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FBI 100 - Machine Gun Kelly

FBI 100
The Legend of ‘Machine Gun Kelly’

09/26/08

George Kelly and his gang kidnapped a wealthy oil magnate in 1933. Kelly was captured by FBI agents.
George Kelly and his gang kidnapped a
wealthy oil magnate in 1933. Kelly was captured
by FBI agents.

It was 75 years ago today—September 26, 1933—that wanted gangster George “Machine Gun” Kelly and three others were captured by Bureau agents and local police.

That date might not have meant much to history except for the reporting that followed. As the legend goes, the surrounded and frightened Kelly shouted something like, “Don’t shoot, G-Men, don’t shoot!” Originally slang for all government agents, the term “G-Men” soon became synonymous solely with FBI special agents.

Did Kelly really say those words? Probably not—it appears to have been manufactured by the media. But it quickly grabbed hold of the popular imagination as Hollywood, the press, the American people, and even the FBI accepted it as fact.

Here’s the story behind the myth and how it grew. On July 22, 1933, George Kelly and his gang kidnapped Charles Urschel, a wealthy oil magnate. After Urschel’s family paid a hefty ransom, he was freed. Over the next few months, our agents—then a largely unknown group of investigators—tracked down those involved. Kelly was among the last of the gang to be located by the Bureau.

Our earliest account of what happened was written between three and five days after Kelly’s arrest:

“Agent Rorer saw that Kelly…had proceeded into the front bedroom and was in a corner with his hands raised. He was covered by [Memphis Police] Sergeant [name withheld].”

And that was it, quick and quiet; Kelly wasn’t reported to have spoken at all.

“G-Men” inspired a generation of toys.

When did the “Don’t Shoot, G-Men” storyline begin? It’s unclear. The earliest reference to such a story that we could find was in a Philadelphia newspaper story written many months later. Kelly, according to the reporter, said that he didn’t shoot because, “It was them G’s. Them G’s would have slaughtered me.” According to historian Richard Gid Powers, it was a few months after this version that writer Rex Collier first wrote the myth as we now know it.

By April 1935, the image of the FBI agent as “G-Man” had become part of the popular culture. The movie G-Men, starring Jimmy Cagney, appeared in theaters across the country and was widely successful. It spawned more movies, news stories, films, comic books, radio shows, and even toys and games about the FBI’s G-Men.

In 1956, when reporter Don Whitehead wrote The FBI Story 1985 revision of the official case write-up.

In recent years, we’ve been correcting the story—see our article here on this website in 2003.

Good myths, though, die hard, and this one does make a great story!

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