Gangsters, G-Men, and Archivists
The gangster was an icon in the 1920s and 30s. While prohibition limited the sale of alcohol, the gangster smuggled in liquor from Canada and established speakeasies across the country. As the Great Depression left thousands unemployed, the gangster embodied a sense of rebellion. Gangsters were immortalized in cinema and talked about in the papers. Yet for some, the gangster lifestyle was all too real…
In 1933 George “Machine Gun” Kelly and his gang kidnapped oil tycoon Charles Urschel. Once captured, Urschel was blindfolded and driven 8 hours away from his Oklahoma home to Paradise, Texas. Urschel was tied to a bedpost and held in captivity for 10 days. In exchange for the millionaire’s release, Kelly and his cohorts demanded $200,000 in ransom money (roughly 3.5 million today).
While being held captive, Urschel keenly observed his surroundings. He noted that a plane flew over the house the same time each day. He also overheard local gossip and recognized the sound of a bridge on his way to Texas. He even left his fingerprints around the house. This evidence would later prove invaluable.
On July 30 a confidant of Urschel’s dropped off the ransom money and the millionaire was released. Not long after, federal agents began their investigation. Using Urschel’s information, agents quickly found the scene of the crime and arrested a number Kelly’s accomplices. A few weeks later, agents arrested Machine Gun Kelly and his wife Kathryn. Upon arrest Kelly allegedly pleaded, “Don’t Shoot, G-Men!” thus coining the iconic nickname for federal agents.
The Urschel kidnapping is famous for a number of reasons. Besides the notoriety of the people involved, the case was the first to be tried under the Lindbergh Law. Inspired by the infamous kidnapping a year earlier, the Lindbergh Law made kidnapping across state lines a federal offense. Additionally, the trial was the first to allow movie cameras in a federal courtroom.
The video below is one of eight films in the collection titled, Motion Picture Films Used as Exhibits in United States District Court Cases, 1933-1934. These films are part of a larger series of records created by the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma. (06/16/1906 – ). The film includes reenactments of the crime and footage from the trial itself. The courtroom footage is the first of its kind.
The arrests for the Urschel Kidnapping were major victories for the newly established Federal Bureau of Investigation and its director, J. Edgar Hoover. All together, the crime resulted in 21 convictions, including 6 life sentences. George “Machine Gun” Kelly was sentenced to life imprisonment on October 12, 1933. Kelly spent 17 years in Alcatraz before being transferred to Leavenworth Penitentiary in 1951. He died of a heart attack three years later at age 59.
The National Archives maintains a large selection of films from the FBI and Bureau of Prisons. Additional textual resources regarding the Urschel kidnapping may be found in Department of Justice, Criminal Division. A recent exhibition at the National Archives in Kansas City also highlighted crime in the 1930s and the Urschel case.