Bank robberies. Kidnappings. Stolen cars. Criminals hiding out in safe houses. A corrupt police force. 1933. St. Paul, Minnesota.
What? I know—when you think of crime hubs in the 1930s, you probably first think of Chicago, New York, Kansas City, maybe. But St. Paul, one of the mild-mannered, cheery Twin Cities, a hotbed of criminal activity? You bet the submachine gun in the backseat of your 1933 Packard it was.
At the depths (or height) of the Depression, with the Dust Bowl causing additional misery, a crime wave struck the middle of the United States. Bryan Burrough’s Public Enemies: America’s Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI,1933-34 tells the story of the most prominent gangs of the period. The parallel story is that of the fledgling Bureau of Investigation that, Burrough theorizes (more about that word later), during this time grew from a loose assembly of bumbling neophytes to a tight crime-fighting unit that eventually won J. Edgar Hoover’s war on crime. By the end of the book, all the major players, and many minor associates, are dead or in prison.
And the major names are familiar ones—Machine Gun Kelly, the Barkers (with their lesser-known but much more competent cohort Alvin Karpis), Pretty Boy Floyd, Baby Face Nelson, Bonnie and Clyde, and most importantly, John Dillinger. Working with them were a number of down and out types who brought along a variety of skills: good drivers and even better shots, quick mechanics, bar and hotel owners who could offer hideouts, and a seemingly endless parade of sleazy doctors who could clean up bullet wounds and perform gory plastic surgery. And of course they were all accompanied by hard-luck women for whom a bad man was better than no man
Most of their stories were the same—a petty crime at a young age, a meeting in prison with more hardened types who easily became mentors, promises to help each other when they got out (and sometimes help in getting out). And again, it was the Depression. It’s so hard now for us to put ourselves in the shoes of people living in that time period, when the poverty was like nothing we see now and the despair and sense of hopelessness was even worse. In 1933, no end was in sight. Why not turn to crime? It didn’t seem like there was any legal way to survive anymore, let alone get rich. The high risk of getting caught was worth it compared to the potential payoff. With a little experience, a good plan, and the right group of accomplices, a life of crime seemed worth the gamble.
Then there was the excitement. Life was pretty bleak if you couldn’t scrape up the money for a night at the movies and it didn’t seem like it was going to get much better. Stealing cars and holding up banks could not only make you rich—it also gave you a sense of power and a rush of adrenaline. Once you got used to that life it was hard to give it up. Many a bank robber talked about one last score, followed by retirement to Florida, Cuba, Europe, Mexico, Australia. But they were easily brought back, to help out a friend, to add just a little bit more to the nest egg. For many, though, it was just a thrill (and for their associates, too—one criminal was tracked down when the FBI intercepted a letter from his giddy new wife telling her friend how much fun she was having and why don’t you join us?).
And if there was any kind of worry about right and wrong, robbing banks made it easy to justify a crime: they were taking money from greedy, undeserving banks, not from ordinary, struggling folks.
Burrough centers his book around a massacre in Kansas City’s Union Station in June, 1933. The shoot-out resulted in the deaths not only of Frank Nash, a criminal who was being transported by federal agents, but also several of the agents. The FBI, at that time known simply as the Bureau of Investigation, had an unclear mission; there weren’t solid rules about when and where they were allowed to step in. Local police forces didn’t want them interfering. Worst of all, Hoover had constructed a force of bright, quick, clean-cut young college graduates, all admirable in their own way, but without a lick of crime-fighting experience. Still, Hoover seized upon the murder of the agents (killing a federal agent wouldn’t become a crime until about a year later) as an opportunity to declare a war on crime.
As the Bureau begins to feel its way through the investigation of the Union Station massacre, Burrough introduces the various gangs that were striking their way across the Midwest and to some degree, the South. Machine Gun Kelley and his wife Kathryn, who picked up a Dust Bowl escapee family, including their young daughter, while on the lam and drove around with them for a while, using the family members to run errands and deliver messages (yes, this did eventually get them in trouble). This type of thing seemed to happen throughout the crime wave, unsuspecting people getting sucked into the lives of America’s Public Enemies. Lost gang members showed up on random doorsteps looking for food, a place to sleep, directions. Relatives of friends of friends of relatives of gang members suddenly found themselves operating a virtual safe house, with feds showing up, always a beat late, but with plenty of questions. A criminal needed a car, grabbed the car and the person inside and for a while the driver would lead a life of adventure, lucky if all that happened was the loss of a car and a long walk home from the middle of nowhere.
The action cuts back and forth between the Kellys, the Barkers, Pretty Boy Floyd, and documents the rise of Baby Face Nelson and John Dillinger, particularly Dillinger’s rise from small-time accomplice to folk hero. Bonnie and Clyde worked more in the south and remained mostly a regional story, barely gaining any notice until their deaths in a bloody shootout. It’s no secret by now that the 1967 movie vastly overdramatized their lives and their impact; they weren’t even trailed by the Bureau agents, but rather by Frank Hamer, a retired Texas Ranger who was hired by the head of the state prison system specifically to track down the Barrows (Bonnie barely registered until she was recast as Faye Dunaway). Clyde Barrow was so desperate for attention that he even tried copying Dillinger. Dillinger had developed a sort of “I’m for the little guy,” Robin Hood kind of rep after telling bank customers during a robbery, “We want the bank’s money, not yours,” and allegedly handing back money that a customer had had on the counter in front of a teller. Barrow tried the same thing, but with much less effect. Chicago was a bigger market than Dallas.
As the various gangs pull off bank robberies and kidnappings (very much en vogue, post-Lindbergh), Burrough tracks the Bureau’s efforts to hunt them down. Debacle would be too soft a word for many attempts. Law enforcement 101 was apparently not in session: known associates were questioned and released, but not tailed; family members (and seemingly all criminals checked in with family at some time) weren’t put under surveillance; hangouts that were known to harbor criminals on the run weren’t put under watch. In the worst disaster, an inn in Wisconsin where Dillinger and Nelson were staying was raided by a number of agents, and the result was all gang members escaping (except for a few wives and girlfriends who were typically released and then not followed), but several bystanders and agents were killed. The agents arrived in the area without a plan. Really. No plan. They just surrounded the inn and waited and began shooting aimlessly at the first sign of movement. No one alerted the local police. No one set up a roadblock or put out any kind of watch. It was a huge embarrassment for the Bureau (luckily for the FBI’s place in history, the CIA was on the horizon…).
They were eventually bailed out by the Chicago shootout that resulted in the death of Dillinger, who by then had become such a folk hero that newsreel footage of him was cheered by movie audiences. The Dillinger take down, though, did not happen because of excellent detective work; rather, it was largely the result of a number of sources coming together at the right time, including the probable involvement of a corrupt Chicago cop and an immigrant madame who was on the verge of deportation and anxious to win points that might help her stay in the country (no luck—she eventually was shipped back to Romania).
Once Dillinger fell, though, the others began to come down too, often dying hard deaths. A Dillinger associate who vowed that he wouldn’t be killed in a shootout in a filthy alley did indeed meet exactly that end. Others, such as the trigger-happy, dangerous Nelson, spent their last hours bleeding to death in the backs of car seats. Floyd was shot running through a cornfield. The Barkers were killed in a bloody shootout in a house in Florida (Ma Barker, a not-too-bright, nonentity who wasn’t involved in her sons’ crimes, was demonized by Hoover as the mastermind of the gang in order to deflect criticism about her death). Some, such as Kelly, one of the Barkers, and Karpis, spent decades in jail. Girlfriends, doctors, drivers, and relatives served sentences of differing lengths.
I liked the structure of this book. It can occasionally be a little confusing to keep track of all the different places and events on the timeline, but I never got hopelessly lost (I did also benefit, though, from being able to read this in large consecutive chunks). You can lose track of minor associates and girlfriends who pop in and out but that doesn’t really matter. Weaving back and forth this way allows you to see how the main players and places were to some degree connected and part of a larger landscape.
The book also benefits from the thousands of pages of FBI reports that Burrough used for research. The conversations and descriptions are from the actual players, not made up or guessed or supposed. As you would expect from the time and situation the dialogue seems to have stepped out of a 1930s movie (in reality, the movies followed the turn of the tide from early films that lionized gangsters and robbers to those that glorified the newly nicknamed “G-Men).
At the end of the book, Burrough brings up the question of whether there really was a crime wave of such proportion that the Bureau had to organize a “war on crime.” In recent years, some have made the case that the situation was overblown, an attempt by Hoover to create a need for a Bureau that had been looked down on. Burrough comes down on the side that the war on crime was necessary, as it put a break on a general sense of lawlessness that was growing at the time. It’s hard to make a judgment call on this, though, because Burrough doesn’t spend a lot of time giving a general portrait of life around the crime wave, and of the reaction to it. He mentions some things about newspaper coverage, such as how it took Dillinger to make the bank robberies into a national story, not just a Midwestern one. But though there is plenty of words and testimony from the criminals and FBI agents throughout the book, there is little reaction from any bystanders or outsiders. After a while, it’s easy to feel like everyone from Chicago to Florida was involved with crime or criminals. This may be out of necessity—there probably aren’t a lot of witnesses left and they may not have left much of a record behind. Burrough may also have wanted to keep the narrative clean and focus solely on the criminals. But as I said, this just makes it difficult to judge how much impact the crime wave had outside the immediate victims.
The other problem I had was that the arc of the book was supposed to show the evolution of the Bureau of Investigation from beginners to experienced crime fighters. Obviously by the end of the story, 1934, they had success—all the major players were dead or in jail and certainly the latter raids didn’t have nearly the ineptitude of the early ones. But they also did involve a fair amount of lucky timing (not to mention the inability of some of the criminals to quit while ahead), and outside involvement. Remember, Bonnie and Clyde were taken down by a complete outsider. The trail to Karpis was led by postal inspectors. Chicago and New York mob syndicates, angered by all the attention the bank robbers were bringing to their towns, murdered some of the bank robbers. So while the bureau improved, I don’t know if they necessarily executed a complete turnaround. Sometimes things just run out of time and come to an end anyway.
And of course, that’s what I should do. My criticisms are minor. All in all a fun, fast-paced read that I rather enjoyed. Bad guys often make the best stories, don’t they?