Julie Thompson hadn’t given a lot of thought to why her alma mater’s nickname is the G-Men.
It was an unusual name, to be sure, but she did live in Garrettsville and attended James R. Garfield High School — two perfectly good “G’s” right there.
It was only after watching the 2011 film J. Edgar and seeing Machine Gun Kelly shout out “Don’t shoot me, G-Men!” that she began to wonder if there was something she didn’t know.
Two years later, she’s ready to present her investigation into the last great train heist in American history — an event that happened right in her hometown and, as lore has it, led to her high school’s nickname.
Thompson will share her research with the community at 7 p.m. Monday at the high school, 10233 State Route 88. The event is being hosted by the James A. Garfield Historical Society.
G-Men is shorthand for “government men,” and that was the gangster-era lingo in effect in 1935, when the FBI swarmed the tiny Portage County village after an armed attack at its train depot.
Thompson said she has yet to find the smoking gun, so to speak, that would prove school district officials were memorializing the event in their choice of mascot.
One likely source — school board records — were lost when Garfield was formed from the 1950s consolidation of three rural school districts.
But Thompson said she has no reason to doubt the memories of longtime residents, some of whom she interviewed for her research.
She had heard about the train robbery only once before. A seventh-grade social studies teacher mentioned it briefly in class once, though, “I can’t even tell you what the context was,” Thompson said.
Thompson imagines most residents in her generation don’t know about it either, so she was particularly excited about shining a light on the event. She did the research for her “capstone” project, required for the history degree she earned from Hiram College in May.
“It’s a really big deal, and nobody’s put this story together before from a local angle,” she said. “It’s a local story with national implications.”
The heist happened in November 1935, when six bandits led by public enemy Alvin “Creepy” Karpis set their sights on a train scheduled to make a stop in the tiny farming village of Garrettsville.
The mail train, coming from Cleveland, was headed to Warren with a payroll on board.
Seconds after the train pulled into town, Karpis’ gang, some of them masked with handkerchiefs, fired their machine guns into the air to announce their presence in “American Wild West fashion,” Thompson said.
The robbers threw unlit sticks of dynamite into the train, then warned that the next sticks would be lit — a threat that worked in getting the train crew to open the doors, giving the thieves access.
Ten bystanders were lined up, hands on their heads, during the ordeal. One of them was tapped to carry four heavy mail pouches from the platform to the bandits’ gray Plymouth sedan. Karpis got away with $34,000 in cash and $12,450 in bond securities — far less than they expected to get, but still the modern-day equivalent of about $715,000, Thompson said.
It took several months for authorities to identify the culprits. When they did, they learned they were looking for someone already on the FBI’s wanted list, a gangster they had been chasing for years on allegations of bank robbery, kidnapping and murder.
In May 1936, they finally caught up with Karpis in New Orleans. Of the two dozen G-Men who surrounded his car, reportedly none of them carried handcuffs because Karpis previously had announced he would never be taken alive. He was — taken into custody by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover himself.
Thompson said her research on the fateful Garrettsville event turned up several superlatives:
• Karpis was Hoover’s first arrest, and Thompson found scholars saying the Garrettsville investigation catapulted Hoover and his G-Men into “national prominence.”
• After sentencing, Karpis ended up at the famed Alcatraz prison in San Francisco, where his 26-year stretch earned him the distinction of being the longest-serving prisoner on that island.
• Karpis’ capture was the last from the FBI’s Depression-era “Public Enemy” list.
• The Garrettsville train robbery was the last significant heist of its kind in America.
• Hoover’s “frenzied pursuit” of Karpis led him to enhance the FBI’s forensic efforts and employ new crime-fighting technologies, Thompson said.
Thompson conducted more than a dozen local interviews, including one with the son of Earl Davis, the bystander who the bandits forced to carry their loot from the train to their getaway car.
Her research ranged from local newspaper clips to archived documents in Washington, D.C., and prisoner files collected from California.
She’s thinking about putting her research into a book and has been talking to the Ohio Historical Society about installing a historical plaque at the site of the depot.
The depot and the train tracks are long gone. In their place sits a parking lot along the Portage County Hike & Bike Trail off Freedom Road.
The state group “has wanted a marker there for decades,” she said. They were just waiting for a researcher to take an interest in piecing the tale together, she said.
“As the years pass, many of these [gangster] battle sites ... are out-of-the-way spots, now dusty and cobwebbed, of interest only to the middle-aged crime or history buffs,” Thompson wrote in her research.
But because more than half a century ago, some school officials appeared to have memorialized the great train robbery of Garrettsville in a high school nickname, the link remained strong enough to attract one very young history buff, and breathe new life into an almost-forgotten tale.
“It’s an interesting historic event and it just took somebody like Julie to really investigate it,” said Kit Semplak, president of the James A. Garfield Historical Society. “Maybe one in 10 [local] people have even heard about it. I’m really glad she’s enthusiastic about sharing this history with us.”
Paula Schleis can be reached at 330-996-3741 or firstname.lastname@example.org.