It was 75 years ago today—September 26, 1933—that wanted gangster George “Machine Gun” Kelly and three others were captured by Bureau agents and local police.
That date might not have meant much to history except for the reporting that followed. As the legend goes, the surrounded and frightened Kelly shouted something like, “Don’t shoot, G-Men, don’t shoot!” Originally slang for all government agents, the term “G-Men” soon became synonymous solely with FBI special agents.
Did Kelly really say those words? Probably not—it appears to have been manufactured by the media. But it quickly grabbed hold of the popular imagination as Hollywood, the press, the American people, and even the FBI accepted it as fact.
Here’s the story behind the myth and how it grew. On July 22, 1933, George Kelly and his gang kidnapped Charles Urschel, a wealthy oil magnate. After Urschel’s family paid a hefty ransom, he was freed. Over the next few months, FBI agents—then a largely unknown group of investigators—tracked down those involved. Kelly was among the last of the gang to be located by the Bureau.
The FBI's earliest account of what happened was written between three and five days after Kelly’s arrest:
“Agent Rorer saw that Kelly…had proceeded into the front bedroom and was in a corner with his hands raised. He was covered by [Memphis Police] Sergeant [name withheld].”
And that was it, quick and quiet; Kelly wasn’t reported to have spoken at all.
When did the “Don’t Shoot, G-Men” storyline begin? It’s unclear. The earliest reference to such a story that we could find was in a Philadelphia newspaper story written many months later. Kelly, according to the reporter, said that he didn’t shoot because, “It was them G’s. Them G’s would have slaughtered me.” According to historian Richard Gid Powers, it was a few months after this version that writer Rex Collier first wrote the myth as we now know it.
By April 1935, the image of the FBI agent as “G-Man” had become part of the popular culture. The movie G-Men, starring Jimmy Cagney, appeared in theaters across the country and was widely successful. It spawned more movies, news stories, films, comic books, radio shows, and even toys and games about the FBI’s G-Men.
In 1956, when reporter Don Whitehead wrote The FBI Story with extensive Bureau help, he included the story as a key event in FBI history. Bureau fact-checkers didn’t question his account, thus tacitly accepting it. The storyline was even included in the FBI's 1985 revision of the official case write-up. In recent years, the FBI's has been correcting the story.
Good myths, though, die hard, and this one does make a great story!