Saturday, October 3, 2009

Public Enemies

Public Enemies details the depredation of the famous criminals during 1933-34. Without the activities of those criminals, particularly John Dillinger, the FBI would not have become the all-powerful national police force.

In the beginning J. Edgar Hoover was a minor official in the Justice Department. With a keen sense of how he could advance his position he picked the investigatory arm of the department to be his vehicle for advancement. The original investigators had no police power and didn’t carry weapons. When they were told by Hoover to go after a particular criminal they had to enlist the help of local law enforcement.

Hoover did not like the results that he saw from his operatives. From his headquarters in Washington, D.C. Hoover sent memoranda, notes and phone calls to various members of his investigatory team. They, in turn, were expected to keep Hoover informed of every turn of events in the case they were pursuing.

The critical event in the development of both Hoover and the FBI came when the Valentine’s Day massacre occurred. This was a golden opportunity for the national news coverage to be turned to his advantage. The only problem was that there were few leads and no suspects.

In the meantime, Dillinger was gearing up to become the notorious bank robber that history has recounted. Some of the other “yeggs” (a term that was used by the criminals to identify themselves) that were not as well known but almost as destructive to local banks were Machine Gun Kelly, Baby Face Nelson, the Karpis/Barker gang, and Pretty Boy Floyd.

With the use of the Thompson sub-machine gun by the criminals local law enforcement with their .38 caliber pistols and shotguns were outgunned. Hoover decided after much haranguing that his men would have to be armed as well. The only problem was that they had little training in the use of firearms and even after training they were incompetent in the use of the weapons.

As their stakeouts and shadowing’s continued the FBI men made some costly errors that resulted in innocent people being gunned down and yeggs escaping to maraud the countryside again.

One man who was getting a lot of publicity (much to Hoover’s dislike) was the man in charge of the Dillinger hunt, Melvin Purvis. Even though the newspapers thought Purvis was doing a great job the truth was that he was a sloppy and somewhat incompetent leader. If he had done all the things that the papers said he did Hoover would have been even more incensed at Purvis.

Hoover finally sent a somewhat nondescript man to be Purvis’ boss. Hoover didn’t bother to tell Purvis that he had a new boss and the relationship went on in a very murky fashion with men not knowing whether their orders were “official” or not.

The gunning down of two very petty gas station and grocery store robbers who lived in their car or camped in the rough: Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker sensationalized the hunt for the marauders of the Midwest.

Since the heat was on many of the yeggs lit out for less heated space, ending up in Reno Nevada and San Francisco.

Ultimately the call of the home territory brought the criminals back to the Midwest and ultimately to a very bloody end. Dillinger was betrayed by a girlfriend and killed near the Biograph Theater. The others died ignominious deaths from multiple gunshot wounds except for Alvin Karpis who was tried, convicted and sent to Alcatraz to spend many years for his crimes.

The book is a fascinating and thoroughly documented look at a short period in American history in which one of the most well known of Federal institutions got its start.

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