The early 20th century marked a tumultuous time in America and the world. World War I, the Great Depression, World War II… and an apparent rise in bank robberies all occurred. I am currently processing the Iowa Bankers Association Records, MS 45. Among all of the records in the collection, the most interesting set, in my opinion, are those records involving bank robberies, which span the years 1910-1969. The bulk of these cover 1910-1940 or so. This portion of the collection features cross files of criminal cases in index card form, many mug shots, clippings, robberies organized by bank and/or town, and about 2,000 case files organized by case number. Hundreds upon hundreds of photographs are found within this part of the collection, though be aware that some of these are not for the faint of heart – there are several postmortem photographs, some of them featuring gun wounds. In addition to all of that, many artifacts have been found, including pieces of blown-up safes, ropes used in robberies, a bullet shell, and even a pillow case that was used to carry stolen cash and was buried.
While most of these bank robberies were conducted by relatively unknown bandits, a few hold ups were done (or at least allegedly done) by famous figures. Perhaps you’ve heard of Bonnie and Clyde. Or a man named John Dillinger. Here is a brief description of their escapades in the Hawkeye State:
Texas outlaws Bonnie and Clyde, along with other members collectively known as the Barrow Gang, were suspected of holdups at at least three banks in Iowa, as follows: State Savings Bank in Knierim on February 1, 1934, First National Bank in Stuart on April 16, 1934, and the Bank Office in Everly on May 3, 1934. A woman (presumably Parker) was often reported as driving Barrow and other members of the gang away from these banks. The car used in the Knierim robbery bore the Arkansas license plate number 145-467, which was the plate number found in the abandoned car in which Bonnie and Clyde were killed. They met their end in Louisiana at the hand of Texas and Louisiana Peace Officers on May 23, 1934. Marvin Barrow, Clyde’s brother who had a reputation as a “cop killer,” was killed in a raid near Dexter, Iowa in July 1933. Their hideouts in Iowa included heavily-wooded locations near Dexter, Sutherland, Lime Springs, and Mount Ayr. Supposedly, the Barrow Gang made many visits to Iowa, so they may have been responsible for other bank crimes in the state in which they weren’t identified.
John Dillinger left a bloody trail all across the Midwest. Dillinger and his gang, which included for a time notorious gangster George “Baby Face” Nelson, were suspected of robbing $52,000 from the First National Bank in Mason City on March 13, 1934. There was some debate as to whether or not it really was Dillinger, or if it was instead a similar-looking criminal named Frank D. Carpenter. The photo above, clipped from a Minneapolis newspaper, highlights this debate. Overall consensus, however, is that it was in fact Dillinger. In this robbery, the gang used bank employees as hostages to stand outside of the car and protect them from gunfire and used tear gas in the bank. One witness was wounded in the leg by a stray bullet, but luckily there were no deaths in the robbery. For more information on the robberies of the Barrow Gang and Dillinger, contact us about looking through the collection.
In response to the common occurrence of bank robberies across the state, county vigilante groups were organized, known as County Auxiliary Protective Units. These were official units that were recognized by the American Bankers Association. Story County participated in this, and the Ames National Bank and Ames Trust and Savings Bank were among those that contributed to the protective units. In exchange for contributing to the County Auxiliary Protective Units, banks were entitled to discounts in their premiums for Burglary and Robber insurance. These units look to have been formed in the mid-to-late 1920s, while county vigilance committees formed a bit earlier. “State shoots,” held at Fort Des Moines, started as early as 1918. The “state shoots,” or “state matches,” were made up of sheriffs, regular deputy sheriffs, special deputy sheriffs, town marshalls, and constables representing their respective counties. The special deputy sheriffs were men who were chosen from Iowa communities, and they were often referred to as “vigilantes”; their purpose was to find and apprehend bank bandits and other major criminals that endangered their communities. Participants at the shoots competed in pistol and rifle matches, consisting of short range, midrange and rapid fire contests. The Iowa Bankers Association bore the costs of these shoots, although the county associations paid the expenses of their contestants. More information about these vigilante organizations can be found in the collection.
If you’re interested in this, other collections might appeal to you that involve the time periods covered in Bank Robberies record series featured in this post. A few examples include MS 409, United States Works Progress Administration (Iowa): Special Reports and Narratives of Projects, MS 605, Harold French Davidson Papers (these contain letters from World War I), and MS 388, World War II Ration Memorabilia. Or, take a look at our many other wonderful collections. You never know what might pique your interest!