crime corridor,” which stretched from Texas to Minnesota, focusing especially in the three states of Missouri, Oklahoma and Kansas. The robbers operated across state lines, aware that if they made it out of the town alive they were probably safe. Most states lacked a statewide police force, and those that did were not permitted to cross state lines. Local police forces were on their own, since bank robbery was not a federal crime. Some police chiefs found it more profitable to treat the robbers as customers, not outlaws, ensuring freedom from arrest in exchange for a generous cut of the profits, as long the robbers did their jobs somewhere else. These open towns included St. Paul, Minnesota, Kansas City, Missouri, Hot Springs, Arkansas and Chicago, Illinois.
The science of robbing banks, including the careful casing of a target, specific assignments for each person, and detailed getaway maps, was developed by Herman K. Lamm, whose gang robbed dozens of banks in the 1920s until he was killed by a posse in 1930. However, three other bank robbers, Eddie Bentz, Harvey Bailey and Frank “Jelly” Nash, had adopted Lamm’s methods, and they would mentor a new generation of bank robbers.
Bonnie and Clyde become famous (April 12, 1933)
Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow had spent the past year robbing gas stations and grocery stores but were still relatively unknown. However, a family reunion with Clyde’s older brother Buck in Joplin, Missouri turned into a shootout on April 12, 1933 when local police responding to a call from suspicious neighbors got more than they had bargained for. Two officers ended up dead but the gang’s escape was so rushed that they left behind most of their belongings, including photos of themselves.
The pictures were published, making them famous across the country, but they could not move around in public anymore. Previously, they had only been known in Texas and parts of Oklahoma, but the death of two officers and the capture of their possessions made them national celebrities, since newspapers were hungry for stories that would sell papers. Pictures of bank robbers, including a scandalous photo of Bonnie posing with a cigar between her lips in a time where women were supposed to smoke discreetly, proved popular, especially since the young couple was not married but obviously slept together, thus adding the allure of illicit sex to their story. People struggling to make a living in cities or communities far from the areas robbed by the gang would sympathize with outlaws who were fighting back against the banks that had foreclosed on so many, and the police, who enforced the banks’ orders.
Lacking the underworld connections needed to arrange payoffs to local police, they had to camp by the road and bathe in streams with someone constantly on guard.
William Hamm is kidnapped by the Barker-Karpis Gang (June 15, 1933)
William Hamm, chairman of the Hamm Brewery, was kidnapped in Minneapolis on June 15, 1933. Hamm was released the next day after his family paid a ransom of $100,000. Unknown to law enforcement officials, the kidnapping had been committed by the Barker-Karpis Gang. Fred Barker had become friends with Alvin Karpis in Kansas State Prison. Following their release in 1931, they had worked with veteran bank robber Harvey Bailey until he was arrested in the spring of 1932. The rest of the summer was spent robbing banks to obtain the bribe money needed to arrange for Fred’s brother Dock and his friend Volney Davis to be released from prison. Several law enforcement officers had already been put in graves by Karpis and Barker but when a member of the gang was killed during a bank robbery in Nebraska in late winter, they decided to switch to the less hazardous profession of kidnapping, and Hamm had the dubious honor of being their first victim.
Kansas City Massacre (June 17, 1933)
On June 16, 1933, Bureau agents Joe Lackey and Frank Smith, and Otto Reed, an Oklahoma police chief, arrested Frank Nash, an experienced bank robber and one of Bailey’s partners, in Hot Springs, Arkansas. Frank Nash was believed to have orchestrated the escape of seven convicts from Leavenworth Prison on December 11, 1931, and the even larger escape of eleven prisoners, including Wilbur Underhill and Harvey Bailey, mentor to a number of young bank robbers, from the Kansas state prison at Lansing on May 30, 1933.
The agents told the local police they were going to Joplin but took the train from Fort Smith to Kansas City, which was another center of corruption, controlled by the Pendergast machine. Unfortunately, an Associated Press (AP) reporter was at the station, and although the agents deny revealing who they were guarding, later that morning dozens of AP offices knew that the agents were taking Frank Nash by train to Kansas City’s Union Station. Nash’s wife then contacted his best friend, Verne Miller, a bank robber who was living in Kansas City.
Aware that the city was not safe, the local Bureau office had sent two more agents and two Kansas City policemen to escort them to Leavenworth, thirty miles away. The agents were waiting when the train pulled in at 7AM on June 17 and the seven lawmen surrounded Nash as they headed to the parking lot. Unfortunately, just as they entered the car, machineguns opened up. Reed, agent Ray Caffrey, and Kansas City policemen Red Grooms and Frank Hermanson, and Nash died, while agents Lackey and Smith survived by playing dead.
The Kansas City Massacre would be a call to arms for the Bureau. It had happened so fast that the shooters’ identities were unknown. The Bureau immediately took charge of the case even though it did not have jurisdiction, but Kansas City was a den of corruption and the police chief actually refused to launch an investigation since the last thing he wanted was a bright light shined on his comfortable operation. Within a couple of weeks, bank robber and hitman Verne Miller had emerged as the principal suspect.
Pretty Boy Floyd becomes a suspect in the Kansas City Massacre
However, the arrival of Charles “Pretty Boy” Floyd in Kansas City the evening before meant that he was also a suspect. Floyd had been robbing banks in Oklahoma since 1930 and had survived several shootouts with the police, but he was still able to move around without attracting too much attention. Floyd and his partner Adam Richetti were traveling to Kansas City to visit their girlfriends. Unfortunately, Floyd was recognized by a local sheriff while having his car repaired in Bolivar, near Kansas City, so he took the sheriff hostage and released him when they reached Kansas City during the evening of June 16. Although the Bureau considered him to be a suspect, Floyd swore to family and friends that he had not been involved in the massacre, and they believed him, claiming that it was not his style, and that it was just horrible timing that he was in the same city at the time.
The War on Crime is declared (June 29, 1933)
The massacre focused attention on the need for a real federal police force and ensured that J. Edgar Hoover, director of the FBI, would keep his job. Declaring War on Crime on June 29, 1933, Attorney-general Homer Cummings increased the power and budget of the Bureau, hoping to create a federal police force to cope with the wave of kidnappings and bank robberies. Previously unarmed, agents were issued guns. The timing was auspicious since there was a huge pool of potential agents for the Bureau. Following the end of Prohibition, all of the agents from the Prohibition Bureau were suddenly purposeless and could be assigned to the new national police force. Neither the massacre nor the Hamm kidnapping had achieved national fame but Roosevelt used the War on Crime as a justification to centralize the government as part of his fight against the Depression and to win support for the New Deal.
Buck Barrow is captured by a posse (July 24, 1933)
The Barrow gang had holed up at the Red Crown Tavern, in Platte City, near Kansas City, Missouri, but employees at the tavern became suspicious, and called the police on July 18. A combined force of highway patrol and county police took no chances, and arrived with steel shields and an armored car. Despite their precautions, several people were wounded in the shootout, as were Buck and his wife Blanche, but the outlaws once again escaped. The gang made it to Dexter, near Des Moines, Iowa, but a local farmer noticed them, and contacted the police. A huge posse, made up of local law officers, deputized vigilantes, police from Des Moines and National Guardsmen, was formed. The trap was sprung on the morning of July 24, but Clyde, Bonnie and W. D. Jones, a young recruit, managed to shoot their way out, with the badly wounded Buck covering them. Both Blanche and Buck were captured, and Buck lived long enough to see his family when they arrived, dying on July 29, while Blanche was sentenced to ten years in prison.
Tired of the outlaw life, Jones left the gang, but was caught by the police on November 15 in Houston, and claimed that he had been forced into a life of crime, which is exactly what Clyde had advised him to say.
The FBI’s first victory-Machine Gun Kelly (July-September, 1933)
Former bootlegger George “Machine Gun” Kelly had switched to robbing banks in 1932. However, when his new occupation became too stressful, Kelly and Albert Bates kidnapped Oklahoma City oilman Charles Urschel on July 22, 1933 and freed him nine days later in exchange for a record $200,000 ransom. Although the Bureau’s search for Kelly was initially unsuccessful, they did capture veteran bank robber Harvey Bailey, mentor of Kelly, Verne Miller and the Karpis-Gang, during a raid on Kelly’s wife’s step-father’s ranch on August 12. Kelly’s partner Albert Bates was also arrested that weekend by investigators working for the American Express Company, although Hoover claimed the credit.
Despite a series of errors and cooperation problems between regional offices, the FBI arrested Machine Gun Kelly and his wife in Memphis on September 26. The arrest was the bureau’s first big victory, so the public viewed it as the first line of defense in the war against the new breed of supercriminal. Although the belief that Kelly shouted “Don’t shoot, G-Men!” has no basis in reality, FBI agent William Rorer, who made the arrest, has stated that Kelly’s wife Kathryn said that the g-men (government men) would never give them a break.
John Dillinger becomes a bank robber (September 1933-January 1934)
Although John Dillinger would become the most famous of all of the public enemies, he started his career as a bank robber relatively late. A young troublemaker, he was sentenced to ten to twenty years in prison for armed robbery. While in prison, Dillinger became friends with Harry “Pete” Pierpoint and Homer Van Meter. After nine years in prison, he was paroled on May 10, 1933. Although he had promised his father that he would go straight, Pierpoint and Meter had persuaded him to smuggle guns into the prison as part of their plan for a mass breakout, promising that he would join their gang afterwards. Newspaper headlines meant that Dillinger was all too aware of the potential rewards of such a career, so he had received an education in the science of robbing banks. After robbing several banks during the summer, he had enough money to arrange for guns to reach his friends, including Russell Clark, John “Red” Hamilton and Charles Makley, which ensured the success of their breakout on September 26.
Dillinger’s bank robbing career almost came to an end when cooperation between the Indiana state police and insurance agents led to his arrest on September 22. However, he was broken out of jail in Lima, Ohio on October 12 by Pierpoint, Clark and Makley. Sheriff Jess Sarber was killed during the breakout. Eleven days later, the gang raided an Indiana bank and walked off with $75,000.
Verne Miller, the leading suspect in the massacre, is found dead (November 29, 1933)
Verne Miller was a WWI veteran and former sheriff, who had become a gunman for hire for bootleggers during the late 1920s. In 1930, Miller joined Harvey Bailey and Frank Nash, and they robbed several banks together until Miller retired in 1932. Learning of Nash’s arrest, Miller had organized the ambush at Kansas City, and he quickly realized that he would be hunted until he died.
However, the hunt was far from smooth. The Chicago office of the FBI would be the center during the war against the Public Enemies, but both the agents and Melvin Purvis, head of the office, were still inexperienced. The agents were watching the Chicago apartment of Miller’s girlfriend, but they botched an attempt to capture him on November 1, 1933, although they caught his girlfriend, who refused to talk.
Verne Miller was found dead in New Jersey on November 29 and he was believed to have been killed by Longy Zwillman’s gang because he had attracted too much police attention, although he may have simply had an argument with the gangster. As a former hitman, he did not lack for enemies. While his death remains a mystery, the Bureau had lost its primary suspect in the Kansas City Massacre.
The end of Wilbur Underhill, the Tri-State Terror (January 6, 1934)
After escaping from the Kansas state prison at Lansing on May 30, 1933, Wilbur Underhill and Harvey Bailey had formed the Bailey-Underhill Gang and started robbing banks in Oklahoma and nearby states. Bailey was caught by the Bureau in August, but Underhill continued to rob banks, although he took time out to get married on November 18. The FBI finally tracked down Underhill in Shawnee, Oklahoma on December 30, 1933, while he was enjoying his honeymoon. Underhill was wounded and escaped, but was found the next morning. Once Underhill had been taken to the hospital, agents questioned him about the Kansas City Massacre, but he told agent Frank Smith, who had survived the massacre, that neither he nor Harvey Bailey had been involved. Since Underhill knew that he was dying, Smith believed him. It appeared that the FBI would never learn who had carried out the Kansas City Massacre.
Eastham Farm Breakout (January 6, 1934)
Bonnie and Clyde, along with Hamilton’s friend James Mullen, helped their old acquaintance, Raymond Hamilton, and several other prisoners break out of Eastham Farm, Clyde’s alma mater, on January 16, 1934. Clyde had been unwilling, thinking the plan was too risky, but Bonnie knew they needed more men to rob banks. A prison guard wounded during the escape died the next day. Originally, only Hamilton and Joe Palmer were supposed to be freed, but two more prisoners, Henry Methvin and Hilton Baybee, came along.
Incensed by the blatant breakout from a supposedly secure institution, prison warden Lee Simmons first obtained the backing of Texas governor Miriam Ferguson, and then persuaded former Texas Ranger Frank Hamer, famous for his grit and ability with a gun, to hunt down the Barrow gang. Hamer gave up his $500 a month salary with an oil company for $180 a month, as well as the right to keep any of the gang’s personal possessions, which would be worth a fortune to collectors.
Edward Bremer is kidnapped by the Barker-Karpis Gang (January 17, 1934)
Having gambled away most of their money in Reno, the men returned to Chicago, where they were offered a job kidnapping Edward Bremer, the son of Adolph Bremer, owner of the Schmidt Brewery in St. Paul and a big financial backer of President Roosevelt. The national crime wave meant that the FBI was expected to be granted increased powers, which would make their business much harder, so Karpis wanted to make some money and get out of the country.
The Bremer kidnapping was such a big job that there were seven men: Karpis, the two Barker brothers, George “Shotgun” Ziegler, Dock’s friends Bill Weaver and Volney Davis, and a new man, Harry Campbell. Bremer was captured on January 17, 1934 and the family called the St. Paul police chief, who brought in the local FBI agents. Since the family was relatively cash poor at the moment it was suspected that the kidnapping had been arranged by a rival bank as part of a takeover attempt. Raising the money was more difficult, so the kidnapping dragged on much longer than the Hamm case had. Worse, President Roosevelt himself was mentioning the kidnapping in radio speeches, saying that the crime would not go unpunished. However, by early February the family was so desperate that they publicly announced that they would pay the ransom and would not cooperate with the FBI. Hoover was infuriated but powerless. The ransom of $200,000 was delivered on the evening of February 6 and Bremer was released the next day.
In mid-March, Fred Barker and Karpis paid Doctor Joseph Moran to remove their fingerprints, which involved tightening rubber bands around the individual fingers to cut off circulation, and then injecting cocaine into each finger before cutting off the meat of each fingertip. The next three days were spent in a morphine-induced fog. Returning to reality, they learned that the police had found Dock Barker’s fingerprints near the drop-off point for the ransom, and they were now suspects in the Bremer kidnapping.
John Dillinger escapes from the Crown Point Jail (March 3, 1934)
While robbing an Indiana bank with John “Red” Hamilton on January 15, Dillinger killed a police officer who was trying to block their escape. He would spend the rest of his life denying that he had fired the shot but it ended his image as a gentleman bank robber.
The outlaws celebrated by vacationing in Tuscon, Arizona, where they relaxed so much that they let their guard down. When a fire broke out in their hotel, a firefighter recognized them and informed the police, who captured gang members Charles Makley, Russell Clark, John Pierpoint and Dillinger one after the other during the evening of January 25.
Several states pressed for the right to prosecute Dillinger, but he was transferred to Crown Point, Indiana because he had killed a detective in that state. During a press conference Dillinger did not deny that he robbed banks and the reporters ate up his easygoing manner. Gangland lawyer Louis Piquett ensured that Dillinger remained in Crown Point instead of being transferred to the more solid Michigan City Prison by insinuating that Sheriff Holley was worried that she could not handle the responsibility and by reminding the judge that all the media attention would disappear if Dillinger was moved. However, he managed to escape from the jail on March 3, supposedly by using a wooden gun that had been painted black to capture several guards.
Recognizing that the bureau’s resources were strained dealing with the Bremer kidnapping, Hoover was reluctant to involve the bureau in the hunt for Dillinger. However, the national outcry following the escape from Crown Point forced him to make Dillinger the bureau’s priority.
Dillinger joins Baby Face Nelson’s Gang (March 6-early July, 1934)
Since the rest of the gang was behind bars in Ohio, Dillinger linked up with Hamilton, who had avoided arrest because he was recovering from wounds, and the two men joined George ‘Baby Face’ Nelson’s gang, which included Homer Van Meter, Tommy Carroll and Johnny Chase. Although he had been tutored by veteran bank robber Eddie Bentz, who had frequently worked with Harvey Bailey, Nelson had only robbed one large bank. An offer to do a job with the more experienced Alvin Karpis had been politely declined since he felt that Nelson was too unstable, but Dillinger would not be so choosy after his escape.
Although thrilled to be working with the most famous bank robber in the nation, Nelson’s excitement faded when the gang was labeled the Second Dillinger Gang by the press. Whether Dillinger was comfortable with Nelson’s itchy trigger finger is unknown and likely irrelevant, he needed money to pay his legal bills and those of his former partners, and Nelson had a gang. The expanded gang robbed a bank at Sioux Falls, South Dakota on March 6 and another bank in Mason City, Iowa on March 13. However, relations within the gang were tense. Fearing Nelson’s violent nature, the other outlaws basically surrounded him as he counted out the money to make sure he could not quickly shoot them and keep the cash.
The Raid on the Little Bohemia Lodge (April 22, 1934)
Relations between Dillinger and Nelson were strained because Nelson resented Dillinger for attracting the FBI’s attention while Dillinger thought Nelson was too risky. Deciding to go away for the weekend to release tension, they chose a lodge named Little Bohemia in northern Wisconsin because the owner had run a bar in Chicago that had been frequented by underworld types. Although Dillinger assured the owner they did not want trouble, the owner’s wife became worried and contacted the FBI. Melvin Purvis, head of the Chicago office, immediately gathered as many agents as possible and flew to the nearest airport, as well as notified the St. Paul office to send additional men. The agents arrived late Sunday afternoon but moved slowly because they had to rent cars from a local dealership.
Since the gang was planning to leave after dinner, the agents would have to attack at night and few had been in a firefight, never mind an attack of this scale. As soon as the agents reached the lodge, three men jumped into a car and drove off. Faced with the humiliation of seeing Dillinger escape yet again, the agents started firing when the driver did not obey their order to stop. When the bullet-riddled car came to a halt, the agents discovered that they had killed one man and wounded two others, but they were men from a nearby federal work camp, not outlaws.
Unknown to Purvis, the gang had escaped during the confusion. Nelson made it out on his own but when the first car that he stole broke down after a few hundred yards, he ambushed the two agents and local constable who arrived to investigate the matter, killing one agent and wounding the constable. Despite the gunfight between Nelson and the agents, Purvis believed that most of the gang was still trapped in the lodge, so he kept his men freezing outside until dawn. However, instead of the outlaws, only their women emerged and Purvis realized that he had failed again.
Wisconsin and Minnesota were soon filled with roadblocks manned by the police and hundreds of vigilantes. John Hamilton was badly wounded after he, Dillinger and Van Meter were recognized during a roadblock. Hamilton died of his wounds a week later and was buried by Dillinger and Meter.
By this time the FBI looked like the Federal Bureau of Incompetents. Both Dillinger and the Barkers had disappeared, while no one had seen Pretty Boy Floyd for months and the Kansas City Massacre was still a mystery. The Battle of Little Bohemia soon became a national scandal and the FBI received a flood of calls to fire Purvis, but since he had hired him, Hoover refused to fire him.
At the same time, Purvis’ numerous mistakes and few successes had showed that he lacked the leadership ability needed to bring Dillinger down. Most important, he had not fostered cooperation with the Chicago police department and had failed to develop reliable informants. When agents working for Purvis allowed the recently released girlfriends of gang members and Nelson’s wife to disappear from surveillance on May 31, Hoover decided it was time for a change of command, and replaced Purvis with Sam Cowley, who took over an office filled with demoralized agents, most of whom had joined the FBI because jobs were scarce in the Depression. They worked insanely long hours, risked their lives and received no credit.
Little Bohemia had made it all too clear that the majority of agents were still not ready for gunfights, so all of the agents who were experienced with firearms were assigned to Chicago. When the Bureau could only produce eleven agents who fit the bill, Hoover went headhunting and stole several top detectives from Southwest police departments.
The end of Bonnie and Clyde (May 23, 1934)
Adding to the embarrassment of the Battle of Little Bohemia, the next major victory in the war on crime had nothing to do with the bureau. Bonnie and Clyde had grown comfortable in the Louisiana parish where gang member Henry Methvin’s family lived, and often visited various members of the Methvin clan. Unknown to them, Methvin’s father had arranged to betray the gang to Hamer in exchange for a pardon for his son. Hamer and five other law enforcement officials ambushed Bonnie and Clyde near Methvin’s farm on May 23, 1934. Hoping to capture the outlaws, rather than kill a woman, they forced Methvin’s father to position his truck to look like it had a flat tire. The agents had placed themselves about ten feet apart from each other in wooded area that overlooked the road. When the posse heard a car that sounded like Clyde’s car, they sent Methvin down to be the bait. The plan worked, the outlaws stopped to see if Methvin’s father needed help, and were killed by a hail of bullets from six guns.
People who had heard the gunfire or overheard the policemen reporting to their various supervisors rushed to the site, tearing souvenirs from the bodies. The families chose to have Bonnie and Clyde buried separately. Each of their funerals was attended by 30,000 sympathizers and curiosity seekers.
The Death of John Dillinger (July 22, 1934)
By early July, Dillinger and Homer Van Meter had decided to end their association with Nelson because he was too risky. Dillinger had received plastic surgery on May 28, losing the dimple in his chin and three facial moles, which enabled him to enjoy the social life in Chicago with Polly Hamilton, his new girlfriend. However, Hamilton’s roommate, Anna Sage, a former madam, had been notified that she would be deported to her native Romania. Sage contacted the FBI and agreed to betray Dillinger in exchange for a cancellation of the deportation process. She arranged to let them know when Dillinger would take the two women to see a movie, and she would wear an orange dress to identify herself.
When Dillinger came out of the Biograph theater on July 22, Purvis lit his cigar, which was the assigned signal, but only a handful of agents saw it. The delay enabled Dillinger to notice the trap, and he was reaching for his gun when three FBI agents started firing without taking the time to identify themselves, killing him instantly. Although the body was quickly taken away, dozens of people put their hankerchiefs into the pool of blood that was left behind. The FBI was unable to prevent Sage’s deportation, but agent Cowley personally gave her $5,000, half of the reward for Dillinger.
On September 6, Hoover made Cowley the senior FBI field agent with authority over any Bureau office in the nation.
Pretty Boy Floyd’s Final Run (October 11-22, 1934)
In March 1934, Pretty Boy Floyd became one of the FBI’s most wanted fugitives when fingerprints from Verne Miller’s home, which had been misfiled for months, were examined and one of them belonged to Adam Richetti, Floyd’s partner.
Despite Richetti’s fingerprints, not a single informant was able to provide evidence that confirmed that Floyd had worked with Miller, until Michael LaCapra was blamed for the death of powerful Kansas City gangster Johnny Lazia. Seeking protection, LaCapra told FBI agents that Miller had asked Lazia for men to free Nash, and Lazia had introduced Miller to Pretty Boy Floyd, who needed money. When Floyd was wounded in the shootout he was treated and hidden by Lazia’s men. Although it was quite possible that LaCapra had concocted a story linking Floyd to the massacre in a desperate attempt to win protection as a government witness, Hoover had no doubts. After two weeks of illegal interrogation in an apartment rented by Bureau agents, Verne Miller’s girlfriend was convinced to confirm the story.
FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s announcement on October 11 that Floyd had been involved in the Kansas City Massacre flushed him out into the open. Floyd had hoped that the attention would gradually die down, enabling him to return to a semblance of a normal life, but the FBI’s renewed attention meant that the hunt would intensify. Believing that he would be safer in Oklahoma, Floyd decided to return home, but their car broke down in Ohio on October 20. While they were waiting for their girlfriends to get a mechanic, a local police officer was alerted by suspicious neighbors and arrested Richetti, but Floyd got away. Eluding a posse, Floyd disappeared into wild country. Purvis arrived on October 21 with a team of FBI agents drawn from the offices in Cincinnati, Cleveland and Pittsburgh. Aside from the twenty FBI agents, two hundred police and sheriff’s deputies were manning roadblocks.
A local constable had heard that a solitary man had appeared at a farm, where he was given water and a sandwich before going on his way, so he alerted the police. Hearing the news, Purvis gathered three of his best agents, and asked East Liverpool Police Chief Hugh McDermott for support, so McDermott brought along three officers. Floyd had appeared at the home of Ellen Conkle, a widow, who like most country folk, was unable to refuse a meal to a stranger, even one as ragged-looking as Floyd. After finishing the meal, her brother agreed to give Floyd a lift to a nearby town, and they had just started when two cars appeared with the agents and the police. Floyd ran out of the car and headed for the woods but the eight agents and police opened fire. Wounded, Floyd was captured but he refused to answer questions about the Kansas City Massacre and died of his wounds before a doctor could arrive.
The Death of Baby Face Nelson (November 27, 1934)
With Dillinger dead, Nelson knew that the FBI’s attention would switch to him, but none of his old friends in Reno or San Francisco were willing to take the risk of being caught helping him, so Nelson, his wife and Negri were forced to roam from tourist camp to tourist camp all over northern California and Nevada. Unknown to them the FBI had picked up the girlfriend of gang member Johnny Chase, and persuaded her to talk by pointing out that Chase would die if he did not surrender.
Chase’s girlfriend was able to identify Nelson’s favorite resort, so agents staked out the resort. Nelson and his gang reached the resort in Wisconsin near the border with Illinois on November 27, but Nelson figured out that he had ran into an FBI agent before the agent recognized him, so he drove off. Cowley was immediately notified and headed there with several agents. When two agents followed Nelson he became suspicious and ordered them to pull over. After an exchange of fire, Nelson’s car was damaged and he fell behind. Before he could escape, Cowley and agent Herman Hollis drove by and ended up in a shootout with Nelson and Chase. Cowley was a bureaucrat but he did not hesitate to start shooting and he hit Nelson several times. Unfortunately, Cowley had refused to wear the regulation bulletproof vest, and he received a fatal wound. Despite his wounds, Nelson managed to put a bullet in Hollis’ forehead. Although he had been hit seventeen times, Nelson made it to the agents’ car and Chase was able to drive them away. Hollis died within minutes. When Hoover learned that Purvis was giving interviews, he had Purvis pulled off the case and announced that he would be on sick leave.
Cowley died on November 28 and the next morning an anonymous caller told an undertaker there was a dead body in a cemetery. It was Nelson. Chase disappeared but Nelson’s wife was picked up two days later.
The end of the Barker-Karpis Gang (January 8-16, 1935)
Fortune smiled on the Bureau when Dock Barker’s new wife could not resist telling one of her friends how exciting it was to be hanging out with criminals. The friend told one of her friends, who told her dentist, who told his brother, who was an FBI agent.
The FBI launched several raids in Chicago on January 8, 1935, capturing Dock Barker, and gang members Byron Bolton and Russell Gibson, who died from wounds received in a shootout. Dock refused to talk but Bolton was very cooperative, explaining both the Hamm and Bremer kidnappings, and most important, Fred Barker’s lake house in central Florida. He did not know the exact location but when the agents found a map in Dock’s suitcase with a circle around a lake in central Florida, Connelley immediately flew out to Florida, with more agents and weapons following by train. It was a race against time to find the exact lake because Fred would disappear as soon as the press learned that Dock had been arrested.
After finding the lake house, Connelley led fifteen agents to raid the house at dawn on January 15, and once the house was surrounded he called for Barker to surrender. To no one’s surprise, Barker stayed in the house. Tear gas canisters failed to break through the windows, and Barker started firing at the agents. The shootout started and stopped over a period of two hours, but when it had been quiet for a while the caretaker was convinced to go into the house and try to persuade the gang to surrender. The terrified man went in and found that both Ma and Fred Barker were dead.
Realizing that the press would not react well to FBI agents killing a grandmother with no criminal record, regardless of whether or not she had refused to surrender, Hoover labeled Ma the brains of the gang. The fact that there was no evidence that Ma was involved in the crimes, never mind that she had been the mastermind of the gang, did not deter Hoover.
The end of the Public Enemies
When police detective Tom Brown arranged for Dillinger gang member Homer Van Meter to be killed by police in St. Paul on August 23, 1934, it meant that Chicago, Reno and St. Paul were no longer safe havens. Brown was suspected of involvement in the kidnappings committed by the Karpis-Barker gang, and setting up a wanted criminal was the best way to throw the police off his trail.
During 1935, every possible survivor and accomplice of the outlaws was tried and convicted. The public nature of the trials ensured that even if anyone did want to become a bank robber, there would be no more safe havens. Clyde Barrow’s former partners Raymond Hamilton and Joe Palmer were executed. All of the participants in the Bremer kidnapping were given life sentences and sent to Alcatraz. Despite living under an assumed name, Nelson’s former partner Johnny Chase was arrested on December 27, 1934, and was sentenced to life imprisonment in Alcatraz. Floyd’s partner Adam Richetti was tried in June 1935 for his involvement in the Kansas City Massacre and the surviving lawmen swore that they recognized him even though their statements made at the time claimed that they had seen nothing. Their testimony ensured that Richetti received a death sentence and he died in a gas chamber on October 7, 1938.
Alvin Karpis, the last holdout, is captured (May 1, 1936)
Karpis had managed to elude the FBI for over a year because the agents were more preoccupied with ensuring that postal inspectors did not find him than actually searching for him. However, he was finally tracked down in New Orleans. Hoover had been criticized for his lack of experience during a senate hearing and he was so embarrassed that he decided to arrest Karpis personally. It seems likely that agent Earl Connelly made the actual arrest on May 1, 1936 but the official FBI version gave all the credit to Hoover.
Now that the War on Crime appeared to be almost over, Hoover was surprised and angered to see that Purvis was receiving most of the media attention. Hoover had reluctantly accepted the attorney-general’s efforts at public relations but the FBI became famous only after the movie G-Men was released and spawned a number of imitators. After being forced out of the FBI, Purvis wrote a book about the FBI that came out in 1936 and earned Hoover’s undying enmity.
The end of the outlaws
The war against the public enemies was exactly that, a war. Hundreds of outlaws, law enforcement officials and innocent bystanders died over the course of a few years. While gangsters like Al Capone, Lucky Luciano and Mickey Cohen operated openly, relying on friendly police departments and intimidation to avoid prosecution, they were limited to their territories, unlike the outlaws who crossed state lines at will. The government’s victory ended an outlaw tradition that stretched from the James-Younger Gang and the Reno Gang (who started robbing banks and trains shortly after the end of the Civil War), through the Daltons (who robbed trains and banks from 1890-1892), the Wild Bunch (who robbed trains from 1899-1901) and Herman Lamm, to name just the most famous.
The media attention was the downfall of the public enemies. Before their pictures were splattered across every newspaper in the nation, they could basically commute to work, rob banks in one or two states, and spend their loot in other states. There is no denying that the decision to make bank robbery a federal offence, the responsibility of the recently expanded FBI, was a key factor. However, the outlaws could no longer move freely since they were the target of suspicious lawmen and poor civilians anxious for the reward money.
The successful pursuit of the outlaws came at the same time as the beginning of the end of the Depression. The country was in a new mood and outlaws like Dillinger were replaced by symbols of law and order, namely the Bureau and its director, J. Edgar Hoover.
Directed by William Keighley, starring James Cagney and Margaret Lindsay
An unsuccessful lawyer joins the FBI after his friend is killed while chasing outlaws loosely modeled on John Dillinger’s gang. The outlaws’ crime spree leads to FBI agents receiving permission to carry guns.
Directed by Max Nosseck, starring Lawrence Tierney and Anne Jeffreys
It shows the rise of John Dillinger from petty criminal to bank robber and finally Public Enemy Number One. (full review)
Directed by Don Siegel, starring Mickey Rooney and Carolyn Jones
Rising gangster Baby Face Nelson allies with John Dillinger to oppose Al Capone, criminal overlord of Chicago.
Directed by Roger Corman, starring Charles Bronson and Susan Cabot
Kelly is a tough talking bank robber who is dominated by his wife. He attracts the attention of the FBI when his gang kidnaps a little girl and her nurse.
Directed by William Whitey, starring Dorothy Provine and Jack Hogan
Ruthless outlaw Bonnie Parker leads her sidekick Guy Darrow and his brother Chuck on a rampage across the South-West, robbing banks and leaving a trail of dead bodies.
Directed by Mervyn LeRoy, starring James Stewart and Vera Miles
A veteran FBI agent relates his experience with the FBI from its humble beginnings through its battles with bank robbers, gangsters, Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan and communists.
Directed by Bill Karn, starring Lurene Tuttle and Paul Dubov
Ma Barker leads her four sons in a wave of bank robberies and kidnappings, while providing advice for other gangsters.
Directed by Herbert J. Leder, starring John Ericson and Barry Newman
Tells the story of Pretty Boy Floyd, who was involved in the Kansas City Massacre and became a successful bank robber until the FBI finally tracked him down.
Directed by Arthur Penn, starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway
During the middle of the Depression, a small gang of bank robbers go on a crime spree in the mid-West but as they become more famous, the police make greater efforts to hunt them down. (full review)
Directed by Larry Buchanan, starring Fabian and Jocelyn Lane
Pretty Boy Floyd becomes an outlaw after killing the man who murdered his father.
Directed by John Milius, starring Warren Oates and Ben Johnson
Following the death of several FBI agents during the Kansas City Massacre, FBI agent Melvin Purvis vows to capture or kill a number of famous outlaws including Machine Gun Kelly, Pretty Boy Floyd, Baby Face Nelson, and John Dillinger. (full review)
Directed by Larry Cohen, starring Broderick Crawford and Michael Parks
It follows Hoover during the 48 years that he ran the FBI and examines his willingness to bend the constitution to defend the nation, as well as his refusal to retire and the fear of presidents to openly confront him.
Directed by Lewis Teague, starring Robert Conrad and Pamela Sue Martin
While hiding in Chicago, Dillinger starts a relationship with Polly Hamilton, a sometime prostitute looking for a better life.
Directed by Michael Mann, starring Johnny Depp and Christian Bale
Led by agent Melvin Purvis, the FBI hunts outlaws and bank robbers, including John Dillinger, Baby Face Nelson, Pretty Boy Floyd and the Barker-Karpis gang. (full review)
Directed by Clint Eastwood, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Arnie Hammer
As director of the FBI for almost fifty years, J. Edgar Hoover symbolized law enforcement to the nation. Viewed as a master of secrets, he actually struggled to keep secret his romantic relationship with Clyde Tolson, the assistant director of the Bureau. (full review)
Directed by Bruce Beresford, starring Emile Hirsch and Holiday Grainger
A young waitress falls in love with an outlaw, and they embark on a crime spree. (full review)
Public Enemies: America’s Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-34. Bryan Burrough, New York: The Penguin Press, 2004.
Pretty Boy: The Life and Times of Charles Arthur Floyd-Michael Wallis, New York: W.W. Norton, 2011.
Go Down Together: The True, Untold Story of Bonnie & Clyde-Jeff Gunn, New York: Simon and Schuster, 2010.
The Strange History of Bonnie and Clyde.-John Treherne, New York: Cooper Square Press, 2000.
Official and Confidential: The Secret Life of J. Edgar Hoover- Anthony Summers, New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1993.
J. Edgar Hoover: Secrecy and Power-Richard Gid Powers, New York: The Free Press, 1987.
The Vendetta: FBI Hero Melvin Purvis’s War Against Crime, and J. Edgar Hoover’s War Against Him-Alston Purvis and Alex Tresniowski, New York: Public Affairs, 2005.