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Hoover wrecked my FBI hero dad, reveals CFA prof

Melvin Purvis. Photo Courtesy of Howard Gotlieb Archival Resource Center

This article is excerpted from the Fall 2005 Bostonia magazine.

“Get Dillinger.”

That summed up the mission of countless law enforcement officials in the early 1930s. And no one wanted to nail the notorious bank robber and killer more than Melvin Purvis, the legendary special agent in charge of the FBI’s Chicago office, or his boss, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover.

The Dillinger gang had been terrorizing the Midwest, killing 10 men, robbing police arsenals, and staging three jailbreaks. “His capture became a national obsession,” writes Purvis’ son, Alston Purvis, chairman of the graphic design department at the College of Fine Arts, in a new book about his father.

The Vendetta: FBI Hero Melvin Purvis’ War Against Crime, and J. Edgar Hoover’s War Against Him (PublicAffairs, 2005), is also about another obsession: Hoover’s decades-long persecution of Melvin Purvis, which began shortly after he and his agents dramatically put an end to Dillinger’s crime spree.

Hoover’s hostility devastated the Purvis family. Melvin Purvis died in a possible suicide in 1960, when Alston was 16. “A big part of my mother died that day too,” he writes.

After the birth of his own son in 1995, Alston Purvis was determined to set the record straight on his father, whose reputation, he says, was maliciously diminished by Hoover. His new book, written with Alex Tresinowski, a senior writer at People magazine, details how Hoover drove his father from the bureau, “blocked him from getting jobs, ordered agents to dig up dirt on him, invented stories that impugned his character, and deleted him from official FBI histories.”

What caused Hoover’s resentment? Purvis learned from his father’s letters — and letters from Hoover in FBI files made available through the Freedom of Information Act — that the bureau director initially supported and praised the young lawyer, who joined the bureau in 1927. And then, Purvis and his men gunned down Dillinger outside Chicago’s Biograph Theater in the summer of 1934. Three months later, they killed the armed bank robber and cop killer “Pretty Boy” Floyd in an Ohio cornfield.

Hoover wanted publicity for himself, or at least for the bureau as a whole, not for Melvin Purvis. But Americans were fascinated by the handsome, suave, well-dressed Southerner with the style and charm Hoover lacked. As his fame grew, so did Hoover’s jealousy. The Floyd shooting “sealed Purvis’s fate,” writes Alston Purvis. “He was now a full-blown star.”

Green-eyed boss

Knowing Hoover wanted the spotlight, Purvis told reporters that the FBI director deserved the credit for Floyd’s killing. But although Hoover blocked dozens of requests for interviews and photos of his star agent, it was Purvis who was touted as Floyd’s heroic slayer.

Hoover seethed. On November 17, 1934, he ordered one of many “white glove” inspections of the FBI’s Chicago office, which produced a laundry list of petty violations, including dirty dishes and stenographers smoking cigarettes.

Purvis continued to do his job diligently. On November 27, his men caught up with Dillinger gang member “Baby Face” Nelson and put 17 bullets in him. The next month, shortly before Purvis was named among the 10 most outstanding personalities in the world by the magazine Literary Digest, Hoover stripped the agent of his command of the Chicago office. Finally fed up, Purvis resigned in 1935.

Hoover’s hostility didn’t end. He tried to convince private-sector employers not to hire Purvis, and following Purvis’s World War II service in Army Intelligence, blocked him from getting at least two federal judgeships in the 1950s. “Things seemed to mysteriously fall through,” says Alston Purvis. “He tried to patch things up with Hoover, but he couldn’t.”

Purvis visited FBI headquarters occasionally to drop in on the director, but he was rebuffed. “Not available,” wrote Hoover at the bottom of the memos.

Purvis says that his father never wanted to believe that his former boss, once his friend and mentor, could be so vindictive. “He never said a bad word about Hoover until about three months before his death,” says Purvis.

On December 8, 1959, suffering from chronic back pain and depression, Melvin learned that his good friend Bartley Crum had committed suicide. Crum, a lawyer who had defended blacklisted screenwriters before the House Un-American Activities Committee, had also been hounded by Hoover and had told Purvis he had been under surveillance for many years.

“Damn Hoover for this,” Alston Purvis heard his father say as he paced around his house. “Damn Hoover.”

When Melvin died, the Purvis family received no letter of condolence from the FBI or from Hoover, who merely announced the former agent’s death without mention of his accomplishments.

Lasting anger

Looking through family photos in his office, Alston Purvis seems mostly untainted by bitterness. But at times an undercurrent of outrage creeps into his gentle Southern drawl.

He says that speaking to his father’s former secretary, Doris Lockerman, who is now 95, gave him much of the motivation to write The Vendetta. “This ought to be an angry book,” she told him.

Until he first met Lockerman several years ago, Purvis hadn’t cried for his father in more than three decades. But he cried with Lockerman in her Atlanta home that day as she recounted her boss’s bravery and Hoover’s campaign against him. “The rise and fall of Melvin Purvis meant something,” she said. “It is up to you to discover what it was, and to tell that story to the world.”

But most of all, Purvis wrote The Vendetta for his son.

He knows that his son will ask him one day if his grandfather was a hero. “I will tell him my father led men into battle, that he risked his life more than once,” he says. “I will tell him my father believed in duty, honor, dignity. I will tell him he never boasted or bragged about the things he did. I will say, ‘Yes, my father was a hero.’”

Alston Purvis will read from The Vendetta and sign copies of his book at 7 p.m. this Thursday, October 6, at Barnes and Noble at BU, 660 Beacon St., Boston.


In addition, the free public exhibition Espionage: Intelligence, Secrets and Spies, at BU’s Mugar Memorial Library through October, 2006, includes a section on Melvin Purvis. Organized by BU’s Howard Gotlieb Archival Resource Center, the exhibition is in the Richards-Frost Room on the main floor of the library, and is open Monday through Friday, from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.