Sunday, July 22, 2012

"They're Not Going To Get Me!" Gangster Crime in the 1930s

A Fascinating Exhibit in the National Archives at Kansas City Examines Gangster Crime in the 1930s

The "Crime In the 1930s" Exhibit Poster
 "They're not going to get me!" is a quote from the famous gangster John Dillinger.  It is also the name of an intriguing exhibit currently showing in one of the galleries at the Kansas City National Archives facility about the epidemic of Midwestern crime during 1933-1934.

The 1930s were a tough time for citizens in the Heartland.  The depression was in full force, the area was in one of the worst droughts it had ever seen, citizens didn't trust large institutions like banks, railroads and the government, plus a new type of criminal was making its violent presence known - the gangster.

Gangsters were different than mobsters.  Mobsters were more urban and concentrated on gambling, bootlegging, and prostitution to make their money.  Gangsters mainly traveled rural areas of the country and focused on robbery and kidnapping.

Some of the more well-known gangsters of that era were John Dillinger, George "Machine Gun" Kelly, "Pretty Boy" Floyd, Bonnie and Clyde, and the Barker-Karpis Gang.  

All of these notorious criminals, their major offenses and eventual undoings are explored in this fascinating National Archives exhibit along with the development of the FBI to combat the growing crime frenzy - beginning with the 1933 "Kansas City Massacre" at Union Station.  

On the morning of June 17, a green Plymouth crammed with men carrying submachine guns pulled up to Union Station and began shooting at the lawmen accompanying gangster Frank Nash by train back to Kansas City from Hot Springs, Arkansas.  From Kansas City, Nash was headed directly to Leavenworth Penitentiary.  

The gangsters were attempting to help Nash escape authorities, but by the time the bullets stopped flying, Nash and four lawmen lay dead.

The exhibit displays photos of the crime scene taken that day along with wanted posters, warrants, and prison ID cards for several of the men involved - including "Pretty Boy" Floyd.  It also discusses the manhunt and punishments for the lawless thugs involved in the bloody slaughter.

The massacre was so bold and brazen that it changed the FBI forever.  After the crime, agents began carrying weapons, using two-way radios and wearing bulletproof vests.

From the bloody Kansas City Massacre, the exhibit delves into the frightening kidnapping of rich oilman Charles Urschel on July 22, 1933 by gangsters "Machine Gun" Kelly and Albert Bates.  

Urschel was at home playing bridge with his wife and friends when the armed men burst into his house and drug him away.  He was driven to Texas where a $200,000 ransom was demanded.  

The Federal Kidnapping Act, also known as The Lindbergh Law, had been passed in 1932 and made kidnapping a federal offense punishable by death.  Urschel's wife contacted the FBI to help recover her husband.  The agency quickly formed a large manhunt and captured the savage criminals, along with Kelly's wife and others who were involved in the plot.  

The manhunt and the conviction of 21 gangsters involved in this outrageous abduction was so large and effective that federal agents were coined with a new name - G-Men (Government Men).

The exhibit has many of the Urschel kidnapping crime documents on display.  You can also watch a short film with actual footage of Kelly and examine the original handwritten Leavenworth Penitentiary "Daily Count Log" book showing that on Sunday, September 4, 1934, "Machine Gun" Kelly was transferred from Leavenworth, where he had been serving time for the kidnapping, to Alcatraz.

Next in the archive's captivating gangster exhibit, you are confronted with a large photo of Bonnie and Clyde and the details of their short and bloody history as bank robbers and murderers.  

One of their more famous and violent incidents was the "Platte City shootout."  In July of 1933, Bonnie and Clyde were staying at the Red Crown Tourist Court in Platte City, MO.  A photo of the motel from at time is on display.  

They were hiding out at the motel because Bonnie had been burned in a car accident approximately a month before and was recovering.  Clyde went to the local drug store to purchase medication for her injuries.  

The alert druggist became suspicious of Clyde's behavior and called the Missouri Highway Patrol.  Soon, their cabin at the Red Crown was surrounded by authorities.  The standoff ended when the fearless duo escaped in a massive gunfire battle with police.  

A pair of binoculars, which Clyde had stolen in Enid, OK, was among Bonnie and Clyde's personal belongings recovered from the Red Crown Tourist Court.  They are on display in the exhibit for intrigued visitors to examine.  

From the violent actions of Bonnie and Clyde, the archive exhibit moves on to spotlight the gangster activity of John Dillinger.  A notorious criminal who escaped jail three times and killed numerous innocent people with his brutal gang, Dillinger was once the FBI's "Public Enemy #1" and a nationwide celebrity at the same time.  

Original footage of Dillinger being returned to Lima, OH for the murder of a police officer plays on a monitor while you examine documents related to his lurid life of crime and violent death.

Dillinger's demise began on July 21, 1934, when Romanian immigrant Anna Cumpanas (aka Anna Sage), who was the madam of a Gary, Indiana brothel, called the FBI and informed them that she, Dillinger, and another woman would be going to the movies the next day.

As promised, the trio went to the Biograph Theater the next evening to see Clark Gable in Manhattan Melodrama.  When they left the building, Dillinger was killed in a shootout with authorities. 

One misconception that the archive's exhibit corrects is the legend that Anna was the "woman in red" that evening and that was how law officers recognized her and Dillinger.  Actually, she was not wearing red at all but a white blouse and orange skirt.

After the death of Dillinger, there was just one main group of gangsters left from the 1933-1934 gangster crime era that the FBI needed to capture, the Barker-Karpis gang.

The Barker-Karpis gang usually robbed banks, but after they successfully kidnapped and received a large ransom for Minnesota brewery chairman, William Hamm, they planned another kidnapping that would be their undoing.

On January 17, 1934, Arthur "Doc" Barker and fellow gang member Volney Davis forced themselves into the automobile of Edward Bremer, a rich St. Paul banker.  They hit him over the head and sped off with him to a safe house in Bensenville, near Chicago.  

Bremer was forced to write letters to his family to prove he was alive, and the gang held him for a week until they received a $200,000 ransom.  The Barker-Karpis gang was linked to the crime when the FBI traced serial numbers from ransom money bills directly to them.

Doc Barker was caught in Florida while other members of the violent gangster ring were involved with the FBI in a shootout on January 16, 1935.  Fred Barker and Kate "Ma" Barker were killed in the gun battle.  Alvin Karpis was captured later in 1936.

One of the original letters, which Bremer's captors forced him to write during the kidnapping, is displayed in the archive exhibit along with photos of the Bensenville house and living room in which Bremer was held, and many other interesting documents and photos related to the crime.

The "You're Not Going To Get Me" Crime In The 1930s exhibit in the National Archives at Kansas City wraps up with the focus on FBI men Melvin Purvis and J. Edgar Hoover.

Purvis, a famous FBI agent in the 1930s,  joined the agency in 1927 and was in charge of the Chicago office.  He oversaw the manhunts that ended the lives of  John Dillinger and "Baby Face" Nelson. 

It was rumored that Hoover did not like the public attention Purvis received for "taking down" these famous gangsters because it diverted attention away from him.  Purvis left the FBI in 1935.  He became a lawyer but committed suicide in 1960.

The last thing in the gangster exhibit is a video message from J. Edger Hoover which outlines what he thought were the three needs of law enforcement:

1.  Cooperation between agencies

2.  Elimination of politics in law enforcement

3.  A focus on efficiency

In the video, Hoover looks in the camera with his famous “FBI conviction" and says, "That means gangsters, you can't get away with it."  

National Archives at Kansas City
If you decide to visit the "You're Not Going To Get Me" Crime In The 1930s exhibit in the National Archives at Kansas City,  you will need to do so soon. The exhibit only runs through August 18.

There are no photos allowed in the exhibit gallery. It takes about an hour to tour, is free of charge, and completely worth your time.  I would not, however, recommend it for anyone under 14 years of age.

On a final note, The National Archives at Kansas City is one of 14 facilities in the nation where the public can access federal documents. It is located by Union Station, is a true “hidden Kansas City gem,” and always has interesting exhibits open to the public. 

For more information, click on the Visit KC webpage for the National Archives at Kansas City.

National Archives at Kansas City press release for the "They're Not Going To Get Me" Crime In The 1930s exhibit


  1. Loved this exhibit. Thank you for calling attention to it!

  2. You are welcome. I loved it too. I plan on going back to the Kansas City Archives to see more of their exhibits. They are so interesting!

  3. You are so good finding things others would miss. Keep locating new and different things for Kansas Citians to do.

  4. Thank you - I'm trying! If you have any ideas for me, just let me know!