By Tim Mahoney
The current embroglio over the FBI includes an argument over whether the agency is a political organization. It really shouldn’t be an argument. The FBI has been political since its birth.
An obscure and weak agency until the Public Enemies Era, the FBI was born with the defeat of the infamous gangsters of the Midwest. And the FBI’s first war on crime had a distinctly political foundation.
We can most clearly see this in the case of the Bremer kidnapping. Largely forgotten now, this crime shocked the nation in 1934.
In January of that year, Edward Bremer was snatched off the snowy streets of St. Paul, Minnesota. The kidnappers were the so-called “Ma Barker” gang, led by Alvin Karpis and the Barker brothers, Fred and Doc.
Although Karpis prided himself on his intelligence, the selection of Edward Bremer as victim was a stupid and, for some, a fatal choice.
Edward Bremer was president of his family’s Commercial State Bank, but the real power and wealth resided in his father, Adolph.
Chairman of the state Democratic party, Adolph had made Franklin Delano Roosevelt a personal, as well as political, friend.
Adolph, besides being a banker, owned the Schmidt’s Brewery. This was a gigantic brick complex, looking like a medieval German city, on a major thoroughfare not far from downtown St. Paul. Payoffs and secret deals with the local authorities had allowed Schimidt’s to brew beer despite Prohibition.
But Adolph Bremer hoped for an end to Prohibition, hence his friendship with candidate Roosevelt. FDR had promised legal beer if he was elected in 1932, and after his victory, he delivered.
Adolph Bremer had been a substantial help in putting FDR in the White House. He’d donated $350,000 to FDR’s campaign – equivalent to about $7 million today.
So when the Barker-Karpis gang kidnapped Adolph Bremer’s son, they’d committed a crime against a family whose connections ran directly to the White House.
In order to understand how politics affected the FBI’s investigation of the Bremer kidnapping, it’s necessary to take a step back.
Six months before Edward Bremer was snatched, the Barker-Karpis gang kidnapped another St. Paul brewer – William Hamm. From the gang’s point of view, the kidnapping was an unqualified success. They held Hamm for a few days and released him unharmed in return for $100,000. (About $2 million in today’s money.)
The FBI bungled this investigation like the bunch of amateurs they were in 1933. Melvin Purvis, heading the Chicago office, allowed himself to be duped by gangsters and corrupt cops. Chicago’s Outfit set up rival gangster Roger Touhy to take the fall. Purvis took the bait, and Touhy was tried for the Hamm kidnapping.
The evidence was laughable, and the jury, not amused, set Touhy free.
Although the Hamm kidnapping is forgotten now, it was coast-to-coast news back then. The FBI and its inept prosecution was mocked all over the nation.
Hoover was humiliated. The Gangster Era was at its peak. In the wake of the Lindbergh Kidnapping, Congress had passed laws giving the FBI sweeping new powers, but the bureau looked helpless and incompetent.
The FBI, having so recently bungled the Hamm case, seemed confused and perhaps awestruck by the Bremer kidnapping. One agent reported it was: “the work of a professional outfit … one of the most perfect things that ever happened.”
The Hamm kidnapping had been a slick easy job, but all sorts of things went wrong with the Bremer snatch. Bremer was a big athletic guy and the Barker brothers were tiny. Imagine two jockeys trying to subdue a football player. Bremer had to be pistol whipped into submission.
His captivity was marked by weeks of skullduggery and miscommunication, during which Edward Bremer, his head bandaged, was attended by gangsters doubling as incompetent, half-drunk nurses. At one point, in despair, the gangsters debated shooting Bremer and making a run for the border.
Edgar Hoover’s FBI was in crisis now. The son of a FDR’s friend had been bloodied and hidden away for weeks.
There is no evidence that FDR called Hoover to the White House to demand results. But he didn’t have to. Hoover was a politically astute as anyone in DC. And then FDR was on the radio, saying that the Bremer kidnapping was “an attack on all we hold dear.”
FDR didn’t take to the radio to denounce the Hamm kidnapping. But the Bremer family were friends a top financial supporters.
The FBI set off on an investigation like no other in its history to this time. During the Bremer investigation, agents produced something like 500,000 pages of documents. (All available online.) All this was generated by an FBI that had about 350 special agents.
FBI agents were now the desperados. Under pressure from Hoover and FDR, they chased any lead. So did the press. Joseph Keenan, assistant U.S. Attorney General for St. Paul, complained that “a hundred newspapermen and photographers are gathering in the city, liberally pursuing agents of the government and local police as well as surrounding the premises of Mr. Bremer.” Keenan said he was being pestered by men from Paramount Newsreel, as Bremer hysteria rose to a national level.
Bremer was released by the gangsters after three weeks in return for $200,000. Although tips were coming in from all over the country, the FBI hadn’t a clue about who-done-it.
Hoover, whose instincts were primarily those of a clerk-bureaucrat, had his agents record the serial numbers of every bill that was part of the ransom. This was a huge enterprise, given that the ransom was paid in $5 and $10 bills. Hoover accomplished this by adopting a nascent form of computer technology. Using its own clerks and a few temporary hires, the agency had every serial number from the Bremer ransom bills recorded on punch cards. The machinery was made by the Tabulating Machine Company, founded in 1880, and fated to become part of IBM. Since the ransom amounted to 25,000 bills, the tabulation took a few days. The point was to produce an ordered list that bank tellers could consult. That list was sent to every bank in the nation.
Some of those bills showed up in Chicago and Toledo. Arrests were made but the FBI got no closer to fingering the Barker-Karpis gang.
In the spring of 1934, two months into the frantic but fruitless Bremer investigation, a certain Mr. Dillinger complicated the situation by scamming his way out of an Indiana prison.
Federal agents endured more scorn and laughter as Dillinger and his new gang, including Baby Face Nelson, robbed Midwestern banks with style and impunity.
But while hunting Dillinger in St. Paul, the FBI got insanely lucky. They thought they had trapped Dillinger in the home of a St. Paul cleaning lady. They decided not to give him a chance to surrender. They shot this guy up, only to realize it wasn’t Dillinger at all. They had killed a Minneapolis gangster, Eddie Green, who in fact had been along on a few Dillinger bank jobs.
The real break was that Eddie Green’s widow, Bess, was willing to talk. And she knew just about all the secrets of the Public Enemies. She had come of age working in gangster taverns, including the grand daddy of them all, St. Paul’s Green Lantern. Following Bess Green’s tips, the FBI finally focused on Alvin Karpis, Doc Barker, Fred Barker et. al.
Fred and Ma were killed in a Florida shootout with FBI agents. Doc, Karpis and about 20 others were dealt with in two trials, and this time the federals got it right. Doc, Karpis and several others were shipped to Alcatraz. Dillinger had been dealt with in a Chicago alley. The Gangster Era was now history.
In a political sense, the FBI’s success against the gangsters can be traced to Adolph Bremer’s monstrous campaign donation to FDR. In the Hamm kidnapping, when the political stakes were low, the FBI put in a pathetic, incompetent performance. In the Bremer kidnapping, when the political stakes were high, the FBI performed brilliantly, with a merciless, methodical efficiency, in a case that did a great deal to boost their reputation.
Certainly the political stakes weren’t the only factor. Hoover and his top agents learned from their mistakes in the Hamm prosecution. And their luck turned when they stumbled onto that key informant, Bess Green.
But there’s no question that the FBI, even back in its formative years, was an organization that could be motivated by politics.
Tim Mahoney is the author of the gangster-era history “Secret Partners.”