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Secrets, spies, conspiracies, and villains

Archival Research Center casts light on the shadowy world of espionage, coverups

FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover greets Melvin Purvis (left), special agent in charge of the bureau's Chicago office, at Union Station in Washington, D.C. in 1934. Photo courtesy of the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center

This story appeared in BU Today on September 16.

“Get Dillinger for me and the world is yours,” wrote FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to Melvin Purvis, the legendary special agent in charge of the bureau’s Chicago office in 1934.

“That statement would prove to be one of history’s great false promises,” writes his son, Alston Purvis, in his forthcoming book, The Vendetta: FBI Hero Melvin Purvis’s War Against Crime, and J. Edgar Hoover’s War Against Him, about a jealous Hoover’s decades-long persecution of Melvin Purvis, which began shortly after he and his agents dramatically put an end to bank robber John Dillinger’s crime spree.

Alston Purvis, chairman of the graphic design department at CFA, joins author and journalist Gerald Posner to kick off this year’s Friends Speaker Series at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, September 20, in Metcalf Hall. The event is in conjunction with the opening of two Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center exhibitions. Tickets are $25 and are available by calling 617-353-3696.

The first exhibition, entitled Espionage: Intelligence, Secrets and Spies, includes sections on Melvin Purvis and Posner and is free and open to the public. It runs from September 20 through October, 2006, in the Richards-Frost Room on the main floor of Mugar Memorial Library, Monday through Friday, from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

Posner, author of the book Case Closed: Lee Harvey Oswald and the Assassination of JFK (1993), is featured in the second exhibition, entitled Investigations of Conspiracies and Villains, open to the public from Tuesday, September 21, through Thursday, November 10 on the library’s main floor during regular hours.

Posner’s latest book, Secrets of the Kingdom (2005), examines the hidden connections between the American government and the Saudi royal family and the family’s connection with the September 11 terrorist attacks.

Espionage: Intelligence, Secrets, and Spies is an ambitious exhibition,” says coordinator Perry Barton. “The documents from our archives are amazing — 19 different stories are told, and each one is so rich.”

He points out that items in the show go all the way back to America’s first spy, Silas Deane. In 1778, Deane helped Benjamin Franklin convince the French to provide commercial and military aid to the colonies. Later that year, however, the Continental Congress accused Deane of war profiteering, and Franklin became disappointed in his old colleague. “We have a 1782 letter from Ben Franklin to Deane in which he essentially says he is no longer Deane’s friend,” Barton says.

The exhibition also has documents from other infamous personalities from the world of intrigue, including Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, American Communists who were tried, convicted, and executed in 1953 for spying for the Soviet Union, and Tyler Kent. As the code clerk in the American Embassy in London, Kent learned of secret messages between Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt before America’s entrance into World War II. He was jailed for exposing the correspondence. The documents from the Melvin Purvis papers includes the front page of the July 22, 1934, London Evening Standard, emblazoned with the large headline “Dillinger Shot Dead.”

On September 27, the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center, a repository for the personal papers of more than 2,000 influential public figures, writers, and performers, will present even more documents from the world of espionage and intelligence in the first of this year’s 11 Student Discovery Seminars. The seminar will take place at 5 p.m. on the fifth floor of Mugar.

In addition, the Archival Research Center will honor Senator Edward William Brooke, III, by investing him as a fellow of the center at 6 p.m. on Thursday, September 22, at the Metcalf Ballroom of the George Sherman Union, at 775 Commonwealth Ave. For more information, click here.