George “Machine Gun” Kelly is credited with coining the term “G-Man” to describe the government men of the FBI. This has been disputed, however; some references indicate the term was used several years before Kelly’s arrest. Word origins aside, the G-Man took on a cultural significance in the 1930s that was ubiquitous. Movies, radio shows, books, comic strips, board games, cereal – you name it, the G-man mystique was part of it. At some point it became just that – a stereotype far removed from the men completing the actual job. So here’s a look at some of the most effective FBI G-Men of the era:

  1. Melvin Purvis
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Purvis, courtesy FBI

Undoubtedly the most popular FBI agent, Purvis achieved his fame by leading the arrest and murder of John Dillinger in 1934. He only spent eight years in the Bureau, rising to become J. Edgar Hoover’s favorite. At one point, TIME magazine ranked Purvis as one of the ten most influential people (along with Hitler, FDR, and Mussolini). He also led the capture of Pretty Boy Floyd.

His celebrity became problematic. In the Alice Stoll kidnapping, Purvis could not directly participate in the investigation as reporters instantly recognized him. Purvis’ record of failures – Little Bohemia, arresting the wrong people for the Hamm kidnapping (Roger Touhy), agents on his squads were killed (Carter Baum, Sam Cowley and Herman Hollis) and based on internal memos he didn’t develop strong contacts with local police and informants – eventually became reasons for Hoover to turn his allegiance and relieve Purvis as the head of the “flying squad.” Purvis retired and wrote an account of his FBI career; in American Agent he never once mentioned J. Edgar Hoover. Hoover returned the favor in The FBI Story by giving credit for the Dillinger case to Sam Cowley.

  1. James “Doc” White

White served as a Texas Ranger before he joined the Bureau in 1924. Though special agents couldn’t legally carry firearms until 1933, White was deadly with a weapon. He was remembered as shooting well with a 30.06 rifle and the era’s most identifiable firearm, the Thompson submachine gun.[1] He also carried a bone-handled Colt and kept a knife hidden in his boot.[2]

White was 55 years old when he joined the Dillinger squad in Chicago. He participated in the failed Little Bohemia raid, and killed Russell Gibson as he fled a Chicago apartment in January 1935.   Days later, he saved SAC E. J. Connelley’s life in Florida. When Connelley stepped out from cover to call for Fred and Ma Barker to come out of a house, Fred Barker nearly shot Connelley where he stood. White saved Connelley’s life by returning fire long enough for him to take cover. Later, in evaluating the men of the squad, Connelley gave White praise in the stilted “Bureauese” used in all official reports: “This particular man has done very good work. He has been of marked assistance in raiding. As a reward therefore I recommend that he be sent to his office of preference.”

  1. Charles Winstead
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Winstead’s Bureau application photo, courtesy of FBI

Winstead was not the prototypical “G-Man” that Hoover modeled his organization after. In fact, he was the antithesis. Winstead may have cut a diminutive figure – 5’7” and 130lbs – but he was a raw force to be reckoned with. He was also a Texan to the core – wearing a dirty felt hat, a blue serge suit, and cowboy boots when his peers wore fedoras or straw boaters and brogans. Pop Nathan wrote “I would endeavor to get that Western foolishness out of his mind.” EJ. Connelley called him “one of the slowest thinking agents in the Chicago office.” Still, Winstead was a good guy to have on your side when things got tough, which is what mattered during the 1930s. He is credited inside the Bureau with killing John Dillinger. He also participated in the raid and shootout with Fred and Ma Barker. Winstead’s idiosyncrasies and humor, at contrast with Hoover, made him all the more likeable by the agents he worked with.[3]

  1. Clarence Hurt
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Hurt, second from right, 1930s

Hurt was one of the “hired guns” that Hoover brought into the Bureau in 1934 to help with the gangster fight. He was the night police chief in Oklahoma City and part of their pistol team. Hurt had previously applied to the Bureau and been turned down: “nothing in applicant to indicate the possession of any particularly constructive imagination.”[4]

In 1934, Hurt was 39 years old, short, stocky with a round face, and had a receding hairline. Pictures show that he liked to wear his belt above his belly button, increasing the perception of a stocky torso. But his character was tough and lived up to his surname. Hurt was involved in a number of dangerous raids and arrests. As a police officer in Oklahoma, he raided the house where Wilber Underhill lived. Hurt and Charlie Winstead were two of the FBI’s best shooters, and they were positioned outside the Biograph Theater in Chicago when John Dillinger stepped out. “That’s Dillinger, with the straw hat and the glasses,” Hurt said to his partner.[5] Both Hurt and Winstead fired; Winstead’s shot killed him. He participated in a failed raid in Hot Springs, AR where Alvin Karpis was believed to be hiding. Later in New Orleans, Hurt drove the car that cornered Alvin Karpis. He got out and stuck his shotgun in Karpis’ face.

Like Winstead and others, the FBI of the era would not have been successful without their expertise with firearms, courage during raids and arrests, and overall street smarts.  Hurt was not a “college boy” that Hoover claimed to be revolutionizing his department with; his skills were exactly what the Bureau needed at the time.

  1. Earl “E.J.” Connelley
Connelley portrait, from family collection

Connelley took over as the head of the “flying squad” in 1934 and oversaw the arrest of multiple public enemies: Doc Barker, Bryan Bolton, Fred Barker, Alvin Karpis, Harry Campbell, and other remnants of the Dillinger and Karpis-Barker gangs. Connelley also was a kidnapping “ace” that led the Bureau’s most famous kidnap cases – Stoll, Weyerhaeuser, Ross, and Mattson, to name a few. He was known as one of the toughest agents in Bureau history. He worked his men hard and early in his career, was sent to multiple offices to “clean house” in line with Hoovers expectations.

As mentioned above, Connelley led the raid in Florida that killed Ma and Fred Barker. During a remarkable stretch in 1936, four of the top criminals were arrested. Connelley personally arrested Alvin Karpis and Harry Campbell. Two others, Thomas Robinson and William Dainard were the end results of cases Connelley had initially worked. He led the bloody attempt to arrest the Brady gang in Maine. In the end, Connelley sent more men to Alcatraz than any other agent of the time. Though put in the line of fire, no men ever died during a raid or case that he worked on.

After the 1930s, Connelley rose to further prominence by handling many espionage cases, including the Nazi saboteurs that landed off Long Island and Florida, Alger Hiss, and Amerasia. Connelley’s theory on the Boston Brinks robbery, the “crime of the century,” would ultimately prove correct.

Connelley retired as Assistant Director in 1954. A reporter asked him what he was going to do during retirement. “Take a long investigation,” Connelley instinctively said. Then, catching himself, said, “Vacation.” Due to Hoover’s penchant for taking credit for his agents’ actions, Connelley has been forgotten to history.

Author’s note: this is, of course, for entertainment purposes only and in no way is meant to cast shadow on the hundreds of other agents, many involved in cases with the men named above. No man acted alone and could not have achieved the above without the assistance of his fellow G-Men.

NEXT UP: Doc Barker’s Last Escape

[1] Wack, Larry. Online Resource: Faded Glory – Dusty Roads of an FBI Era. www.historicalgmen.squarespace.com

[2] Burrough, Bryan (2004). Public Enemies. Penguin Books. Pg.12

[3] An excellent summary of Winstead’s career can be found at Wack’s website, “The Abrupt & Fearless Character of FBI Special Agent Charles Winstead.”

[4] Burrough, pg. 368

[5] Burrough, pg 407