Gentlemen, shortly you will be provided Thompson submachine guns, BARs, and uh, .351 Winchester semiautomatic rifles. We are pursuing hardened killers. It will be dangerous.
– Bureau of Investigation Special Agent in Charge Melvin Purvis in Public Enemies (2009)
Michael Mann’s Public Enemies (2009) is but the latest effort to bring the life of infamous bank robber John “Johnnie” Dillinger on the silver screen. It follows his exploits between autumn 1933 and summer 1934, but really concentrates on his affair with gun moll M. Evelyn “Billie” Frechette. As in many other Mann movies, the law enforcement side receives almost equal attention, here in the shape of Bureau of Investigation Special Agent in Charge Melvin Purvis. While Mann undertook extraordinary effort to bring the time to life through clothing, automobiles, firearms, and locations, he stuck less rigidly to the historical facts, including the timeline. Events have been moved forward or backward, people have been omitted or changed, etc. It has to be understood that Public Enemies is not really a historical film at all, unlike Bryan Burrough’s meticulously researched book Public Enemies (2004), on which it is based. It is still an excellent movie, not the least because of its awesome score and of course its actors, including Johnny Depp as Dillinger, Christian Bale as Purvis, and Stephen Graham as “Baby Face Nelson.”
I recently came upon an article in the Chicago Daily Tribune entitled “Seize 12 in Bomb Factory” (01-AUG-1929). The article recounted the “breaking up” on 31-JUL-1929 of the so-called “Belcastro Gang” in Chicago, Illinois. Its capo James “Mad Bomber” Belcastro was a member of the Gas Fillers and Owners’ Association, one of the many union rackets then in operation. In reality, he was not the boss of an independent criminal gang but a member of Al “Scarface” Capone’s Outfit. He and his men produced and sold homemade bombs. Explosives were used with alarming regularity in the 1920s in Chicago for black mail, disrupting the political process including in the “Pineapple Primary” of 1927, and outright attacks on competitors. Belcastro emerged unscathed of the raids in 1929, was shot and wounded in 1931, but lived on until 1945. He had been arrested more than 150 times but had never been convicted … Read More
Between 1925 and 1968, Peter von Frantzius Sporting Goods was a famous sporting goods store on the North Side of Chicago, Illinois, at 608 Diversey Parkway (GURPS High-Tech: Pulp Guns 1, p. 5; Investigator Weapons 1, p. 25). His Sport Manual from 1927 has 97 pages and describes a marvellous selection of kit useful to the investigator.
Finn: I guess you’ll just have to kill me.
John Smith: It’ll hurt if I do.
– Last Man Standing (1996)
Last Man Standing (1996) directed by Walter Hill is one of my favourite films, combining as it does many awesome ingredients: set in 1931 during the Prohibition, a former mob enforcer on the run from Chicago winds up in a Texas burg under the thumbs of two feuding bootlegger gangs and starts playing the two groups against each other – cue lots of mayhem. We get a period setting with top actors including Bruce Willis as “John Smith,” but also Bruce Dern, William Sanderson, and Christopher Walken, cool vintage props including gats, suits, and haircuts, and an ace score by slide guitarist Ry Cooder. The familiar story about a loner playing two parties of bad guys against each other to his own advantage is credited prominently to Ryūzū Kikushima and Akira Kurosawa’s Yōjinbō (1961), which is ironic considering that their screenplay was based heavily on Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest (1929), a novel about a Prohibition-era agency detective who plays several gangs against each other …
On 25-FEB-1928, Charles “Limpy” Cleaver and eight of his gangmembers robbed the Grand Trunk postal mail train at Evergreen Park, Illinois, scoring $133,000 in cash after blowing off the doors of the mail car. US Post Office inspectors very quickly tracked down the robbers, arresting most of them within days of the robbery. They found an arsenal of weapons, many of them used during the robbery, in an attic room in Cleaver’s home at 10235 South Elizabeth Street in Chicago, Illinois. The room was accessed through a secret stairway with a door leading to it hidden in the back of a closet.
This photo shows US Postal Inspector T.G. Rowan in front of the seized weapons and equipment.
During the 1920s, the Purple Gang ‒ several theories exist as to the origins of this colourful name ‒ was the most successful bootlegger outfit in Detroit, Michigan. By the late 1920s, they also contracted as hit men, a business move that would lead to the gang’s downfall in the early 1930s. By the late 1930s, many of its leaders were in prison, and its remaining members had switched trades to robbing safes. However, when their principal work car ‒ a supercharged, armoured Graham-Paige sedan with revolving license plates and a ramp to roll a safe inside ‒ was confiscated in 1936, they reverted to armed robberies and assassination.
Fred “Killer” Burke (née Thomas Camp) was a bank robber and hit man. Originally with Egan’s Rats in St. Louis, Missouri, he contracted out to the Purple Gang of Detroit, Michigan, until he eventually became one of Al Capone’s American Boys in Chicago, Illinois. He is widely believed to have been one of the perpetrators of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, a hit on George “Bugs” Moran (née Adelard Cunin) and his North Side Gang, in Chicago on 14-FEB-1929. Burke is the only one that could be positively linked to the massacre. This was done through the submachine guns that were found in a house owned by Burke in Stevensville, Michigan, on 14-DEC-1929. Burke himself was arrested in Milan, Missouri, on 26-MAR-1931.
At present Oklahoma is being ravaged by a thug called “Pretty-boy” Floyd, who seems to be a reversion to the old-time outlaw type. He has eleven men to his credit, seven or eight or which are officers of the law, which probably accounts for the failure of the authorities to apprehend him. It’s a lot easier to beat a confession of some sort out of some harmless poor devil than it is to nab a young desperado who wears a steel bullet-proof vest, and draws and shoots like lightning with either hand.
‒ Robert Howard, letter to H.P. Lovecraft (24-MAY-1932)
Charles “Pretty Boy” Floyd was a bank robber and hit man who operated in the Midwestern USA between 1925 and 1934. After John Dillinger’s death, he was named Public Enemy No.1 on 23-JUL-1934 by the Bureau of Investigation, which renewed its efforts to catch him.