Once upon a time in the Midwest David Hoppe Those who think that the Midwest is a place where nothing really happens should spend a little time perusing a book called Public Enemies: America’s Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-’34 by Bryan Burrough. They’ll be taken aback. The first thing you realize when you read this book is that there are two kinds of history. There’s the kind that tells the stories of everyday people doing what they must to get by. This is the kind, albeit punctuated with glimpses of the occasional Indian fight or cavalry raid, which seems to be preferred in Indiana. It focuses on settlement, clearing the land, planting crops and building factories. According to this version of history, the emergence of a middle class is the biggest thing to ever happen here. That, and high school basketball, of course. The other kind of history acknowledges these things, but its penchant is for character and incident. Growing up in the Midwest, I can remember feeling envious toward my peers who lived in states where the great events of the Revolution, say, or the Civil War, took place. And I could only imagine what it must be like to come from Texas or Arizona, where the stories of gunfighters and lawmen were practically part of the landscape. This was a kind of history that had as much to do with storytelling as textbooks. It was history in Technicolor instead of black and white. Bryan Burrough’s Public Enemies belongs in this latter category. Weighing in at close to 600 pages, including notes and bibliography, it is an epic tale stuffed with a truly wild cast of characters and more action than a Sergio Leone spaghetti western. Except that it takes place here, which, I suppose, makes it a Mid-western. The story Burrough tells is set in the bleak heart of the Great Depression. There was massive unemployment, many Americans were just scraping by. The president, Franklin Roosevelt, was trying to use the federal government as a tool to breathe life into the country’s exhausted economy. These conditions spawned a kind of outlaw that was seemingly peculiar to the Midwest. He was working-class or small-town, and, thanks to the automobile, remarkably mobile. The characters that instigated what Burrough calls “America’s Greatest Crime Wave” drove compulsively throughout a broad geographic corridor running from St. Paul, Minn., south through Illinois and Indiana, and down into Texas. They kidnapped the occasional tycoon, robbed banks all over the place and killed people. The stories of the Barker Gang, Baby Face Nelson and, especially, Bonnie and Clyde and John Dillinger, have been told in various ways through separate biographies and, most notably, films. What makes Public Enemies different is that Burrough weaves all these stories together, which not only provides us with a heightened sense of the time period, but of the geography where they took place. Indiana figures prominently. This is largely because of Dillinger, who was born and robbed his first bank in Indianapolis, had fabled adventures in Crown Point and Michigan City and was buried in Crown Hill Cemetery. By 1934, the second year of his crime spree, Dillinger achieved a national notoriety that’s hard to imagine today. He was front page news across the country and written up in Time magazine. When a Boy Scout visiting the governor of Indiana was asked by a reporter what he thought of Dillinger, the boy replied, “I’m for him … I mean, I’m always for the underdog.” The kid’s reaction spoke to Dillinger’s gift for theater. Quick with a quip or a dramatic gesture, Dillinger was an early master of media manipulation. His escapes, although more often due to the incompetence of law enforcement than his own ingenuity, were legendary. Burrough takes pains to emphasize that Dillinger and his ilk weren’t heroes. Most were nasty, brutish and not very bright. But there was also a desperation about them that resonated with people then, and still does today. Get off the interstate and drive through the small towns bisected by any of our state highways and, like as not, you’ll be traveling through country that would have been familiar to Dillinger or the Barker Gang. Although they occasionally robbed banks in larger urban centers, these crooks typically hit banks in smaller towns and used big cities as places to disappear. In this, as in their taste for flashy clothes, reliance on the Thompson submachine gun and dependence on the automobile, they created an unwitting iconography that would soon become associated the world over with modern America. J. Edgar Hoover benefited from this. He used these criminals as justification to build a federal crime-fighting unit capable of crossing state lines. That unit became the FBI. Throughout the course of his career, Hoover kept the true story of what happened in 1933 and 1934 under wraps so that he could control his organization’s creation myth. The recent release of the files from this period has provided scholars with a treasure trove of new insight into how things happened — and made Burrough’s hefty book possible. So get a copy and read Public Enemies . Then go for a drive. The Midwest may never feel the same to you again.

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