Bonnie and Clyde. John Dillinger. Al “Scarface” Capone. These gangsters, at times lionized by the public, ran rampant during the 1920s and 1930s. Law enforcement struggled to cope with the rise of these elusive and heavily armed offenders — that was, at least, until a group of crack lawmen and special agents surfaced to end this reign of crime and violence.

Frank Hamer

Born in Fairview, Texas, in March 1884, Frank “Poncho” Hamer seemed destined to become a lawman. During his career as a Texas Ranger, Hamer participated in roughly 100 gun battles and killed 53 men in the line of duty. He also suffered 17 wounds and was left for dead on four occasions. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover praised Hamer as “one of the greatest law officers in American history.”

The Governor of Texas, Miriam “Ma” Ferguson, enlisted Hamer to hunt down the murderous bank robbers Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow in February 1934. Hamer studied the deadly couple’s habits and where they usually traveled. On May 23, Hamer and a posse of five men ambushed the elusive duo in northwestern Louisiana. As Hamer approached their Ford Model 730 Deluxe Sedan, he ordered Bonnie and Clyde to, “Stick ‘em up!” Bonnie aimed her sawed-off 20-gauge shotgun at the Texas Ranger. He opened fire before she could discharge her weapon. His posse followed suit, riddling the vehicle and its occupants with bullets. Thus ended Bonnie and Clyde’s two-year crime spree.

Melvin Purvis

Born in Timmonsville, South Carolina, in October 1903, Melvin Purvis studied law at Columbia, earning his degree in 1925. He worked for a law firm in Florence but applied to work for J. Edgar Hoover’s new Bureau of Investigation as a special agent. Purvis quickly gained favor with Hoover and rose through the bureau’s ranks.

In October 1932, Hoover placed young Purvis in charge of the Chicago field office. He tasked Purvis with catching the most dangerous criminal in the U.S. at the time: John Dillinger. The arrogant bank robber had escaped from prison twice. He and his gang had killed 10 men and wounded seven. After a series of setbacks, most notably at the Little Bohemia Lodge in Wisconsin, Purvis and a team of agents caught up with Dillinger outside of Chicago’s Biograph Theater on July 22, 1934. As Dillinger tried to flee and draw his gun, three agents shot and killed him. Purvis soon became the most famous of Hoover’s “G-Men” (government men or FBI special agents).

Eliot Ness

Born in Chicago in April 1903, Eliot Ness graduated with a degree in business from the University of Chicago in 1925. He went to work as an investigator for an insurance company but decided to join the Prohibition Bureau. The bureau’s agents were poorly paid, and many accepted bribes from America’s leading gangster and bootlegger, Al “Scarface” Capone. Ness refused to be bought.

George E. Q. Johnson, U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Illinois, selected the 26-year-old prohibition agent to assemble a task force to strike Capone’s breweries. Ness put together a crack team of nine men, all known for their honesty — leading to their nickname “The Untouchables.” In September 1929, Ness’ Untouchables began targeting Capone’s bootlegging operations. While Ness kept Capone sidetracked with his prohibition operations, Johnson built a case of tax evasion against the gangster. Johnson wanted Capone prosecuted on his more winnable tax charges first and kept Ness’ prohibition case on the back burner just in case it failed. He had no reason to worry. In June 1931, a grand jury indicted Capone for income tax evasion and sentenced him to 11 years, ending his criminal empire in the Windy City.

Walter Walsh

Born in West Hoboken, New Jersey, in May 1907, Walter Walsh graduated from the New Jersey Law School in 1931. A crack shot, Walsh won several national shooting tournaments with the New Jersey National Guard team. He joined the FBI at the age of 27 in May 1934 and helped to apprehend some of the most notorious gangsters. He single-handedly arrested Arthur “Doc” Barker — Public Enemy No. 1. — at Barker’s Chicago apartment.

In October 1937, Walsh helped track the Brady Gang, who had committed roughly 150 robberies and numerous murders, to Bangor, Maine. Walsh went undercover as a clerk working in Dakin’s Sporting Goods store when gang member James Dalhover arrived to pick up some guns. Walsh and another agent arrested him. Dalhover’s companion, Clarence Lee Shaffer, Jr., confronted the agents, and a shootout ensued. Shaffer fell mortally wounded during the exchange of gunfire. Al Brady, the gang’s leader, exited his vehicle and began firing his Smith & Wesson. Special Agent Walsh took a bullet in the right shoulder, but Brady fell dead. Walsh attended the FBI’s 100-year celebration in 2008 at the age of 101.

Law and Order Prevailed

The Wild West came to an end near the turn of the century, but by the 1920s and 1930s, a new class of outlaws emerged, armed with automatic weapons and driving motor vehicles. It took a set of gutsy and smart lawmen and special agents to end the crime sprees of these new criminals. Due to these efforts of Hamer, Purvis, Ness, Walsh and others, law and order ultimately prevailed.

About Frank Jastrzembski

A native of Cleveland, Ohio, Frank Jastrzembski is an associate editor with Delta Defense, LLC. He studied history at John Carroll University (B.A.) and Cleveland State University (M.A.). He’s written dozens of history and travel articles and two books on Victorian officers. He’s also a regular contributor to the blog Emerging Civil War. He runs “Shrouded Veterans,” a nonprofit mission to identify or repair the graves of Mexican War and Civil War veterans.