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Carolina Stories weekly series highlights the rich cultural and historical landscape that is South Carolina. From the Upstate to the Lowcountry, the stories are as geographically diverse as their subject matter and they are all produced by ETV's production teams.

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Carolina Stories

G-Man: The Rise and Fall of Melvin Purvis



Melvin Horace Purvis. To many people today, the name means nothing. But it was not so long ago that Purvis was a household name, and over 260,000 boys and girls were digging through boxes of Post Toasties breakfast cereal to get their very own decoder rings and Junior G-Man badges. Purvis, the Timmonsville native with the unassuming name, skyrocketed to such fame in the 1930s as the leader of the FBI team that took down some of the biggest gangsters of his day, including John Dillinger, "Baby Face" Nelson and "Pretty Boy" Floyd. His death in 1960 from a gun shot to the head is still shrouded in mystery. Was it a suicide, as first reported? Was it an accidental shooting? Or was there something more sinister behind it? Learn about the man behind the badge in a new "Carolina Stories" program, "G-MAN: The Rise and Fall of Melvin Purvis." Presenting "just the facts, ma'am," the documentary examines Purvis' life and sheds some light on his gruesome death. In the process, "G-MAN" explores the complicated relationship between Purvis and J. Edgar Hoover, the first director of the FBI and the man who some have said was responsible not only for Purvis' meteoric rise, but also his rapid descent back into obscurity. 

Honored as one of the ten South Carolina State Library most notable state documents of the year.

To order the DVD, visit the ETV Store


In-Depth

This 1-hour Carolina Stories documentary will tell the often puzzling story of one of South Carolina’s true sons. Melvin Purvis was born in Timmonsville, South Carolina, in rural Florence County, on October 3rd 1903. After graduating from Law school in 1925, he applied for a job with the U.S. Department of State in Washington D.C. He was turned down but in 1927 he secured a position with the newly formed Department of Justice’s Bureau of Investigation (renamed the FBI in 1935). A devoted employee, he cracked his first case within a few months and attracted the attention and praise of the bureau’s director, an anonymous young bureaucrat named J. Edgar Hoover.

Purvis joined the Bureau at a time when most of the work consisted of investigating tedious anti-trust cases, but this changed radically with the onset of the Great Depression. After the stock market crash of 1929 and the failure of some 85,000 businesses, a nation torn by hardship spawned uncommon villains and heroes. Men who had a penchant for crime matured into a new breed of evildoer: The American gangster. Now the Bureau had a new mandate – to sweep the country clean of this criminal scourge. The city of Chicago, with a corrupt police force and shady politicians, was the heart of gangland.

In 1932 Hoover appointed Melvin Purvis – who was by now the director’s favorite agent - head of the Bureau’s Chicago office, in charge of tracking down the country’s public enemies: John Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd, Baby Face Nelson. By 1935 all three gangsters were dead and Purvis had become one of the most famous men in America – the legendary G-Man whose face appeared on cereal boxes and in comic strips. Rather than celebrating his protégé’s success, J. Edgar Hoover became bitterly resentful of Purvis’ fame and set out to destroy the man whose career he had helped to build. He began secretly usurping Purvis’ authority and ordered rigorous inspections of the Chicago office. He blacked out information relating Purvis to the Bureau’s accomplishments and ordered constant surveillance and reports on Purvis’ activities, an FBI priority that would be on-going for decades.

On July 10, 1935, Melvin Purvis resigned from the FBI. His search for a new career opened many doors for Purvis, but Hoover drafted reports denigrating his character, quashing any chance of his employment. For more than thirty years Hoover did everything he could to ruin Melvin Purvis’ reputation. Purvis died mysteriously in 1960, a broken man. What was the source of J. Edgar Hoover’s vendetta against Melvin Purvis, and how did it shape the development of the FBI? What does the story of their complex relationship tell us about Hoover’s destructive paranoia?

G-MAN examines these questions through the dramatic arc of Purvis’ rise and fall at the hands of the man who was both his mentor and his nemesis. For more on the Purvis gun collection visit the South Carolina Military Museum and the South Carolina Law Enforcement Officers Hall of Fame.

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