Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Alvin Karpis: Pursuit of the Last Public Enemy

Arrest - Karpis's Version


Alvin Karpis, 1936 (AP)
Alvin Karpis, 1936

A vast quantity of literature exists about the FBI and J. Edgar Hoover. Not all of it mentions what happened that day in New Orleans. Where a rendering does appear, it often is limited to a brief paragraph. Nevertheless, in 1936 this event evoked front-page headlines on newspapers nationwide, with follow-up articles that continued for several days, and it did have an immediate, and seemingly long-term, impact on the main principals involved, including the FBI as an organization.

The exact role that FBI Director Hoover played in the Karpis apprehension has remained an issue of enduring interest and speculation since 1936.

Except for fragmentary 1936 newspaper reports, for the next thirty-five years only the Bureau account, or derivatives thereof, were available in books and articles about the capture. Then, in 1971, after his parole from prison, Karpiss autobiography was published, telling his story of the action.

Perhaps the two most specific arrest versions are from primary participants: Alvin Karpis and E. J. Connelley:

After he was paroled from prison in 1969, having served thirty-three years of a life sentence for the Hamm kidnapping, Karpis completed an autobiography in 1971 based on his tape-recorded memories, ending with his capture. Eight years later he also wrote a second memoir about his prison life on Alcatraz, which began with an account of the arrest. Karpis was attributed with total recall, and since he also had thirty-odd years to dwell on it, his arrest narrative is highly detailed,

From The Alvin Karpis Story by Alvin Karpis with Bill Trent and On The Rock the prison story of Alvin Karpis as told to Robert Livesey)

Some days before the arrest, he and Freddie became aware of individuals moving in and around that stirred their suspicions. Had the feds moved into the apartment above them? Were they being tailed? Or were they overly suspicious?

The afternoon it all came to a head, it was very hot. Karpis, without his jacket and gun, and Freddie went out to the car, which was parked on Jefferson Parkway.

I also noticed two guys on the sidewalk. They were beefy, tough-looking men in suits, both in their fifties. They didnt look like FBI men, and Freddie and I walked past them to the car.

I told Freddie that Id drive. I unlocked the door and slid behind the wheel. Freddie walked around to the other side and, after I opened his door from the inside, he climbed into the seat beside me. I wheeled down my window to get some air. Then I put the key in the ignition and turned it. I started to push the starter with my foot and, at that exact moment, a car cut sharply in front of our car and stopped at the curb. Five men climbed out very quickly.

For one brief, silly moment, I thought they were from a car pool and were just getting back from their offices.

Then I heard a voice at my window.

All right, Karpis, the voice said, just keep your hands on that steering wheel.

I turned my head slightly to the left and my temple bumped into the barrel of a gun. It was a .351 automatic rifle. I caught a quick glimpse of the guy holding the gun, and the thought flashed through my head that he fitted Freddies description of the guy whod come to look at the furniture.

I held my head steady, looking straight out the window. I had no choice. Two men were leaning over the hood of the car that had cut in front of us. Each of them was aiming a machine gun at my head. Three other men were crouched in the street. They had pistols, drawn and ready. None of these guys had yet bothered to identify themselves. But then I didnt need hints. The whole operation had FBI written all over it.

Out of the corner of my right eye, I could see Freddie sliding quietly out his door. Nobody paid any attention. He made it to the sidewalk and disappeared from my sight.

The guy with the rifle was getting more excited about me by the second.

Okay, Karpis, he said, get out of the car and be damn careful where you put your hands.

I slid out of the seat, keeping my hands in plain sight. I stood up on the street and, as I did, I heard voices call out from above me. I looked up and saw three or four guys leaning out of the windows of the apartment above Freddies. They were calling to the other agents.

Stop that man on the sidewalk, one of them was hollering. Stop him. Hes getting away.

He was talking about Freddie, who had made it about one hundred feet down the street. He was walking casually as if he had nothing to do with the whole messy business. But he hadnt walked far enough. He was caught. One of the guys with the machine guns sprinted after him and led him back to the group around the car...

I turned slightly and I was facing a man holding a Thompson machine gun. He was wearing a Palm Beach suit and a Panama hat and he looked cool and collected. He seemed to be in charge. (Note: this probably was David Magee)...

By that time, the action had attracted a huge crowd. There were a couple of dozen FBI agents and at least a hundred spectators. The commotion was terrific. But I could see that some of the men with the guns had turned their attention to another chore. They were looking over toward the corner of the building and they were waving their arms.

I heard one guy shouting, Weve got him. Weve got him. Its all clear, Chief.

J. Edgar Hoover with award for capture of Karpis, 1936 (CORBIS)
J. Edgar Hoover with award
for capture of Karpis, 1936

A couple of others shouted the same thing. I turned my head in the direction they were looking. Two men came out from behind the apartment. Theyd apparently been waiting in the shelter of the building, out of sight, while the guys with the guns had been leveling at Freddie and me. They began to walk across the lawn and sidewalk to the crowd. One was slight and blonde. The other was heavy-set, with a dark complexion. Both were wearing suits and blue shirts and neat ties. They walked closer, and I recognized the dark, heavy man. Id seen pictures of him. Anyone would have known him. He was J. Edgar Hoover.

I knew at that moment, for sure, that the FBI had finally nailed me.

The narrative went on to describe how none of the agents had brought handcuffs, so the cool guy with the machine gun took off his tie and that was used to bind the prisoners wrists. (A minimum of four people are credited with donating their tie: Clarence Hurt, David Magee, Hoover, and Karpis. The New Orleans newspapers reported it was David Magee.)

Public Enemy #1 was eventually put into a car driven by Clarence Hurt, with another agent sitting next to the right front door, and Karpis between them. Director Hoover and Tolson were at window seats in the back with Connie, who looked plenty scared, in the middle. They drove to the Bureaus New Orleans office where Hoover and Buchanan talked with the prisoner. First, Hoover asked Karpis if it was a relief that it was all over with. He replied that he was glad the tension was over, but he wasnt very happy about being caught. He wished silently for another five year run. Hoover also said, Youre lucky to be alive.

The first series of questions Hoover asked, which proved he had some of his priorities queued correctly, were intended to locate all the Karpis machine guns.

Concerning the arrest, Buchanan told Karpis, it could have been a lot worse! We were going to shoot that goddamn place apart when you surprised us by walking out the front door onto Canal Street. Lucky for you we had to change our plans rapidly. There were twenty six of us armed with every weapon from machine guns to those new gas shells...We had our execution squad out - rough, tough veterans who know their business...the two men standing in front of the apartment when you came out were Texas Rangers... Clarence Hurt was there too. They are all recruited because of their reputations in shootouts.

You did all right in this, Karpis. We knew you were in that ground floor apartment. We werent going in until we knew you were all dead...we planned to pull your bodies out, not take you alive...count yourself a lucky son of a bitch youre still alive.

The only substantial difference in the arrest details between the two Karpis books was that he claimed in the second book (and also in a television interview in 1976) that He not the agents - had been first to spot J. Edgar Hoover peeping around the corner of the building and then some of the agents followed his gaze and began calling out to Hoover that it was safe to advance.

It may be speculated that if the two fugitives had left the apartment via the Jefferson Davis Parkway door, which might have been a few steps closer to their car than the Canal Street exit, and/or the exact timing of the FBI car blocking in the Plymouth was delayed by mere seconds, allowing Karpis to start the motor and put the car in motion, then the result could have been a car chase through the streets of New Orleans. If Karpis and Hunter were a few seconds later in their exit, as Buchanan and Hoover said, they had an excellent chance of being killed in the FBIs armed invasion.


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