Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Book Recommendation: "Public Enemies: America's Greatest Crime Wave And The Birth of the FBI, 1933-34"

Since I read New York Times review for Bryan Burrough's "Public Enemies: America's Greatest Crime Wave And The Birth of the FBI, 1933-34" in 2004, I've wanted to read the book.

A few weeks ago, my son Adam and I went to see the movie that was extremely loosely based on the book. As much as I like Michael Mann as a filmmaker, the movie can't hold a candle to the book.

The book is an account of the crime wave in the early years of the Great Depression that gave rise to the FBI as we know it. Because they had better guns and cars-- at least in the beginning-- than law officers, and the police had limited jurisdiction to pursue the criminals once they left the municipality they committed the crimes in, this new breed of criminal was very difficult to catch.

The criminals were mostly bank robbers, preying on the banks of the rural midwest. But the crime that precipitated the formation of the FBI as a national police force was the "Kansas City Massacre" on June 17, 1933. A group of criminals, who were unknown at first, attempted to retrieve bank robber Frank Nash, who had been arrested in Hot Springs, Arkansas, and was being escorted by a group of law enforcement officers-- the chief of police of McAlester, Oklahoma, two Kansas City, Missouri policemen and some FBI agents-- to Kansas City, Missouri, where he would be driven to and remanded to Leavenworth Federal Prison.

Unkbeknown to the law officers on the train, word had leaked out that they were escorting Nash, including the plan to take him on a night train to Kansas City; there were news stories about it. Several criminals, headed by bank robber and occasional sydnicate hit man Verne Miller, plotted to meet the train.

In a twist of fate, as they got off of the train, the law officers put Nash in the front seat of the car, rather than the back. The car was surrounded, and a shot was fired. The car and the lawmen in and around it-- and Frank Nash-- were riddled with gunfire. When it was over, Kansas City police officers Red Grooms and Frank Hermanson were dead, as was McAlester, Oklahoma chief of police Otto Reed. FBI agent Ray Caffrey was dead-- as was the criminal Frank Nash, who was killed in the opening salvo. Miraculously, two FBI agents survived-- Joe Lackey, though badly wounded, would survive and participate in the ensuing "War On Crime." Reed Vetterli, who had been in the car, had, incredibly, been barely scratched.

Thus began the "War On Crime." The FBI, an obscure federal agency, with officers who did not even carry guns, catapulted, in less than two years, to a national police force with a mandate to wipe out the epidemic of bank robberies plaguing the country.

The book is fascinating and extremely well written. Burroughs weaves the tales of a disparate, but sometimes overlapping group of "yeggs"-- bank robbers. It's a story of alternating bungling and brilliant police work and crooks who were sometimes incredibly incompetent. As a Chicagoan, it was particularly enjoyable, because so much of it took place here. There was one account of the police nearly catching John Dillinger as he sought medical treatment at a physician's office at Irving Park Road and Keeler (near where the Kennedy Expressway passes over Irving these days). Sensing the trap, Dillinger backed blindly onto Irving Park Road-- a very risky proposition, as someone familiar with the area would know-- and gunned his car eastward on Irving, turning onto Elston and escaping. This is just a few blocks from my home; I pass through this intersection all the time.

The cops and the crooks were fascinating. Dillinger was very concerned about his public image, trying not to harm anyone-- though he did kill one law officer. His sometimes-partner Lester Gillis, aka "Baby Face Nelson," was not at all concerned about harming law enforcement officers; in fact he went out of his way to try to kill them. He was, in fact, responsible for the death of the highest-ranking FBI official ever killed on duty. Yet, this sociopath was a doting father and loving husband.

Because of J. Edgar Hoover's preference for young, college-educated men to fill the FBI ranks, the FBI was initially at a disadvantage in pursuing criminals; even after they were allowed to carry guns. They lacked basic law enforcement skills, such as setting up raids-- this was painfully evident with their failure to arrest Verne Miller here in Chicago; more on that in a moment-- gathering evidence, setting up stake-outs, following leads, etc. Fortunately, Hoover brought in experienced law enforcement officers, mostly Southerners, who quickly remedied this. Their help was crucial.

Burroughs' biggest indictment in the book is of Melvin Purvis. Purvis had no law enforcement experience before the FBI, and was a poor choice to lead the War On Crime. Burroughs insinuates that it was Hoover's (unrequited) attraction to Purvis that made Hoover choose him. Eventually, Purvis' incompetence became painfully apparent even to Hoover, and an FBI administrator, Sam Cowley was brought in to supercede Purvis. Cowley was outstanding, but was to pay the ultimate price for his service.

One of the parts of the movie that was roughly historically accurate was the attempt to capture Verne Miller in a Chicago hotel, the Sherone Hotel, which still stands, at Sheridan and Montrose. The FBI was in a race to capture Miller, who was the prime suspect in the Kansas City Massacre, with the mob, which now considered him a liability.

On November 1, 1933, Miller was staying at the Sherone with his girlfriend Bobbie Moore, when an informant tipped off the FBI. Agents checked into a room on the same floor that they suspected Miller was staying. In an odd twist, Doris Rogers, who was the secretary for the Chicago FBI office, was brought in to identify Miller; she'd met him when he was a deputy sheriff in Huron, South Dakota, where she'd grown up.

Miller was identified, and an agent made a sign to move in on Miller. The agent who was supposed to be watching for the signal missed it, and Miller sensed that he was in trouble. He bolted, running out a side entrance-- right past two FBI agents. The agent who was supposed to signal them had forgotten to do so. Miller and Moore got into his Moore's car and took off. A state trooper fired a machine-gun burst into the car-- the first time a law-enforcement ever fired a machine gun in anger within Chicago city limits-- but Moore, who was driving, kept her cool. They got away, and abandoned the car a few blocks away.

Witnesses saw them get out of the car and hop a fence into the backyard of a building on Clarendon Avenue. It would turn out, in a bizarre coincidence, that this was the building that John Dillinger was then living in.

Miller's luck ran out on him a few weeks later; he was murdered, presumably by the sydnicate.

"Public Enemies" is full of these odd crossings of criminals and the law enforcement officers who pursued them. It's meticulously researched and particularly well written. I highly recommend it.


Erik Donald France said...

Thanks for this great review -- thoroughly enjoyed it.

I think it was We're in the Money that discusses how the public image of public enemies and G-men changed from Hoover to FDR, reversing order from good to bad and from bad to good.

Churlita said...

I don't read a lot of non-fiction, but your review makes me want to read that book. Fascinating.