The Vendetta

Special Agent Melvin Purvis, John Dillinger, and Hoover's FBI in the Age of Gangsters


By Alston Purvis

With Alex Tresniowski

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By the end of 1934 Melvin Purvis was, besides President Roosevelt, the most famous man in America. Just thirty-one years old, he presided over the neophyte FBI’s remarkable sweep of the great Public Enemies of the American Depression — John Dillinger; Pretty Boy Floyd; Baby Face Nelson. America finally had its hero in the War on Crime, and the face of all the conquering G-Men belonged to Melvin Purvis. Yet these triumphs sowed the seeds of his eventual ruin. With each new capture, each new headline touting Purvis as the scourge of gangsters, one man’s implacable resentment grew. J. Edgar Hoover, Director of the FBI, was immensely jealous of the agent who had been his friend and prot’g’, and vowed that Melvin Purvis would be brought down. A vendetta began that would not end even with Purvis’s death. For more than three decades Hoover trampled Purvis’s reputation, questioned his courage and competence, and tried to erase his name from all records of the FBI’s greatest triumphs.

Alston Purvis is Melvin’s only surviving son. With the benefit of a unique family archive of documents, new testimony from colleagues and friends of Melvin Purvis and witnesses to the events of 1934, he has produced a grippingly authentic new telling of the gangster era, seen from the perspective of the pursuers. By finally setting the record straight about his father, he sheds new light on what some might call Hoover’s original sin — a personal vendetta that is one of the earliest and clearest examples of Hoover’s bitter, destructive paranoia.


Praise for The Vendetta
“In The Vendetta, Alston Purvis paints an absolutely compelling portrait of his father the heroic legendary FBI agent, Melvin Purvis. The story is juxtaposed against a backdrop of the 1930 worlds of crime and gangsters and the dark sinister J. Edgar Hoover shadows everything; this book is full of history and of pathos. Plus it’s a terrific read.”
—Patricia Bosworth, author of Diane Arbus: A Biography
“More than just a crime story, this book is an unsettling insight into the corruption and paranoia of the FBI’s powerful leader.”
Boston Magazine
“This account, written by Purvis’ son, is unflinching and sheds new light on the darker side of Hoover.”
—Tucson Citizen
“Fascinating . . . [Purvis] succeeds in giving Melvin Purvis the accolades he deserves.”
Publishers Weekly
“The details of how Purvis hunted America’s Public Enemies (especially Dillinger’s last hours at the Biograph) are fascinating in themselves and prepare the reader to accept the son’s premise that Hoover jealousy haunted Purvis for the rest of his life. Gripping reading for true-crime fans.”
“[T]his exciting story rings true and serves to burnish the reputation of a true American hero.”
Library Journal
“Dillinger was captured, and the authors’ detailed description of it is gripping, putting the reader right at the scene, so that one can almost smell the cigar Purvis lights when he signals his men to close in . . . An immense collection of evidence, obtained directly from the FBI as well as from relatives and others, provides strong support for many of the authors’ assertions . . . the storytelling is well-done, and the graphic descriptions of Purvis and others chasing famous criminals makes for exciting reading.”
Federal Lawyer


“Show me a hero and I will write you a tragedy.”

February 29, 1960
Some memories have a terrible power beyond any telling of them, beyond our ability to harness what they mean. One such memory is of a boy on a raw winter’s morning, summoned from school and told he must go home. The boy, bundled in the back of a car, stares blankly at the landscape rushing past, at familiar homes that are different now, at stately magnolias that now stand forlornly along the driveway to his home in Florence, South Carolina. Apprehension weighs on his chest until the boy believes he cannot breathe. When at last the car arrives at the back of the columned colonial house, the boy sees something he will remember the rest of his life—a small Oriental scatter carpet drenched a deep crimson and draped over a clothesline in the backyard. The family’s chauffeur and butler, Charlie Vivians, is washing the stains with a garden hose, causing a puddle of red water to form in the grass at his feet. “I’m so sorry,” Charlie tells the boy. “I think your mama needs you now.”
The blood on the carpet was my father’s blood. The boy was me. I was sixteen.
That was how it ended for my father—with a .45-caliber bullet fired through his jaw. He was found lying in his own blood, the same end that befell John Dillinger and Pretty Boy Floyd and all the others he had pursued to their deaths so many years before. A man who in life knew great peril and great glory—who had the adulation of an entire citizenry—had become, in the end, bitter and broken. And now his home, his Carolina sanctuary, had become the last killing ground.
Around 11:00 that morning a single gunshot pierced the quiet inside the house. My mother Rosanne had just put clothes in the washer and was in the kitchen planning dinner with the cook, Evelyn Cyrus, when she heard the shot and raced upstairs. My father had taken his breakfast in bed at shortly after 8:00, and his empty tray sat on the night table. Folded carefully over the footrest were a clean shirt and a suit. But nothing else was normal about the scene that greeted my mother at the top of the stairs. She found my father in the hallway outside his bedroom, dressed in pajamas and a red housecoat, lying on his right side with his knees slightly bent. Blood poured from a one-inch wound under his jaw, on the left side and just behind the point of his chin. She saw a cigarette beside his body, half-smoked and stubbed. Bits of plaster littered the hardwood floor, dislodged from the ceiling by the bullet that had passed through the top of my father’s skull. Near his left hand lay a nickel-plated, pearl-handled Colt .45 automatic pistol that had belonged to Gus Winkler, a Chicago contract killer my father had used as an informant. The pistol, one of some 300 guns in his collection, was not normally kept upstairs; only his favorite weapon, the .38-caliber Colt revolver he used in his work, was stashed in his bedroom dresser, alongside a tray of bullets. So it was odd to see Winkler’s polished old pistol claiming an improbable last victim.
My mother telephoned my father’s physician, Dr. Walter R. Mead, telling his secretary, “Send Walter quick. Melvin has shot himself.” Then she sat beside my father’s body for several long minutes until Dr. Mead arrived and sent her to a bedroom.
Mamie and Ed Day Charles, family friends, came to get me at McClenaghan High School. I thought I was being summoned to the principal’s office because of my spotty attendance record or for some other transgression. Then I saw Mamie, her face drained of color. The principal rose from his chair and told me, “Your father died this morning.” Nothing else was said.
I was the first of my father’s three sons to arrive at our family’s twenty-acre estate on Cherokee Road. My older brother Melvin, age twenty, got the call at the University of South Carolina, while ten-year-old Christopher was retrieved from elementary school.
News of the tragic events in Florence soon traveled several hundred miles to the north. At 5:24 that afternoon, the special-agent-in-charge of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Savannah office sent an urgent memorandum to Director J. Edgar Hoover, the man who once had taken my father under his wing and chosen him to be his top agent. “Information received through division that Melvin Horace Purvis committed suicide today,” the memo read. “Further details will be submitted.” Not much later, C. D. DeLoach, an assistant to Hoover, provided more information through one of my father’s friends, a former agent: “Purvis has not looked well for the last several weeks, had not been eating and last week came down with the flu.” Purvis, it read, “feared that osteomyelitis (bone disease) had been spreading through his system.” It was true my father had been ill, suffering from chronic back pain and debilitated by an unshakable case of the Asian flu. He was weak and lethargic, and only a few days before his death had almost fallen on the steps while getting off an airplane. He had trouble sleeping and could not regain his strength despite attempting to eat three solid meals a day. “He expressed many times the feeling of the futility of trying to go ahead with so many circumstances against him,” Dr. Mead would later say. At home he seemed increasingly more distant, dejected, and dependent upon alcohol and pain-killing drugs.
Even so, the memo to Hoover noted that only days before his death, Melvin Purvis declared he would never take his own life—“I’ve got too much to live for,” he had said. The memo ended with a recommendation that the organization to which my father had devoted his finest years not send a letter of condolence to his stricken widow, now the mother of three fatherless sons. Incredibly, Hoover scribbled “right” in the margin of the memo, and no such letter was sent.
Hoover, however, was not content merely to remain silent upon hearing of the death of his former friend and favorite agent. On that day, February 29, 1960, he had the Bureau dispatch a brief memo to the press stating categorically that Melvin Purvis had committed suicide—this, before autopsy, coroner’s report, medical investigation, or official inquest into the shooting. In the days that followed, there were indeed serious questions raised about the circumstances of my father’s death. Why was the pistol found near his left hand when he was right-handed? Did the amount of powder burns indicate the pistol had been fired from a distance? My father had scheduled meetings for that day with Dr. Mead; his lawyer, Hugh L. Willcox; and business partner A. P. Skinner; and he had told the cook that morning that he felt fine. Further, he detested automatic weapons like Winkler’s pistol, which used an ammunition clip containing several shells; one shot still would leave the gun loaded and ready to be fired again. Why would a man obsessed with gun safety use such a dangerous weapon for his wife or whoever discovered him to pick up when he could have used his service revolver loaded with a single bullet? And why was there no suicide note? My father had a habit of writing notes and leaving them everywhere; he always carried a number-one pencil in his right pocket for that purpose.
Such details did not matter to Hoover, who hurriedly announced the suicide of the former agent he had not spoken to in twenty-five years. His bulletin made no mention of my father’s accomplishments, his sacrifices for the Bureau, his place in history. There were no elegant phrases proffering gratitude, no expressions of sadness or sympathy. The sparseness of the bulletin, as well as its swiftness, suggested a trace of gloating. Hoover simply could not wait to publicize what was to him a long-awaited victory—the final silencing of a man he considered his nemesis.
For more than a quarter century, the nation’s top law-enforcement officer waged a secret vendetta against my father. Hoover could not tolerate that my father achieved fame after the killings of John Dillinger and Pretty Boy Floyd, could not bear that the media made Melvin Purvis a hero while funneling diminished credit to Hoover. He railed against editorials that called for Purvis to replace him as head of the Bureau, and he viewed my father as a threat long after it was reasonable to do so. For these reasons, Hoover undertook myriad spiteful activities against my father. He drove him 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. Don Whitehead’s Bureau-authorized 1956 history, The FBI Story, does not even mention Melvin Purvis, who at the time was easily the Bureau’s most famous former agent. Hoover tried to give sole credit for Dillinger’s death to another agent, insisting Melvin Purvis had been little more than a bystander at the event. It is difficult to think of another instance in American history when such a powerful government official used the full weight of his office to crush a former colleague who had been a national hero, and did so solely out of personal animus. Hoover’s well-documented vindictiveness, coupled with his unchecked power, gives my father’s story the arc and the heft of Greek tragedy.
Of course, Hoover was only one player in the drama. No hero is without flaws. To be sure, my father was a complicated man, driven by contradictory impulses. Melvin Purvis never wanted to become a law-enforcement officer, never played cops and robbers as a boy, and went to work at the Bureau only after discovering the Department of State had no openings. He stood a mere five feet nine inches and weighed only 140 pounds, and the papers took to calling him Little Mel. Yet he had a powerful presence that commanded people’s attention whenever he walked into a room. He was a courtly Southern gentleman, a lawyer who loved the theater, opera, and ballet. Yet he was expert at making contacts among underworld figures, earning their respect as a straight-talking man of his word. He was a fine marksman, yet he loathed the prospect of engaging in gun battles, fearing that civilians might get caught in the crossfire. He disdained cheap publicity and insisted on keeping a low profile, yet he had an irrepressible showman’s streak and unquestionably enjoyed the opportunities his exploits later brought him. He was preternaturally confident, unflinchingly sure of himself, and a born leader, yet he was never a glory-hound, preferring to share credit with his devoted men and insisting that Hoover do the same. A meticulous analyst, he was known for his “never ignore anything” philosophy and for his obsessive interest in criminology. Yet he seemed oblivious to the blatant persecution Hoover leveled at him, believing to the end that Hoover was his friend.
Most famously, he showed uncommon candor in confessing to being afraid in times of crisis, though more for the lives of his men than for his own. His well-known fearfulness—he admitted to shaking with nerves during the Dillinger raid—led the press to dub him “Nervous Purvis.” But he never once shirked his duty or shied away from confrontation. Carved on my father’s gravestone are the Latin words Saepe timui sed numquam curri: “I was often afraid, but I never ran.”
Melvin Purvis was also fiercely loyal. I later discovered his weathered 1920 yearbook from Timmonsville High School, where he had been a two-sport athlete as well as president of the literary society. Alongside his formal photograph, in which he looks intently to the future and appears much younger than his sixteen years, was the legend, “Trust in all things high comes easy to him.” In light of how his life would unfold, this catchphrase was eerily ironic. But his trust in authority initially served my father well, for it made him an ideal protégé to the powerful man who would shape his destiny.
The 1930s were a crucial period for America, and with nothing less than the nation’s sense of its worth on the line, Melvin Purvis and J. Edgar Hoover became one of history’s great crime-fighting teams. The two men played to each other’s strengths. Hoover’s professionalism and ferocious resolve were inspirations to my father, giving him the higher purpose for which he abandoned his hometown and his legal career. To Hoover, Melvin Purvis personified everything he wanted in his new breed of federal agent: He was educated, efficient, dedicated, well-mannered—a true gentleman crime-buster. He also was handsome and charming, a formidable presence, capable of swagger—qualities the graceless Hoover so obviously lacked. Those traits attracted Hoover to my father, and his fondness for him was reflected in the many affectionate, personal letters he sent him, addressing him as Mel and signing off as Jayee. Their surprising and at times almost touching friendship fueled a successful professional partnership. Hoover asked for absolute devotion and received it; in exchange he expressed a bolstering confidence in my father, handpicking him for the Bureau’s premier job: running the dangerous and highly visible Chicago field office—ground zero in the war on gangsters. Together the two men seemed capable of great things, and indeed their crime-fighting accomplishments during a mere twenty-month span from 1933 to 1935 forever changed the perception of law enforcement in America.
Those twenty months also profoundly changed both men; they proved a watershed not only for the nation but for Hoover and Purvis as well. Events of the time set them on vastly divergent and irreversible paths. Hoover—who early in his tenure as Bureau director was steadfast and incorruptible in shedding the agency of its scandal-scarred past—used his successes against gangsters to turn the FBI into his fiefdom, ruling it for fifty years and ensuring his dominion by maintaining secret files on presidents and other powerful people. In these pursuits, he became perhaps a more villainous figure than any gangster he pursued. My father, however, had no such lengthy history. Within nine months of cornering Pretty Boy Floyd on the Conkle farm in eastern Ohio—the second top public enemy he took down in just three months—he was out of the Bureau, his tenure as its most celebrated agent over as swiftly as it began. Perhaps what happened in those twenty months was at once Hoover’s greatest triumph and his original sin, defining both the scope of his power and the lengths to which he would go to keep control of his world. By the end of that period, my father and Hoover had ceased to be friends, their partnership dissolved even as it achieved its grandest success. How this could have happened—how the fates of two men were forged in this remarkable moment in history—is the story of this book.
Of course, it is not the entire story, though the rest is not the sort of discussion to be found in history books. After walking away from the FBI, my father went on to other careers. He wrote an autobiography, American Agent, which covered his short but eventful time in the Bureau. He resumed the practice of law in San Francisco; he started a newspaper in Florence, South Carolina, where he eventually bought a radio station, WOLS. He enlisted in the Army during World War II and rose to the rank of colonel; after the war he was dispatched to hunt down fugitive Nazis such as Martin Bormann and to interview war criminals during the Nuremberg trials. Years later he would become special counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee, his final job. In each of these endeavors he accomplished good things. But none came close to matching the glamour and the glory of his crime-fighting days.
He also married and started a family. After years of distance, he returned to his hometown sweetheart, Rosanne Willcox, whom he had left behind fourteen years before when he set out on the adventure that would make him internationally famous. Never mind that she was married to another man; as soon as she divorced, they wed in 1938. They had three sons and lived in the brick two-story colonial house my father had built on farmland once owned by his wife’s parents. He named the place Melrose, for Melvin and Rosanne.
I was almost three years old when I first laid eyes on my father, who had been oversees during the war. We have a home movie of this moment, which has blended with my own partial but vivid memory of the day. I stood on the front lawn with my mother and brother to greet my father upon his arrival from the train station. I remember seeing a figure in a gleaming white uniform climb out of the car. My father bent down and hugged me and then took off his hat, tossing it several feet away. He then instructed me to fetch it. I remember feeling confused. My father was a military man, accustomed to having his orders followed, but I was too young to know this was a spontaneous test of obedience. I took several tentative steps toward the hat, then turned and ran to my mother’s side, hiding behind her knee. My father reached down and spanked me as I clung to my mother’s leg. Later that night, as I was going to bed, my mother came into my room. I asked, “Mama, how long is that Colonel Purvis going to stay?” The psychological wall that was erected between us on that lawn would, over the years, never fully go away.
There were warm, wonderful moments, to be sure, between my father and his three boys, but the true satisfaction of getting to know him seemed to elude us all. Besides his rigid nature, his reticence about his days with the Bureau distanced him from us. Our friends at school knew about his G-man exploits and were fascinated by them, but to us they seemed irrelevant, vague, forgotten. It was not disinterest—it was a necessary posture born of his reluctance to share his stories with us. Those days seemed to matter little to him; why should they matter to us? Of course, we did not know then that the reason he was loath to relive his time chasing gangsters was that he had been saddled with a murky legacy. We did not know that Hoover’s efforts to diminish my father in the public eye had, to a large extent, laid waste to my father’s belief in himself. There was about my father an uncertainty, a restlessness—a drive to complete a story that could never be completed. Instead of basking in his youthful accomplishments and allowing his sons to share in that pride, he wrestled with his self-worth and dwelled not on his bravery but on his failures. “I hope none of my sons do what I did,” he once said to Dolly Coker, our nanny and intimate friend, and my father’s confidant.
“What’s that?” she asked.
“Reach for the moon and miss it.”
And because my father was a hero who died believing he was something less, his sons assumed this cloak of insecurity as part of our inheritance. We, too, were all driven to prove something—to him, to ourselves. All fathers are heroes to their sons, but all fathers eventually betray their sons, because the day comes when we realize that fathers too are human. We must abandon our notion of them as infallible and replace it with something less potent but ultimately truer, deeper, and more satisfying. The question, of course, is, replace it with what? What happens if we cannot reconcile the reality and the myth, cannot discern who our fathers really are? And what if the father himself cannot sort through the fact and the fiction? Is such a father himself ultimately unknowable?
I struggled with those questions for years, as I suppose my brothers, Melvin III and Christopher, did as well, though resolution for me remained out of reach. My mother grieved, enduring her sad widowhood until she died in 1978. Then, in 1984, my brother Christopher got into his battered Chevrolet, parked along a deserted road, and, fueled by alcohol, drugs, and intense depression, slit his wrists. A week later passersby discovered his body, which had badly decomposed in the broiling sun. Christopher was thirty-four. Two years later, Melvin—a new father and as happy as he had been in a long while—suffered a fatal heart attack while playing with his four-year-old son, Asher. Melvin was only forty-six.
Thus my father’s premature death had parallels in my brothers’ lives. Their deaths stunned me and left me to wonder how everything had gone so wrong. Was this our fate, to be destroyed by life as our father had been? My brothers and I should have been the happy and confident sons of one of America’s true heroes, buoyed by our affection and admiration for him. But some terrible fissure along the way threw all our lives off course.
At the time it was all terribly sad, but I could see nothing to do to make sense of it. What recourse did I have but to continue to live my life and make my own way? I had found a niche in the art world far from my father’s line of work, and with each passing year my connection to him seemed to grow a little fainter. I carried his name but little else that linked me to him. Now I had even lost my brothers, the only other individuals who could fathom the mixed blessing of being his son. My impulse was to retreat further from the wreckage, rather than attempt to sort through it. And in this way my father, Melvin Purvis, became part of a distant past.
Then a remarkable event occurred. In 1995 my wife, Susan, and I had a son—our first and only child, named Alston after me. His birth stirred in me the feeling that my son’s future was inextricably bound to my family’s past. Suddenly my father’s legacy, which had dwindled in importance to me, seemed critical to the fate of my own boy. I could not allow him to grow up with the same clouded past that had tormented me and my brothers; I had to pass on to him a more resolved version of the family mythology. One day he would want to know who his grandfather was. How could I tell him if I did not really know myself?
And so, almost without realizing it, I began to gather the loose strings of my father’s life. I searched Internet auction sites and found many of his letters and papers (my brothers had sold such items, perhaps as a means of healing). I pursued collectors and wrote to relatives and obsessively tracked down every newspaper clipping and magazine article that dealt with my father’s career. I petitioned the FBI and claimed copies of every file the Bureau had preserved concerning Melvin Purvis—thousands of pages, enough to fill fifteen four-inch-thick folders. I catalogued every letter J. Edgar Hoover ever sent to my father, an illuminating eight-year trail of correspondence. I spoke to people who knew my father when he was with the Bureau, most notably Doris Rogers1, who joined him in Birmingham, Alabama, and was his devoted secretary when he ran the Chicago Bureau office. Now in her nineties and living in Atlanta, she helped me rediscover the things about my father that had intrigued me as a child—what he stood for, what he meant to the country, why he should be remembered.
“Melvin Purvis was an absolute hero, at a time when America was desperate for one,” Doris told me. “He was a romantic figure with a remarkable aura, and of course it was that aura that ended his career. He knew there was drama to what he was doing and he did it with some dash, and so the whole world came to know who he was. And Hoover wound up with a hero who was more charming than him.” Nearly seven decades after my father left the Bureau, Doris was still indignant about his treatment at the hands of a man he initially idolized. “What is truly tragic is that your father never managed to escape Hoover’s clutches,” she said. “He could not believe Hoover would turn on him, and he tried too long to be what Hoover wanted him to be, long after he was being blackballed. Other agents managed to shake off Hoover’s malevolence, but poor Melvin never did. He just took his duty too seriously. To the end he still hoped he could do the best job that he could.”


On Sale
May 5, 2009
Page Count
400 pages

Alston Purvis

About the Author

Alston Purvis has appeared widely in the media, including the History Channel and A&E, to talk about his father. He is head of Boston University’s design department.

Alex Tresniowski is a senior writer for People magazine specializing in politics, crime and current events. The author of five books, he lives in New Jersey.

Learn more about this author