|Verne Miller, Harvey Bailey, Wilbur Underhill and Machine Gun Kelly were among several outlaws who attracted national attention in the 1930s for their crimes, but these four were connected in ways that boosted their notoriety, but led police to believe they had committed bank robberies, kidnappings and murders than they actually did. In truth, Bailey and Kelly probably killed no one, but Miller and Underhill were positively frightening.
Verne Miller was never a household name, though he briefly was atop the Justice Department's list of most wanted criminals in the fall of 1933, shortly before he was murdered by Detroit mobsters.
Miller's undoing was his involvement in what became known as "The Kansas City Massacre," a tragic 1933 fiasco that fueled the federal government's determination to rid the country of men — and women — who were kidnapping people, robbing banks, killing innocent bystanders, and, in general, spreading terror.
Miller and two other gunmen — and perhaps a getaway driver — set out to free a bank robbing pal, Frank Nash, who'd been seized in Hot Springs, Arkansas, by federal agents who were taking him to Leavenworth Prison in Kansas, where Nash had escaped three years earlier. Three lawmen accompanied Nash on a train to Kansas City's Union Station, where they were joined by two more federal agents and two local police detectives. The plan was to travel the last 40 miles in two automobiles.
The federal agents worked for J. Edgar Hoover in what was known at the time as the United State Bureau of Investigation. These agents didn't have the power they soon would be granted by Congress. In fact, Nash wasn't legally arrested, but basically abducted off the streets by two federal agents and a police chief from McAlester, Oklahoma, who was asked to help because the agents — with good reason — did not trust the police in Hot Springs, where outlaws were well protected.
But things went horribly wrong in the Union Station parking lot on June 17. Not only was Nash killed, but so were one federal agent, the two Kansas City detectives, and the Oklahoma police chief.
Big city gangsters feared reprisal from J. Edgar Hoover, correctly sensing his agents were about to given the weapons they had lacked up to this point. These gangsters felt life would be better for them if Miller and his associates were dead and Hoover's increasingly aggressive agents had less excuse to hassle them. Before the year was over, members of Detroit's infamous Purple Gang caught up with Miller and killed him.
Of course, Hoover didn't ease up; he was determined to wipe out bank robbers and kidnappers, even if his men bent the law. Hoover also bent the truth to suit his purpose. "The Kansas City Massacre" is a perfect example. In Hoover's mind — at least, in his public statements — Miller's partners in the Kansas City shoot-out were still at large, though now it's widely believed Hoover pursued the wrong men, Charles "Pretty Boy" Floyd and Adam Richetti. That is, they were the wrong men for the Kansas City killings. The law had plenty of other reasons to arrest Floyd and Richetti.
Meanwhile, the two or three men who were with Miller outside Union Station drew no attention from the federal police. They almost certainly were little known Kansas City gangsters who had enough trouble surviving without worrying about federal agents. At the time, Kansas City was as corrupt as Chicago, with plenty of gangster-on-gangster murders.
Hoover was more interested in nailing nationally known outlaws, such as the suddenly famous Harvey Bailey and Wilbur Underhill, the "Tri-State Terror." These were two of several names mentioned in connection with "The Kansas City Massacre" before Hoover settled on Floyd and Richetti.
Only one thing seemed certain — the leader of the gang at Union Station was Verne Miller, who'd recently settled in Kansas City.
If you continue reading, keep in mind several details are a guessing game. For example, there still are those who insist Nelson and Richetti did participate in the shoot-out at Union Station. To go deep into the subject, I think the best — and easiest — way to do that is click on babyfacenelsonjournal.com, a website that includes both the FBI-approved version, "Kansas City Massacre," and what I believe is the true account of the incident, "Kansas City Revisited." There are many other pages that look at Nelson and other outlaws, including Verne Miller. Or you could put that off until you've finished this page.
Meet the enigmatic Mr. Miller
Vernon Clate Miller is considered an enigmatic gangster because he had served honorably as a member of the North Dakota National Guard during the United States' Mexican expedition in 1916 and in France during World War One. Upon his discharge in 1919, he became a policeman in Huron, South Dakota, and only a year later was elected sheriff of Beadle County.
Miller was born in 1896, and while very young, his parents divorced and he was raised by his uncle, Clarendon Miller, whose wife died in her 30s, leaving her spouse with a household that included 12 children. Ironically, perhaps, Clarendon Miller was at various times commissioner, treasurer and sheriff of Brule County, southwest of Beadle County.
With such a crowd at home, it's no wonder Verne Miller set out on his own in 1913, when he was 16 years old. He moved to Minot, North Dakota, and lied about his age — claiming he was 21 — in order to enlist in the North Dakota National Guard. While still under obligation to his unit, Miller was a civilian in 1914 when he moved to Huron, South Dakota, and worked as an auto mechanic.
But in 1916, raids by Pancho Villa along the Texas-Mexico border prompted the United States to send an Army to deal with the colorful Mexican rebel. The North Dakota National Guard was put into service, and Miller was recalled and sent to Mercedes, Texas. Seven months later, Sergeant Verne Miller returned to Huron, South Dakota, and, in June, married Mildred Brown.
By then, the United States was at war with Germany, so a month after his wedding, Miller was back in the Army, training for service overseas. In April, 1918, Miller's unit was sent to Europe. He was wounded twice, gassed once, and recommended for an officer's commission. The fighting ended before he could be promoted. (As far as I know, this is Miller's account of his war service; his overseas Army record may have been lost.)
Discharged after the war, Miller returned to Huron, and, within a few weeks, became a policeman. Not surprisingly he was tough and aggressive on the job, unafraid to confront troublemakers and quick to draw his gun. As such, he was admired by some residents, disliked by others, though reportedly he won points for helping found the local American Legion post and being active in Kiwanis.
The fly in the ointment was his relationship with Police Chief Tom Johnson, who did not appreciate Miller's swagger. So in May, 1920, Miller resigned the police force after only 14 months, citing his unhappiness with the chief.
Miller leaped over the police chief by running for sheriff of Beadle County. He was supported by the Republican Party, and despite rumors he was trading favors with a local gang, he was elected — by 11 votes.
Problems on the job
As sheriff, Miller picked up where he left off as a policeman, aggressively pursuing lawbreakers. It was the early days of Prohibition, and Miller was especially tough on moonshiners. Or so it seemed.
He also waged a personal war against drivers who disregarded traffic laws. At least twice he fired warning shots at speeding motorists, earning a warning from the Beadle County Commission. Some residents must have sensed their new sheriff was a loose cannon, or a ticking time bomb.
But in March, 1922, the Republican Party endorsed Miller as their candidate for re-election. Weeks later they would drop him from the ticket, because ...
In June, a local judge accused Miller of protecting friends who were moonshiners. The sheriff reacted by raiding the still, but that may have been a cover-up or a farewell gesture, because for all practical purposes, Miller's days as a lawman were over. His first overt crime was about to be discovered.
Two weeks after the accusation, Miller's wife left Huron to care for an ill aunt in Rochester, Minnesota, where she, too, became ill and was hospitalized. Miller used his wife's illness as an excuse for a leave of absence. He also announced his intention to visit a government sanitarium for treatment of his gas-damaged lungs. This gave him time to go into hiding, because ...
Whether it was the expense of his wife's treatment at a Rochester hospital, or a loss of income from his friends' moonshining operation, Miller gave himself a get-out-of-town bonus, pocketing money he had collected — as part of his job — from county residents delinquent about paying taxes. The amount of money he stole from Beadle County varies with the telling — anywhere from $2,800 to $6,000. One story says when Miller fled, the county till was down to $46.70.
This and much more I read in a 1996 article by Brad Smith in South Dakota Magazine, and an interesting biographical timeline on a South Dakota public radio website. The timeline was based on Smith's 2002 book, "Lawman to Outlaw: Verne Miller and the Kansas City Massacre." It may be inaccurate in spots, but can be used as an interesting biography in brief.
So long, it's been good to know you
Miller deserted his wife, and went into hiding in St. Paul, Minnesota, then a notorious safe haven for criminals (so long as they promised the corrupt police department they would not commit crimes within city limits — and, oh, yes, give the St. Paul police a cut of whatever crimes they committed out of town.)
On Halloween, 1922, a few days before he could have been running for re-election, the disgraced sheriff was arrested in a St. Paul hotel. Four months later, after pleading guilty to four counts of embezzlement, Miller was fined $5,200 and sentenced from two to ten years in the South Dakota State Penitentiary in Sioux Falls.
Miller proved a model prisoner and was assigned as the warden's chauffeur. He became a free man in 18 months. After three months as a farmhand, a condition of his parole, Miller did what a lot of people did at the time — he became a bootlegger and hooked up with like-minded and recently divorced Vivian Mathis, aka Vi Mathews. I found several old newspaper articles in which her last name as spelled "Mathias." Journalist Bob Unger, who researched the famous Kansas City incident, and disclosed the FBI cover-up in his 1997 book, "The Union Station Massacre: The Original Sin of the FBI," says it was J. Edgar Hoover who insisted the woman's name was Mathias.
In any event, Vivian Mathis and Verne Miller would remain together until the end of his life, pretending to be married. His real wife, Mildred Miller, would wait until 1929 to obtain a legal separation.
Six months after completing his parole requirements, Miller was arrested on five counts of transporting and selling liquor. His uncle and father posted his $1,500 bail, but Miller stiffed them by not showing up for his next court appearance.
Soon he began participating in bank robberies, and was involved in shootouts with police. In 1929 he was indicted for shooting at a prohibition agent, but again didn't stick around for a court date. He and Vivian Mathis fled to Canada. Somewhere along the way, Vivian gave birth to a daughter.
Time to build his résumé
It's from this point that versions of Miller's life story become a multiple choice test. Google him and you'll find stories that say, in Canada, Miller ran gambling interests for Louis "Lepke" Buchalter, a notorious East Coast crime figure. Perhaps he did, perhaps he didn't, but whatever Miller and his girl friend did north of the border, they didn't stay long. They returned to the States early in 1930, and settled in Chicago. Some stories say he went to work for Al Capone, some stories about him don't mention Capone, at least, not in a way that would indicate they worked together.
If there had been no "Kansas City Massacre," it's what happened May 31, 1930 that would have been the event for which Verne Miller is remembered, though I'm not convinced he actually was responsible for what is known as "The Fox Lake Massacre."
On that evening, three mobsters said to belong to a gang headed by Terry "Machine Gun" Druggan, were enjoying a night out about 50 miles from Chicago at the Hotel Manning just off U. S. Route 12 on Pistakee Lake, part of the Illinois Chain O'Lakes that includes Fox Lake. (Route 12 runs between the two lakes.)
The Hotel Manning was one of Al Capone's favorite hangouts. He owned a home north of Fox Lake, on one of the smallest bodies of water in the area, Bluff Lake. So did "Bugs" Moran, according to "Gangsters Bring Prohibition Violence to Fox Lake" on lakecountryhistory.blogspot.com.
The mobsters were seated inside a screened-in porch, and their good times ended when someone outside, but only a few feet away, opened fire with a machine gun. Gangsters Sam Pellar, Michael Quirk and Joe Betsche were killed. Five other people were wounded, including the wife of a Chicago attorney, and her companion, George Druggan, brother of mob boss Terry.
Newspapers speculated this was just another chapter in the war between Al Capone and "Bugs" Moran. Verne Miller's name did not enter the story at the time, but now this incident is part of Miller's legend. There probably were three shooters, but stories make it seem as though Miller pulled it off all by himself. The reason? Take your pick.
A. He was exacting revenge for the death of a friend, Eugene "Red" McLaughlin, described by newspapers as "a notorious gangster" and close friend of Miller.
B. Miller was a freelance gunman hired by McLaughlin's brother, Robert, who reportedly was on the second floor of the Hotel Manning at the time, and perhaps signaled Miller.
C. Miller had nothing to do with it. "Bugs" Moran was at long last striking back for "The St. Valentine's Day Massacre" that occurred 15 months earlier. He imported gunmen to do the job.
D. None of the above
State's Attorney, A.V. Smith, didn't pursue the case, claiming the killers were professionals from New York and were in the wind. As a result, the murders were never solved. As years passed, especially after Miller was identified as the leaders of the gunmen at Union Station in 1933, he was more and more identified as the man who orchestrated the shooting at the Hotel Manning, and may have done it all by himself with a Tommy gun.
As for "Red" McLaughlin, I'm not convinced he and Miller were all that close. McLaughlin was missing at the time, and may have been presumed dead, but his body didn't surface until June 7 in a Chicago drainage canal. (At the same time, "Bugs" Moran also was missing and presumed dead, but he eventually resurfaced and lived until 1957.)
WE PAUSE to mention this tidbit that crops up in stories about Verne Miller — that he was so skilled with a Thompson machine gun he could spell out his name with bullets on a wall. There was a film made in 1987, "The Verne Miller Story," starring Scott Glenn in the title role. I never saw the movie, so I don't know if there was a scene in which Miller played his machine gun trick, but it's hard to believe Hollywood would pass on the opportunity.
Moving to Chicago, Miller supposedly joined a gang headed by Tommy Holden and Francis "Jimmy" Keating. Also in the gang for awhile was Harvey Bailey. Most 1930s gangs were flexible, changing rosters like today's major league baseball teams. Legend has it "Machine Gun" Kelly and Frank Nash participated at least once in a Holden-Keating robbery. Because of his nickname, his big mouth, and colorful wife, Kathryn, and one famous kidnapping, Kelly made headlines in 1933; Nash is mostly remembered for "The Kansas City Massacre," but had an interesting past as a bank-robber with an Oklahoma gang.
Seven weeks after the shooting at Fox Lake, Miller, Bailey, Kelly and two other men robbed a bank in Willmar, Minnesota. An Associated Press story (July 15) says five machine gun bandits took part and "shot up the town in a fashion reminiscent of the James gang." Newspapers frequently compared 1930s outlaws to Jesse James and his various gang members, but, in truth, there was no similarity. Bank robbers in the 1930s arrived and departed in automobiles, and usually took at least two hostages to stand on the running boards, acting as shields to discourage police and townspeople from firing guns as the outlaws made their getaways.
On the other hand, police, bank employees and customers were often shot, many of them fatally. In the Willmar robbery, two women were shot while they walked along a street. One was seriously wounded, and expected to die. The outlaws used bank vice president George Robbins and Miss Mary Walker, a customer, as shields. At least one person did shoot at the getaway car, reportedly hitting the driver.
Brad Smith, in his book, "Lawman to Outlaw: Verne Miller and the Kansas City Massacre," says that man, Robert Steinhardt, died. Miller, Bailey and Kelly would rob again, though they would not work together. Bailey didn't like Kelly's opinionated wife, and felt Miller was trigger-happy, perhaps because of what happened to the fifth Willmar robber, Sammy Silverman — aka Harry Silverman and Sammy Stein — who was murdered in St. Paul on August 13.
It is believed Miller was responsible for murdering Silverman and two other men that night, though the three killings were never solved. Silverman was thought to be the chief target, the reason being a dispute over the Willmar robbery. Estimates of the take on that job range from $37,000 all the way to $142,000. It was "Machine Gun" Kelly who later said Miller killed Silverman because he had double-crossed the gang after the bank robbery. Kelly said gangsters Frank Coleman and Mike Rusick were killed by Miller simply because they were with Silverman. However, the affable Kelly had unusually loose lips after he was captured in 1933, and his reliability is questionable.
One way or another, his days were numbered
Most stories say that by 1930 Miller was a drug addict and suffering from syphilis, which made him irrational, untrustworthy, and disliked by other gangsters. Still, according to the timeline prepared from Brad Smith's book, over the next two years, Miller participated in robberies of banks in Ottumwa, Iowa; Menomonie, Wisconsin, and Minneapolis, and was a suspect in a few more. The actual number is unknown.
On April 1, 1933, Miller and his girl friend, Vivian, rented a house in Kansas City and called themselves Mr. and Mrs. Vincent C. Moore. Alvin "Creepy" Karpis and the Barker brothers asked Miller to join them in a bank robbery in Fairbury, Nebraska. He declined, but wasn't completely out of it when Karpis went ahead with the robbery on April 4. A deputy sheriff and five citizens were wounded by gunfire during the hold-up; so was one of the robbers, Earl Christman, who was taken to Miller's home, where he died.
However, the next several weeks were relatively uneventful for "Mr. and Mrs. Moore" until, on June 16, Frank Nash was picked up in Little Rock, Arkansas, by federal agents who set out for Kansas City by train, planning to deliver Nash to Leavenworth Prison from which he escaped in 1930.
Thus the scene is set for the incident that would keep Verne Miller's name alive long after his body was buried, though he wasn't even mentioned in the early reporting of what became known as "The Kansas City Massacre."
The embarrassing truth of this shoot-out didn't become public until 1997 after veteran journalist, Robert Unger, who'd worked several years at the Kansas City Star and Chicago Tribune, investigated and discovered — Surprise! Surprise! — J. Edgar Hoover had put a fictitious spin on the event to cover-up the inept performance of a Bureau of Investigation agent, and to throw suspicion on an infamous outlaw who may not have been in Kansas City at the time.
Here is how the Associated Press reported what was believed to be an attempt to free Nash from police custody:
Five Massacred in Gun Battle
To Save Captured Desperado
Syracuse Journal, June 17, 1933
KANSAS CITY, Missouri (INS) — Five men were killed, including a department of justice operative and the chief of police of McAlester, Oklahoma, in an unsuccessful attempt by gunmen to effect the release of Frank Nash, notorious convict, just outside the main entrance of the Union Station here today.
Nash also was killed, as were two city detectives.
In the most brazen attempted delivery of a prisoner in this city’s colorful history, the gunmen accosted department of justice men and detectives as they emerged from the station’s south portal.
With hundreds of persons looking on in the line of fire, a gun battle ensued in which a hundred shots were fired when the officers refused to give up Nash.
When the smoke of battle had cleared away, all of the gunmen made good their own escape, and Nash and four officers lay dead or dying under the lofty canopy of the Union Station.
Manacled to Nash and lying prone beside him was Raymond J. Caffrey, department of justice operative, who accompanied the prisoner from McAlester, Oklahoma, where he was captured yesterday.*
Rushed to a nearby hospital, Caffrey died a short time later. His brother officers, Chief of Police Otto Reed of McAlester; and Frank Hermanson and W. F. “Red” Grooms, local detectives, were killed instantly.
Two other local department of justice men, F. F. Lackey and R. E. Vetterli, were hit by bullets and rushed to the hospital in an ambulance. Whether their injuries are serious has not been ascertained
Hundreds of unwilling witnesses jammed Union Station as the gunmen accosted Caffrey and demanded he turn Nash over to them. Nash was being returned to the federal penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kansas. He escaped from Leavenworth in 1930.
Obviously the gunmen’s attack had been well planned and based on accurate information as to the strength of the guard in charge of their captive companion.
Each gunman covered his man and with such dexterity that before reinforcements could arrive all of the officers were either dead or wounded.
Amazed spectators stood by paralyzed, not daring to interfere while the desperadoes made their getaway.
Some said there were only three bandits, but the majority agreed they numbered five. Likewise there were conflicting accounts of their getaway. Some witnesses claimed they fled in a motor car and others said they disappeared through the crowd afoot.
Some averred the attack was planned and executed by the most notorious of all southwestern desperadoes not behind prison bars — Charles “Pretty Boy” Floyd.
For the last two weeks Floyd has been taunting law officers and threatening them first at one point, then at another. Floyd was reported seen at Deepwater, Missouri, 90 miles from Kansas City, at midnight. Officers admitted he easily could have reached here in time to execute the attempted delivery, but did not entirely accept this theory.
Nash escaped from the federal prison at Leavenworth, Kansas, three years ago. He had been a member of the notorious Al Spencer gang that once held the Southwest in terror of its brazen depredations.
His capture was effected near Hot Springs, Arkansas, and he was being returned to prison when he was killed. Nash and Operative Caffrey, with Police Chief Reed arrived on a Missouri Pacific train from McAlester, Oklahoma, but a few moments before the gun battle.
Outside Union Station, a government car awaited their arrival, ready to transport Nash the remaining 30 miles to Leavenworth. Vetterli and Lackey had left the car to meet the party.
Union Station, one of the most spacious in the country and linking grand trunk lines of many of the most important transcontinental railroad lines, was jammed to the overflowing as the massacre occurred.
Miraculously, none was injured so far as could be ascertained in a quick check of all major hospitals an hour after the smoke of battle died away.
* Nash was captured in Hot Springs, Arkansas, with help from the McAlester, Oklahoma, police chief. Also, Nash wasn't manacled to Raymond Caffrey. The agent was walking around the front of the car when he was shot.
And you've got to love old clippings. In the story above, for example, is the line, "the notorious Al Spencer gang that once held the Southwest in terror of its brazen depredations." Also, an attempt to break someone out of jail used to be known as a "delivery", so while lawmen were attempting to deliver Frank Nash to Leavenworth, others were trying to deliver him to freedom. Or were they?
Who was Al Spencer?
Okay, but who was Al Spencer, and why was he mentioned in the article? First, Spencer was an Oklahoma outlaw who, during an 18-month period in the early 1920s, robbed several banks and is said to have engineered his state's last train robbery, in August, 1923. Like an Old West outlaw, Spencer and his gang usually traveled on horseback.
For awhile, Frank Nash was a member of Spencer's gang, but fled to Mexico after the train robbery. Meanwhile, three weeks after that robbery, Spencer was found near the Oklahoma-Kansas border and gunned down. He was 36 years old.
Nash made the mistake of returning to the United States early in 1924 and was arrested for the train robbery. He was sentenced to 30 years in Leavenworth Prison, but in 1930 escaped, and returned to bank-robbing. Along the way, he met Verne Miller.
Before going into Robert Unger's discoveries about "The Kansas City Massacre," and the part played by Verne Miller, here is the way the event looked to federal agent Frank Smith, one of the survivors, who was interviewed by a Universal Services reporter. It's possible, I suppose. that Smith had already been in contact with his boss, J. Edgar Hoover, and they had discussed what to say to the press, or it may be possible that in the heat of the moment, Smith was unaware how Frank Nash and three of the lawmen actually were killed in the Union Station parking lot. Note what he says about Nash's hairpiece; it figures in some versions of the shootout.
Officer Tells of Massacre by Gangsters
Syracuse American, June 18, 1933
KANSAS CITY (Universal) — “Our men didn’t have a chance — not a chance! Those gunmen were firing from three sides of us. They just yelled, ‘Up! Up!’ a few times and blazed away.”
This was the dramatic description given by Federal Agent Frank Smith of yesterday’s massacre on Union Station Plaza in which four officers and Frank Nash, an escaped convict, were slain.
Three of the officers were killed instantly, as was Nash, and the fourth officer died shortly afterward.
City Detectives Frank Hermanson and W. J. Grooms were shot down as they stood by the car which the officers were entering. Otto Reed, chief of police at McAlester, Oklahoma, was killed as he fired from the rear seat of the car. Nash was killed as he sat, handcuffed, in the front seat.
Raymond J. Caffrey, agent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, was picked up, mortally wounded, from beside the automobile. F. J. Lackey, Department of Justice agent, was taken to a hospital in a critical condition, and R. E. Vetterli, special agent of the Department of Justice, barely escaped serious injury when a bullet grazed his arm.
Startling in its suddenness, the battle was quickly over, and the gunmen escaped before officers inside the United Station lobby could reach the scene.
Following is the story of Smith, one of the officers bringing Nash back from Hot Springs, Arkansas, where he was captured.
“My great regret is that Otto Reed, one of the finest peace officers who ever walked, is dead. I got him into this and I got him killed. That’s what he gets for being a good officer. I knew he was dependable, and I needed dependable help in Hot Springs yesterday.
“We pegged Nash’s car in front of the White Front Pool Hall in Hot Springs, Reed, Agent Lackey and myself. We watched until Nash came out the door and we took him quietly as possible and speeded out of town. At 8:30 last night we took a Missouri Pacific train out of Fort Smith for Kansas City.
“Nash was a bald-headed man, you know, and we had some difficulty in identifying him. He was wearing a $100 toupee and had grown a quite respectable mustache. His conversation was that of a sophisticated city man of standing in the community. One of the first things I did was yank the toupee off his head and then I knew we had Frank Nash.
“When we arrived here, Vetterli, Caffrey and two city detectives met us at the train and we walked Nash, who was handcuffed, through the station and out to Agent Caffrey’s car, across the street.
“ ‘Get in there, Frank,’ I said to Nash. He got in. While Nash was pulling down the right front seat, Caffrey went around the car to take the driver’s seat. Just then . . .
“ ‘Up - up - up - up - up - up!’ was yelled several times in staccato accents from two or more points to the south and west of our car. Just as I looked up, I saw a man to the southwest of me with what appeared to be a machine gun. I saw a spurt of fire from it. I drew my revolver, but immediately I ducked for the bottom of the car.
“I’ve been a government agent for 18 years. I know when resistance is possible and I knew they ‘had us’ at the station this morning.
“I felt hot bullets pass my cheek. I believe Detectives Hermanson and Grooms were the first to fall, but I believe Nash actually was hit by one or more of the first few shots. The gunners, apparently were shooting directly at Caffrey when Nash was killed.
“I saw Otto Reed crumple and I saw Lackey slump in his seat. The only glimpse I got of our assailants was that one awful eyeful of that man with the machine gun leveled at me.
“I heard shooting from more than one point. It is my belief that at least two, if not three guns were trained on our car. I only saw one, of course.
“I know there was shooting from our rear and sightly to our right. I know the man who shot at me was in front and slightly to the right and I am under the impression that a third man was firing from a point somewhere in between those two.
“It was not my time to die. I’ve been shot at before, but never with more chance of the bullets finding their mark. How Vetterli escaped is even more of a mystery. He was directly in the line of fire.
“Poor Hermanson and Grooms might have been artificial rabbits in a shooting gallery. Caffrey was killed before he knew we were in a fight. Reed, I’m satisfied, heard nothing after that staccato command of ‘Up - up - up!’
“Lackey was saved from instant death, in my opinion, because the bullet which struck him ricocheted from his pistol butt into his abdomen. He was the only man not shot in the head.”
Nash, a “gentleman bandit,” was known to have wide connections in the underworld, from Chicago to the Gulf, and every known gangster throughout the section is a possible suspect.
Apparently well educated, Nash was the suspected “brains” of numerous crimes. He is suspected of participating in the “outside” work that made possible the federal prison break at Leavenworth two years ago, during which Thomas White, then warden, was kidnapped and wounded.
He was implicated in that break by Harold Fontaine, who was convicted of smuggling arms into the prison and sentenced to a long term.
Nash is known to have been a close friend of Harvey Bailey, a “golfing bandit,” who was one of the leaders in the Memorial Day break from the state penitentiary at Lansing, Kansas.
Caffrey, who long has been a nemesis of gangsters, arrested Bailey on a golf course here 18 months ago. He barely missed capturing Nash at the same time, as the two bandits had played a few holes of golf together shortly before Caffrey appeared.
Once a member of the notorious Al Spencer gang that 10 years ago specialized in bank and mail train robberies throughout the Southwest, Nash had a long career in crime. He was serving a 25-year sentence for mail robbery, committed while a member of the gang, when he made good his dash from Leavenworth prison two years ago.
What made Frank Nash so important?
Now we get to what I think is so interesting about an event that quickly took on a life of its own, either as "The Kansas City Massacre" (fictionalized in a 1975 movie of the same name) or "The Union Station Massacre."
One of the first obvious questions, is why did any gang of outlaws want to free Frank Nash from his police captors, who included federal agents and local officers?
There are at least three theories, with variations on each. The one I dismiss is Nash was some sort of bank-robbing genius, and gangs wanted him to plan their heists. I don't think there's any reason to believe Nash had inside knowledge on banks. Most of those being robbed were in the midwest, and all of them were shaky because of the Depression. One thing Nash had going for him was his Joe Average appearance, like a movies bit player always cast as a bartender or waiter. So if he cased a bank, chances are no one noticed. But that didn't make him important enough to risk death at the hands of the police officers accompanying him.
Another theory holds that gangsters didn't want to free Nash; they wanted him dead before he could squeal to police. He'd been captured in Hot Springs, Arkansas, the day before, so he probably hadn't been thoroughly questioned yet. I find this theory believable, though the involvement of Miller may seem strange, since Miller and Nash were believed to be friends. However, Miller had a reputation with a machine gun, and he was living in Kansas City. If you wanted someone killed in this situation, Miller was a good person to ask.
But for several reasons I go with the third theory, and it's based on friendship, not necessarily between Miller and Nash, but between Miller's girl friend, Vi Mathis, and Nash's wife, Frances. The theory holds that Mrs. Nash phoned Ms. Mathis (aka Mrs. Moore) and asked if there were anything Miller could do to prevent police from taking Nash to Leavenworth. Maybe Mrs. Nash thought Miller was just crazy enough to try. After all, look what he did to those gangsters at the hotel in Fox Lake three years earlier.
David Farris, an Oklahoma writer with a special interest in his state's history and Depression-era bank robbers, said the following in "A Deadly Collision," a piece he wrote for edmondlifeandleisure.com (Edmond being the name of a city in Oklahoma). The lawmen he mentions are those who had captured Frank Nash, the prisoner referred to in the first sentence:
"The lawmen and their prisoner arrived at the Fort Smith station without incident to learn the train was running about 10 minutes late. As the men waited nervously on the platform, a reporter for the Associated Press noticed the strange quartet and asked who was the man wearing handcuffs.
"[Federal agent Joe] Lackey would later claim that no one responded to the reporter's questions but, without a doubt, someone did. Just 30 minutes after their train departed, the AP reported, 'Frank Nash, one of the last surviving members of the Al Spencer gang of bank and train robbers that operated a decade ago, was recaptured today at Hot Springs, Ark., by three Department of Justice agents — who "kidnapped" him off the streets of the resort city.'
"Amazingly, it was also reported that the agents and their prisoner had just boarded an overnight train for Kansas City. This meant that anybody who was looking to rescue Nash would know where he would be and when."
So what did Miller do next?
While he may have done "The Fox Lake Massacre"
by himself, he needed help on this job, and apparently had to run the idea past a Kansas City gangster named Johnny Lazia. After all, a relative newcomer in town doesn't go around firing a machine gun, especially near a crowded train station.
Miller contacted Lazia, who gave his approval, and offered suggestions about gunmen who could assist. Legend has it Lazia recommended Charles "Pretty Boy" Floyd, already a well-known gangster, who happened to be in the Kansas City area at the time. The other name mentioned was Adam Richetti. These are the two men most often identified as the gunmen who showed up at Union Station with Miller on June 17. J. Edgar Hoover pinned the blame on Floyd and Richetti, and would make them pay the price.
However, it's much more likely, according to some who have spent a lot of time researching the incident, that Lazia actually recommended a pair of brothers, Homer and Maurice Denning. One of Lazia's associates, "Blackie" Audett, would later claim the other shooters involved in "The Kansas City Massacre" were Maurice Denning and Solly Weisman, while some believe one of the shooters was Harvey Bailey.
I'll go along with Audett, though I don't believe that part of his story where he claims to have witnessed the shooting from his car in the company of Mary McElroy, daughter of the Kansas City manager, H. F. McElroy. Anything is possible, but Ms. McElroy was a rather fragile young woman who'd been kidnapped three weeks earlier. For some unusual reasons, she never fully recovered from the experience, and I doubt she'd be going with a gangster to witness a shoot-out, thought there's a good chance she would have known it was going to happen. Her father was associated with corrupt political boss Tom Pendergast, who would have been contacted by Lazia.
Another version of the sequence of events has a gambler or a woman in Hot Springs calling Lazia about the arrest, and Lazia contacting Miller, then assigning two of his gunmen to help Miller. I don't believe this version because I can find no reason Lazia would initiate a plan to help Frank Nash, but I do think Miller had help from two gunmen assigned by Lazia.
I rule out "Pretty Boy" Floyd because he had no reason to assist Miller. Floyd was a gangster to make money, not do favors. He barely knew Miller, probably didn't like him, and stood to gain nothing by Nash's escape. Rule out Floyd, and you rule out Adam Richetti, whose only claim to fame was his association — such as it was — with Floyd. Likewise, Harvey Bailey and any other recognizable outlaw — Wilbur Underwood, for example — wouldn't risk his life with no payoff in sight, though Bailey's name would remain part of this case for years. Supposedly, he and Nash were close friends.
So what really happened in Kansas City?
Yes, five men were killed outside the Kansas City railroad station on June 17, 1933, but who shot who? The version presented earlier — "Officer Tells of Massacre by Gangsters" — is essentially the same as that accepted for more than 60 years — that gangsters opened fire before the lawmen guarding Frank Nash could respond. It now appears that wasn't the case. And even if it were, an obvious conclusion would be the lawmen in charge had done a poor job of planning. Consider the vehicle that was chosen to transport Nash to Leavenworth.
The vehicle was a two-door Chevrolet owned by federal agent. Why Caffrey's automobile was used is a puzzler. It was logical to expect four lawmen would ride with Nash, and there were to be three more following in another vehicle. You'd expect Nash to be seated in the back seat, with a lawman on each side, with Nash handcuffed, perhaps to one of his guards. I also would have expected the federal agents to use a four-door vehicle, not to put three men in a backseat that offered no easy exit.
Not only did Caffrey do that, but the three men in the backseat were all lawmen — federal agents Joseph Lackey and Frank Smith, and McAlester, Oklahoma, police chief Otto Reed. These were the men who'd arrested Nash, who was handcuffed, but ordered to sit in the passenger seat up front. Not only that, but Caffrey ordered Nash to get in first, then pull the back of his seat forward so Lackey, Smith and Reed could squeeze into the rear of the vehicle.
Miller and the other shooters undoubtedly were watching from one or two other automobiles. So even a mustachioed, toupee-wearing Nash would be recognized by the handcuffs on his wrists, and the fact he led the parade from the train to the parking lot.
Reed was about to get settled in the backseat; Lackey was behind the driver's seat, one hand wrapped around a shotgun that was butt down on the floor of the car; Nash couldn't yet get into his seat, and was facing the steering wheel, and Caffrey was walking around the front of the car toward the driver's side door, when the massacre began.
This is how Robert Unger — in a 2003 interview — described what happened next:
"The bad guys said, "Get your hands up", and everybody froze and began to comply, putting their arms up ... [but] Lackey began fumbling with the shotgun; he was trying to pull it up to get a shot, he really wanted to be hero ... Somehow, that shotgun discharged, and took off the top of the head of Nash in front of him. And since it was loaded with buckshot — and we know what the buckshot load was, from the unexpended shells in Otto Reed's pocket, duplicates of shells Reed put into the gun. Well, the buckshot was marbles about the size of the tip of the end of your little finger. At least one of those went out front window, and one of them went right into the side of the head of the agent, Caffrey.
"So here we are in the first two seconds of shooting, and already Frank Nash — the top of his head is gone and he is dead, and Ray Caffrey is dying of a fatal wound. And Joe Lackey is fumbling with the shotgun for another shot, everyone ducking at this point, [Frank] Hermanson [a Kansas City detective] is in a direct line between Lackey and [one of] the machine gun wielders. Joe Lackey gets off a second shot, which takes off the left side of Frank Hermanson's head. We know this because you can trace a line, there are pictures of the car parked next door, you can see where buckshot took pieces off of the window frame, and draw a straight line from Joe Lackey to that shot, and through Hermanson's head ...
"So far no one has fired a shot except Joe Lackey in the back seat, his passenger dead, a fellow agent is dying, and a policeman is dead. At this point everyone begins to shoot, and there's massive firings by machine guns, and so forth, and by the time all of this is over, Bill Grooms, the other Kansas City policeman, is also dead. And Reed in back seat, when they finally get to him, he has a fatal wound in his chest that is a .45 caliber wound that would've killed him. But he also has a mysterious .38 round in his head which was also fatal. But the only people with .38s were the good guys.
"So when it's all said and done, of the five people dead, three were definitely killed by the good guys, one definitely killed by the bad guys, and one had a fatal wound that could've come from either side. Depending on which got there first. That's substantially different from the FBI version."
Unger maintains that when the lawmen left the train, Lackey grabbed a shotgun that belonged to Police Chief Otto Reed. Why Reed didn't call this to Lackey's attention, Unger doesn't know. Apparently there were differences in this shotgun that Lackey didn't understand, or the man simply panicked.
Note that Unger says Miller and his associates didn't fire until Lackey had gotten off two shots and killed three men. Knowing that Frank Nash already was probably dead, the men with machine guns had only one concern — escape. I believe they concentrated their fire on Kansas City detective W. J. "Red" Grooms, who was standing near Hermanson, and the agents in the backseat.
What's odd about the way this was reported in newspapers is photos show just one good-sized hole in the front windshield of Caffrey's car, and the glass is on the hood, so this was made by Lackey's first shot from the backseat. Miller and the other shooters didn't even fire at the windshield. I'm assuming Miller was standing in front of Caffrey's car, and he's the one who yelled, "Up! Up! Up!" I believe he fired at Grooms, standing near Hermanson to the left of Caffrey's car, and at federal agent Reed Vetterli, who was on the move during the shooting. The other machine gunners briefly poured their lead into the backseat through the side windows.
I do have difficulty picturing how Lackey could have prematurely discharged a shotgun shell that hit Nash in the head AND put a hole in the windshield. Lackey would have had to raise the gun and aim it toward the front, at which point, the gun barrel would have extended over the front seat. But, then, I don't know the length of the gun, or how Lackey was holding it when it went off ... or what Nash was doing in the front seat. He may have been preparing to jump out of the car, knowing help was at hand. Maybe that's why his head was in front of the shotgun.
And Caffrey must have been in front of the car, and the second shot, which Unger says killed Hermanson, must have been fired through the right side window.
Early reports were undecided whether there were three gunmen or five who were there to either free Frank Nash or kill him. The Kansas City police chief would claim there were only two; others would say there were four. How they escaped and in how many cars also varied from witness to witness.
It's difficult to account for a slug from a lawman's gun hitting Chief Reed in the head, unless federal agent Reed Vetterli, who survived the massacre, or Grooms was spun around by the machine gun fire and discharged a round accidentally into the backseat of Caffrey's vehicle. Photos of the car show no damage to the front of the vehicle except for the hole in the windshield.
Something that appears in many stories about the massacre is that Nash got out of the car and waved his toupee around, shouting, "It's me! It's me!" But that never happened.
Lackey was hit a few times and was severely wounded; Vetterli managed to survive with one minor wound to an arm. Ironically, the only person who escaped unscathed was agent Frank Smith, who was sitting where Nash should have been — between Reed and Lackey in the backseat.
Oddly, J. Edgar Hoover would always insist "Pretty Boy" Floyd was one of the shooters at Union Station when it was reported by a fairly reliable source — Sheriff Jack Killingsworth of Polk County — that he was by the outlaw who dropped him off early that morning near Deepwater, Missouri, about 80 miles from Kansas City.
More bad news for Hoover
However, two days before the shoot-out in Kansas City, Hoover and his agents had something else to investigate — another kidnapping, this one in St. Paul, Minnesota, where William Hamm Jr., the 39-year-old millionaire who was head of the Theodore Hamm Brewing Company, was kidnapped while walking from his office to his home. A note, delivered to authorities by a taxi-cab driver, demanded $100,000 ransom.
Just as some bootleggers had turned to bank-robbing a few years earlier, some bank robbers now thought kidnapping was a better way to make money, because they could demand the ransom be paid in cash.
This kidnapping was the work of Fred Barker and Alvin Karpis of the infamous Barker-Karpis gang — sometimes known as the Karpis-Baker gang or the Ma Barker gang, though Fred Barker's mother did little more than tag along with her sons on the road. Besides Fred, those sons were Herman, Arthur and Lloyd, though by the time of the Hamm kidnapping. only Fred and Arthur were in the gang. (Ma Barker and Fred would be killed by FBI agents in Ocklawaha, Florida, on January 16, 1935.)
Hamm was released four days after he was abducted, but the Barker-Karpis gang wasn't suspected just yet. The most likely suspect was Verne Sankey, who earlier in the year had kidnapped Charles Boettcher 2d, a wealthy Denver broker. That crime made Sankey America's first Public Enemy Number One, though he lost that title while he was still at large.
Five weeks after the Hamm kidnapping, Oklahoma oil man Charles F. Urschel was kidnapped and held for $200,000 ransom, adding to J. Edgar Hoover's frustration. Again Hoover's agents thought Urschel must have been snatched by a smart, experienced kidnapper, but after a few weeks a Fort Worth police detective convinced them to zero in on the then little-known George "Machine Gun" Kelly. This turned up the heat on Verne Miller, who'd once worked with Kelly.
Miller showed up in Chicago on November 1, and federal agents and local police thought they had him, but Miller got lucky:
Syracuse Journal, November 2, 1933
CHICAGO (INS) — Federal agents and police joined today in a search for Verne C. Miller, member of the notorious Harvey Bailey gang, after he shot his way out of a carefully-laid trap amid volleys of machine gun fire.
With a blazing pistol in hand, the desperado escaped last night from his Sheridan Road apartment hotel, jumped into an automobile driven by his sister-in-law, Miss Bobby Moore, and sped away.
Miller is wanted for the massacre of five men in the Kansas City Union station on June 17.
|Vi Mathis and Bobbie Moore, arrested in Chicago for aiding Miller's escape there, both served time. In 1935 Mathis moved to Sioux Falls, became and alcoholic and married her boss, who ran a hotel. She died in 1944 at the age of 38.
His disguise didn't work
Knowing all too well he was was a marked man, wanted both by the law and even by fellow outlaws, Miller followed Frank Nash's lead and opted for a makeover. Like Nash, Miller didn't fool the people he needed to fool.
According to Greg Smith's biography of Miller, the fugitive began making arrangements to go to Europe, and contacted a mobster named Al Silvers in New York to get a fake ID. Bad mistake for Silvers, who ignored warnings not to assist Miller, now persona non grata with the mob.
On November 20, 1933, Silvers' nude, trussed up body was found near Somers, Connecticut. He was beaten and strangled to death and wrapped in a cheap auto robe.
Nine days later Miller's nude, trussed up body was found outside of Detroit, also wrapped in a cheap auto robe. He had dyed his hair and grown a mustache. In the process, the man who once resembled actor Joe Kirkwood Jr., portrayer of comic strip boxer Joe Palooka in a series of films, wound up looking like Freddie Mercury. He was identified through his fingerprints.
Buffalo Courier Express, November 30, 1933
DETROIT (AP) — Detroit police tonight said that finger print comparisons had established that a nude body found in a suburban roadside ditch today was that of Verne Miller, notorious gangster.
Miller was a suspect in the Urschel kidnapping case and in the shooting of Frank Nash, Oklahoma mail train robber, and his four guards in the Kansas City Union Station last June.
The body was recovered by police after a stranger had notified residents of the locality where the body would be found. The stranger disappeared before police arrived.
Dr. D. W. Johnson, county medical examiner, said the man had been dead for approximately 24 hours and that the body was placed in the ditch early today. The body was wrapped in two blankets and tied into a jackknife position with a clothesline. The back of the skull had been crushed, apparently with a blunt instrument.
|Years later, this is how Miller's demise was illustrated in a comic strip called, "War on Crime," from the Lodger Syndicate of the suns-to-be-defunct Western Newspaper Union:
Richetti takes the fall
With Miller's death, federal authorities were certain one of the three shooters from the Kansas City Massacre had been eliminated. The following October, in eastern Ohio, near East Liverpool, "Pretty Boy" Floyd was gunned down while being chased by federal and state police. Adam Richetti, who, for months, had been hiding with Floyd, was arrested in Ohio two days earlier.
Richetti was sent to Missouri and tried as the third shooter in the Kansas City Massacre. He was found guilty and on October 7, 1938, executed in the gas chamber.
There seems little doubt Verne Miller, who was living in Kansas City in 1933, was one of the shooters at Union Station. As mentioned previously, there was no evidence against Floyd and Richetti, but with Miller and Floyd dead by the time Richetti was arrested, the government had little trouble getting a conviction. There was never an official review of the case, considered one of the most significant in our history, and certainly one of the most important to the organization now known as the FBI, and it seems the reason is a review might have proved embarrassing.
Specifically, Richetti was charged with the murder of police officer Frank E. Hermanson. The trial began June 10, 1935, and the jury returned its verdict of guilty a week later, on the second anniversary of the Kansas City Massacre.
Five months earlier, four men – Richard Galatas, Herbert Farmer, “Doc” Louis Stacci, and Frank Mulloy – were found guilty of conspiracy to free Frank Nash. Each was sentenced to serve two years in a Federal Penitentiary and pay a fine of $10,000, the maximum penalty allowed by law.
Elizabeth Galatas and Esther Farmer, like their husbands, also were found guilty, but did not serve prison time. Vivian Mathis pleaded guilty and also escaped a prison sentence, and charges against Frances Nash were dropped when she agreed to testify against the others.
The "Kansas City Massacre" spurred Congress to pass laws that gave Hoover's agents more money, more power and more authority to wage war on criminals. In his book, "American Agent," crime fighter Melvin Purvis said, "The turning point of the war against crime in this country came, without warning or premonitory thunder, on June 17, 1933."
That's what makes Bob Unger's theory about the Kansas City killings so interesting. What if the turning point in our war against crime was tragic incompetence on the part of a federal agent?
In any event, 1934 would not be a good one for outlaws, particularly Bonnie Parker, Clyde Barrow, Pretty Boy Floyd, Baby Face Nelson and John Dillinger. None would survive the year.