“Machine Gun” Kelly and the Legend of the G-Men
A Byte Out of History
Before 1934, “G-Man” was underworld slang for any and all government agents. In fact, the detectives in J. Edgar Hoover’s Bureau of Investigation were so little known that they were often confused with Secret Service or Prohibition Bureau agents. By 1935, though, only one kind of Government employee was known by that name, the Special Agents of the FBI.
How this change came about is not entirely clear, but today’s date, September 26, plays a central role in the apocryphal origins of this change.
Seventy years ago today, Bureau of Investigation agents and Tennessee police officers arrested gangster George “Machine Gun” Kelly. He was a “wanted fugitive” for good reason. Two months earlier Kelly had kidnapped oil magnate Charles Urschel and held him for $200,000 in ransom. After Urschel was released, the Bureau coordinated a multi-state investigation, drawing investigative information from its own field offices as well as from other police sources, as it identified and tracked the notorious gangster across the country.
On September 26th, “Machine Gun” Kelly was found in a decrepit Memphis residence. Some early press reports said that a tired, perhaps hung-over Kelly stumbled out of his bed mumbling something like “I was expecting you.” Another version of the event held that Kelly emerged from his room, hands-up, crying “Don’t Shoot G-Men, Don’t Shoot.” Either way, Kelly was arrested without violence.
The rest is history. The more colorful version sparked the popular imagination and “G-Man” became synonymous with the special agents of J. Edgar Hoover’s Federal Bureau of Investigation.