It is early in May. As cherry trees blossom along the Potomac, members of Congress are castigating the Federal Bureau of Investigation for its inability to reign [sic] in heavily armed attackers who have struck at the heart of America. Critics say the bureau is incapable of discerning where the attackers may strike next, unwilling to work with rival agencies and unfit to fight what appears to be a new kind of modern war. Some call for its wholesale reorganization. The embattled director of the bureau pleads for more resources to combat the rising threat.
This may sound like May 2004, but in fact it was the crisis that gripped Washington 70 years ago. In May 1934, the armed attackers were not international terrorists but homegrown kidnappers and bank robbers: John Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd, Baby Face Nelson, Ma Barker and Bonnie and Clyde. It wasn’t the war on terrorism. It was the so-called war on crime, and for the F.B.I., it was going very badly.
– Bryan Burrough, “How the Feds Got Their Man,” New York Times, 14 May 2004
Those “home grown kidnappers and bank robbers” were also responsible for at least ten killings in the previous year alone, including the murders of several law officers. The nation was desperate to call a halt to the organized crime spree, and demanded the nascent Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI; then styled “Division of Investigation”), the closest thing the U.S. had to a national police force, to capture these public enemies.
The FBI was then primarily a desk-bound investigative agency of lawyers and accountants. Barred even from carrying weapons, its agents were forced to call on local police departments to arrest criminals. Local agencies considered the FBI a scandal-plagued farce, an agency as apt to shoot up a car full of innocent diners while allowing desperate criminals to flee unscathed – as they had done in April 1934 in northern Wisconsin, killing a civilian and an FBI agent while John Dillinger and “Baby Face Nelson” (Lester Gillis) escaped. A desperate J. Edgar Hoover canvassed his bureau for men who might be capable of meeting the challenge … and compiled a list of exactly eleven names.
One of those eleven was Samuel P. Cowley, assigned by Hoover to take charge of the gangster manhunt.
Cowley, born July 23, 1899 in Franklin, Idaho, was the son of Apostle Matthias F. Cowley; his half-brother Matthew Cowley would be called as an apostle in 1945. Sam Cowley’s family moved to Logan, Utah, in about 1910, and he finished high school and attended the Utah Agricultural College (now Utah State University) there. For four years, beginning when he was barely 18 years old, Cowley served as a missionary in Hawaii. Upon his release, he attended George Washington University, graduating with a degree in law. In 1929, he went to work for the FBI, one of that desk-bound squad of lawyers and accountants – not a criminologist, not a marksman, with no experience as a policeman.
Besides his intelligence and his legal training, though, he had a characteristic that was much appreciated by his superiors. In the 1950s, Hoover recalled:
Sam Cowley’s courage was beyond heroics. he was brave enough to be scrupulously honest in little things as well as big things. He didn’t accept the easy way out by a half-truth, a white lie, or a turned head. … [His was] a truly moral life.
He was also married, and the father of two small boys, in the summer of 1934 when he was assigned to trail some of the most violent men in the nation.
Cowley’s detective work secured the intelligence that John Dillinger planned to see a movie in Chicago on the night of June 22, 1934. Organizing a squad of Chicago policemen and FBI agents from Illinois and Indiana, Cowley cut off all escape routes. Dillinger spotted the agents, however, and reached for his gun – but died in a hail of law enforcement bullets before he himself could fire.
On November 28, 1934, Cowley tracked Baby Face Nelson to Barrington, Illinois. Two agents driving toward Barrington unexpected recognized Baby Face, his wife, and another known criminal, in a car driving toward them. Just as quickly as the agents recognized Baby Face, Baby Face recognized the agents; Baby Face whipped his car around and began chasing the agents. In the shoot-out conducted as both cars raced down the highway, Baby Face’s car was disabled by a bullet to the radiator and slowed to a stop … just as Sam Cowley and his partner, Herman E. Hollis, arrived on their own drive toward Barrington. Recognizing the cars of both the agents and the gangsters, Cowley pulled over, and he and Hollis took cover behind their automobile; the first two agents, armed only with their service revolvers, did not immediately stop.
Cowley and Hollis were armed with shotguns; the gangsters had machine guns. Hollis managed to fire ten times before he fell dead; Cowley got off more than 50 shots before he fell wounded. The gangsters jumped in Cowley’s car and escaped.
Taken to a nearby hospital, the 35-year-old Cowley refused surgery until he was able to speak to his superiors and identify Baby Face and the others in the car. Once that duty was done, Cowley died. (Baby Face was found dead the next day; his wife and partner were soon captured.)
Cowley’s body was brought to Utah for funeral services. He lay in state at the State Capitol with an honor guard, before his funeral in the Assembly Hall on Temple Square. Apostles John A. Widtsoe and George Albert Smith spoke, as did Utah’s governor and senator, family members, and local and federal government officials. Cowley’s father dedicated the grave at Wasatch Lawn Cemetery.
Speaking for the Division of Investigation, Assistant Director Harold Nathan said:
He is famous, and justly so. And yet Sam Cowley was one of the simplest men I ever knew. He was greatly simple. He was simply great. His was the simplicity of the saints, seers, and heroes of the ages, the simplicity of true worth, of true dignity, of true honor. And this being so, it behooves me who knew him well to speak simply …
Why he chose our service as his life work I am not certain. He may have felt that in this field he could best serve his fellow-men and at the same time develop his professional knowledge and talents. He was not a thief-catcher. He never was a killer. He appeared to me always to be of the student type, retiring and modest, almost shy. It seems strange that he should now be looked upon as the nemesis of bandits.
He would have made a splendidly successful practicing attorney in the higher, more complicated forms of litigation. he had a splendid mentality, not unduly imaginative, but of the keenly analytical type. I have seen him take a score of voluminous files containing a mass of material and produce a memorandum brief, accurate, succinct, containing only the essential facts. His mind cut cleanly to the heart of any controversial matter. Fate, and the enactment of new legislation by congress, forced him to play a part for which I believe he had little taste, but which he played out to the end with marvelous success.
His father’s prayer dedicating the grave included these words:
We thank Thee for his standing in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, for the Holy Priesthood which he held, and for the … esteem in which he was held, and the serious responsibility placed upon him by his superior officers.
We thank Thee that he was willing to lay down his life for the good of his Country, and now, Holy Father, we commit his remains to Thy care and protection, that no element of nature nor hand of man may disturb them until the Morning of the First Resurrection, when we know they shall come forth clothed with glory, immortality, and eternal life to enjoy a fulness of Thy Celestial Glory.
Samuel Parkinson Cowley is hardly an “unknown” Saint of the kind usually featured on Keepa – but his is a story that needs to be retold from time to time to keep his memory alive.