Melvin Purvis

Melvin Horace Purvis II (October 24, 1903 – February 29, 1960) was an American law enforcement official and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agent. Given the nickname "Little Mel" because of his short, 5 ft 4 in (163 cm) frame, Purvis became noted for leading the manhunts that captured or killed bank robbers such as Baby Face Nelson, John Dillinger, and Pretty Boy Floyd, but his high public profile was resented by local law enforcement. Purvis asserted he had killed Floyd single-handed, others variously claimed that Floyd had been already wounded, or even that Purvis had ordered Floyd summarily shot dead for refusing to provide information.

Melvin Purvis
Melvin Purvis profile.jpg
Melvin Horace Purvis II

(1903-10-24)October 24, 1903
DiedFebruary 29, 1960(1960-02-29) (aged 56)
Cause of deathGunshot wound
Resting placeMount Hope Cemetery
EducationUniversity of South Carolina School of Law
Known forLeading the investigation on the John Dillinger case
Height5 ft 4 in (163 cm)
Marie Rosanne Willcox
(m. 1938⁠–⁠1960)
ChildrenMelvin Horace Purvis III (1940–1986)
Philip Alston Willcox Purvis (b. 1943)
Christopher Peronneau Purvis (1950–1984)

Purvis had the reputation of torturing recalcitrant interviewees. Roger Touhy, a minor-league gangster who was arrested for fund-raising kidnappings during his conflict with the Chicago outfit, alleged he suffered the loss of 25 pounds (11 kg) of body weight and several teeth plus broken vertebrae due to being beaten every time he fell asleep during weeks of questioning by Purvis's men. Purvis became the FBI's golden boy, having captured more of designated public enemies than any other agent, but found himself sidelined after he began to enjoy better press than J. Edgar Hoover.[1][2]

Early lifeEdit

Purvis was born in Timmonsville, South Carolina, to Melvin Horace Purvis, Sr. (1869–1938), a tobacco farmer and businessman, and Janie Elizabeth (née Mims, 1874–1927); he was the fifth of eight siblings.[3][4]


Purvis was a well-educated man, and known to be a crack shot.[5] He received his law degree from the University of South Carolina School of Law and had a brief career as a lawyer.[6] 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.[citation needed] He eventually led an investigation into the crash of United Airlines Trip 23, which uncovered foul play as the cause of the crash.[7]

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.[8] 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.[9] He reportedly incurred the wrath of Hoover, who had previously supported him but now supposedly felt overshadowed. In a 2005 book co-written by Purvis's son Alston, Hoover is portrayed as jealous of the attention given to Purvis after Dillinger was killed.[10]

Purvis resigned from the FBI in 1935 and afterwards practiced law.[11] In 1937, he became engaged to actress Janice Jarratt, but they never married.[12][13][14] He later married Marie Rosanne Willcox, and they had three sons.[15] In 1936, Purvis published a memoir of his years as an investigator with the Bureau, entitled American Agent.[16]

Purvis became a Master Mason in Hampton Lodge No. 204, A.F.M. in 1947.

Purvis served in the United States Army as an intelligence officer during World War II, reaching the rank of colonel.[17] He assisted with compiling evidence against Nazi leaders in the Nuremberg trials.[18]


On February 29, 1960, Purvis was at his home in Florence, South Carolina, when he died from a gunshot wound to the head;[19] the shot was fired from the pistol that was 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[19] while trying to extract a tracer bullet.[15] He was 56 years old.

Other mediaEdit

In documentariesEdit

  • 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).[20][21]
  • Purvis was portrayed by Scott Brooks in the History Channel documentary on infamous gangsters, Crime Wave: 18 Months of Mayhem (2008).
  • Purvis was portrayed by actor Colin Price in the 2016 television series American Lawmen (S1E3): "Melvin Purvis: The Gang Buster" which aired on the American Heroes Channel[22]

In films and TV moviesEdit

In gamesEdit

In 1937, Parker Brothers published a game called "Melvin Purvis' 'G'-Men Detective Game."[23]

In literatureEdit

In televisionEdit


  1. ^ "Melvin H. Purvis, FBI file #67-7489". Federal Bureau of Investigation. Retrieved July 23, 2013.
  2. ^ "The John Dillinger Story: Little Bohemia Archived 2006-12-22 at the Wayback Machine, Crime Library; accessed January 15, 2018.
  3. ^ South Carolina Death Records, 1821-1955; "Melvin H Purvis Sr."; died on 16 January 1938.
  4. ^ 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. ISBN 1-58648-301-3.
  5. ^ "John Dillinger Museum - Melvin Purvis". Archived from the original on 2010-05-04. Retrieved 2010-04-04.
  6. ^ "American Agent — Melvin H. Purvis — Doubleday, Doran ($2.75)". Time. November 23, 1936. Archived from the original on December 14, 2008. Retrieved 2008-04-21. Slight (127 lb.), wiry, red-haired and superstitious, he studied law at the University of South Carolina, practiced for two years, went to Washington in 1927 seeking a post in the State Department, got one in the Bureau of Investigation.
  7. ^ Sherman, Ted (2013-09-30). "United 23 took off from New Jersey 80 years ago; its midair explosion remains a mystery".
  8. ^ FBI Famous Cases, FBI.Gov Archived 2009-09-19 at the Wayback Machine
  9. ^ Melvin Purvis acting as spokesman for Dodge automobiles Archived 2011-07-22 at the Wayback Machine, Good Housekeeping magazine, April 1936.
  10. ^ 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. ISBN 1-58648-301-3.
  11. ^ "Gangsters' Foe Resigns. Melvin Purvis Leaves His Department of Justice Post in Chicago". Los Angeles Times. July 13, 1935. Retrieved 2008-04-20. Melvin Purvis, nemesis of some of the country's most notorious public enemies, including the late John Dillinger, has resigned his position as head of the Chicago office of the Department of Justice.
  12. ^ "Milestones". Time. May 10, 1937. Archived from the original on December 14, 2008. Retrieved 2008-04-21. Engagement Broken. Between Melvin Horace Purvis Jr., 34, famed onetime G-Man who now practices law in San Francisco; and beauteous Janice ("Toots") Jarratt, cinemactress, onetime Lucky Strike model, "Sweetheart of the Texas Centennial"; in San Antonio, Tex., three days before the wedding date.
  13. ^ "Melvin Purvis to Wed Janice Jarratt, Actress". Washington Post. March 18, 1937. Retrieved 2008-04-20.
  14. ^ "Purvis and Actress Part. Wedding to Miss Jarratt Is Off, Former G-Man Heads for Coast". New York Times. April 28, 1937. Retrieved 2008-04-20. Janice Jarratt and Melvin Purvis went their separate ways tonight, both noncommittal on the sudden postponement of their marriage only two days before their wedding date.
  15. ^ a b "People & Events: Melvin Purvis, 1903-1960". American Experience. Retrieved 2008-04-20.
  16. ^ Purvis, Melvin (1936). American Agent. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Doran & Co. OCLC 612771326.
  17. ^ McCombs, Don; Worth, Fred L. (1994). World War II: 4,139 Strange and Fascinating Facts. Wings Books. p. 481. ISBN 9780517422861.
  18. ^ What They Didn't Teach You About World War II. Simon & Schuster. 2002. p. 78. ISBN 9780743445139.
  19. ^ a b "Melvin Purvis" (Collection). Encyclopedia of World Biography Online. Gale. 31. 2011. Retrieved 9 September 2021.
  20. ^ G-MAN: The Rise and Fall of Melvin Purvis. SCETV. April 4, 1074. Archived from the original on November 28, 2010.
  21. ^ "Melvin Purvis G-MAN". IMDb. April 4, 1974.
  22. ^ Colin Price (March 2, 2016). "Melvin Purvis: The Gang Buster". American Lawmen (2016– ). Season 1. American Heroes Channel.
  23. ^ Melvin Purvis game at BoardGameGeek
  24. ^ "Soul of a Whore and Purvis".
  25. ^ To Tell The Truth, Youtube, September 24, 1957.

Further readingEdit

External linksEdit