Cover image for Robbing banks : an American history, 1831-1999
Robbing banks : an American history, 1831-1999
Kirchner, L. R. (Larry R.)
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Publication Information:
New York : Sarpedon, 2000.
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ix, 235 pages : illustrations ; 23 cm
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HV6658 .K52 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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The establishment of banks in the land of free enterprise" gave rise to a parallel profession that has always fascinated the public: the bank robber. A dangerous undertaking in any era, the world of bank robbing includes venal brutes, nefarious artists, cool daredevils, and just plain idiots doing anything to get to that free money. Robbing Banks, which covers heists from 1831 to the present day, depicts the history of bank robbing in all of its colorful-and occasionally grim-variety.America came to the forefront of world bank-robbing history because of its Wild West, where Jesse James and his gang of ex-Rebels became legends in their own time. The golden era of bank robbing occurred during the Great Depression, producing folk heroes such as "Pretty Boy" Floyd and Bonnie and Clyde. Meanwhile, gentlemen like Willie Sutton and Herman "the Baron" Lamm plied their trade with a degree of class that is remarkable for a criminal in any time period.Sprinkled between the legends are the failures, such as the Texas teenager who chose to rob his first bank just when the county sheriff's office had received its weekly payroll. A few lazy desperados have even attempted hold-ups at drive-through windows. Robbing Banks is a fascinating look at a criminal profession which, like the banking industry itself, has evolved with the times to meet every new challenge that has come along."

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Americans have always regarded bank robbery differently than other crimes. The likes of the James Brothers in the so-called Wild West and Depression-era heisters Bonnie and Clyde attained folk-hero status. Intricate, elegant bank robbery schemes are a staple of popular movies and best-selling thrillers. Now Kirchner, a former law enforcement official, provides an entertaining and informative chronicle of more than 150 years of bank robbery in the U.S. He begins with an in-depth portrait of Frank and Jesse James to set the stage as he profiles other Old West^-era desperadoes, contemporaries of Bonnie and Clyde, and modern-era burglars who relied more on brainpower than firepower. As he traces the evolution of bank theft, Kirchner also charts changes in bank security and law enforcement and considers the role of electronic banking and ATMs. He also takes an amusing look at some notable blundered attempts in the "fine art of removing capital from a financial institution." Appendixes include a chronology of banking and bank crime and a filmography of movies featuring bank robbers. --David Rouse

Publisher's Weekly Review

A journalist who formerly worked in law enforcement, Kirchner (Triple Crossfire) presents a colorful, comprehensive account of "the fine art of illegally removing capital from a financial institution," our peculiar fascination with some of the most notorious bank robbers and the technical realities of this crime from both sides of the law. In so doing, he offers many insights into such matters as the difference between burglary and robbery (the former relies on stealth and skill, the latter involves the face-to-face confrontations of popular myth) and the strange psychology of the bank-robbing personality. Though his tone can be stern, the author displays some ambivalence regarding both the "banking business" and and the efficacy of the penal system. As for the robbers, while he condemns amateur incompetence and the excessive violence displayed by figures like Clyde Barrow, he finds intriguing, on many levels, the ingenuity, discipline and insouciance displayed by successful, pioneering bandits, from the James gang to Willie Sutton, the famed "gentleman" robber of 1940s New York. For instance, the "common man," he says, often sided with the romanticized bandits, because of deep-seated class resentments against bankers and robber barons, particularly during Reconstruction and the Depression. J. Edgar Hoover's obsession at that time with outlaws like "Pretty Boy" Floyd proved influential in involving the federal government in bank-robbery prevention, signaling the twilight of old-style desperadoes. Kirchner concludes this solid, well-executed assessment with succinct depictions of post-modern larceny, including the current threats of computerized robbery via wire transfer, illustrating that the crafty and avaricious will forever strike, as Willie Sutton famously put it, "where the money is." 16 pages of illus.not seen by PW. (Oct.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

People have been fascinated by bank robberies at least from the time of Jesse James and the likes of Bonnie and Clyde, Baby Face Nelson, and John Dillinger, to name a few who made headlines. Kirchner (Triple Cross Fire) has researched the history of bank robbery, dating from 1831, when the first hold-up was committed in New York by an Englishman named Edward Smith. Since then, banks have continually attempted to beef up security, and Kirchner traces the history of their efforts. Until recently, the FBI investigated bank robberies. However, because they are generally done by amateurs who make mistakes that lead to their capture, the FBI now leaves all but the most sophisticated of these robberies to the local authorities. Kirchner provides the successful and unsuccessful capersDthe professional heists and the laughable failuresDfrom Wild West days through Prohibition and the modern age of computerized banking. His style, which is detailed yet concise, holds the reader's interest. Highly recommended where true crime has a strong following.DMichael Sawyer, Northwestern Regional Lib., Elkin, NC (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter One Horses and Colts "Society prepares the crime; the criminal commits it." --V. Alfieri Shortly after the Pilgrims planted their feet on Plymouth Rock, there was a problem with thieves. Crime crept like a plague from the boats of the Pilgrims, bringing to the new land all of the old conditions--both good and bad--that had defined Europe throughout the centuries. Robbing banks, however, had never been an established practice in the Old World. Instead, it can be chalked up as one of the great innovations in civilization brought to fruition in the new frontier nation--the United States.     Until the 1800s, most people did business in metal money: gold and silver. The practice of using bars or ingots of precious metal, parallel with minted coins, had lasted for millennia. Coins of the realm in America were a holdover from Great Britain, France, Spain, and other colonial powers. Shortly before the ratification of the Constitution in the late 1770s, America began to mint its own coins. But on a state-by-state basis the use of paper money, or scrip, gradually developed into the legal tender of trade and commerce. Since gold and silver were heavy, the lighter form of money was advantageous, not least to those with ambitions to steal it in large quantities.     The first federally chartered American bank was The Bank of North America, established in 1782, though there had been banks in the Colonies before this first official bank. Bankers would be caretakers of large amounts of gold and silver, for a price, and either safeguard it or ship it for the owner. The fee charged by the banker amounted to a sort of reverse interest. The banker's profit would be his fees for guarding the funds of others. In this way the bank could make money on each and every client the business could attract. By the same token, the bank could then lend money to others to satisfy their business needs. Again a fee was charged for the lending of money and the bank profited further. By and large the bank became one of the hallmark businesses of the community. The banker got to live in the big house on the hill, often to the chagrin of other citizens.     Banks were, of course, established to take care of community business barons, high rollers of the day, who had an excess of funds from their occupations. These gentlemen needed someplace safe to keep their money and, likewise, a place to borrow more money to increase their wealth. This relationship between banks and the wealthy allowed many bank robbers over the years to pursue their ill-gotten gains with tacit blessings from the community, mostly because of the jealousy that customarily accompanies sentiments toward the rich.     In the early years, bank security was lackluster. In most cases safes were nothing more than strongboxes, made from hand-forged iron edges, hinges, rivets, and wood. They were not much to look at and not difficult to disassemble. In those nascent days of the profession, however, it simply didn't occur to most thieves to steal money from a fixed institution in the center of a town. It would take a number of enlightened pioneers to show the way.     Petty thievery has always been in style, but during the 1700s and early 1800s the real pros--and precursors of our current subject--were the highway robbers. Lurking in woods or other sparsely populated areas, highwaymen preyed on the communications network that connected businesses, the wealthy, and banks. Large shipments of gold and silver fell victim to these thieves of the byways who often brought wagons or pack animals along to carry their loot. In frontier America these crimes took the form of stagecoach hold-ups, later evolving into train robberies or armored-car heists. Although many bank robbers would come to alternate their raids on institutions with the older tradition of highway robbery, until 1831 most pillagers hadn't yet figured out that they would hit the jackpot if they simply hit the bank itself--acquiring the money at its source.     As the banking industry evolved, money handlers discovered how to build sturdy, permanently affixed strongboxes into their places of business. This construction was in the form of forged-iron plates held together with rivets and bolted to the floor. As for the transfer of funds, stagecoach lines added the shotgun guard, making the occasional armed highway robbery just a little more challenging to the men on horseback or afoot. An atmosphere of safety developed within the banking profession as a result.    Banks sprang up throughout the country and for the most part were considered valuable assets to a community--although the bankers perpetually remained objects of as much envy as respect. The rates, fees, or interest the banker charged to watch over someone else's money could vary widely from area to area and were not regulated. The banker, living in the house that was always somehow bigger and more lavishly furnished than his neighbors', had his critics.     The first recorded bank robbery was actually a burglary committed in New York City. An Englishman named Edward Smith removed $245,000 from a Wall Street bank in March of 1831. He used a type of duplicate key arrangement, still unknown, to gain access. Captured after a very short spending spree, he was sentenced to Sing Sing prison for five years. His efforts did not go unnoticed, however, and banks began looking into their then nonexistent security systems. The early safes were no longer good enough to keep the money of depositors secure. It would be a safe bet that Mr. Smith didn't have a lot of trouble pulling off the first robbery of an American bank, since the first noteworthy safe manufacturer was the Mosler Safe Co. in Britain; safes only began to be built in America after 1834.     With the opening of the American West a new form of frontier finance began to emerge, reminiscent of the days before scrip. Travelers, adventurers, traders, and early prospectors began using gold dust and nuggets as a medium of exchange. The discovery of gold and silver in the western territories was instrumental in the rapid expansion of these areas. Needless to say bankers moved where the wealth was. Small banks sprouted up in gold- and silver-mining towns, at least until the veins ran out. The transport of this form of money became one of the trickier aspects of doing business. And the highwaymen still followed the riches, plying their trade.     Between 1874 and 1882, a crusty old man known as Black Bart (Charles E. Bowles) made a name for himself robbing stagecoaches in California. His method was to wave down a stagecoach on the road by brandishing a shotgun. He acquired the handle "Black Bart" from the long black coat and hat he always wore; his face was covered either with a bandanna or a feed sack. He was only one of the more colorful of the hundreds who were engaged in this practice; thankfully, at no time during the commission of his crimes did he shoot anybody. Bart was eventually captured by a Pinkerton agent, and served several years in prison for his crimes; the man then disappeared into Western legend forever.     The Pinkertons were a private police force, available for hire to banks, railroads, and, as during the Civil War, the U.S. government. Along with other firms that featured "commercial vigilantes," the Pinkertons were empowered to catch criminals and deliver them to the justice system. America's first official police department was formed in 1844 in New York City, and was copied shortly thereafter by Boston, Philadelphia, and every other municipality with enough tax income to pay for one.     By the mid-nineteenth century, banks had installed not only better equipment, but vaults in which to keep money safe. Doors to these vaults became ever more thick and elaborate in design. Nevertheless, a wave of robbers and burglars discovered that getting into early safes and vaults was not difficult. For the most part the bank building itself was still made of wood. Coming through the roof, up through the floor, or even through the wall, were the most common routes of access for the burglar.     Robbers' tools were simple woodworking instruments, with the addition of the occasional bit of black powder explosive. Over the years manufacturers added such things as combination, clockwork, and tumbler and pin locking devices to their inventions. Big brass doors on the vaults, however, were more for visual appeal to bank customers than for the bad guys. Many early safes and vaults even had the bank's name in huge engraved lettering on these doors, with lots of shiny brass knobs and wheels. It made depositors feel their bank was secure; never mind that the building itself was only wood.     In the field of bank robbing, burglars had a full three-decade head start on their gun-wielding counterparts. Until the Civil War, in fact, daylight armed robbery of a bank was generally unheard of. As the frontier inexorably moved west, Indians were the primary threat to public order and had the tendency to bind communities together in common cause. Towns and cities that subsequently became large enough to house a bank seldom were large enough to sustain a social underclass inclined toward crime. And in America, individuals intensely desirous of wealth could always keep moving west, where land was unlimited and prospectors kept discovering new veins of gold. In the east, more established cities had not yet taken the full brunt of the great immigration waves from the Old World that would result in large, though often temporary, ethnic ghettos. Ironically, the first big batch of non-Anglo-Saxon immigrants, the Irish, would find their calling in the New World as police.     The average American was also well aware of how robbers were dealt with in the mid-1800s. Though communities may have lacked the men in blue that we know today, they could instead rely on the entire citizenry of the town to uphold the law. After all, there were far more honest citizens than crooks. The good people of those towns had made it to the Promised Land through great hardship, and certainly weren't about to let some low-life street thug steal their money. Thieves ran the great risk of armed confrontation with a citizenry not averse to violence. If bullets from quickly drawn guns didn't deliver summary justice immediately, the captured thief--after tarring and feathering--would likely swing from the end of a hastily rigged noose. Some of these ill-advised scoundrels would then hang there, bullet holes or not, as a deterrent to other would-be thieves.     In Western communities, lynchings were the preeminent social event, especially if the robber was well known. A local holdup man, or a stranger who had received enough publicity, could and did draw a crowd. Vendors sold popcorn, flags, peanuts, and cold drinks, giving the event a carnival atmosphere. Many small towns didn't have a court system, so there were a lot of impromptu executions. For towns that did have a sitting judge these hangings could be advertised a week or two in advance in order to give people a chance to attend. Hangings were a big boost to the local economy and a good chance for neighbors to get together. Of course, more than a few hasty hangings were not done in a professional manner, and many a bad guy slowly strangled to death with a sizable audience to witness his dilemma.     Nonetheless, very few robbers, be they burglars or armed holdup artists, ever gave much thought to what might happen if they were captured. A smattering of them didn't seem to worry about being killed, as long as they got to take an honest citizen with them. This factor has changed hardly at all, from the early days of bankrobbing to modern times.     The Civil War, aside from its noteworthy effects on several other aspects of American life, had a titanic impact on bankrobbing. Gone were the days when the burglar or sneak thief was the most sinister threat to a financial institution. Now, hundreds of thousands of men were expertly trained in firearms, horsemanship, and killing. The country's social fabric had been torn, creating a byproduct of intense class and regional resentment. Many communities had been destroyed or rendered destitute, and among those who fought for Dixie were many young men who refused to accept that they had been defeated. Skill at arms, of course, was not the sole province of Confederate veterans. The forces of law and order--sheriffs, police, Pinkertons, or just plain citizens--had gained a hardened cadre of veterans with which to do battle with the desperadoes.     Some bank robberies took place during the Civil War itself, invariably Rebels robbing Union banks rather than vice versa, since no Yankee would put himself out to steal Confederate government currency. The South also retained little in the way of gold reserves. The most notorious heist of the war was perpetrated by John Morgan's Rebel raiders at the town of Mount Sterling, Kentucky, in June 1864. Morgan professed outrage at the crime, and many people believed him; however, three months later he was shot down by Union troops (who considered him more of a horse thief than a bank robber) and the crime remained unsolved. Banks were also the primary target of the Southern insurrectionists who descended from Canada on St. Albans, Vermont. In general, however, the Confederate army's patrician code of honor--best embodied by Robert E. Lee--prohibited criminal impropriety within its ranks. Things would be different after the war, when ex-Rebel riders would find their army disbanded and the country run by a president named Ulysses S. Grant.     There is a bit of history that must be resolved before we discuss the most famous of all bank robbers. The first armed bank robbery by a civilian--whose greed was unelevated by any larger cause--took place before the Civil War had ended. On December 15, 1863, in Malden, Massachusetts, Edward Green walked into the town bank, shot the banker's son in the head, and stole $5,000. After a short spending binge, the robber was captured. He was tried, convicted, and went to his eternal reward at the business end of a rope on the 27th of February, 1866. This hanging took place 14 days after the James Gang embarked on its infamous career. Mr. Green had already committed America's first armed bank robbery, been tried, and was executed for that milestone in history--before the most famous of all bank robbers had even been recognized for their first.     As we'll see in this chapter, the James Gang, the Youngers, the Daltons, the Doolin Gang, and others were pioneers in this field. Most people only know about these highly visible thieves of the Old West, but we will find additional desperadoes stealing huge amounts of money elsewhere in the country at the same time. Few people are aware of these other men and their influence on robbery. Several of these little-known culprits, in fact, were responsible for prompting countermeasures by the authorities that made the armed holdup more difficult and the bank burglary seemingly impossible for future aspiring criminals.     The stage is now set. The so-called godfathers of armed robbery are about to make their appearance. Bank robbery moved into high gear shortly after the Civil War, and this nation will forever reap the consequences. FRANK & JESSE JAMES The James boys, Frank and brother Jesse, have been referred to as criminal products of the War Between the States. Frank had ridden with Quantrill's Raiders during the war and Jesse was associated with "Bloody Bill" Anderson's band of Confederate irregulars. Quantrill and Anderson are considered two of the most ruthless--and daring--leaders to emerge from the Civil War. Their battlefield was the border state of Missouri where Union numbers were pitted against Rebel determination. One also needs to understand that these bands of commandos were highly trained specialists at engaging and eluding opposing forces. Their method of combat was rapid strike and scatter. Their raids were well planned and executed with little left to chance. After the war these raiders split up, heading in different directions.     Jesse had been wounded just before the end of the war and was not expected to recover. He went back home to Kearney, Missouri, to die in the arms of his family. Frank, unaware of his brother's condition, was in Kentucky, but when he learned of Jesse's condition he, too, returned home. At this point they were merely two ex-Confederate military men who had refused, like many others, to swear allegiance to the federal government upon their discharge. The outcome of their noncompliance was that they, along with hundreds of others, were identified as criminals by the Union government. Given their financial situation at the time, some of these men decided that if they were going to be branded as outlaws anyway they might as well engage in some illicit activity against their newly reunified nation.     Jesse and his brother Frank planned and executed the first organized daylight bank robbery in American history. This robbery, involving 11 men on horseback, was committed on the day before Valentine's Day, 1866. The target of the historic holdup was the little town bank of Liberty, Missouri. There has always been some question as to how much these robbers took. Some authors state that the amount was about $17,000. My research has uncovered a take of $24,316 in cash and about $40,000 in bearer bonds. Whatever the true amount, a more important statistic resulted from the crime: one innocent bystander was killed by the gang. All of the men were firing their weapons on their way out of Liberty, so who actually shot the hapless unnamed victim is clouded by the passage of time. Eight months later, at the end of October 1866, the same group attempted to rob the bank of Lexington, Missouri, but this robbery ended in failure.     The James boys and their gang, undaunted by their failure in Lexington, pulled off their second successful holdup in March of 1867. Two months later they relieved a Russelville, Kentucky, bank of $20,000. At the time of this robbery Jesse was still a teenager, 19 years old, and his brother was only 23. But they, along with their compatriots, had learned the finer points of guerrilla tactics very well. Most of the gang were exceptional horsemen and crack marksmen. Jesse was one of the few in the gang who couldn't shoot straight, but even he was capable of killing someone if the situation warranted it.     On December 7, 1869, this band of outlaws robbed the Gallatin, Missouri, bank of $70,000 and in 1871 they took a trip to Corydon, Iowa, relieving that bank of $40,000. Following their success in Iowa, they met with a dismal defeat, netting only $1,500 from a Columbia, Kentucky, bank on April 29, 1872. The gang headed back home with a short stop in Kansas City, Missouri. There they robbed the local county fair of an estimated $20,000, killing a little girl in the process. The following year, on May 27, they held up a bank in the community of St. Genevieve, Missouri. For the first seven years of their careers they had averaged one robbery a year. (Continues...) Excerpted from Robbing Banks by L.R. Kirchner. Copyright (c) 2000 by L.R. Kirchner. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.