First off, some background on a related topic. What was the O'Connor system of St. Paul, Minnesota, and how did it work to gangsters' benefit?
At the turn of century, the chief of the St. Paul Police department literally sent the word out to gangsters all over America that they were welcome to St. Paul. That it was a safe haven, a safe city. However, criminals - when they came to St. Paul had to follow a certain set of rules. When bank robbers and kidnappers arrived at the train station, at the depot, in downtown St. Paul, they had to identify themselves to police. You know, "Hi, I'm a bank robber, I'm in from Chicago, how are you doing, Officer?" Usually they would pay a little tribute, so often robbers would arrive in St. Paul with stolen jewelry. Which they would hand over as a little gift to the local constabulary. They'd have to identify where they were staying, where they were living while in St. Paul. If they didn't have girlfriend, very often they'd be directed to whatever personal vices they needed fulfilled by the police.
And the most important part of deal which was the O'Connor system..named after the police chief, John J. O'Connor..was that while the gangsters were in the city limits of St. Paul, they could not kill, maim, kidnap or rob anyone in St. Paul. They could go to Minneapolis and kill whoever they wanted to.they could go to Des Moines, Milwaukee, Madison.any of the upper Midwest cities..rob, loot, kill. But when they came back to St. Paul the gangsters had to be on their best behavior. Well, needless to say, with that kind of a deal between the police and the crooks, virtually every major hoodlum in the United States came to St. Paul. In fact there's only one gangster I could identify from the 1930s who didn't come to St. Paul. That was Pretty Boy Floyd. Apart from Pretty Boy Floyd, Machine Gun Kelly, the Barker- Karpis gang, Alvin "Creepy" Karpis, John Dillinger, Baby Face Nelson, Verne Miller, they all came to St. Paul, Minnesota for safe haven.
And how long did the O'Connor system last?
The O'Connor started in the turn of century, before O'Connor actually was chief. It was called the "lay over" agreement. Because gangsters could "layover" in St. Paul. And it lasted pretty much to the mid 1930s when two of the most prominent millionaires in St. Paul-Edward Bremer of the Bremer Bank and the Bremer Foundation today -- and William Hamm of the Hamm Brewery, of course..those two millionaires were kidnapped by the Barker-Karpis gang. And that violation of the O'Connor system, of the safe haven, so stunned the rich folk of St. Paul -- that those two wild acts of kidnapping lead to the total collapse of the agreement between the cooks and the police. The FBI came in, they hunted down the Barker-Karpis gang, killed or arrested many members of the Dillinger gang and that was the end of the ..pretty much 36 years' agreement in St. Paul. The crooks were welcome as long as they behaved themselves.
That's almost a four-decade long dynasty there.
(laughs) It's true. And although other cities across America had "safe haven" agreements -- Hot Springs, Arkansas, Toledo, Ohio, and of course, Cicero just outside of Chicago in Illinois where Capone - Al Capone, reigned supreme..St. Paul was really unique. St. Paul was like a department store for gangsters. Whatever you as a bank robber or kidnapper needed, you could find in St. Paul. If you wanted a machine gun, there were machine guns being sold to bank robbers on Wabasha Street, the big street in downtown St. Paul. If you needed a girlfriend, Alvin "Creepy" Karpis found the love of his life in St. Paul, Delores Delaney. If you needed a getaway car, there were auto dealerships on the big avenue called University Avenue in St. Paul, it's right next to the state capitol in Minnesota. where you could get a heavily-armored getaway car. The license plates were attached with quick-release lug-nuts. So if you heard on the police radio -- which was conveniently installed in the getaway car, that after your bank robbery the police had identified your car, you could pop -- Mr. Bank Robber -- the license plates off your car..and put clean plates on. All of that was available in St. Paul.
So St. Paul was a gangster's embassy.
It truly was, it was great for the night life. Some of the best jazz musicians from across America came to the speakeasies and blind pigs across St. Paul. Today St. Paul, of course, shall we say..is a stable, family-oriented solid city. In those days it was wild, it was roaring 20s in St. Paul. And because so many gangsters were here, there was an awful lot of illegal liquor during the Prohibition period.lots of casinos, underworld gambling joints.it was a lively city for gangsters and for those good people who liked rubbing elbows with gangsters. I would hear from folks that you would go to dinner in St. Paul, Minnesota, and to your left see John Dillinger dining with his girlfriend, Billie Frechette.and to your right, you might see Baby Face Nelson dining with his fiancée, Helen Gillis .and it felt safe. You knew that the gangsters were on good behavior. And it was even a little bit of celebrity. "Whoa, honey, do you know who we're dining with tonight? It's John Dillinger". It was as exciting as dining with Babe Ruth during that period.
So you dedicated a whole chapter of your book to Verne Miller. Why was Miller such an integral person in crime history?
Well, certainly the Kansas City Massacre.which.there were bloodbaths throughout the Gangster era.of individuals and more than a few people. botched bank robberies, things like that, FBI shootouts. But the Kansas City massacre that Verne Miller perpetrated was pivotal. Because the death of the FBI agent, the police chief, two other officers of the law in the KC massacre.. - the arrogance that Verne Miller, a gangster, would slaughter police, FBI agents to attempt to free his friend, Frank Nash, so stunned the public as well as law enforcement that the FBI was able - in the wake of the Kansas City Massacre to go to Congress and significantly expand its federal police powers. In fact, if there was one man other than John Dillinger who was responsible for the FBI - under J. Edgar Hoover -- becoming our national police force, that man was Verne Miller..it was the Kansas City Massacre that emboldened J. Edgar Hoover to go to Congress, and say, " See, see what happens we need a federal police force that's not corrupt" - because so many police forces were corrupt and.in bed with gangsters - "and that can hunt gangsters across state lines". I mean, Verne Miller was going from state to state as were Alvin "Creepy" Karis and John Dillinger which totally flummoxed local police departments. So Verne Miller's legacy today is the FBI that we have today.
And prior to that, wasn't the FBI pretty much a laughing stock?
Yes. In fact when the FBI heard that John Dillinger -- perhaps the most famous bank robber from Verne Miller's period of the 1930s - when the FBI heard that John Dillinger was hiding out in St. Paul at the Lexington-Court department building, the FBI -- for purposes of politics more than anything -- had to bring along the local police department, which they reviled. The FBI loathed the St. Paul police department because the St. Paul police department were in cahoots with the Dillinger gang. They knew that. But the FBI had to bring the local police along for purposes of protocol. And needless to say, J. Edgar Hoover didn't want to be under the thumb of local police.and the .Kansas City massacre changed all that.
Now before embarking on a life of crime, Verne Miller was pretty well situated on the "good" side of the law, correct? He had a pretty pristine history?
That's what's so fascinating about the psychology of Verne Miller. Most of the other gangsters the outlaws -- from the 1930s were plainly psychopaths. I mean, they were nuts. Freddy Barker, and Arthur Barker, "Doc" Barker of the Barker-Karpis gang, Alvin "Creepy" Karpis, certainly Baby Face Nelson.who was a maniac. Baby Face Nelson would be happy to cut you in two with a machine gun simply for the sport of it. Most of these men were incapable of sustaining human relationships. With the interviews with the girlfriends of the Barker-Karpis gang and the Dillinger gang..the girlfriends told the FBI that they were beaten, that they were given venereal disease, they sought abortions. The men treated the women terribly. Then you've got Verne Miller.bad guy. Embezzler, convicted bootlegger and hitman, and yet Verne Miller sustained a beautiful romance with Vi Mathis, daughter of a Brainerd, Minnesota dairy farmer. Truly loved her, truly loved her daughter Betty, whom he doted over, measured for golf clubs.surprised with trunk-fulls of little doll clothes. You can't read the FBI files about Verne Miller, without coming away with the fact that although he was a bad man in his career, in Verne Miller's personal life he expressed a tremendous amount of affection and generosity to the family of the woman he loved. And that's really striking. It certainly doesn't excuse the fact that he was syndicate killer. But it makes Verne Miller stand out as very unique..compared to the other gangsters of the period.
And Miller was actually active on the other side of the law at first.
The good guys, yeah. Verne Miller was a good guy when he started, or seemingly he was. He turned into a bad guy very quickly. But he was a war hero, World War I -- Verne Miller went to France - served in the infantry. According to.I believe it was Melvin Purvis of the FBI, that Verne became so expert with a machine, gun, that in later years when he was a sheriff and a police officer, he was able to shoot his initials - "V.M" -- into the trunks of fleeing bootleggers' cars. And apparently he excelled at marksmanship when he went overseas as a war hero. And then when he was welcomed back to SD, the Huron area I believe, miller was welcomed by the townspeople as a war hero, they made him a policeman, and within a year he was sheriff. And then (laughs) he gave in to temptation and embezzled a little bit more than $2000. Was sent to prison. And within 90 days of being in prison, Verne Miller was meeting with the #1 underworld fixer. A gentleman named Jack Pfeifer from St. Paul. Jack Pfeiffer was not quite a Godfather, but he was certainly the man who made organized crime tick in St. Paul. And within three months of being sent to prison, Verne Miller was meeting with the fixer from St. Paul to start his life of crime. A pretty remarkable turn from the good side to the bad side.
Is there a general feeling among the family as to why Verne Miller would go from a gallant war hero and sheriff to hitman and bootlegger?
You know, it's always difficult to..certainly..70 years later..to guess at the criminal psychology of people like John Dillinger and Verne Miller. It would be so Great if you could identify that turning point in someone's brain when they became a hitman. It's hard to do so with Verne Miller. I mean Certainly when he went to prison he was disgraced, and I don't know what disgraced lawman can do when they come out of prison. But I don't think that was it. Even after he became a hoodlum, he was still very kind to family. It's like what they say about the Mafia. "He loved his mother, even while he was hanging people up on meat hooks". So, I don't know if Verne Miller completely turned. It was always a little bit of Verne Miller that was good and charitable.
For instance, Verne Miller right up to the time he was syndicate hitman, didn't like people to swear, use profane language around him. This is rather amusing because he was also a hitman for hire at the same time. You know, "Don't swear around me but by the way, give me some money and I'll kill whoever you want to". And to give a sense of the brutality Verne Miller was capable of, Verne went to the Keating-Holden gang.an enormously successful bank robbery gang in the 1930s that was active in the upper Midwest, and said "Who do you dislike?" And the Keating-Holden gang gave Verne Miller the name of man who was on the outs with the gang. And Verne Miller tracked this poor man down, took him to a deserted country road and methodically broke every single one of his ten fingers. That's Verne Miller, a man capable of tremendous brutality.
And yet, I've talked with family members who said he would slip silver dollars and coins into the pockets of the kids in the family. So that later on, they'd discover "Oh my goodness, they had $3 in change in their pocket, and they knew that the Santa Claus who'd left that money for the child was Verne Miller. When Verne had dinner at the Mathis home in Brainerd, Minnesota, he noticed that although the dinner was lovely, the plates were kind of old and the tablecloth was kind of ratty. And according to the family members, shortly after that, a big box arrived with totally new cutlery, dishes, tablecloth, because even without being asked, he had the kindness to give them what they needed. And yet he was a killer and hitman, a bootlegger, a bank robber. That's what makes Verne Miller so fascinating. The seeming kindness co-existing with a tremendous amount of savagery in Verne Miller's heart.
And apparently he had his standards. He killed and ran illegal liquor..but he didn't drink, swear, or gamble..and didn't care for profanity like you said, especially in front of Vi Mathis.
And Verne Miller also chose his crimes with some type of, I don't know, compunction. .although he'd happily kill you, he wouldn't kidnap you. In fact, the Barker-Karpis gang was very fond of kidnapping. They Kidnapped William Hamm for $100,000 ransom..Edward Bremer for $200,000 ransom. and Verne Miller would have nothing to do with the Barker-Karpis gang because he felt kidnapping was too cruel a crime. And yet Verne Miller's expertise as a killer, as a hitman, was used by the Purple Gang in Detroit, Michagn, , by al Capone and his Syndicate in Chicago, by Louis "Lepke" Buchalter's gang on east coast. Perfectly happy to kill you, but Verne Miller would refrain from kidnapping you.
You have an anecdote about how Verne Miller and Vi Mathis met, which is a telling blend of his chivalry and aggression.
It's true, it's mingled. Verne Miller was apparently at carnival in St. Paul or Minneapolis, of the Twin Cities of Minnesota. And Vivian Mathis was working at a carnival booth. Apparently a gentleman refused to leave the booth. We don't know why, it's been lost to history, but he was recalcitrant about leaving. And Verne Miller gallantly leaped to Vi Mathis' aid, knocked the gentleman, the reluctant gentleman, to the ground. And saved her doing some kind of Sir Lancelot, white knight thing.and Vi became his friend and eventually Vivian became his lover, and the great romance of Verne Miller's life..and it is so fascinating that the moment of gallantry that Verne M had was also moment of violence but it..it was in defense of his lady love.
And his background as a sheriff wasn't exactly a secret. Did that cause problems for him in the underworld?
Great question. It's ironic. Usually when someone has a criminal past, they have a problem because people are prejudiced against someone who's got a criminal record or been a criminal in the past. Verne Miller's problem was the very reverse. He traveled in criminal circles that profoundly distrusted him..because Verne Miller had once been an officer of the law. Alvin "Creepy" Karpis for instance, was.and Karpis was one of most successful kidnappers and bank robbers in American history during the 1930s. Karpis was very, very suspicious that this former lawman was now an unlawful man. And expressed his unwillingness to work with or trust Verne Miller.
Harvey Bailey of Oklahoma.who was a legendary bank robber, very scientific in the way that he robbed banks throughout the Midwest and Southwest. Harvey Bailey said, "I don't trust that guy". And the other reason why didn't trust Verne miller - apart of the fact that he was a lawman..related to his romance with Vivian. Verne Miller insisted on telling Vivian what his career was, what he was up to..that he was a bank robber and hitman by trade..and he made no secret of it with Vivian, she knew exactly what Verne Miller did for living. And most of the other Gangsters didn't. the gangsters in the Dillinger Gang and Barker-Karpis gang didn't have any respect for the women that were in their in gang, and didn't' tell them anything. I've read many of the FBI Interviews with many of the gun molls - as it were - for the Dillinger and Barker-Karpis gang , and it was basically a lonely, isolated life for them. But Verne Miller trusted his girl, Vivian Mathis, and told her everything. Well needless to say, the other gangsters were profoundly suspicious of their gangster comrade telling his criminal exploits to his girlfriend. And many on them were on the outs with Verne because he trusted his woman.
And that sense of loyalty would lead to his downfall. His devotion to Vivian Mathis would keep him in the country, and his friendship with Frank Nash would eventually create the Kansas City Massacre that brought about his demise too.
Yeah..Frank Nash is just a fascinating character.his nickname was "Jelly" Nash because apparently he had something of a large belly that wiggled like jelly. Frank was also known as the "Gentleman Bandit" because Frank was quite erudite, very smart. When Frank Nash was in prison he read William Shakespeare and Charles Dickens. Nash was very polite, even as he robbed a bank, he would be very courteous to the people that he was robbing. And Frank was quite successful. Many bank robbers in the 1930s were simply psychopathic thugs. Charlie Harmon..frankly, John Dillinger was not successful as a bank robber as far as the money he took in. Frank Nash was a very successful, and Verne Miller -- much to our horror now that we look back on it -- was a very successful hitman. I mean, he was in demand. So it's not surprising that an expert bank robber like Frank Nash would find a lot in common with Verne Miller. "Machine Gun" Kelly - the legendary Machine Gun Kelly -- had a lot of admiration for Verne Miller. So these hoods really respected him, and there was a bond between Frank Nash and Verne Miller. And Verne was a man of loyalty to the point of murder.
For instance, when the brother of a friend of his was killed by three gangsters, Verne Miller hunted the trio down and slaughtered all three of them in the woods in Wisconsin because they had had the temerity to kill the brother of a friend of his. That the level of whether you call it a grudge or loyalty, that Verne Miller had. So it's not surprising when Nash was arrested and brought through Kansas City's Union Station, that Verne Miller, upon being notified that his good buddy, Frank Nash, might have one last chance for freedom before going to prison, that he would take the horrific step of trying to free his friend Frank Nash with the barrel of a machine gun.
Paul, you've done a great job of describing St. Paul as a gangland haven in the 1930s - wasn't Kansas City also largely a mobster's harbor?
Uhm, yes indeed it was. Actually Kansas City for years afterwards, they had a very colorful gangland past. When you read the FBI files, you clearly get a sense that as Frank Nash was bring brought through Union station, the underworld telecommunications system was buzzing. Which means that the Police were compromised most likely. But there's no question about it from Minnesota to Kansas city the phone lines were abuzz. That Frank Nash is about to go to prison, he's going to be at Union Station, if anyone wanted to rescue him, this was the time. And the phone records and FBI files make it clear -- the w ord was out and Verne Miller answered that call.
My understanding is that Verne Miller approached the Kansas City kingpin, Johnny Lazia, for help. Lazia didn't want to invest his own men in the operation, so he paired Miller with Adam Richetti and Pretty Boy Floyd. In your research, do you know who Verne Miller got to accompany him to Union Station on that day?
Well, the FBI says at first, Verne Miller approached Alvin "Creepy" Karpis and the other two leaders of the Barker-Karpis gang, Arthur and "Doc" Barker. And he was very familiar with them from their kidnappings and other crimes in St. Paul, Minnesota. And they refused to assist him. Maybe it was too dangerous to go after a lawman, or frankly they had their hands full because same month - the Kansas City Massacre occurred in the same month as the Hamm Kidnapping in St. Paul for $100,000. So the Barker-Karpis gang had their hands full with that profitable kidnapping . So eventually, according to the FBI , the FBI said that Pretty Boy Floyd (Charles Pretty Boy Floyd), and Floyd's partner, Adam Richetti, accompanied Verne Miller to the Union station. The best biographer of Pretty Boy Floyd, Michael Wallis, who's done a great job of documenting Pretty Boy Floyd's life, does not believe that Floyd was at the Kansas City Massacre site. So it depends on who you believe, an ace historian or the FBI. But there were one or two gangsters accompanying Verne Miller, and they waited and waited and then finally saw Verne's friend Frank Nash being lead in handcuffs and chains, out of Union Station, surrounded by a half dozen lawmen.
And here's where things get pretty murky. The only common fixed point in this event is Verne Miller's presence. Can you reconstruct what may be the more popular version of events according to the files and collective accounts?
I'd say the close to most accurate view of what occurred of the Kansas City Massacre is that Miller leaps out and opens fire on the lawmen who are guarding Nash. Witnesses heard Frank Nash say "For God's sake, don't kill me". And of course, Frank Nash knew Miller was an expert machine gunner, but this was battle, this was a full blazing war. And Frank Nash killed by his friend Verne Miller along with the FBI agent and the police who were guarding him.
Now there's an alternative scenario that I find fascinating..posed by another gangster, Gus Winkeler's widow - Gus Winkeler was a notorious gangster at the time. She said that when Miller started firing at the guards.Frank Nash said, "Verne! Have you gone crazy?" And at that point Miller was irritated that his good friend Frank would question his judgment, as he was blowing away FBI agents and police officers, and turned the machine gun towards his friend Frank Nash and pulled the trigger. I think that's a stretch. Frankly in the cacophony, the explosions of a gun battle, the likelihood that Verne Miller would even hear anything frank Nash said over the sound of the gunfire is pretty slim. I think unfortunately what occurred is, Verne Miller stepped into a gunfight, pulled the trigger and slaughtered everybody, both the lawman and the unlawful man, Frank Nash, in one fell swoop.
Now a Kansas City journalist has examined the possibility that the first shot fired in the Kansas City Massacre was by a lawmen who wasn't familiar with a shotgun he'd borrowed - setting it off accidentally and killing Frank Nash from behind. Have you heard of that scenario?
No I haven't. And one of the challenges that you as a journalist may have experienced as well of recreating the public enemies era of 1930s both for radio and books, is that so much of the historical record of the period has been destroyed. The FBI -- even before the Freedom of Information Act, that lets you get your FBI files but you can also get John Dillinger's..pulped, destroyed literally hundreds of thousands of pages of FBI files across America.if you try to investigate the St. Valentines' Day massacre.of Bugs Moran and Al Capone in Chicago, the Chicago Police has destroyed every page of the St. Valentinte's Day massacre.
So one of the challenges to recreating this period is, is that even though FBI files are available, and although you're hunting down people who may have some first-hand knowledge of the period, much of the written record by the police and the FBI have been destroyed. Almost the entire St. Paul police dept files from the 1930s during the period when the St. Paul police department was in cahoots with crooks -- has been destroyed. We're talking about millions of pages of police files that have been tossed into the garbage. One of the reasons why I think is that the police even today, 75 years later are embarrassed at how corrupt the police were in the 1930s. But the result for historians is that when you're trying to recreate what happened at the Kansas City Massacre, you've got lots of newspaper accounts..and if you're lucky you've got some people in their 80s and 90s who might remember the Kansas City Massacre but, many records have been destroyed and lost to history. So it's very hard to recreate exactly what happens and..Lord knows with a gunfight, it would've been hard to recreate the day after.the Kansas City Massacre.
Verne Miller had the profound misfortune, probably the singular misfortune to be hunted in the 1930s by both most powerful police force in the world (the FBI) and by one of the most powerful syndicates in the world, organized crime in America. There's good reason why the FBI was hunting him. Because Verne Miller had slaughtered an FBI agent at the Kansas City Massacre. But why the criminals, the syndicate, the organized crime across America was furious with Verne Miller is that because Verne killed police officers and FBI agents the..the law enforcement came down like a 10-ton hammer on crooks everywhere. All the crooks in America suffered because of Verne Miller's bold - or hideously bold - attempt to free his friend Frank Nash. And the FBI closed cities like a drum. They dragged gangsters in to be questioned. "Do you know where Verne Miller is?"
The syndicate lost money because of Verne Miller, and the syndicate is a business. And Verne Miller was very, very costly to the underworld. So the question in everybody's mind in the 1930s, was "Who was going to kill Verne Miller first? J. Edgar Hoover or organized crime?". And of course, on a lonely road, Verne Miller was found first by organized crime, who was as savage in their killing of Verne Miller as Verne Miller had been to some of his own victims.
And the Kansas City Massacre really changed how the public viewed gangsters, right? No more romanticizing the criminal element?
No question. The popular media.and the FBI had a little to do with this too.but the popular media really portrayed John Dillinger and some of the other gangsters as Robin Hoods. Mind you, this is after the Great Depression, when banks foreclosed on farms, and.the banks weren't necessarily perceived as a friend of the average citizen in the 1930s. A lot of people had grudges. And so when these "quote" "Robin Hood" gangsters would rob a bank, there were quite a few people who thought, "Well, this is what the banks deserve, to get from the bank robbers." And the popular media talked about women.as.the Lady in Red was the friend and sage of John Dillinger who lead to his death. They romanticized the men and the gun molls, as ladies.they used to refer to John Dillinger as leaping over the balustrade almost like Errol Flynn in a Robin Hood or Zorro movie. The fact is a lot of most of these gangsters were idiots, morons, psychopaths.I mean they were cruel, homicidal maniacs. But the popular media did not portray these gangsters like that, they portrayed them as anti-heroes. And certainly the brutality of the Kansas City Massacre and the death of the FBI officer...the fact that anyone could've been killed, I mean anyone could've been killed waiting for a train at Union Station by Verne Miller, it was a shock. And it certainly made it more likely that the public would support J. Edgar Hoover's plea to Congress.to vastly expand the FBI's powers to hunt down gangsters.
And the G-Man found himself transformed from a laughing stock into a hero, correct?
Correct. J.Edgar Hoover had radio shows, and Melvin Purvis, head of the FBI in Chicago, I think he even had a club, you could get a G-Man badge for your kid.the public relations dept of the FBI really seized upon these public enemies as their ticket to transform the FBI into heroes. Which they were, the FBI was on the side of right, there's no question about that. But the FBI didn't go after the Mafia, who in the 1930s - Bugsy Siegel, Meyer Lansky..Al Capone, for instance.Al Capone was not brought down by the FBI, Al Capone in Chicago was brought down by the Internal Revenue Service, by a mild-mannered IRS accountant who probed Al Capone's financial dealings. The FBI, J. Edgar Hoover, really wanted little to do with organized crime. He looked at Dillinger, who really..if you look at John Dillinger, he was an Indiana farmboy who loved baseball and knocked over some banks. But the FBI transformed John Dillinger into "Public Enemy #1"..Well of course if Dillinger is turned into Public Enemy #1, what does that turn J. Edgar Hoover into? It turns him into Public Friend #1, or the #1 G-Man in America. To some extent, we would never remember John Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd, Machine Gun Kelly, these legends today if it wasn't for the FBI and the FBI's public relations machine turning these gangsters into legendary public enemies.
You have a rather unusual and somewhat chilling anecdote about the FBI's interaction with Lepke Buchalter, regarding Verne Miller. Can you share what Buchalter had to say on Miller?
Sure. You know, what's striking is that Lepke Buchalter, who was an organized crime chieftain and very successful bootlegger, and a.he was a career syndicate chief much like Al Capone. Buchalter was very, very close to Verne Miller. In fact, Verne Miller and his girlfriend Vi would often double date as it were, with Lepke Buchalter and his wife. So they really had an underworld friendship.
However, the slaughter at the Kansas City Massacre had so alienated organized crime from Verne Miller..that the FBI --when they interviewed the syndicate-chieftain, Lepke Buchalter -- the FBI was told, "no one will have anything to do with Verne Miller now," said his former friend Buchalter, "if Verne Miller shows up, you will know about it," the gangster said to the FBI. And when the FBI agent asked if Verne Miller was likely to be "bumped off", the mob chieftain replied -with a knowing look- and simply said, "I will have to look into that." It's kind of chilling when Lepke Buchalter "Looks into something" that relates to you. And in fact, the simultaneous FBI and underworld manhunt ended at the end of November.Nov. 29, 1933 when Miller's body.mutilated, strangled, garroted, nude, wrapped in a blanket was found in ditch outside a highway in Detroit.
Were there any theories as to who did the act?
No one has ever found out who was able to kill Verne Miller. Here's Miller, a professional hitman. It's not easy to kill a hitman. The FBI believed --and Miller's friends and family believed - that who ever killed Verne must've been someone not only known to him but trusted by him. His guard would not be down. He'd already escaped from one law-enforcement shootout. He was armed, he was ready for a fight, so whoever killed Verne Miller, Verne must've been thought they were a friend. And of course, those friends assassinated Verne Miller as successfully as he'd assassinated so many people before him.
Miller was quite literally pulped by the description of reports.
Yeah.the gangsters basically dispatched him like hamburger. His skull had been crushed by thirteen blows. He'd been struggled by a garrote. Verne Miller's body was so mutilated and beaten that he was unrecognizable. And the FBI and the police had to identify him by his fingerprints. Whoever wanted Verne Miller dead was angry. (laughs) Not only did they want to make sure that Verne Miller was dead --- thirteen blows to head will do that to you - but the manner in which Verne Miller was dispatched by the gang communicated the fury with which the gang viewed Verne Miller in the wake of Kansas City Massacre. The Kansas City Massacre was a bad career move on behalf of Verne Miller to be sure.
And it's been speculated that the FBI reacted to this news with a mixture of relief and sadness. Glad to be rid of Miller, but regretful that they weren't the ones to take him in.
Well, there's no question J. Edgar Hoover dearly wanted..he wanted to portray himself as America's #1 G-Man..he wanted to make the capture, he wanted to make the arrest. When Alvin "Creepy" Karpis was discovered in New Orleans, Hoover sent the word out to his men to surround the apartment building that Karpis was living in, but not to arrest Karpis until J. Edgar Hoover could get to the city and so that Hoover could personally put the cuffs on that public enemy, Alvin "Creepy" Karpis, kidnapper. So there's no question that the FBI wanted some credit for what they were doing. And of course, FBI killed Dillinger outside the Biograph Movie theater in Chicago which was a great historical moment for the FBI. Hoover even had the Plaster death mask of John Dillinger's face mounted almost like a trophy outside his office in Washington D.C. In this case, the gangsters got to Verne Miller first, but my guess is that the FBI was relieved that a killer as remorseless as Verne Miller had been apprehended by anybody.
Today, Verne Miller is an obscure part of the Golden Age of Crime, at least compared to other heavyweight mobsters like Al Capone, John Dillinger, and Pretty Boy Floyd. Why do you think that is?
That's a fascinating question. Part of it is, no one in the FBI...ahem...no one in FBI marketed Verne Miller. John Dillinger was the subject of FBI newsreels. A lot of the other gangsters were given nicknames by the FBI. I mean, Alvin Karpis -- the kidnapper and bank robber -- did not call himself "Creepy", Karpis, he himself. J. Edgar Hoover gave the nickname, the appellation "Creepy", to Alvin Karpis, because - said Hoover, Alvin Karpis had a "creepy" look to his eye. And of course, there's "Baby Face" Nelson. Well, Nelson despised the nickname Baby Face..but it was packaging, it was marketing. And certainly we all remember Baby Face Nelson. "Machine Gun" Kelly..I don't think anyone today remembers what banks Machine Gun Kelly robbed, but the packaging of him as Machine Gun Kelly is something that's lasted for many years.
Verne Miller was never packaged by FBI. That may be because the FBI wasn't responsible for bringing Miller to justice, the way the FBI apprehended John Dillinger and killed him in Chicago outside the Biograph Theater. That was merchandised as a heroic moment for the FBI. The other reason that Verne Miller may be obscure, is Verne Miller was a syndicate hitman. And we don't remember a lot of the hitman (laughs) from those days. I think there was something seen as Robin Hood like about gangsters who'd rob banks, because it was seemingly (it wasn't actual fact), seemingly bank robbers robbed from rich to give to poor. Well, in this case the poor were gangsters.
Verne Miller was a much more frightening figure. I mean he was a professional killer and hitman, as well as an embezzler and a bootlegger and many other things. I think he was harder to romanticize for people. But ultimately, Verne Miller and his legend has been lost to history..he was a bad man, an evil man given that he murdered people willy-nilly and that he was a professional assassin. But a fascinating man. Because clearly the instincts of a killer were intermingled with the instincts of a man who had loyalty and affection for so many people in his family. And that's why I think I find Verne Miller memorable was ..if he was just a badman, just a killer, he would not be memorable. But he was a killer, and in Vivian's case, a lover and in Vivian's daughters case, literally a stepfather figure. Very few gangsters from the period had that kind of intermingling of terrible badness and perhaps the slightest amount of redeemable goodness. And Verne Miller had those two instincts mingled inside his heart.
Back to Vivian Mathis, what do we know of her following Verne Miller's death?
Well, since my book, there's been a book as you know written about Verne Miller, and there's been more written about Miller's sweethearts before Vivian. But Vivian clearly was the love of his live. And the FBI said that she was profoundly saddened for months and months after his death, I think the word I think in the FBI files was that Vivian was broken up over his death. And Vivian unfortunately, things turned out badly for her. She was sent to a federal detention farm in Miland, Michigan.
Many of the gun molls, many of the girlfriends who fell in love with the gangsters of the 1930s.Evelyn Frechette, "Billie Frechette"..John Dillinger's girlfriend, for instance, were convicted and many of them were sent to prison farms. And then when Vivian got out, she grieved, she married a hotel operator in South Dakota, who had a penchant for battering woman. And in the 1940s, Vivian.Verne Miller's girlfriend...died, most likely it seems from complications of domestic abuse. At least according to the family members, they believe that ultimately Vivian -sadly-- was beaten to death by the man she fell in love with after Verne Miller. So it's..kind of sad. She's a woman who was obviously attracted to men of violence. The first man was a man of violence who loved her, and the second man was a man of violence who may have beaten her to death.
When you talk to friends and relatives of Verne Miller, are they more apt to talk about his gangster status, or his war hero and sheriff status?
The surviving family members.and there's quite of few of them in the Brainerd area, Brainerd, Minnesota..who I talked to.who remember Verne Miller, and many of them were in their early years, in those days..the family members of Vivian Mathis have deeply fond memories of Verne Miller. They only saw the caring side of Verne Miller. They knew the Verne Miller who was a war hero, they knew the Verne Miller who would bring little Betty (Vivian's daughter) to the county fair.they knew the Verne Miller who'd bring them presents, stuff their clothes with silver dollars.
They knew he was a bad man, I talked to a relative, who said -- I think I talked to a nephew -- who said the kids were bouncing in the back seat of Verne Miller's car and there was a pop..and a trunk opened up, and inside was virtually an arsenal of weapons. They had discovered Verne Miller's artillery for his bank robberies.
So I don't think they were surprised when Verne Miller was killed. And in fact, according to the family members of Vivian Mathis, Verne Miller's girlfriend. when a magazine article appeared about the assassination of Verne Miller, on that country road outside of Detroit. the Mathis family purchased every single copy of that magazine in Brainerd, Minnesota, and brought them back to the family farm, where Verne and Vivian had spent so much time together, and burned or destroyed every single copy of that magazine. As if they wanted to preserve by destroying the account of his criminal life, as if they wanted to preserve the Verne Miller that they had grown to enjoy, which was the man who had sat down at the dinner table with them and brought new tablecloth and dishes when he noticed they didn't have as nice a tablecloth or dishes as he thought they should have. A man of kindness. That's what they speak of. Even though they knew the bank robber, they remember the kindlier elements of Verne Miller today.
How do you think Verne Miller would want to be remembered today?
Interesting question. I think ultimately in the end, Verne Miller was a tormented man, a deeply divided man. The people who remember Verne Miller seventy-five years later remember that sometimes he'd have smile on his lips, but at other times they'd see him sitting on a chair or rocking on a swing, his face deeply creased with depression and worry. This was a man Hunted by FBI and eventually by organized crime. He was a man under the gun himself, who carried a gun. So He was a man who wrestled clearly with demons inside of him. Who chose to be a killer.
How would Verne Miller
want to be remembered today? He'd probably want to be remembered as the
family of his girlfriend, Vivian Mathis remembered him.as the man who
measured his girlfriend's daughter betty when she was, I think, ten years
old, for golf clubs. Who'd take the kids out to county fair. That's
Probably the side of him he'd want people to remember today. But frankly,
that was only a small piece of Verne Miller today. Verne Miller truly was a
man was of evil impulses, who left many, many dead bodies in his wake. And I
think what you'd have to tell Verne Miller is: "Mr. Miller, you're going to
have to be remembered for the evil that you did through your life as well as
for the little good that you did in your life".