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Guest Post: My Father, FBI Special Agent Samuel P. Cowley

By: Samuel P. Cowley, Jr. - September 05, 2011

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.

By this time J. Edgar Hoover was furious. The Barker-Karpis gang, Pretty Boy Floyd and the Kansas City massacre investigations were going nowhere, and now this debacle.

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.”

Thank you.



33 Comments »

  1. He was brave enough to be scrupulously honest in little things as well as big things.

    That is a fine tribute.

    Comment by Stephen M (ethesis) — September 5, 2011 @ 9:05 am

  2. Great story! Thanks, Ardis – and Sam, Jr. What a legacy!

    Comment by Grant — September 5, 2011 @ 9:30 am

  3. [quoting Dad: “Did they get Hollis? If so help him, forget me.”]

    Definitely a sign of a person who shows Christ-like charity, thinking of others before himself. Great tribute.

    Comment by Cliff — September 5, 2011 @ 9:39 am

  4. Thank you for sharing your dad and mom with us. What a rich heritage.

    Comment by Paul Reeve — September 5, 2011 @ 9:43 am

  5. What a great informative story! Americana, Mormons, and the real lowdown on an unsung hero. I’ve followed the gangster trail ever sine I was a kid and my dad told me how when he was a boy he was told my his father that the Purple Gang booby trapped a car outside the Book-Cadillac hotel in Detroit. My grandfather was staying in a room near the car and when the driver turned the ignition, the explosion knocked my grandfather out of his bed! I would like to know the two versions of the Dillinger hunt and capture. Hats off, and heads bowed, to Inspector Cowley.

    Comment by Joe Heagany — September 5, 2011 @ 9:46 am

  6. Wonderful opportunity to have given this talk…Thanks for sharing!

    Comment by John Tippets — September 5, 2011 @ 10:13 am

  7. I knew almost nothing about the early days of the FBI and its fight against organized crime. What a fascinating story. Thank you for sharing it.

    Comment by Jami — September 5, 2011 @ 10:22 am

  8. I have truly been inspired. Thank you Sam Cowley, for sharing your father’s courageous life with us.

    Comment by Meghan — September 5, 2011 @ 10:23 am

  9. For a variety of reasons I won’t got into here, J. Edgar Hoover is often vilified, if not ridiculed, these days, but there are aspects of his record worth understanding too. Reading his 1930s letters to and about Agent Cowley reminds me of his practice of sending hand-written notes to Special Agents on occasions important to them. The FBI was then small enough that he could do this, and it was a combination of that circumstance and the courtly late-19th-century manners that his widowed mother taught him while growing up in D.C. that prompted J. Edgar Hoover to take pen in hand. A friend of mine, born in 1939 when her father was a Special Agent in the Milwaukee field office, still carries around in her purse a tattered little envelope containing such a note written in blue ink congratulating Special Agent and Mrs. K. on the birth of “Little Karen.” At age 72 it is still one of her prized possessions. Mr. Hoover understood the powerful impact that a personal word from a leader, even a short message, can have on those in an otherwise impersonal organization. Interesting too that it was J. Edgar Hoover who in 1942 argued vigorously with FDR against issuing the Executive Order authorizing the internment of Japanese-Americans at the beginning of WWII while California’s Governor, Earl Warren (later the great civil libertarian), pushed to make it happen.
    Many thanks to Samuel P. Cowley, Jr. and to Ardis for bringing us this wonderful story of his father’s selfless sacrifice and exemplary character.

    Comment by Bill MacKinnon — September 5, 2011 @ 10:46 am

  10. This is really fascinating history. And the family angle makes it so much better. Thanks for writing this.

    Comment by Carol — September 5, 2011 @ 11:28 am

  11. Cowley’s career was thrilling, but what moved me the most was his widow’s life after his death. What a dynamic pair!

    Comment by Camilla Parshall — September 5, 2011 @ 12:16 pm

  12. I was thinking forward to this post and wasn’t disappointed!

    Comment by Cameron — September 5, 2011 @ 1:20 pm

  13. Thank you! I would not have know this history and these exemplary people without this fine post.

    Comment by Coffinberry — September 5, 2011 @ 2:04 pm

  14. What a great read. Gotta love those Cowleys.

    Comment by middle-aged Mormon Man — September 5, 2011 @ 2:31 pm

  15. That was a slice of Keepa heaven, Ardis! Reading the guest post was one of the highlights of my day. :-)

    Comment by Brian Duffin — September 5, 2011 @ 2:35 pm

  16. forget my bad grammer! it should have said I was looking forward to this post! haha!

    Comment by Cameron — September 5, 2011 @ 2:40 pm

  17. Wonderful. Thanks, Ardis, and thanks, Mr Cowley — what a beautiful tribute to both of your parents.

    Comment by Researcher — September 5, 2011 @ 2:41 pm

  18. What an amazing story, and a deeply deserved tribute to your dad, Mr. Cowley. Thank you for sharing it.

    Comment by Alison — September 5, 2011 @ 2:47 pm

  19. Through this story, Inspector Cowley receives some of the long overdue appreciation he surely would have waved off. Thank you, Sam, for telling his story, and our prayers of gratitude go to both of your parents.

    Comment by Ellen — September 5, 2011 @ 4:49 pm

  20. Ardis, Thanks so much for this. Sam Cowley is a hero in my hometown, Preston, Idaho. Sam was born in Franklin, Idaho (Idaho’s first permanent settlement), but went to school in Preston. I presume the birth took place in Franklin in the home of his grandfather, Samuel Rose Parkinson.

    Sam was in Preston in the Central School and is in a photo of with his class in “Hometown Album”, a book of photos of the history of the town and surrounding places.

    The Preston High School alumni web page lists Sam attending the old Oneida Stake Academy in Preston, but there is a note that after a couple of years, his mother Luella Parkinson Cowley took him to Logan, Utah for a better education.
    There is a caption under the fourth grade picture: “J. Edgar Hoover said: ‘Sam was one of the finest characters I have ever known . . . He was brave and scrupulously honest.” The caption then goes on: “Cowley and his G-Men shot gangster John Dillinger as he emerged from a Chicago theatre, July 23, 1934. Later, Cowley confided to an old friend, Willard D. Porter, how sickened he was as he saw women dipping their handkerchiefs in the gangster’s blood for souvenirs.”

    Comment by CurtA — September 5, 2011 @ 6:14 pm

  21. This was an awesome tribute. I’m glad that Ardis arranged for us to have Sam Jr’s wonderful talk. His father left him a great heritage.

    Comment by Maurine — September 5, 2011 @ 11:27 pm

  22. What a tribute to both your father and your mother. I had a lump in my throat in a couple of spots. Hoover’s tribute was one of them.

    Comment by Michelle — September 6, 2011 @ 12:02 am

  23. I met Mrs. Cowley one afternoon at Mr. Cowley’s gravesite. He is buried near my son. She tenderly told me a brief version of this story. Her love was evident, more than 50 years after his passing. Thank you for sharing this tribute.

    Comment by charlene — September 6, 2011 @ 11:06 am

  24. Outstanding.

    Comment by Kevin Barney — September 6, 2011 @ 11:37 am

  25. Thank you for this post. It is illuminating to hear the human side of this period of history, as opposed to the “silver screen” version.

    Comment by Anne (UK) — September 6, 2011 @ 12:30 pm

  26. One of the bloggers requested more info about the two versions of the Dillinger case, which really boils down to: who was in charge of the operation? The most common, widely-published version was that provided by Purvis, who as SAC of the Chicago FBI, was the sole press contact. Dad had nothing to do with the press having more pressing matters to deal with. Purvis, by subtle half-truths and material omissions, created the story that he lead the BF Nelson, PB Floyd and Dillinger manhunts, and that it was only after JEHoover saw how much credit and favorable press Purvis was getting that Hoover became jealous of Purvis. Supposedly, to wrongly diminish Purvis, after Dad died, Hoover, came up with the version that it was Dad that was in charge. This story was perpetuated in magazines, books, and movies shortly after the events and continues today. An easy way to see the apocryphal Purvis version is to follow the Purvis link in the keepapitchinin blog article.

    For several months before Dad was assigned to take over the Dillinger gang with a special squad of agents separate from the Chicago Field Office agents, Purvis had a series of dramatic failures, including the great debacle of Little Bohemia. Public pressure was at the boiling point; a petition was being circulated to get rid of Purvis, who had been a long time favorite of Hoover. They had a very close personal relationship, some compared it to a father – son relationship. But now Purvis was seen as an incompetent gloryhound and was forced out of the FBI a few months after Dad died. He desperately needed to redeem his reputation, and with Dad’s disinclination for publicity and to deal with the press himself, Purvis took the opportunity to take credit.

    As an aside, while I was going to law school in Washington DC (1959-1962) I worked in the office of Senator Wallace F. Bennett. One of my friends was an elevator operator in the NSOB, the building where I worked. One afternoon he said to me with reference to an elderly man leaving the elevator, “That’s the famous FBI man that got Dillinger.” Purvis had been given a job with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, housed in my building. So, I was close enough to touch him on that day. It was not too long after that when I read in the newspaper that Purvis had committed suicide.

    Comment by Sam Cowley — September 6, 2011 @ 3:02 pm

  27. I wonder how Purvis would have reacted had he known you were you, Sam?

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — September 6, 2011 @ 3:03 pm

  28. Fantastic.

    Just as “there’s no glory in the war once you’ve seen its awful cost,” the glory of gangster gun battles fades quickly when one reads a post like this and ponders the immense personal cost the family has paid.

    p.s. i appreciate the work that went into formatting the hyperlinks to get me up-to-speed on the background.

    Comment by The Other Clark — September 6, 2011 @ 8:50 pm

  29. I am the son of former special agent Thomas M. McDade & Sam Cowley’s accounting of the pursuit of Baby Face is completely accurate. That day and the deaths of the three agents killed by Baby Face were memorialized on July 14, 1993 in Barrington, IL at a special ceremony at which I was asked to speak. As I read from my father’s diary, recounting the events of Nov. 27. 1934, tears ran down my face as bagpipes were being played and relatives of the fallen agents stood silently nearby.
    Bless all of you,
    Jared McDade

    Comment by Jared McDade — October 28, 2012 @ 8:02 am

  30. I met Elder Samuel Cowley while serving in the Western Canadian Mission from 1955-57 and want to send him a message via email. I’d appreciate receiving his email address.

    Henry Miles
    Orem UT

    Comment by henry miles — April 19, 2013 @ 9:06 pm

  31. Henry, I will send your email address to Elder Cowley and ask him to contact you — that’s Keepa’s policy to protect readers’ privacy. How nice to get back in touch with an old mission friend!

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — April 20, 2013 @ 2:36 am

  32. My father, Earle L. Richmond, Sr., was a young FBI agent sent to map out all exits of the Biograph theater in Chicago when it was learned that it was one of the two theaters that might be attended by John Dillinger. After Dillinger was mortally wounded my father took his fingerprints while Dillinger’s body lay in the ambulance. That picture was published in the Chicago Tribune. Also, published in the Tribune was a picture of Samuel P. Crowley, Sr. with my father at the inquest concerning the shooting of John Dillinger. It was that picture that prompted me to “Google” the name of Samuel P. Crowley to find out more about him. He obviously was a very brave and dedicated man. I am sorry that his son did not get the opportunity to know him directly as I did my Dad. I would like to connect with Samuel P. Crowley, Jr. if that is possible.

    Comment by Earle L. Richmond, Jr. — February 2, 2014 @ 1:17 am

  33. Earle, I will send your email address to the last address I have for Sam, Jr. And tell him what you have written here. Thanks for commenting — I’m very glad you found this post.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — February 2, 2014 @ 5:53 am

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