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Public Enemy #1 | Article

Melvin Purvis (1903-1960)

William J. Helmer

Like his boss J. Edgar Hoover, Melvin Purvis was a middle-class Southerner. He also had a law degree and, like many young lawyers, accountants and military veterans who answered Hoover's call for new professional standards at the Bureau of Investigation, lacked any law enforcement experience when he joined the Bureau of Investigation in 1927. 

After graduation, Purvis worked for a law firm in his native South Carolina. He decided to become a diplomat, but because the State Department was not hiring, Purvis became a special agent with the Justice Department.

Purvis excelled as a field agent, and quickly rose through the ranks. Although his abilities as an administrator seem to have been mixed, he was one of a few agents that Hoover chose for special attention, and he received many opportunities to earn promotions. After heading the Division of Investigation offices in Birmingham, Oklahoma City, and Cincinnati, he was placed in charge of the Chicago office in 1932. 

On March 6, 1934, Hoover ordered Purvis to develop a network of informants "in the event of an emergency arising," and to "put forth every effort" to capture Dillinger. After his escape from jail at Crown Point, Indiana on March 3, 1934, Dillinger committed a federal crime by driving a stolen vehicle across state lines. Hoover had avoided the pursuit of Dillinger because he wasn't sure it could be done. Now that he was forced by political pressure to go ahead with it, he covered himself by upbraiding Purvis for not having taken action in the past. 

On April 24, 1934, special agents from the Chicago and St. Paul offices traveled to Little Bohemia, Wisconsin. They had received a tip that the Dillinger gang was staying there and would be leaving that night. Travel by air was still novel in 1934 and it was part of Purvis's genius to think of it. 

When the special agents arrived at the lodge, the owner's dogs started barking. Purvis, who had no map of the place, told the men to surround the building. In the darkness, two agents got entangled in a barbed wire fence; two other fell into a ditch.

When the special agents saw a car carrying three men pull away from the lodge, they fired at it. Passengers John Hoffman and John Morris were wounded; Eugene Boiseneau was killed. They were local Civilian Conservation Corps workers who had come to the lodge to have a few beers.

The special agents returned gunfire which started coming from the second floor. They also fired tear gas shells, but the wind blew the tear gas in their direction, making the agents sick.

The Dillinger gang got away, but not before Baby Face Nelson killed one special agent and wounded two other men. Purvis admitted the operation was a failure. He offered his resignation to Hoover, who refused to accept it.

On July 22, 1934, Chicago brothel owner Anna Sage called Purvis to tell him that Dillinger had invited her and Polly Hamilton to the movies that night. Purvis rushed his men to the Biograph Theater. He had them surround every possible exit. The special agents were joined by a few officers of the East Chicago Police Department.

As Dillinger was leaving the theater, Purvis struck a match and lit his cigar, indicating that he had spotted him. Then he signaled for the men to move in. Purvis stood slightly behind Dillinger. He said: "Stick 'em up, Johnny, we have you surrounded."

Dillinger ran from Purvis, who said he saw the outlaw pull a gun from his pocket. The special agents fired several shots. Two of them hit Dillinger.

Purvis himself never fired a shot. He refused to give any individual agent credit for the shooting, to protect the special agent from possible revenge. Purvis likened the operation to a military action, in which all the special agents were equal contributors, and therefore, equally heroic. Nevertheless, he became famous as "The Man Who Got Dillinger," receiving fan mail from around the country. 

Purvis became instantly famous as the "ace G-man." Reporters liked his idealistic, self-effacing manner. Purvis received many letters from women who offered themselves or their friends in marriage.

Hoover, however, was very jealous of Purvis' popularity, which briefly surpassed his own. He did not want any individual special agent to be singled out for fame: "no one employee of this Division can be responsible for the successful termination of any one case... Through cooperative efforts a case is broken."

Hoover assigned Purvis to bad cases and subjected him to extreme scrutiny. He resigned a year later. Although he had many job offers, Hoover sabotaged his attempts to find work in law enforcement or a related field. Purvis was forced to earn money by making commercial endorsements, which he found humiliating.

Despite Hoover's harsh treatment, Purvis remained loyal to the FBI and its special agents. After leaving the FBI he married and had three sons. In 1960, he died at his home in South Carolina, killed by a shot from the .45 automatic that his fellow agents gave him when he resigned. Although the FBI labeled the death a suicide, it was later determined that Purvis may have been trying to remove a tracer bullet that was stuck in the pistol.

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