To Obey and Uphold

To Obey and Uphold

Creighton law student became FBI agent killed in infamous Kansas City Massacre

By Blake Ursch

The young man’s voice carried over the Nebraska wind. “If we would have our country continue to be the land of freedom, we must obey and uphold its laws, for they are the guarantee of liberty,” he said to a crowd gathered before him. “Obedience is the chief duty of the citizens; he who refuses to conform to the law, not only endangers the well-being of the republic, but by his refusal, he puts his own freedom in jeopardy.”

The man, a handsome young law student named Raymond J. Caffrey, was considered by many of his peers to be one of the best speakers on the Creighton University campus. So in May 1922, at a special ceremony celebrating the approaching Flag Day, Caffrey delivered a student address to an audience of peers, faculty and alumni gathered on the lawn north of the “Arts building,” now called Creighton Hall, in the modern-day Jesuit Gardens. As the pep band played the national anthem, a large silk American flag ascended the flagpole just south of the observatory.

“We gaze upon our flag with awe and admiration, the symbol of freedom as it floats aloft in this free land of ours — a republic of equal opportunity,” Caffrey proclaimed from the podium, “a republic in which the law restrains the hand uplifted against the welfare of fellow men.”

His performance drew praise from the Creighton Courier which reported: “Throughout the speech, the speaker maintained an earnestness and sincerity that held the audience. Although a Nebraska ‘regular’ was blowing over the hill with a rush and a noise, not a single word was lost to the audience, so clear and distinct was the orator’s enunciation.”

Caffrey’s speech reveals a man already profoundly concerned with issues of justice, law and civic duty. His commitment to all three would be tested in the years to come as he and his fellow lawmen struggled to subdue a generation of celebrity criminals who captured the public’s imagination. It was a conflict that would eventually cost Caffrey his life.

On June 17, 1933, Caffrey, eight years removed from law school and working as a special agent for J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, was gunned down at the age of 31 alongside three other law enforcement officers and their prisoner at Kansas City’s Union Station. The infamous shootout, known as the Kansas City Massacre, was a watershed event during the so-called “public enemy era” of the 1930s, and its aftermath saw the FBI vaulted into national prominence.

But in the written histories of the massacre, Caffrey’s life has often been overshadowed by the intrigue and sensationalism of the times. He was a motivated student, a devoted husband and a loving father whose loss shattered the lives of those he left behind. Caffrey’s young son, also named Raymond but who went by “Jimmy” around family, would be left with scant memories of his father and a painful absence that the decades would never heal.  

“My dad, he didn’t really like to talk about it,” said Richard Caffrey, Jimmy’s son. “At the time, he was 6 years old. For 70 years, he had been without his father. He said, once, that not a day went by that he didn’t think about his dad and what it would have been like to have a father.”

***

Raymond J. Caffrey was born in 1902 in McCook, Nebraska. He was, as his grandson puts it, “a bit of a rebel” who ran away from home at the age of 16. Essentially abandoning his high school studies, Caffrey skipped town on a freight train and headed to Denver, where he unsuccessfully tried to enlist in the Army.

According to an unpublished memoir Jimmy Caffrey wrote before his death in 2013, the teenaged Caffrey found work at a refinery, and apparently made his own way for several months. Eventually, his parents persuaded him to come home, and Caffrey worked on his father’s farm for a time before heading for Omaha. There, he passed qualifying exams that allowed him to enroll at Creighton as a pre-law student.

Caffrey attended the University from 1920 to 1925. His college years are memorialized in old copies of the Blue Jay, where he appears in black-and-white photographs, dressed in the dapper style of the day. The yearbooks reveal an engaged student active in extracurriculars: associate editor on The Creightonian newspaper staff, a member of the Gamma Eta Gamma professional law fraternity and “humor editor” for the Blue Jay itself.

Caffrey’s talents as an orator are recorded in the student newspaper archives. His name appears in several stories recapping events off and on campus which feature glowing praise for his speeches. In one event, at an annual banquet held in honor of graduating law school seniors, organizers unanimously selected Caffrey to be the evening’s speaker.

“The remarkable ability of Caffrey caused the Law men to break the established custom of selecting a non-Greek letter fraternity man as toastmaster,” The Creightonian reported.  

Caffrey also made a splash as a member of the law school’s Model House of Representatives, where he and his fellow law students learned the basics of parliamentary procedure and lawmaking.

“The influence of Raymond Caffrey seems to be a powerful one,” the newspaper reported following one debate.

In his spare time, Caffrey courted a young Iowa woman named Regina Dolan, who had been sent to live with her aunt in Omaha. Regina fell hard for him. In Jimmy Caffrey’s memoir, he records a family friend saying she “never saw a woman so crazy about a man.”

Despite his involvement on campus, Caffrey never received a degree from Creighton (though he did complete enough credit hours to be considered an alumnus). Still, according to the rules of the era, he was eligible to take the bar examination and was formally admitted to the Nebraska State Bar in June 1925.

But Caffrey had his sights set elsewhere. Three months after passing the bar exam, he moved to Florida, hoping to cash in on the state’s real estate boom. Regina soon joined him, and the two married.

After an unexpected economic downturn, the Caffreys returned to Omaha in 1927 and soon welcomed their only child, Jimmy. In November of that year, Caffrey, armed with his law education and a handful of references, applied for the position of special agent at what was then called the Bureau of Investigation, headquartered in Washington, D.C.

His personnel file, which his son later viewed, contained several comments from character witnesses, including L.J. Te Poel, dean of the Creighton College of Law, who attested to the bureau that Caffrey was a skilled attorney for a young man of his age.

The bureau was impressed. In February 1928, Caffrey received a letter from director J. Edgar Hoover hiring him as a special agent.

***

“The events of June 17, 1933, which come to be called the Kansas City Massacre, will not be discussed at great length,” Jimmy Caffrey writes in his memoir. “Even these many decades later, a wave of sorrow comes over me when I hear or read about that terrible morning.”

The shooting centered on the transfer of a prisoner named Frank Nash to the federal penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kansas. Nash, who had been convicted of and pardoned for several previous crimes, was serving a 25-year sentence for assaulting a mail custodian, according to an account published by the FBI. He escaped from prison in 1930, but was apprehended by agents three years later.

To transport Nash back to prison, Agent Caffrey — working out of the bureau’s Kansas City office — along with other special agents and local Kansas City police officers, arranged to meet the prisoner and his escort at Union Station that morning. The plan was to move Nash to Caffrey’s waiting Chevrolet and drive to the penitentiary.

While officers escorted Nash off the train, Caffrey, Special Agent in Charge Reed Vetterli and police officers W.J. Grooms and Frank Hermanson surveyed the platform. With Nash in handcuffs, the group made their way through the lobby of the station to the cars parked outside, and ushered Nash into Caffrey’s car.

As Caffrey made his way around the car toward the driver’s seat, several men— at least one carrying a machine gun — emerged from behind parked cars and opened fire. Grooms and Hermanson were killed immediately. Vetterli, who was wounded in the arm, scrambled toward the driver’s side just in time to see Caffrey drop to the ground. He had been fatally struck in the head.

Inside the car, Nash and Oklahoma Police Chief Otto Reed, a member of the escort, were both killed.

An FBI investigation declared at least three men, attempting to seize Nash from police custody, responsible for the shooting: Vernon C. Miller, Adam C. Richetti and infamous gangster Charles “Pretty Boy” Floyd. Bolstered by Floyd’s celebrity and the ensuing crush of media coverage, Hoover’s bureau rose to prominence in the years after the tragedy. Before the murders, federal agents were limited in their authority, often subordinate to local police departments in arrests and engagements. After the massacre, however, Hoover’s agents won government authority to carry their own firearms and make their own arrests.

But in the decades since, several scholars have called the FBI’s conclusions into question. Floyd himself denied involvement in the massacre, even writing to Hoover personally to state his innocence.

“Many authors try to sort out often contradictory assertions. Several conspiracy theories are advanced,” Jimmy writes of the shooting’s legacy. “I read very few of these stories and none of the books. The central fact is my father died. Learning more about his death would not change anything for my mother or me.”

To his own children, Jimmy rarely spoke of his father’s death.

“All my dad would really say is ‘My father went to work that morning and never came home,’” Richard Caffrey said. “From a 6-year-old’s perspective, that about sums it up. They didn’t have modern psychology or grief counselors in those days. It was just ‘Suck it up. You lost your dad.’”

The widowed Regina Caffrey made ends meet by accepting a secretarial job with the bureau. Jimmy attended high school in Kansas City before enlisting in the Army in 1944. He received a bachelor’s degree in biology, finishing his studies at what was then Rockhurst College.

In 1947, perhaps intending to follow in the footsteps of the father who was taken from him too soon, or perhaps because of his deep Catholic faith, Jimmy enrolled in Creighton’s School of Medicine. He received a Master of Science in 1951 and his medical degree the following year.

“I always got the feeling that my dad was proud that his dad went to the law school and went to Creighton,” Richard said.

In his memoir, Jimmy carefully recorded the few precious memories he had of his father. He remembered Caffrey sitting at the kitchen table, cleaning his .45-caliber pistol. He remembered that every morning, before he left for work, his father would give him a nickel for the ice cream man.

He clung to those memories as he and his wife, Charlotte, raised their own sons — all eight of them.

“He always said he felt like he was winging it. He’d say, ‘I’m doing the best I can to be the best father I can to you guys,’” Richard said.

“And he did a fine job. All eight of us are college grads.”