Federal agent. Purvis was born in Timmonsville on October 24, 1903. He gained national fame during the 1930s as the nation’s “ace G-man,” credited with gunning down the notorious outlaws John Dillinger and Charles “Pretty Boy” Floyd—although throughout his life Purvis maintained that each event was a team project.
Purvis earned a law degree from the University of South Carolina in 1925 and then practiced law in Florence for two years. Frustrated in his efforts to enter diplomatic service, in February 1927 he joined the Justice Department’s Bureau of Investigation, the forerunner of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Purvis quickly came to the attention of bureau director J. Edgar Hoover, who offered Purvis opportunities to earn rapid promotion. In 1932 Purvis was named senior agent in charge of the bureau’s Chicago field office, where he orchestrated the capture of the bank robber and murderer John Dillinger, America’s “Public Enemy Number One.” On July 22, 1934, acting on a tip from a Chicago brothel operator, Purvis and his team of agents surrounded the Biograph Theater, where Dillinger was attending a movie. When Dillinger walked out, Purvis lit his cigar, signaling other agents that he had spotted the fugitive. Purvis reportedly said to Dillinger, “Stick’em up, Johnny, we have you surrounded,” but Dillinger pulled his gun and ran. Agents fired, and Dillinger died at the scene. Purvis refused to take personal credit for Dillinger’s death, nor did he identify the agents who shot Dillinger. Three months later, on October 22, Purvis led the collection of federal agents and local police that tracked down and killed the outlaw Charles “Pretty Boy” Floyd in a field near Clarkson, Ohio.
Reporters took an instant liking to the modest Purvis, and the mild-mannered G-man quickly became a national celebrity. Hoover, however, was jealous of Purvis’s publicity. He assigned Purvis to bad cases and subjected him to close review. In 1935, just a year after he had captured Dillinger, Purvis resigned from the FBI. Hoover undermined his efforts to find work in law enforcement, despite numerous job offers. Moving to California, Purvis practiced law and capitalized on his celebrity, endorsing products such as Dodge automobiles and Post Toasties cereal and publishing an autobiography, American Agent (1936).
In 1938 Purvis returned to Florence County, where he married Rosanne Willcox on September 14. They had three sons. He published a daily newspaper, the Florence Evening Star, and then became a partner in the ownership of local radio station WOLS in 1941. During World War II he served in the provost general’s office, attaining the rank of colonel by 1945. After the war, Purvis was appointed deputy director of the War Crimes Office of the War Department. Purvis died of a gunshot wound at his home in Florence on February 29, 1960. The FBI initially reported his death as a suicide, but later reports stated that he died accidentally. He was buried in Mt. Hope Cemetery, Florence.
Purvis, Melvin H. American Agent. New York: Doubleday, Doran, 1936.