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Melvin Horace Purvis, Jr. (October 24, 1903 – February 29, 1960) was an Americanmarker lawman and Federal Bureau of Investigationmarker (FBI) agent. He had the nickname "Little Mel" because of his short stature.


He was born in Timmonsville, South Carolinamarker to Melvin Horace Purvis, Sr. (1869–1938) and Janie Elizabeth Mims (1874–1927) as the fifth of twelve siblings.His father was a tobacco farmer.


Purvis received his law degree from the University of South Carolinamarker and had a brief career as a lawyer. Purvis was a member of the Kappa Alpha Order. He joined the FBI in 1927, and headed the Division of Investigation offices in Birmingham, Alabamamarker, Oklahoma Citymarker, and Cincinnatimarker. In 1932 he was placed in charge of the Chicagomarker office by Bureau of Investigation Director J. Edgar Hoover.

Purvis led the manhunts that tracked such outlaws as Baby Face Nelson and Pretty Boy Floyd, and most famously John Dillinger, which ended in Chicagomarker on July 22, 1934. However, after Purvis became a media figure for this feat, a jealous Hoover claimed that Purvis had been demoted and that Agent Samuel P. Cowley put in charge of the Dillinger case. Cowley was later shot by Baby Face Nelson and Purvis visited him in hospital shortly before he died. Purvis was given praise for his actions, but reportedly incurred the wrath of Director 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 book co-authored by Purvis's son Alston Purvis, Hoover is portrayed as jealous of the attention given to Purvis after Dillinger was killed.

However, at least one of Purvis's official accounts of his exploits was later called into question. The account of the death of Pretty Boy Floyd, which indicated that Purvis and his agents had killed Floyd with no assistance from local law enforcement, was later discounted by the local East Liverpool, Ohiomarker officer Chester Smith, who Hoover later claimed shot Floyd first. Smith further stated that Purvis and his agents never fired until after Floyd had been questioned by Purvis, at which point Purvis ordered Agent Herman Hollis to shoot Floyd, who was by then lying on the ground. That claim was discounted later by FBI Agent Winfred E. Hopton, who claimed in a 1976 Time magazine article that local law enforcement did not arrive until after Floyd had died. However, local authorities all agreed that Chester Smith did in fact shoot Floyd. Neither claim has been clearly proven one way or the other. Purvis resigned from the FBI in 1935 and afterward practiced law.In 1937 he became engaged to the actress Janice Jarratt, but they never married.He later would marry Marie Rosanne Willcox and have three sons. He bought a radio stationmarker in Florence, South Carolinamarker, and during World War II he served in the army as a colonel.

In 1936, Purvis published a memoir of his years as an investigator with the Bureau; the book was entitled American Agent. Authors Curt Gentry and Anthony Summers, in their respective 1990s biographies of Hoover, assert that Hoover, who was initially supportive of Purvis, was jealous of Purvis's fame after the Dillinger escapade, and thereafter downgraded him, leading to Purvis leaving the FBI. Summers, while researching his book, obtained from the Purvis family some significant correspondence between Hoover and Purvis, showing that Hoover was virtually flirting with Purvis.


On February 29, 1960, while at his home in Florence, South Carolinamarker, Melvin 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 popular folk anecdote that the gun that killed Purvis was in fact the same gun that he used to take down Dillinger is apocryphal.) The FBI investigated the shooting and labeled it a suicide, though the official coroner's report did not find sufficient evidence to label the cause of death as such. It was later determined that Purvis may have shot himself accidentally while trying to extract a tracer bullet jammed in the pistol. He was 56 years old.

Authors Gentry and Summers conclude that Purvis committed suicide upon learning he had inoperable brain cancer.

Other media

Documentary Film


  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. FBI Famous Cases, FBI.Gov
  4. Melvin Purvis acting as spokesman for Dodge automobiles, Good Housekeeping magazine, April 1936.

Further reading

  • 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.

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