Saturday, October 24, 2015

The man who got Dillinger -- and Pretty Boy Floyd -- and Baby Face Nelson

He was maybe 5-foot-4, and maybe 127 pounds. He spoke little, but when he did, it was with a mellifluous Southern drawl, befitting a graduate of the Citadel and the University of South Carolina's law school, Melvin Horace Purvis II would within four months in 1934 end the violent criminal careers of John Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd, and Baby Face Nelson --- the original Public Enemies No. 1.

Purvis was so successful in so short a period of time that this success ended his career at the FBI, and indeed in law enforcement.

Born on October 24, 1903, in Timmonsville, South Carolina, his father raised hogs, and his mother raised 12 children. Purvis was 21 when he graduated from law school, and he went to work for Willcox and Hardee, a prestigious law firm founded in 1895 in Florence, South Carolina, which is still in business as Willcox, Buyck and Williams.

The original Willcox was P.A. Willcox, who cut his teeth as a criminal defense attorney. He founded the firm with his cousin, Fred Willcox, who was a mover in the state Bar and national Bar. Cousin Fred later served in Congress. The firm's biggest clients were the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad and the Atlantic Timber Company.

Purvis worked his way quickly to junior partner, earning the senior partner's respect through his diligence and attention to detail. Purvis later would marry P.A. Willcox's daughter, Marie Rosanne Willcox, with whom he had three sons.

But marriage came much later. In 1927, he sought a job with the Department of State. But J. Edgar Hoover, head of the Bureau of Investigation, as the FBI was then known, was hiring. Purvis impressed Hoover, who took a liking to him. Hoover called him Little Mel.

Diminutive though his size may have been, he was a crackshot and a good lawman. He worked his way through the ranks, proving himself in a series of assignments in Birmingham, Alabama, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma; and Cincinnati, Ohio. In 1932, Hoover gave him the plum assignment of head of the Chicago office. The town was wide open, even after Al Capone's conviction in November 1931 for tax evasion.

Unlike others in law enforcement, Purvis said little to the press. Reporters took to describing him as "clam personified." Oddly, this endeared him within the press corps, which would lead to the abrupt end of his career.

In 1933, gangs of bank robbers tore up the Midwest. They were violent animals who got good press and achieved folk hero status. They were portrayed as Robin Hoods, but they overlooked something. Robin Hood stole back confiscatory taxes from the Sheriff of Nottingham and gave the money back to the people who earned it. These scumbags robbed the life savings of people at banks, and kept it for themselves. They robbed banks at a time when bank failures were at an all-time high, wiping out customers.

Dillinger and a friend robbed a grocery store in 1924 of $50 -- easily worth a month's profits to the grocer -- and pleaded guilty. The judge gave him 10 to 20 years. His father began a petition drive for leniency and after serving only nine years, Dillinger received a parole. He walked out of the Indiana State Prison on May 10, 1933, and began robbing banks on June 21, 1933, the first of 12 banks he robbed. He shot and killed a police officer in East Chicago, Indiana. But he became Public Enemy No. 1 when he stole a car and crossed state lines to rob a bank.

Hoover tasked Purvis on March 6, 1934, to get Dillinger. Purvis set up a network of informants.

His first tip turned into a disaster. An informant spotted Dillinger and his gang at the Little Bohemia resort lodge in Manitowish Waters, Wisconsin. Purvis and his posse flew to the site, but got lost in the woods. In a shootout, they killed a Civilian Conservation Corps worker and wounded two other CCC workers, who had stopped at the lodge for a beer. The shootout also ended the live of FBI Agent W.C. Baum.

Devastated, Purvis doubled down hiss efforts to find Dillinger. He threatened to deport back to Romania a Dillinger associate, Anna Sage. She became "the woman in red" in later newspaper accounts. On July 22, 1934, she told Purvis that Dillinger was at the Biograph Theater in Chicago. The FBI and local police waited outside until Dillinger emerged. Seeing him, Purvis lit a cigar -- a signal to the rest of the officers on the scene -- and approached Dillinger, and said, "Stick 'em up, Johnny, we have you surrounded."

Dillinger reached for his gun, and two FBI agents shot and killed him. Following protocol which called for the FBI, not the individual, to get the credit, Purvis did not identify the agents who killed Dillinger. Seeking a hero, the newspapers donned him "The Man Who Got Dillinger."

Hoover was not happy.

Pretty Boy Floyd -- another psychopathic bank robber -- succeeded Dillinger as Public Enemy No. 1. On October 22, 1934, FBI agents led by Purvis shot and killed him.

Baby Face Nelson succeeded Floyd as Public Enemy No. 1. On November 27, 1934, FBI agents led by Purvis shot and killed him.

Suddenly, bank robbing was no longer as glamorous.

While Purvis had hunted down and caught (and killed) three Public Enemies No. 1 in succession, Hoover was not pleased. He made sure Little Mel knew he had fallen out of favor, beginning with a White Glove inspection of the Chicago office on November 1, 1934.

Purvis left the FBI in 1935. Hoover spread rumors to keep Purvis from obtaining another job in law enforcement, which was just as well. Purvis went back to Florence, South Carolina, wrote his memoirs, and married Miss Willcox. Only World War II interrupted his legal career, when he volunteered for military service.

That was when he handled the biggest case of his life -- investigating Nazi war criminals for the Nuremberg trials.

When he left the FBI, his agents gave him a gun as a present. On February 29, 1960, while trying to dislodge a tracer bullet from the weapon, the weapon fired, killing Purvis. The FBI ruled it a suicide, but years later, evidence showed it was an accidental death. Why the FBI investigated such a homicide tells one all one needs to know about Hoover.


I am publishing the best of these tales, in Kindle and on Amazon. Volume I covering American history from the 16th through the 20th century is here. And Volume II on The Capitalists is available here.

Suggestions are welcome. Email me at


  1. Hoover loved publicity, for himself. In that photo, Purvis looks like a kid, dressing up.