Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Life and Career of J. Edgar Hoover

The Gangster Era

America was obsessed with sensational crime in the early 1930's. The flamboyant bootlegging empire of Al Capone was larger than life. Newspapers and magazines and movies celebrated the crimes and the criminals. Law enforcement looked dull and ineffectual, along with the rest of government. The stock market crash had plunged the nation into the Depression and President Herbert Hoover did not seem to be able to do anything about it.

The real excitement began in 1933 when a wave of crime swept over the mid west. Names like John Dillinger,"Machine Gun" Kelly, "Pretty Boy" Floyd," Baby Face" Nelson and " Ma" Barker captured the imagination of millions of Americans. The media had turned these criminals into romantic figures and popular Robin Hood characters. When some of these criminals robbed banks they also destroyed the mortgage and loan records, thereby rationalizing their crimes by helping out the "little guys" who faced the loss of everything they had during the Depression.

J. Edgar Hoover was not amused by the glorification of these murderers and thieves. He saw it as a "challenge to law and order and civilization itself."

Attorney General Homer Cummings was mulling around ideas about an American version of Scotland Yard and the concept of a national police force, but he realized that it would have been impossible to implement. Instead, he saw the Bureau as providing leadership for local police forces and a model for them to follow.

On June 17, 1933, four of the Bureau's special agents and three cops were escorting bank robber Frank "Jelly" Nash to Leavenworth when three men with machines guns ambushed them at Union Station in Kansas City. Four of the lawmen were killed, including one special agent, and two were wounded. Nash was also killed in the attempt to free him.

Hoover was quick to seek justice. Congress was with him and passed nine major crime bills that gave Hoover much more authority and money. No longer were the special agents just investigators with law and accounting degrees. Hoover started to add men with who were comfortable making arrests and chasing after criminals, pistol in hand.

A major opportunity arose when George "Machine Gun" Kelly and his wife kidnapped oilman Charles Urschel on July 23, 1933. Kelly got his $200,000 ransom demand and let Urschel go, but Urschel was able to help the Bureau agents figure out that he had been held on a farm near an airport. These and other clues helped the Bureau's investigators find the farm. The agents picked up one of the kidnappers and got a lead on where the Kellys were. Finally in September, agents surrounded Kelly on a farm and he surrendered without firing a shot.

The newspapers loved it. The Bureau was taking on a whole new image with the American public.

John Dillinger before jail break<br />(UPI/Bettman)
John Dillinger before jail break
(UPI/Bettman)

The Bureau's biggest case began when Special Agent Melvin Purvis contacted Hoover on March 3, 1934, after the famous John Dillinger escaped from jail. Hoover was more than happy to mount a full scale operation to catch this brazen desperado. For the next two months, the wily Dillinger slipped through the Bureau's carefully set traps. Then Purvis got a tip that Dillinger and five of his gang members were hiding in Little Bohemia, a resort in Wisconsin.

As the agents converged on the lodge in the area, a dog started to bark and three men ran from the lodge, trying to escape in a car. As they drove away, the agents fired on them, killing one and seriously wounding the others. The men were not part of the Dillinger gang at all, but only locals out for drinks.

By this time, Dillinger and company knew something was up and got away through a back window. Later, Baby Face Nelson, one of Dillinger's gang, met up with three of the lawmen and drew his gun before they knew what was happening: one special agent was killed, another wounded, along with a local cop.

Melvin Purvis (left) with Hoover<br />(UPI/Bettmann)
Melvin Purvis (left) with Hoover
(UPI/Bettmann)

The fiasco was very painful to Purvis and even more so to Hoover. Hoover took a deep breath, doubled the resources on the project and increased the reward to $10,000.

Several weeks later, Purvis got another break. Anna Sage, a madam in Chicago, agreed to turn over Dillinger for the reward and some assistance with her deportation order. She and her girlfriend were going to a movie with Dillinger the next evening. Purvis had the theater surrounded.

When Dillinger walked out of the theater with the two women, either he saw the agents or sensed something was wrong. He ran down the alley next to the theater. The hail of gunfire brought him down. Public Enemy Number One was dead.

The press really took notice this time and looked upon the death of Dillinger as a critical crossroads in the war on crime. Purvis got all the glory and Hoover resented it. He had intended for the Bureau and himself to get the praise. To Hoover's annoyance, Purvis then had the gall to then track down Pretty Boy Floyd and kill him. This time, the pictures had Hoover and Purvis, but Purvis was not forgiven. Hoover was very tired of seeing headlines about Melvin Purvis in bold type.

Purvis didn't seem to get the message and set his sights on Baby Face Nelson. As the agents closed in on Nelson, a gun fight erupted which ended in the death of agents Sam Cowley and Herman Hollis. Purvis vowed he would get Nelson and he had: Nelson died shortly after the gun fight from wounds he sustained from the agents.

Hoover was very jealous of publicity. He never forgave Purvis for hogging all the glory for the gangster killings. Eventually Purvis was harassed until he resigned from the Bureau. Even after he left, Hoover interfered with the jobs he tried to get. Purvis committed suicide in 1960 with the same gun he used when Dillinger was shot. Powers saw Hoover's behavior as an example of "the cold inhumanity of Hoover's hatred toward anyone who had, in his estimate, threatened him or the Bureau... Only absolute loyalty satisfied Hoover; the smallest slight was likely to be interpreted as treachery." Melvin's widow thanked Hoover for not coming to his funeral.

Hoover himself was very capable of accepting credit that belonged to someone else. In 1932, when Charles Lindbergh's infant son was kidnapped and murdered, Hoover wanted to play a role in catching the kidnappers, but was essentially told by the head of the New Jersey State Police, Norman Schwartzkopf (father of the Desert Storm Schwartzkopf) to mind his own business.

The very clever Elmer Irey, head law enforcement officer for the Treasury made sure that the ransom money included many gold certificates with registered numbers. In 1933, the U.S. went off the gold standard people needed to exchange their gold certificates for other currency.

In the interim, the Lindbergh Law had been passed giving the FBI jurisdiction in kidnapping cases. Hoover persuaded Roosevelt to give the Bureau sole jurisdiction in the Lindbergh case and pull Irey and the Treasury agents off the case. When the kidnapper was finally captured, it was not due to any scientific investigation on the part of the Bureau, but rather the fact that a service station attendant wrote down a license tag number on the back of the gold certificate used to buy gasoline.

Hoover rushed to New York for the photo opportunity when the New York City Police Commissioner announced the arrest of Bruno Hauptmann. While the Bureau had done almost nothing on the case, Americans were led to believe that master detective J. Edgar Hoover had triumphed once again. TheLindbergh Kidnapping is a feature story in The Crime Library.

FBI-endorsed movie<br />(National Archives)
FBI-endorsed movie
(National Archives)

The studios in Hollywood did not stand idle when through all of this excitement. A whole series of G-man movies were produced, starting in 1935. The media hero was J. Edgar Hoover. Some of the film adulation was because the stories were popular and fresh in the minds of Americans, but also because new censorship laws only allowed gangsters on the screen if they were being captured or killed by FBI men.

The most important of these unexceptional movies was Jimmy Cagney's G-Men. The impact on Hoover and the Bureau was enormous. Hoover was now Public Hero Number One. The public saw the Bureau as an agency unto itself, not just a part of the Justice Department.

Hoover couldn't let well enough alone. He wanted to control the story lines for an upcoming radio series called "G-Men." The only problem was that Hoover had no dramatic sense and substituted scientific sleuthing for action and adventure. The series did not survive.

Hoover and Tolson at the studio<br />(National Archives)
Hoover and Tolson at the studio
(National Archives)

1936 brought the "War on Crime" comic strip and pulp magazines glorifying the FBI. One was called G-Men and another one was called The Feds. All of these ventures treated Hoover as a national hero. It began to go to his head.

Hoover was delighted at the publicity and the dashing image of himself and the Bureau. Journalist Courtney Cooper wrote some twenty-three feature stories romanticizing the adventures of the FBI agents for American Magazine. "Cooper's FBI was a crime-fighting machine whose effectiveness, which verged on omnipotence, was completely the result of J. Edgar Hoover's leadership: his care in selecting and training his agents, his skill in leading them, the technical facilities he had assembled to interpret evidence. The feats of agent derring-do, the miracles of crime lab wizardry..." (Powers)

Hoover leading Karpis into Federal Building<br />(National Archives)
Hoover leading Karpis into Federal Building
(National Archives)

To further this image as the master detective and daring man of action, Hoover decided that he would go after a couple high-profile criminals himself. In 1936, Alvin Karpis, the last of the Barker gang, was Public Enemy Number One. In April of 1936, Hoover and Tolson flew to New Orleans on a tip that Karpis was hiding out in an apartment there. Once the agents had the situation in hand, Hoover came in to make the arrest. The actual arrest was made by agents Clarence Hurt and Dwight Brantley.

The thrill of being in on the capture and the wonderful headlines and photos that followed brought Hoover into the field the following week. He went to Toledo to lead the capture of Harry Campbell, another Karpis-Barker gang member.

Tolson takes in Harry Brunette<br />(National Archives)
Tolson takes in Harry Brunette
(National Archives)

When Hoover was in New York in December of that year, special agents happened to corner bankrobber Harry Brunette in an apartment. Hoover was immediately brought to the scene and given command. A thirty-minute shoot out came next and Hoover made the arrest himself.

In 1937, Hoover captured Louis "Lepke" Buchalter, the gangster who was the head of the notorious Murder, Incorporated. With Hoover's friend Walter Winchell acting as middle man, he negotiated the surrender of Lepke, who was led to believe that he had a deal with Hoover. Lepke turned himself over to Hoover in exchange for a ten-year sentence. There was no such deal in reality and Thomas Dewey, the New York State attorney general, made sure that Lepke was convicted of murder and executed for it.

Hoover and the FBI had entered a new phase: the celebrity era. Hoover was a national hero and a force to be reckoned with. He began to see himself as the guardian of the country's laws, citizens and morals.

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