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In the Depression Era, Gangsters' Spree Prompted Rise of the "G-men".

Michael Hedges covers defense and security issues for the Houston Chronicle's Washington bureau.


By Bryan Burrough

Penguin Press, $27.95, 592 pages, illus.

It all seems almost quaint these days, when terrorists have killed thousands and threatened even worse horrors with weapons of mass destruction. But seventy years ago, a collection of colorfully nicknamed banditos like Pretty Boy Floyd and Baby Face Nelson so terrorized our grandparents' generation that the public demanded something be done.

It was the so-called war on crime of the 1930s, touched off in 1933 with a heartland shootout that became known as the Kansas City Massacre. And like the war on terror of today, the war on crime provoked a major federal response, and lots of controversy.

At the time, most people felt the federal government had no business mixing in law enforcement. The FBI was an obscure set of unarmed bureaucrats within the Justice Department, led by an earnest, ambitious clerk named John Edgar Hoover. And criminals like the Ozarks bumpkin Charles Arthur Floyd and the Indiana farm boy John Dillinger were viewed with ambivalence by Depression-ravaged folks who figured that if they were giving hell to the bankers who foreclosed on homes and land, they couldn't be all bad.

That was all about to change. In a remarkable span of about a year and a half, hyped by hyperventilating newspapers, the FBI emerged as a potent symbol of federal authority. The public cheered the G-men (Government men) as they took the war on crime to the increasingly outmaneuvered desperadoes.

The relationship between outlaws like Bonnie and Clyde, Ma Barker and Alvin "Creepy" Karpis and the rise of federal law enforcement in America is vividly chronicled by veteran journalist and writer Bryan Burrough in Public Enemies: America's Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-34. Burrough documents, in day-by-day detail, the escapades of the six important criminal gangs that made headlines during the period, those led by Dillinger, Floyd, Clyde Barrows, Lester Gillis (known by his alias Baby Face Nelson), George Barnes (dubbed Machine Gun Kelly) and the Barker-Karpis gang. He takes the signature events of the period- -the shootout at the Kansas City train station that took the lives of federal lawmen, high-profile kidnapping cases, the ambush of Dillinger in Chicago--and subjects them to the rigorous analysis of a gifted investigative reporter.

Refreshingly, Burrough doesn't romanticize his subjects. The glamorous lovers of Arthur Penn's 1967 movie Bonnie and Clyde and the tough but noble Dillinger-like character portrayed by Humphrey Bogart in 1939's High Sierra were, of course, Hollywood fantasies. Burrough gives us a more gritty, human portrayal of sociopathic, desperate lives.

The author also gives a more balanced portrayal of Hoover than many who have written about the architect of federal law enforcement. Burrough shows Hoover's mean-spirited side, his pettiness and self-absorption. But he also documents his energy, professionalism and vision, something critics of the man sometimes ignore.

One of the book's revelations is the amount of interplay between the gangs. And Burrough shows how brief the period of the Depression outlaws really was. Most were totally unknown or regional obscurities before 1933. Most were dead by the end of 1934.

Americans have long been fascinated by the country's two great eras of outlawry: The post-Civil War wave of Western criminals on horseback, like the James and Dalton gangs, Billy the Kid and John Wesley Hardin, and then the 1930s kidnappers and bank robbers who upgraded to machine guns and Ford coupes.

Writers before Burrough have described the blurring of the lines between the guys wearing black hats and those in the white hats. John Toland wrote about the symbiosis between the 1930s gangsters and the FBI in his book Dillinger Days in 1962. And there was a lurid but fascinating effort called The Bad Ones by Lew Louderback in 1968, which was short on original scholarship but hammered the point that the Hoover FBI in the early 1930s used the press to elevate a collection of kill-crazy thugs to cult status, assuring the bureau's rise to prominence.

But Burrough manages to offer quite a bit that is new. He found a remarkable number of period documents and family reminiscences to give the bad guys of the period color and texture. He obviously spent a lot of time in the archives of the FBI, reviewing material that had been classified until the 1980s. He also unearthed documents like an unpublished one thousand-page transcript of reminiscences by Alvin Karpis that gives a day-by-day log of the Barker-Karpis gang in 1933 and 1934.

From all his research, Burrough is able to offer fresh looks at some of the events that have remained mysteries for crime buffs of the period: Was Pretty Boy Floyd really a shooter during the Kansas City Massacre? Did Chicago cops sell out John Dillinger instead of the "Lady in Red"? Did the G-men really murder Pretty Boy Floyd?

Some readers will find the book's intricate, diary-like account of the various gangs' activities confusing and ultimately repetitive. And in the interest of showcasing his previously unpublished research, Burrough gives too much attention to the loosely constructed Barker gang and the "brains" of that outfit (it is a relative term), Creepy Karpis.

Also, he ropes Bonnie and Clyde into his narrative, when they really don't fit. They were regional outlaws whom the FBI largely ignored. But they've become too rooted in folklore for one writing about the period to ignore them. That aside, readers interested in the rise of federal government power and control during the Roosevelt era will find this an entertaining angle on that subject. And for those of us who feel a sordid attraction to the lifestyles of the doomed and dangerous, Burrough provides a fresh banquet of information.

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Title Annotation:Public Enemies: America's Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-34
Author:Hedges, Michael
Publication:World and I
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 2005
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