"Public Enemies" Observations/Comments

Author Bryan Burrough's book, "Public Enemies," is a well researched and a close historical account of names, incidents and more.   I cannot say the same about the movie, "Public Enemies."  I walked out wondering, as usual, why is it necessary for these movie moguls to purposely destroy historical accounts of our past?  Especially in this case when the documented facts are right in front of them. 

After I saw the opening of the movie with the killing of "Pretty Boy" Floyd,  I already knew the historical accuracy of the movie was headed for disaster.   The rest of the movie followed suit.

The credits at the end of the movie have the standard "some of this is fictionalized" and that was an understatement!  The movie is fraught with Melvin Purvis being in places he never was;  shooting people he never shot; FBI Agents being in locales they never were; gangsters and FBI Agents dying in battles that aren't even close to documented facts and a host of incidents so out of historical sequence, it "killed off" characters at periods when they were still alive. 

If you went to the movie to glean some historical fact about the war on crime during the Depression, don't go talking about it at parties, based on the movie,  because you'll look rediculous in front of anyone who knows a tidbit of FBI or gangster history.   On the other hand, if you went merely to listen to the spurts of Tommy guns; to look at vintage cars, and to listen to banjo music, then you got your money's worth.

I guess the people I feel for the most are the sons, daughters, and grandchildren of those FBI Agents who, once again, are presented distorted views of what their fathers and grandfathers did, and didn't do, during those turbulent years in the FBI.  I find it especially shameful that Inspector Samuel Cowley's role in the Chicago, FBI and the Dillinger case was shown as non-existent.  (His two sons are alive today and reside in the Salt Lake area.)  While I hold a certain respect for Melvin Purvis, Purvis did not "do it all."

Here's a few observations to save you some time and make you sound like you know what you're talking about at upcoming gatherings when the movie comes up as topic:

  • What you'll find in some instances is that the inacurracies of characters and events in the movie are "viral."  One distortion of historical fact leads to another; either immediately or later in the movie.  I should add that this type of distortion is not just unique to "Public Enemies."
  • The actual killing of "Pretty Boy Floyd" was not even close to the movie's portrayal; Purvis did NOT have a rifle at the scene nor did he kill Floyd.  By his own documented admission, Purvis shot at Floyd with his .38 caliber service revolver.    At the time of Floyd's shooting, he was found in possession of two automatic handguns,  not a Thompson sub machine gun. (More on the Floyd killing is in the navigation area).  The killing of Floyd in the beginning of the movie (October, 1934) is way out of sequence historically with Dillinger's killing at the end of the movie. (July, 1934).   
  • The shooting done by Nelson at the apartment building where he kills an Agent named "Vaughn" is perplexing and I'm not sure what purpose it served.   Maybe an intro to the sociopath Nelson? Nelson never killed any FBI Agent named "Vaughn" who Purvis is standing over in the hallway.  FBI documents on the personnel of the time reveal that "Vaughn" in the movie is probably a fictitious name.    
  • Purvis' offer to resign, which Hoover turned down, was AFTER LITTLE BOHEMIA, not before and surely not after the "fictitious" killing of "Vaughn."
  • The extradition scene of Dillinger arriving in Indiana and placed into the custody of female Sheriff, Lillian Holley, was odd.  When Dillinger, during the press conference, goes "arm in arm" with the prosecutor (a famous photo later), the movie shows Holley walking away as if to say, "I want no part of this relationship."  Fact is, the actual newsreel clips and photos of that meeting clearly reveal Holley standing there with Dillinger,  the prosecutor and others, during the laughing and joking with the press.
  • SAC Melvin Purvis was NOT in charge of the raid at Little Bohemia.  Assistant Director, Hugh Clegg was placed in charge by Hoover and this is clear in a Bureau document in file from April 25, 1934. 
  • The "tip" that Dillinger and others were at the Little Bohemia Lodge in Wisconsin came from Henry Voss, an inside relative of the Wanakas, owners of the lodge who recognized some of the Dillinger gang upon their arrival there.  Voss was acting as a messenger from the Wanakas. It was the result of a note smuggled to Voss from the inside AFTER the gang had already arrived.  The "tip" did not come as a result of FBI Agents squeezing the head wound of some injured Dillinger bank robber at a hospital and threatening to arrest the tending physician.   (The report of what happened is in the navigation area)       
  • The shootout scene at Little Bohemia (April, 1934) is a debacle all by itself with regard to what is known to have happened there.   First of all, the movie shows "Baby Face" Nelson escaping Bohemia, killing Agent Carter Baum and wounding SA Jay Newman, (which he did) but then being chased by Purvis (on the running boards) and others and eventually killed at the end of the chase in the field with his pal, Homer Van Meter. 
  • Fact is, Nelson wasn't killed until months after "Little Bohemia" in November, 1934 in a shootout at Barrington, IL. with friend, John Chase, Nelson's wife, and Agents Samuel Cowley and Herman Hollis.  Purvis was NOT present at the killing of "Baby Face Nelson."  Homer Van Meter wasn't there either.  During that shootout, Nelson killed Agents Cowley and Hollis, and was also killed himself.  Movie makers have "crunched" the Bohemia shootout in April, 1934 with the Nelson/FBI shootout of November, 1934 and the shooting of John Hamilton and as a result, ended up with a totally chaotic distortion of what really happened in these separate incidents.    
  • But there's a bit more to the Bohemia incident as shown in the movie with the presence of three main characters who, by all accounts, weren't even there.   Bohemia happened on April 22, 1934.   The Agents who traveled to the location came from two contingents.  One group arrived with Purvis from Chicago; one group arrived with AD Clegg and SAC Hanni from St. Paul.  Agent Winstead's own memoirs reveal he arrived in Chicago on the Dillinger Squad in May, 1934 which I note is AFTER Bohemia was over.  The books by Burrough and Alston Purvis ("The Vendetta") show the date as May 12, 1934 and so does his expense diary.  

By all official file accounts, SA Charles Winstead was working in the Dallas, Texas area during the month of April, 1934 chasing down leads relative to Bonnie and Clyde.  Simply put, Winstead was not at Bohemia.  And neither were SA's Clarence Hurt or "Jerry" Campbell. 

  • SA's Clarence Hurt and Jerry Campbell did not join the FBI until May. ("Little Bohemia" occurred in April.)   FBI records clearly show that Hurt entered on duty with the FBI on 5/23/34 and went directly to training.  He did not appear at the Chicago Office until 6/25/34, one month later.  Records show Campbell in the same training class with Hurt on 5/23/34.   (Campbell's FBI application and acceptance dates are in the navigation area.)
  • Additionally, reports after the Bohemia shootout in file clearly reveal that it was Purvis,  and other named Agents, including SA Carter Baum,  who fired upon the vehicle containing the innocent CCC workers.  Purvis' Thompson machine gun jammed at one point.  The scene of Winstead and Hurt standing with Purvis doing the shooting at the car is not accurate because Winstead and Hurt simply were not there.  
  • Gangster, "Red" Hamilton was NOT shot by either Winstead or Hurt while being chased through the woods from Bohemia with Dillinger.  The shooting of Hamilton (and his eventual mortal wounding) came at a bridge crossing near Hastings, MN.  A policeman named Fred McArdle and several deputies ended up in a running gun battle with Dillinger, Hamilton and Homer Van Meter, all of whom had escaped from Bohemia.  That battle occurred on the Monday after the Bohemia shootout.  This is well documented.   
  • It was interesting to see the approach of Purvis and the Agents to the Bohemia lodge conveniently done without the barking dogs, contrary to documented reports,  and which barking dogs alerted the gang inside to the coming Agents. 
  • The movie probably catapulted the name of Agent Charles Winstead into the forefront of the American public.  Agents Clarence Hurt and Herman Hollis also fired at Dillinger at the same time Winstead fired.  Granted however, that in all probability it was actually a shot from a .45 that Winstead carried that made the fatal head/cheek wound.  In 1970, SA Winstead told the Society of Retired FBI Agents' magazine, "The Grapevine,"  that although he tried to hear, he DID NOT understand what Dillinger said as he lay dying.  There was never any report from Winstead revealing Dillinger telling him to tell Billie "bye, bye blackbird."   Winstead's report of what he did that night, along with the other Agent's reports, are at this site.  He makes no mention of hearing anything Dillinger said. 

I had heard from quite a few that Mann's attention to historical facts was paramount.   Now I can sit back and tell myself that my "gut feeling" was right all along.  It was never going to happen.  They must have been talking about the vintage cars, the Tommy guns and the banjo music.........

So what did you and the American Public get?   You can tell us here.

Feel free to post your observations................

Larry Wack, Retired SA, FBI - 1968-2003