Chasing John Dillinger across Indiana and Chicago. Watching the movements of Public Enemy Number One, Alvin Karpis, in New Orleans. Organizing kidnapping investigations and manhunts in Louisville and Tacoma. Waiting in a small Florida town for proof that the Barker gang was staying in a house just down the road. While the FBI handled its famous cases of the 1930s, agents like E.J. Connelley came from out of town and understandably needed somewhere to stay during the investigations.
These old hotels and buildings have enough stories to fill a book by themselves. But of course, in researching a book like E.J. Connelley’s biography, they are only settings incidental to the main narrative. So I thought I’d dump a little of the history of them here, that may never make the final cut of the book.
The Phelps Building, Cincinnati Ohio
Located in the heart of downtown Cincinnati, the Phelps Building was constructed in 1926. Charles Phelps Taft, half brother to President and Supreme Court justice William Taft, financed the building. Taft wanted the affluent citizens of the city to live in the city. Connelley and his wife selected the building as their home in 1931 and would never leave it. Their one-bedroom apartment was the only home they would share – Connelley never owned a home in his entire lifetime. Fitting, for an FBI agent whose mobile work life never let him settle for too long. Right across the street from the Phelps was Lytle Park and a statue of Abraham Lincoln. Charles Phelps Taft financed the statue, too. The Phelps Building could have met its fate when an expressway (and later interstate) was planned to cross right in front of it. But Cincinnatians fought to preserve the area and won – the interstate actually runs underground in front of the Phelps. A realty group purchased the apartment building and spent more than $10 million renovating it into a hotel. Marriott Residence Inn opened in 2011. Guests staying in a certain fifth floor unit will never know that one of the greatest FBI agents used to call that space his home
Connelley directed his 1934 hunt for John Dillinger from this hotel (right building in the picture). It wasn’t one of his most successful efforts – his agents missed capturing Dillinger twice. Clearly Connelley traveled in style – the Spink Arms was one of the more expensive hotels in the city. It had wallpapered rooms, furniture from Marshall Fields, tile floors in the hallways and common areas, and telephone lines in each room. Not that Connelley had a lot of time for sightseeing while working 24-7 to break a case, but right across the street from the Spink Arms was the War Memorial Plaza. The main Memorial building, completed just the year before Connelley ran the Dillinger case, towered up 210 feet tall. It may have brought back memories of his service in the World War (the only one, at that time).
Another stylish $4 million hotel, constructed in 1923. Connelley stayed here and directed the investigation surrounding the kidnapping of Louisville matron Alice Speed Stoll. The Speed family was well connected politically (with a former U.S. Senator in the family) and her husband’s side of the family owned Stoll Oil (one of the main refineries and gas stations of the time in that area). Needless to say her kidnapping made headlines. The Brown Hotel itself became a famous destination around 1926 when the chef, Fred Schmidt, created his “Hot Brown” sandwich – an open faced sliced turkey sandwich drizzled with Mornay sauce. The Brown nearly went belly-up, even at the time of Connelley’s stay, thanks to the Great Depression. Hotel workers went without pay for periods of time just to keep it in business. Of course, it didn’t hurt to have a gaggle of FBI agents show up in October 1934 and reserve a number of rooms.
Perhaps one of the least posh hotels that Connelley stayed in, the Marion is located just off the town square in Ocala. It stands out from the two and three story buildings as the oddity that it is. Central Florida was not a premier resort destination (years before Disney, of course) but the people of Ocala wanted it to be and helped finance $500,000 to build the hotel. You could call the exterior Spanish Colonial Revival… but that would be like calling a pig with lipstick something other than a pig (harsh, sorry). Putting a few clay tiles on a roofline does not make the building Spanish Colonial revival, but I digress. The hotel opened in 1927 and Connelley stayed here in January 1935 while he searched for the Barker gang, who was hiding out nearby.
By far the smallest and lowest “class” hotel Connelley ever stayed. This Inn was literally several hundred feet down the road from the lake house where Ma and Fred Barker were holed up. Connelley and his entourage of agents piled into this small Inn the night before their raid, hiding their Bureau Hudsons behind the building so as not to alert the Barkers. They spent all night inside planning the raid, then in the early hours of January 16th, 1935, drove down to the lake house and shot it out with the Barkers. The Inn now serves as a produce stand and the Barker lake house (bullet holes and all) is up for sale.
So you’re E.J. Connelley, and you have the biggest lead to capturing Public Enemy Number One, Alvin Karpis, that the FBI has had in three years. You have an informant ready to tell you where Karpis is hiding out in New Orleans. So where does Connelley arrange to meet up with her? A small, inconspicuous, out of the way place, perhaps? Nope. The Robert E. Lee Hotel. Another decadent building, it was completed in 1930. The lobby had marble and carved columns, brass elevators – all the types of excess you would expect for a boom time, except this was the Great Depression. But it worked – the informant ratted out Karpis, and days later Connelley would make the biggest arrest of his career.
Why did Connelley choose these expensive, luxurious hotels? Reading through the expense reports that J. Edgar Hoover serrated with his pen, clearly “expense management” was an operating principle of the early FBI. Hoover barely eked out enough Congressional funding to pay his agents. These posh hotels offered something that was critical to any FBI investigation – privacy. When Connelley arrived, he often registered under a pseudonym and let the hotel manager know that reporters were not welcome. Interfering with a federal investigation… a big deal even in the 1930s. So the hotels went out of their way to protect the identity of the fedora wearing G-Men as they came and went during investigations. Not that Connelley slept much…
The next blog will look at the historic FBI offices of the era. Hope you enjoyed and stay tuned for more!