Saturday, November 5, 2011

Bryan Burrough on John Dillinger, Bonnie and Clyde and Other "Public Enemies"

(This interview originally appeared in the Newark Star-Ledger in July 2004)

Seventy years ago this week, the Midwestern bank robber John Dillinger was gunned down by FBI agents in front of the Biograph Theater in Chicago. Dillinger’s death was a major turning point on the 1933-34 “War on Crime,” where an obscure law enforcement agency reinvented itself into “America’s G-Men.”

In his gripping history “Public Enemies: America’s Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-34”(Penguin Press), journalist Bryan Burrough chronicles the legendary bank robbers Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd, the Barker-Karpis Gang, and Bonnie and Clyde as they go up against a bunch of lawyers who initially aren’t allowed to carry guns. Burrough takes the reader from the horrific Kansas City Massacre, where four lawmen were killed in June 1933, to the often fatal fumbles of the FBI as they hunted the great public enemies. Seasoned law enforcement gunslingers, “Cowboys”, were brought in to win the war against the cop killers like Doc Barker and Baby Face Nelson.

Burrough, 42, is no stranger to epic nonfiction. He wrote the bestselling classic hostile corporate takeover “Barbarians at the Gate.” Using newly released FBI files in his panoramic book, Burrough expertly juggles six criminal gangs at one time, shows the FBI’s dramatic restructuring and captures the dark criminal days of the Depression. In the book, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover appears as a brilliant, manipulative bureaucrat, ruling by memo. Burrough met with freelance writer Dylan Foley at a New York cafe.

Q. What were your motivations for writing about the “War on Crime”?

A. My grandfather was a deputy sheriff in Northwest Arkansas in the 1930s. I grew up in Central Texas, where my closest boyhood friend’s great-uncle was killed by Clyde Barrow in 1932. Clyde was stealing his car. When you read the FBI history, historians totally diminish the “War on Crime.” It is almost as if these characters have been taken over by pulp writers.

Q. What was the state of the FBI in 1933 and its transformation?

A. It was called the Bureau of Investigations, and it handled crime on Indian reservations, crime in Alaska and retrieving escaped federal prisoners. In the spring of 1933, Hoover was about to be fired. “The “War on Crime” was the birth of the modern FBI. It was a transformation from a bunch of obscure law enforcement types without firearms or arrest powers, and in the span of 20 months, they became the G-Men of lore, with real and perceived power. Two months before the death of Dillinger, they brought in the Cowboys and (FBI Inspector) Sam Cowley as the field general. You can watch the FBI grow in these (newly released) files. In the end, they were pretty darn good. You’ve got to give Hoover some credit. People don’t want to.

Q. What were the criminal motivations of the public enemies?

A. There was a sense at the time that anything was possible because of the great crime spree in the 1920s. Guys like Dillinger were hearing about how easy banks were. There was also a sense of fatalism that was prevalent in the Depression, a sense that old rules were falling by the wayside, that society was falling apart. There was grinding poverty, but none of these figures became criminals in 1933-34. They had all been criminals for some time.

Q. Do you think Dillinger and the others were good bankrobbers?

A. Dillinger was a very good bankrobber. When you look at the skill set needed back then, what you basically needed was self-confidence and a lot of it. Going in with a gun and getting the money, almost anybody could do that. The intellectual part of it was getting away. Dillinger did not invent this new way of robbing banks. He learned it in prison. He had a tremendous amount of self-confidence, which grew to foolhardy dimensions, especially when he killed a detective. I don’t think he was the smartest of the public enemies. I think Alvin Karpis was. He was the only one who saw the menace of the FBI coming. A number of the other guys drank too much and whored around. Karpis tried to be in bed by 11 p.m.

Q. How did Hoover whitewash FBI history in the 1930s?

A. You can point to any number of things where Hoover’s version of history doesn’t meet reality. The demonization of Ma Barker is as bad as it gets. Hoover portrayed her as the demonic brains of the Barker-Karpis Gang. There is no evidence she planned any robberies. How do you justify killing a 60-something grandmother? You portray her as a mastermind. There was no one alive to say Hoover was lying.

Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow were probably America’s first spree killers. A spree killer is somebody who starts shooting on Friday and shoot through the weekend. The success of their career is directly attributable to the incompetence of Southwestern law enforcement. They roamed over 16 states. They were Hoover’s best argument for a centralized, federal law enforcement agency.

Everybody knows a kid like Baby Face Nelson, a little guy who wants to pick a fight. You get the feeling he was living out the movies. After a bank robbery, he would shoot out windows and cars, and laugh.

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