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Dillinger Robbery of First National Bank

Dillinger Robbery of First National Bank

First National Bank Robbery (or the Dillinger Robbery)

1st National Bank 1936

On March 13, 1934, a well-armed and experienced gang robbed the First National Bank in Mason City, Iowa. Contemporary accounts agreed that the robbers had a dark blue Buick Sedan, that there were seven of them, that they escaped with approximately fifty-two thousand dollars, and that one of them was John Dillinger.

A combination of witness identifications and gangster confessions later determined that the other participants were John "Red" Hamilton (the actual leader), Baby Face Nelson, Eugene "Eddie" Green, Tommy Carroll, Homer Van Meter and either Joseph Burns or Red Forsythe. The fact that the seventh identification caused a problem is interesting because in one account, as reported by the Des Moines Tribune on March 14, 1934, there were six men and one woman. The following is a summary of the events of the afternoon.

The gangsters parked their automobile on State Street, near the alley behind the bank. At least two of them remained by the car. According to most sources, Tommy Carroll stationed himself in the doorway of what was then Mulcahy's Prescription Shop. Baby Face Nelson was across the street, on or near the sidewalk by the alley. One gangster was probably in the car. In some accounts it was Tommy Carroll in others, it was Homer Van Meter. It may have been the woman reported in the Tribune.

The other gang members either went into the bank or stood guard outside. The most probable versions place Dillinger in front and perhaps one or two others in the bank. Tom Walters, the bank guard, said in one story that he saw five gangsters inside.

The gangsters entered the bank shouting orders and shooting their guns into the ceilings and walls. Walters was in his elevated bulletproof observation booth, built into the wall near the front entrance. He followed procedure and fired a tear gas cartridge, which hit one of the robbers in the back. Statements differ as to which one was hit. In any case, the tear gas gun jammed and Walters was out of the fight. One of the gang members sprayed the bulletproof glass with gunfire, shattering it but missing Walters. While one or two of the gang cleaned out the teller's cash drawers, another, probably John Hamilton, took bank cashier Harry Fisher to the vault. Tom Barclay, a bank employee, saw what was going on, retrieved a tear gas bomb from another office and threw it on the floor.

Meanwhile, Hamilton and Fisher were at the vault. There the gang member made the mistake of allowing a steel gate to close between him and Fisher. Fisher proceeded to hand small denomination bills out through the bars to Hamilton. Margaret Johnson (Giesen) was a switchboard operator in the bank. Her office was situated on a balcony above the vault. When the robbery started she crawled across the floor and shouted out of a south window the news of the robbery -- to Baby Face Nelson, who brandished his machine gun and said, "You're telling me, lady?"

Earlier in the day, a newsreel cameraman shooting footage of the bank had attracted onlookers. Now, however, a bigger crowd gathered as the word spread that the bank was being robbed. People on the street, as well as customers in the nearby Nichols and Green shoe store, were used by the gangsters to shield them from the police. Officer James Buchannan realized a robbery was going on, armed him with a shotgun, and took cover behind the GAR monument in Central Park. (In those days, it was across from 11 North Federal rather than near the bus stop.) The gangsters in front of the bank shot at him but missed. Buchannan was unable to return fire with the shotgun he was carrying because of the human shield around the robbers. Police Chief Patton watched helplessly from the C.L. Pine Co. across the street in the "Weir" (Frank Lloyd Wright) Building.

Mayor Laird owned a shoe store in the IOOF building a few feet away from the gunmen on State Street. At first, he thought he heard a car backfiring; then he realized it was gunfire. As he later observed, if the police had interfered, there certainly would have been many people injured or killed. As it was, only one person was wounded deliberately by the gangsters. R.L. James was walking up to the corner of State and Federal, intending to go into the bank, when he heard the gunfire. Realizing what was happening, he, according to his own account, turned around and headed back down State. He said that he ducked beneath the windows, hoping he would not be noticed. Baby Face Nelson, according to the newspaper, ordered him to stop. James did not hear the order and Nelson fired a burst from his machine gun. The bullets hit James in the leg and he fell to the sidewalk.

A few moments later Dorothy (Ransom) Crumb and her mother turned out of the alley behind the bank on to State Street. They pulled their car up behind the parked gangster's vehicle and stopped. Baby Face Nelson ordered them out of their car and onto the gangsters' car. Dorothy argued with the gunman and eventually he let them stay in their own car and they watched as hostages climbed aboard the getaway car.

How many people were actually taken hostage by the criminals is not known. Estimates run as high as 20 to 26 people clinging to the sides of the holdup car. Francis DeSart, a teller at the bank, definitely was one of the hostages. His wife, Ruth, was working at the Style Shop at 1 S. Federal (the original City National Bank building) that day. She saw her husband being led out of the bank and forced to stand on the rear bumper of the car as it moved slowly north on Federal Ave. The coat the Francis DeSart wore that day is now in the Kinney Pioneer Museum. There is a bullet hole in the tail of it caused by a gangster's gun shooting out of the rear window of the car toward trailing police.

As soon as the car, loaded with gangsters and hostages, turned up Federal Ave., a policeman, pulling R.L. James behind him, jumped into the back of Dorothy Crumb's car and told her to hit the horn, stop for nothing, and drive as fast as she could for the nearest hospital.

Deputy Sheriff John P. Wallace was behind the Civil War monument in the park and apparently fired a few shots at the getaway car as it drove up Federal. One of the robbers reportedly told a hostage that if the shooting didn't stop someone would be hurt.

Chief of Police Patton, Detective Leo Risacher, and record superintendent Ray Oulman followed the bandits with their hostages as far as a road house called "The Farm" (2053 4th SW) west of town.

The hostages were let off the car individually and in groups during the next hour. The holdup car was found that night in a quarry near the community of Hanford, four miles south of Mason City.

The gangsters' biographies are easy enough to find and common. The real story that day was the reaction of the ordinary people to the event. An undetermined number of Mason Cityans were witnesses. Their individual stories and collective reaction were recorded not only in print but also on film. A cameraman named H.C. Kunkleman was taking newsreel pictures in and around the bank and as soon as the robbers left, he set up his equipment and began to film the aftermath. What we see on the film was best described thirty years later by Carl Wright, a reporter and witness, as "... a state of exhilaration once the danger was over."

by Terry Harrison, Archivist
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