Showing posts with label Marie Comforti. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Marie Comforti. Show all posts

16 April 2018

F.B.I.'s Doris Lockerman -- 2nd in a Series on 1930s Women in Policing

Doris Lockerman
The blood was still wet on Chicago's sidewalks when a former F.B.I. private secretary sat down to pen her recollections late in 1935 for the Chicago Tribune.  Doris Lockerman had been a member of the team, a participant in the stakeout of Verne Miller, the interrogation of Marie Comforti, and the arrest of James Probasco, among other climatic episodes of the public enemy era.

Her series would be a retrospective on these events, with some pointed criticism for Director J. Edgar Hoover.  She was angry at the director's treatment of her ex-boss, Chicago Special Agent in Charge Melvin Purvis, who'd been shoved out the door by Hoover for the subjective crime of taking too much credit.  It was a time when F.B.I. agents were supposed to embody the American ideal of the faceless man in the grey flannel suit.  Purvis had made his reputation as the G-Man who had taken down John Dillinger and Charles "Pretty Boy" Floyd.  He had a face, he had a name that the public recognized and respected.   

Doris Lockerman had left the F.B.I.'s employ before giving her story to the Tribune.  She had just married Alan E. Lockerman, who had been stationed at the Biograph Theater the night Dillinger was killed.  The dismissal of Purvis, her superior, would haunt her throughout her life.

Before she married Alan Lockerman, Doris worked under her prior surname of Rogers.  During her tenure as Purvis's private secretary, the F.B.I. was known as the Justice Department's Bureau of Investigation.  The office was on the nineteenth floor of the Bankers' Building in Chicago. 1

What defined her was her role in an attempted arrest of fugitive Verne Miller, when she put him on the spot for the F.B.I.  As part of an attempt to capture the chief suspect in the Kansas City Massacre, she stood for hours in a stakeout of the hallway of the Sherone Apartment Hotel at 4423 Sheridan Road in Chicago on November 1, 1933.  It would go down as a botched arrest attempt.  Yet Lockerman did her job.  She stood upon a stool and looked through a ventilator in a hotel room while waiting for Miller to leave an adjoining room, rented by his moll, Vivian "Vi" Mathis.  As Lockerman manned the peephole with Special Agent Ed Notesteen, both hoped they would be able to accurately identify the gunman.  Both had seen and known of Miller while he was a sheriff in Huron, South Dakota. 

Lockerman's Stakeout Doorway Once Had an Opening (Above)
The stakeout died in the space of a Chicago minute.  Nobody considered the possibility that Miller, a former sheriff, would be fine-tuned to the presence of law enforcement.  When Miller left Mathis's room, Lockerman identified him.  According to her version, Notesteen agreed with her.  Some accounts grant Notesteen a moment of doubt before he agreed that the figure moving down the hall was Miller.  Something scared Miller off, because he ran for the stairway door and escaped. 2

Having worked the Verne Miller stakeout, Lockerman was a G-man at heart.  She had no empathy for the outlaws.  "I talked with the gun molls who were smoothly induced into betraying the gangsters with whom they were living," she wrote.  One such moll was Marie Comforti, who was a "42 Gang" girl and moll of Dillinger gangster Homer Van Meter.  Lockerman brushed Comforti off as "snippy," a mere target who could be shadowed.  Lockerman threw cold water at the fabled faces of the 1930s public enemies.  As she wrote it, nobody had a baby face and nobody was a handsome Harry.   "I saw man killers led in clanking in their shackles." 3
Marie "Mickey" Comforti, Moll of Homer Van Meter

This seminal series has survived in spite of, or maybe because of, its ungainly title.  "A Girl Among Manhunters, Is Told by Self."  A creaking headline that does no justice to the gravitas of its author. 

Within the some of the installments, Lockerman held to the party line.  In others, she showed surprising verve in challenging Hoover's policies. 
Melvin Purvis (L.) and J. Edgar Hoover (R.)--  Library of Congress
Her series started out critical of the director.  "I watched the machinery turn which made a public hero [of Purvis], and saw that hero forced into a partial decline and eventual resignation, because his publicity became so great that it seemed to threaten the job of his boss in Washington, J. Edgar Hoover."

Midway through the series, a plateau flattened things out considerably.  It is possible that Lockerman or her editor got the message to cool it.  Hoover was wary of the Tribune, which had published two investigative articles exposing the controversies which lingered over Dillinger's recent death.  It must have occurred to Hoover that co-author Joseph Ator was going to rehash the conspiracy theories, which had already been dished by the Tribune in the months surrounding Dillinger's death.

The Tribune was the investigative press of the Chicago region and the Dillinger era.  Its reporters tackled the mysteries of Dillinger's connections while alive and the unsung assassins at his death at the Biograph Theater in Chicago on the night of July 22, 1934.  The texture of the Tribune's investigative articles was deep with names, places and motivations.  These facts were to be hushed up in later years -- from the guns of the actual agents who fired the fatal shots to the names of the East Chicago, Indiana police officers on the scene that night -- but during 1934 to 1938, the Tribune did not shirk from reporting on all aspects of Dillinger.  The fact that the outlaw was connected to both crime associates and police officials in East Chicago -- an area rife with vice and gambling along with the neighboring towns of Gary and Hammond -- would be hushed in official F.B.I. versions published decades later in the fifties. 4

"A Girl Among Manhunters" held one of the final references to East Chicago before the F.B.I. began its course to rewrite history.  "Melvin Purvis, working at his desk late one Saturday night, had some callers.  They were Sergent Martin Zarkovich and Capt. Timothy O'Neill, his superior on the East Chicago police force.  Bright and early on Sunday morning every available agent was summoned to duty . . . they were going after Dillinger." 

In a disappointing plot twist, Lockerman's concluding articles came off as officially-sanctioned F.B.I. stories.  The final installments transformed Kate "Ma" Barker from her true nature of tribal Ozark enabler to a hellion mastermind.  "She planned their crimes.  Hers was the iron hand that ruled that evil brood."  Brood -- a word reminiscent of Hoover's personal glossary. 5

Lockerman seized the opportunity to quash some damaging rhetoric.  There was that old rumor that two F.B.I. suspects had been hung out the nineteenth floor of the Bankers' Building by agents.  "Boss McLaughlin was not dangled out a window" -- nor, apparently,  was James "Jim" Probasco, Dillinger's plastic surgery host.  There had been a lingering belief that Probasco was dangled and accidentally dropped in an aborted attempt to get him to talk.  Lockerman never said they didn't, and treated the issue with an interrogatory:

"Is it likely that the agents, even had they been in the habit of hanging prisoners out windows, which they were not, would have hung a kicking, yelling, 250 pound man out in broad daylight, in full sight of the office workers across the way?" 6

Whether or not she was censored while writing "A Girl Among Manhunters," Lockerman would have her day on the world's stage.  She went on to participate in the late-century renaissance of Dillinger writings.  In her accessible manner, she added to the body of work formed in the post-FOIA years of revisionism.  William "Bill" Helmer, author of Dillinger: The Untold Story, interviewed her.  When Purvis' son, Alston Purvis, released his book on his father, Lockerman voiced her defense of the special agent in her own, independent voice. 7

The elder Doris Lockerman was confident, vocal and articulate.  It was like in 1935, only better, with no censors reading her dailies.  Her quotes and writings called for judgment and reason in looking at the public enemies. 
Indiana State Policeman Eugene Teague, Killed During Arrest of Dillinger Associate Ed Shouse
She was there to remind crime writers just how bad these outlaws were.  The wounds were fresh in 1935.  Time has warped the tragic elements of the public enemy era, with little advocacy remaining for its victims.  Doris Lockerman told it like it was, from the perspective of the F.B.I. agents.  She was, after all, the girl among them.

Sherone Hallway, photo by Tom Smusyn

Ellen Poulsen, seen here in the hallway of Chicago's Sherone Apartments where Verne Miller escaped from the F.B.I.  She is author of Don't Call Us Molls: Women of the John Dillinger Gang, and The Case Against Lucky Luciano:  New York's Most Sensational Vice Trial

Her new book, Chasing Dillinger:  Police Captain Matt Leach, J. Edgar Hoover and the Rivalry to Capture Public Enemy No. 1, will be released in 2018 by McFarland Publishing.

End Notes:

1.  Doris Lockerman and Joseph Ator, "A Girl Among Manhunters," Chicago Tribune, Oct. 7-19,            1935.

2.  Lockerman, Oct. 9, 1935; Brad Smith, Lawman to Outlaw:  Verne Miller and the Kansas
          City Massacre, Bedford, Indiana, JoNa Books,  2002, 155-157.

3.  Lockerman, Oct. 7, 1935.

4.  William Shinnick, "A Record of Murder, Robbery, and Indiana Politics," Sunday Tribune, Oct. 9,            1938; "Indiana Police Launch Quiz on Dillinger's Death," Tribune,
            July 30, 1934.

5.  Lockerman, Oct. 18, 1935.

6.  Lockerman, Oct. 16, 1935.

7.  Alston Purvis and Alex Tresniowski, The Vendetta:  FBI Hero Melvin Purvis's 
         War Against Crime, and J. Edgar Hoover's War Against Him, N.Y.:  Public Affairs,
          Perseus Books Group, 2005.