18 Biggest Bank Robbers and Robberies in American history
18 Biggest Bank Robbers and Robberies in American history

18 Biggest Bank Robbers and Robberies in American history

Larry Holzwarth - October 1, 2018

18 Biggest Bank Robbers and Robberies in American history
Butch Cassidy (seated at right) and the Wild Bunch, one of several gangs which used Hole in the Wall Pass as a hideout. Wikimedia

6. The Hole in the Wall Gang was actually several criminal gangs

The Hole in the Wall Pass in Wyoming was an easily defended, difficult to approach hideout for several criminal gangs which took sanctuary there from the 1860s through the early twentieth century. Often several different gangs occupied it simultaneously, though they did not coordinate their various nefarious activities. The most famous of the gangs which used the pass was that known as the Wild Bunch, led by Robert Leroy Parker, also known as Butch Cassidy, and his partner Harry Longabaugh, known to history as the Sundance Kid. The Wild Bunch favored robbing trains, hoping to avoid shootouts in the aftermath of a robbery, and it has been falsely reported that during their career the gang never killed anyone in the course of one of their crimes. In reality, they killed several.

On September 19, 1900, members of the Wild Bunch entered the town of Winnemucca, Nevada. Three men entered the First National Bank and demanded that the cashier, George Nixon, open the safe and give up the gold coins within. After the cashier reluctantly complied the men made their escape with about $32,000, most of it in gold. They were pursued by a hastily formed posse, and later by Pinkertons, but they eluded the chase. It was later claimed that Butch Cassidy had been one of the robbers. He was not, but it was likely that the Sundance Kid was, and if so Cassidy certainly knew about the robbery, which took place as he was in Tipton, Wyoming, making plans for another train robbery. Butch and Sundance were alleged to have been killed in 1908 in South America, though their exact fate remains in question.

18 Biggest Bank Robbers and Robberies in American history
By 1909 automobiles were being used to race across the country, as did this Model T, and to rob banks. Wikimedia

7. The first automobile to be used in a bank robbery was in 1909

In 1909, according to the Rich Hill (Missouri) Tribune edition of August 19, 1909, two perpetrators identified only as young men arrived in front of the Valley Bank of Santa Clara, California, and entered the bank. A driver remained in the car. The young men produced shotguns and ordered the chief cashier, a man named Birge, and his aides to hand over all available cash. They then left the bank with about $7,000 in mostly small bills. The driver then sped off, and since the make and model of the vehicle were not reported in the Tribune, it is impossible to determine what speeds were attained, but they were pursued by citizens and police also in automobiles. The chase covered seven miles before police caught up with them.

They were able to do so thanks to the driver, who was not an accomplice but was provided along with the vehicle, which had been rented by the two bank robbers. Once the driver realized what was happening, he manipulated the vehicle’s controls to cause the engine to stall, after they had covered the seven miles aforementioned, and the robbers were forced to continue their flight on foot. The police in automobiles were able to run them down quickly, and they were apprehended and taken to jail. The money was returned to the bank. It was the first known instance of an automobile being used as a getaway car following both an armed robbery and a bank robbery. Two years later, the first successful getaway by automobile following a bank robbery took place in France.

18 Biggest Bank Robbers and Robberies in American history
J. Edgar Hoover exploited the rash of bank robberies during the Great Depression to increase the authority of the FBI and his own personal influence. Library of Congress

8. Bank robberies helped create the Federal Bureau of Investigation

In the 1920s a surge of bank robberies across the United States began which continued through the Great Depression of the 1930s. The Bureau of Investigation (BOI), formed in 1908, expanded into the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in the 1920s and became involved in the investigation of bank robberies and the apprehension of the robbers in the 1930s. The depredations of the roving criminal gangs of the depression years led to bank robbery becoming a federal crime in 1934, if the bank was a National bank or a member bank of the Federal Reserve System. Prior to that action, a bank robber in Ohio could escape to a bordering state such as Kentucky or Indiana and avoid pursuit and arrest.

As in the earlier days in the west, where criminals such as Jesse James gained the sympathy and even the admiration of citizens who agreed with their activities, some of the famous robbers and murderers of the days of the roving gangs became folk heroes among the poor and the outcast of the depression. John Dillinger, Bonnie and Clyde, Pretty Boy Floyd, and several others, were cheered by those who had been hurt by the banks during the collapse of many of them in the early days of the depression. Dillinger in particular exploited the image by robbing banks but not the customers who were present when he committed his crimes (he was not above stealing their cars though). The well-armed gangs often outgunned the police, and violent crime took an upsurge.

18 Biggest Bank Robbers and Robberies in American history
A crowd gathers at Chicago’s Biograph theater after the death of John Dillinger, July 22, 1934

9. John Dillinger became the first Public Enemy Number One

John Dillinger spent nine years in prison for assault and battery committed while he was robbing a grocery store, and spent his time there being tutored in the art of bank robbery. Released on parole in May, 1933, he robbed his first bank the following month, in New Carlisle, Ohio. In August he robbed another, in Bluffton, Ohio. He was arrested in Dayton, Ohio, transferred to the Allen County Jail, and escaped with the aid of gang members who dressed as Indiana policemen and killed Allen County, Sheriff Jess Sarber. Following his escape from Allen County, Dillinger participated in at least ten additional bank robberies over the course of the next year, was captured again, escaped again, and became a subject of international notoriety.

Although Al Capone had been named Public Enemy Number One by the city of Chicago in 1930, John Dillinger was the first to hold the title as bestowed nationally by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. During his criminal career, which was a short and violent one, he was only accused of personally killing one individual, an East Chicago police officer, though his associates killed many more while committing robberies and eluding capture. This led Dillinger to be admired by many who considered the banks – who foreclosed on homes and farms – as the real enemy. Dillinger was killed in Chicago in 1934, and more than 15,000 people waited in line to view his body before his internment in Crown Hill Cemetery in Indianapolis, Indiana. Over the years souvenir hunters chipped away pieces from his headstone, leading it to be replaced several times, often coinciding with the release of yet another film about his career.

18 Biggest Bank Robbers and Robberies in American history
FBI agent Melvin Purvis hunted down Pretty Boy Floyd to an Ohio field. FBI

10. Pretty Boy Floyd was a murderer and bank robber

Charles Arthur Floyd was a gun happy bank robber who during his violent career cultivated a favorable image with the general public by spreading rumors that in the course of his robberies he also destroyed mortgage documents, saving many from foreclosure. The story is unsupported by evidence and was probably created by Floyd, who hated the nickname Pretty Boy. After the Kansas City massacre, in which three police officers and an FBI agent were killed when escorting Frank Nash during a change of custody (Nash was also killed), Pretty Boy Floyd was named by the FBI as one of the gunmen. It was unlikely that Floyd had been involved, but J. Edgar Hoover used the event as propaganda to further the cause of armed FBI agents. After the death of John Dillinger, Floyd was elevated to Public Enemy Number One by the FBI.

Floyd killed at least three police officers and several other underworld figures, including bootleggers, which indicates he may have supplemented his income from bank robberies by serving as a hitman for organized crime figures. He was convicted of bank robbery in Ohio and sentenced to 15 years in the infamous Ohio State Penitentiary in November of 1930 but escaped and continued his life of crime. Floyd’s support from the public was especially evident in Oklahoma, where residents sheltered and protected him, in return for financial largesse, an eventuality which infuriated J. Edgar Hoover. Floyd was killed in an Ohio field on the night of October 22, 1934, though several different versions of the events that night emerged from the participants in the shooting and witnesses. Floyd robbed more than thirty banks and killed at least ten men during his criminal career.

18 Biggest Bank Robbers and Robberies in American history
Mug shot of Lester Gillis, alias George Nelson, known to history as Baby Face Nelson. FBI

11. Lester Gillis became infamous as Baby Face Nelson

In the late 1920s Lester Gillis, who used the alias George Nelson, was developing a budding criminal career by performing home invasions stealing cash, jewelry, and furs, and robbing stores and taverns. Nelson robbed his first bank in April 1930, another in October, and in Chicago that year robbed jewelry from the mayor of Chicago’s wife. It was she who labeled him as having a “baby face” and the sobriquet Baby Face Nelson was quickly bandied about in the press of the day when describing his crimes. Nelson also demonstrated a propensity for violence and committed his first known murder during a botched tavern robbery. By 1932 Nelson had been caught, convicted, and sentenced to prison, though he escaped during a prison transfer in 1932. The following year he robbed a bank in Grand Haven, Michigan.

Nelson decided to form and run his own gang of bank robbers in 1933, on October 3 they robbed the First National Bank of Brainerd, Minnesota, during which Nelson used a Thompson submachine gun to fire indiscriminately at bystanders on the street as they made their escape. In March of 1934, Nelson partnered with John Dillinger to rob the Security National Bank in Sioux Falls, followed a week later by the First National Bank of Mason City, Iowa. After Pretty Boy Floyd was killed Nelson inherited the designation of Public Enemy Number One. Nelson remained on the run with his wife, usually staying at the auto camps which were common in the 1930s. Nelson was finally cornered and killed by FBI agents in November 1934, in a gun battle in which two FBI agents were also killed. Nelson survived the confrontation only to die of his wounds at a safe house a short time later.

18 Biggest Bank Robbers and Robberies in American history
Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker left a trail of dead lawmen and bystanders in their wake during their crime spree of robbery and murder. Wikimedia

12. Banks hid money to keep it from robbers

In February 1933, bank robberies had become so common in some parts of Texas that private banker R. P. Henry, who with his sons ran a bank in Lancaster, Texas, took to hiding cash in file cabinets, rather than keeping it in the vault safe, in expectation of a visit from criminals. On the morning of February 27, Henry and his sons were at work in the bank when two men – Clyde Barrow and Red Hamilton – entered the building. Barrow was armed with a sawed-off shotgun. The bank’s customers were shoved aside and gathered with the employees, all of them forced to lie on the floor while Barrow watched over them with the shotgun and Hamilton filled a sack with the cash from the drawers. It was later determined that Hamilton left over $300 in quarters and half-dollars in the cash drawers.

The robbers left with $6,700 in cash, unwittingly leaving behind another $9,000 safely hidden in file cabinets. The robbers escaped in a car to a nearby town, where Bonnie Parker awaited them in another car, though in transferring between vehicles some of the money was dropped. It was one of the more successful bank robberies for Bonnie and Clyde, who preferred to rob grocery stores, gas stations, and other less lucrative targets. During their exceedingly violent career together the pair probably robbed less than a dozen banks, and in several cases the robbery was interrupted by law enforcement, forcing the thieves to flee before securing all of the cash, often in a hail of bullets from Clyde Barrow’s weapon of choice, the Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR). The two were killed in an ambush in Louisiana on May 23, 1934, and the murderous Clyde Barrow and blithe Bonnie Parker remain romanticized in the twenty-first century.

18 Biggest Bank Robbers and Robberies in American history
One of the fake heads used by the Anglin brothers and Frank Morris – bank robbers all – during their 1962 escape from Alcatraz. Wikimedia

13. The Anglin brothers went to Alcatraz for bank robbery – and escaped

In January 1958, three brothers brandishing toy pistols robbed the Bank of Columbia in Columbia, Alabama. The men were John, Clarence, and Alfred Anglin, and they did not wear masks. Forcing the employees to lay on the floor and binding the hands of the bank’s president, Walter Oakley, they rifled the drawers and vault and made off with about $19,000 in cash. It was not their first bank heist, but it was the first in which they used the threat of force. Previously they had broken into banks after hours, hoping to avoid any injury to themselves or others. They fled to the north. As the sons of migrant farmworkers, they had often visited Michigan in the spring and early summer as their parents picked fruit. Authorities in four states joined in the search for the fugitives. Five days later they were arrested in Ohio.

The brothers were sentenced on federal charges and later received additional time on state charges. Two of them, John and Clarence, were transferred within the federal prison system after attempting to escape from Atlanta, first to Leavenworth, where they also attempted to escape, and finally to the allegedly escape-proof prison at Alcatraz. Alfred was separated from his brothers and died in custody at Kilby Prison in Alabama. John and Clarence Anglin, along with fellow inmate Frank Morris, escaped from Alcatraz in June 1962. Officially the FBI considered the men dead, drowned in the cold waters off Alcatraz Island, but numerous sightings of the brothers were reported over many years in Georgia, Alabama, and South Carolina. Because no bodies were ever found, the US Marshal service still considers the escape to be an open case.

18 Biggest Bank Robbers and Robberies in American history
The infamous Ohio State Penitentiary in Columbus was one of the nation’s most notorious prisons when Pierpont was sent there for execution. Wikimedia

14. The Indiana bank robbery spree of 1924-25

Beginning in late 1924 and stretching into the early spring of 1925 a series of bank robberies throughout Indiana baffled authorities, as bank after bank found itself victim to a gang which simply vanished into thin air following the robberies. The crime spree started with the robbery of the South Marion State Bank in November 1924. In December a robbery attempt was foiled when a bank worker pushed an alarm button, forcing the would-be robbers to flee empty-handed, but a week later they were more successful at a bank in Upland, Indiana. Descriptions of some of the robbers led to arrests and authorities learned of plans for further robberies during interrogations, but the police were unable to locate the ringleader of the group, Harry Pierpont.

In March the crime spree began again, and in that month alone three additional Indiana banks were robbed by Pierpont and his associates, in New Harmony, Kokomo, and Laketon. In April 1925, Pierpont was arrested in Detroit and was soon returned to Indiana to face trial. Pierpont was found guilty and sentenced to a minimum of ten years in the Indiana Reformatory. He was later transferred to the State Prison, where he worked out an escape plan with John Dillinger. Escaping successfully, Pierpont was involved in several additional bank robberies with Dillinger. Eventually, Pierpont was tried for the murder of the Allen County Sheriff in Ohio, convicted and sentenced to death. He was executed at the Ohio State Penitentiary in October 1934, after a failed escape attempt left him severely wounded.

18 Biggest Bank Robbers and Robberies in American history
Throughout history, banks have continually upgraded their security systems, equipment and procedures. Wikimedia

15. Banks fight back against robberies

Beginning in the 1930s, and in some cases even earlier in larger cities and towns, banks installed security mechanisms to protect themselves and their employees from robberies. Alarm buzzers and bells, which rang loudly inside and outside of the bank, were one of the earliest. The bells notified law enforcement of a robbery taking place in the bank, and often caused the robbers to flee without obtaining any, or at least not very much, cash for their efforts. Bells and sirens were replaced in many cases by silent alarms, which sent a signal to law enforcement, allowing them to confront the robbers as they exited the buildings, after several instances when robbers reacted to the loud alarms by shielding themselves with employees and customers as hostages.

In the early afternoon of April 12, 1957, Steven Ray Thomas and Wanda DiCenzi entered the St. Clair Savings and Loan in Cleveland, and while Steven held a teller at gunpoint Wanda stole about $2,000 from the cash drawers, and the two made their escape, driven from the scene by a third accomplice, Rose O’Donnell. Unbeknownst to the three was that they were being monitored by security cameras, the film from which was broadcast that night on national television. All three were identified by persons who knew them and subsequently captured by the Cleveland police. They were the first bank robbers to be caught through the use of security cameras, though they were far from the last, as local newscasts have broadcast the video images of thieves on a routine basis ever since.

18 Biggest Bank Robbers and Robberies in American history
Increased security in the aftermath of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing did not prevent Ralph Guarino and colleagues from robbing Bank of America there. Wikimedia

16. The Bank of America robbery netted the thieves $1.6 million

In 1998, robbers struck the Bank of America at 1 World Trade Center in New York City, a feat believed to be impossible after the increase in security at the complex following the bombing in 1993. The robbery was masterminded by Ralph Guarino, a career felon who associated with several members of organized crime, though he was not a member of a crew. Guarino acted on the information given him by an employee at the World Trade Center, who also gave him his security pass. Guarino brought in three additional known criminals of his acquaintance to assist in the robbery, which was of a Brinks shipment of cash, which was to be taken to the eleventh floor facility after arriving at the complex.

At 8.30 in the morning of January 14, 1998, the Brinks truck arrived and the guards were transferring the cash when they were overpowered by the gang assembled by Guarino. The World Trade Center employees had already been subdued. It took about fifteen minutes for the thieves to leave the World Trade Center, taking with them $1.6 million in cash. Only one of the robbers wore a mask, the others were easily identified and arrested. One of the thieves, the one who had worn a ski mask, made it as far as Albuquerque, New Mexico before he was arrested two days following the robbery. When Guarino was identified as the leader of the robbery he was taken into custody at his home on Staten Island, and within a few days he arranged to work as an informant, transferring information to the FBI and New York authorities on the activities of his various mob contacts. After numerous convictions were attained using his information he entered the Witness Protection Program.

18 Biggest Bank Robbers and Robberies in American history
Robert Grady Johnson (front ) and Jay Wesley Neill during the legal procedures which convicted them of the Geronimo bank robbery and murders. AP

17. Vicious bank robberies didn’t end in the 1930s

In 1984, the First National Bank of Chattanooga in Geronimo, Oklahoma, was the site of one of the most vicious bank robberies in American history on December 14 of that year. Early in the afternoon a man entered the bank, took the staff he found there into the back, forced them to lie on the floor, and then stabbed them to death. Seventy-five stab wounds were inflicted on the three employees, and the stabbings only ended when they were interrupted by the entry of three customers, who were taken to the back at gunpoint and shot in the head. Two of them survived, as did a fourteen-month-old child, who was not shot because the robber’s ammunition ran out.

The murderers and thieves, Jay Wesley Neill, who did the killings, and Robert Grady Johnson, were arrested on December 17 in a San Francisco hotel, traced there by the trail of marked bills which had paid for their transit. They were both convicted of the crimes in 1985 and sentenced to death for capital murder and several other crimes in connection with the robbery. When those convictions were overturned (they had been tried together) they have tried again, in separate trials, and again both were convicted. Johnson was sentenced to four life sentences and Neill was again given the death penalty. He was executed at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in 2002, by lethal injection.

18 Biggest Bank Robbers and Robberies in American history
A patrol car with visible bullet damage following the Norco shootout, following a bank robbery. RCDSA

18. The Norco shootout resulted from an attempted bank robbery

The Norco shootout in the town of that name in California took place on May 9, 1980, between five bank robbers and deputies of the Riverside County and later San Bernardino County sheriff’s departments. The robbers were armed with rifles, handguns, and shotguns. Two bank robbers and one deputy died in the gun battle, nine officers were wounded. The robbers shot up more than two dozen patrol cars and damaged a police helicopter. The shootout began in the parking lot of the Security Pacific Bank, where one robber was killed, leading the others to steal a car in the lot and lead police on a 25-mile chase. Riverside deputies were assisted in the high-speed chase by officers of other agencies as it entered Sam Bernardino County. Once the robbers reached an area near Lytle Creek they again engaged the pursuers.

After the second gun battle in San Bernardino County, the surviving robbers escaped into the San Bernardino Mountains. They remained at large until two days later when they were encountered in the general region of the second shootout. In yet another gun battle with police, a second robber was killed. The remaining three were taken into custody. The robbery had yielded a haul of about $20,000, most of which was recovered and the three surviving robbers were convicted of 46 felonies for their crimes, and all three were sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. For most of the shootout, the deputies had been outgunned by the bank robbers and changes to the arming of the San Bernardino Sheriff’s Department were the direct result of the gun battles following the robbery.

 

Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“The Canadian View of the Confederate Raid on Saint Albans”. John D. Kazar, Vermont History. 1964

“The Maiden Murder.; Arrest the Culprit Green.” The New York Times. Feb 14, 1864

“Missouri Bank Cashes In on Jesse James”. Jay, Clarke, Universal Press Syndicate, Chicago Tribune. May 2, 2004

“Frank and Jesse James: The Story Behind the Legend”. Ted P. Yeatman. 2003

“The Great Northfield Raid Revisited”. Johnny D. Boggs, True West Magazine. August 6, 2012

“The Last Outlaws: The Lives and Legends of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”. Thom Hatch. 2013

“Bank Robbers In Motorcar”. The Rich Hill Tribune, August 19, 1909. Online

“The Boss: J. Edgar Hoover and the Great American Inquisition”. Athan G. Theoharis, John Stuart Cox. 1988

“America’s Own Robin Hood: The Dillinger Legend”. Christopher Goodwin, The Times (London). June 28, 2009

“Family plot: Pretty Boy Floyd relative recalls his infamous uncle”. Dale Ingram, Tulsa World. October 18, 2009

“Baby Face Nelson”. Steven Nickel and William J. Helmer”. 2002

“Riding with Bonnie and Clyde”. W. D. Jones, Playboy Magazine. November 1968

“Why family believes Alcatraz escapees survived their journey”. Ruth Brown, New York Post. January 24, 2018

“Harry Pierpont Turns State Evidence In His Trial For Bank Robbery”. Warsaw Daily Times. May 6, 1925

“It’s an ‘old up! The first bank robbery caught on camera…from 1957”. Rebecca Seales, The Daily Mail. August 3, 2012

“3 Gunmen Rob Guards of $1.6 Million at World Trade Center Bank”. Kit R. Roane, The New York Times. January 14, 1998

“3 Survivors of Geronimo Bank Robbery Testify at Neill Retrial”. Tulsa World. September 25, 1992

“The Norco Bank Robbery”. Shirlee Pigeon, Riverside Sheriff’s Association, 2010. Online

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