They were the reality stars of their day.....crooks who shot and killed their way to fame.
I guess it all started with the economic collapse that dragged the world into the Great Depression.
People in America (and around the World) were starving, money supplies dwindled, food was scare, jobs were very hard to find. The rich got less richer, while the poor hit rock bottom.
America was already fighting a new kind of crime as a result of prohibition and now new banditos were using automobiles, lack of communication and loopholes in the law to rob stores, gas stations and banks.
Before bank robbery became a Federal crime and subject to the jurisdiction of the newly formed FBI, it was easy to rob a bank and cross the border into the next state to avoid capture.
This was also before police radios were invented, so if you could get out of sight of the police you had a good chance of getting away.
In addition this was before there were Federal gun laws in America. Anyone could walk into a store and buy a fully automatic rifle, without paperwork or ID.....although many gangsters still preferred to steal them (Dillinger stole his from the Police Stations and National Guard Depots).
Some of these stories were included in the 2009 movie Public Enemies starring Johnny Depp as John Dillinger. Although they took some creative license with the truth and the timeline of events, they got most of the facts correct.
Rather than tell the life stories or criminal exploits of these men and women. I chose to tell the stories of how and where these criminals met their end. The reason is simple, it happened really fast, from Sept 1933 to May 1936 eight of the highest profile criminals and most of their accomplices were taken down or jailed.
We'll start with the gangster who had the coolest name....but also because his crime spree ended first.
Machine Gun Kelly's (George Kelly Barnes) criminal resume was colorful. He was a bootlegger, kidnapper, bank robber and possibly a murderer.
Kelly was given the nickname by his wife who supposedly bought him his machine gun, a Thompson.
Federal Agents had been searching for Kelly and his wife and finally tracked them down to Memphis. In the early morning hours of September 26th, 1933 agents conducted a raid at 1408 Rayner Street in Memphis. Agents entered through the front door which was unlocked as Kelly had just picked up the newspaper off the porch.
Kelly and his wife were arrested without incident.
Coincidently, that same day 10 members of Dillinger's gang escaped from Indiana State Prison.
They were both convicted and sent to prison. Kelly spent time on Alacatraz. He was on the Rock from 1934 through 1951, during that time Alvin Creepy Karpis and Al Capone were also locked up on the island.
In 1951 Kelly was transferred to Leavenworth Prison (Leavenworth Kansas) and he died of a heart attack at the prison hospital on his 59th birthday (July 18, 1954).
Next up is perhaps the most infamous criminal couple in history: Bonnie and Clyde.
Bonnie and Clyde's rise to criminal stardom started off slowly, but after killing some police officers, law enforcement took off the gloves. The Governor of Texas persuaded retired Texas Ranger Frank Hamer to search out and bring Bonnie and Clyde to justice dead or alive.
Hamer put together a posse of six men, one of whom (Ted Hinton) was once a regular customer of the Dallas area restaurant where Bonnie Parker worked as a waitress.
The search was long and took Hamer and his crew through several states....now there was such a thing as jurisdiction, but Hamer didn't let that stop him, he was a Texas Ranger....as a word of caution....you don't ever tell a Texas law enforcement officer that he is out of his jurisdiction.....
Eventually they were able to get the help of a fellow gang member's family to trap the criminal couple. They set up an ambush, using the gang member's father as bait, along Louisiana Hwy 154 between Gibsland and Sailes.
At 9:15 on May 23rd, 1934 Hamer's posse laid in wait and just as they had hoped Bonnie and Clyde pulled up.
One of the posse members, Prentiss Oakley, fired first, hitting Clyde in the head, killing him instantly. Oakley's shot started a hail of gun fire, with Clyde dead, the car lurched forward into a ditch. The agents fired until they had pumped 112 bullets into the car and couple.
Bonnie and Clyde had so many holes in them that the undertaker had trouble embalming their bodies......a side note, one of the people who assisted with the embalming was a women that Bonnie and Clyde once kidnapped.....what goes around comes around
The posse found numerous weapons and ammo in the car.
The site of the ambush, still looks the same as it did in 1934, except for a stone marker alerting the uninformed that this is the spot Bonnie and Clyde met their Waterloo....It can be found on Hwy 154 south of Gibsland, Louisiana (GPS Coordinates 32 degrees, 26'28.21"N by 93 degrees 5' 33.23" W)
John Dillinger is next on the list, having met his end just two months after Bonnie & Clyde.
Dillinger was known for bank robberies, arsenal robberies and his famous escapes. He was also charged with the homicide of a police officer.
After the creation of the FBI and a task force to bring down these gangsters, Dillinger became Public Enemy #1. A coincidence or perhaps on purpose, the AG declared him Public Enemy #1 on Dillinger's birthday, June 22, 1934. He was the first such person to be named Public Enemy #1 by the FBI (Capone was named Public Enemy #1 by the Chicago PD, not the FBI)
Like Bonnie and Clyde he was constantly on the run and had to rely on others to hide him and his gang. One of those gang members gave up some info which led FBI Agent Melvin Purvis and his posse to the Biograph theater in the Lincoln Park area of Chicago.
At around 8:30pm on July 22 1934 the show was letting out and the agents spotted Dillinger and his female companions heading out of the theater. Dillinger spotted the G-Men and headed for an alley just south of the theater.
Before Dillinger could enter the alley or get his gun into play, the agents fired and killed him with four shots. He died in the entrance to the alley, in the photo below the police officer is shining his light on the pool of Dillinger's blood.
The theater is still in business (it is on the register of historic places). It can be found at 2433 North Lincoln Ave in Chicago. The theater and alley way were used in the filming of the 2009 movie Public Enemies
The alley just south of the Biograph
Next on our list is Pretty Boy Floyd, Floyd's real name is Charles Arthur Floyd. He picked up the nickname while working in the oil fields due to being overdressed for manual labor. It was a nickname he despised.
Floyd's resume included bank robberies, highway robbery, car theft, vagrancy and murder. Upon the death of John Dillinger in July of 1934, Floyd was declared Public Enemy #1. He and an accomplice were the prime suspects in the Kansas City Massacre.
Agents tailed Floyd throughout 1934 and in October they tracked him to Ohio. He was spotted outside a pool hall in East Liverpool, OH and a chase ensued. The date was October 22nd.
The chase ended on a farm where Floyd was shot 4 times by Melvin Purvis' posse.
The location can be found on route 428 (Sprucevale Road) outside of Calcutta Ohio.
Upon the death of Pretty Boy Floyd the FBI turned their attention to Baby Face Nelson (Lester Joseph Gilis), making him the new Public Enemy #1. Like Floyd, Nelson did not care for the nick name given him because of his small statue and youthful looks. He preferred to be called "Jimmy", while his wife called him "Les".
Nelson was a member of Dillinger's gang and had participated in bank robberies, shootings, tire theft, organized crime, car theft, jail breaks, bootlegging and numerous other crimes.
He helped Dillinger escape the Crown Point jail and was present during the botched Little Bohemia raid.
The Little Bohemia Lodge in Manitowish Waters, Wisconsin
The same agents that brought down Dillinger were on the hunt for Nelson and on November 27th 1934, Agents McDade and Ryan spotted Nelson driving down US Hwy 12 north west of Chicago in the Barrington area.
A chase ensued with Nelson's car and the FBI agents Hollis and Cowley (who had taken over the chase from McDade and Ryan).
The two cars skidded to a stop at the corner of Lions drive and US Hwy 12 (now US Hwy 14/Northwest Hwy) at the entrance to the Barrington North Side Park (now Langendorf Park).
A gun battle ensued. During the melee, Nelson murdered Agents Hollis and Cowley while receiving 9 gun shot wounds.
Nelson escaped with his associate and wife, but not before getting guns, ammo and supplies from his car. The trio drove away in the Hudson previously occupied by Hollies and Cowley.
They went to a safe house in Wilmette on Walnut Ave where in the early morning hours Baby Face Nelson died of his injuries suffered in the gun battle.
The house at 1627 Walnut Ave in Wilmette, IL
After dawn Nelson's body was wrapped in an imitation Indian blanket and dropped off at St. Paul's Lutheran Cemetery on Hamms Road in Skokie, IL.
With Baby Face Nelson crossed off the list, Alvin Creepy Karpis became Public Enemy #1.
Karpis was born Albin Francis Karpavicius in Montreal Quebec. He was engaged in numerous nefarious activities including car theft, mail theft, robbery, burglary, kidnapping and murder. Karpis was given the name "Creepy" because.....well he looked creepy, just look at the guy
He was known as the brains behind the Karpis-Barker gang. On the 1st of May 1936 the FBI had found Karpis hiding out in New Orleans. J. Edgar Hoover flew down in person in order to be a part of the arrest.
On May 2nd agents surrounded his car at the intersection of Canal Street and N. Jefferson Davis Parkway (now Norman Francis Parkway) and took him into custody. He was the only one of the FBI's four Public Enemy #1s to survive his capture.
the plan for the arrest:
What the G-Men found in the trunk
The site of the arrest today:
In August of '36 Karpis was sent to Alcatraz prison where he served with Al Capone, Mickey Cohen and Machine Gun Kelly, he was incarcerated on Alcatraz longer than any other inmate, 26 years.
In April of 1962, with Alcatraz set to close, he was transferred to McNeil Island Penitentiary in Washington State, where he met a young and yet unknown Charles Manson. He taught Manson to play guitar.
Karpis was released from prison in 1969 and deported to Canada. In 1973 he moved to Spain. It was there in 1979 he died, at the age of 72, by either suicide or an accidental overdose of sleeping pills.
I wasn't able to find the address of his home in Spain.
The capture of Karpis put an end to the Depression Gangster era....World War II was on the horizon, which ended the depression. Police now had radios and Federal Laws were written making bank robbery a Federal Crime....and then there was the way in which many of the gangsters met their end, that had to be a bit of a deterrent.
The FBI has not used the term Public Enemy #1 since naming Karpis as the fourth and final enemy.
September 26th, 1933 - Machine Gun Kelly is arrested in Memphis
1934 - Bank robbery becomes a Federal Crime
March 3, 1934 - John Dillinger escapes custody using a wooden pistol
April 22, 1934 - The FBI raid the Little Bohemia Lodge in Wisconsin
May 23, 1934 - Bonnie and Clyde are ambushed by Hamer's posse near Gibsland, LA
July 22, 1934 - John Dillinger is killed as he exited a theater in Chicago
July 23, 1934 - Pretty Boy Floyd becomes Public Enemy #1
August 1934, Alcatraz prison begins taking in inmates.
October 22, 1934 - Pretty Boy Floyd is killed by law enforcement near East Liverpool, OH
November 27, 1934 - Baby Face Nelson dies in bed from wounds suffered in a shootout with Federal agents
November 1934 - Alvin Creepy Karpis becomes Public Enemy#1
1935 - The FBI gets its name and becomes an independent division within the Department of Justice.
January 16, 1935 - Ma & Fred Barker are shot and killed in a shootout with the police
May 2, 1936 - Alvin Creepy Karpis is arrested in New Orleans
July 18, 1954 - Machine Gun Kelly dies of a heart attack in Leavenworth Prison
March 21, 1963 - Alcatraz prison closes
August 26, 1979 - Alvin Creepy Karpis dies from an apparent drug overdose