Public Enemies: America's Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-34

Public Enemies: America's Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-34

by Bryan Burrough


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In Public Enemies, bestselling author Bryan Burrough strips away the thick layer of myths put out by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI to tell the full story—for the first time—of the most spectacular crime wave in American history, the two-year battle between the young Hoover and the assortment of criminals who became national icons: John Dillinger, Machine Gun Kelly, Bonnie and Clyde, Baby Face Nelson, Pretty Boy Floyd, and the Barkers. In an epic feat of storytelling and drawing on a remarkable amount of newly available material on all the major figures involved, Burrough reveals a web of interconnections within the vast American underworld and demonstrates how Hoover’s G-men overcame their early fumbles to secure the FBI’s rise to power.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780143035374
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 06/28/2005
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 624
Sales rank: 252,041
Product dimensions: 5.55(w) x 8.46(h) x 1.33(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Bryan Burrough is a special correspondent at Vanity Fair and the author of three previous books. A former reporter for the Wall Street Journal, he is a three-time winner of the John Hancock Award for excellence in financial journalism. Burrough lives in Summit, New Jersey, with his wife and their two sons.

Read an Excerpt

Public Enemies

America's Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-1934
By Bryan Burrough

The Penguin Press

ISBN: 1-59420-021-1

Chapter One

Torremolinos, Spain August 26, 1979

In a tourist town on the white-sun Spanish coast an old man was passing his last years, an American grandfather with a snowy white crew cut and a glint in his turquoise eyes. At seventy he was still lean and alert, with high-slanting cheekbones, a sharp chin, and those clear-framed eyeglasses that made him look like a minor-league academic. He spent much of his time holed up in his cluttered garage apartment, watching BBC footage of the Iranian hostage crisis on a flickering black-and-white television, surrounded by bottles of Jack Daniel's and pills and memories. If you met him down on the beach, he came across as a gentle soul with a soft laugh. Almost certainly he was the most pleasant murderer you'd ever want to meet.

It was sad, but only a little. He'd had his fun. When he'd first come to Spain ten years before, he still knew how to have a good time. There was that frowsy old divorcée from Chicago he used to see. They would go tooling around the coast in her sports car and chug tequila and down their pills and get into these awful screaming fights.

She was gone now. So were the writers, and the documentary makers, the ones who came to hear about the old days; that crew from Canada was the worst, posing him in front of roadsters and surrounding him with actors in fedoras holding fake Tommy guns. He'd done it for the money and for his ego, which had always been considerable. Now, well, now he drank. Out in the cafés, after a few beers, when the sun began to sink down the coast, he would tell stories. The names he dropped meant little to the Spaniards. The Brits and the odd American thought he was nuts, an old lush mumbling in his beer.

When he said he'd been a gangster, they smiled. Sure you were, pops. When he said he'd been Public Enemy Number One-right after John Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd and his old protégé Baby Face Nelson-people turned away and rolled their eyes. When he said he and his confederates had single-handedly "created" J. Edgar Hoover and the modern FBI, well, then he would get bitter and people would get up and move to another table. He was obviously unstable. How could you believe anyone who claimed he was the only man in history to have met Charles Manson, Al Capone, and Bonnie and Clyde?

Few in Torremolinos knew it was all true. In those last years at Terminal Island in the sixties he'd taught Manson to play the steel guitar. He'd been at Alcatraz for twenty-one damp winters before that, leaving for Leavenworth a few years before they closed the place in 1963. In fact, he was the longest-serving prisoner in the history of The Rock. He'd known the Birdman and that gasbag Machine Gun Kelly and he'd seen Capone collapse into one of his syphilitic seizures, flopping around on the cafeteria floor like a striped bass on a cutting board.

In his day he'd been famous. Not fifteen-minutes famous but famous-famous, New York Times-page-one-above-the- fold famous. Back before Neil Armstrong, before the Beatles, before American Bandstand, before the war, when Hitler was still a worrisome nut in a bad mustache and FDR was learning to find the White House bathrooms, he was the country's best known yeggman. Folks today, they didn't even know what a yegg was. Dillinger, he liked to say, he was the best of yeggs. Pretty Boy Floyd was a good yegg. Bonnie and Clyde wanted to be.

And today? Today he and all his peers were cartoon characters, caricatures in one bad gangster movie after another. You could see them on the late show doing all sorts of made-up stuff, Warren Beatty as some stammering latent homosexual Clyde Barrow, Faye Dunaway as a beautiful Bonnie Parker (now that was a stretch), Richard Dreyfuss as a chattering asshole Baby Face Nelson (okay, they got that right), Shelley Winters as a machine-gun toting Ma Barker, a young Robert De Niro as one of her sons. To him they were all ridiculous Hollywood fantasies, fictional concoctions in a made-up world.

At that point the old man would just shake his head. As he sat on his couch at night, sipping his Jack Daniel's and popping his pills, what galled him was that it had all been real. It had all happened. Not in some fantasy world, not in the movies, but right there in the middle of the United States, in Chicago, in St. Paul, in Dallas, in Cleveland. And the truth of it, the actual true facts, was all but lost now, forgotten as totally as he was. Dillinger, Floyd, Nelson, Bonnie and Clyde, Ma Barker: He had known them every one. He was the last one left alive. He had even outlived Hoover himself.


Fucking Hoover.

He leaned over and reached for a bottle of his pills.


Excerpted from Public Enemies by Bryan Burrough Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Author's Note
Cast of Characters


  1. A Prelude to War, Spring 1933 1

  2. A Massacre by Persons Unknown, June 8 to June 15, 1933 19

  3. The College Boys Take the Field, June 17 to July 22, 1933 51

  4. The Baying of the Hounds, July 22 to August 25, 1933 71

  5. The Kid Jimmy, August 18 to September 25, 1933 98

  6. The Streets of Chicago, October 12 to November 20, 1933 135

  7. Ambushes, November 20 to December 31, 1933 162

  8. "An Attack on All We Hold Dear," January 2 to January 28, 1934 183

  9. A Star is Born, January 30 to March 2, 1934 206

  10. Dillinger and Nelson, March 3 to March 29, 1934 234

  11. Crescendo, March 30 to April 10, 1934 267

  12. Death in the North Woods, April 10 to April 23, 1934 292

  13. "And It's Death for Bonnie and Clyde," April 23 to May 23, 1934 323

  14. New Faces, May 24 to June 30, 1934 362

  15. The Woman in Orange, July 1 to July 27, 1934 388

  16. The Scramble, July 23 to September 12, 1934 417

  17. A Field in Ohio and a Highway in Illinois, September 18 to November 27, 1934 446

  18. The Last Man Standing, December 3, 1934 to January 20, 1935 484

  19. Pas de Deux, January 1935 until... 515

Epilogue 543

Bibliographical Essay 553
Notes 556
Selected Biography 567
Acknowledgements 571
Index 573

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"Brims with vivid portraiture ... Excellent true crime." —The New York Times Book Review

"An amazingly detailed true-life thriller..." —Entertainment Weekly

"It is hard to imagine a more careful, complete and entrancing book on the subject, and on this era." —The Washington Post

"[A] riveting true-crime tale... Fascinating... The real story, it turns out, is much better than the Hollywood version." —The Wall Street Journal

"Spellbinding... A model of narrative journalism and [a] gripping read." —BusinessWeek

Customer Reviews

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Public Enemies: America's Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-34 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 59 reviews.
paintlady1 More than 1 year ago
difficult for me to read because the author kept bouncing from one "public enemy" to another just to keep the presentation in "date order"...i think that the information would have been much better presented without trying to maintain a time-line of events...he did a lot of research.and included copious footnotes and a comprehensive bibliography, but he lacks the ability to put this research into a good "story"...there are no heros in this book...the criminals are evil and the g-men inept and bumbling...there are better books on this subject
shawn164 More than 1 year ago
this book is a very good book, it is very informational. when i read it i wanna keep reading it more and more. this book has alot of good action and lots of killing and shoot outs. i would recamend this book to any teenager and adults that likes history in the 1930's
55T-Bird More than 1 year ago
Fascinating!  Action, intrigue, drama and suspense-- this book recounts some really wild years in the world of crime and law enforcement.  All the well-known depression-era outlaws are included in this book: Dillinger, Baby Face Nelson, Machine Gun Kelly, the Bakers, Bonnie and Clyde, and more. Bryan Burrough weaves together their concurrent stories from start to finish, all the way until the last one is dead, captured or otherwise incapacitated.  One warning: the abundance of names (G-men and gangsters alike), places and events can get very confusing.  I read the digital version and made lots of notations and highlights for referencing while reading.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Good read for a history buff. Very well researched and very accurate. Some historical aspects were honestly presented as speculative.
Guest More than 1 year ago
My father, Tom McDade, was an FBI agent in the 30's and until I read Bryan Burrough's book I had no idea the life he and his fellow agents led. I now understand why my father and his fellow agents rarely revealed their experiences to family or friends. But now we have 'Public Enemies' to tell us in magnificent detail not only the exploits of John Dillinger, Baby Face Nelson, and the rest of the public enimies of the 1930's, but the often fateful experiences of their apprehenders. Often I have read the one-sided accounts from either the pursuers point of view or the pursued but this book covers both sides with fascinating details. My father would have praised this book(he died in 1996 - the last of the Dillinger Squad)as being completely straight-forward and revealing the both strengths and weaknesses of the criminals and the law.
datrappert on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Exhaustive history of the pursuit of John Dillinger, Bonnie and Clyde, Pretty Boy Floyd, the Barker Gang, Baby Face Nelson, Alvin Karpis, and others from 1933 to 1935. At times, the day to day description gets tedious, but Burrough is doing is best to get the facts straight. However, seeing the day-to-day lives of the outlaws between bank robberies and kidnappings tends to humanize them even more, and they dominate the book. The FBI's Melvin Purvis comes across as a media-obsessed amateur, though not without courage, while J. Edgar Hoover is a distant presence in Washington for most of the book, spending his time writing self-serving memos.What is most interesting is seeing the loyalty some of the bad guys and their families had for each other - the Barrow and Parker clans meeting Bonnie and Clyde at prearranged spots for picnics and family reunions. Outlaws braving gunfire to drag another outlaw to the getaway car. The first two-thirds of the book are one seemingly impossible escape after another, when inept FBI agents and other law enforcement officials let Dillinger, Bonnie and Clyde, and others escape from what would appear to be solid traps. In time, of course, the FBI gets better - or perhaps it is just sheer force of numbers. Even more amazing is the number of times someone like Dillinger escapes from jail when he is caught. Very few characters in this book are without some sort of corruption.This book takes us back to a time and place that is thankfully long gone. Cops and robbers slugging it out in downtown streets with tommy guns. Getaway cars speeding away with hostages clinging to the running boards. The books's accuracy is still a good question, however. Burrough does his best, sometimes pointing out obvious errors or deliberate misstatements in FBI records, but a few pages later he is quoting FBI records as an authority. Then there are the dim and distant memories of the few living witnesses to the bad old days - or perhaps only the sons or daughters of such witnesses. Burrough also quotes from long-forgotten stories in a variety of sources - and there is really no way to vouch for their truth except to compare several accounts, use a little common sense, and come up with what seems plausible.In the end, perhaps it doesn't matter so much, so long as the essence is true. The book will keep your interest throughout its great length, and you'll emerge with a much more colorful picture of America in the early 1930s.
zen_923 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
well-written book. I was looking for a book that would help me to learn more about the public enemy era of the 1930's and I was not disappointed at all by this book!
nicky_too on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
When I heard the film 'Public Enemies' was based on a book, I wanted to read it. Well, as usual, the film is not really like the book, so I'll leave it at that.The book, however, is a wealth of information on America's 'War on Crime' in the 1930s.Bryan Burrough managed to get information from almost everywhere and was therefore able to put together a book which covers the criminals who were the main focus of the FBI. It also gives insight in America in the time of the depression. In short: this is a complete and well written account of the War on Crime. A must read.
drneutron on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
In 1930, there was no FBI. Instead, a little-known bureaucrat named J. Edgar Hoover was given leadership of a backwater investigative branch of the US Department of Justice with no arrest authority or firearms - but they did have a reputation for corruption and political cronyism. By late 1935, this bureau had become the prototypical national police force for the US and had transformed itself into a well-regarded, professional organization taking on the Depression-era gangsters in the Roosevelt administration's War on Crime. In Public Enemies: America's Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-34, Bryan Burrough uses a myriad of sources - including newly opened FBI files - to tell the story of the hunt for bank robbers and criminal gangs that are now icons in America and how that hunt led to an almost mythic FBI.In the late 20's and early 30's, the Midwest United States produced some now-famous folks - John DIllinger and his gang, the Barker-Karpis gang, Pretty Boy Floyd, Machine Gun Kelly, Babyface Nelson, Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker. Most were bank robbers and kidnappers, some were just petty criminals that wound up killing lawmen. These groups were highly mobile and often used jurisdictional lines to escape pursuit. In June 1933, during the transportation of an escaped federal prisoner, agents of the Bureau of Investigation were ambushed in Kansas City, with four agents and the prisoner killed. While the details of the firefight are highly controversial, the attack resulted in Hoover's FBI becoming deeply involved in the hunt for the shooters and Congress passing legislation to give the FBI authority to make arrests and to carry firearms. When the Barker-Karpis gang committed a high-visibility kidnapping later that year, the FBI got pulled into the hunt for all these gangs to some degree.Initially, the FBI was awful at its job. Many mistakes were made that allowed targets to evade capture. Dillinger was allowed to break out of jail more than once after capture. A surprisingly high number of arrest attempts ended with agents killed because the agents weren't trained in tactics and firearm use. Much of their investigative technique was sheer dumb luck. In the end, though, all of the "public enemies" were killed or arrested. And Hoover was able to manipulate the media at every turn to build the FBI mystique that endured until the 1970s when details of the bureau's domestic spying started leaking out.Burrough's book is an exciting look at this short, but fascinating, period of American history. He tells the story chronologically, with overlap between the stories of the individual gangs and the investigators going after them. This approach really brought out the interconnections between the various gangs. I had never realized before now just how much these people interacted with each other. He's also quite good at referencing his sources, although some would say he gives too much credit to the accuracy of the FBI files (his approach appears to be to give precedence to FBI reports written just after an event). He's critical of Hoover at almost every opportunity. Mostly, I think he's right, but other authors will disagree in some murkier cases such as the identity of the Kansas City shooters and the part played by the FBI agents in starting the fight.In the end, Public Enemies is a good start for anyone interested in the events described here, and Burrough's bibliography makes a good jumping off point for further reading.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book is horrid
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I couldn't finish this book. Usually I will finish books even if I absolutely dislike them but not this one. Jumps around too much and is pretty bland.
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Mahjarunner More than 1 year ago
This book has a little bit of everything - history, gangsters, and growth of the FBI. The author clearly loved his subject and it was a pleasure to read the book. I would have liked a little more on the gangsters and a little less on J. Edgar Hoover, but overall, it was a good investment of time.
glauver More than 1 year ago
Burrough returns the reader to an era when hard men on both sides of the law neither gave nor asked quarter. Some of the scenes would easily fit into one of Dashiell Hammett's Continental Op stories. You can feel the fear and adrenaline surge as criminals plan and execute a heist, agents and police surround an out of the way house and wait for their well-armed quarry to show, or a wounded man draws his last few breaths before dying.I sometimes wondered about the authenticity of all the dialogue Burrough quotes, although he claims it comes from FBI files. Other than that small caveat, this is a gripping read that fairly presents both sides of the story and shows how J. Edgar hoover used the Depression crime epidemic to build a national police force and establish himself as a indispensable crime fighter.
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