A New Year's Day Connection to Public Enemy #1

When Indiana-born John Dillinger — “public enemy # 1” (portrayed by Johnny Depp in the recently-released DVD, Public Enemies) — raided banks in the early 1930s, he carried all manner of weapons ranging from Thompson submachine-guns, to 12-gauge shotguns loaded with buckshot, to a pair of M1911 .45 automatic pistols. His men also were armed with Thompsons and much heavier BARs.

In more than one bank robbery, a well-dressed Dillinger — brandishing a sawed-off 12-gauge, double-barrel Parker shotgun with a modified stock — would leap over a counter as his heavily armed men raced with near military proficiency to predetermined positions inside the bank.

Once in control of the bank, the most notorious gangster in America (at that time) would proclaim to all of his terrified hostages: “This will be a day you’ll remember and tell your grandchildren about: You are being robbed by John Dillinger.”

There were several such days to remember, and no doubt never forgotten by those present.

I too had a Dillinger experience — though hardly as exciting as those who met him in the 1930s — on New Year’s Day, 2010, nearly 76 years after Dillinger was gunned down outside Chicago’s Biograph theater by a crack FBI team under the command of FBI special agent Melvin Purvis of South Carolina; a man also destined to take down George “Baby Face” Nelson and Charles "Pretty Boy" Floyd (the movie had it wrong because Dillinger was killed before Nelson and Floyd).

My experience was the opportunity to see, spend time with, and handle several of both Dillinger’s and Purvis’s weapons, part of the vast private collection of Col. Ross E. Beard (S.C. Military Department), a Dillinger-Purvis expert and the godson of Purvis.

“Dillinger was brazen as hell making such proclamations and particularly announcing his name during bank heists,” Col. Beard told me as I disassembled the infamous sawed-off Parker 12-gauge, and prepared to clean it.

Granted, as any Marine like myself will tell you quickly, weapons-cleaning is not a pleasurable pursuit. But to have the opportunity to become so intimately familiar with the shotgun Dillinger used several times during holdups (and surely a gunbattle or two) was an amazing connection to American history that will always be with me.

Other weapons I handled included Dillinger’s Colt .32 pocket automatic, Purvis’s Colt .38 snubnose with the FBI emblem in the handle, Purvis’s S&W .357 magnum (also with the FBI emblem in the handle), and a vast assortment of knives, pistols, shotguns, rifles, and submachineguns from around the world, including several weapons and special operations tools used by Beard’s good friend, former SAS operative Capt. Peter Mason. And Beard has several Purvis and Dillinger weapons, which I had previously seen, on loan to the S.C. Military Museum in Columbia.

Beard also shared with me personal stories about his growing up in Florence, S.C., being taken under Purvis’ wing as a boy of about eight or nine years old, taking care of Purvis private gun collection, even meeting then-FBI director J. Edgar Hoover.

“Purvis was not only my godfather, but he was like a father to me,” said Beard.

Indeed, for as Purvis’s own son, Alston Purvis, writes in his 2005 book, The Vendetta: FBI Hero Melvin Purvis’s War Against Crime, and J. Edgar Hoover’s War Against Him: “It was Ross [Beard], much more than my brothers and I, who witnessed my father’s pride in his accomplishments with the Bureau. My father even discussed with him some of his frustration about Hoover, a subject he would never entertain with his sons. He told Ross he never sought to be a hero, how all he wanted to do was his job.”

It seems Hoover grew jealous of the publicity Purvis received after the man who brought down public enemy #1 became America’s most-famous G-man.

Purvis died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in 1960. Some say it was suicide. Others, like Beard, contend it was accidental.

Hoover died of natural causes in 1972.

Beard and I capped the day off by driving out to the site of the Battle of Camden, near Beard’s home, where in 1780 British Gen. Sir Charles Cornwallis decisively defeated Continental forces under Gen. Horatio Gates.

There in woods not far from where the legendary Gen. Johann Baron de Kalb was mortally wounded, Beard and I fired a few shots from both my Taurus PT 111 Pro 9mm and my FNP .45 ACP.

Beard loved the FNP. “That’s as fine a pistol as I’ve ever shot,” he said.

He then handed me a tiny silver-colored game piece, shaped like an old German Luger, and with “G-man” embossed on the handle.

It was once owned by America’s most-famous G-man, Melvin Purvis. It was given by Purvis to Beard when he was a boy. And Beard gave it to me.

Certainly not as exciting a day as that spent by some Americans who were simply trying to transact bank business in the early 1930s when Dillinger and his gang suddenly burst on the scene. But it was every bit as memorable, and a whole lot safer.