Justice for a G-Man: The FBI in College Corner

In August 1935, Special Agents Nelson B. Klein and Donald C. McGovern from the Cincinnati office of the FBI began investigating convicted criminal George W. Barrett, the “Diamond King,” for his suspected involvement in a number of motor vehicle scams in Ohio and elsewhere across the country. The Department of Justice had Barrett under surveillance since 1931 for dealing in stolen automobiles. In “Barrett v. United States,” in the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, heard on March 17, 1936, the court provided details on Barrett’s criminal activities, stating:

His method was to buy an automobile, obtain title papers for it, steal an automobile of similar description, change its motor numbers to correspond with those on the purchased car, obtain duplicate title papers, and then sell the stolen car to some dealer.

In each instance, Barrett sold the stolen vehicles with papers purporting to show that the sales were legitimate.

Special Agent Nelson B. Klein. Courtesy Federal Bureau of Investigation at “History – Federal Bureau of Investigation.”

Special Agents Klein and McGovern learned that Barrett was in Hamilton, Ohio after a recent car deal there with the Central Motor Company, but neither they nor the local police were able to question him before he left the area. Acting on a tip, the G-Men – a term used to describe government men, particularly the federal agents working under J. Edgar Hoover – suspected Barrett might travel to College Corner at the Ohio-Indiana border, where Barrett’s brother lived. They drove there on August 16, 1935 and spotted Barrett near the residence of his brother’s home, along with a vehicle matching the motor number of an automobile involved in one of Barrett’s recent schemes. Klein telephoned the sheriff’s office in Hamilton for assistance in arresting Barrett, and he and McGovern parked their car and waited. Before Sheriff John Schumacher and Deputy Charles Walke arrived, Barrett returned to his car with a package in which he had hidden a gun.

Special Agent Donald C. McGovern. Courtesy William Plunkett, The G-Man and the Diamond King, page 37.

Barrett went to unlock his car door, but as Klein and McGovern started their vehicle and began to approach, he abruptly turned and started walking away. Fearful that he was trying to flee and would elude them again, Klein jumped out of the FBI vehicle and called out to him to stop. Barrett ignored the calls and continued walking down a nearby alley with Klein in pursuit.

Once back in the open, the “Diamond King” opened fire, striking Klein numerous times. Klein returned fire and succeeded in hitting Barrett in the legs, but the federal agent succumbed to his gunshot wounds and died at the scene.

In the days following, newspapers across the country reported on the gun battle that had ensued in College Corner. On August 18, 1935, just two days after the shooting, the Indianapolis Star reported that Barrett would stand trial in Indianapolis and would be taken there as soon as his wounds allowed. Although College Corner falls right along the Indiana-Ohio line, agents confirmed that Klein had fallen dead on the Indiana side. The Richmond Item reported: “the trial, to be held in the Indianapolis Federal Courtroom, will be the first murder trial ever conducted in the Southern Indiana District Court.”

[Zanesville, Ohio] Times Recorder, August 17, 1935, page 1. Courtesy Newspapers.com.
Sheboygan [Wisconsin] Press, August 17, 1935, page 2. Courtesy Newspapers.com.

The Richmond Item, August 31, 1935, page 1. Courtesy Newspapers.com.

Federal officers transferred Barrett from the Hamilton, Ohio hospital to the City Hospital in Indianapolis on August 21. On August 26, the [Hamilton] Journal News reported on the recovery of one of the automobiles Barrett reportedly stole and transported over state lines from San Diego to Hamilton. Barrett allegedly changed the motor and serial numbers of the car before selling it to a garage in Hamilton. Jurors wasted no time in indicting Barrett for the murder of Special Agent Klein and for violating the National Motor Vehicle Theft Act.

George W. Barrett. Courtesy Find a Grave.

Passed in 1919, the National Motor Vehicle Theft Act – also known as the Dyer Act – helped supplement individual states’ efforts to combat automobile theft in the country. In the fall of 1919, newspapers reported that the practice of stealing automobiles was on the rise throughout the U.S., especially in some midwestern cities such as Detroit, Chicago, and St. Louis. The Indianapolis News claimed that over 22,000 automobiles were stolen in eighteen western and midwestern cities in 1918. Other articles put the number closer to 30,000. Congressman Leonidas C. Dyer of Missouri, who introduced the legislation, argued that the losses amounted to hundreds of thousands of dollars each year, while also causing hefty increases in automobile theft insurance.

Stolen vehicles reported by Representative Dyer. Chicago Tribune, September 21, 1919, section 2, page 13. Courtesy Newspapers.com.

The act sought “to punish the transportation of stolen motor vehicles in interstate or foreign commerce.” In accordance with the law, anyone who knowingly transported or caused to be transported a stolen motor vehicle in interstate or foreign commerce could be fined up to $5,000, imprisoned for up to five years, or both. Those found guilty of violating the law could also be punished in any district through which the guilty party transported the vehicle. According to former Special Agent William Plunkett in The G-Man and the Diamond King:

The BOI (later the FBI) gained more influence in 1919 with the passage of the Dyer Act . . . now it could prosecute criminals who’d previously evaded the Bureau by driving across a state line. More than any other law, the Dyer Act sealed the FBI’s reputation as a national investigative crime-fighting organization.

Federal officers arrested many professional automobile thieves in the 1920s and 1930s after the law went into effect. In many instances, these criminals were wanted for other offenses, including murder. Prior to the passage of the act, federal agents did not have the authority to pursue such criminals and had to let local and state authorities try to handle the rising number of cases. In some instances, local authorities caught and successfully imprisoned criminals and gangsters of the period, only to see their prison sentences expire or have them escape and commit more dangerous crimes. This was particularly true in the case of notorious gangster John Dillinger. In the early 1930s, Dillinger and his gang robbed several banks, plundered police arsenals, killed a police detective in Chicago, and fled the county jail in Crown Point, Indiana in March 1934 after being held to await trial. The FBI’s website states:

It was then that Dillinger made the mistake that would cost him his life. He stole the sheriff’s car and drove across the Indiana-Illinois line, heading for Chicago. By doing that, he violated the National Motor Vehicle Theft Act, which made it a federal offense to transport a stolen motor vehicle across a state line.

After Dillinger violated the National Motor Vehicle Theft Act, the FBI became actively involved in his capture.

Indianapolis Star, December 4, 1935, page 3. Courtesy Newspapers.com.

Both the National Motor Vehicle Theft Act and a recently passed 1934 law making the killing or assault of a United States officer a federal offense punishable by death sealed George Barrett’s fate. His trial began on December 2. According to The Tennessean, he was only the second man to be tried under the new law providing for capital punishment in the killing of a federal officer. Edward Rice, defense counsel for Barrett, argued that Barrett had been warned days before Special Agent Klein’s killing that Kentucky outlaws were after him and might pose as officers. As such, Barrett maintained that he acted in self-defense out of fear for his life. However, during his time on the witness stand, Special Agent Donald McGovern testified that Klein called out to Barrett and clearly identified himself and McGovern as federal officers.

On December 8, the Indianapolis Star reported that the jury only took fifty minutes to return with a guilty verdict. With no qualification calling for life imprisonment, Barrett was to be hanged. District Attorney Val Nolan stated “I think this is the greatest victory for law and order ever achieved in the state of Indiana.” Electrocution replaced hanging in Indiana several years earlier, but because Barrett’s sentence would be carried out under federal law, U.S. criminal code specified death by hanging.

Indianapolis Star, December 8, 1935, page 1. Courtesy Newspapers.com.

On March 18, the Indianapolis News noted that George “Phil” Hanna, an expert hangman, would lead the execution. Known as the “Humane Hangman,” Hanna had participated in close to seventy previous hangings in an interest to see them done correctly, without additional pain or suffering to the condemned. Barrett hanged at 12:02 am on March 24, 1936 in the Marion County jail yard, and was pronounced dead ten minutes later. Despite the late hour, fifty people reportedly traveled to the jail yard to witness the hanging.

Nelson B. Klein gravestone. Courtesy Find a Grave.

The Midwestern Making of Kenneth Rexroth: Robbing Cash Registers and Reading the Classics

At times described as cantankerous, paranoid, and bitter, Kenneth Rexroth, the trail-blazing Hoosier poet, cajoled and harangued some of the best poets of the Beat Generation. At the same time, he worked tirelessly to promote their work. Rexroth’s own radical poetry both preceded and inspired the Beats, though at times he refused to be associated with the movement that he thought had lost its meaning by the late 1950s, and especially that “hipster” Jack Kerouac.

Kenneth Rexroth, accessed via Poetry Foundation.

As important as Rexroth’s poetry is to American literature, his life story is perhaps even more fascinating. And while much has been written about his years in San Francisco laying the groundwork for a literary renaissance in that city that grew into the larger Beat movement, little has been written about his time in Indiana, Illinois, and Ohio – a period when the budding poet rubbed elbows with anarchists, burlesque dancers, criminals, and the artistic and literary elite of the Midwest and the world.

Kenneth Rexroth Home, South Bend, Indiana, 2016, accessed Google Maps

Kenneth Rexroth was born on December 22, 1905 in South Bend, Indiana. Young Rexroth’s first residence was a house at 828 Park Avenue in South Bend which still stands and will soon be the site of an Indiana State Historical Marker commemorating his life and career. In Kenneth Rexroth: An Autobiographical Novel, he described the house as “substantial and comfortable,” near to the Oliver Hotel and Mr. Eliel’s drug store. According to a 1905 article in the Elkhart Daily Review, Rexroth’s father was working as a traveling pharmaceutical salesman.

In 1908, the Rexroth family moved to a home on East Beardsley Avenue in Elkhart, Indiana, a relocation that made the local newspaper.

Elkhart Daily Review, June 29, 1908, 1, accessed NewspaperArchive.com
“Surface Car Terminal, Elkhart, Indiana,” photograph, ca. 1910, The Indiana Album.

Rexroth wrote a description of the Elkhart home as well:

This was a quiet residential street above the river where all the best homes in the town were in those days, where the patent-medicine people, the musical-instrument people, the buggy-works people, the corset people, and all the other leading citizens of the town lived in their wooden, sometimes Palladian or Romanesque mansions, and we had our own little Palladian house.

While Rexroth was born into a comfortable life, his family’s circumstances soon deteriorated. His parents, Charles Marion and Delia Rexroth, had difficulties with alcohol, chronic illness, and each other. Rexroth wrote that his mother was drinking champagne when she went into labor and bluntly called his father a “drunk” and a “constant gambler.” When he was five, circa 1910, they left the lovely house on East Beardsley due to his father’s diminishing finances. The family moved more often then, mostly renting, but Rexroth remembers living in a “run-down Victorian house” on Second Street that he believed they owned. Despite setbacks, he remembered his childhood in Elkhart fondly. His mother taught him to read early and immersed him in classical literature. He spent time at the library, learned French, explored the neighborhood, and fell in love with Helen, “the little girl next door,” when they were just six or seven. His parents were able to afford a family tour of Europe, which made quite an impression on young Rexroth.

However, his mother continued to succumb to a chronic illness that multiple doctors were unable to diagnose, and his father intensified his drinking and gambling. Sometime around 1914, when Rexroth was nine, the family moved briefly to Battle Creek, Michigan, and then to Chicago the following year, where they lived with relatives. Rexroth’s father’s alcoholism put him near death on at least one occasion and he left the family, likely for some sort of sanitarium. Rexroth moved with his mother into a small apartment and they rarely saw his father. After a painful period fighting what was likely tuberculosis, Delia Rexroth died in 1916. Eleven-year-old Rexroth went to live with his father and grandmother in Toledo, Ohio. Here, Rexroth began to seek and find trouble.

Photograph, 1916, accessed Linda Hamalian, A Life of Kenneth Rexroth (New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 1991), 120.

Rexroth had little supervision in Toledo. He began running around town with a gang of boys who would rob cash registers and, despite his young age, he ran various money-making hustles that involved running errands for “brothels, cardrooms, and burlesque shows.” He also witnessed the Willys-Overland labor strike that turned riotous. Rexroth wrote that this was a significant moment in his youth and he “started off in the labor movement.” In 1919, at this uncertain juncture in Rexroth’s early adolescence, his father also died.

Rexroth’s aunt, Minnie Monaham, retrieved the thirteen-year-old trouble maker and brought him back to Chicago to live with the rest of the Monahams. The 1920 U.S. Census shows that the nine person household was located on Indiana Avenue, but they soon moved to an apartment on South Michigan Avenue in the Englewood neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago. Rexroth enrolled in the nearby Englewood High School. School administrators quickly expelled him for his poor attitude and attendance. It was outside of the Chicago public school system, however, that Rexroth pursued a more profound education.

Carl Sandburg, “Chicago,” 1916, Chicago Historical Society, accessed via Encyclopedia of Chicago.

Perhaps in the same manner he was able to gain access to the burlesque theaters of Toledo, Rexroth found access to the clubs of the poets and writers gathered in this Midwest city during the second wave of the Chicago Literary Renaissance. Among these were important local poets such as Carl Sandburg and Harriet Monroe, writers and intellectuals such as Hoosier-born Theodore Dreiser, and political thinkers such as famous Hoosier socialist, Eugene Debs, as well as the “big names” of the international art and literature worlds. This intellectual elite met at formal and informal clubs and locations around the city.

Rexroth also explored the radical political movements of the period at venues such as the Washington Park Bug Club, also known as Bughouse Square, which met in a “a shallow grassy amphitheater beside a lagoon off in the middle of the park,” according to Rexroth. Bughouse Square was, for a time, “the most celebrated outdoor free-speech center in the nation and a popular Chicago tourist attraction,” according to the Chicago Historical Society. Here, people with a host of different ideas would get on their soapboxes (sometimes literally) and orate to the crowds that would gather. Rexroth wrote that “here, every night until midnight could be heard passionate exponents of every variety of human lunacy” such as:

“Anarchist-Single-Taxers, British-Israelites [or Anglo-Israelite], sell-anointed archbishops of the American Catholic Church, Druids, Anthroposophists, mad geologists who had proven the world was flat or that the surface of the earth was the inside of a hollow sphere, and people who were in communication with the inhabitants of Mars, Atlantis, and Tibet, severally and sometimes simultaneously. Besides, struggling for a hearing was the whole body of orthodox heterodoxy — Socialists, communists (still with a small “c”), IWWs [International Workers of the World], De Leonites, Anarchists, Single Taxers (separately, not in contradictory combination), Catholic Guild Socialists, Schopenhauerians, Nietzscheans — of whom there were quite a few — Stirnerites, and what later were to be called Fascists.”

“Dill Pickle Club Entrance,” photograph, n.d., Newberry Library, Dill Pickle, Box 2, Folder 32, Chicago Historical Society, accessed via Encyclopedia of Chicago.

Another inspiring haunt for Rexroth was the Dill Pickle Club, not far from Bughouse Square, where artists and writers along with socialists and anarchists gathered for social and artistic experimentation. Rexroth wrote that there were independent theater productions Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. On Sunday night, there were lectures on various topics. On Saturday nights “the chairs were cleared away and the Chicago jazzmen of the early Twenties played for a dance which lasted all night.” Rexroth remembered the actors and sets as being awful but somehow they produced plays that were “the very best.” Lectures were given by “every important scholar who came through the town, and all those who were attached to the universities.”

Most significantly, however, Rexroth gained entrée to the salon at the home of Jake Loeb, where he encountered the leaders of the local literary movement, international visitors such as D. H. Lawrence, and access to books of artists and writers who would greatly influence him, such as Gertrude Stein. In his autobiography, Rexroth referred to Loeb’s home as “a more important Middle Western cultural institution in 1923 than the University of Chicago, the Art Institute, the Symphony, and the Chicago Tribune put together.” He wrote that he met “everybody who was anybody in the Chicago of the Twenties and everybody who was anybody who was passing through town.” He continued:

“Besides the famous transients, many of whom stayed in the place, the house was full every night of the cream of Chicago’s intellectuals in the brief postwar period of Chicago’s second renaissance. It seems rather pointless even to list them — any of them — because they were all there. . . It is not that I met famous people — it is that I learned by listening to impassioned discussion among mature people, all of whom were out in the world putting their ideas into effect.”

Rexroth was also starting to put his ideas into effect. Although he had shown little academic or literary promise thus far, Rexroth became “a prolific painter and poet by age seventeen,” according to the Poetry Foundation. By this point he was running from one cultural hot-spot to another, performing the poetry to which he was being exposed. He wrote in his autobiography that if he hustled he could make over fifty dollars in a weekend. He continued, “Thus began my career as a boy soapboxer, bringing poetry to the masses.”

“Self Portrait” by Kenneth Rexroth, published in Chicago Review 55.2/¾, accessed via Chicago Review tumblr.

He began working a number of odd jobs, and in his free time, experimenting with oil paints and piano. One such job was at the Green Mask on Grand Avenue and State Street. Rexroth referred to the Green Mask as a “tearoom,” but it was probably more accurately a cabaret, and it was located in the basement of a brothel. Rexroth wrote, “The place was a hangout for bona-fide artists, writers, musicians, and people from show business.” He continued, “In the Mask there gradually formed a small, permanent family of oddities who were there every night and never paid for their coffee.” Here Rexroth was able to see and perform poetry with some of the era’s best poets and musicians, both black and white, local and national. These included the “seclusive and asocial” poet Edgar Lee Masters, local African American poet Fenton Johnson, nationally-acclaimed black poet and playwright Langston Hughes, the local jazz drummer Dave Tough (who Rexroth called Dick Rough in his autobiography), and an assortment of dancers, singers, and drag queens. This group held weekly poetry readings and lectures and jazz performances. Rexroth and others began combining jazz and poetry, a technique he would become known for by the time he headed out west and one that would greatly influence the Beat Generation. He wrote that here, at the Green Mask, “happened the first reading of poetry to jazz that I know of.” About this early Chicago jazz scene, he wrote:

“I’m afraid that I can’t provide any inside information about the formative years of jazz, for the simple reason that none of us knew that this was what was happening. We didn’t know we were making history and we didn’t think we were important. . . Jazz was pretty hot and made a lot of noise. People talked loud to be heard above it, got thirsty and drank too much and made trouble, so we tried to keep the jazz small and cool . . . I remember many nights going over to the piano and saying, ‘For Christ’s sake, cool it or you’ll get us all busted!'”

Chicago Tribune, January 11, 1923, 1, accessed Chicago Tribune Archives.

As he predicted, the Green Mask did get busted. In 1923, the Chicago Tribune reported that thirty-five “Bohemians” were arrested in a raid at the Green Mask. The Tribune article stated: “The police entered the place after standing outside for some time listening to what they say was the reading of indecent poetry by George Lexington.” The owner was booked as “keeper of a disorderly house.” Rexroth was also arrested because he was considered part owner for investing some small amount of money into the place. He was sentenced to a year in jail.

Photograph, 1922, in G. A. Claussenius, The House of Correction of the City of Chicago : a retrospect covering a half century of endeavor from the founding of the institution to the present time, 1871-1921 (City of Chicago, 1922), 7, accessed via Internet Archive.

He described the conditions on his arrival to the Chicago House of Corrections, or the “Bandhouse” as it was called:

This was quite a place. It had been built back in the Seventies or Eighties, with long, narrow windows like the archers’ slots in medieval castles, and a warped and muddy stone floor where the water oozed up in winter between the paving blocks. This was the only running water in the place. Each cell was given a one-gallon pail of water once a day and provided with a battered old bucket for a privy. It was a cage-type cell house. The cells were all in the center about thirty feet away from the walls, so the only view was through the heavy iron grilles and door which looked out on brick walls and filthy windows through which it was impossible to see anything. The inner cells looked out on the tier opposite. The whole thing was built of iron, and any movement in it resounded as though it had happened inside a bell; any cough or groan or cry was magnified as if by an immense megaphone. In each cell there were four iron-slatted bunks that folded up against the wall. There were no mattresses, and each fish [inmate] was provided, along with his slops, with a filthy khaki Army blanket full of holes.

Rexroth spent the winter in these circumstances and explained that he “got a little closer to the underworld.” When he got out of the Bandhouse, he spent most of his time pursuing various young women, two of whom lived in the same building, and writing them poetry. He became more involved in local theater productions and continued pursuing radical social theories and chasing down works of avant-garde literature. He began reading more spiritual works and even spent a few months in a monastery. He also began a period of traveling and recording his observations of nature in his poetry – something else he would become known as a master of in later life.

Photo accessed Linda Hamalian, A Life of Kenneth Rexroth (New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 1991), 120.

In late December 1926, Rexroth met the artist Andrée Schafer through friends, just briefly outside their door. When his friends asked him what he thought about her, Rexroth replied, “I intend to marry her.” They began working on paintings together, both of them working on the same canvas, “like one person,” according to Rexroth. They married a few weeks later in January 1927 and left for a new life on the West Coast that spring. In San Francisco, instead of experiencing a cultural Renaissance, Rexroth would create one.

Check back next week for more about this Hoosier rebel in part two of this story: Kenneth Rexroth: Poet, Pacifist, Radical, and Reluctant Father of the Beat Generation

For more information:

Kenneth Rexroth, An Autobiographical Novel (Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1966).

Linda Hamalian, A Life of Kenneth Rexroth (New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 1991).