Public Enemy # 1 – John Dillinger

January 25, 2008

We’ve all heard of the FBI, the agents depicted in books, movies and television. Sometimes it’s hard to separate the fact from fiction.  There was a time when the FBI was just a small, unknown department of the government instead of the law enforcement entity that creeps along the edges of our civil liberties.  Here is a little history about the FBI that writers can incorporate into their next novel.  At the very least, they’ll be able to impress friends at the next dinner party. 

Based on the documentary: 18 Months of Mayhem, January 2008  

June 17 1933, convicted bank robber, Frank Nash was on his way back to prison after he escaped. He never made it. Gunmen shot down Nash at the Kansas City Union Station, along with four officers and 2 others were injured.  Newspapers called it the Kansas City Massacre.  It was just the beginning of an 18 month crime spree.   The government appeared helpless to stem the tide of crime or the depression.  Law enforcement was local, town and county, with few state agencies and no Federal law enforcement. President Franklin D. Roosevelt turned to an understaffed unit of the government, the Federal Bureau of Investigations. 

J. Edgar Hoover was appointed head of the FBI and he staffed the bureau with agents who had little or no law enforcement experience. John Dillinger was an experienced criminal by the time he walked into a bank in Daleville, Indiana on July 17, 1933.  He was a high school drop out and military deserter when he robbed a shopkeeper.  He received 10 years in prison and he used the time to fine tune his criminal skills. He learned to case a bank for days or weeks, gathering information on security rounds, vault systems and escape routes.  Dillinger robbed small town banks, putting many out of business.   

John Dillinger

Oklahoma City July 22, 1933, Charles Hirshel was kidnapped by George Barnes, AKA Machine Gun Kelly.  Barnes was a college educated, middle class man who got involved in boot legging during the depression.  He and his wife, Katherine, collected $200,000 for Charles Hirshel just 8 days later.  Katherine’s mother was arrested in connection with the crime, so Katherine tried to make a deal to exchange George for her mother.  Even though the deal was refused, the FBI had a lead on the couple’s whereabouts. They were captured in Memphis, on September 26, 1933. 

George (Machine Gun Kelly) and Katherine Barnes

On September 22 in Dayton Ohio police moved in on a tip to apprehend Dillinger and he was taken in without a fight.  On October 12, he was busted out of jail by friends from prison. The men took police issue weapons and bullet proof vests from the police station.  Dillinger settled in Chicago, going to nightclubs and spending money lavishly.  He continued to rob banks in surrounding towns to finance his lifestyle. 

Masses of people were out of work and homeless. Farmers fled to the West, their farms seized by banks, their crops destroyed by drought.  The public began to romanticize the criminals and Dillinger made a point of keeping the people on his side, tearing up deeds and giving patrons cash from the robbery.  Movie heroes of the day were gangsters.  In January 1934, the nation got its first look at John Dillinger in movie theater news reels. He became a rock star of the era.  He had a likeable demeanor and played to the cameras. Dillinger was taken into custody again, but like Houdini, he was master escape artist.  He was on the cover of every newspaper in America.  Hoover and his national police force became a laughing stock and enhanced Dillinger’s legendary status.  Hoover issued a kill order for Dillinger.   

Without his gang, Dillinger began robbing banks with Baby Face Nelson. George Baby Face Nelson robbed banks, using a Thompson Sub Machine Gun and he didn’t hesitate to use it.   He was born Lester Gillis and spent most of his life institutionalized.  He earned an illegal living, moving moonshine and mugging people on the street.   

The FBI’s Chicago office became the largest field office, headed by Agent Melvin Purvis.  Receiving a tip that Dillinger was Wisconsin, a dozen agents were assembled and sent to apprehend him.  Three innocent bystanders were shot by overzealous agents, which alerted Dillinger and Nelson to the FBI’s presence.  After a brief shoot out, the criminals escaped.   Gangsters tried to remove their fingerprints with acid or attempt to reconstruct their faces to hide their identities.  Dillinger had surgery, and felt confident appearing in public, despite being named Public Enemy Number One and having a $15,000 reward issued for his capture.  

 Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow were notorious partners in crime.  The two robbed mom and pop establishments, killing six men along the way. Clyde had spent hard time in prison and he vowed he would never go back. On July 19, 1933, in Platte City, Missouri, Bonnie and Clyde were armed with assault rifles and plenty of ammunition during a stand off with police.  They were able to escape. A local farmer spotted the gang days later in Iowa and notified law enforcement of the gang’s whereabouts.  Once again, the high fire power allows to the gang to escape capture.  

Bonnie and Clyde took on legendary status when photos of the two were leaked to the press. Tired of running, Bonnie and Clyde settled down, hoping for a new start.  Instead, a former gang member set a trap for Bonnie and Clyde in exchange for parole.  The two were killed in an ambush on May 23, 1934. 

Bonnie and Clyde

 Dillinger was shot execution style on July 22, 1934, by an agent coming out of a movie theater.  His death marked the end of the 18 month crime spree that swept through the nation.  The FBI became a recognized force in America. Only Machine Kelly wasn’t killed by law enforcement. 

Melvin Purvis resigned from the FBI after Dillinger’s death.