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Excerpt from Public Enemies: America's Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI by Bryan Burrough


The year was over, the new federal "War on Crime" almost six months old.

In retrospect, as eventful as it was, 1933 served only as a prelude, a kind of extended training session, for the FBI and the nation. Despite the efforts of Attorney General Homer Cummings to make crime a national issue, to this point it remained a regional phenomenon; while newspapers in Chicago and Kansas City ran blazing front-page headlines over stories of Verne Miller's Halloween escape, for instance, the news merited barely eight paragraphs on an inside page of the New York Times. What was missing was a set of national criminals for Hoover's national police to fight on a national stage.

The year 1934 would produce five such groups. Each would emerge into public view as easily recognized, media-friendly icons: the family of kidnappers, the fugitive lovers, the charismatic escape artist, the psychotic killer, the misunderstood country boy. For each of these groups the holiday season was a moment to relax before the approaching storm.

No one is certain what Bonnie and Clyde did; according to Clyde's sister Nell, they probably spent Christmas alone at the abandoned house in Grand Prairie. In the Oklahoma hills, Pretty Boy Floyd's family wondered what he was doing; no one ever found out. Baby Face Nelson spent the holidays in the Bay Area. In her Chicago apartment, the cranky Ma Barker surprised the gang by holding a Christmas dinner. Everyone exchanged presents, swapping handbags and perfume and shiny shaving kits. All evening Ma was a woman transformed, smiling and laughing and paying attention to the gang's girlfriends. “Now you come over any time you want!” she told Delores Delaney at evening's end. “Why don't we go downtown and go shopping together?” As they drove home, Delaney and Karpis tried to fathom the change in Ma's demeanor. “What the hell got into her?” Karpis asked. “That old lady,” Delaney said. “She's lonesome.”

In Daytona Beach the Dillinger Gang threw a rousing party. It was the only time members of the gang ever recalled seeing Dillinger drunk. As the last minutes of 1933 ticked away, he stepped out onto a balcony with Mary Kinder, swinging his submachine gun. He motioned toward the moon. “Think I can hit it?” he asked. As the clock struck midnight and church-bells pealed across the town, Dillinger pointed his gun into the air and fired a deafening volley of bullets out over the Atlantic.

As scattered as they were that night, in San Francisco and Chicago and Florida, virtually all the members of all the gangs had at least one thing in common: it was the last New Year's Eve celebration of their lives.


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