Forgotten History: the Union Station Massacre

Before I went out to Kansas City for Worldcon this year, I read up on the city and its history, and became fascinated by an event known as the Union Station Massacre. This shootout, on June 17, 1933, was the high-publicity rollout of the bank robbing, kidnapping, and mayhem that roiled the Midwest until the end of 1934. The marquee stars included John Dillinger, Bonnie and Clyde, the Barkers, Baby Face Nelson, and Pretty Boy Floyd.

In fact, almost all the mythic actions of these celebrity criminals fall into these couple of years. Dillinger's first bank robbery was four days after the Massacre, on June 21, 1933, and he was dead by July 22, 1934. Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow met in 1930, but Clyde didn't start killing people until 1932. They were killed on May 23, 1934. Romantic hero Floyd was killed on October 22, 1934, the twitchy killer Nelson on November 27 of that year, and poor clueless Ma Barker and her son Fred on January 16, 1935. The only high-profile freelance Public Enemy left was the sinister sociopath Alvin Karpis (aka "Old Creepy"), the last member of the Barker gang, and he was arrested on May 1, 1936, after a long period on the run.

But, aside from Pretty Boy Floyd (and this is debated, part of what makes the story interesting), none of these were involved at Union Station. So what happened? What made the morning end with four dead cops in the parking lot in front of Union Station, Kansas City?

A cop and a couple of federal agents (not yet called FBI) went to Hot Springs, Arkasas and kidnapped a known escaped bank robber named Frank Nash. They had to "kidnap" him because enforcing laws across state lines was incredibly difficult at that time, and Hot Springs was a completely criminal enterprise, a kind of gangster Riviera, and they knew they would be prevented if they went through channels. They got on a train the Union Station and called some locals to help them transfer their prisoner from the train to a car and thence to Leavenworth.

But the word got out, and three criminal associates of Nash decided to rescue him, with tommy guns. The result was a shootout that left four cops, both local and federal, dead, along with Nash, and two wounded. The shooters fled.

To show how different things were back then, locals picked up and pocketed the bullets and other detritus of the shootout as souvenirs, while newspaper reporters rearranged the dead bodies to make better photos, getting blood on their pants cuffs. Crime scenes seem to have been complete free-for-alls at this time. Remember, when the airship Shenandoah crashed in southern Ohio in 1925, thousands of locals came and looted the wreckage (though that they also looted the dead bodies of the crew seems to be untrue).

Coming only two days after the high-profile kidnapping of William Hamm, president of the brewery, by the Barkers and Karpis, in St. Paul, Minn,  this really made people see the country as in the grip of a wave of crime--and they weren't wrong. The homicide rate peaked at nearly 10 per 100,000 population in the early 1930s, a rate it would not reach again until the high-crime 1970s and 80s.

This is when J. Edgar Hoover professionalized what would become the FBI--and brilliantly managed its PR, turning it from a bunch of bureaucrats to a professional national police force, and the heroic agency of movies and TV. The Massacre not only kicked off the crime wave, it kicked off Hoover's career.

One of the shooters was a former sheriff named Vern Miller. After he escaped from an ambush at a Chicago apartment building, he vanished, to turn up dead in a ditch near Detroit, presumably the victim of competing criminals. But the other two? Oddly, their identification was never completely clear, even though the shootout took place in a crowded train station in mid-morning of a business day. Pretty Boy Floyd was strongly implicated, but refused to admit culpability as he lay dying of a belly wound in an Ohio cornfield. A man named Adam Richetti was eventually executed for his participation, but whether he was even there that day is hotly disputed.

I had never heard of this event before deciding to go to Kansas City, but am now a big fan. I visited the station a couple of times to see where it happened, and examined what is claimed to be a bullet chip in the front of the station (well, maybe....though it's probably just a random chip).

All the photos of the aftermath show the station parking lot with the bullet-riddled vehicle. I thought they faced city streets and buildings. Instead, turning in the other direction shows you the impressive World War One Memorial, with its Art Deco tower and veiled sphinxes, opened in 1926. It's a dramatic setting for a dramatic crime.