A few years ago, I visited San Francisco and decided to take the boat ride around the bay under the Golden Gate Bridge. As the vessel made its way back to the dock, it traveled around the eastern side of the defunct prison once known as Alcatraz. The facility has long been closed but seeing it in person puts the stories about it into a new perspective. To some, the prison was simply known as “the rock”. Regardless of what it was called, it was home to some of America’s most dangerous criminals. And make no mistake, a decision to send an inmate to Alcatraz was not made lightly. Further, inmates knew that if you were sent to Alcatraz, you better be prepared to spend a lot of years there. Alvin F. Karpis (1907-1979) spent three decades at Alcatraz and in the annals of American history, he remains one of the most prominent crime figures from the outlaw era that saw the rise of such as John Dillinger (1903-1934), George “Baby Face” Nelson (1908-1934) and the deadly duo of Bonny Parker (1910-1934) and Clyde Barrow (1909-1934). Unlike many other outlaws, Karpis not only survived the 1930s but was eventually released from Alcatraz. This is the story his time on the run, capture by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (“FBI”) and later years as a free man.
The story is undoubtedly focused on Karpis, but the book is not a standard biography. Instead, the focus is on the mission to apprehend him and his life after being convicted. Thompson does provide a fair amount of background information on Karpis, but it is not long before the story progresses to the time when Karpis becomes fully engulfed in the criminal underworld. And once he did, there was no turning back. However, in comparison to well-known killers from that time, Karpis comes off the complete opposite. But behind the quiet demeanor was a highly intelligent and crafty individual. And I believe that aspect of his character is what makes the story is so interesting. Karpis is not the typical outlaw and in some cases, he was certainly in the wrong place at the wrong time. That is not to say that he was completely innocent. In fact, he was far from it. But Thompson does show that he was not the person that came to mind when people thought of America’s most wanted. But eventually, he caught the attention of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover (1895-1972) who had committed himself to purging the outlaw from American society and capturing Karpis at all costs.
As readers will see in the story, there is no love lost between Karpis and Hoover. The outlaw once remarked that when it came to Hoover, he “made that son a bitch”. I can still feel the venom in Karpis’ words so many years later. The statement seems outlandish, but is it? His arrest by the FBI and Hoover’s role in it is explored in the book and I believe that the author addresses it as fairly and accurately as possible. Was Hoover there? Yes, he was. Did he personally walk up to Karpis and arrest him? We may never know for sure. But what is clear is that Hoover added more prestige to his reputation and was finally able to fend off criticism that he lacked actual field experience. For Karpis, his ordeal with the law was only beginning. And after a stint at United States Penitentiary Leavenworth, Karpis is moved to Alcatraz where he remained incarcerated for the next twenty-six years.
Karpis’ time at Alcatraz is discussed and we also see the entrance into the story of other famous prisoners there such as Alphonse “Al” Capone (1899-1947). Also discussed is the reason behind Karpis’ nickname of “creepy”. I did not expect this part of the book but considering he was in prison, I guess I should not have been too surprised at what is alleged. And I am sure that other readers will have a similar reaction. Overall, Karpis’ stint at Alcatraz is quiet compared to his time on the run. While far from a model prisoner, he was not a problem inmate. But I have no doubt that Karpis most likely had his hands in some things common in a penitentiary. In 1962, Karpis finally left the prison for the last time. and ironically, it was Hoover’s boss, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy (1925-1968) who finally closed Alcatraz for good. Karpis spent several more years behind bars before finally being paroled in 1968. But the conditions of his release may surprise some readers. Personally, I shook my head at what transpired. But, that chain of events led Karpis to his final residence in Torremolinos, Spain. On August 26, 1979, he died there at the age of seventy-one, outliving his nemesis Hoover and nearly every major gangster from the depression era.
The story Alvin Karpis is one of violence, politics, love, and disappointment. Author Julie Thompson did a wonderful job of capturing the essence of Karpis’ chaotic life and the outlaw era. As he moved through life, Karpis left a trail of destruction that affected two former wives, a son and family members trying to understand where he went wrong. But to Washington, his life story did not matter because of all intents and purposes, Karpis had become the last public enemy. The book has all of the elements that are part of the American way. For those who are interested in American history and a time when the outlaw was also a pop culture icon, this book will satisfy that hunger.
“In the end, can we trust the words of an admitted thief ? Can Karpis’s words stack up against the official records of the FBI and the testimony of J. Edgar Hoover? There is no final jeopardy here. What has been stated with certainty is that Bill Trent, Karpis’s first coauthor, never once in all his fact checking found a Karpis story to be in error.” – Julie Thompson