By Bryan Burrough
This is the longest post I’ve ever made on my blog. But I feel justified in the length: consider this book review an historical overview designed to benefit anyone who wants a primer on the “public enemies” era in U.S. crime-fighting as prep for this summer’s upcoming movie Public Enemies.
My brother Reed, currently a medical student at Emory University, is the serious fan of True Crime in our family. But I’m a History major from my college days, so a serious book on the history of crime can grab my attention without much effort. Especially when a film version from Michael Mann will come out in July. And so I read this book and its narrative of the “public enemy” phase in U.S. crime that shocked the nation and saw the FBI under its über-god J. Edgar Hoover come to maturity. All this, and John Dillinger, Baby Face Nelson, the Barker Brood, and those sneering adolescents Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow.
Burrough covers the events in a strict chronology, and my overview follows the same path. I don’t review nonfiction often (or often enough), and it requires a different approach, as “spoilers” no longer apply. Since I read this book partially to prepare for the movie, I’ll provide the names of the actors who will play some of the notable parts in brackets.
Ostensibly, Burrough wrote Public Enemies to explore more than the criminals, most of whom have already received major biographies. This is a macro-study in the popular history style to show how the FBI grew out of this series of Midwest spree criminals.
In the early months of the War on Crime, we see Hoover’s men botching stakeouts, losing suspects, forgetting orders, and repeatedly arresting the wrong men—their mistakes would be comical if not for the price paid by the innocent. But deep amid the thicket of reports and correspondence, many of them festooned with Hoover’s tart, handwritten comments, one can literally see the FBI grow up. The agents learn how to use guns, establish professional methods, and recruit informants. Above all, this is a book about how the FBI became the FBI. (Introduction, xiii; emphasis mine)Despite Burrough’s claim of putting the primary focus on the FBI, the criminals still dominate most of the book.
Chapter 2 launches into the heart of the story; after a first chapter describing the earliest, inchoate forms of the FBI, and putting J. Edgar Hoover [Billy Crudup] in a position where he needs a major event to secure his job in the new Roosevelt administration, Burrough throws us into the tangle of events that leads to the shooting that ignites the War on Crime: The Kansas City Massacre, where Verne Miller’s attempt to spring pal Frank “Jelly” Nash from Fed custody ended up as “the second-deadliest murder of law-enforcement officers in American history, and it shocked the nation” (Chapter 2, 49–50). As a rescue, it was an utter bungle because Nash ended up dead as well. However, this chapter doesn’t only detail the events of Nash’s arrest and the shootout, but gives a panorama of the other major spree-criminals, all operating at the same time: Bonnie and Clyde, Baby Face Nelson [Stephen Graham], Pretty Boy Floyd [Channing Tatum], the Barker-Karpis gang (Burrough dispatches the myth of Ma Barker’s criminal genius, a story that Hoover hatched; the true genius was Alvin Karpis [Giovanni Ribisi]), and the first bank robbery by a young Turk named John Dillinger [Johnny Depp]. It’s quite an assembly of characters, and Burrough makes palpable the sense of destiny flying toward the sub-machine guns of Kansas City. In these two chapters, the reader is prepared for a new kind of war to shake the nation.
However, as Chapter 3 demonstrates, it wasn’t an overnight declaration. FBI agents were mostly green college boys, and many didn’t even know how to fire guns. But the spectacle of the Kansas City killings saved Hoover’s job, and the reorganization of the FBI turned into a major part of the New Deal’s centralization of government offices. One of the first “victories,” however, ended up as nothing of the sort. Chicago’s Special Agent in Charge (SAC), Melvin Purvis [Christian Bale], arrested the people responsible for the kidnapping of Minneapolis brewer William Hamm. No one would realize for years that Purvis had arrested the wrong men. As the reader knows from tracking events in the second and third chapters, the Barker-Karpis gang pulled the kidnapping. Still, the arrests looked like a success, and it brought to attention Purvis, a handsome “southern gentleman” who would play a large part in the War on Crime and experience a slow fall from grace. Chapter 3 concludes with Machine Gun Kelly kidnapping a rich oil man, Charles F. Urschel, opening up yet another front in the FBI’s new war.
Kelly, whose real name was George F. Barnes, was the “most inept” of the criminals of the era—something of a goof who got a great nickname and later a 1958 movie starring Charles Bronson. Hoover targeted Kelly’s wife Kathryn as the evil harpy behind the man’s crimes, and this also appears to be a fabrication. (Kathryn would, however, betray her husband the moment the Feds arrested them in September 1933.) The kidnapping of Urschel captured public attention. Hoover transferred Gus T. “Buster” Jones, San Antonio SAC and one of the more experienced “cowboy” agents in the Bureau, to the case; this caused a drain on the Kansas City Massacre investigation, but Jones did manage to find out that the Kellys were behind the kidnapping after the ransom was paid and Urschel returned. Unfortunately, and this is part of what Burrough emphasizes, Jones at first ignored the Dallas branch’s evidence of the Kellys’ involvement, and moved onto the wrong track. The FBI was fortunate in this case, but they needed good luck in these early bungling stages. In the following chapters, the FBI seemed to deliberately ignore evidence and leads, and Hoover tried to cover up this ineptitude years later in a flood of memos.
Meanwhile, John Dillinger continued to rob banks, but he was still below the FBI’s and the public’s radar, with only an Indiana Police Detective, Matt Leach, working to pin the string of robberies on him.
In Chapter 5, we first meet Lester Gillis, a.k.a. “Baby Face Nelson,” a figure whose early history remained a mystery to many of the historians who covered this period, although Burrough goes into depth on what is now known about the wild killer outlaw. Nelson loved guns, cars, and gratuitous violence: “. . . he was to earn—and wholeheartedly deserve—a reputation as the most violent of the Depression-era outlaws, a manic multiple-murderer who drew disdain even as Dillinger and Pretty Boy Floyd attained the status of folk heroes” (Chapter 5, 99).
The chapter closes with a huge event: the FBI apprehending Machine Gun Kelly. The term “G-Man” may have gotten coined at this moment, although Burrrough’s research shows it wasn’t Machine Gun Kelly who coined it, but his wife Kathryn. But Burrough is clear on the implication of this arrest:
Machine Gun Kelly was the first nationally known fugitive the FBI had ever captured, and his arrest marked a turning point in the Bureau’s history. It furthered the notion that there existed a realm of larger-than-life supervillains loose in the land, popularized the idea that the nation was actually at war with these criminals, and catapulted the Bureau into the public consciousness as the nation’s proxy in that war. (Chapter 5, 133)In between this, the Barker-Karpis gang robbed the Chicago Federal Reserve Bank, killed a cop, and got away with fifty pounds of mail by mistake. Oops. It wasn’t only the FBI screwing up.
Burrough’s narrative now turns for the first time explicitly toward John Dillinger and provides his background before he burst onto the national scene. Dillinger had helped smuggle guns into the Indiana State Prison in Michigan City to spring some of his buddies, but he ended up in prison himself in Lima, Ohio. His freed pals, including Harry “Pete” Pierpont [David Wenham] and John “Red” Hamilton [Jason Clarke], broke Dillinger from the Ohio prison, and formed a new bank-robbing gang. During the gang’s sojourn in Chicago, filled with nights in movie theaters (Dillinger was a huge film fan) and nightclubs, Dillinger and Evelyn “Billie” Frechette [Marion Cotillard] started to fall in love. The Chicago lollygagging ended in a car chase and shootout after an insurance agent informed on Dillinger to the local police. The gang then made their first famous bank robbery, the American Bank and Trust Co. in Racine, WI. Although witnesses remembered Pierpont as in charge during the robbery, the strange support for Dillinger as a kind of charming working-class hero originates here:
Like most of his peers, Dillinger was an avid reader of his own press clippings, and one suspects [his] penchant for niceties has less to do with good manners than with an increasing awareness of his own public image. Dillinger knew how the public tended to celebrate daring bank robberies, and he craved its adulation. He got it. . . . Dillinger was quickly perceived by many Midwesterners as a force of retribution against moneyed interests who had plunged the nation into a depression. Letters of support began popping up in Indiana newspapers. (Chapter 7, 165–166)The FBI finally caught up with Verne Miller, perpetrator of the Kansas City Massacre. Except he was dead. Murder, Inc. and Frank Nitti [Bill Camp] had gotten to him first; the mob didn’t appreciate that the manhunt for Miller interfered with their business. At this point, “capturing armed fugitives was a skill the men of the FBI would only learn after funerals” (Chapter 7, 179). As the year 1933 ended, the FBI had gone through an extended training session, and Burrough paints the coming year as when Hoover moved the War on Crime onto the national stage. Most of the criminals would not survive to the New Year.
We now have our five major criminal groups who will grab the public eye: the family of kidnappers (Barker-Karpis), the fugitive lovers (Bonnie and Clyde), the charismatic escape artist (John Dillinger), the psychotic killer (Baby Face Nelson), and the misunderstood country boy (Pretty Boy Floyd). Sorry, Machine Gun Kelly, but you’ve been served already and will spend the rest of your life in prison.
At the start of 1934, and Burrough’s Chapter 8, three of the gangs made major moves. Barker-Karpis kidnapped Edward Bremer in St. Paul. Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker formed a new gang when they broke some confederates out of a jail in Texas. And Dillinger’s gang struck an East Chicago, IN bank, resulting in Dillinger shooting down and killing a cop—an event that bothered him as a glaring mark against his “hero” image. Dillinger and his three partners in the robbery retreated for a vacation in Tucson. Amazingly, the Tucson police did what the FBI so far couldn’t: they captured the entire Dillinger gang in only a few days. The Arizona governor ordered Dillinger extradited to Indiana to stand trial for the murder of police Detective O’Malley in the East Chicago robbery.
Anyone who knows something about Dillinger’s history will anticipate what’s ahead: the famed Crown Point escape. Chapter 9 is appropriately titled “A Star Is Born” because it shows how Dillinger went from a popular bank robber to a legend, a charmer who could work the press: “The unhurried way he chewed his gum, the easy quips, the lopsided grin, the poise, the obvious charisma—it all made a powerful impression on a group of reporters accustomed to tight-faced syndicate gangsters. But then John Dillinger, more than any other Depression-era criminal, had star-quality.” Is it any wonder that the film version of this book will focus mostly on Dillinger, and that Johnny Depp will play him? (The film couldn’t center on Bonnie and Clyde. They’ve already got a film that you may have heard of. Burrough suggests, however, that some of Clyde Barrow’s uncharacteristic behavior at this time stems from trying to copy Dillinger and nab some of his popularity.)
Dillinger got a slick, showboating lawyer, Louis Piquett [Peter Garety], who became the criminal’s enabler and associate. Of course, Dillinger never went to trial. Chapter 10 provides a meticulous account of Dillinger’s March 3 escape from Crown Point Prison, apparently using a wooden gun to force the guards and the warden into the cell block where he locked them up. The only other prisoner who aided him was Herbert Youngblood [Michael Bentt]. Burrough deals with the “wooden gun” issue in a footnote, accepting that Dillinger did use a wooden gun, but that someone had smuggled it in, possibly Art O’Leary, Piquett’s investigator. Now there’s a lawyer willing to go the extra distance for a client.
The freed Dillinger first returned to Chicago, then headed to Minneapolis to join forces for the first time with Baby Face Nelson. On March 6, only three days after Dillinger’s escape, the new gang hit a bank in Sioux Falls, SD, and got away with $46,000. Nelson already started throwing tantrums and threatening people almost at random. “It is unclear whether Dillinger realized he was joining forces with a psychopath” (Chapter 10, 244). This ought to be good.
The book approaches the halfway mark, and the FBI at last begins to come together. “The hunt for John Dillinger would become the most important case in FBI history. More than any other single event, it would validate the Roosevelt administration’s push for a national law-enforcement authority and enshrine the Bureau as an American institution” (Chapter 10, 247).
After a shoot-out with Dillinger and his men in St. Paul, Hoover moved the Dillinger-hunt to primary importance, and agents started to pour into Indiana for the search, for the first time paying attention to Dillinger’s family. (Seriously, they were not watching them until this point.) At the same time, Bonnie and Clyde barreled toward their meeting with the Texas Ranger who had dedicated himself to tracking and exterminating them, Frank Hamer (best known as played by Denver Pyle in the 1967 movie).
Melvin Purvis captured Billie Frechette in Chicago, although Dillinger managed to escape again. The Dillinger case landed in Purvis’s court. Hoover sent a handwritten note to Purvis: “Well, son, keep a stiff upper lip and get Dillinger for me, and the world is yours” (Chapter 11, 291). Premonitions of the ‘83 Scarface!
Chapter 12, “Death in the North Woods,” details one of the key events in the Dillinger Saga: the Manitowish, WI shootout, a.k.a. “The Battle of Little Bohemia.” The entire Dillinger gang (Dillinger, Nelson, John Hamilton, Tommy Carroll [Spencer Garrett], Homer Von Meter [Stephen Dorff]) hid out in the Little Bohemia Lodge in Manitowish, but the owner’s wife, after she realized the identity of her guests, managed to get word to the authorities. Melvin Purvis and an FBI caravan descended on Little Bohemia in the largest raid the Bureau had so far attempted. They bungled it completely, managing only to shoot to death an innocent worker from a Federal work camp nearby, injuring two others, and letting all the gang members escape. Baby Face Nelson, in his usual good mood, shot and killed one of the agents. This was not Melvin Purvis’s shining moment—and it reflected poorly on the entire Bureau. Hoover soon replaced Purvis with Sam Cowley [Richard Short] as the head of the Dillinger investigation. Hoover also realized the weakness of many of the Bureau’s operations was the young agents’ unfamiliarity with firearms. He started putting together a “cowboy” squad—and it seemed obvious the purpose was no longer to catch Dillinger, but kill him.
“Dillinger-mania” now reached its apex:
That underdog quality, underscored by the widely published photos and interviews at Crown Point, struck a chord in a country in which many felt slighted by the government. In Chicago and New York moviegoers applauded when Dillinger’s face appeared in newsreels. Detective magazine polled theater owners and found Dillinger was drawing more applause than Roosevelt or Charles Lindbergh. (Chapter 13, 345)However, as the Dillinger gang spread out in different directions—detailed in Chapter 13—they did suffer a casualty. John “Red” Hamilton received mortal wounds in a car chase shootout. Dillinger got him to Chicago and the Barker-Karpis gang, but it was too late for Hamilton.
The second half of this chapter describes the end of Bonnie and Clyde, slain in an ambush arranged by Frank Hamer, whose men pumped a hundred a fifty bullets into the couple’s car along a Louisiana road. They would not turn into legends, however, until the film in 1967. A film that would make pumping a hundred and fifty bullets into a human being look so damn cool.
Dillinger stayed in Chicago, and after some plastic surgery altered his features, he started living it up a bit in public, even going to the movies and Cubs Games. Eventually, with Van Meter and Baby Face Nelson, he robbed the Merchants Bank in South Bend Indiana, an event that almost ended in Van Meter’s death.
Anyone with some familiarity with the Dillinger story will know that it will conclude in the chapter that Burrough titles “The Woman in Orange.” The woman is Ana Sage [Branka Katic], a Romanian immigrant who had managed a series of brothels and roomed with Dillinger’s new girlfriend, Polly Hamilton [Leelee Sobieski]. Dillinger moved into their apartment on North Halstead, and Sage decided to go to the FBI when she received threats of deportation. She met with Melvin Purvis, and agreed to tip off the Bureau the next time she went out with Dillinger and Polly to the movies in return for being allowed to remain in the U.S. (She got deported anyway. Thanks, Melvin.)
July 22. “John Dillinger Day” to the John Dillinger Died for You Society in Chicago. The Biograph theater. The ambush set up by Purvis and Cowley. Ana Sage’s signal by wearing an orange dress (which appeared red in the lights). Burrough’s writing here has the suspense crackle of a fictional thriller, the highlight of the book:
For years afterwards the agents on the sidewalk would remember those next few seconds as if in slow motion. Turning forward, Dillinger appeared to lean into a crouch. At the same time, he slid his hands into his pants pocket, reaching for his .38. Behind him, [agent Charles] Winstead pulled his .45. Hurt and Hollis pulled their guns as well. Dillinger broke from the women [Hamilton and Sage] and took a step or two forward, as if to run for the alley that opened ten feet in front of him. He never had a chance. (Chapter 15, 408)Winstead [Stephen Lang] fired three bullets into Dillinger, including the killing shot to the head. The End.
Well, not exactly. The book still has a hundred a fifty pages left, but I think we can safely say we’ve reached the climax of the book Public Enemies and the coming film version.
An aside you can file under “Bleakest Ironic Reporting Ever”: The day after the shooting, a Nazi newspaper in Germany published a criticism of the FBI’s actions. “Is a cop calling a man by his first name before shooting him down a sufficient trial? Does a country in which this happens still deserve the name of a country of law and order?” Because, you know, the Nazis were very interested in fair trials. Ask Sophie Scholl. (Chapter 15, 411.)
Baby Face Nelson and his gang hid out in various northern California towns, moving around campsites. Alvin Karpis had tried to get out of the “business” after the Berman kidnapping and lay low; the Barker-Karpis gang was almost a non-entity at this point. The cops gunned down Homer Van Meter in an alley (exactly how he once said he didn’t want to die) in St. Paul. And the FBI at last obtained solid leads connecting Pretty Boy Floyd to the Kansas City Massacre a year after the event that started the “War on Crime.”
Let’s check the scorecard:
- John Dillinger: Dead.
- Bonnie and Clyde: Really really really dead.
- Homer Van Meter: Ironically dead.
- Alvin Karpis: Trying to live a normal life. (Snicker, snort.)
- Baby Face Nelson: Camping. Preparing to die gruesomely form seventeen bullet wounds in the next chapter.
- Machine Gun Kelly: Doing life.
- Pretty Boy Floyd: Getting close to getting dead in the next chapter.
- Melvin Purvis: Receiving nasty memos from Hoover and doing paperwork.
- Adolf Hitler: At large, rumored to be leading the government of a major country.
“Who tipped you I was here?” [Floyd] asked in a lucid moment. Several times he tried to rise. The East Liverpool men held him down. Floyd was fading fast. “F--k you,” he said at one point. At 4:25 he said, “I’m going,” and died. (Chapter 17, 468)In a footnote, Burrough dismantles the later rumor that the FBI assassinated Floyd by shooting him in the chest as he lay immobile. The event brought Purvis back to heroic attention, which aggravated Hoover.
Now it’s time for the second major slaying of Chapter 17. Baby Face Nelson and John Chase got pinpointed on the road from Lake Geneva, WI, and engaged in a car chase and shootout with Sam Cowley and agent Herman Hollis (one of the agents at the killing of Dillinger). Cowley and Hollis shredded Nelson with seventeen bullets, but both received mortal wounds as well. Astonishingly, Nelson managed to escape in Chase’s car with his friend behind the wheel and made it back to his wife Helen before dying on November 27. Chase dumped Nelson’s body in a ditch, where the FBI located it the next day. Both Cowley and Hollis died in the hospital—with Purvis nearby and still getting press attention and ticking Hoover off to no end. But, “for decades to come, Hoover held up Cowley as the ultimate FBI man, quiet, hardworking, and dedicated. He remains the most senior agent ever killed in the line of duty” (Chapter 17, 483).
Here is one place where I feel certain that the film Public Enemies will alter the timeline of events. In the trailer, the viewer can hear Johnny Depp as Dillinger say to Melvin Purvis, “I always wanted to meet the man who killed Pretty Boy Floyd.” A tough task, even for John Dillinger, considering that Floyd died in October and Dillinger in July. My guess is that the film will move the chase and killing of both Floyd and Nelson up in time so the story can conclude with Dillinger, while allowing more action sequences (the shot of the car crash in the trailer must be from Nelson’s fatal finale) and make Purvis more prominent. I have no problem with this sort of change for film drama. It’s only a movie, after all, not a documentary.
Chapter 18 is titled “Last Man Standing.” If you glance back at the scorecard, you’ll know this means Alvin Karpis and what remains of the Barker Gang. (I’m discounting Hitler for the moment.) If anyone would last to end, it would be Karpis, the smartest and most cautious of the public enemies. Karpis fled to Havana, and with his pregnant girlfriend Delores hopped back and forth between Cuba and Florida. The FBI tracked Fred and Ma Barker to a house in Florida and killed them in a shootout. Hoover started his spin that Ma Barker was a true criminal mastermind in order to make the Bureau’s shooting down of an old woman not look so nasty. Hoover held onto the Ma Barker myth for the rest of his life. The chapter concludes with Alvin Karpis’s desperate getaway from Atlantic City, leaving behind Dolores, due to have her baby any day. Karpis—pragmatist to the last. And now, he was the last.
“Pas de Deux,” the last chapter before the Epilogue, begins with a great epigram from Alvin Karpis: “I made Hoover’s reputation as a fearless lawman. It’s a reputation he doesn’t deserve. . . . I made that son of a bitch” (qtd. in Chapter 19, 515). Although Karpis was the last of the “public enemies” at large, the first section of the chapter explores the explosion of the FBI legend. The combination of the James Cagney film “G” Men and the book Ten Thousand Public Enemies raised the Bureau to the level of superstars in the eyes of America. Purvis remained a heroic figure, but he resigned from the FBI in June 1935 because of Hoover pressuring him.
An era had passed. There would be no more of this sort of American outlaw for the simple reason that there was no more outdistancing the law; the FBI could go anywhere. . . . No one felt the winds of change more acutely than Alvin Purvis.
* * *
For the Bureau, the story of the Karpis manhunt is one of the least flattering chapters in the War on Crime. There was an air of lethargy and anticlimax to it from the start; none of the agents could get too excited about risking their lives in one last battle of a war they had already won, and it showed. (Chapter 19, 521 & 528)But Hoover needed the arrest; pressure on him from the Washington political scene made it imperative not only that the Bureau arrest Karpis, but that Hoover do it himself. The final nab happened in New Orleans, 1 May 1935. Hoover liked to tell the story that he pulled Karpis up by the collar from his car, but it appears more likely he strolled onto the scene after the other agents made the arrest. But it was enough for Hoover to make headlines for grabbing the last of the spree criminals. The War on Crime was over, and the FBI has turned into a powerhouse with a national celebrity at its head and movies starring Jimmy Cagney.
The book Public Enemies opens with a prologue from the view of an unidentified man, a former criminal, living his last days in Spain in 1979. The epilogue reveals that man is—as I suspected from the first—Alvin Karpis. Paroled in 1969, he moved to Spain in the ‘70s and died there from an accidental overdose of sleeping pills in August 1979—managing to outlive Hoover. Much of the rest of the Epilogue details the eventual fates of the many players in this story. Hoover maintained his anger against Melvin Purvis. In 1960, Purvis died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound; whether suicide or accident remains unknown. Hoover lived in the ghosts of the glories of the War on Crime far into the later era of the FBI, when scandal and abuse of power haunted it. Hoover died in 1972.
The epilogue is also Burrough’s thematic wrap-up. As much as the public enjoyed the exploits of men like Dillinger, they saw the victory of the FBI in the War on Crime as a victory over the Depression, evidence of the effectiveness of the New Deal. But “the most important legacy of the War on Crime is the modern FBI. Everything the Bureau has achieved since, every crime it had solved, every abuse its overzealous agents committed, sprang from the powers it accrued during the War on Crime” (Epilogue, 545). Burrough then closes his book with a dip into the too poetic as he describes the various graves of criminals; it’s a rare spot when his vivid journalistic style veers to much toward the sentimental.
So now I come to end of my extremely long overview of Public Enemies, more a guideline for history and watching an upcoming movie than an analytical review. It’s a fascinating book, only lagging in places where the FBI and the criminals start to lag, and some of the gusto of the tale deflates when Dillinger, its star, dies. I’m not convinced that Burrough took us on the ride he promised—the rise of the FBI—since its growth seems to happen in a sudden spurt near the end. Except for the opening chapter and the last few, the FBI takes a back seat to the criminals, which is different from what the author proposed in the opening, “to reclaim the War on Crime for the lawmen who fought it” (Author’s Note, xiii). The novelistic introduction with Karpis reliving events from his aged retirement in Spain is a chapter Burrough could have dropped without hurting the historical narrative at all, since it never “pays off” and stylistically feels out of place.
These criticisms aside, Public Enemies is a gripping popular history, with as wild a dramatis personae as you could want from your True Crime book.