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Melvin Purvis

Melvin Purvis
Born Melvin Horace Purvis II.
(1903-10-24)October 24, 1903
Timmonsville, South Carolina
Died February 29, 1960(1960-02-29) (aged 56)
Florence, South Carolina
Cause of death Self-inflicted gunshot (possibly accidental)
Nationality American
Education University of South Carolina School of Law
Employer FBI
Known for Leading the investigation on the John Dillinger case
Spouse(s) Marie Rosanne Willcox Purvis
Children Melvin Horace Purvis III (1940–1986)
Philip Alston Willcox Purvis (b. 1943)
Christopher Peronneau Purvis (1950–1984)
Parent(s) Melvin Horace Purvis, Sr. (1866–1938)
Janie Elizabeth Mims (1874–1927)

Melvin Horace Purvis II. (October 24, 1903 – February 29, 1960) was an American law enforcement official and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agent. He was given the nickname "Little Mel" because of his short stature.[1] He is noted for leading the manhunts that tracked such outlaws as Baby Face Nelson, Pretty Boy Floyd, and John Dillinger.


  • Early life 1
  • Career 2
  • Death 3
  • Other media 4
    • In documentaries 4.1
    • In films and TV movies 4.2
    • In print 4.3
  • References 5
  • Further reading 6
  • External links 7

Early life

Purvis was born in Timmonsville, South Carolina, to Melvin Horace Purvis, Sr. (1869–1938), a pig farmer, and Janie Elizabeth (née Mims, 1874–1927) as the fifth of twelve siblings.[2][3]


Purvis was a well-educated man, and known to be a crack shot.[4] He received his law degree from the University of South Carolina and had a brief career as a lawyer.[5] Purvis was a member of the Kappa Alpha Order while attending South Carolina. He joined the FBI in 1927 and headed the Division of Investigation offices in Birmingham, Oklahoma City, and Cincinnati. In 1932, he was placed in charge of the Chicago office by Bureau of Investigation Director J. Edgar Hoover. Purvis captured more public enemies than any other agent in FBI history, a record that still stands.[6]

Purvis led the manhunts that tracked outlaws Baby Face Nelson and Pretty Boy Floyd, and most famously John Dillinger, which ended in Chicago on July 22, 1934. However, after Purvis became a media figure for this feat, Hoover claimed that Purvis had been demoted and agent Samuel P. Cowley had been put in charge of the Dillinger case.[7] Cowley was later shot by Baby Face Nelson, and Purvis visited him in the hospital shortly before he died. Purvis was praised for his actions.[8] He reportedly incurred the wrath of Hoover, who had previously supported him, as Purvis sought and achieved publicity for his own role, overshadowing Hoover and the rest of the FBI. In a 2005 book co-authored by Purvis' son Alston, Hoover is portrayed as jealous of the attention given to Purvis after Dillinger was killed.[9]

At least one of Purvis' official accounts of his exploits was later called into question. Purvis' story of the death of Pretty Boy Floyd indicated that Purvis and his agents had killed him with no assistance from local law enforcement. This was later disputed by Chester Smith, an officer with the East Liverpool, Ohio police (Hoover would later state Smith had shot Floyd first). Officer Smith said that Purvis and his agents never fired until after Purvis had attempted to question Floyd. After Floyd responded with curses, Purvis ordered Agent Herman "Ed" Hollis to shoot Floyd, who was lying wounded on the ground. This claim was discounted later by retired FBI Agent Winfred E. Hopton, who wrote in a 1976 letter to TIME that local law enforcement, including Captain Smith, weren't even present until after Floyd had died. Of course, this version conflicts with the one from local authorities which has Smith initially wounding Floyd. Neither claim has been clearly proven.

Purvis resigned from the FBI in 1935 and afterward practiced law.[10] In 1937, he became engaged to actress Janice Jarratt, but they never married.[11][12][13] He later married Marie Rosanne Willcox, and they had three sons.[14]

In 1936, Purvis published a memoir of his years as an investigator with the Bureau, entitled American Agent.

Purvis served in the United States Army as an intelligence officer during World War II, reaching the rank of colonel.[15] He assisted with compiling evidence against Nazi leaders in the Nuremberg trials.[16][17]


In February 29, 1960, while at his home in Florence, South Carolina. Purvis died from a gunshot wound to the head fired from the pistol given to him by fellow agents when he resigned from the FBI. The FBI investigated his death and declared it a suicide, although the official coroner's report did not label the cause of death as such. A later investigation suggested that Purvis may have shot himself accidentally while trying to extract a tracer bullet jammed in the pistol.[14] He was 56 years old.

Other media

In documentaries

  • Purvis was portrayed by Dale Robertson in G-MAN: The Rise and Fall of Melvin Purvis (1974), from SCETV's Carolina Stories documentary series (1974).[18][19]
  • Purvis was portrayed by Scott Brooks in the History Channel documentary on infamous gangsters, Crime Wave: 18 Months of Mayhem (2008).

In films and TV movies

In print


  1. ^ "The John Dillinger Story: Little Bohemia." Crime Library
  2. ^ South Carolina Death Records, 1821-1955; "Melvin H Purvis Sr."; died on 16 January 1938.
  3. ^  
  4. ^
  5. ^ "American Agent — Melvin H. Purvis — Doubleday, Doran ($2.75)".  
  6. ^ "Melvin H. Purvis, FBI file #67-7489". Federal Bureau of Investigation. Retrieved 23 July 2013. 
  7. ^ FBI Famous Cases, FBI.Gov
  8. ^ Melvin Purvis acting as spokesman for Dodge automobiles, Good Housekeeping magazine, April 1936.
  9. ^  
  10. ^ "Gangsters' Foe Resigns. Melvin Purvis Leaves His Department of Justice Post in Chicago.".  
  11. ^ "Milestones".  
  12. ^ "Melvin Purvis to Wed Janice Jarratt, Actress.".  
  13. ^ "Purvis and Actress Part. Wedding to Miss Jarratt Is Off, Former G-Man Heads for Coast.".  
  14. ^ a b "People & Events: Melvin Purvis, 1903-1960".  
  15. ^ McCombs, Don; Worth, Fred L. (1994). World War II: 4,139 Strange and Fascinating Facts.  
  16. ^ What They Didn't Teach You About World War II.  
  17. ^  
  18. ^ G-MAN: The Rise and Fall of Melvin Purvis. SCETV. April 4, 1074. 
  19. ^ "Melvin Purvis G-MAN". IMDB. April 4, 1974. 
  20. ^ Melvin Purvis game at Boardgamegeek
  21. ^ [2]

Further reading

  • One Account of the Death of Pretty Boy Floyd
  • Potter, Claire (1998). War on Crime: Bandits, G-Men, and the Politics of Mass Culture.  
  • Purvis, Alston; Tresinowski, Alex (2005). The Vendetta: FBI Hero Melvin Purvis's War Against Crime and J. Edgar Hoover's War Against Him. Public Affairs.  
  • J. Edgar Hoover: The Man and the Secrets, by Curt Gentry (1991).
  • Official and Confidential: The Secret Life of J. Edgar Hoover, by Anthony Summers, Putnam (1993).

External links

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