Samuel P. Cowley
Samuel P. Cowley was a Federal Bureau of Investigation agent who was killed in the line of duty during a gunfight with Lester GIllis, known as Baby Face Nelson and considered as public enemy #1.
Cowley had been sent by J. Edgar Hoover to Chicago in 1934 to help the FBI pursue John Dillinger. Dillinger's gang had been accused of robbing 24 banks and four police stations. As Wikipedia explains,
- The relationship between Cowley and Melvin Purvis was complex and is debated by historians. Fans of Purvis tend to downplay Cowley, and the official FBI records tend to play down Purvis, as Hoover preferred Cowley. Cowley and Purvis worked together as a team. Individually neither one of them could have caught Dillinger, but together they concentrated on the areas that they knew best: Cowley on gathering intelligence and Purvis working the field. A squad of agents under Cowley worked with East Chicago policemen in tracking down all tips and rumors. It was Cowley who cut the deal with Ana Cumpănaş, the so-called "Woman in Red".
- Cowley seems to have understood this relationship. After Purvis's botched raid on Little Bohemia Lodge, Purvis went on a drinking spree, and Cowley hushed it all up. During the Dillinger stakeout, Cowley was in charge of the team at the Marbro Theater, while Purvis' team was at the Biograph Theater. At 8:30 p.m., Sage, Dillinger and Polly Hamilton strolled into the Biograph Theater to see Clark Gable in Manhattan Melodrama. Purvis phoned Cowley, who shifted the other men from the Marbro to the Biograph. Later, after Dillinger was killed, Purvis was in one room, holding a press conference and Cowley was in the next room reporting to Hoover over the phone. Hoover kept telling Cowley to break up the press conference, but Cowley refused.
- After Dillinger, Cowley was pressed to chase down Lester Gillis (Baby Face Nelson). Near Barrington, Illinois (northwest of Chicago) Nelson began chasing a car with two FBI agents (who were only lightly armed). One of the agents put a bullet through the radiator of Nelson's car. Cowley and another agent, Herman Hollis, arrived in another car and shot it out with Nelson. Cowley was armed with a sub machine gun and Hollis had a shotgun. Nelson, although repeatedly shot by Cowley and Hollis, walked across the road and shot both agents with his rifle.
- Hollis was killed instantly when a bullet hit him in the face, but Cowley survived long enough to identify Nelson and his companions to Purvis. He died at 2:00 AM, about ten hours after the shootout. Nelson's body was found the next day, wrapped in a blanket, stripped naked, and dumped in a ditch in Skokie.
- The media always played up Purvis and relegated Cowley to a minor role. The official FBI accounts play up Cowley and minimize Purvis. Both men played critically important parts in ending the Midwest crime spree started by the Dillinger gang.
Cowley was born in Franklin, Idaho, a son of Matthias F. Cowley, of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. His half-brother Matthew Cowley also served as an apostle of the Church of Jesus Christ.
Samuel Cowley embarked on a four-year mission for the Church of Jesus Christ to Hawaii when he was 17 years old. He graduated from Utah State Agricultural College and George Washington University Law School. According to his son, Sam Cowley Jr., his father had intended his FBI job to be temporary until he could find work practicing law back home in Utah. "But he was promoted so rapidly, he stayed.”
- Sam Cowley Jr. said one of his father's greatest talents was writing. He could condense stacks of information into concise memos, which apparently impressed FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, a prolific memo-writer himself.
- In five years, Cowley ascended from special agent posted in a half-dozen bureaus around the country to director of investigations at headquarters in D.C., where he emerged as one of Hoover's most trusted aides.
- According to [Bryan Burrough, author of Public Enemies], the FBI had bungled the manhunt for Dillinger several times, as innocent people were killed, accomplices inadvertently freed and badly executed stakeouts and leads resulted in nothing but lost time and bad press. Meanwhile, Dillinger and other criminals were becoming Depression-era folk heroes.
- Frustrated, Hoover dispatched Cowley to Chicago to survey the operation and report back, Burrough records. But Cowley never left Chicago. Instead of just observing, Cowley took charge, reorganizing resources, sorting out informants, refining leads, studying the criminals he was pursuing and planning the stakeouts that would lead to their capture.
Richard Emery, author of Sam Cowley: Legendary Lawman, wrote that Cowley drove his men relentlessly, which initially caused conflict, but in the end the work paid off when they found and gunned down Dillinger. Cowley shunned attention and let Purvis take credit, but Hoover placed his confidence in Cowley.
Burrough wrote of the last moments of Cowley’s life in the face off with Nelson, “A desk man his entire career, the squat, jowly Mormon was the last man Hoover would have wanted facing off with Nelson.” But Cowley hit Nelson with at least six rounds. Nelson managed to return fire and hit Cowley twice in the midsection.
Cowley was 35 years old at the time of his death and left a widow with two young sons.
- While he intentionally didn't draw much attention in Chicago, back home in Utah, his body lay in state at the Capitol rotunda. His funeral was held in the Assembly Hall on Temple Square, and a who's who of church, civic and government leaders either attended or spoke.
- Assistant Director Harold Nathan eulogized inspector Cowley, saying, "As generations of new agents come into our service, they will be told of the life and death of Sam Cowley. He will become a tradition. He will have attained earthly immortality."
- For decades, Hoover— who eventually had a falling out with Purvis — held up Cowley as a hero and the epitome of an FBI man.
- Loris Sheets learned that firsthand during a brief interview with Hoover. The Tooele High graduate spent a summer in the early 1960s as an intern at FBI headquarters. When Hoover learned she was from Utah, he asked Sheets during her exit interview if she knew of Cowley.
- Sheets made the honest mistake of saying she didn't.
- “He got mad at me, pointing to a picture and saying, 'This is Sam Cowley … the bravest man I ever knew.'
- “This country owes this man, he gave his life for this country,” Sheets said, recounting what Hoover said about Cowley. “He had tears in his eyes and pointed his finger at me.”