Book Review

The Year of Fear: Machine Gun Kelly and the Manhunt That Changed the Nation

When the FBI came of age

Title: The Year of Fear: Machine Gun Kelly and the Manhunt That Changed the Nation
Author: Joe Urschel
Publisher: Minotaur Books, 2015

Reviewed by Geoff Schumacher

In the annals of crime, the early 1930s are best known for the bold bank robberies and kidnappings perpetrated by headline-grabbing desperadoes such as John Dillinger, George “Machine Gun” Kelly, George “Baby Face” Nelson, Charles “Pretty Boy” Floyd, and Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow.

But a parallel story of equal importance was law enforcement’s response to this crime wave that swept through the American heartland during the depths of the Great Depression. The early ’30s also saw the emergence of J. Edgar Hoover and his Bureau of Investigation, aided by a host of new laws designed to crack down on the criminal scourge.

Joe Urschel’s The Year of Fear is a deeply researched yet fast-paced narrative of these parallel stories, built upon the biggest crime saga of 1933: Machine Gun Kelly’s kidnapping of Oklahoma oil magnate Charles Urschel (amazingly, no relation to the author). Kelly, along with his crime-minded wife, Kathryn, and accomplices, snatched Urschel from his house, held him in a remote Texas farmhouse, received an unprecedented $200,000 ransom, let Urschel go, and took off along the back roads of middle America.

But Hoover’s best men were in hot pursuit, employing all the methods for which the FBI would become renowned. Agents eventually caught up with Kelly in Memphis. The subsequent trial and conviction of Kelly led to massive positive publicity for Hoover and his agency and a growing consensus that the United States needed a strong national police agency. The Bureau of Investigation would be renamed the FBI two years later.

Urschel does an especially good job of portraying Kelly, who, unlike many of his crime contemporaries, did not come from a tough or impoverished background. He grew up middle class and went to college before becoming a gangster. Kelly always dressed smartly and carefully planned out his crimes. His notorious nickname was a fabrication that his Machiavellian wife actively promoted to make him seem more menacing. His ransom notes and letters from prison were always well written with no grammatical or spelling errors. One imagines Kelly could have been a respected business executive if he had stuck to the straight and narrow.

As for Hoover, he and his agency deserve credit for catching Kelly and putting an end to the gangster crime wave of the early ’30s. But as Urschel explains, the Kelly case also kick-started Hoover’s decades-long propaganda campaign to raise the profile of the “G-Men” and of himself. That campaign, unfortunately, was more about spawning myths than telling “Just the facts.”


Law Enforcement Appreciation Week, May 15-21. All federal state and local law enforcement professions will receive buy one, get one admission to The Mob Museum with I.D.

Geoff is the Director of Content for The Mob Museum

This review is part of The Mob Museum’s Pop Culture & The Mob Newsletter