This week I review one of my favorite true crime books, Brian Burrough’s Public Enemies: America’s Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-34.
Instead of looking at a single crime like I did in last week’s blog, the book I review this week covers many crimes and many criminals over a two-year period.
I have always found the so-called public enemies era of the 1930s fascinating and Burrough serves up the whole period in one readable book. Although it is not a new book (it came out in 2004), it is both detailed and authoritative.
The Public Enemies Era
American in 1933 was in the depths of the Great Depression. While most people plodded along trying to eek out a living, a flamboyant few who turned to crime became celebrities because of the daring nature of their deeds and the creativity of newspaper writers. Bank robbers like John Dillinger and Baby Face Nelson, kidnappers like the Barker-Karpis gang and Machine Gun Kelly, and gunmen like Charles “Pretty Boy” Floyd all became famous—and infamous. Audacious robberies and thrilling escapes were fodder for newspapers eager to boost circulation. The stories were also cheap entertainment for a public short on money for recreation.
When the new administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt took office in March 1933, Attorney General Homer S. Cummings launched a War on Crime that lasted until 1936. Cummings may have wanted to use crime-busting to boost his own popularity, but J. Edgar Hoover outmaneuvered him and focused attention–and credit–on himself and the FBI (it was just the Bureau of Investigation until 1935).
Previous books on this subject tended to focus on one outlaw or group of outlaws rather than the entire period. Also, until relatively recently, the FBI’s files on this period were not available to researchers.
Burrough states his central aim in writing this book was to “reclaim the War on Crime for the lawmen who fought it.” He does an excellent job of this, while not whitewashing Bureau’s early mistakes. He begins by recounting the Kansas City Massacre, the killing of one Bureau agent, three other lawmen, and a prisoner in front of the Kansas City, Missouri train station in June 1933.
The FBI’s first foray into the War on Crime was not promising. Inexperienced in real criminal law enforcement, agents’ early efforts were amateurish and prone to bone-headed mistakes, some of them deadly. For example, agents missed several chances to capture John Dillinger, who seemed to have no trouble eluding them. In one instance, a botched raid on a Wisconsin hunting lodge resulted in the deaths of an innocent civilian and one of the Bureau’s own agents.
Slowly, over the course of three years, the FBI learned from its mistakes and began to evolve into a truly professional crime-fighting organization. This evolution didn’t happen overnight, but as one reads through the book, the progress is plain to see. One by one, the marquee gangsters fall, often to FBI bullets.
By 1936, only one major gangster remained at large: Alvin Karpis, the brains of the Barker-Karpis gang. The FBI arrested him in New Orleans in May 1936, and he went on to spend more time in Alcatraz than any other prisoner on “The Rock.”
Incidentally, of the first four men the FBI designated Public Enemy Number One, Karpis is the only one captured alive. He went on to outlive many of the 1930s gangsters and lawmen, including J. Edgar Hoover himself.
Public Enemies is both informative and entertaining. At times, it reads more like an adventure novel than history. Burrough also does a commendable job of keeping the large cast of major and supporting characters straight. He also corrects some misinformation that arose either from FBI distortions or highly exaggerated newspaper accounts.
The result is a period-piece snapshot of the lives of Depression-era gangsters and lawmen.
As I said at the outset, Public Enemies is one of my favorite true crime books. I’m probably prejudiced because I have a strong interest in the period and subject matter. But I think any true crime fan will enjoy this book. I highly recommend it.