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Shootouts between lawmen and gangsters were not uncommon in the 1930s. But what happened outside Union Station in Kansas City on June 17, 1933 was a shocking wake-up call for a federal agency, the Bureau of Investigation, that soon would become known as the Federal Bureau of Investigation and even better known by the initials FBI.

Recalled as "The Kansas City Massacre" or the "Union Station Massacre," it was an ambush that resulted in the killing of four law officers and notorious bank robber and murderer Frank Nash, who was being transported back to Leavenworth Federal Prison in Kansas, from where he had escaped three years earlier.

The incident prompted President Franklin D. Roosevelt to push for legislation to give federal officers the power of arrest, and the right to carry firearms at all times.

Several well-known gangsters — including Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, John Dillinger, George "Baby Face" Nelson and Charles "Pretty Boy" Floyd — paid the price in 1934, all gunned down by FBI agents or other police officers who were assisting. The first to be killed, on January 6, was Wilbur "Mad Dog" Underhill Jr., also known as the "Tri-State Terror," probably Oklahoma, Kansas and Arkansas, where Underhill staged a series of bank robberies.

There are all sorts of theories about who was responsible for "The Kansas City Massacre" and what it was supposed to accomplish — and why. The gunmen probably were out to grab Frank Nash from the lawmen, but for what purpose? In any event, they certainly didn't hesitate to kill Nash when they realized they'd be unable to separate him from Federal Agent Raymond J. Caffrey.

[Note: I've seen several references to the nickname, "Jelly," applied to Frank Nash, but such a nickname doesn't appear in 1933 stories about him.]

Syracuse Journal, June 17, 1933
KANSAS CITY, Missouri (INS) — Five men were killed, including a department of justice operative and the chief of police of McAlester, Oklahoma, in an unsuccessful attempt by gunmen to effect the release of Frank Nash, notorious convict, just outside the main entrance of the Union Station here today.

Nash also was killed, as were two city detectives.

In the most brazen attempted delivery of a prisoner in this city’s colorful history, the gunmen accosted department of justice men and detectives as they emerged from the station’s south portal.

With hundreds of persons looking on in the line of fire, a gun battle ensued in which a hundred shots were fired when the officers refused to give up Nash.

When the smoke of battle had cleared away, all of the gunmen made good their own escape, and Nash and four officers lay dead or dying under the lofty canopy of the Union Station.

Manacled to Nash and lying prone beside him was Raymond J. Caffrey, department of justice operative, who accompanied the prisoner from McAlester, Oklahoma, where he was captured yesterday.

Rushed to a nearby hospital, Caffrey died a short time later. His brother officers, Chief of Police Otto Reed of McAlester; and Frank Hermanson and W. F. “Red” Grooms, local detectives, were killed instantly.

Two other local department of justice men, F. F. Lackey and R. E. Vetterli, were hit by bullets and rushed to the hospital in an ambulance. Whether their injuries are serious has not been ascertained

Hundreds of unwilling witnesses jammed Union Station as the gunmen accosted Caffrey and demanded he turn Nash over to them. Nash was being returned to the federal penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kansas. He escaped from Leavenworth in 1930.

Obviously the gunmen’s attack had been well planned and based on accurate information as to the strength of the guard in charge of their captive companion.

Each gunman covered his man and with such dexterity that before reinforcements could arrive all of the officers were either dead or wounded.

Amazed spectators stood by paralyzed, not daring to interfere while the desperadoes made their getaway.

Some said there were only three bandits, but the majority agreed they numbered five. Likewise there were conflicting accounts of their getaway. Some witnesses claimed they fled in a motor car and others said they disappeared through the crowd afoot.

Some averred the attack was planned and executed by the most notorious of all southwestern desperadoes not behind prison bars — Charles “Pretty Boy” Floyd.

For the last two weeks Floyd has been taunting law officers and threatening them first at one point, then at another. Floyd was reported seen at Deepwater, Missouri, 90 miles from Kansas City, at midnight. Officers admitted he easily could have reached here in time to execute the attempted delivery, but did not entirely accept this theory.

Nash escaped from the federal prison at Leavenworth, Kansas, three years ago. He had been a member of the notorious Al Spencer gang that once held the Southwest in terror of its brazen depredations.

His capture was effected near Hot Springs, Arkansas, and he was being returned to prison when he was killed. Nash and Operative Caffrey, with Police Chief Reed arrived on a Missouri Pacific train from McAlester, Oklahoma, but a few moments before the gun battle.

Outside Union Station a government car awaited their arrival, ready to transport Nash the remaining 30 miles to Leavenworth. Vetterli and Lackey had left the car to meet the party.

Union Station, one of the most spacious in the country and linking grand trunk lines of many of the most important transcontinental railroad lines, was jammed to the overflowing as the massacre occurred.

Miraculously, none was injured so far as could be ascertained in a quick check of all major hospitals an hour after the smoke of battle died away.

Sometimes old clippings, because of certain words and expressions, seem as though they might come from British newspaper. In the above story, for example, there is a line about "the notorious Al Spencer gang that once held the Southwest in terror of its brazen depredations." Also, when an attempt was made to break someone out of jail, this was often described as a "delivery."

Syracuse American, June 18, 1933
KANSAS CITY (Universal) — “Our men didn’t have a chance — not a chance! Those gunmen were firing from three sides of us. They just yelled, ‘Up! Up!’ a few times and blazed away.”

This was the dramatic description given by Federal Agent Frank Smith of yesterday’s massacre on Union Station Plaza in which four officers and Frank Nash, an escaped convict, were slain.

Three of the officers were killed instantly, as was Nash, and the fourth officer died shortly afterward.

City Detectives Frank Hermanson and W. J. Grooms were shot down as they stood by the car which the officers were entering. Otto Reed, chief of police at McAlester, Oklahoma, was killed as he fired from the rear seat of the car. Nash was killed as he sat, handcuffed, in the front seat.

Raymond J. Caffrey, agent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, was picked up, mortally wounded, from beside the automobile. F. F. Lackey, Department of Justice agent, was taken to a hospital in a critical condition, and R. E. Vetterli, special agent of the Department of Justice, barely escaped serious injury when a bullet grazed his arm.

Startling in its suddenness, the battle was quickly over, and the gunmen escaped before officers inside the United Station lobby could reach the scene.

Following is the story of Smith, one of the officers bringing Nash back from Hot Springs, Arkansas, where he was captured.

“My great regret is that Otto Reed, one of the finest peace officer who ever walked, is dead. I got him into this and I got him killed. That’s what he gets for being a good officer. I knew he was dependable and I needed dependable help in Hot Springs yesterday.

“We pegged Nash’s car in front of the White Front Pool Hall in Hot Springs, Reed, Agent Lackey and myself. We watched until Nash came out the door and we took him quietly as possible and speeded out of town. At 8:30 last night we took a Missouri Pacific train out of Fort Smith for Kansas City.

“Nash was a bald-headed man, you know, and we had some difficulty in identifying him. He was wearing a $100 toupee and had grown a quite respectable mustache. His conversation was that of a sophisticated city man of standing in the community. One of the first things I did was yank the toupee off his head and then I knew we had Frank Nash.

“When we arrived here, Vetterli, Caffrey and two city detectives met us at the train and we walked Nash, who was handcuffed, through the station and out to Agent Caffrey’s car, across the street.

“ ‘Get in there, Frank,’ I said to Nash. He got in. While Nash was pulling down the right front seat, Caffrey went around the car to take the driver’s seat. Just then . . .

“ ‘Up - up - up - up - up - up!’ was yelled several times in staccato accents from two or more points to the south and west of our car. Just as I looked up I saw a man to the southwest of me with what appeared to be a machine gun. I saw a spurt of fire from it. I drew my revolver, but immediately I ducked for the bottom of the car.

“I’ve been a government agent for 18 years. I know when resistance is possible and I knew they ‘had us’ at the station this morning.

“I felt hot bullets pass my cheek. I believe Detectives Hermanson and Grooms were the first to fall, but I believe Nash actually was hit by one or more of the first few shots. The gunners, apparently were shooting directly at Caffrey when Nash was killed.

“I saw Otto Reed crumple and I saw Lackey slump in his seat. The only glimpse I got of our assailants was that one awful eyeful of that man with the machine gun leveled at me.

“I heard shooting from more than one point. It is my believe that at least two, if not three guns were trained on our car. I only saw one, of course.

“I know there was shooting from our rear and sightly to our right. I know the man who shot at me was in front and slightly to the right and I am under the impression that a third man was firing from a point somewhere in between those two.

“It was not my time to die. I’ve been shot at before, but never with more chance of the bullets finding their mark. How Vetterli escaped is even more of a mystery. He was directly in the line of fire.

“Poor Hermanson and Grooms might have been artificial rabbits in a shooting gallery. Caffrey was killed before he knew we were in a fight. Reed, I’m satisfied, heard nothing after that staccato command of ‘Up - up - up!’

“Lackey was saved from instant death, in my opinion, because the bullet which struck him ricocheted from his pistol butt into his abdomen. He was the only man not shot in the head.”

Nash, a “gentleman bandit,” was known to have wide connections in the underworld, from Chicago to the Gulf, and every known gangster throughout the section is a possible suspect.

Apparently well educated, Nash was the suspected “brains” of numerous crimes. He is suspected of participating in the “outside” work that made possible the federal prison break at Leavenworth two years ago, during which Thomas White, then warden, was kidnapped and wounded.

He was implicated in that break by Harold Fontaine, who was convicted of smuggling arms into the prison and sentenced to a long term.

Nash is known to have been a close friend of Harvey Bailey, a “golfing bandit,” who was one of the leaders in the Memorial Day break from the state penitentiary at Lansing, Kansas.

Caffrey, who long has been a nemesis of gangsters, arrested Bailey on a golf course here 18 months ago. He barely missed capturing Nash at the same time, as the two bandits had played a few holes of golf together shortly before Caffrey appeared.

Once a member of the notorious Al Spencer gang that 10 years ago specialized in bank and mail train robberies throughout the Southwest, Nash had a long career in crime. He was serving a 25-year sentence for mail robbery, committed while a member of the gang, when he made good his dash from Leavenworth prison two years ago.

 
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