Five Notorious Gangsters of the Great Depression
The time was the 1930s – the Great Depression was in full swing – and bank robbers turned to the streets of the heartland of America. While prominent mobsters, like Al Capone and Lucky Lusciano, were running the crime families of the large cities, others were attacking the Midwest, killing “G-Men” and becoming a target of J. Edgar Hoover, who named some of these people by the moniker of “Public Enemy Number One”. Here are five of the most notorious gangsters to victimize the U.S.
Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker were two of the most dangerous outlaws of the Great Depression. They roamed the central United States between 1931-1934 on a vast crime spree. The gang was mainly known for the many banks they robbed, but preferred to rob gas stations and smaller stores. During their crime spree, they are responsible for the deaths of nine police officers and several civilian murders. There is some controversy over whether Bonnie Parker ever fired a gun. One of the gang members later commented that he never saw her fire at anyone, but she was a “hell of a loader”. Clyde Barrow was a life-long criminal who was first arrested for failing to return a rental car. In prison for stolen goods, he was sexually assaulted repeatedly by another inmate. Later in life, Barrow was known to have commented that his crime spree wasn’t to gain fame or fortune, but rather to pay back the Texas penal system for the abuse he suffered. A posse, led by famous Texas Ranger Frank Hamer, was set up to stop the gang who had gone through Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, Louisiana and Texas. As they were driving down a road in Louisiana, they were ambushed by Hamer and five others wielding Browning Automatic machine guns – the favorite weapon of Clyde Barrow. It is said that Parker (age 23) and Barrow (age 25) were hit by 50 bullets. It is possible that no warning was given to the couple, but rather the posse just opened up fire on them. It was the wish that the two be buried together, but the Parker family refused. They are both buried in Dallas, Texas, though separately.
Born Lester Gillis, Nelson was a bank robber and murderer who often teamed up with John Dillinger (see below). He is known to have killed at least three people. Nelson started his life of crime at the age of 13, by stealing a car and joy riding. He tried to be a member of the Al Capone gang, but his behavior was even too violent for Chicago kingpin. His crime spree was rather minor until he joined up with Dillinger in 1934. Nelson was known as a fellow who shot first and then worried about running. Unlike Dillinger, he had no problem with peppering an area with his Thompson machine gun. He became a Public Enemy only two weeks after joining the Dillinger gang when he killed a civilian and an FBI agent. He was killed by Federal Agents at the “Battle of Barrington” near Chicago. The ensuing fight was witnessed by more than thirty people and in the end, Nelson had been shot nine times and died later in a local safe house. His body was later found in a ditch, wrapped in a blanket. Nelson has the dubious honor of killing more FBI agents than any man in history.
Born George Kelly Barnes, “Machine Gun” was a bootlegger, armed robber, and kidnapper. Despite his name, he was not a killer. Unlike most gangsters of the time, Machine Gun Kelly was born to a wealthy family and was well educated, going to Mississippi State University where he was expelled for demerits and poor grades. While most of his criminal career was involved with petty bootlegging, the most notorious crime was the kidnapping of Charles Urschell by Kelly and his wife, Kathryn Thorne. She had purchased his first machine gun and did everything to associate his name with the weapon. When he was arrested in 1933, he supposedly shouted “Don’t shoot, G-Men” which eventually became the nickname of Federal agents. However, this appears to be only a rumor and his wife was later attributed to the nickname. He spent the remaining years of his life in Alcatraz prison where he was renamed “Pop Gun Kelly” for being a model prisoner. He is the only gangster who was not killed by peace officers.
Charles Arthur Floyd was a bank robber and killer. At the age of 18, he robbed a post office of $3.50 in pennies. Three years later, he had moved onto large payroll robberies and murder. He hated the nickname of “Pretty Boy” that had been given to him by a witness to one of his crimes. He had made a name for himself in the Kansas City and central Ohio areas. It was here that he killed FBI and ATF agents. It is unknown how many people Floyd eventually killed, but he was implicated in an ambush and massacre in Kansas City. Now fleeing the FBI, Floyd made his way back into Ohio. As bad luck would have it, Floyd’s vehicle was involved in a minor accident near East Liverpool, Ohio. Thinking that a man, dressed in a suit just sitting by the road, looked suspicious, local police were called. A gunfight ensued and Floyd was killed by two bullets.
Possibly the best known of the 1930 gangsters, Dillinger was a notorious bank robber, though not really a killer, who stole throughout the Midwest. While he didn’t necessarily kill, his gang was responsible for the deaths of several officers and he made daring escapes that enamored him with the press. He was considered a modern-day Robin Hood by the Depression-era people of the day who often helped him. The press loved him and the FBI considered him Public Enemy Number One. It is estimated that he stole more than $300,000 in his lifetime. After getting his dubious honor of being named Public Enemy, Dillinger spent more than a year on the run. Dillinger was finally caught while exiting the Biograph Theater in Chicago after, ironically, viewing a gangster film called, Manhattan Melodrama, starring Clark Gable. As he exited the theater, the FBI opened fire on him as he ran away. He was struck by three bullets in the back. His death, and the betrayal by his girlfriend, Polly Hamilton (the “lady in red”) went down as part of American folklore.