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A piece of history: Plaque featuring FBI’s Melvin Purvis, outlaw John Dillinger donated to library

November 5, 2017 GMT

FLORENCE, S.C. – John Jebaily was not expecting to see the face of a famous former Florence resident staring back at him from the wall of the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino bookstore in Las Vegas. When he did, it stopped him in his tracks.

“It was one of those, ‘Oh, Jesus, moments,’” he said. “I can’t believe I found this.”

In September of 2015, Jebaily was in Las Vegas with his son attending a medical conference. He was wandering through the store when he came across a plaque that displayed photographs and signatures of Melvin Purvis and John Dillinger, as well as a wanted poster for Dillinger.

Purvis was born in 1903 in Timmonsville and later lived in Florence. He was a noted Federal Bureau of Investigation agent credited with leading the manhunts for infamous bank robbers of the Great Depression such as Baby Face Nelson, Pretty Boy Floyd and Dillinger.

Dillinger was declared the United States’ “Public Enemy No. 1” in 1934 for bank robberies, jailbreaks and murders in Illinois, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Indiana and Ohio. A $10,000 reward was placed on his head, which equates to more than $180,000 in 2017.

The two men crossed paths with the help of an FBI informant, Anna Sage.

Sage, originally Ana Cumpanas, was an immigrant from Romania who was working as a madam at brothels and facing deportation. Sage’s relationship with Dillinger is not fully known. Some people say they had a romantic relationship, while others think the two met through Dillinger’s girlfriend. Either way, Purvis and Sage met in 1934. Sage was hoping Purvis would prevent her deportation in exchange for her help in catching Dillinger.

On July 22 of that year, Sage, known in the press as “the woman in red,” told FBI agents that she and Dillinger were planning to go to either the Biograph or Marbro Theatre in Chicago for a film. Purvis decided to stake out the Biograph Theater with several other agents. As the movie let out, Dillinger passed Purvis and, according to rumors, looked him directly in the eyes but suspected nothing.

Some people say Purvis lit a cigar to identify Dillinger, others that Purvis yelled to Dillinger to tell him he was surrounded, while a third theory is that Sage was the one to point out Dillinger. No matter, Dillinger began to run soon after leaving the theater while at the same time reaching into his pocket to draw a gun. He was soon met with a shower of bullets from FBI agents.

Fast forward 83 years later, and Jebaily is looking up at the faces of Purvis and Dillinger hanging from the bookstore wall. Knowing the story behind Purvis and Dillinger, he knew he wanted to purchase that piece of history.

“I wasn’t going to leave the store without owning it,” he said. “I just thought that I had to have it, and it didn’t take me long to make the decision to do it.”

The piece has been authenticated and valued at $10,000.

Jebaily, a Florence native and real estate agent, knew he wanted to donate the plaque to the local community, but at the time of purchase he didn’t know exactly how he wanted to go about that. In the meantime, Purvis and Dillinger hung on the office wall of his brother, George Jebaily.

On Oct. 24, John Jebaily donated the piece to the Drs. Bruce & Lee Foundation Library in Florence. The plaque now hangs in the library’s South Carolina Room. Jebaily decided to make the donation on Melvin Purvis’ birthday. He says he was just trying to do his part in preserving the historical story of Florence.

“For me, history is important,” Jebaily said. “I’ve always been invol ved in history and particularly the history of the community. ... It meant a lot to me to preserve whatever history we’ve got.”