Skip navigation

John Dillinger, George Nelson, Homer Van Meter, Harry Pierpont, Alvin Karpis, George Zeigler, Fred and Arthur Barker.  All of these names were once constantly on the tongue of the American populace.  Today, many do not recognize their names or realize the impact they had on us.  These men were not important political figures, they where not the leaders of big businesses.  They were thieves, murderers, kidnappers, and bank robbers.  They carried nicknames like “Old Creepy”, “Babyface”, “Doc”, and “Shotgun”.  In short, these were some of the most dangerous individuals to ever live in the United States.  Even worse was when the grouped together and ran from one end of the country to the other, committing crimes throughout the Midwest.  These men had their heyday in the early 1930s.  These men were the gangsters.  The effect they have had on the United States is a simple but powerful one.  If not for the actions of these gangsters; the modern police force we know as the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) would not exist.  Their history and the history of modern policing are intertwined with one another.  The following stories are about two of the gangs involved in that period, and how the FBI and police forces had to change to cope with the challenges brought on by these highly mobile and exceedingly well armed gangs.

John Dillinger, born June 22, 1903, was the biggest star of them all in the world of the Midwest gangs.  His trouble with authority in general started at a young age.  When, as leader of a youth gang known as the Dirty Dozen, he was arrested for stealing coal.  Dillinger was the only child in the group to not be intimidated by the judge in juvenile court.  When the judge ordered Dillinger to take off the slouch cap he was wearing and spit out his chewing gum, Dillinger took the gum from his mouth and stuck it onto the top of his cap.  Another example of his inevitable future against the law was in his childhood hero, legendary western outlaw, Jesse James.  John Dillinger had one quality many of the other outlaws lacked, charisma brought on by his massive confidence.  When going to prison, for the first time at only 21, for a grocery store robbery, John told the superintendent, ‘I won’t cause you any trouble except to escape’.  As expected, Dillinger did not keep his word.  Between the years of 1925 and 1931, he racked up such charges as gambling, fist fighting, having a razor in his cell, destroying prison property, smuggling food into his cell, defying prison regulations, and multiple escape attempts.  Prison proved fruitful for Dillinger in that is where he met two men that would eventually make Dillinger the known man he was and is; Harry “Pete” Pierpont and Homer Van Meter.  Both Van Meter and Pierpont were transferred to a separate prison from Dillinger, Van Meter for “degeneracy” and Pierpont for an escape attempt.  In an example of either Dillingers charisma or the legal systems lackluster performance Dillinger managed to get transferred with them, under the reason that the prison had a better baseball team.  In this new prison, Michigan City penitentiary, Dillinger was shown the technique of bankrobbing by the prisoners already incarcerated.  In 1933, Dillinger was paroled and walked a free man again.  Dillinger ran with a few other robbers and netted enough money to plan and pull off a breakout of Van Meter, Pierpont, and the other robbers that taught him the trade.  This first Dillinger gang only lasted a few months before Dillinger was arrested in Tucson Arizona, for the murder of officer William Patrick O’Malley in a bank robbery in Gary, Indiana.  In the well known “Wooden Gun Escape” Dillinger fled from prison and set out to create a new gang fast.  The man that was chosen first was Lester Gillis.  Known to the world as George “Babyface” Nelson.

Lester Gillis was known as a mental case, trigger happy, psychopath, who would kill for the fun of it.   A story showcasing Gillis’ psychotic tendencies is from a bank robbery from his days with Dillinger.  During the robbery, while Dillinger was busy coercing the teller to give up the money, Gillis was patrolling the people in the crowd.  One man laughed out of either nervousness, or of the sight of the rather short (5’2”) and young looking Gillis carrying a shotgun.  Either way, Gillis turned to the man and yelled ‘Quit laughing, you.’ before shooting him point blank in the chest.  Gillis also frightened the other members of the “Nelson gang” as he called his and Dillinger’s gang.  They would allow Gillis to count and divide the take so he wouldn’t feel “short changed” and possibly kill the other members.  It was also Gillis’ that had a large part in the FBI’s first major blunder in their tracking of the gangsters, the battle of Little Bohemia.  Little Bohemia was a small hotel in Wisconsin where the gang hid out briefly.  As the gang was readying to leave, the FBI arrived to capture them.  During the ensuing gun battle one agent was killed, one wounded, and one injured, all by Lester Gillis while the FBI wounded two civilians and killed another.  None of the gangsters were arrested in the attempt.  As the effects of Little Bohemia drove the FBI to train more and become a police force rather than an investigative one, the agents lack of training in basic raid and firearms procedure was one of the major problems with Little Bohemia, Little Bohemia would prove to be the undoing of the Nelson-Dillinger gang.  After the battle the gang split ways, eventually leading to the murder of John Dillinger by FBI agents near the Biograph theatre in Chicago in 1934.  I call it a murder since an unarmed Dillinger was shot four times from multiple angles.  The death of Lester Gillis went less smoothly for the FBI.  Gillis was run off the road into a field in Ohio by two agents, Inspectors Cowley and Hollis.  Gillis and his partner, a man named John Paul Chase, opened fire on the two agents, who fired back.  In a final show of his utter insanity, Gillis stepped forward and walked straight towards the two agents.  While his legs and abdomen were being torn apart by the crossfire, Gillis held his aim.  He ended in killing both of the agents.  Chase put Gillis, who although shot seventeen times and at least several in vital organs was still alive, into the agents car and drove to a priest in the nearest town over.  Lester Gillis, the man even the other gangsters feared, was dying.  His last words were said to have been ‘I’m hit’.  And with him, the Dillinger-Nelson gang was finally ended.

The other big name at the time, although not nearly as well known now, was the Barker-Karpis gang.  Forgotten today, the gang was one of the most dangerous groups the FBI ever tracked,as the following quote from J Edgar Hoover, head of the FBI during those years, said.  ‘Ma Barker and her sons, and Alvin Karpis and his cronies, constituted the toughest gang of hoodlums the FBI ever has been called upon to eliminate…Looking over the record of these criminals, I was repeatedly impressed by the cruelty of their depredations…murder of a policeman …murder of two policemen ….machine gun murder of an innocent citizen who got in the way during a bank robbery …kidnapping  and extortion…train robbery…mail robbery …the protection of high police officials bought with tainted money…paroles bought.’.  Contrary to what Hoover said, however, “Ma” Barker did not lead the gang.  In all actuality it was Alvin Karpis.  Who refuted the claim of a criminal Ma in his autobiography, The Alvin Karpis Story, saying ‘The most ridiculous story in the annals of crime is that Ma Barker was the mastermind behind the Karpis-Barker gang…the legend only grew up after her death…to justify how she was slaughtered by the FBI…She wasn’t a leader of criminals or even a criminal herself. There is not one police photograph of her or set of fingerprints taken while she was alive…she knew we were criminals but her participation in our careers was limited to one function: when we traveled together, we moved as a mother and her sons. What could look more innocent?’  Even with the two conflicting reports, most criminal scholars have sided with Karpis on the issue of Ma Barkers criminal abilites.  Her sons, on the other hand, were described as ‘natural killers’ by the other members of the gang, most notable Karpis, who was very vocal about his criminal activities in his later life.  Karpis was a career criminal from the age of ten, his most notable features being his cold stare and photographic memory.  After his release from prison in the fifties, for the last time in the total of 33 years he had spent in various prisons over his life, he took time to reflect on his “career” stating.  ‘My profession was robbing banks, knocking off payrolls, and kidnapping rich men. I was good at it. Maybe the best in North America for five years from 1931-1936.  In another set of circumstances, I might have turned out to be a top lawyer or a big-time businessman or made it to any high position that demanded brains and style, and a cool, hard way of handling yourself. Certainly I could have held the highest job in any line of police detection work. I out-thought and defeated enough cops and G-men to recognize that I was more knowledgeable about crime than any of them – including the number-one guy, J. Edgar Hoover of the FBI’.  Karpis was clearly a man that not only knew what he was doing, he enjoyed it.

The Barker-Karpis gang started with the meeting of Karpis and Fred Barker in a Kansas prison.  Upon their release in 1931 the gang started with nighttime burglaries in jewelry and clothing shops.  It wasn’t long before they moved to day-time bank heists.  The core group of Fred Barker and Alvin Karpis, Arthur Barker did not join until his release from prison in 1932, were present at every job.  The other members were experienced thieves and hold up men that were hired for individual jobs in a sort of criminal temp agency.  Barker and Karpis were meticulous in their planning and choosing the individuals for their jobs that they earned so much money and were so prolific that they lost count of a grand total.  In 1932 alone, Karpis could name 11 banks they had robbed off hand, the number is expected to have been greater.  The rotating cast also proved to be of great difficulty to the FBI, since the members changed so much and their aliases with them, the FBI couldn’t keep up with who was committing what robbery.  In his autobiography, Karpis also points to several instances where other men were arrested and tried for crimes his gang had committed.  So brash were the Barkers and Karpis that one of their key methods of acquiring their machineguns was to walk into a, usually rural, police station after midnight and ordering the officer on duty, at gunpoint, to give them the stations firearms.

Perhaps the most notorious crimes committed by the gang were the kidnappings.  The first was William Hamm, heir to the Hamm brewery, which netted one hundred thousand dollars.  Their second was the kidnapping of a banker named Edward Bremer which brought in two hundred thousand dollars.  The money gained in just those two kidnappings is equivalent to four million, one hundred twenty-six thousand, and two hundred dollars ($4,126,200.00).  The kidnapping of Ed Bremer brought the gang to the immediate attention of the FBI.  One reason is that the country was still up in arms over the Lindbergh baby kidnapping in 1932.  The other was the Edward Bremer’s father was a personal friend of President Franklin Roosevelt.  The gang actually knew about Bremer’s political connections and still kidnapped him.  Karpis had discussed this with Fred Barker and argued ‘Why are we wasting our time talking about heat (the police) – we’ve had nothing but heat since 1931’.

1934 was the twilight of the gangsters.  In that year alone the FBI had killed John Dillinger, Lester Gillis, the Barrow gang (Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker), Homer Van Meter, “Pretty Boy” Floyd, and George Ziegler.  Harry Pierpont and W.D. Jones (A member of the Barrow gang) were captured.  The Barker-Karpis gang was the only one to survive the year intact.  Although within the opening months of 1935 the gang was shattered.  On January 8th, Arthur “Doc” Barker was arrested and sentenced to Alcatraz Island to serve a life sentence for the kidnapping of Edward Bremer.  Doc was killed by guards during an escape attempt in 1939.  Fred Barker was caught up to only a week later.  He was staying in a cottage in Florida with his mother when the FBI arrived on his doorstep.  Fred was not willing to go down as easy as his brother and opened fire with a Browning automatic rifle.    The shootout lasted for hours and miraculously the agents escaped unscathed.  Fred Barker and his mother were not so lucky.  Both were found dead in the bullet riddled cottage.  Soon after this, the FBI made the story of a criminal Ma Barker to cover for the death of the old woman.  Karpis heard of the violent death soon after it occurred and planned to go into hiding the next day.  The FBI caught up with him too soon however but in a daring shootout escape, Karpis managed to flee from his Atlantic City hideout and run down the east coast.  Even while being chased doggedly by the FBI, Karpis kept working.  While running, Karpis managed to rob a mail truck and a train, gaining seventy and thirty thousand dollars respectively.  Karpis went into 1936 the most hunted man in America, position labeling him the last public enemy.

As of 1936, Alvin Karpis’ known and suspected crimes from 1931 to 1935 were as follows, three kidnappings, three-to-fourteen murders, countless bank robberies, and the train and mail truck hold-ups.  He was being followed by two intelligence agencies, several states wanted him for murder, and there were multiple bounties on his head.  And with him being the last of the big names, the search was focused directly upon him.  Karpis’ only source of amusement during the time was reading about the troubles happening to J. Edgar Hoover.  Hoover was having trouble in Washington because of the unending chase.  He was chastised for not making arrests, even though the FBI were only given the power to arrest a little more than  a year earlier, mostly due to the acts of the gangsters.  Karpis couldn’t run forever.  On May 1st of 1936, an unarmed Karpis was walking to his car when he found himself surrounded by twenty six FBI agents, Men recruited for the sole reason that they were proficient in shootouts and had killed before, armed with according to Hoover; ‘every weapon from machine guns to those new gas shells’.  They had planned to kill Karpis and Hoover was even quoted as telling him he was ‘a lucky son of a bitch to be alive’.  With the arrest of Karpis the era of the gangster was over.  Karpis himself would go on to serve prison time until his parole in 1969, twenty six of those years spent on Alcatraz.  Karpis moved to Spain after writing his autobiography in 1971 and was found dead of an overdose of sleeping pills in his apartment in Tourmolinos, Spain in 1977.  In the end the last public enemy had outlasted them all.  His contemporaries were dead, the agents chasing him were dead, and even Hoover had died.  Yet Karpis, arguably the most prolific of the gangsters, died in obscurity.

It was because of these gangsters the FBI developed and modern law enforcement began.  At the beginning of the 1930s, the FBI had no legal right to arrest; they had no weapons training and did nothing except investigate.  In the half a decade from 1931 to 1936 they became a well armed, quick moving, and efficient police force that brought down the greatest criminals at the time.  Public police forces also developed greatly as a result of the gangsters.  Officers began to receive better pay to lower bribery chances.  The stations received better weaponry and vehicles, as well as training, to keep up with the virtual armies that were the gangs.  Procedures changed as well.  More informants were being used and new techniques were being developed.  Even everyday security measures like surveillance cameras in banks can be tied to the rampant thefts commited by the gangsters.  The gangsters on the 1930s had a major impact on the American public.  While they were the superstars of their day, they are all but forgotten now, but their impact on American law enforcement can never be undone.

One Trackback/Pingback

  1. […] Midwest Gangsters of the Depression Era – Mister 86′s Report http://mister86.wordpress.com/2008/08/25/midwest-gangsters-of-the-depression-era/ […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

%d bloggers like this: