May 1, 2012

A Byte Out of History

The Alvin Karpis Capture

Karpis and Director Hoover After Arrest in 1936

FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, left, after the arrest of Alvin Karpis.

Mr. O’Hara certainly liked to fish. He had gone out almost every day, according to the superintendent of his apartment building in New Orleans. O’Hara had shown up in the Big Easy with some friends about a month earlier—in April 1936—but often traveled out of town to visit prime fishing haunts until his cash dwindled.

O’Hara was no ordinary angler. His real name was Alvin “Creepy” Karpis, and he was a big fish himself—the most wanted man in America, one of the smartest of the Depression-era gangsters and one of the few still on the run. That was about to end. On May 1, 1936—76 years ago today—Director J. Edgar Hoover and his increasingly capable group of agents were poised to reel him in.

Karpis had long led a life a crime. He was born in Montreal in 1907 under the name Karpavicz; his parents—immigrants from Lithuania—later settled down in Kansas. In 1926, he found himself serving 10 years in prison for burglary. Following a jail-break in 1930, Karpis began his criminal career in earnest, often working with members of the Barker family, all of whom were habitual criminals. A string of bank robberies, auto thefts, and even murder followed.

In 1933, Karpis, his Barker colleagues, and the rest of their gang turned to kidnapping, perhaps seeing the ransom demands as a route to easier and less dangerous money. On June 15, 1933, they snatched Minnesota brewer William Hamm and quickly made $100,000. Six months later, they abducted St. Paul banker Edward Bremer and demanded $200,000.

By early 1935, the ensuing investigation led to the arrest or deaths of most key members of the Barker/Karpis gang. But not Karpis himself, who managed to elude the FBI and even went to the lengths of having an underworld surgeon alter his fingertips so his prints wouldn’t be recognized.

In April 1936, Tennessee Senator Kenneth McKellar called Director Hoover on the carpet during an appropriations hearing, complaining about his request for more funds. When the senator challenged Hoover on how many arrests he had made personally, the Director vowed to himself that he would be involved in the next big one.

So when word came that Karpis had been located, Hoover flew that night to New Orleans and joined the waiting raid team, which had staked out the criminals’ apartment on Canal Street. The next day, shortly after 5 p.m., Karpis and two others left the apartment and got in a Plymouth coupe. Hoover signaled his men, who closed in. The Director ordered Karpis to be cuffed. Ironically, no one had brought handcuffs, so one agent removed his tie and secured the hands of Alvin Karpis. The fish had been caught.

Within hours, Hoover was escorting Karpis back to St. Paul, where he eventually pled guilty to the Hamm kidnapping and was sentenced to life in prison. After stays in Alcatraz and other prisons, Karpis was paroled in the late 1960s.

The FBIas plan to capture Karpis was sketched out on a blackboard. Karpis was arrested in New Orleans on May 1, 1936.
The FBI’s plan to capture Karpis was sketched out on a blackboard.

Hoover’s first arrest marked the end of an era, putting behind bars the last of the major gangsters of the 1930s and helping to cement the reputation of the FBI and his own standing. He would go on to lead the Bureau for exactly 36 more years, dying in his sleep on May 2, 1972.

- FBI Vault Records on the Barker/Karpis Gang