Saturday, January 23, 2010

Dozing Through "Public Enemies"

My daughter and son-in-law had warned me last year, after they viewed it on the big screen, that this clearly is not intended to be a realistic account of the Dillinger-Purvis record. Surrealism is what the producers/directors were after. The actors aren't realistic (Depp as John Dillinger the gangster, Bale as Melvin Purvis the Bureau of Investigation chief (a South Carolinian)). The facts are toyed with, not much differently than in the 1973 film starring Warren Oates as Dillinger and Ben Johnson as Purvis.

They gave us the new CD as a Christmas gift. We started it one night over the holidays . . . and all fell asleep after about 15 minutes. Maybe it was the turkey dressing. . . .

I'll get back to it for a serious review later. Maybe in a couple months. . . .

Sunday, January 03, 2010

An Old-Fashioned Mystery "Reader" Magazine

Just launched: The Illustrated Harper & MacTavish Reader, a quarterly e-magazette distributed online in .pdf format. Each issue features a story from "The Harper Chronicles" and "The Casebook of MacTavish" plus a classic period mystery, as well as notes on historic crimes and criminals and 19th-Century lifestyles. BONUS: Subscriptions include new, unpublished Harper and MacTavish stories presented in weekly "cliffhanger" format. Visit Trial issue available.

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Friday, December 25, 2009

The "Lost Patrol"

Each December I'm reminded of Flight 19, the so-called "Lost Patrol"—five Avenger torpedo bombers tbat vanished while on a training flight, 5 December 1945. The group took off from the Fort Lauderdale Naval Air Station at mid-afternoon with a two-hour flight plan. It called for a low-level practice bombing run over a target near the Bahamas, then a northward maneuver, then a southwesterly return to base.

They didn't return. A PBM Mariner seaplane was sent out to investigate at dusk—and likewise disappeared. The mystery later became the linchpin of the "Bermuda Triangle" frenzy, blown into legend by the success of several best-selling books in the early 1970s.

Transmission logs reveal the airmen became disoriented during the flight, at least in part because of the flight leader's failed compasses. Most pragmatic researchers have concluded they wandered hither and yon over the choppy seas until they ran out of fuel, arguing whether they were over the Atlantic Ocean (and thus should fly westward to return to Fort Lauderdale) or the Gulf of Mexico (and should fly eastward). As for the Mariner, it's assumed a spark, perhaps from a cigarette (although the crew certainly knew better) set off a midair explosion.

Include me among the pragmatists—except that I've never understood how the flight leader, Lt. Charles Taylor, could have imagined they'd been blown down through the Florida Keys and into the gulf. On a generally northwesterly route, this 180-degree reversal would have been a fluke that shifty winds and murky skies couldn't have accounted for. Moreover, reading and rereading the Board of Inquiry account (from which naysayers draw their deductions) raises as many questions as it answers, to me.

If you aren't familiar with it, start by reading Michael McDonell's study in the June 1973 issue of Naval Aviation News ( Then check out some of the sensational volumes of the time as well as Lawrence David Kusche' The Bermuda Triangle Mystery—Solved. Tell me what you think.

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Sunday, April 12, 2009

The Mystery of the Empty Tomb

The History Channel, the Discovery Channel and other cable networks, as well as mainstream networks and print media, are relentless in trying to undermine Christianity at Christmas and Easter season with their "documentaries" and "holiday features" that challenge the virgin birth and the resurrection of Jesus Christ. He was merely an "historical character" (although admittedly a very interesting one), they hypothesize.

They fail to grasp the very real *mystery* of it. It truly is supernatural, yet, the verifying clues seem obvious to me—such as the string of prophecies from earlier Scripture writings.


Monday, January 22, 2007

Biography of an Enigmatic G-Man

Alston Purvis has achieved a remarkable thing: write a son’s perspective of a “hero” father with neither biased glorification nor unveiled animosity. The Vendetta: FBI Hero Melvin Purvis’s War Against Crime, and J. Edgar Hoover’s War Against Him (PublicAffairs, 2005) is a deeply personal documentary, reflection, exposé and quest for answers. When he set about the five-year task of assembling The Vendetta, Alston wasn’t sure what to make of his father—the stellar young Bureau of Investigation agent who was at the center of nationwide hunts for John Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd and company in 1934. The son, now head of the graphic design department at Boston University’s College of Fine Arts, agonized over whether to embark on the research at all, and wondered where it might lead if he did.

The Vendetta, co-authored with Alex Tresniowski, spans the whole life of the elder Purvis (1903-60), born in the town of Timmonsville in South Carolina’s tobacco country. It sketches his school years, which included a very brief stint as quarterback on the University of South Carolina football team, and his early career, which included a likewise brief stint as a lawyer. More detail is given to his later life and mysterious death—logical, since the lawman’s last years paralleled the son’s upbringing. From beginning to end, the book reflects Alston’s yearning to understand the intriguing father to whom he was never especially close.

Essentially, though, the book’s focus, as reflected in the subtitle, is on the relentless bitterness FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover developed toward his one-time friend and star agent. Until his father’s dying day, Alston maintains, Hoover did what he could to torpedo Purvis’ post-bureau career opportunities.

Joining the Bureau of Investigation (later known as the Federal Bureau of Investigation) in 1927, Purvis cracked his first assignment, an interstate car theft buried in cold case files in Dallas. He caught the eyes of his superiors and, very quickly, of Hoover himself. He raced through a series of promotions to crucial positions in pivotal field offices. In 1933 he became point man in Chicago, the center of gangland. Within months, however, as the heat was being turned up on Dillinger and his cronies, Hoover’s opinion of Purvis soured. In stark contrast to Hoover, Purvis was dapper, genteel and charismatic, increasingly popular with reporters. Even as Dillinger, Floyd, Baby Face Nelson and other "most wanted" miscreants were being run to ground, one by one, Hoover subtly was stripping Purvis of his authority and reprimanding him for petty breaches of bureau protocol (some of questionable veracity).

By July 1935, Purvis had been subjected to so much humiliation that he resigned. For several years he basked in the glow of the media and was engaged commercially to endorse everything from breakfast cereal and shaving razors to automobiles. In 1938 he returned to South Carolina and married. He bought a radio station and newspaper, dabbled in other business ventures, served as an Army officer during World War II and was appointed legal counsel to various government committees. Significant advances eluded him, however, as Hoover used his influence to ruin Purvis’ best opportunities.

It’s obvious to readers that much of The Vendetta was painful for Alston Purvis to deal with, reviving unpleasant and, ultimately, devastating memories. He wrote the book, he explains, because someday his own young son will want to know all about his famous grandfather. The Vendetta should prove engrossing to a general readership and undoubtedly will be absolutely riveting to those within and close to the family.

A nagging mystery explored in the book is the nature of Purvis’ death in February 1960. He shot himself at his Florence, SC, home. A Colt .45 automatic from his extensive gun collection—a pistol once used by a little-known gangster—was lying close at hand. The initial suspicion was suicide; just as likely, it’s now believed, was accident. Key people who knew him assert that had Melvin Purvis decided to kill himself, he wouldn’t have done it that way, with that particular gun. Ross Beard, a firearms expert and author who as a teen-ager was engaged to maintain Purvis’ collection, is convinced Purvis was examining the pistol. Purvis had agreed to loan the relic to a friend and apparently was unaware it was partially loaded with tracer bullets.

A lesser mystery is who, exactly, was in charge of the Chicago Bureau office in 1934 when Dillinger, Floyd and Nelson all fell. Hoover personally bestowed “the major portion of the credit” for Dillinger’s death on Agent Samuel Cowley—a close colleague of Purvis—to whom Hoover had given certain authority superceding that of Purvis. Hoover later referred to Cowley as the unsung mastermind behind Dillinger’s apprehension, while condemning Purvis for allegedly currying the media’s attention. Most accounts point to Purvis as the commanding agent “on the ground” at the scenes of Dillinger and Floyd’s separate deaths, while it was Cowley and agent Herman Hollis who mortally wounded Nelson in a hellish rural shoot-out that October, and who both died in the line of fire.

The life and career of Hoover himself continue to raise questions even after varied posthumous studies have gone to great lengths and depths to demonize him. In The Vendetta, Alston Purvis refrains from joining the Hoover-bashing bandwagon generally. The scope of his mission is to air the personal persecution his father endured at the hands of the director.

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Thursday, January 04, 2007

Mysterious Mr. Booth

Every American knows the essential details of the Lincoln assassination: shot in the back of the head by actor John Wilkes Booth while attending a play in Washington, DC. It occurred on 14 April 1865, at the very end of the Civil War.

But do you know how Booth met his own death?

Booth, a Maryland-born Shakespearean and southern sympathizer, broke a leg when he leaped from the Lincolns’ box onto the Ford’s Theater stage after the shooting. He painfully struggled outside into the darkness and escaped. Almost two weeks later, soldiers found him in a farm shed near Bowling Green, VA. They set fire to the structure. Hopelessly trapped, Booth was shot to death.

Many assume the assassin was killed by his pursuers. Others, however, believe he shot himself to avoid capture, trial and execution. The record remains unclear, and proof is unlikely 140 years after the fact.

Another lingering mystery is the legacy of Booth’s “phantom.” Famous Civil War photographer Mathew Brady photographed the tragic presidential box at Ford’s Theater not long after the assassination. While developing the photographic plates, he reputedly was astonished to perceive the murky form of a man crouching near Lincoln’s box chair. Stage crew, actors and attendees began reporting encounters with Booth’s ghost at the theater. Not surprisingly, when a section of ceiling collapsed inside the building in 1893, killing 22 people and injuring more than 60, Booth was blamed. Sightings of the actor’s ghost continued to be reported even after the old theater was restored in 1968.

Of course, such a place is an obvious scenario in which pranksters and the overly jittery might create a haunting. It may have nothing to do with the emerging tradition of Booth's ghost, but it's interesting to note that Brady had gone heavily into debt to finance his prolific war photography, hoping to make a fortune selling prints to private collectors, museums and publications. His expected market never materialized, and he quickly found himself in crisis, ultimately declaring bankruptcy.

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Friday, December 15, 2006

The "Pretty Boy" Question

Which Bureau of Investigation agent was on the scene when Pretty Boy Floyd was slain by law enforcement officers in an Ohio farm field in October 1934?

a) Ray Caffrey, b) Sam Cowley, c) Melvin Purvis, d) J. Edgar Hoover