From the Spa City to a KC shootout, learn how an Arkansas arrest led to the start of the modern FBI

HOT SPRINGS, Ark. – Only 50 miles from the bubbling namesake of the city of Hot Springs and just past the heavily secured doors of the Little Rock FBI stands a reminder of the bureau’s history; a bronze statue of an infamous “G Man”, the government agent on his way to bust criminals complete with fedora and firearm.

But prior to 1935, the statue would have looked different; missing the “F” on the FBI armband he wears and the all-important government-issued Tommy gun. With firearms such an integral part of today’s agents, it’s hard to imagine a time without them.

The story of how the FBI became armed starts 90 years ago, just a few dozen miles from branch headquarters. It’s a story Robert Raines knows well. As the director of the Gangster Museum of America, Raines has studied all things mobster for decades, collecting the moments in time that make Hot Springs known for its history.

“A lot of people attribute Hot Springs to the beginning of the Federal Bureau of Investigation,” Raines explained from the Outlaw room of his Hot Springs museum.

As Raines explained, in the 1930’s, the Spa City was known as a haven for America’s criminal underworld, a bona fide resort town for gangsters.

“All these bank robbers would come here and meet,” he said while gesturing to a lineup of mug shots on the wall. “Anytime the FBI was looking for really anybody back in those days, they could pretty much rest assured they were probably coming here.”

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One of the best in the business was Frank “Jelly” Nash, a notorious bank robber with a flair for nitroglycerin and his signature style. Nash had escaped the Fort Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary in 1930 and was enjoying laying low in Arkansas for three years, frequenting the many clubs and gambling halls of Hot Springs.

One of his favorite spots was the White Front Club, just a few yards from the gangster museum on Central Avenue.

The building no longer exists after being cleared to make way for a parking lot, but it was at that location, nearly a hundred years ago, where federal and local law enforcement pulled Nash from the building, shoved him in a car and started the journey back to Leavenworth, setting in motion a series of events that would result in the deaths of five men and creating the FBI as it is known today.

The significance of Arkansas to the FBI isn’t lost on Supervisory Special Agent Ryan Kennedy, an expert on the bureau’s history.

“To know that this is the starting point for some of those changes that had a huge impact on our agency,” Kennedy explained, “It’s really neat and it’s also very humbling.”

In the bureau’s infancy, the FBI was just the “BI” – Bureau of Investigation. Investigators were just that – investigators with no authority to make arrests and who did not carry guns – a far cry from the image of agents today.

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All that changed with that ill-fated arrest of Nash and a failed violent attempt by his associates to free him during a transfer at Kansas City’s Union Station. The fatal shootout that took the lives of Nash, a federal agent and three other members of law enforcement became known as the infamous Kansas City Massacre and the catalyst for the modern FBI.

“At the time, in 1933, it was the worst law enforcement shooting in our nation’s history,” Kennedy explained. “Congress got together and they enacted several statutes that gave agents the authority to carry firearms and to actually make arrests on their own.”

Only one other major event in American history changed the very fabric of the FBI the way the massacre did – September 11, 2001. That tragedy led the gangster-focused mission of federal agents for 67 years to turn into one of counter-terrorism.

It is this type of hidden history that keeps Raines in Hot Springs and passionate about sharing the city’s story with those who stop by.

And it’s that unique Natural State connection that greets those who enter the Little Rock FBI office as they pass by the gun-toting “G-Men” whose existence is all thanks to an Arkansas criminal who is still in the today, buried in Paragould with the rest of the Nash family.

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