1936 SAC Meeting at FBI Headquarters, Jay Newman first row fifth from right in white suit
1936 SAC Meeting at FBI Headquarters, Jay Newman first row fifth from right in white suit

Hidden in a dark corner of the Internet lurked a never before published memoir of an FBI G-Man. In Bureau memos (where J. Edgar Hoover only permitted the depersonalized use of first and middle initials) he was known as J.C. Newman. Over his twenty-seven year career, Newman oversaw several Bureau field offices as Special Agent in Charge. In 1934, outside the Little Bohemia Lodge in Wisconsin, Newman sat behind the wheel of a stopped Ford coupe and stared up at Baby Face Nelson, who pointed a .45 caliber handgun at his face. “We know you have bullet proof vests on,” Nelson shouted. “I’ll shoot you in the head. Get out of that car. I’ll kill you.” Nelson fired and the shot struck Newman in the forehead, knocking him semi-unconscious. He’d lived to tell about it and many other parts of his FBI career.

~

While much has been written about the gangster criminals of the day, there are only a few extant memoirs written by 1930s-era G-Men. Soon after being ousted from the Bureau after becoming more of a celebrity than Director Hoover, Melvin Purvis wrote “American Agent.” Copies of this book are hard to come by. Several U.S. university libraries carry it on their shelves; copies available on Amazon or AbeBooks come and go like endangered animals spotted in the wild.

Thomas McDade, another agent who chased down Baby Face Nelson and the Ma Barker Gang, kept a journal throughout his FBI career. His son Jared McDade came forward with it in 2014 to donate to the National Law Enforcement Museum in Washington, D.C.

Several years ago, Larry Wack (a retired FBI agent and host of the website “Faded Glory: Dusty Roads of an FBI Era”) had two other retired agents travel to the Red River Museum and obtain a copy of the memoir of legendary special agent Charles Winstead.

Still others, like Ralph Hood and Hank Sloan, left diaries and unpublished manuscripts their families kept but never shared. Earl Connelley – one of the most famous agents of the time – wrote shorthand notes during all of his cases. But after he died in 1957, his wife inexplicably threw them away.

Such are the vagaries of history. What isn’t recorded is easily forgotten. In an era where Hoover despised any agent who took public credit for their work in a case (the motto was “All credit to the Bureau and not the individual”), there was no incentive for special agents to write about their work. In some cases, it could even jeopardize the agent and their family as gangsters often had no idea who the G-Men shooting at them or arresting them were.

~

I came across Newman’s “Personal History & Highlights” by chance. While researching the 1935 Weyerhaeuser kidnapping, I Googled one of the criminals and sorted through pages and pages of results. Usually by page four or five, the most relevant search results have been exhausted and I’m back to refining my search. Buried on page eight was a website titled bmsphotos.com. I clicked on the link and waited for the page to load. I read for five minutes and thought, “This can’t be legitimate.” Thirty minutes later I was convinced it was and realized I’d just stumbled onto one of the most detailed memoirs of a 1930s G-man.

Newman mentions how his brother-in-law connected him with J.Edgar Hoover and he got his start in the Bureau:

Parley introduced me to Mr, Hoover and the latter afforded me a personal interview in his office in the Department of Justice Building, I informed him of my intention to study law and that 1 would like, if possible, to be employed in his Bureau. Although very business-like he was cordial, asked questions about my background and furnished me an application form, explaining that I did not have the necessary qualifications for the position of Special Agent…

Newman was 26 years old and started as a Special Employee, a rank below a Special Agent at a salary of $2,100 a year. He fit Hoover’s profile – a clean cut white male, broad shouldered and with a face that could have been lifted from a Greek or Roman statue. He worked in the Washington D.C. field office briefly before being sent to San Francisco. Newman details his responsibilities and minor cases, showing that in the pre-War on Crime era, an agent didn’t have the most glamorous job.

Though he settled in the Bay area, Bureau agents learned never to get too set on one place. Hoover made it a practice of moving agents around:

I received a letter from Bureau Headquarters in Washington, D .C . transferring me to Portland, Oregon. This was in November 1927. It was quite a shock but not entirely unexpected, as in those days the Bureau was under-staffed and Special Agents had to be moved around to handle the increased investigative work in other territorial divisions.

Five months later, he was transferred north to Seattle. You get a sense for the daily life in an office, how an agent balanced their work with their family commitments, and Newman slowly gained more responsibility. When the SAC was away, Newman was appointed acting SAC, a high honor for an agent just three years into his Bureau career.

By March 1930 Hoover transferred Newman again, this time from Seattle to Cincinnati. His wife and children remained in Salt Lake City with her family and he continued East on his own. He told this story of getting acclimated to life in southern Ohio and northern Kentucky:

Investigating criminal cases in the hill-billy sections of Kentucky, particularly in those days was quite an experience. When you get in the back-woods country you sort of feel like you wished you had brought someone with you, not only a body-guard, but an interpreter.

Three months into his stint in Cincinnati, Hoover dialed up another transfer. Newman was ordered to Washington, D.C. Typically this meant an agent was tagged as having some executive ability and they would learn at “the Seat of Government,” as Hoover called it. Newman didn’t see the upside. He wrote, “With my family way out west, Washington D.C. was the last place I wanted to be. Without a doubt, this was my darkest day in the Bureau.”

~

Newman resolved to ask for a transfer back out west to be nearer to his family. Other agents wished him luck – they had been waiting over a year on their own requests. He called Director Hoover but was transferred to Assistant Director Harold “Pop” Nathan. Nathan was one of the legends of the Bureau, a holdover from the pre-Hoover days. Nathan was a erudite man whose sarcastic FBI reports and letters are a welcome break from the straight-laced “Bureau-ese” that Hoover preferred. Newman described Nathan:

[H]e was a rather short, rather stock built, older man of Jewish descent, who was rather gruff in manner, lowers his head looks over his eye glasses, smokes a nine and when talking, usually walks back and forth, with his hands back of him like Felix the cat.

Nathan denied his request to transfer to Salt Lake – not “in the next twenty years,” he promised– and toyed with Newman by considering Denver or El Paso. Newman got his wish to transfer, but St. Paul, Minnesota ended up as the destination. To Newman, it was a death sentence. St. Paul “had the reputation of being the grave yard for Special Agents.”

Newman made the most of his time, covering a large territory. He got to know South Dakota well, traveling through the Badlands and Black Hills. On one trip he saw Gutzon Borglum hanging by a scaffolding at Mount Rushmore, carving away the rock.

The climate in Minnesota took getting used to. As a former Minnesotan, I can appreciate Newman’s sentiments:

As winter commenced, the cold seemed to go right through us. The natives, being used to it, apparently didn’t mind the cold.

~

By December 1930, Newman was ordered to Chicago. Here he was introduced to SAC Joe Dunn. Dunn was “a middle-aged, soft-spoken man with prematurely gray hair… From his dress and appearance, one might suspect that he was a successful bank President.” Dunn had a colorful history that demands its own blog.

The Bureau was undergoing its professionalization by J. Edgar Hoover. A crime lab had been set up in Washington, D.C. along with an Identification Bureau that tracked fingerprints and photographs. Special agents were sent to training schools and Newman experienced his own:

My first in-service training school was held in Washington, in November, 1932. It was a three-week course in finger-print work. Although it was rather monotonous, compared to my usual activities, I gained a great deal of helpful information. After-wards, and you can tell I’m no dummy, I wrote a letter to the Director, making a few suggestions for the school’s improvement and added “At this time I wish to express to you my thanks for this opportunity afforded me for growth and advancement in the service .”

Life as a special agent, separated from his wife and children, wore him down. His sons got injured and his wife had to deal with the day-to-day calamities involved in raising a family. Newman scraped by on his salary while living in a different city (a $3,000 salary would be comparable to $43,000 today).

In the fall of 1933, a new SAC arrived in Chicago, Melvin Purvis. Chicago was the epicenter of the crime wave afflicting the country and Newman was caught up in investigating the major bank robberies and kidnappings. Based on his experiences, he wrote:

[T]here are three essential elements in deterring criminal activities — speedy apprehension, undelayed trial and severe penalty . This was particularly noticeable in the wave of kidnapping cases that swept the country in the thirties. The Bureau had the support of the public and, unitedly, this type of crime became not only unpopular but downright unprofitable. However, for a while we did have a rash of them all over the country.

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On a beautiful spring day, Easter Sunday 1934, Newman was out enjoying the weather with his wife and sons. They had attended church that morning and looked forward to an uninterrupted day. But then SAC Melvin Purvis called. There was an urgent meeting at the office. “I grabbed my top-coat and hat, kissed Geneve and the youngsters goodbye, saying Purvis wanted me at the office right away and that I did not know what time I would be back. The last part of that sentence was an under-statement”

The Bureau had received a tip that the Dillinger gang was holed up at a lodge in northern Wisconsin. They packed up raid equipment, firearms, and bulletproof vests and headed to the airport. Newman managed to call his wife and tell her he would be out of town overnight. As they flew, the weather deteriorated into snowy conditions. The pilot landed on the airstrip but overran the field. One of the propeller blades broke off, sending the agents hurtling forward into the cockpit. None of them were injured, but it was an inauspicious start that heralded more problems ahead. Four inches of fresh snow covered the ground and one of the cars they’d secured got a flat. The agents piled into Newman’s car and he ended up standing outside on the running board as the car barreled toward its destination.

The details of the raid on the Little Bohemia Lodge are well known. It became one of the Bureau’s biggest Depression-era blunders. The plan was for Purvis, Newman, Carter Baum, and Bill Ryan (all wearing vests) to enter the front of the lodge. A pair of barking dogs gave them away and Dillinger and gang opened fire, escaping out the back. Hugh Clegg told Newman and Carter Baum to go into town and call for reinforcements. Newman drove a Ford Coupe with Baum at his side, a submachine gun on his lap. A deputy sheriff sat on Baum’s right, also in the front seat. On their way back to the lodge, they received report of an automobile without lights on. They drove to investigate. The car turned out to have no one in it, but they noticed another car parked nearby with the lights on and drove closer to investigate it. As Newman recounted it in his official report:

Immediately a man darted from around what I believed to be the left side of this car and covered us with an automatic which appeared to be of .45 calibre [It was Lester Gillis, aka Baby Face Nelson].He held his gun even with the door four or five inches away from the car and shouted, “We know you have bullet proof vests on. I’ll shoot you in the head. Get out of that car. I’ll kill you.” I immediately leaned back in the car as far as possible so as to give Agent Baum or Christensen a chance to shoot and at the same time, reached for my .38 calibre Super automatic in the inside pocket of my topcoat. At this point, the man in question turned his automatic directly at me, commanding that I keep my hands out of my pockets, and again stating that he would kill us and ordering us out of the car. I then grabbed at his gun twice which brought from his person on each occasion an oath that he would kill me At that time I commenced getting out of the car. I opened the door, stepped off the running board, and was just turning toward him, in the hopes of diverting his attention so that Agent Baum or Christensen could shoot him, when he opened fire on me, the muzzle of his gun being only a foot or two from ray head. This shot struck me in the forehead knocking me semi-unconscious. I fell face downward away from the man and recall having crawled under a fence to the right and in front of our car, and at the same time heard several additional shots. Here I lost consciousness and next recall lying just inside of -the fence with my automatic in my hand facing our car which was backing out of the lane possibly 20 yards away from me. I fired at the car three or four times from a prone position and noticed the car come somewhat to a stop, and then continue backing… It is very probable that I did not hit the assailant as my senses were not entirely clear, and I had difficulty keeping, out of my eyes, blood which was flowing profusely from the wound in my forehead.

~

Laying on the ground by the fence were Carter Baum and the deputy sheriff, Carl Christensen. Nelson had shot both of them; Christensen moaned for help, he had been shot eight times, Baum’s wound was fatal.

I was very sorry that Special Agent Carter Baum was killed. He left a wife and two small children, was the son of a Lutheran Minister and had been the tennis singles champion of the District of Colombia for a couple of years. He was shot in the throat area just a little above the bullet-proof vest he was wearing. Apparently, death was quite instant. He was very proficient with a machine gun and it was difficult for me to understand why he didn’t open fire on our assailant.

Newman’s head wound was stitched up in a nearby hospital. He worried that his wife would hear the news over the radio before he had a chance to call her. He reached her around 7am the next morning. “She took the message bravely and we both did a lot of praying.”

After returning to his family in Chicago, Harold Nathan showed up and ordered Newman to take a three-month vacation. Newman could only lay around for a week before getting the itch to report back to work, but when he did, Nathan was still in the Chicago office and sent him back home.

When Newman was promoted to his first SAC position later in 1934 in Denver, Nathan visited him and gave him the treatment most SACs were used to – they built you up and they cut you down:

On that occasion, as he paced back and forth across the room with his hands back of him like Felix, the cat, and still smoking that old pipe, he asked me this question, “Do you know what they think of you in Washington?” Not exactly knowing, I asked what they thought and he replied, “They think that you become so involved with the little things, that the big things go right over your head.”

In November 1934, more bad news hit the Bureau. Newman had worked closely with Sam Cowley (a fellow Mormon) and Herman Hollis. Both men were killed by Baby Face Nelson outside Chicago. Nelson was mortally wounded in the encounter and died by the side of a road.

At Cowley’s funeral at the Salt Lake Tabernacle, Nathan spoke on behalf of the Bureau. Newman listened as the scholarly Assistant Director recited part of “Thanatopsis” by William Cullen Bryant :

“So live that when thy summons comes to join

The innumerable caravan that moves

To that mysterious realm, where each shall take

His chamber in the silent halls of death,

Thou go not, like the quarry-slave at night,

Scourged to his dungeon, but, sustained and soothed

By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave

Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch

About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams .”

~

Newman received several pay raises, making $4,800 a year by 1935. He was ordered back to San Francisco. He had barely assumed the SAC duties there when George Weyerhaeuser was kidnapped on May 24, 1935. Newman sent several of his agents north to assist in the investigation and played a critical role in arresting kidnapper William Dainard a year later in San Francisco.

That’s where my research ended, but there is so much more to Newman’s story. His memoir runs 249 pages long. After reading it, I have a better appreciation of Newman’s own career and the part he played in the gangster era cases. His story echoes others of the era that I’ve researched, Earl Connelley among them. They were not anonymous first and middle initials.

I had always seen Newman’s name in Bureau reports – references to him or memos that he wrote. At the removed distance of historical research, a name is only a name. There is no context to breath life into the man that bore it. So I was lucky to come across this document and have a larger view of who he was and what he accomplished.

At the following website, you can read Newman’s personal history, see photos of him, and listen to audio clips of him. And yes, you can even see the hat he was wearing the night of the Little Bohemia raid.

http://bmsphotos.com/family/newman/index.htm

 

  • Author’s Note: While writing this blog, I contacted Larry Wack (mentioned above) to see if he had read this agent’s memoir. As usual, Larry was two steps ahead and has it posted on his website. A family member had contacted him several years ago and notified him.