Saturday, May 7, 2011

#25: Public Enemies: America's Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI by Bryan Burrough

552 pp, New York: Penguin, 2004

I picked up this book because of another Burrough text I read a long time ago, Barbarians at the Gate. I grabbed that one after I saw the movie of the same name starring James Garner. It was about the RJR Nabisco merger. Burrough is a journalist, and this book, while quite long, reads like a newspaper article. The organization centers around an 18 month timeframe in which Baby Face Nelson, The Barkers, Machine Gun Kelly, John Dillinger Bonnie and Clyde and Alvin "Creepy" Karpis literally fought running gun battles with the FBI. All of their tales are wound together, and it creates some wonderful reading.

I never really knew just how close in proximity and time all of these people were. I had some vague notion that "in the 1930s, they all robbed banks." All committed robberies in the Industrial Midwest down to Texas. All were operating at the same time, several of the groups were connected (Nelson, Dillinger and the Barker/Karpis groups most closely) and the "G-Men" chased them down. Some interesting items emerge, however.

1. Ma Barker, whom Burroughs describes as a "cranky old hillbilly", was actually gunned down by the FBI in what amounted to cold blood. She never robbed a bank and was guilty, if anything, of 'living off the ill-gotten gains of her sons." What she really liked was jigsaw puzzles. J. Edgar Hoover invented her identity as a criminal mastermind out of whole cloth (490-500 in the book, stories sprinkled throughout.)

2. I actually like Alvin Karpis. He is probably the criminal that I knew most about before reading this book, and he is presented as certainly the most intelligent person (FBI or otherwise) in the text. It is not unwarranted, as the description of his planning and cool head in robberies certainly put him if not in a sympathetic light, at least a more or less respectful one. Karpis, while hiding out in Cuba, went as far as to take Ma Barker there for a few days so she could fish and take in the beach. Like I say, a better man than most of her sons.

3. Bonnie and Clyde really come off as a couple of hick kids turned jackass turned murders. There is really nothing quite romantic about Bonnie and Clyde in the book. One thing that shocked me is that while Karpis and the Barkers were knocking off three banks in 1933 at roughly $40-70,000 each, Bonnie and Clyde's biggest haul was for a little more than $5000. They specialized in drugstores. One could not help but think of that line from the Coen' Brothers epic Raising Arizona, where John Goodman says "Hi, I know you're partial to convenience stores, but the sun does not rise and set on the corner grocery." I hate to say it, but I was actually happy to see them ambushed. Burroughs convincingly argues that the fame of Bonnie and Clyde is 95% Hollywood and 5% achieved. Thanks for the movie, though, Warren. And no, Bonnie was no Faye Dunaway in the looks department, weighing in at 95 pounds and 4'10.

4. Machine Gun Kelly was henpecked, and his wife thought he was an ass. His trail across Arkansas and Memphis, with his wife paying a family to pass messages to him, is sad yet quite funny. Take $50 and go to town to talk to someone? Hell, yes! I'll just stop at the bar and the whorehouse and be back in three days. This actually happened.

5. Dillinger seems downright charming. But we already knew that. He and Karpis both seem like decent enough fellows, not cold blooded killers like Baby Face Nelson or psychotic drunks like Fred Barker.

6. If it can be said that there is a tragic figure in this book, it is Melvin Purvis, the man who brought down Dillinger and Pretty Boy Floyd. Hoover was angry at him for several failures (notably the shooting of two innocent bystanders in Wisconsin and several boneheaded non-following up with witnesses) but hated him most for garnering publicity. Burroughs writes that Purvis is not mentioned once in the official FBI history commissioned by Hoover, nor did the Bureau make any mention of his service following his death in the 1960s. It is as if Hoover wanted him excised from the records, and he did. You see, if it was one thing you didn't steal from Hoover (besides his feather boa) it was the limelight. Hoover is a shadow in this book while the outlaws are in the light from the beginning; the more the reader sees Hoover, the less the reader likes him.

Lastly, the subtitle "Birth of the FBI" is no mistake. When it started the manhunt in 1933 following a shooting in Kansas City, it had no jurisdiction, few if any of the agents had any weapons training and it was, for lack of a better term, amateur hour. Burroughs does an excellent job of interweaving complaints from criminals AND local law enforcement about the ham-handed tactics of the Feds and illustrates their multiple failures while showing how they learned from crime to crime. Overall, a good and quick read.

1 comment:

  1. Ironically, Robin and I just received from Netflix "Public Enemies" from 2009 with Johnny Depp and Christian Bale, directed by Michael Mann. Haven't watched it yet, so your post was perfectly timed to prep us for the truth behind Hollywood's characterization of these guys.