J. Edgar Hoover liked to appropriate credit when it was convenient for his purposes. The term “Public Enemy No. 1” was first used by Frank Loesch of the Chicago Crime Commission in 1930 to describe Al Capone:

“I had the operating director of the Chicago Crime Commission bring before me a list of the outstanding hoodlums, known murderers, murderers which you and I know but can’t prove, and there were about one hundred of them, and out of this list I selected twenty-eight men. I put Al Capone at the head and his brother next, and ran down the twenty-eight, every man being really an outlaw. I called them Public Enemies, and so designated them in my letter, sent to the Chief of Police, the Sheriff [and] every law enforcing officer. The purpose is to keep the publicity light shining on Chicago’s most prominent, well known and notorious gangsters to the end that they may be under constant observation by the law enforcing authorities and law-abiding citizens.”[1]

Newspaper reporters adopted the term and popularized it. In 1931, James Cagney starred in Public Enemy. New York passed a public enemies law that allowed people to be jailed “with a known record who consorts with known criminals and has no means of support.”[2]

Hoover used the phrase to describe fugitive John Dillinger on June 22, 1934.[3] Publicly, Hoover denied Bureau use and commented that lists were for the reporters. But privately, he loved the term and the way it focused the public attention on the most wanted fugitives. When the Bureau captured a “public enemy,” it made for great press.

Reporters gave colorful nicknames to the public enemies to differentiate them to their readers: the more well known were Pretty Boy Floyd, Baby Face Nelson, Machine Gun Kelly; the lesser knowns: Two Gun Crowley, Billy the Killer Miller, Rabbits Murray, Mad Dog Underhill, and Terrible Ted Walters. Some earned notoriety from a one or a handful of crimes. Others were far more dangerous and prolific. Here a list of those with the worst records or biggest crimes:

  1. Frank “Jelly” Nash
Portraits of Frank Nash
Frank Nash

Nash’s story is stranger than fiction. His arrest history stretched 20 years and ranged from bank robbery, safe cracking, prison escapes, and murder. He earned his nickname, shortened from “Jellybean,” from a slang word meaning a well dressed man (or some accounts say it was a reference to the nitroglycerine used in explosives to crack open safes). He was married to three different women at the same time. Marrying the third wife in Hot Springs, Arkansas eventually led to his arrest. Two FBI agents and a police chief arrested him on June 16, 1933. Hot Springs was one of the gangster hideouts (St. Paul, MN and Toledo, OH the other main locations) and word leaked that Nash was headed back to Kansas City on a train. FBI agents and Kansas City detectives waited outside the train station. As Nash and his escorts came outside and got into the waiting vehicles, two men (some accounts say three) approached the car with machine guns and opened fire. Many believed the shooters to be Adam Richetti and Pretty Boy Floyd. Three police officers, an FBI agent, and Nash himself were killed. The event became known as the “Kansas City Massacre” and ignited the FBI’s War on Crime of the 1930s.

  1. Harvey Bailey
Harvey Bailey

Bailey was known as “The dean of American bank robbers.” It’s estimated he stole well over a million dollars during his lifetime. His life was straight up to a point – he served in the Army in WWI. But after the war he hung with the wrong crowd and began running errands for bootleggers. It’s not known how exactly he found his calling as a bank robber, but he was good at it. In 1922 he robbed he Denver mint of $200,000. In 1931, he robbed the Lincoln National Bank in Nebraska and took away up to $1 million in cash. Bailey was just as good at getting out of places as he was breaking into bank vaults. In 1933 he bribed a jailer to bring him a saw and a pistol. Inevitably, Bailey cut his way through the bars, took a hostage, and escaped (he was arrested again the same day). Bailey made light of J. Edgar Hoover’s attempt to frame Kate “Ma” Barker as the brains of the successful Karpis-Barker gang, famously saying, “The old woman couldn’t plan breakfast.” After getting caught up in the aftermath of Machine Gun Kelly’s kidnapping of Charles Urschel, Bailey was caught by FBI agents while he was sleeping. “Hell,” he said, “A fella’s gotta sleep sometime.”[4] After his arrest he was sent to the new federal prison on Alcatraz Island.

  1. John Dillinger
John Dillinger

The most popular and well-known criminal of all Depression era gangsters, Dillinger personified how the general public identified with criminals who stole from banks and evaded law enforcement. He was handsome and broke out of jail with panache – famously using a wooden gun. Dillinger received a lot of attention, but compared to other gangsters of the time, he claimed to have never killed anyone and his income from robberies paled in comparison to the likes of Harvey Bailey. Still, everyone knew (and still knows) who he was. Dillinger evaded FBI agents at his father’s house in Indiana and again at a Wisconsin lake cabin. Unfortunately, a woman close to him tipped off police, and FBI agents waited outside the Biograph Theater in Chicago in July 1934. When Dillinger walked outside, agents surrounded him. Dillinger tried to flee and reached into his coat pocket, but it was too late. At least two FBI agents shot him dead in the alley next to the theater. J. Edgar Hoover used Dillinger’s death as a way to promote the FBI. For many years, he kept a plaster death mask of Dillinger in the FBI’s showcase.

  1. Fred Barker
Fred Barker

Out of a family of inveterate criminals, Fred Barker was the worst. “Freddie” grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma, running the streets with the Central Park Gang, whose members included his older brothers Herman, Lloyd, and Arthur “Doc” Barker, Volney Davis, and Harry Campbell. The gang of young toughs committed various burglaries and robberies in Missouri, Kansas, and Oklahoma. One burglary in Okmulgee ended in a gunfight that wounded, and later killed, a police captain. Fred robbed a bank in Winfield, Kansas, was arrested, and went to the Kansas State Prison on March 12, 1927.

Instead of reforming him, prison served as a catalyst for further crime. It was there Fred met Alvin Karpis and the Karpis-Barker gang was formed. Karpis described his friend: “Freddie had a vicious streak. To be frank, I was sometimes slightly stunned by Freddie’s free and easy way with a gun. He never seemed to mind gunning down anybody who stood in his way, whether it was a cop, or a hood, or an ordinary guy on the street… my great pal Freddie Barker was a natural killer.”[5]

In four years time, the Barker-Karpis gang had stole and ransomed over $1,000,000. Barker murdered his mother’s boyfriend, killed at least three law enforcement officers, and an innocent bystander who made the mistake of stopping to ask if Barker needed help.

After taking $300,000 in kidnapping ransom Barker and gang evaded captured as they moved from Minnesota to Chicago to Ohio. Always travelling with him was Kate “Ma” Barker. Finally when the heat became too much, he and Ma drove south to Florida and rented a lake cabin in the central part of the state. FBI agents located the house and on the morning of January 16th they attempted to raid it. Fred and Ma Barker fought for their lives in a four hour gun battle. When the smoke cleared, agents rushed into the house and found Ma Barker lying dead with a machine gun next to her. Fred lay face down on the floor near her.[6]

  1. Alvin “Old Creepy” Karpis
Alvin Karpis

Karpis was the smartest criminal of the era. He viewed crime as just another business, one that he happened to be skilled at doing. Karpis learned from the likes of Harvey Bailey and methodically planned his jobs (bank robberies and kidnappings were his forte), mapped escape routes, clocked the mileage in between turns, drove the roads ahead of time, and cached cans of gasoline to assist in escapes. The Karpis-Barker gang was the most violent and successful of the era and Karpis was its defacto leader. They extorted $100,000 from the Hamm kidnapping and $200,000 from the Bremer kidnapping. Karpis lived high on the dollar, boozing and buying women as he moved around the country. He met Dolores Delaney and got her pregnant. A month before she delivered the baby, however, Karpis fled a police raid in Atlantic City. He never saw her or his baby again.

Like Dillinger, a woman (the madam of a prostitution house in Hot Springs) eventually turned on Karpis and told FBI agents in April 1936 that Karpis was hiding out in New Orleans. After locating the apartment, J. Edgar Hoover flew in to personally make the arrest. At least, that’s what he wanted everyone to believe. In reality, a car with Clarence Hurt and E.J. Connelley boxed in Karpis and Fred Hunter as they left the apartment and got into a car. Hurt stuck a .351 rifle in Karpis’ face. Hoover’s car had been delayed and came up behind them moments later.

Karpis was sent to Alcatraz and spent more years on the “Rock” than any other inmate. Out of many other public enemies who died, Karpis managed to survive and live the last years of his life in Canada and Spain. He showed no remorse for his actions, concluding his self-aggrandizing biography by writing, “For the rest, there are no apologies, no regrets, no sorrows, and no animosity. What happened happened.”[7]

NEXT UP: Public Heroes – ranking the Depression-era FBI agents


[1] Bergreen, Laurence (1996). Capone: The Man and the Era. Simon and Schuster. p. 365-366

[2] Powers, Richard Gid (1987). Secrecy and Power, the life of J. Edgar Hoover. The Free Press. Pg177

[3] Gentry, Curt (2001).  J. Edgar Hoover: The Man and the secrets.  W.W. Norton and Company.

[4] Burrough, Bryan (2004). Public Enemies. Penguin Books. Pg 91.

[5] Karpis, Alvin (1971). The Alvin Karpis Story. Ishi Press International. Pg 56, 61

[6] Hunt, Brian (2012). G-Men, Gangsters, and Gators. Amazon Direct.

[7] Karpis,pg 256