South Dakota

Vern Miller - Sheriff, Moonshiner, Hit-man

How did the career of a small-town sheriff from South Dakota promote the creation of the modern FBI? Well, for one thing, he became a gangster.
Vern Miller's FBI Ph
Vern Miller's FBI Ph
The earliest years in Vern Miller’s biography remains unclear. It is reported that he was born in Kimball, South Dakota in 1896. Not much is known about his early years, but he was a resident of Huron, South Dakota by 1914. His life appears ordinary and free of any actions that might predict a future of criminal behavior. He enlists in the U.S. Army and serves with honor in World War I and is decorated for his battlefield conduct in France.

He returned to Huron with somewhat heroic credentials, joins the police force for three years, and is elected sheriff of Beadle County in 1920. Miller’s reign as sheriff was brief; in 1922 he stole $4,000 in public funds and left the area. It is unclear as to whether this action was prompted by his wife’s serious illness—she was hospitalized at the Mayo Clinic—or whether it was the first overt act of a “born” criminal.

He was arrested during the following year and sent to prison becoming a model prisoner and confidant of the warden. When released from prison, in 1925, he was tempted by the money to be made in the bootlegging trade. It was the era of Prohibition. He appears to have eventually joined a clan of typical bootleggers and worked in and out of the gangster haven of St Paul, Minnesota. His personal life becomes more complicated; he leaves his wife, takes on a permanent girl friend (VI Mathis of Leola, SD), uses alcohol and drugs to excess, and finally turns to a life of abject violence. By 1932 he is being sought for the murder of two Minneapolis policemen.

In June of 1933 Vern Miller becomes the most wanted criminal in the country. He is identified as a participant in the “Kansas City Massacre.” Three law enforcement officers and Miller’s gangster buddy, Frank Nash, were killed in a massive shootout at the Union Railroad Station. Within a year Miller was found executed in a corn field in Illinois.

It was the Kansas City incident that enables J. Edgar Hoover to seek legislation and funding to modernized federal law enforcement agencies. These efforts created in the FBI as we know it today. Miller’s actions were not the only impetus behind expansion of federal law enforcement efforts, but they were a vital ingredient.

Miller’ name never reached the legendary status of others: Baby Face Nelson, Ma Barker, Machine Gun Kelly, Pretty Boy Floyd, Bonnie and Clyde, had names that easily remained in the public’s memory. “Vern Miller” is a name that seems too common, too pedestrian.

Vern Miller was however, one of this countries most violent and ruthless gangster. His actions far exceed his reputation.

One wonders though, what were the driving forces in the life of that fresh-faced war hero— walking down Huron’s main street, well liked, admired, and considered to have a bright future in local Republican Party— that resulted in being fatally shot in the head, lying face-down in the Illinois mud. He didn’t grow up amidst the notorious youth gangs of Brooklyn, the Bronx, or Chicago. He grew up as a small-town kid. What happened? Author: EVM STAFF on 03/23 2011
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Posted by: Anonymous on November 23 2013
All I know is that Vern is kind of a 'hush hush' topic in my now very small family. He was my great uncle on my fathers side from what I understand - used to show up to visit them randomly with Vi, with furs as gifts and no explanation (no questions asked). Still have some B&W old photos of them
Posted by: Anonymous on December 30 2011
Anybody know anything of his parents? For example, given the surname, were they German or Scandinavian immigrants? If so, what country of nativity?
Posted by: Anonymous on February 24 2011
You seem to have omitted the part in his life where,I believe the purple gang sent a hit squad to kill him,instead the hit squad got themselves killed.He did later end up dead in the streets with multiple bullet wounds
Posted by: Anonymous on October 27 2009
Vern Miller's body was found in a Detroit suburb in Michigan.
Posted by: Anonymous on March 14 2009
Great story on a little known gangster of the Prohibition/early Great Depression years. Sad how so many returned WW1 vets later turned to a life of crime. If only there was help available to them upon their return to society from the killing fields of Europe.
Posted by: dakotakid on March 09 2008
Great write up!

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