Criminals like “Machine Gun” Kelly and Bonnie and Clyde had the upper hand on law enforcement, both in firepower and in the hearts of a Depression-wracked Midwest where they were seen almost as Robin Hood figures. And an insecure, hot-tempered lawyer named John Edgar Hoover led a toothless “Bureau of Investigation” that could not legally make arrests or even carry firearms.
But after the events that took place that summer day in the parking lot of Kansas City, Missouri’s Union Station both of those things – and the course of American history – would be forever altered.
The Union Station Massacre by Robert Unger starts with the bloody legend of the shootout where four lawmen and the prisoner they were escorting were brutally murdered and several others barely escaped with their lives. The tale is harrowing and it’s no wonder that the nation cried out for action. Hearing the cries was Hoover, and all he said his agency – what we now know as the FBI – needed was more power. Within a year, nestled among many other New Deal reforms, were several anti-crime laws that laid the foundation for the modern FBI. And five years after the Massacre, every criminal responsible for the bloodshed was either dead by the law’s hands or by the gas chamber.
The problem – which Unger uses most of his book to describe – is that scarcely any of it is true.
J. Edgar Hoover’s shortcomings are fairly well-known today, but most still believe his “eccentricities” were the result of years of near-absolute, absolutely-corrupting power. Unger, using the FBI’s own massive file on the Union Station Massacre, paints a picture of an organization founded on evidence tampering, perjury, illegal wiretapping, fear-mongering, fraud, torture, and murder. The message is clear: Hoover didn’t end this way, he started this way.
The fledgling FBI stumbles through an investigation characterized by poor communication, horrible decisions, clashing egos, and an unyielding pressure for results, no matter the cost. The “G-Men” were rank amateurs and it showed. Frequently beat to the punch and outclassed by local police – even the notoriously corrupt cops of 1930s Kansas City – federal agents had to use every dirty trick in the book just to look competent, and even then rarely succeeded.
Worse still, Unger’s extensive research of the FBI file reveals what may be the most bitter truth to the Massacre: four of the five men slain that day may well have been killed accidentally by a panicked FBI agent armed with an unfamiliar weapon.
It is both a shocking look into our history and a surprisingly gripping book, culled exclusively from this 89-volume, 20,000-page file that contains so many of the FBI’s deepest, darkest secrets that it is simply astonishing it survived to see the light of Unger’s years-long Freedom of Information Act request. Unger should be commended not only for his herculean efforts digging through all that history, not only for hitting paydirt, but also crafting a tremendous piece of non-fiction that reads like a novel.
Now we just have to live with the knowledge that decades of Hoover-led FBI abuses of power and the thousands of lives and careers shattered by them all started one bloody summer day under a Kansas City sun and in the trembling hands of those sworn to protect us.