The Purvis name lives on in S.C.

Cal Purvis

When Cal Purvis was a kid growing up in Florence, his uncle was one of the most famous men in America. For better or worse.

His uncle, you see, was Melvin Purvis, the G-Man portrayed in the movie "Public Enemies," where he tracked down the infamous bank robber John Dillinger, aka Public Enemy No. 1, in 1933.

"I thought they accurately portrayed Melvin," said Cal, who is the credit manager here at The Post and Courier. "He was a young man. The FBI was in its infancy. They made some egregious errors. They didn't really know what they were doing."

The movie tells the story of how Melvin Purvis, who earned his law degree from the University of South Carolina, was handpicked by legendary FBI director J. Edgar Hoover to hunt down Dillinger, who had become an anti-hero during the Depression.

In the end, Dillinger was shot dead outside the Biograph Theater in Chicago, and Purvis was eventually exiled back to South Carolina, where he lived and died in a shroud of mystery and mystique.

Drinking and guns

To Cal Purvis, his famous uncle was a man who lived in a big colonial house on the outskirts of Florence, where he owned a local radio station.

"I remember his stables and riding with him on a horse and him giving me a gold coin in front of a fountain," said Cal, now 53. "But I also remember there was a lot of drinking and lots of guns around his house."

In real life, Purvis was a tortured soul who was drummed out of the FBI by a jealous Hoover. His only real crime, it seems, was becoming too famous for his own good.

And then there was his controversial death.

On February 29, 1960, Purvis was found dead in his Florence home with a single gunshot wound to the head. The local media labeled it a suicide, but family members have always been skeptical.

"He definitely was shot, but whether it was a suicide, a hit or an accident, I have no idea," Cal said. "We believe he was trying to remove a tracer bullet from his pistol and it went off accidentally."

Family legacy

Either way, the Purvis name is forever linked to gangsters and G-Men, and it's something Cal has learned to live with.

"He was my father's older brother, and my father died when I was 8 years old," Cal said. "We drifted to my mother's side of the family, and nobody really talked much about Melvin."

The legend is periodically renewed when movies like this one are made. Also, South Carolina Educational Television has made a documentary, "G-Man, The Rise And Fall Of Melvin Purvis," which airs at 9 o'clock tonight on SCETV.

But despite all the controversy, Cal Purvis said he's comfortable with the family legacy.

"I'm very proud of him," he said. "He was a true crime fighter who had intelligence and perseverance and was a man of good character. Not bad for one of eight kids who grew up on a tobacco farm in Timmonsville."

Reach Ken Burger at kburger@postandcourier.com or 937-5598. Read more Burger columns at postandcourier.com/burger/.