When the two FBI special agents spotted Illinois license plate number 639-578, they began a chase that ended in a rapid thunder of gunfire, leaving them bullet-ridden with their targets fleeing in their government car. A nearby observer rushed to aid one of the wounded agents who whispered, “I’m a Federal officer. Help me, but take care of my partner first.”
Hours later both were dead.
The following day “Public Enemy Number 1” was also.
It was 1934, and newspaper headlines followed every move of “outlaws,” “desperadoes,” and “gangsters,” as they were called. Within ten months the nation’s most notorious gang had killed ten men, wounded seven more, robbed four banks, and broken out of three jails. The capture of the gang, and particularly its leader, John Dillinger, and his trigger-happy confederate, George “Baby Face” Nelson, became Inspector Samuel P. Cowley’s mission. He completed this mission although it cost him his life.
It was a long way from Franklin, Idaho, Brother Sam Cowley’s birthplace, to the front pages of the New York Times and billing as a national hero. It came after devote preparation for a four-year Church mission to the Hawaiian Islands, schooling at Utah State Agricultural College and George Washington Law School, and five years with the FBI. Yet the agency at that time did not have the well-known reputation it has today. It began with highly idealistic men such as Sam who were willing to overlook the low pay and long hours. It is from the efforts of men such as these that the FBI’s present-day reputation for efficient and hard-nosed law enforcement was derived.
Sam rose quickly within the ranks. He was described in FBI reports by his superiors as “utterly dependable” and “absolutely reliable.” When elevated to the rank of inspector, he was called in by Chief J. Edgar Hoover.
“Find John Dillinger. Stay on him. Go anywhere the trail takes you and capture him alive, if you can, but protect yourself.”
Directing a special squad of agents, Sam’s investigation zeroed in on Dillinger. A telephone tip reported that Dillinger was thinking of going to one of two Chicago movies the next night. All avenues of escape from both theaters were blocked off by federal agents the following night as they awaited Dillinger’s exit. Sam directed East Chicago and Indiana agents as well as city policemen in the ambush. Walking from the Biograph Theater on July 22, Dillinger spotted the agents and reached for his automatic. The agents opened fire. Dillinger fell.
Nelson was next.
In April the 25-year old prison escapee had shot and killed an FBI agent, an act that put a $5,000 price tag on his head. He had devoted over half his life to crime and joined ranks with Dillinger in terrorizing the country.
It took Sam nearly six months to corner Nelson. Actually, it was two agents he had pulled off other cases to assist in the manhunt who first spotted Nelson, his wife, and a cohort in crime, John Paul Chase, as the three headed south on a highway near Fox River Grove, Illinois. The two turned to follow Nelson, who immediately spun his car around and began chasing the agents. Armed with only their service revolvers, the officers were no match for Nelson, who opened fire with a high-powered automatic rifle. The agents were forced to step on the gas and draw away. But one of their shots had found its mark on the gangster’s radiator, causing it to overheat and slow up.
Samuel Cowley hadn’t expected to find “Baby Face” Nelson under such conditions, but he immediately recognized the cars of both Nelson and the agents. Sam swung his car around to follow Nelson, who drove off the highway onto a side road. Both cars stopped. His car failing, Nelson was forced to shoot it out with the agents head on. Nelson and Chase took cover behind the stalled car; Nelson’s wife threw herself into a nearby ditch for protection.
Accompanying Sam was Special Agent H. E. Hollis, who unloaded ten shotgun cartridges before collapsing under fire. Sam discharged 50 shells from his machine gun before falling. Nelson, his wife, and Chase fled in the agents’ car.
Hollis was dead. Sam was taken to a nearby hospital where he required surgery, which he refused until he was able to meet with his boss, Melvin H. Purvis, head of the Chicago bureau of the department.
“Did you get Purvis? I must talk to Purvis before I die.”
Sam identified Nelson and the woman he believed to be his wife. He told Purvis he did not know the identity of the other man.
The following day the body of Nelson, with 17 bullets in it, was found abandoned in a roadside ditch. His wife was taken into custody two days later. Chase was picked up the following month.
The body of Samuel Cowley lay in state beneath the rotunda of the Utah Capitol while thousands of friends and admirers filed past to pay their last respects. They were not alone. Church and government leaders, including George Albert Smith and John A. Widtsoe, members of the Council of the Twelve, U.S. Senator Elbert Thomas, and Utah Governor Henry H. Blood delivered eulogies at his funeral. Newspapers ran editorials that described the 35-year-old husband and father of two small boys as “every inch a soldier” and an individual of “active service, intelligent cooperation and unflinching courage.”
United Press wrote that Sam was “known as one of the government’s ace manhunters, despite his mild mannered appearance.” Associated Press said he “looked more like a football player than a sleuth. …” And the New York Times described his pursuit of criminals as “relentless.”
Nearly 20 years later FBI Chief Hoover remembered Sam as the bravest man he had ever known:
“… it is not because he shot it out with Nelson nor yet because he directed the manhunt which trapped another public enemy, John Dillinger. Many other special agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation would have acted precisely as Sam did in similar circumstances. … Sam Cowley’s courage was beyond heroics. He was brave enough to be scrupulously honest in little things as well as big things. He didn’t accept the easy way out by a half-truth, a white lie, or a turned head. … So in one murderous moment, the FBI lost two of its finest men. And what is my point? My point is that this sacrifice was not just a magnificent demonstration of momentary heroism. It was the culmination of that greatest of all adventures in moral courage—a truly moral life. As a friend of Sam’s said at his funeral:
“‘I have thought that his name should have been Peter. He was a veritable rock to those who knew, who loved and trusted him. His was the calm of a man who did his best and left the final decision to a Higher Power.’”