These Roving Criminals Terrorized the Plains during the 1930s
These Roving Criminals Terrorized the Plains during the 1930s

These Roving Criminals Terrorized the Plains during the 1930s

Larry Holzwarth - January 14, 2018

These Roving Criminals Terrorized the Plains during the 1930s
Harry Pierpont had to be carried to the electric chair at the Ohio State Penitentiary due to wounds received trying to escaped the preceding month. Geocities

Harry Pierpont

Harry Pierpont was a career criminal, a murderer and bank robber, who is less well known than John Dillinger (with whom he worked for a time late in his career), mostly because he wanted it that way. Pierpont disliked the publicity that many of the roaming criminal gangs of the thirties thrived on, and was more than content to let others receive the fame associated with being gang leaders, although he was very much the leader of a criminal operation. By the end of the 1920s he had participated in several armed robberies of stores and banks, mostly in Indiana, and despite several attempted escapes was in custody at Michigan City. After being denied clemency, Pierpont arranged to escape with the assistance of Dillinger and several of Dillinger’s gang.

Throughout the summer of 1933 Dillinger and company committed multiple bank robberies, and obtained guns to smuggle into the prison where Pierpont and accomplices were held. How Dillinger managed to get the guns into the prison remains a matter of speculation; some believe he simply tossed them over the prison wall to bribed guards, others say that they were smuggled into the prison laundry. At any rate, the guns made it to Pierpont and his cohorts, and they used hostages under gunpoint to leave the prison. Once outside, Pierpont stole a sheriff’s car, later exchanging it for another, and with pre-arranged help on the outside from several accomplices made good his escape.

Meanwhile, Dillinger had been arrested in Dayton, Ohio and was being held in Lima, Ohio. Pierpont and several others robbed a bank in St. Mary’s to raise funds to get Dillinger out of jail. They then rescued Dillinger from the jail by posing as Indiana Prison officials, shooting the sheriff in the process when he demanded credentials, and escaped. That fall Dillinger and Pierpont stole guns and bulletproof vests from a police station in Auburn, Indiana. A week later they did the same at a police station in Peru, Indiana. By the end of October they were robbing banks in Indiana. After hiding out for a time in Florida they returned to robbing banks in East Chicago, Indiana in January, 1934, after which Pierpont, Dillinger, their girlfriends, and other gang members headed west.

In Tucson the gang members were recognized and rounded up, with all of them in custody by the end of January. Pierpont was extradited to Ohio to stand trial for the murder of the Allen County sheriff while Dillinger was sent to Indiana. Pierpont and another accomplice were convicted and sentenced to death in Ohio’s electric chair, and held on death row in the Ohio State Prison. After Dillinger escaped from jail in Indiana prison officials suspected he would try to help Pierpont escape and increased security. In July 1934 Dillinger was killed in Chicago, and Pierpont, realizing that there would be no rescue attempt, made plans to escape on his own.

In September Pierpont and his accomplice from the Dillinger gang, Charles Makley, attempted to escape using fake pistols they had carved from bars of soap. When guards opened fire Makley was killed and Pierpont received multiple wounds. The following month, still not fully recovered from his wounds, Pierpont was executed in the electric chair, to which he had to be carried due to the severity of his injuries.

These Roving Criminals Terrorized the Plains during the 1930s
Bonnie Parker and the newspapers collaborated to create the legend of Bonnie and Clyde. Wikimedia

Bonnie and Clyde

Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow were the founding members of the Barrow gang, made famous during their short lifetimes by the press and by Bonnie Parker’s attempts to add to their fame by presenting themselves as romantic, star-crossed lovers. In reality Clyde Barrow was a career criminal and murderer who started stealing and safecracking when he was in his late teens. By 1930 Barrow was in prison for multiple felonies, including car theft. While incarcerated he killed another inmate by breaking his skull with a length of pipe. Another inmate was charged with the murder, which Barrow happily let stand. He was paroled in 1932.

Barrow met Parker some time before he went to prison and sought her out upon his release. To make money, Barrow began to rob small stores and service stations with his accomplice Ralph Fults. In April 1932 Fults was arrested with Parker while robbing a hardware store, a crime for which Fults was convicted, but charges against Parker were dropped. While she was being held Barrow participated in the robbery of another store where the store owner was killed, and Barrow was identified by a witness as the driver of the getaway car. In August Barrow was approached by an Oklahoma sheriff and deputy in a parking lot when Barrow opened fire, killing the deputy and wounding the Sheriff. By December Barrow, accompanied by Parker and W.D. Jones had killed a victim of a car theft (Jones was likely the murderer) and a week into the New Year Barrow killed another lawman.

In March Barrow’s brother Buck joined the gang with his wife Blanche and the group which would come to be known under the name of Bonnie and Clyde began their criminal spree in earnest, having already a total of five murders on their resume. Although they would be remembered as bank robbers, some would even say daring bank robbers, Barrow preferred more helpless and isolated targets such as gas stations, isolated stores, and even diners and restaurants. His weapon of choice was the Browning Automatic Rifle, which became famous during the Second World War as the BAR, giving him an advantage in firepower over the local police.

Although legend has it that he preferred Ford cars for their speed, he was willing to steal whatever car was available, and often did. The gang would rob, or attempt to rob about twelve banks during their brief career. They also killed nine law enforcement officers, several in cold blooded murders rather than dramatic shootouts, and liked to take hostages to ease their escapes. Usually they would release the hostages and provide them with a little cash for their trouble. At least four members of the gang in addition to Barrow are known murderers, Parker is not one of them. They ranged from Texas to Minnesota, usually committing robberies in which relatively small sums were taken, a factor in the frequency of their crimes.

After a car accident when Barrow was driving and missed a sign warning of a closed bridge, Parker was severely burned and was unable to walk without support for the remainder of her life. Buck Barrow was fatally shot in an encounter with law enforcement in 1934, dying a few days after suffering a head wound. His wife was taken prisoner. By May 1934, Parker and Barrow were alone when they were ambushed by Texas Rangers, local law enforcement and officers from Louisiana. Their legend began shortly following their deaths. It does not typically include the nine police officers and more than a dozen victims or bystanders that were killed by the pair or members of their gang.

These Roving Criminals Terrorized the Plains during the 1930s
This mugshot of Bates was taken as he was being processed into Alcatraz in 1934. Bureau of Prisons

Albert Bates

Albert Bates was the partner for many years of the far more well-known George Kelly, who is usually referred to as Machine Gun Kelly. Bates in his lifetime earned the distinction of being held in Alcatraz both in the military prison there and later in the criminal justice prison. The Army sent him there after convicting him of desertion in 1911. By 1916 Bates was in Nevada, where he was convicted of burglary and sent to Nevada State Prison at the age of 23. When released he quickly was arrested again, convicted and enjoying the hospitality of the state of Utah. By 1930, Bates had been arrested, convicted, and incarcerated for burglary at least three times, and had committed an unknown number of burglaries.

After being released yet again from prison in 1930, this time in Colorado, Bates was introduced to George Kelly, himself a recent resident of the federal prison at Fort Leavenworth. Bates and Kelly were soon planning, with accomplices, a bank robbery, old hat for Kelly but a new type of crime for Bates. Their first robbery, in February 1932, was successful and led to another later that year in Washington, and then yet another, in November, in Tupelo Mississippi. The three robberies had netted them well over $100,000, but after dividing the money among the other members of the gang it was evident that they would have to keep working, as there was little cash left.

Like the Barker gang, Kelly and Bates began to consider roving bank robbery to be a little too dangerous for their taste, considering the shootouts which were becoming more and more a common greeting for many of the gangs throughout the Midwest. The sensationalized kidnaping of William Hamm was read about by the gangsters, who paid particular attention to the amount of the ransom paid, widely reported in the press. Bates and Kelly selected an oilman from Oklahoma City, Charles Urschell, as a potential victim. The successful kidnaping brought them a ransom of $200,000 and they released their victim in July 1933.

In 1933 bank robbery was not yet a federal crime. Kidnaping was. The FBI was soon involved in the investigation into the Urschell kidnaping. Bates and Kelly had held their captive on a ranch in Texas owned by Kelly’s family, and FBI agents soon identified and raided the location, arresting several of Kelly’s relatives. Bates and Kelly had split up and Kelly was later arrested in Memphis, Tennessee. Bates was arrested in Denver on August 12, the same day of the raid on the ranch, charged with attempting to pass stolen checks.

Both Bates and Kelly were eventually convicted of the kidnaping as were Kelly’s relatives at the ranch. Bates was sentenced to life imprisonment and sent to the federal prison at Alcatraz, where he had learned the basics of his criminal career two decades earlier. He died at Alcatraz in 1948.

These Roving Criminals Terrorized the Plains during the 1930s
As had happened with Dillinger, the body of Pretty Boy Floyd was put on display for public viewing, in this house in East Liverpool, Ohio. Wikimedia

Pretty Boy Floyd

Charles Floyd was another of the depression era gangsters to draw the attention and pursuit of Melvin Purvis, who was instrumental in the deaths of John Dillinger and Baby Face Nelson, as well as the capture of Harry Pierpont. Like many of the gangsters of the era, Floyd has been portrayed in the entertainment media both as a hardened criminal and as a victim of the times in which he lived. He was a criminal from an early age, being convicted for robbing a payroll at twenty-one, a crime for which he served more than three years in prison.

After he was paroled Floyd worked on oil rigs during the day, where he acquired the nickname which he hated for the rest of his life, and ingratiated himself with Kansas City gangsters at night. Soon he was joining them in several burglaries and bank robberies, and by 1929 he was wanted by the authorities for questioning in several crimes in the Kansas City area. In the spring of 1930 he was arrested in Akron Ohio on suspicion of killing a police officer during a robbery. Later that month he was arrested again in Toledo. Convicted of bank robbery in Ohio he was sentenced to 12 years in the Ohio State Penitentiary.

Floyd escaped from prison in Ohio and was next connected with a string of robberies and murders across the Midwest, including the murders of police officers in Ohio, Missouri, and Oklahoma. In Oklahoma Floyd frequently found shelter with farmers who faced the loss of their farms from foreclosure, and the story began to circulate that Floyd’s gang destroyed whatever mortgage records they could find when robbing banks. The story is most likely apocryphal, created by Floyd as a means of gaining support and a haven from pursuit.

In June 1933 four lawmen and prisoner Frank “Jelly” Nash were murdered as the officers prepared to transfer Nash, who was in custody. The attack was probably an attempt to release Nash from custody, and the deaths of the four lawmen gave J. Edgar Hoover the publicity he needed to arm the FBI and pursue many of the lawless gangs then roaming the Midwest. Floyd was suspected of involvement, but it has never been proven, and soon he was one such criminal immediately targeted by the FBI.

After the deaths of John Dillinger and Baby Face Nelson, Pretty Boy Floyd ascended to the rank of Public Enemy Number One. Melvin Purvis soon had Floyd cornered in Ohio and on July 23 1934, Floyd was killed by FBI and local officers in the middle of a cornfield, after his car was disabled by hitting a telephone pole. Originally it was believed that Floyd had attempted to shoot it out with the authorities, later witnesses – including the man credited with shooting and wounding, but not killing Floyd – told reporters that the injured man was executed as he lay helpless on the ground.

These Roving Criminals Terrorized the Plains during the 1930s
Joseph Cretzer, once Public Enemy Number Four, in custody. US DoJ

The Cretzer-Kyle Gang

Unlike the majority of the depression era roaming gangs, the Cretzer-Kyle gang did not terrorize the Midwest, but instead operated almost entirely on the West Coast. It was formed by Joseph Cretzer, who like so many of the criminals of the thirties gangs began his career at an early age. He was well acquainted with the inside of jails and prisons by the time he was in his twenties, and with his brother in law Arnold Kyle, formed the gang in the mid-1930s. With their accomplice Milton Hartmann the gang robbed their first bank in Portland, Oregon, in January 1935.

In November of the same year the three men robbed another bank, this one located within the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, and within a couple of months, they struck two banks in two days, one in Oakland and the other in Los Angeles. From then on they stepped up their tempo, and several banks were robbed, in Los Angeles, Oakland and as far north as Seattle. When it became evident that the police had descriptions of all the gang members they began to change their method of approaching the banks, sometimes adding accomplices and sometimes acting alone.

By the mid-1930s the most notorious of the Midwestern roaming gangs had been rounded up or killed, and the FBI began to shift its attention to other areas of the county. The spurt of bank robberies up and down the west coast quickly drew their attention and resources. Federal agents arrested a part time member of the gang in Los Angeles in March 1937, just over a week after its most successful robbery yet. The next day a raid on a Los Angeles hotel room failed to pick up Hartmann, who foiled the agents by shooting himself.

Cretzer and Kyle fled California for the Midwest, where the depression era crime spree had largely run its course. Kyle managed to avoid the authorities by using the alias Raymond Palmer, but a May 1939 arrest for drunken driving in Minnesota led to his fingerprints being checked and his true identity revealed. He entered a guilty plea for bank robbery and was sentenced to 25 years in federal prison.

Cretzer was arrested shortly after Kyle, in Chicago, and after some legal maneuvering entered a guilty plea for one bank robbery, he too receiving a 25 year sentence. Both served their sentences for a time at McNeil Island before being transferred to Alcatraz after attempting to escape. They tried to escape from there too, in 1941 and Cretzer made one final attempt during the prison riot known as the Battle of Alcatraz in 1946, dying during the attempt, either shot by prison guards or by suicide. His body was found with an automatic pistol beside it.

These Roving Criminals Terrorized the Plains during the 1930s
Arthur “Doc” Barker was arrested following the shootout in which Gibson was killed. Alcatraz Prison

Russell Gibson

Russell Gibson was a member of the Central Park gang in the 1920s. The Central Park gang operated in and around Tulsa Oklahoma, not Manhattan as implied by its name, and was a training ground of a sorts for several gang members of the thirties, including Alvin Karpis and Arthur “Doc” Barker. Wilbur Underhill spent some of his formative years with the Central Park gang as well. While with the gang Gibson participated in his first robbery, that of a bank messenger who was supposed to be carrying $75,000.

Gibson was arrested for the robbery attempt and held for trial. Shortly after his arrest he escaped from custody, whether this was with the assistance of the Central Park gang or he simply took advantage of an opportunity when it presented itself is unknown. His accomplices in the robbery were Neil Merritt and Cowboy Long, and his escape drew the attention of Alvin Karpis and Doc Barker.

Gibson began an association with the Barker-Karpis gang in the early 1930s, joining that extended group in several robberies. Gibson joined the gang around the time that Doc Barker returned after being paroled in Oklahoma. In addition to bank robberies, the Barker gang was involved in kidnaping activities, and also had dealings with several fences and underworld connected doctors. Some of the Barker activities were resented by the Chicago Outfit and other organized crime activities in Chicago and St. Paul, putting additional pressure on its members.

As the gang began to collapse under pressure from the FBI following the Bremer kidnaping, Gibson went into hiding in Chicago, along with Byron Bolton and Doc Barker. An FBI raid on their location took on the appearance of a bad movie. Rather than wait for local officers as directed, the FBI tear-gassed the wrong apartment, giving warning to the gangsters. After the FBI raided the wrong apartment local officers arrived, believing the officers in the wrong place to be the gangsters they nearly opened fire, and a shootout between law enforcement was barely averted.

Gibson attempted to escape in the confusion by going down a fire escape while wearing a bulletproof vest. Several FBI agents had remained on the ground outside and quickly spotted Gibson, who was carrying a Browning Automatic Rifle. Gibson was killed by rifle fire from the agents.

These Roving Criminals Terrorized the Plains during the 1930s
The death of four law enforcement officers and Frank Nash, seen here, led to the arrest of Deafy Farmer and the end of his safe house. FBI

Herbert Allen Farmer

Herbert Farmer was not a leader or a member of any of the depression era gangs which roamed the Midwest during the 1930s. His nickname was Deafy, and after serving time in the Oklahoma State Penitentiary for assault with intent to kill and his wife and he purchased a farm near Joplin, Missouri. Deafy was an accomplished pickpocket, grifter, and swindler. He was well liked by the underworld figures he met in prison and elsewhere, in the manner of most conmen, and his farm near Joplin became a well-known (to the gangsters) refuge from pursuit, as well as a place to hide ill gotten gains.

Fred Barker murdered a police officer in West Plains Missouri in 1931, and Barker, his mother and her boyfriend at the time, and Alvin Karpis all used Deafy’s farm as a safe haven until the resulting uproar died down. Over the course of Deafy’s ownership of the farm, Wilbur Underhill, Jelly Nash, Doc Barker, and several other gangsters were known to have stayed there. Many others are suspected of having been in temporary residence, but due to Deafy’s discretion it is nearly impossible to prove.

From the mid-1920s through the summer of 1933 the safe haven near Joplin was entirely unmolested by local authorities, despite Deafy’s known involvement in various criminal activities in the nearby towns of Kansas City, Missouri and Hot Springs, Arkansas. Not until the FBI began investigating the conspiracy to free Jelly Nash from custody in Kansas City was Deafy Farmer brought to the attention of the authorities.

After investigating the role of Farmer in the Kansas City Massacre, in which four law enforcement officers and Jelly Nash were killed in a botched attempt to free Nash, Deafy was charged with conspiracy and obstruction of justice. Fred Karpis had $2,500 of the money the Barker gang had recently obtained though the kidnaping of William Hamm sent to Joplin to help pay for Deafy’s defense. During the trial Deafy was the only one of the defendants not to testify, as he was said to be too deaf to understand any questions.

Deafy was convicted for conspiring to free Jelly Nash – several phone calls made as part of the conspiracy were traced to his farm, and Deafy had helped other conspirators flee the area by driving them to the airport – and he served two years in Alcatraz. After his release he sold the farm and he and his wife lived in Joplin until Deafy died in 1948. After his death his widow married Harvey Bailey, known as the Dean of American Bank Robbers, suspected of being complicit in the Urschell kidnaping, and a likely former user of the respite offered by Deafy Farmer’s safe house.

Advertisement