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Gangsters in San Jose

Swirling around the Brooke Hart kidnapping was a belief that such a horrendous crime must have originated outside of their community. It was those “outsiders,” those notorious gangsters, shunned from the American Dream, that must have been behind the crime.


The rise of gangsters started with Prohibition. Mobsters had been just small-time operators dealing in various forms of vice, but the Volstead Act was the seed that spawned the creation of widespread organized crime, initially in larger cities but over time spread throughout the country.





People either saw these gangsters as those who thumbed their noses at an unpopular law or feared them as dangerous outsiders who shook up the status quo. Hollywood gangsters became populist villains.



Celebrity gangsters were romanticized by the media and given monikers, like Al ‘Scarface’ Capone, Pretty Boy Floyd, Machine Gun Kelly and Baby Face Nelson.


Their pictures appeared on most-wanted posters. Stories of their exploits were splashed on the headlines. Whether or not the gangsters were responsible, they were blamed. And someone had to fight crime.


With the rise of gangsterism, the power of J. Edgar Hoover’s Federal Bureau of Investigation grew as well. The FBI used this crime wave as an opportunity to expand its investigatory powers.




One intersection of the two forces came with the infamous ambush at Kansas City’s Union Station. On June 17, 1933, Frank “Jelly” Nash, a repeated bank robber, was taken back to jail when three gangsters, attempting to free him, opened fire with machine guns. Nash was killed, along with three policemen and an FBI agent. One of surviving agents was Reed Veterli.


The result of the massacre led changes in federal law that further empowered Hoover’s FBI. While it was uncertain who the gangsters were, one of them was reputed to be Pretty Boy Floyd. An intensive FBI manhunt was organized in search of Floyd.


Floyd was still at large when FBI agent Reed Veterli was assigned to investigate the Hart kidnapping.


During the investigation, there were numerous leads and dead-ends. At one point San Jose newspapers got a hot tip from an informant. Pretty Boy Floyd had been reportedly spotted at the abandoned New Almaden quicksilver mine south of San Jose. Thinking he may have been connected to the kidnapping of Brooke Hart, police searched the abandoned mine shafts, but found no trace.




While this was an unfounded case of hysteria, another gangster was indeed hiding out in nearby Sausalito: Baby Face Nelson.

During the Hart kidnapping investigation, Nelson was tending a bar at Walhalla and was reputed to be working for Joe Parente, a notorious San Francisco bootlegger known as the “king of the Pacific Coast rumrunners” and John Paul Chase who was the wheelman in a contract murder Nelson carried out in Reno. Nelson was never linked to the Hart kidnapping.

Pretty Boy Floyd and Baby Face Nelson were killed in separate shootouts with FBI agents in 1934.


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How clever to intersperse newspaper images and text

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