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Ex-Agent Recalls Role in Gangster Era

Walter Walsh, age 101, worked some of our most storied cases in the 1930s and helped shape the public's perception of the FBI.


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Narrated by John Miller, Assistant Director, FBI Office of Public Affairs

Miller: At the FBI’s 100-year anniversary celebration in July, a snow-haired man in a powder-blue suit stood to be recognized for his role in the Bureau’s early years. His name is Walter Walsh. And at 101, he holds a special distinction.

FBI Director Robert S. Muller (speaking at FBI’s 100th Anniversary celebration): Walter Walsh, our oldest retired special agent, who survived shootouts with gangsters in the 1930s.

Miller: Walsh’s story is a memorable one. He joined the FBI in 1934 at the tender age of 27. And not long after signing up he found himself in the middle of a battle with a group of gun-slinging gangsters that would become legend in the history of crime.

By today’s measures, early 20th century gangsters may seem almost quaint, disarmed by sepia tones and time. Bonnie and Clyde. John Dillinger. Baby Face Nelson. Doc Barker. Pretty Boy Floyd. The reality is there was nothing quaint about them. They were thugs, thieves, and cold-blooded killers. And a small cadre of Bureau agents like Walter Walsh—G-Men—were called upon to stop them.

Walsh worked a lot of big cases. Acting on a tip, it was Walsh who discovered the body of Chicago gangster Baby Face Nelson in 1934 after a shootout that left Nelson and two FBI agents dead.

But his role in ending the Brady Gang’s deadly cross-country robbery spree would be among his finest. The chase came to a head in September 1937. Having terrorized the Midwest and points east, Alfred Brady and two members of his gang—Clarence Shaffer and James Dalhover—traveled to Bangor, Maine to stock up on ammunition and weapons.

FBI Historian Dr. John Fox: Of course, there needs were a little special. They wanted magazines that could hold lots of bullets and were even looking for a Thompson sub-machine gun if they could purchase it. And it set of the warning lights for the manager of the store, who then talked to the local police and that was how eventually we got drawn in.

Miller: Agents knew that the Brady gang would be back. So they set up a stake-out with local police, positioning themselves to cover as many angles as possible.

Dr. Fox: We had agents out on the street at different points pretending to do different businesses or being pedestrians, that sort of thing, and waiting for the gang to appear. So, Walsh is pretending to be a salesman in the store. And he’s basically working as a clerk, doing the job for a couple days that the stakeout’s going. And Dalhover comes in. Dalhover is immediately arrested by Walsh and the other agent in the store.

Retired Special Agent Walter Walsh: He was asked, “Where are your pals?” He said, “They’re outside.” And I started toward the door.

Dr. Fox: And as they are asking him where are your partners, Shaffer is coming into the store. And seeing the agents with Dalhover, having arrested him, Shaffer begins firing at them.

Walsh: One of these people started in and he and I met in the doorway, and that’s where the shooting took place.

Dr. Fox: Shaffer’s mortally wounded. He makes it down the steps and back onto the street, but dies there. And of course, meanwhile our other agents are beginning to converge on the car where Brady was waiting for them. And Brady says something along the lines of, “I’m coming out,” but as he’s coming out he starts firing his own weapon and the agents return fire and Brady’s killed.

Miller: In the crossfire, Walsh himself took a bullet in the shoulder, but he was soon back on the job.

The gunplay with Brady and his gang wasn’t Walsh’s first encounter with the ruthless lawbreakers of the Great Depression. Just two years earlier, Walsh arrested one of the gangster era’s most notorious public enemies—Arthur “Doc” Barker. Barker, along with his brother and mother “Ma” Barker, were wanted for their role in a high-profile kidnapping.

Doc Barker had been trailed to a Chicago apartment building, where Walsh caught the unarmed suspect off guard.

Walsh: I asked him, “Where’s your heater Doc?” He said, “It’s up in the apartment.” I said, “You’re lucky Doc. Ain’t that a hell of a place for it?” He was ready to be shot if he tried to run. … Lucky for him he didn’t, because he was close enough he’d be hard to miss.

Miller: The ability to handle a weapon made Walsh a valuable resource in a young FBI. Even before joining the FBI, Walsh was an expert marksman. He won a number of national shooting tournaments with his National Guard team and later with the Marines, where he is still regarded as living legend. His expertise made him a celebrity in shooting circles, landing him photo spreads in gun publications and even Life Magazine.

Much has changed since Walsh joined the Bureau nearly three-quarters of a century ago. Crime and gangs have certainly evolved. Now the Bureau’s top priorities are transnational criminal groups, spy networks, and shadowy terrorist organizations across the globe.

Still, much about the FBI has remained the same—including its core values.

Director Mueller: If you look at what the FBI has represented over the 100 years of its existence, it’s represented excellence, it’s represented the agility to address various threats, and most particularly it represents integrity.”

Miller: As the FBI’s centennial year comes to a close, we remember heroes like Walter Walsh—as well as many whose names are lost to history—but whose courage and dedication to excellence guided the FBI through its early years and helped make it one of the most respected law enforcement agencies in the world.

The men and women of the FBI carry their legacy forward. Drawing on their inspiration, we look forward to another century of protecting the people and defending the nation.