Public Enemy Number One: Interview

(September 5, 2018) Today’s post does not involve the Civil War but pertains to my most recent book, The Devil’s Town: Hot Springs During the Gangster Era.

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During the 1930s FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover referred to notorious gangsters as public enemies. Each man at the top of the list was designated Public Enemy Number One until either killed or captured. Among those making it to the top were John Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd, Baby Face Nelson and Alvin “Creepy” Karpis. All were killed in gunfights, except Karpis. His capture essentially ended the age of the big-name Depression Era criminal. Other mobsters killed violently in the 1930s included Jack “Legs” Diamond, Vincent “Maddog” Coll, Frank “Jelly” Nash and Dutch Schultz.

Although caught in New Orleans on May 1, 1936. Karpis spent much of the last year of his freedom with Grace Goldstein who owned the best bordello in Hot Springs, Arkansas located in the Hotel Hatterie. In addition to her sexuality, Karpis was impressed with Grace’s connections, which included Mayor Leo McLaughlin, other local politicians and the police.

After Public Enemy Number One posters containing Alvin’s portrait proliferated around town and the rest of the country, Grace rented a cottage for the lovers on Lake Catherine seven miles beyond the city limits. When federal investigators eventually arrived at the Hatterie on a tip from a Karpis accomplice captured after their November 1935 Ohio train robbery, Grace warned Alvin that even the cottage was unsafe. Consequently, he moved to New Orleans in March 1936.

Before he left Hot Springs, however, Karpis gave Grace enough money to purchase a new car. She bought a Buick at a dealership owned by Raymond Clinton who was the older brother of the future President’s stepfather. They took a road trip together around Christmas of 1935, which included a visit to Grace’s family in East Texas. The FBI used knowledge the trip to motivate Grace to disclose Karpis’s New Orleans address by threatening to charge her Texas family members with temporarily harboring a criminal.

Although Karpis was probably guilty of a number of murders—mostly during gunfights—he plea-bargained to avoid the death penalty by sharing his knowledge of high profile kidnapping cases involving the Barker Gang with which he sometimes partnered. Although sentenced to life imprisonment, in 1969 he got parole after thirty-three years. Thereafter he lived another decade during which the fifty-minute video interview above was recorded.

Karpis was at Alcatraz longer than any other prisoner where he became acquainted with many infamous inmates. He was later jailed at another prison where Charles Manson was incarcerated and came to know him as well.

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