Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » Samuel P. Cowley: A Simple Man

Samuel P. Cowley: A Simple Man

By: Ardis E. Parshall - August 27, 2009

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.

samuel p cowley 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.

lavon chipman cowley - samuel parkinson - john foss - cowleyHe 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.)

samuel p cowley in state at utah capitolCowley’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.



  1. Sorry for the ugly screen. I don’t know why I can’t get the pictures to embed properly today.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 27, 2009 @ 11:16 am

  2. Holy cow, Ardis! You’ve unearthed an error in the New York Times! You should [sic] it so we can all sneer at the Times in unison!

    So, the FBI had an “inability to reign in heavily armed attackers” did it? Maybe it should have gone and reigned in Spain, or at least mainly on its plain, instead of in “heavily armed attackers”, wherever that is!

    Comment by Mark B. — August 27, 2009 @ 12:16 pm

  3. /sigh/

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 27, 2009 @ 12:23 pm

  4. In the movie “Public Enemies” that came out this summer dealing mainly with hunt for John Dillenger(rated R for violence for those of you who don’t like R rated movies)Samuel Cowley is played in a small role.

    The book of the same name by Bryan Burrough that the movie is based on argues that most of the credit for catching and killing John Dillenger should go to Cowley rather than Melvin Purvis who got all of the publicity and has a major role in the movie.

    There is a lot of indication that beacause of J.Edgar Hoover’s admiration for Cowley he recruited and had a large number of Special Agents who were L.D.S.

    Comment by John Willis — August 27, 2009 @ 12:42 pm

  5. Ardis, excellent post. At first, Sam Cowley received very little acclaim for his role in stopping Dillinger; Melvin Purvis, fellow agent and glory hound, got in front of the cameras first, taking advantage of Cowley’s natural reticence. What Purvis did not understand was that Hoover was a also a glory hound and, unwilling to see Purvis in the limelight above him, told the press Cowley had been in charge of the operation. Had the overaggressive Purvis not been there, Cowley may have been able to capture Dillinger rather than kill him. In a photo history of Franklin County, Cowley is shown with his 1909 fourth grade class at Preston’s Central School. The caption adds this by his name: “Later Cowley confided to an old Franklin friend, Willard D. Porter, how sickened he was when he saw women dipping their handkerchiefs in the gangster’s blood for souvenirs.”

    Comment by Curt A. — August 27, 2009 @ 12:55 pm

  6. Re:#4 and the number of LDS special agents …so it continues today.

    Comment by Clark — August 27, 2009 @ 1:35 pm

  7. Half-brother Matthew also received a law degree from George Washington and returned to SLC where he was public defender for a time and as he discribed was very unsuccessful because most of his clients ended up at the point of the mountain after he discussed the principles of repentance. He later served as mission president in New Zealand where he had earlier served a 5 year mission

    Comment by Steve Jones — August 27, 2009 @ 2:27 pm

  8. I really enjoy your blog, Ardis. Another great story I needed to hear.

    Comment by Martin — August 27, 2009 @ 2:36 pm

  9. RE: #5
    I can verify that Brother Curt’s quote from the caption is a statement of fact. Not only did women dip their handkerchiefs in Dillinger’s blood but some men were also seen to do the same with their popcorn. These gangster’s were both feared and admired (in a perverse way) by some people in the city of Chicago. These few citizens viewed them as if they were the ‘romantic’ highwaymen of the 18th & 19th century. Of course, they were nothing of the sort. They were cold blooded killers whose only thought was for themselves. Brother Cowley’s death was that of a very good God fearing man who took a stand before these criminals totally usurped the city government and held the whole populace captive to their extortion and other rackets. He was not the only casuality, there were others, and in a few cases, family members of those agents. We could conceivably finds ourselves is a similar situation in the not too distant future if the Mexican drug cartels continue to infiltrate the United States and bring their violence and bloodshed to our cities. We will need many more righteous men (and women) of quiet courage and relentless vigilance of Brother Cowley’s caliber if our peace, freedom and sovereignty are to be maintained. ~end of threadjack~

    Comment by Velikiye Kniaz — August 27, 2009 @ 2:39 pm

  10. What an interesting life, and so sad that it ended so young.

    Steve Jones said that he “returned to SLC where he was public defender for a time.” That’s very interesting that he would fight on “both sides” of the law (prosecution and defense). He must have been a very talented man.

    Comment by Hunter — August 27, 2009 @ 2:41 pm

  11. Correction on #9

    Sentence 7 should read;

    “…these criminals WHO ATTEMPTED TO totally URSURP…”

    Regrettably, my mind is often a paragraph ahead of my typing.

    Comment by Velikiye Kniaz — August 27, 2009 @ 3:10 pm

  12. Not only was Samuel Cowley’s half-brother, Matthew, an Apostle, his father Mathias Foss Cowley was also an Apostle but resigned in 1905 over the polygamy issue. Mathias’ priesthood was suspended in 1911; however, he was restored to full membership in 1936, about a year and a half after he dedicated Samuel’s grave. I’ve also come across some information indicating that Mathias traveled to Europe sometime during the 1930s and spoke to missionaries. Just a few tidbits about the family. :-)

    Comment by Steve C. — August 27, 2009 @ 3:59 pm

  13. Wonderful story that needs to be told and retold. I love what the Assistant Director Harold Nathan said, “And yet Sam Cowley was one of the simplest men I ever knew. He was greatly simple. He was simply great.”

    Comment by Maurine — August 27, 2009 @ 9:36 pm

  14. Threadjack warning: I remember reading that Mattias Cowley, Moses Thatcher, and John W. Taylor left the Q of 12 over polygamy, but it was really a voluntary, calculated move in which they agreed to serve as scapegoats for the plural marrages performed after the manifesto, with the understanding that they’d be restored to their former standing after the storm blew over. John W. Taylor, of course, never came back, so maybe it wasn’t so calculated. If only I could remember a source….

    Comment by Clark — August 28, 2009 @ 9:21 am

  15. Threadjack warning: Clark, if you find that source, I’d be interested in reading it. An interesting part of Church history.

    Comment by Steve C. — August 28, 2009 @ 4:54 pm

  16. Moses Thatcher left the Quorum in 1895 over conflict with the first prsidency over the politcal manifesto which stated that all general authorities had to get permission form the first presidencey to run for public office. Thatcher felt ,with some justification that the politcal manifesto was designed by the Republican first presidency to keep democracts like himself from running for public office. B.H Roberts came close to leaving the quorum of the 70 but was persuaded by Heber J. Grant to sign the Political Manifesto
    Thatcher also had serious health problems both physical and mental including a morphine addiction.

    John W. Taylor and Matthias Cowley were not sustained at the October 1904 conference when the second manifesto was issued by Joseph F.Smith which ended officially sanctioned Plural Marriage in the mainstream LDS Church. Taylor and Cowley had pushed continued plural marriaged in the era after the 1890 manifesto and had taken additional plural wives themselves. They were not the only ones doing this. Joseph F. Smith had authorized personally numerous plural marriages in the 1890-1904 time period( a good example of this would be the marriage of Christian Eyring and Caroline Romney in 1903. Camilla Eyring, duahger of Christian and his first wife would latter marry Spencer W. Kimball. Christian Eyring is also the grandfather of Henry Eyring of the current first Presidency.)

    However Taylor and Cowley were the most prominent members of the Quorum in 1904 who had pushed post manifesto plural marriages. As you indicated because of their continued support for plural marriage Taylor was excommunicated and Cowley was disfellowshiped.

    Matthew Cowley , Samuel’s half brother told the moving story of how when he was about to be married and was living in Washington D.C. and was planning to marry his wife outside of the Temple and be sealed later because of finacial costs . His father heard of this and was quite distressed and somehow raised the funds for them to come to Utah and be married in the Temple. Matthew told how his father wlaked him and his bride to the Temple gates and had to stop and watch them go in as he was still disfellowshiped and unable to go in the Temple.

    Comment by John Willis — August 28, 2009 @ 6:56 pm

  17. Don’t miss the great article about Sam Cowley in today’s Deseret News Utah section.

    Comment by Curt A. — October 2, 2009 @ 8:54 am

  18. Thanks, Curt, I hadn’t seen that yet. I just put a link in the sidebar and here to make it easier for readers to find.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — October 2, 2009 @ 9:43 am