Melvin Purvis: The Man Who Took Down Dillinger
May 27th, 2009
Melvin Purvis is most famous for his lead role in apprehending John Dillinger outside the Biograph Theatre in Chicago, IL on July 22, 1934. The fatal ambush on Dillinger promoted Purvis to legendary status, although he made sure to spread credit around.
Hoover, who was responsible for ‘discovering’ Purvis and helping him advance his career as head of the Chicago office of the FBI did not like the attention Purvis received. In fact, Purvis’ popularity surpassed that of Hoover for a brief period. Jealous, Hoover assigned Purvis to worthless cases, and Purvis resigned from the FBI a year after the Dillinger capture.
The story of Melvin Purvis, however, does not end there.
Purvis continued to occupy the public eye, but now as a celebrity commercial product endorser. Purvis viewed this profession with shame, and he felt totally humiliated. In his later years he also became ill and was suffering from pain.
The once highly regarded and decorated FBI Chief met his demise by his own hand, according to the FBI who investigated his death and reported it was suicide. Purvis shot himself with the .45 automatic pistol his fellow agents gave him when he resigned, and not the supposedly legendary weapon that he was carrying when his team took down Dillinger. It was later determined that evidence could have suggested that Purvis’ death was accidental, and occurred as he was removing a jammed tracer from the weapon.
John Dillinger: Dead or Alive?
May 22nd, 2009
Much of the controversy surrounding Dillinger’s death has to do with the post-mortem identification of his body. There are some who believe that the individual who was shot and killed by FBI agents on the night of July 22, 1934 outside the Biograph Theatre in Chicago, IL was not John Dillinger, but perhaps Dillinger-look-alike and petty criminal Jimmy Lawrence. Dillinger had in fact been using the pseudonym Jimmy Lawrence around Chicago for quite some time.
There may have been a good reason too for the FBI to cover up a mistake on their part, if in fact it was not John Dillinger who they killed. Just a few months before his death, Dillinger and his gang settled in to the Little Bohemia Lodge in Wisconsin, where they hid out of sight of the authorities. The innkeepers found out who they were harboring but were promised that no harm would befall them. Meanwhile, Dillinger didn’t trust them, and made sure that a member of his gang followed them into town, watched their every move, and listened in on all their phone calls and conversations. On one occasion, though, word was transmitted to the FBI that Dillinger was hiding out at the Little Bohemia Lodge, and FBI Agent Melvin Purvis assembled his team to storm the lodge and capture Dillinger. The execution didn’t work out as planned, and on top of the entire Dillinger Gang escaping the Lodge unharmed, Purvis and his agents managed to kill several innocent bystanders and lost a member of their team in a gunfight exchange. The incident nearly lost Hoover his title of Director of the FBI and the incident embarrassed the entire Bureau and cast doubt on their ability to maintain order. A second embarrassment of that nature during another Dillinger capture might well have been grounds for dismissal of many of the top FBI officials, and perhaps even graver repercussions for the Bureau.
There were other dubious circumstances surrounding the events that followed Dillinger’s death. The informant who notified Purvis where Dillinger would be that evening, Anna Sage, was promised U.S. citizenship in exchange for her information; however, when the dust finally settled, she ended up being deported after all. Another point of contention was that the person who was killed that night was even carrying a weapon. FBI agents claimed to have seen Dillinger reach for a weapon before he set off running into the side alleyway. The FBI even showcased in their headquarters the gun that was supposedly on Dillinger’s body the night he was killed. It turns out, however, that the small Colt semi-automatic pistol on display at the FBI was only manufactured after Dillinger’s death, making it impossible to have been the one he was allegedly carrying.
And then there were the autopsy findings, which were equivocal. Forensic analysis of the victim showed that he had stippling patterns on his neck, which is due to close range fire, and when writer Jay Robert Nash conducted his reconstruction of the crime scene in 1970 it showed that Dillinger had to have been in a prone position when he was shot. This would suggest that Dillinger was somehow tackled to the ground and was defenseless. (Note: Nash is not a trained or licensed crime scene investigator or forensic scientist, and the bases of his findings have not been scientifically referenced nor validated). Several physical discrepancies also existed. The scar on Dillinger’s face was not present at autopsy, which could have been the result of successful plastic surgery, but upon viewing the victim, Dillinger’s father exclaimed that it was not his son. A close up of the corpse face showed a full set of front teeth, however, it was known through various documented photographs and dental records that Dillinger was missing his front right incisor. The corpse’s brown eyes also did not match that of Dillinger, who supposedly had grey eyes. Finally, the body showed signs of certain illnesses and heart conditions that were inconsistent with prior medical records and Dillinger’s level of activity.
The body was, however, positively identified by John Dillinger’s sister upon viewing a characteristic scar on his leg. Furthermore, the fingerprints recovered from the victim were also poor in quality, due to the fact that Dillinger had attempted to remove his fingerprints by burning them with acid, but showed consistent features with Dillinger’s known fingerprints. The change in eye color can also be explained through post-mortem pigment changes in the eye.
If Dillinger managed to exploit the vulnerability of the FBI and escape death yet another time, this surely would be his greatest escape ever. BUT, these conspiracy theories are not widely accepted and exist among a small group of individuals not including the law enforcement and scientific communities.
John Dillinger: Fingerprint Obliteration
May 18th, 2009
John Dillinger (June 22, 1903–July 22, 1934), one of the most notorious criminals in American History, was often glorified by the American media for his daring bank heists and thrilling prison escapes. He operated in the 20’s and 30’s during the Great Depression Era and was idolized by many as the modern day Robin Hood because he stole from those same institutions that were capitalizing on the American people’s misfortunes. Dillinger’s “career” as a criminal included over 11 bank robberies throughout the Midwest, in which he stole in excess of $300,000, and three separate jail breaks. The mystique surrounding Dillinger’s exploits was so captivating that people often forgot (or turned a blind eye to the fact) that he was responsible for at least 10 murders including that of a Sheriff, the deaths of several innocent bystanders, and that he left a trail of carnage in his wake. Dillinger’s activities, however, did not go unnoticed by Chief Investigator Melvin Purvis of the F.B.I., who was assigned the task of bringing Dillinger and his gang to justice. When J. Edgar Hoover and the F.B.I. named Dillinger the first Public Enemy Number One on his 31st birthday in 1934, his fame took on a new meaning, and his name and face became recognizable in every household throughout the Midwest and the rest of the country. There was even a $10,000 reward for his capture!
Now a public figure, Dillinger turned to plastic surgery to alter his identity and evade Purvis and the rest of the law enforcement community. In those days, plastic surgery was not as common as it is today, and the medical procedures were primitive, dangerous, time-consuming and very painful. Dillinger underwent several bouts of plastic surgery, some more successful than others, but in the end he only managed to slightly alter his appearance. After one round of plastic surgery from which he was extremely disappointed to find that he still looked the same, one of the doctors suggested that he remove his fingerprints as a way to escape being detected. Dillinger liked this idea and elected to undergo the painful process of obliterating his fingerprints.
Dillinger was not the first criminal to come up with that idea. In 1933, “Handsome Jack” Klutas had attempted to file down the small ridges on his fingers, but he ultimately failed. Two of Kate “Ma” Barker’s clan, Alvin “Creepy” Karpis and Ma’s son Freddy, decided to remove their fingerprints as well, so they hired mob physician Joseph P. Moran to do the job. Moran was inexperienced in this procedure and repeatedly hacked and knifed at their prints until the gangsters couldn’t bear any more pain, but when their fingers finally healed, the fingerprint ridges grew back to their original patterns.
Hoover was aware of this trend among criminals and he became wary of the possibility of success. He commissioned several surgeons and dermatologists to report on the likelihood of someone obliterating their fingerprints, and in 1934 they came back with their findings. Dr. Howard L. Updegraff, a member of that committee, had extensive experience in the area of fingerprint alterations and he reported that the only way to permanently obliterate a fingerprint is to graft skin from another part of the body over them. And in 1941, that’s exactly what Robert Phillips did when he got a doctor to graft the skin from his chest on to the tips of his fingers. Phillips, however, was caught because the ridges surrounding the graft areas, as well as on the other joints of his fingers were used to identify him.
Dillinger seemed to have taken the road less traveled when he chose acid to burn the tips of his fingers with in late May, 1934. The procedure appeared to be successful; however, faint ridge markings were still visible on his fingertips after the full healing process, as were seen after Dillinger’s death.
Many people in American history have attempted to elude the authorities by scarring or ruining their fingerprints, but forensics has been able to keep up with those criminals all the while. In fact, as Phillips found out firsthand, just ruining the tips of one’s fingers does not preclude fingerprint identification. The ridges that are found on the tips of one’s fingers are also found on the entire surface of the palm, and they are just as unique to an individual. Furthermore, by introducing scars onto one’s fingers, it makes the identification process even easier, since the scar patterns are unique and less common to the general population.
If one thing can be learned from Dillinger and the other notorious outlaws of the Gangster Era it’s that crime does not pay, and eventually criminals will be brought to justice, and not always the pretty way.
Did you know…
February 16th, 2009
John Dillinger tried to remove his fingerprints by burning his fingertips in acid.
To learn more about John Dillinger, the National Museum of Crime & Punishment has an entire exhibit dedicated to Dillinger and the criminals of the Great Depression Era, including the car owned by Dillinger himself!