Sam Cowley, son of Samuel P. Cowley, legendary FBI agent during the gangster era of the turbulent 1930s, honors Keepa with the text of his talk given at the Chicago FBI Memorial Service for Fallen Agents on May 17, 2011.
I feel honored to have been asked by Special Agent Ross Rice to meet with you today and tell you a few things about my father, Samuel P. Cowley, who gave his life in the service of the FBI in November 1934, number eight on the Hall of Honor, now up to 55, I think.
A little background on Dad: He was born in a small southern Idaho town on the Utah border. He was raised and educated there and in Logan, Utah, part of a large religious Mormon family; his father was a leader in the church. When just 17, he was called to a four-year LDS mission to the Hawaiian Islands. He returned to college at Utah State University, where he studied economics, played football and served as president of his Sigma Chi fraternity. Then on to George Washington Law School in Washington, D.C., where he graduated in 1929 during the depression when there was very little work for new attorneys. Dad signed on with a fledgling investigative bureau within the Justice Department, a very different organization than the present vastly expanded Federal Bureau of Investigation, which it was later named.
For the first four years Dad served in several field offices, moving from Los Angeles, Salt Lake City, Butte, Chicago, Detroit. Then in the fall of 1932 he was promoted and transferred to headquarters in Washington, D.C. He was finally getting to settle into one place and enjoy his young family and have a regular home.
First, he headed up the kidnap desk, dealing with several famous cases – Lindbergh, Bremer and others. Then, to meet the growing challenge of the depression era crime wave, he was transferred to Anti-Gangster Investigations, which involved highly publicized gangs terrorizing America. Although stationed in Washington, D.C., he frequently traveled to distant cities to direct and coordinate investigations and otherwise aid local Special Agents in Charge (SACs) .
One of the most publicized cases involving Dad was that of the Kansas City Union Station massacre, where four lawmen were killed – three local police and one FBI agent. Gangsters attacked the law officers who were transporting federal prisoner Frank Nash to the Leavenworth prison. With improving fingerprint technology, it was determined that Pretty Boy Floyd and his gang were responsible. So the manhunt commenced. Several months later, local police spotted Pretty Boy Floyd in Ohio. Dad sent a squad of agents to help the other lawmen in the manhunt. Floyd was found on a farm field near Clarkson, Ohio, and killed while trying to escape.
Around this time Baby Face Nelson joined up with the John Dillinger gang in the Chicago area. It is thought that Dillinger didn’t know then that Nelson was a psychopath, who enjoyed killing for the sake of killing, especially law men. In one year, this combination killed twelve men, wounded seven, robbed four banks, and broke out of three jails.
FBI resources were severely stretched with the extra work of the gangster crime wave. They were understaffed and unable to track all the leads that came in.
Things were not going well in the Chicago field office, whose jurisdiction covered most of the famous gangsters of the time. John Dillinger was in and out of prison, sometimes by spectacular escape, killing citizens and police and robbing banks. Just when the FBI was close to him, closing in, he would escape – four times in just three weeks.
The final straw was Little Bohemia, a small out-of-the-way hunting and fishing lodge in northern Wisconsin. This was the site of probably the worst debacle in Bureau history. Dillinger, Baby Face Nelson and other gang members had settled in for a few days of rest. The lodge owner recognized Dillinger and became very concerned for his family’s safety. He initiated a series of phone calls through Wisconsin law enforcement which eventually reached the Chicago SAC, Melvin Purvis. Purvis hurriedly organized a nighttime raid of the Lodge. With inadequate time to plan, and insufficient knowledge of the layout, the raid did not go well. Three local citizens were shot by the agents – one killed. All of the male members of the Dillinger gang escaped, killing FBI agent Carter Baum and wounding others.
These were hard economic times throughout America, affecting almost all citizens, many out of work, losing their homes and farms to bank foreclosures. Sadly, many ordinary citizens saw Dillinger as a likable, charismatic Robin Hood, who was succeeding in his criminal activities while they were struggling. Public sentiment swung in Dillinger’s favor; in an odd way, he became a folk hero, a celebrity. This widely held public view of Dillinger was especially aggravating to Hoover.
This image of Dillinger was in stark contrast with the image of the FBI, now the object of increasing criticism, and even ridicule by the press and the public. Hoover deemed it essential that the Bureau have a positive image with the public. The FBI needed the cooperation of ordinary local citizens to come forward with helpful information, to provide leads and give witness testimony. For this the public needed to respect and trust the FBI. So, Hoover pursued a policy of working with the press to generate favorable coverage of FBI activities. He was not pleased when individual agents sought personal publicity, to make the FBI case about them. The successes in solving cases were by the entire Bureau team. Dad understood this. Not all SACs did.
Hoover called Dad into his office with a new assignment: Go to Chicago, study the Dillinger case, diagnose the problem, and devise a plan finally to get Dillinger and his gang.
So Dad packed up and did his job, occupying a back room in the Chicago field office. When he finished his study, Dad reported to Hoover. He recommended that a squad of very competent agents be assigned exclusively to the Dillinger gang, working the case without regard to field office boundaries. Dillinger’s criminal activity traversed much of the Midwest involving several FBI field offices (mainly in Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin and Minnesota). Hoover accepted the plan.
But there was a twist. Hoover wanted Dad to do the job, head up the on-site Dillinger team. This short term assignment would drastically change Dad’s life, and that of his young family. Hoover’s words: “Find John Dillinger. Stay on him. Go anywhere the trail takes you.”
I wonder how Dad felt about leaving his family for who knows how long, taking on the most difficult job he could imagine. For the previous couple of years, Dad was mainly tied to a desk at headquarters analyzing reports, fielding questions, giving advice, coordinating from afar, and keeping Hoover constantly apprized.
I don’t think that this new Cowley assignment pleased the Chicago SAC any more than it pleased Dad. But in FBI style Dad grabbed a change of clothes and set up in the back rooms of the Chicago field office – without ceremony, very much under the radar, no names on doors, unlisted phones.
There are two very different versions of the Dillinger case and Cowley’s role in it, but the essential facts are: The FBI stake-out of two theaters based on information from the “Lady in Red,” and the shooting at the Biograph theater are so well known, I needn’t repeat them now. After the shooting of Dillinger, and after Dad’s report to Washington, Hoover wrote Dad the next day:
I wanted to write and repeat to you my expression of commendation and pleasure last evening upon the excellent results which you attained in the Dillinger hunt. The shooting and killing of Dillinger is an act for which the entire American public should be thankful, … I want you to know how grateful I am to you, officially and personally, for the help and assistance which you have rendered in this matter, and the manner in which you have directed the same.
While it is nice to receive accolades from the boss, Hoover had more work for Dad: Now get Baby Face Nelson, who became Public Enemy Number One. So Dad, now with the rank of Inspector, stayed on and continued his work in Chicago with the special squad.
Baby Face Nelson was then hiding out in the West , mainly in northern Nevada. In late November he, with his wife and John Paul Chase, drove to the Midwest. The FBI developed information that Nelson would probably go to a resort in the area of Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, which was put under surveillance.
Special squad agents Charles B. Winstead and James J. Metcalf first spotted the gangsters there and phoned Dad, who immediately dispatched two more agents, William C. Ryan and Thomas M. McDade, to join the hunt. Dad and Herman Hollis also immediately sped to the area. The Ryan and McDade team encountered the Nelson car first and exchanged gun fire. FBI bullets hit Nelson’s car, severely damaging it before the agents lost sight of Nelson.
Racing to the scene, Dad and Herman Hollis arrived in Barrington and came upon the disabled Nelson car at the side of the road. John Chase with an automatic rifle and Nelson with a machine gun were set, ready for the G-men. The FBI car stopped some 150 feet from the waiting gangsters. Deafening blasts of machine guns and high powered rifles stopped after a matter of seconds, the lives of those hit were winding down. Hollis lay dead at the scene. Dad, mortally wounded, died the next day in a small, ill-equipped medical facility, not able even to administer the needed life-saving blood transfusion. Nelson’s group drove away in the FBI car, and the next day Nelson’s dead body with 17 FBI bullets, wrapped in a sheet, was dropped at the curb of a nearby cemetery.
A little later, W.G. Rossman, one of the first men on the scene to help my father, wrote my mother giving his account and quoting Dad: “Did they get Hollis? If so help him, forget me.” Rossman continued, “These words coming from a man, who himself was fatally wounded and in great pain, proved to me that an ideal, self-sacrificing American really did exist and this fact has been on my mind ever since.”
Because I was just eight months old when Dad was killed, my knowledge of him came from my mother, uncles and the FBI. This description by J. Edgar Hoover made a strong impression on me, helping to form my appreciation of Dad. He described Father as “the bravest man” he had ever known.
It is not because he shot it out with Nelson nor yet because he directed the manhunt which trapped another public enemy, John Dillinger. Many other special agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation would have acted precisely as Sam did in similar circumstances. … 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 half truths, a white lie, or a turned head. … In one murderous moment, the FBI lost two of its finest men. And what is my point – This sacrifice was not just a magnificent demonstration of momentary heroism. It was the culmination of the greatest adventures in moral courage – a truly moral life.
With high school friends, I would occasionally go to the movies. Typically, when the movies were about Dillinger, they portrayed Melvin Purvis as the man in charge, directing the Dillinger case. If the movie mentioned Sam Cowley at all, it showed him as a lackey junior associate tagging along, lighting Melvin’s cigar.
As I watched those movies, I wondered, why was the Hollywood version so different from the one I learned as a young boy? Did Hoover really send Dad to Chicago merely to assist Purvis?
Melvin Purvis had been Chicago SAC for a couple of years before Dad was assigned to Chicago. To the press and media, Purvis was the FBI . When Dad arrived with his limited specific task, he did not want to change the press relationship, nor would it be in keeping with the plan that Dad work in the background. Also, Dad was mountain-west old school when it came to publicity: he wanted none. All he wanted was to do his job well, and get back to headquarters and his family. So naturally Purvis continued to handle the press, giving him the opportunity to make the story about himself, artfully embellishing his role. So, the contemporary press stories based on Purvis’s self-serving spin established the popular official press story: that Purvis led the Dillinger squad, and incidentally had a junior associate named Sam Cowley. This version persists even today.
I think Purvis fashioning the story the way he did troubled Hoover more than it troubled Dad, with his enormous work load and responsibility, and whose nature was not to waste time or energy on such matters. This is not to say it didn’t hurt my mother and grandmother. With Hoover having lost respect and trust in Purvis, Melvin left the Bureau in 1935. But, he continued his PR campaign with a book, many magazines articles, product endorsements, and started a Melvin Purvis Junior G-man Club in association with Post Toasties, a breakfast cereal company.
In those days, the FBI widows’ benefit was a job with the Bureau as a clerk. So, Mother carried on, raising two rowdy sons, working in FBI offices in Washington D.C., Los Angeles and Salt Lake City. Much later, sometime in the 1950s, I think, the U.S. Congress enacted a widows’ benefit of several hundred dollars a month.
Mother made certain that my brother and I did not feel poor. It was not easy for her working long hours, but she carried on. A widow for 30 years, she remarried only after her sons were married. In many respects, Mother was the hero. She did her job well, without complaint.
I appreciate the opportunity to tell you about my father, Samuel P. Cowley, especially here in Chicago where he gave his life. He is just one of the many FBI agents and other law enforcement officers who selflessly and bravely made the ultimate sacrifice to protect the rest of us. I would like to thank Special Agent in Charge Robert Grant, and the rest of the Chicago Office of the FBI for organizing and preparing this tribute to those who have given their lives in the line of duty, and for whom this scripture is applicable, “Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.”