Baron Lamm’s peers included three older men who would influence many of the yeggs who rose to prominence in 1933 and 1934. One was Eddie Bentz, a nomadic Seattle-born bank robber and book lover who fancied himself an intellectual. Bentz, who mentored both Machine Gun Kelly and Baby Face Nelson, traveled with a chestful of the classics and in his spare time could sometimes be found leafing through a copy of
The Pilgrim’s Progress.
Another notable Jazz Age yegg was Harvey Bailey, a onetime bootlegger so gentlemanly he termed the female hostages he loaded into his getaway cars “hostesses.” Bailey masterminded the most celebrated raid of the 1920s, the robbery of cash-laden messengers outside the Denver Mint in 1922. He was so successful he retired for a time, opening a chain of gas stations and car washes on Chicago’s South Side, until he lost almost everything in the 1929 stock market crash. Resurrecting his career from a base in St. Paul, Bailey mentored a number of young bank men who congregated at the city’s notorious Green Lantern tavern, including Machine Gun Kelly, Alvin Karpis, and the Barker brothers. Arrested on a Kansas City golf course in 1932, he led a massive prison breakout on May 31, 1933, and went back to robbing banks.
The last of the great Jazz Age yeggs was the man whose smuggled guns freed Bailey from prison, his friend Frank “Jelly” Nash. Nash, a stout figure with a comic toupee who began his career robbing trains on horseback in his native Oklahoma, was a Leavenworth escapee who also worked out of St. Paul, robbing banks with Bailey and the Barker Gang.
All three of these men—Eddie Bentz, Harvey Bailey, and Frank Nash—were destined to play roles in the Great Crime Wave of 1933-34. It was Nash who accidentally triggered the war with J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI. He did it not with a bank robbery or a high-profile kidnapping, but with the simple desire for a quiet Arkansas vacation.
A MASSACRE BY PERSONS UNKNOWN
June 8 to June 15, 1933
From a newsman’s point of view, the month of June opened quietly. In Washington, senators debated the Roosevelt administration’s industrial recovery bill. Each morning brought a worrisome new headline from Germany; on Tuesday, June 6, it was the ouster of Otto Klemperer, a Jew, as conductor of the Berlin State Opera under the “non-Aryan” section of the Civil Service act. In India, Mahatma Gandhi was fasting to protest mistreatment of the “untouchables” caste. All that week readers of the
New York Times
followed daily updates of Texas pilot James Mattern’s attempt to break the around-the-world speed record; at the moment, he was hop-scotching across Siberia. In Chicago, a dust storm blew in off the plains, toppling trees, downing power lines, and sending thousands at the newly opened World’s Fair scurrying for shelter.
On Thursday evening, June 8, 1933, an Oklahoma schoolteacher named Joe Hudiberg finished a poker game in the kitchen of his white frame house outside the town of Cromwell. Hudiberg walked into the warm evening air and stretched. As his friends stepped to their cars, he ambled down to his garage and padlocked the doors.
Locked inside the garage was Hudiberg’s prized black Pontiac—and Pretty Boy Floyd, who had come to steal it. In the darkness, Floyd cursed. This was the way his luck had been going for months now. Charley Floyd— no one but the newspapers called him “Pretty Boy”—was twenty-nine years old that summer evening. He was only five-feet-eight; his shoulders and upper arms were thick and powerful, his face moony and flat. He resembled a young Babe Ruth. Floyd’s eyes were gray and he kept his hair slicked back with a thin part down the left side. Up close you could smell his hair tonic, a whiff of lilac.
Of all the criminals who rose to prominence in 1933 and 1934, Floyd was the only one who was already famous, at least in Oklahoma, where he was a hero to legions of disaffected dust bowlers. Everyone knew his story. The son of upstanding parents, he had been a restive farm boy in his hometown of Akins, working on harvest crews and the occasional burglary, until he robbed a Kroger store in St. Louis in 1925, for which he drew a five-year sentence in a Missouri prison. Paroled in 1930, Floyd moved to Kansas City and tried to go straight but was constantly rousted by police, an experience that left him with a deep sense of victimization. Teaming up with some prison pals, he relocated to Ohio but was arrested after robbing a bank. He jumped out a window on the train ride to prison and fled to Oklahoma.
In the fall of 1931, Floyd began robbing country banks in his home state in earnest, earning his first mentions in Oklahoma newspapers. But it was a crime in which he took no part that catapulted him onto the front pages. On January 2, 1932, two ex-convicts ambushed and killed six peace officers in a shoot-out near Springfield, Missouri, in what remains the largest such massacre in American history. An Associated Press dispatch carried speculation that Floyd was involved, and Oklahoma newspapers leaned heavily on the local angle.
It was the spark that fired the Floyd legend. Floyd, wrote the
Muskogee Daily Phoenix,
now “steps into the rank of real ‘bad hombres’ with the questionable honor of [killing] 11 men, all officers, to his credit. The exploits of Billy the Kid . . . pale before the cool, monotonous killings of the fair haired ‘Pretty Boy’ Floyd, who has introduced the submachine gun and the armored vest to the Oklahoma bad men.” The notion of a modern-day Billy the Kid was too appealing for the newspapers to ignore. In January 1932 alone Floyd was identified as robbing banks in three separate towns, only one of which he probably robbed. It didn’t matter. The
called for mobilization of the National Guard; on January 14 insurance rates on rural Oklahoma banks were doubled, a move blamed directly on Floyd. Governor William “Alfalfa Bill” Murray announced a $1,000 reward for his capture.
It was a classic case of media hysteria, of hype that would shape reality that would in turn create a legend. Every morning that winter brought a story of Floyd’s exploits, a bank robbed, a supposed sighting, speculation where he might strike next. Lawmen combed eastern Oklahoma in a futile manhunt. Floyd understood the situation and made a crude bid for public support. In a letter to the governor, he demanded that the reward be withdrawn. “I have robbed no one but the monied men,” Floyd wrote, a claim guaranteed to find favor in rural Oklahoma. Floyd thus cannily positioned himself as an attacker of only “monied” interests, making the governor their defender. In doing so he created a socioeconomic debate he was guaranteed to win.
Floyd’s fame grew after he survived a pair of wild shoot-outs with police in the streets of Tulsa. When Governor Murray appointed a special investigator named Erv Kelley to track him down, Floyd shot Kelley dead in a midnight firefight. But by late 1932, Floyd was growing weary of life on the run. Hiding with relatives, he attempted to “retire” by supervising a ragtag group of bank robbers led by a grimy alcoholic named Adam Richetti. But Richetti’s gang proved hapless, and by the spring of 1933, Floyd had withdrawn from bank robbing altogether, preferring to spend his days baking pies in his cousins’ kitchens. Only when several of his relatives were arrested did Floyd decide to leave Oklahoma for a time. He had arrived at Joe Hudiberg’s farmhouse that Thursday night looking for a car.
As Hudiberg walked toward his house after locking the garage, he heard a noise behind him. Something was bumping against the garage doors. As Hudiberg turned to investigate, his black Pontiac came crashing through the wooden doors. Dumbfounded, he watched as the car roared through his yard and shot onto the road. Hudiberg’s friends ran to their cars and mounted a fruitless pursuit. Far ahead of them, Pretty Boy Floyd turned north, toward Kansas City.
Two mornings after Floyd burst out of an Oklahoma schoolteacher’s garage, a man named Horace Grisso walked through the streets of New Carlisle, Ohio, north of Dayton. Grisso, the bookkeeper at the New Carlisle National Bank, stopped when he got to the bank’s front door and took out his keys and opened it. His footsteps echoed on the marble floor as he crossed to the teller cages. The moment he stepped behind the cages, three men wearing handkerchiefs across their faces rose before him. “All right, buddy, open the safe,” ordered the trio’s twenty-nine-year-old leader, who that morning was robbing his first bank.
His name was John Dillinger, and he had been released from the Indiana State Pen barely three weeks before. Like Floyd, Dillinger was a nobody from nowhere, one more ex-con tossed out into the Depression to make ends meet. He was a small, slender man, five-feet-seven, with close-cropped brown hair, an easygoing wiseacre with a lopsided grin who had served nine long years for the drunken mugging of a grocer in his hometown outside Indianapolis. He had promised his father, a stoic farmer, that he would go straight, but, in fact, he had a secret plan. Dillinger’s only friends were those he made in prison, and that morning he was trying to raise enough money to break them out.
Horace Grisso reached for the drawer where the bank’s combination book lay. Dillinger grabbed his hand, then allowed him to slowly open the drawer. Stepping to the safe door, Grisso fumbled with the lock, unable to open it. He was nervous. “Let me drill ’em,” Dillinger’s teenage partner, William Shaw, said. “He’s stalling.”
Dillinger put up his hand. “Take your time,” he told Grisso.
Just then the front door opened. Dillinger leaped to it and intercepted the bank’s clerk as she entered. “I don’t want to hurt you,” Dillinger told her, directing her to lie on the floor. Dillinger grabbed a smock off of a chair and politely laid it beneath her, then wrapped wire around her hands and feet. By then Grisso had opened the safe, and Shaw and the third man, a teenager named Paul “Lefty” Parker, began lifting out bags of cash. Dillinger remained by the front door, corralling two more employees who entered. “You hadn’t ought to come in the bank so early,” he said with a grin.
Within minutes Dillinger and his accomplices were back in their car, speeding toward Indiana. They counted the money and found it totaled $10,600, not a bad haul. But Dillinger wasn’t satisfied. That night he and Shaw pulled up outside a Haag’s Drugstore in Indianapolis. Inside, Shaw headed toward the main cash register while Dillinger took the smaller one at the soda fountain. He stuck his gun at the three employees. When they stared into his face, he said, “Look the other way!” The employees turned their gazes toward Shaw. “Don’t look at me!” Shaw shouted. The employees turned back to Dillinger. “I said don’t look at me!” Dillinger repeated.
A moment later the two men, cash from the registers in hand, backed out onto the sidewalk, only to find that Lefty Parker had parallel-parked the car at the curb, snugly wedged between two other parked cars. As Dillinger simmered, Parker bumped the cars in front and behind several times before wheeling out and making their getaway. Dillinger had to explain to young Parker how to park a getaway car.
Still, the night wasn’t over. A half hour later Dillinger showed Parker where to pull up in front of a City Foods supermarket. Robbing the store had been Shaw’s idea. What he neglected to tell Dillinger was that he had robbed it once before. The minute the two men entered the store, guns drawn, the manager hung his head.
“Here they are again,” he said. Dillinger gave Shaw a look. “You guys have started the company collecting [our cash],” the manager said. “And the collector just left.”
There was no money in the registers. Dillinger stalked out of the store. Shaw tarried a moment to scoop up several boxes of cigarettes. The moment Dillinger slipped into the car beside him, Parker gunned the car forward, leaving Shaw behind in the store.
“Stop! Stop!” Dillinger shouted as Parker drove up the block.
Parker hit the brake and drove in reverse toward the store as Shaw, breathing heavily, ran up the street to meet them before jumping in. Parker was so rattled he ran the next stop sign. “If you can’t drive,” Dillinger said, “let the kid have the wheel!” The men drove on, aiming for Dillinger’s father’s farmhouse.
So began the criminal career of the man who would within months transform the FBI.Near Wellington, Texas Saturday, June 10
That same Saturday night, as Dillinger returned to his father’s farmhouse, Clyde Barrow and his girlfriend Bonnie Parker were driving through the Texas Panhandle, heading to a meeting with Clyde’s brother Buck at a bridge on the Oklahoma border. With them was Clyde’s gofer, a pimply Dallas teenager named W. D. Jones. At first glance all three appeared to be children. Clyde, baby-faced and five-feet-seven, was twenty-three that evening. Bonnie was an inch under five feet, maybe ninety pounds, with yellow hair and baby-blue eyes. She was twenty-one.
Seventy years after their deaths, no Depression-era criminals loom larger in America’s consciousness than Bonnie and Clyde—thanks to the 1967 film
Bonnie and Clyde,
which portrayed Clyde as a sexually ambivalent man-child struggling to cope with a beautiful, fiery Bonnie. While entertaining, the cinematic Bonnie and Clyde were a screenwriter’s creation, a celluloid paean to 1960s-era themes of youth rebellion and antiauthoritarianism. The movie characters had little in common with their real-life counterparts, lazy drifters who murdered nearly a dozen innocent men during and between holdups.
The real Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker were neither rebels nor philosophers. Vain and insecure, Clyde was a preening Dallas burglar who, a friend claimed, had been repeatedly raped in prison and would do anything to avoid going back. Bonnie was a bored waitress, a drama queen with a failed marriage who viewed Clyde as a ticket out of her humdrum existence. Crime was a kind of game to them; you can see it in the photographs they took of each other, play-acting with big guns and fat cigars. Contemporaries showed them little but contempt. One called them “just a couple of cheap filling station and car thieves,” and he was right; at a time when veteran yeggs reaped $50,000 from a single bank robbery, Bonnie and Clyde’s biggest payday was barely $3,800. They robbed far more gas stations and drugstores than banks.