THE DAILY FELONY, 2004
DECLASSIFIED FILES REVEAL NEW INFORMATION ON CRIMINAL GANGS AND THE FBI
EXCLUSIVE BY BRYAN BURROUGH,AUTHOR OF PUBLIC ENEMIES
Never before have I enjoyed researching and writing anything as much as this book. If you derive half the pleasure from reading it as I did creating it, I will be thrilled.
This is a book I always suspected I would attempt someday. The first stories I can remember hearing as a boy, the stories that made me want to become a writer, were tales my grandfather told of Bonnie and Clyde. As a young man in northwest Arkansas, John Vernon Burrough manned roadblocks set up to apprehend the couple. In his later years he was mayor of Alma, Arkansas, a town where Clyde Barrow was blamed for the murder of one of his predecessors. My grandfather’s stories sounded like something out of the Wild West; I could hardly grasp the fact that these events had occurred barely forty years earlier. I grew up in the 1970s, and the formative events of my youth were the Vietnam War, Watergate, and the Iranian hostage crisis. I couldn’t believe America had changed that much in a single lifetime.
Later I heard that Clyde Burrow had murdered the great-uncle of one of my boyhood friends in my hometown of Temple, Texas and my interest grew. Stricken with insomnia late one night in 1997, I found myself watching a cable-television documentary on Ma Barker. I wondered whether the Barker gang had operated before or after Bonnie and Clyde. I walked upstairs to my office and I hopped on the internet, ran a search and was surprised to find the two gangs had both been at large in the years 1933 and 1934. My curiosity aroused, I checked John Dillinger: 1933 and 1934. Pretty Boy Floyd, Baby Face Nelson, Machine Gun Kelly: All 1933 or 1934. This was my introduction to The War on Crime.
The first comprehensive narrative history of the FBI’s War on Crime
I picked up John Toland’s 1963 book, Dillinger Days, a biography that deals glancingly with Dillinger’s criminal contemporaries. I searched for a comprehensive history of the FBI’s fight against Dillinger and his peers, and I was surprised to find there wasn’t one. Any number of books had been published on the individual outlaws themselves, but no one had tackled the whole story. Then I learned the FBI files on all these cases had only been released since the late 1980s. That’s when I decided to write this book. This, then, is the first comprehensive narrative history of the FBI’s War on Crime, which lasted from 1933 to 1936, a period that saw the rise and fall of six major criminal factions: that of John Dillinger, Baby Face Nelson, Pretty Boy Floyd, the Barker-Karpis gang, Machine Gun Kelly, and Bonnie and Clyde. It is a big sprawling story, with gunfights and investigations in dozens of American cities involving literally hundreds of major and minor players, including an army of FBI agents, sheriffs, and policemen.
For years the principal obstacle to an objective narrative was the FBI’s penchant for secrecy; Hoover was unwilling to share information with anyone interested in telling the whole truth. This helps explain why, as large as these criminals loom in American legend, there are surprisingly few credible books about them. For twenty-five years, the Depression-era outlaws remained the province of newspaper reporters and pulp writers, many of whom weren’t above concocting dramatic scenes and imaginative dialogue. Not till the late 1950s, with the popularity of The Untouchables television show, did serious authors begin to approach the subject of the War on Crime.
…we see Hoover’s men botching stakeouts, losing suspects, forgetting orders and repeatedly arresting the wrong men; their mistakes would be comical if not for the price paid by the innocent.
What makes a fresh look at the War on Crime possible is the release of the FBI files. Prodded by local historians, the Bureau has now made public all its files on Dillinger, Floyd, Nelson, the Barker gang, Machine Gun Kelly and the Kansas City Massacre. Taken together, they comprise nearly a million pages of daily reports, telegrams and correspondence, as well of hundreds of statements taken from witnesses and participants, everyone from Dillinger’s sister to Nelson’s tailor.
As one might expect, the files are a trove of new information. There are dozens of never-before-seen statements from the criminals and their gun molls, an unpublished autobiographical essay from Kathryn Kelly, disclosure of the bribes that freed Dock Barker from prison, as well as confirmation of an overlooked Dillinger robbery two months before his death. For all this , the FBI files shed the most penetrating light on the FBI itself. They vividly chronicle the Bureau’s evolution from an overmatched band of amateurish agents without firearms or law-enforcement experience into the professional crime-fighting machine of lore – a story Hoover was never eager to have told. In the early months of the War on Crime we see Hoover’s men botching stakeouts, losing suspects, forgetting orders and repeatedly arresting the wrong men; their mistakes would be comical if not for the price paid by the innocent. But deep amid the thicket of reports and correspondence, many of them festooned with Hoover’s tart, handwritten comments, you can literally see the FBI grow up. The agents learn how to use guns, establish professional methods, and recruit informants. Above all, this is a book about how the FBI became the FBI.
One can see why Hoover wanted the files kept secret
The files allowed me to pursue one of my central aims, to reclaim the War on Crime for the lawmen who fought it. Men like Charles Winstead and Clarence Hurt, the two agents who killed Dillinger, have long remained anonymous; even as movies are made about the murderers they hunted. The FBI wanted it that way. Critics say this is because Hoover wanted the glory for himself, which may be true. But keeping agents anonymous also fuelled Hoover’s institutional aims, fostered teamwork, and allowed agents to slip into undercover assignments. For the first time the FBI files allow us to understand which agents did what, and who screwed up when. By and large it is not a pretty story. One can see why Hoover wanted the files kept secret.