Melvin Purvis Biography (1903-1960)

melvin-purvis bureau chief, lawyer. Born Melvin Horace Purvis on October 24, 1903. He is best known as the federal agent responsible for bringing several notorious criminals to justice, among them, the outlaws John Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd, and Adam Richetti. The son of a tobacco farmer of Scottish heritage, in Timmonsville, South Carolina, Purvis graduated from the University of South Carolina with a law degree, and then worked for a law firm. In 1927 he moved to Washington, D.C., where he began working for the Justice Department.

Melvin Horace Purvis was born the fifth of 12 children to Melvin Horace Purvis, Sr. and Janie Elizabeth Mims in Timmonsville, South Carolina. After graduating from The Citadel Military Academy, Melvin, Jr. entered the University of South Carolina and received his law degree in 1925. For the next two years, he worked as a junior partner at the prestigious law firm of Willcox and Hardee in Florence, South Carolina. For a short time, he thought of a career as a diplomat, but the State Department was not hiring at that time. Heeding the call of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to set new professional standards at the FBI, he joined the Bureau in 1927.

excelled as a field agent and quickly rose through the ranks. He was one of the few agents given special attention by Hoover, in spite of his less-than-stellar administrative performance. During his early career, he headed the Division of Investigation offices in Birmingham, Alabama, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, and Cincinnati, Ohio, performing his duties in an exemplary fashion. In 1932, he was placed in charge of the Chicago office by Hoover.

Small in stature (one newspaper account measures him at five-feet-four-inches, weighing 127 pounds), Purvis was referred to as “Little Mel,” by the press and even by J. Edgar Hoover. He spoke softly with a mellifluous Southern drawl. He was famously frugal with words, often refusing to comment on spectacular cases in which he played a part. One newspaper of the day referred to him as a “clam personified.” The success of his FBI career was marked by his painstaking diligence in tracking down the most notorious gangsters of society.

Beginning in 1933, John Dillinger and his gang went on a violent spree of bank robberies throughout the states of Indiana, Illinois, and Ohio, killing numerous innocents and several local police officers. In less than a year, his gang stole an estimated $150,000. After an arrest in Tucson, Arizona, during the bank robber’s “vacation,” Dillinger was extradited to Indiana. In an infamous escape from jail—legend has it he brandished a wooden gun fooling police officers—Dillinger fled Crown Point prison on March 3, 1934. He drove a stolen vehicle across state lines, which was a federal offense and brought him into the jurisdiction of the FBI. Two days after Dillinger’s jail break, Hoover ordered Purvis to develop a network of informants to capture the desperado. Dillinger was deemed “Public Enemy No. 1,” and the manhunt was on.

On April 23, 1934, Melvin Purvis received a tip that John Dillinger was hiding out at a resort lodge known as “Little Bohemia” in Rhinelander, Wisconsin. Sometime after midnight, Purvis and several agents drove to the lodge and parked their cars some distance away. They walked into the woods, but without a map or firsthand knowledge of the surroundings. As they got closer, they could see the lodge was occupied. A dog barked as three men walked out of the lodge and got in a car. Alarmed and agitated, the agents opened fire on the car, thinking the men were members of Dillinger’s gang. The lodge exploded with gunfire. The agents killed one of the men in the parking lot and wounded the other two. FBI agent W.C. Baum also died in the shootout, and two other agents were wounded. In the confusion, the Dillinger gang slipped out of the lodge via a carefully planned escape route. Reports differ on whether Dillinger was even at the lodge at the time; however FBI records state that he was. It was later discovered that the man killed in the car and the two wounded individuals were local Civilian Conservation Corps workers who had stopped in at the lodge for a beer.

For a time, Dillinger went into hiding. Melvin Purvis was shaken by the disaster at Little Bohemia, but even more determined. He secured a contact with one of Dillinger’s friends, Anna Sage, who would later become known in the press as “the woman in red.” Sage cooperated with the FBI in order to avoid deportation to her native Romania. (Despite the tacit arrangement, she was deported nonetheless.) On July 22, 1934, following a setup arranged by Sage, Purvis and his group of agents waited outside the Biograph Theater in Chicago until Dillinger emerged. Although Purvis never fired a single shot, it was his signal—he identified Dillinger to his men by lighting a cigar—which led to the shootout that killed the gangster and made Purvis an overnight hero. But Purvis refused to accept any direct credit, and shielded his agents from possible reprisal by describing the operation in military terms, where each man had a job to do and contributed equally. Nonetheless, Purvis became famous as “The Man Who Got Dillinger.”

Among his other credits, Purvis was also responsible for bringing about the conviction of Kansas City gangster Adam Richetti by serving as a key witness at his trial in the Union Station Massacre of 1933. He also spearheaded the raid that led to the capture of Vern Sankley, another “Public Enemy No. 1” who faced charges of abduction, but who killed himself before he could be brought to trial. Beyond Dillinger, the most notorious gangster to be overthrown was Lester M. Gillis, a.k.a. “Baby Face Nelson,” who died in a Purvis-led shootout in Chicago on November 27, 1934.

Beyond Dillinger, one of the most notorious gangsters to be brought to justice by Melvin Purvis was “Pretty Boy Floyd,” a.k.a. Charles Arthur Floyd. According to FBI records, on October 22, 1934, four FBI agents and four East Liverpool (Ohio) Police Department officers were searching an East Liverpool neighborhood in two separate cars for Pretty Boy Floyd. The team of FBI agents spotted a vehicle behind a corn crib. Floyd emerged from the car with a drawn .45 caliber pistol and the agents opened fire. Struck by bullets, Floyd reportedly said “I’m done for; you’ve hit me twice,” and died 15 minutes later.

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