Idiots Guide: 12 Original American Public Enemies

It may seem difficult to believe today, but there was a time in the early to mid 1930’s that  United States financial institutions and law enforcement were literally being terrorized by murderous bank robbing gangsters as part of a prolific crime wave. The irony is that these criminals were actually considered heroes by the average American on the street. The country was being financially choked by the ‘Great Depression’ and banking institutions were demonized by people who felt victimized by their cold hearted and perceived soulless policies. In some ways this opinion hasn’t changed much. Combined with the unprecedented rise of prohibition era criminals, there was a 7- year stretch (1929-1936) where banks throughout the nation were being robbed…daily. It was during this time that the bank robbing anti-hero was born. Local law enforcement called them a scourge, newsreels made them matinee idols and J. Edgar Hoover’s fledgling F.B.I. called them ‘Public Enemies’. Idiots Guide presents a list of these original American public enemies.

Tommy Gun

#12. Alvin Karpis   /  Robbery – Kidnapping   /  Captured: May 1, 1936

Alvin Karpis

Alvin Francis Karpis was also known as ‘Creepy’ and/or ‘Ray’ by his criminal associates. He started building his reputation at the early age of 10 in Kansas, before graduating to the head table of the Barker-Karpis gang in the 1930’s. Part of what set Karpis and his gang (featuring Ma Barker) apart was their willingness to shoot and kill any innocent bystanders who had the misfortune of getting in their way. Although the gang robbed their share of banks, they made far more money in the kidnapping for ransom game. A game that eventually led to Karpis’s capture in  New Orleans, Louisiana on May 1, 1936.

#11. Fred ‘Killer’ Burke /  Contract Murder /  Captured: March 26, 1931

Fred %22Killer%22 Burke

Fred ‘Killer’ Burke is widely known and/or famous for his suspected role in the infamous St. Valentine’s Day Massacre of 1929. Fred was a prolific violent criminal during the ‘Depression Era’. In 1922 Burke chose St. Louis, Missouri as his personal stomping grounds as he became a member of the notorious gang the ‘Egan’s Rats’. In 1928 Al Capone had a serious Bugs Moran problem and he allegedly asked Fred Burke and his people to be a permanent solution, thus spawning the aforementioned St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. This became a shocking mass murder whose violence and brutality rocked the entire nation. Burke’s 1929 murder of Policeman Charles Skalay officially made him one of Americas most wanted and marked the beginning of the end of his life of crime. His notoriety helped bring him down as an amateur Green City, Missouri gumshoe recognized Burke’s photo in True Detective magazine, notified law enforcement leading to his arrest.

#10. ‘Mad Dog’ Underhill / Bank Robbery / Captured: December 30, 1933

mad dog wilmer

Wilbur Underhill, Jr. nicknamed ‘Mad Dog’ was also known as the ‘Tri-State Terror’. Underhill and his gang terrorized Oklahoma during the late 1920’s and into the 1930’s. After being convicted on murder and armed robbery charges, ‘Mad Dog’ escaped from the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in July of 1931. Throughout his criminal career ‘Mad Dog’ found himself committing crimes and murder for little pay-off. For example, there was a $52 movie theatre robbery and a $15 gas station robbery both of which involved murdered persons. His Bailey-Underhill Gang were responsible for dozens of bank robberies in the early 1930’s. He was finally captured in Shawnee, Oklahoma in 1933.

#9.  Frank ‘Jelly’ Nash  / Armed Robbery / Captured/Killed:  June 17, 1933

Frank %22Jelly%22 Nash

It is a little known fact that Frank ‘Jelly’ Nash is considered in many circles as the most successful armed bank robber in the history of the United States. However, he is widely known for his involvement and subsequent violent death in the notorious ‘Kansas City Massacre’ which was an ill-fated attempt to free him by ‘Pretty Boy’ Floyd and Adam Richetti from police custody. Nash was the reputed mastermind behind over 200 bank robberies using several different gangs before his eventual capture and death in 1933.

#8. ‘Slim Gray’ Gibson / Armed Robbery / Captured/Killed: January 8, 1935 

Slim Gray Gibson

‘Slim Gray’ Gibson was a notorious ‘Depression Era’ bank robber who ran with Alvin Karpis and the ‘Barker Gang’ during the late 1920s and into the mid 1930s and just like all of the other members of the gang , was eventually captured and/or killed circa 1935 following a 5 year murderous bank robbing spree throughout the midwest United States.  After exchanging heated gunfire with FBI agents in Chicago, Gibson was killed in 1935.

#7. ‘Ma’  Barker / Outlaw Ring Leader / Captured/Killed: January 16, 1935 

Ma Barker

Arizona Donnie Barker aka Kate Barker aka Ma Barker was the matriarch of a family of violent criminals, many of whom were members of the ‘Barker Gang’ during the ‘Depression Era’ from which ‘Public Enemies’ were born. Ma routinely hit the fugitive road with her sons as a nationwide manhunt for them was closing in fast. Many historians claim that Ma Barker’s portrayal as the leader and/or mastermind of the ‘Barker-Karpis’ gang in films and popular culture is widely exaggerated. Although what isn’t disputed is her predilection for being part of the murderous gang that terrorized the mid-west.

#6. ‘Pretty Boy’  Floyd /  Bank Robbery  / Captured/Killed: October 1934 

Pretty Boy Floyd

Much like his ‘Depression Era’ bank robbing contemporaries such as ‘Babyface’ Nelson, Charles Arthur ‘Pretty Boy’ Floyd despised his pop culture given nickname. It was this same culture and press coverage that sensationalized his criminal accomplishments during the 1930s. Sensationalism that has cemented Floyd as a notorious popular culture anti-hero of iconic status. Like many people of the era, it could be argued that Floyd was as much a tragic victim of hard-time circumstance as a criminal. In either case, Floyd was a central figure in the Kansas City underworld where he performed a plethora of felonious activities, namely bank robberies, over a period of years back to back. It was at that time that he inherited the nickname ‘Pretty Boy’ for his boyish good looks that belied his danger. He was killed by police during a gunfight as part of his attempted capture in 1934.

#5. Bonnie Parker/Clyde Barrow / Robbery-Murder / Killed: May 1934

Bonnie Clyde

Bonnie & Clyde are a fixture in American criminal folklore. Their exploits and perceived love story have taken on a legendary life of their own over the decades. The lion’s share of their exploits circle around a string of smaller robberies to gather resources to satisfy Clyde Darrow’s thirst for revenge against Eastham Prison and it’s guards. In 1932, after a store robbery in Hillsboro, Texas in which the owner was killed by Clyde,  Bonnie & Clyde officially went on a run that lasted nearly two years and thirteen (13) people, including law enforcement officers murdered. After their ambush and killing in 1934, some 20 additional members of their family as well as friends were arrested and found guilty of the aiding and abetting of Barrow and Parker while they were on the run. Regardless of their murderous actions and social defiance, Bonnie & Clyde are considered American legends.

#4.  Alphonse ‘Al’ Capone  / Mob Boss / Convicted: May 1932 (Tax Evasion)  

Al capone

Unlike the other persons on our list, Alphonse ‘Al’ Capone  was not a hands on bank robber. However, he was labeled as a ‘Public Enemy’ during the 1930’s for his brief, murderous seven (7) year run as head of the ‘Chicago Outfit’. The irony is that he was actually convicted on tax evasion charges and not for any of the murders he was ultimately responsible for over the years. Like many other gangsters, Capone hated his ‘Scarface’ nickname that was a by-product of the scarred left side of his face.  In many ways his 1932 conviction and imprisonment marked the beginning of the end of the rollicking, criminal laden movement during the prohibition, depression era in the United States.

#3.  Machine Gun Kelly  / Robbery-Kidnapping / Captured: Sept 1933  

MachineGunKelly

He was born George Francis Barnes Jr. and he died Machine Gun Kelly. The intervening years of his life were the stuff of criminal legend. Kelly made his bones as a gangster during the prohibition era, around the same time that he inherited his nickname ‘Machine Gun’ which had to do with his predilection for using and love affair with, the ‘Thompson Submachine Gun’. The state of the art firearm of the era. He became infamous after his brazen kidnapping of oil tycoon Charles F. Urschel in July 1933, a crime for which his gang collected a cool $200,000 in ransom ($3.6 Million in today’s money). Unlike most of his criminal peers of the era Kelly lived long enough to eventually die in prison after his 1933 capture in Memphis, Tennessee. Legend says that his stay in Alcatraz was so severe that inmates referred to him as ‘Pop Gun’. Either way, Kelly has become an American legend.

#2. ‘Babyface’ Nelson  / Bank Robbery-Murder / Killed: November 1934 

Babyface Nelson

Nobody dared call Lester Joseph Gillis aka George Nelson ‘Babyface’ as it was a nickname that he despised. It is rumored that he would shoot a person who called him that to his face. The safe bet was to call him ‘Jimmy’ if you had to call him at all. Nelson was a prolific bank robber during the 1930s and was known for his ultra-violent brand of robbery. He didn’t really need an excuse to shoot people, especially police and would often look for one. Over the course of his career he worked with several crews, including a stint with John Dillinger, whom Nelson shocked with his maniacal brutality. They helped each other escape from a Crown Point, Indiana prison. Prison escapes were commonplace and occasionally comical occurrences in the 1930’s. ‘Babyface’ killed more law enforcement officers than any other gangster of the era, including three (3) FBI agents. His violent nature belied his boyish looks and small stature. He met his demise in a shootout with FBI agents in a town called Barrington outside of Chicago. The FBI was out for blood, and Nelson killed two of them prior to his own death. There was no way Nelson was going down without a fight.

#1.  John Dillinger / Bank Robbery / Killed: July 22, 1934 

John Dillenger 2

When it came to incarceration for criminal activities, John Dillinger often did his best Harry Houdini. Dillinger escaped and/or helped others escape, dozens of jails and prisons across the midwest in the 1930’s. In fact, he and his gang would routinely raid small town police stations and relieve them of their weapons, bullet proof vests and even badges. On numerous occasions Dillinger and his gang either outwitted or out shot the FBI during their attempts to apprehend them. As a result Dillinger’s exploits began to grow in popularity as the newsreels in movie theaters would sensationalize and/or report on him. He became America’s ‘Public Enemy’ and remained so until his death in Chicago outside of the Biograph movie theater in July of 1934. It could be easily argued that women were Dillinger’s soft spot and/or achilles heel, as on more than one occasion, including his death, his capture was due to a girlfriend or lady companion. For our money John Dillinger is America’s first and most remembered anti-hero celebrity aka ‘Public Enemy #1’……

dillinger