It's 1933 and Prohibition has given rise to the American gangsternow infamous names like Bonnie and Clyde and John Dillinger. Bank robberies at gunpoint are commonplace and kidnapping for ransom is the scourge of a lawless nation. With local cops unauthorized to cross state lines in pursuit and no national police force, safety for kidnappers is just a short trip on back roads they know well from their bootlegging days. Gangster George "Machine Gun" Kelly and his wife, Kathryn, are some of the most celebrated criminals of the Great Depression. With gin-running operations facing extinction and bank vaults with dwindling stores of cash, Kelly sets his sights on the easy-money racket of kidnapping. His target: rich oilman, Charles Urschel.
Enter J. Edgar Hoover, a desperate Justice Department bureaucrat who badly needs a successful prosecution to impress the new administration and save his job. Hoover's agents are given the sole authority to chase kidnappers across state lines and when Kelly bungles the snatch job, Hoover senses his big opportunity. What follows is a thrilling 20,000 mile chase over the back roads of Depression-era America, crossing 16 state lines, and generating headlines across America along the waya historical mystery/thriller for the ages.
Joe Urschel's The Year of Fear is a thrilling true crime story of gangsters and lawmen and how an obscure federal bureaucrat used this now legendary kidnapping case to launch the FBI.
|Publisher:||St. Martin's Press|
|Product dimensions:||5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)|
About the Author
JOE URSCHEL is the former Executive Director of the National Law Enforcement Museum in Washington, DC. Urschel is also a former managing editor of USA TODAY, where he served as a senior correspondent and columnist and has worked for the Detroit Free Press as a reporter, critic, and editor. His journalism honors include awards from the National Association of Newspaper Columnists, the National Association of Sunday and Feature Editors, and an Emmy. He lives in Virginia.
Read an Excerpt
The Year of Fear
Machine Gun Kelly and the Manhunt that Changed the Nation
By Joe Urschel
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2015 Joe Urschel
All rights reserved.
GEORGE AND KATHRYN GO TO WORK
On a warm morning in 1932, George and Kathryn Kelly were getting dressed for work in their comfortable Fort Worth home.
George loved watching his wife get dressed almost as much as he liked watching her undress. She was a stunner with the kind of frame that fine clothes were just made to adorn. She assembled herself into a brown silk blouse that draped off her shoulders and breasts as if it had been constructed specially for her by the finest seamstress in Dallas.
The gentle friction of the beige wool skirt she pulled up over her silk slip purred slightly as it glided over her hips. When she was finished tucking and smoothing, she snapped the waistband closed with a definitive click, like the sound of a .38 slug sliding into its chamber.
She plucked a weighty diamond brooch off the dresser and pinned it near her throat. Its sparkle drew George's eye to the lovely little pool of flesh at the base of her throat, where the exquisite lines of Kathryn's neck joined the frame of her shoulders. She slipped her arms into the beige suit jacket and tugged gently at it, pulling it into place. She set a smart beige cloche hat atop her head and tilted it ever so slightly to the right. It sat on her auburn hair like the crown on a European monarch and warmed her brown eyes into a deceptive look of coquettishness.
She turned gently to her husband, seeking the fawning approval that he was always eager to provide.
George, too, looked sharp. Tall and muscular, he knew how to polish the image with just the right amount of fashion-savvy style and masculine panache. Today he was wearing a custom-made brown English wool suit, with a creamy linen shirt. His tie was a ballet of greens and browns. His shoes, brown wingtips, were polished like brass. When he gazed at Kathryn, his hazel eyes looked as green and seductive as a cat in heat.
They were in the banking business and they were about to begin their twelve-hour commute to Boulder, Colorado, to go to work.
They nestled into the warm leather seats of their sixteen-cylinder Cadillac convertible roadster and headed north with smiles on their faces and Lucky Strikes glowing between their fingers.
George loved his Cadillac almost as much as he loved Kit. The car was the pride of General Motors and the envy of carmakers around the world. When GM introduced it in 1930, the company boasted: "the sixteen-cylinder Cadillac initiates a new trend in motor car design." It was "designed for enormous acceleration, unheard of hill-climbing ability, and more speed than perhaps any man will care to use."
In short, the perfect vehicle for a man in George's line of work.
Off the assembly line it could cruise easily at eighty-five miles per hour. But after George's mechanics got finished customizing it, the car would race along at more than one hundred miles per hour on the paved roads of the nation's state highway system. They'd also reinforce the suspension to handle the heavy loads of liquor George would haul and the extra cans of gasoline he'd pack in the trunk because the monster engine would barely eke out eight miles a gallon.
And it looked like a dream, with billowing oval fender skirts, teardrop headlamps, glistening chrome-spoked wheels and whitewall tires. It turned as many heads as Kit.
They arrived in Denver slightly after 9:00 p.m. and pulled up to the garage next to a small bungalow on the outskirts of the city.
"Kit, come on baby, move over to the driver's seat," said George. "We've got to change cars."
Albert Bates, who'd rented the bungalow and the garage, walked out of the house and greeted the couple in the yard.
"You sure took your time getting here, George," said Al. "It was dark over an hour ago. The coast was clear."
George was moving gear from the Cadillac to a nondescript Buick they would use in the morning. "We stopped for a leisurely dinner, Al. You know how Kit likes candlelight and wine. No rush anyway, you've got the job all laid out."
Bates poured them all a glass of whiskey, the finest contraband in the country, and spread out a hand-drawn map of the neighborhood on the table. He marked the major streets, the stop signs, the police patrol route. He outlined the best approach to the bank and where Kit would need to park the getaway car. They then went over the layout of the bank's interior — the teller locations, the vault, the president's office — and the guard's routine. He showed them the ideal escape route and several others in case something unexpected should happen.
"How far away is the police station?" George asked.
"It's far enough away to make getting there difficult for the cops. Nine, ten blocks. We can be out of town before anyone can get them on the phone."
George had spent a lifetime as a bootlegger. He knew how to elude the law and he knew the roads and highway system as if he had designed them himself. He knew his cars and how to race them around the back roads, avoiding bottlenecks, bridges and areas where a roadblock might slow his escape. Once he was in the car and moving, there was no way he'd get caught from behind. Hell, he'd be out of the county before the cops were done cranking up their pathetic Model As.
After a few hours' sleep, George and Al threw on some cheap gray suits and waited impatiently while Kit primped in the house's single bathroom. She emerged in a silk navy-blue dress and carried a wide-brimmed hat. She also carried a men's suit that had been tailored to fit over the dress. Al took the wheel of the car and Kit lay across the backseat in case there were any early-morning looky-loos, who'd see only two men heading out for work.
Along the way, they stopped briefly so Kit could don her masculine garb and take over the driving duties. George looked on admiringly. Best looking wheelman he'd ever worked with.
She backed expertly into an open parking spot in front of the bank, positioned perfectly for a quick getaway.
"Good luck, fellas," she said as she pulled a revolver from under the seat.
As the two entered the bank and headed toward the tellers, Al pulled a sawed-off shotgun from under his coat.
"It's a holdup!" he announced. "Hands to heaven, and no yelling!"
George tossed a canvas bag over the counter to each teller. "Fill 'em up, girls. And be quick!"
As he did, the bank's elderly guard was moving warily in George's direction. Al yelled out a warning and George turned his .38 in the guard's direction. The guard was fumbling to remove his sidearm from its holster. George fired off a single round, clipping the guard in the arm and dropping him to the floor as the panicked tellers stuffed stacks of wadded-up bills into the bags.
"You stupid son of a bitch! I warned you! Do what you're told!"
He grabbed the bags from the tellers and the two jogged quickly back to the car and jumped in as Kit sped away.
"What happened?" she asked. "You scared the hell out of me when I heard that shot."
"The old bank guard wanted to be a hero, so George shot him," said Al. "Nothing serious. He'll survive."
"Could have shot the old guy in the heart," said George, "but I've never killed anyone and don't intend on starting."
Al could not make a similar claim. He'd shot an earlier partner who he thought had been cheating him. He wouldn't have to worry about that with George, though. George was all business and he played it straight. He had a reputation going all the way back to his bootlegging days as the most honest thief you'd ever meet. But although it was true he'd never killed anyone, the fact was he didn't need to. There were plenty experienced killers among the members he'd assemble into bank-robbing teams. If he needed a shooter, he could get one with a single phone call.
Yet another rural western bank had been relieved of its deposits — $15,000 in this case. The handsome couple in the front seat of the nondescript Buick were heading back to pick up their shiny new Cadillac roadster and were busy making bigger plans.
First, off to Mexico to lie low and spend some of their recent earnings. George spoke fluent Spanish and, along with his extravagant tips, he was a popular customer at the lavish beach resorts that Kit favored.
Since his release from Leavenworth Penitentiary in February 1930, Kelly had been on a tear, robbing banks at the rate of nearly one a month. The jobs were getting to be almost routine, but with the Depression dragging on, the take was getting smaller and smaller. Banks had less and less money in their vaults, and some were simply closing up shop and going out of business as panicked customers pulled out their cash. George had a feeling his real good thing was not going to last forever. Worse, the couple's lucrative sideline — running booze — looked like it would be drying up if the Democrats won the upcoming election and their gin-sipping candidate made good on his promise to bring the era of Prohibition to an end.
From their R & R vacation spot, they would begin the planning for a series of jobs that would set them up for life — an audacious scheme that Kit had dreamed up. It involved a series of kidnappings of high-net-worth individuals in the lawless Southwest that would — if everything went according to plan — bring them $1 million in cash and set them up for permanent retirement in the luxury lifestyle they had grown so accustomed to. They were about to graduate into the burgeoning Snatch Racket that was about to become the latest calamity to afflict the country.
* * *
When Franklin Delano Roosevelt took office in March 1933, he inherited a surreal and almost unimaginable American nightmare. The country had become a cauldron of poverty, starvation and environmental disaster. A pervasive lawlessness infected nearly every city, town and godforsaken outpost in the forty-eight states he would need to rescue.
Since the Stock Market Crash of 1929, almost 90 percent of its value had been lost. Much of the nation's upper class was wiped out. The ripple effects of those losses decimated the middle class and those less fortunate, as well. Average household incomes dropped by a third. Thousands of banks closed. Local and community banks foreclosed on nearly one million homeowners. Business failures and the collapsing real estate market deprived cities and states of tax revenue, which resulted in draconian cuts in the few social services that existed. Municipal workers, police and teachers were laid off or went unpaid. Thousands of schools closed or reduced hours. Millions of students dropped out.
The gross national product (GNP) had fallen to half its 1929 level. Industrial investment dropped by 90 percent. Automobile production was down nearly 70 percent, as were iron and steel production and nearly every other industry that provided work for Americans. Sixteen million jobs had evaporated. The per capita income was lower than it was in the early 1900s.
John L. Lewis, head of the United Mine Workers of America, was not engaging in hyperbole when he asserted that the diets of most members of his union had sunk "below domestic animal standards."
The national unemployment rate, which was as low as 3 percent before the market crashed, pushed north of 25 percent. For non-farm workers it was almost 40 percent. In many cities it stretched as high as 80 percent. But those numbers masked the reduced hours and trimmed wages of the workers who managed to hang on. Those who couldn't walked the city streets in a daze looking for work, food or hope. And there just wasn't any.
Proud men and women who populated the nation's cities — from the architects and engineers who designed them to the ironworkers and carpenters who built them — stood in breadlines for hours. Occasionally, they would form up into a mob and attack the food trucks that passed by making their deliveries. At night, a desperate few would organize raids on local grocery stores, kicking in windows and looting them dry before the police could arrive.
The misery was even greater on the farms and ranches of the Midwest and Plains, where the Great Depression had arrived years earlier. The droughts that started in the late '20s continued unrelentingly into the '30s. During the war years, as Europe's farmland was incinerated and destroyed, American farmers had stepped up, increased production, expanded their acreage and fed the world. After the war ended and the verdant fields in Europe returned, the price of everything produced in America plummeted.
Overproduction from the war years had stripped much of the land of its fertility. The drought dried it up and it simply began to blow away — slowly at first, but eventually in dust clouds so thick they would choke cattle and blacken the sky at noon. American farm production had dropped 60 percent from 1929 to 1932.
That was the state of the nation that Roosevelt was elected to rescue: bankrupt, starving, without hope and growing increasingly violent.
Just months before he was to take office, Roosevelt himself had narrowly escaped an assassin's bullet. Attending a celebration rally in Miami after returning from a cruise aboard his friend Vincent Astor's yacht, an assassin fired five times in his direction, fatally wounding Anton Cermak, the mayor of Chicago, who was standing next to him. And while the violence that day was deemed a national disgrace, it was indicative of the kind of nation the President governed. In major cities, particularly Chicago, large, entrenched criminal empires had been established essentially by providing to the citizenry the very things that the government had outlawed: liquor, gambling, prostitution and a small collection of lesser vices. To protect their business operations, these organized crime families set up their own codes, laws and accepted business practices. They hired their own enforcement operators and bribed the local cops to either look the other way or lend a hand for an accepted price.
In the '20s and '30s, law enforcement was primarily a local affair. Law officers were beholden to area politicians, many of whom were beholden to the local mob. The untrained, underfinanced web of law enforcement in 1933 consisted of a mere collection of four thousand county sheriffs, eleven state police forces and a handful of big city operations — all with conflicting degrees of cooperation, political affiliations and corruption. (Currently, there are more than eighteen thousand law enforcement agencies and nearly one million law enforcement officers.) In many towns it was not too much of a stretch to say that the local mob not only ran the criminal activities, but the government and law enforcement, as well.
The New York Times lamented that "the criminal courts of this nation have become in effect a protection to the criminal through the web of technicalities, objections to evidence, delays, appeals, straw bond, parole, and pardon at the disposal of unscrupulous criminal lawyers." The 1931 editorial noted that since the declaration of war in 1917, the number of murders associated with the crime wave in the United States was greater than three times the 50,280 deaths caused by World War I. (The murder rate in the '30s was twice that of contemporary times, and the vast majority went unsolved.)
The banking collapse and FDR's pledge to end Prohibition were putting the squeeze on a particular brand of outlaw plying his trade in the middle of the country. These men, who operated in loosely organized small units or on their own, were viewed by the local populace as the direct descendants of the legendary Western outlaws who roamed the West robbing trains, banks and wealthy ranchers. The modern equivalents in the '20s and '30s were highwaymen, bootleggers and bank robbers. But the Depression and the impending legalization of liquor sales were wiping out their lucrative businesses. There was little money left in the banks, and there was no money on the road. But there were plenty of wealthy fat cats at the top of the food chain who still had plenty of cash in their pockets and in their vaults. If your business is thievery, you go where the money is. And, in 1933, there were precious few places to raid. But if you could snatch a member of the moneyed class, ransom them off and get away with the cash, you could get rich.
Excerpted from The Year of Fear by Joe Urschel. Copyright © 2015 Joe Urschel. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Chapter One: George and Kathryn Go to Work
Chapter Two: A massacre in Kansas City
Chapter Three: The Kidnapping Scourge
Chapter Four: The Abduction
Chapter Five: Welcome to Paradise
Chapter Six: The Delivery
Chapter Seven: The Manhunt
Chapter Eight: Catching Kelly
Chapter Nine: The Kellys' Trial
Chapter Ten: The G-men Take the Spotlight
Chapter Eleven: Alcatraz and the "Irredeemables"
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Good read but confusing at times with all the individuals