How ‘Machine Gun Kelly’ helped spawn the FBI

Author Joe Urschel chronicles the violent evolution of gangsters after Prohibition.

Within months of the pursuit of Machine Gun Kelly, says author Joe Urschel, J. Edgar Hoover began to buy weapons for FBI agents, to train them in the martial arts and turn them into one of the most successful modern police agencies in the world.

An obscure lawman named J. Edgar Hoover picked up the phone late one night to hear the voice of an Oklahoma City woman who’d called his agency’s kidnapping hotline. Armed men had just hustled away her oil magnate husband at gunpoint, she said, and she needed help.

Hoover ordered his men at the Bureau of Investigation into action. They weren’t called G-Men, the FBI didn’t exist, and the feds had little to do with finding crooks. But the epic case of the kidnapped oil man and his kidnapper “Machine Gun Kelly” would usher in a new American era of crime-fighting, one that still influences us today.

Joe Urschel, a longtime journalist who now serves as executive director of the National Law Enforcement Museum, unfolds the story in his fascinating and exciting new book The Year of Fear: Machine Gun Kelly and the Manhunt That Changed the Nation.

With a novelist’s storytelling touch, Urschel plops the reader right into the 1930s and the minds of gangsters, lawmen and a brilliant kidnaping victim who kept his head in more ways than one. Then the story shifts to an infamous prison on an island, a remarkable pair of husband-and-wife inmates and the ever-lasting myth of one Machine Gun Kelly.

In a Monitor interview, Urschel talks about the surprising origin of his interest in this story, the Midwestern-style crime sprees of the 1930s and a moll to beat them all.

Q: How did you learn about this story?

I came across it when I first came to Washington D.C. to launch USA Today. I was visiting all the sites around town and went to the Library of Congress. This was early in the digital revolution, and they had just converted their card cataloging system to a digital database.

On a lark, I went over to the keyboard and  punched in my last name, which is fairly unusual. I didn’t know anyone else with that last name other than my cousins in Albany. One name that came up was Charles Urschel, from a book written in 1934.

I called up the book and read it cover to cover. It had all the elements of a noir crime novel, a Dashiell Hammett treatment with these great twists and turns and fabulous characters.

I was transfixed by the story about this kidnap victim who shared my last name and altered the course of history.

Q: What happened next?

I called up my dad and asked if we were related to this guy. My dad said no.

And there was this thing that really kind of irked me: The fact that everybody knows who J. Edgar Hoover was, and a lot of people had heard of Machine Gun Kelly. But no one really knew about the most important character in the crime.

That offered a great opportunity to tell this story from the point of view of the victim who turned out to be a victim like no other through his relentless pursuit of his kidnappers, his cooperation with law enforcement and his dogged vindictiveness. I just wanted to get that story told.

Q: What was crime like in those days in the Midwest?

Western gangsters plied their trade from Dallas to St. Paul, but they operated differently from the big-city mobsters back in New York and Chicago. They were independent freelancers who robbed banks and got involved in illicit liquor on their own. In lot of cases, they enjoyed the protection of law enforcement and the local populace.

In 1933, you had the worst year of the Depression, with unemployment as high as 84 percent in some places. The Dust Bowl was beginning, Prohibition was about to end, and banks were running out of money and closing left and right.

The bank-robbing business was getting less lucrative so gangsters turned to this new crime of kidnapping for profit and ransom. You had about 2,000 successful kidnappings for ransom from 1930-33, including 400 in Illinois alone, primarily around Chicago.

Q: What was Machine Gun Kelly like?

He’s a fascinating character, unlike John Dillinger and Baby Face Nelson, who were uneducated and semi-psychotic.

He grew up comfortably in Memphis, was a caddy at the local country club, and even went to college for a semester. He was a smart guy and successful in a number of things, but he was primarily a lazy type.

He ends up out West running liquor and gets caught selling it. He’s sent to Leavenworth prison, and there he meets a number of incarcerated criminals who are the true archetypes. He manages to work his way into a trusted position in the prison records department and ends up forging release papers for a number of these criminals and facilitating their escape.

Q: He eventually gets out of prison. Meanwhile, a young man named J. Edgar Hoover at the federal Bureau of Investigation is trying to figure out his place in the new Roosevelt administration. What’s happening with him?

This is a man whose job’s on the line.  Hoover, who’s always innovative in his approach to crime, sets up what’s considered to be the first national hotline, a number you can call in the event of kidnapping. You’ll be put right through to the Justice Department so he’d get his agents on the job before local law enforcement.

He’s so eager to get these calls that there’s an extension of the line that goes right to the house. He picks up a call, and it’s from Berenice Urschel, the wife of Charles, who’s just been kidnapped. She’d read about the hotline in Time magazine just the week before, so she immediately picks up the phone and dials that number.

Q: Why would a kidnap victim want help from federal law enforcement?

Hoover’s agents had just been given the authority to chase kidnappers across state lines. Before that, no law enforcement agency had the right to do that legally. They chased Machine Gun Kelly and his wife for about 20,000 miles across 16 state lines.

This gave Hoover this great stage. Within months, Hoover began to buy weapons for his agents, to train them in the martial arts and turn  them into one of the most successful modern police agencies in the world.

Q: Who’s your favorite character in this saga?

I ended up being fascinated by Harvey Bailey. He got convicted of this kidnapping crime but had nothing to do with it. Still, he was considered the most successful bank robber of his time.

He basically invented modern bank robbery, which relied on intensive study of banks and how they operated. He would drive escape routes for weeks or months, and he would know where the police were and what kind of automobiles they’d drive.

He could rob a bank in seconds. He successfully robbed the Denver Mint and robbed one bank so successfully that the bank had to close its doors within a week.

Q: Who else really sticks out in this story?

A lot of people have told me that the really interesting character is Kathryn Kelly, Machine Gun Kelly’s wife, who kept pushing him to be more and more infamous while he was trying to stay under the radar.

She came up with the idea of getting into the kidnapping game, the “snatch racket” as they called it. He preferred to do business with a .38, but she bought him a machine gun and spread these stories about good he was, that he could write his name on a side of a barn with the gun.

All of these stories were picked up by law enforcement, and they began to build a profile of this guy as a murderous criminal and expert machine gunner, which isn’t what he was.

Q: Without giving too much away, the kidnap victim’s coolness under pressure and stunning powers of observation helped Hoover and his men crack this case. What do you think is Charles Urschel’s legacy?

In a lot of ways, he’s responsible for the legend that J. Edgar Hoover built and the creation of the FBI, the first truly national police force in the nation.

Randy Dotinga, a Monitor contributor, is president of the American Society of Journalists and Authors.

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