Last week I published a series of tweets (maybe too many?) on the 91st anniversary of a Clinton, Indiana bank robbery that almost no one’s heard of. I originally wanted to write a book about this event. But the lack of recorded dialogue made it difficult. And bank robbers tend to lie a lot. Newspaper accounts of the crew’s work over the U.S. was, at best, using an alias and if you’re lucky the aliases are consistent. But they rarely are.
To conduct this research I spent hours reading through clippings and accounts in about two files at the Indiana Historical Society and paid for the services of the Indiana Supreme Court Clerk to dig up the transcript from the trial held for two of the men in 1934.
But the series makes for an excellent magazine piece, which is why I’ve submitted a 5,000-word long-form story for publication that, hopefully, should land sometime next year. In the interim, I’m archiving these tweets here in this post.
On November 1, 1927, Lafayette, Ind. Police Chief Charles Arman responded to a bank robbery in progress at the Tippecanoe Loan and Trust Company. The robbers got away and fatally shot Chief Arman.
A couple of weeks later, the largest bank heist in Indiana history at that time happened in Frankfort, Ind. $140,000 was stolen by a mysterious group of bandits who sped away just as the bank was opening to handle Friday’s payroll.
On Tue., Dec. 16, 1930—91 years ago today— Herman “Baron” Lamm and his crew of bandits, including what may have been the oldest bank robber still working in the U.S., G.W. “Dad” Landy, just woke up and were preparing to rob the Citizens State Bank in Clinton, Ind.
Lamm had been held in a Utah prison in 1917 for robbery. During his time there he thought a lot about banks. In the early 20th century, robbery was a scattershot affair. Loud, noisy, and hectic. #BaronLamm was going to change that and invent the modern bank robbery.
Everything that happened on this day in Clinton, Ind. in 1930 is wild, true, and absolutely absurd. And almost no one’s heard about it, #BaronLamm, or the results of his work. Stay tuned for the next few hours…
At 9 am, Dec. 16, 1930 insurance man Henry Call set out to do what he always did every morning: go to the Citizens State Bank, start a transaction, walk across the street to the Post Office, then back to the bank. Today, though, a large, new Buick pulled up.
Barber Ed Vansickle was sitting in his shop and noticed Henry Call go into the bank—but he didn’t come out. Smoking a pipe, he looked out his window down Main Street.
Inside the bank, cashier Pete Voto, 35, was sorting the mail when four men walked in. G.W. “Dad” Landy, 70, James “Oklahoma Jack” Clark, 32, Walter Detrich, 26, and #BaronLamm, 60. He thought nothing of them until he heard, “Get your hands up!”
Outside, E.H. Hunter circled the block. Taped to the dash was a map and precise timings and speeds the crew would use to getaway from the bank and across the state line as soon as possible. Without a state police force, banks relied on vigilantes and local police.
Almost no state had a state police force, and the FBI didn’t exist in 1930. So state bank associations, like the @indianabankers, funded vigilantes, county shooting contests for marksmanship, and armed men to take down bank robbers.
For the next several minutes, the bandits took over the bank. They had rehearsed this. They often built models of the banks to practice in. Nothing was left to chance. They knew where the vaults, cages, safes, money, police, employees, and customers would be.
Except today, the vault wouldn’t open. The time delay had been activated. The frightened employees and customers—laid out on the floor—sat quietly. Telegraph operator C.N. Hawley came in right about now and was immediately thrown to the floor.
Hunter, driver and an ex rum runner, double parked out front. He noticed a burly man in a white shirt with a shotgun walking toward him. It was barber Vansickle, who suspected something was wrong when insurance man Henry Call didn’t walk out of the bank yet.
Inside, #BaronLamm decided the $15,567 (~$259k today), in the cages and drawers would have to do. So they loaded it up in bags, typewriter cases, and their pockets and darted out the door to the car.
Hunter stepped on the gas—right toward barber Vansickle and his shotgun. Vansickle raised his gun and prepared to fire when a nearby auctioneer realized what was happening. “BANK ROBBERS! THE BANK’S BEEN ROBBED!” He yelled.
All down Main Street, people rushed to shop windows to see what was happening. Vansickle prepared to shoot, but forgot his safety was on. The robbers took a hard turn heading in the wrong direction, sending a gas can tumbling out the passenger door.
By about this point in the morning, everyone inside the bank began to get up. Telegraph operator Hawley ran to the phone and yelled, “Give me the police! Quick!” The operator connected Hawley to the Clinton PD at 9:14 am.
Inside the Clinton PD, Chief Everett “Pete” Helms, 31, was off duty. He sat with on-duty officer Walter Burnside, 39. The town’s only police car was in the shop, so a loaner Oldsmobile sat out front. Hearing the news, the two men rushed out the door.
At this point, only Officers Burnside and Helms are in pursuit. The operator, who overheard the news from Hawley to Helms, immediately told her supervisor she needed help. Enter: 25 year old Chief Operator Helen Haase.
About now, Operator Haase took control of the switchboard and began calling every police department, Sheriff’s office, and volunteer in the direction the bandits were last seen headed.
In the getaway car, the tight and bumpy turn blew a tire back on the curb on Main Street. Without spare gas or a spare tire, the five men were thrashing down the street at 70MPH with one tire on the rim. Charles Clark, on his way to work, noticed the odd sight.
Clark kept driving on his way to the Boetto Motor Company, where he worked. He arrived, 3 blocks from the bank, and heard all about the morning’s news. His boss, WWII vet and Special Dept. Sheriff, Ernest Boetto, connected the dots.
Clark and Boetto, realizing the car they saw was the getaway car, grabbed a .38 revolver, a rifle, a bag of shells, and the keys to a high-power Dodge. The duo sped off at 70MPH+ toward Fairview Road.
It was about this point in the morning, along SR62 north of Clinton, Ind., that #BaronLamm ordered Hunter to pull over. The bandits had to replace the tire. Still in pursuit from @ClintonPolice, Chief Helms and Ofcr. Burnside came over a hill to a spray of gunfire.
Using a submachine gun—a rare weapon and one that far outmatched the pistols @ClintonPolice were carrying—Chief Helms turned hard right. In the turn, a bullet struck Burnside’s belt and rib. “I’m shot!” he gasped, before passing out from the pain.
Bullets screamed past the windshield. Chief Helms pulled Burnside’s pistol from his belt, crawled over him, pulled him into a ditch, and took aim over the hood. A firefight took place for the next several minutes, one man vs. 3 while 2 others changed a tire.
Up the road over a muddy dirt hill, Harlow Frist was driving his truck to put down hay. Getting out of his truck, he could hear the gunfire as a bullet whizzed by his head and another through his coat. “Chief!” Frist cried, realizing what was happening.
With the tire nearly repaired, #BaronLamm yelled, “Shoot the cops! Get the goddamn cops!” Chief Helms, ducking under his car, yelled back to Frist, “Get to a telephone and call for all the help you can get!” Frist ran back to his truck. Lamm’s men sped off again.
Amid the shooting, perhaps from bad luck or maybe a bullet from @clintonpolice Chief Helms, a bullet struck the bandits’ new tire. They stopped again as Jedia Frist (Harlow’s father), 79, was on his way to see his son. “We want your car, old man. Get out!” #BaronLamm yelled.
#BaronLamm and his men carjacked the elder Frist’s 1927 Buick Sedan. E.H. Hunter was back in the driver’s seat. They turned their spent getaway car around in hopes of fooling the police. They unloaded Frist’s flour and sugar. They abandoned heavy silver and paid Frist $500.
Back at his home, the younger Frist made it to a phone and reported all the details he could describe to Operator Haase. She would get another call right about now from Chief Helms and Officer Burnside—now conscious and in pain—from the farm of Thomas McWethy.
In the getaway car, Hunter stomped on the gas, flinging dust and mud in all directions and speeding up to…35 MPH. You see, Harlow worried about his dad driving too fast. So he installed a block of wood under the gas pedal. It wouldn’t go above 35MPH.
At just 35MPH, Jack Clark busted out the rear window knowing the police weren’t far behind. The slow speeds also gave Boetto and car salesman Charles Clark time to catch up in their Dodge. They followed a trail of spent rubber. Now, two cars were in pursuit.
16 miles north of Clinton in Newport, Vermillion Co. Sheriff Harry Newland’s phone rang with an urgent call from Operator Haase. Haase judged the chase was heading north. “Chief Helms is close behind!” She relayed. Newland called special deputy Joe Walker for help.
It was about 10 am—an hour after the robbery—that Newland told Walker, “Get all the boys together and head ‘em off!” Walker, 31, and a little reckless, grabbed rifles and pistols and two friends, Harold “Pete” Scott and Homer Hamm, both merchants in Dana, Ind.
Now with three cars in pursuit and 7 men vs. 5, the odds were shifting. Hamm’s Ford touring car was moving 2x faster than Lamm’s. Walker stood on the running board with his pistol. #BaronLamm and his men were trying to get to U.S. 36—a paved road—and into Illinois.
#BaronLamm decided the car was too slow. So they carjacked another vehicle. This time a cattle truck that ambled down the highway driven by Roy Gitten, 68. In the process, the pursuers caught up. “Stay back!” Helms yelled to Walker. “They have a machine gun!”
Walker, impatient, yelled “Come on, follow me!” And charged ahead. “They shot Burnside! Don’t get too close! Work on their tires and gas tank!” Yelled Chief Helms. He correctly realized their weapons were no match given the distance and firepower.
About 2 miles from Illinois, Walter Detrich pointed his pistol at Gitten and flatly replied, “Hit the road!” “Get the hell out,” #BaronLamm reiterated. They yanked Gitten out by his feet, leaving him on his back in the road. Everyone caught up and tensely aimed at each other.
Walker approached slowly. “Get your hands up!” He yelled, aiming right for #BaronLamm. Just now, shots fired in all directions. Gitten lay on the ground, clutching his (brand new $42) right front tire. Walker was shot and began spitting blood. “Go get ‘em” he wheezed.
It’s believed here #BaronLamm ’s driver, E.H. Hunter was also shot in this firefight. Boetto and Clark drove up on the scene so fast their brakes nearly failed. “Do you have your rifle?” Chief Helms yelled. “Yes!” Boetto replied, flinging to the ground. “Let ‘em have it then!”
Now #BaronLamm decided they needed to move again. But, none knew how to drive Gilbert’s truck. Except Gilbert. Who somehow happily volunteered to drive them all down the road. @ClintonPolice gave chase, and Hamm helped the shot Walker. He would die on his way to the hospital.
Back in Clinton, Operator Haase called hundreds of businesses, police, & volunteers. Even @INGuardsman dispatched two planes to the scene. Tuscola, Ill. radio WDZ interrupted broadcasts to share the news. Hazel Haase built a 100-mile wide firewall against #BaronLamm.
In the getaway car, #BaronLamm and his men were driving Gilbert’s old truck until it began to shake. He hadn’t expected to be gone long and didn’t fill the radiator. Now it was overheated and the crew needed a FOURTH getaway car. Opr. Haase flashed the news Walker was dying.
Fenton Williams, 22, came along in a 1930 Model-A and noticed Gilbert’s truck. #BaronLamm and his crew fired guns into the air to frighten Williams out of his car. Chief Helms, Burnside, Boetto, and Clark raced ahead and began firing back to stop the carjacking.
A firefight resumed, sending Gilbert to the ground clutching his new tire—which was promptly shot and deflated. #BaronLamm raced off again. Everyone was nearly out of gas, including the new getaway car. Boetto and Clark ran out first until Winchester Rogers came along.
Boetto and Clark climbed in Rogers’ coupe—with a full tank of gas—and chased forward toward the farm of Leo Moody near Jamaica, Illinois. Now begins the end of our wild saga.
Now out of gas—and having lost their gas can earlier—#BaronLamm and his men drove straight into a stack of oil barrels on the Moody farm. Leo Moody was strong, handsome, and at home with his mother tending to hogs. His wife had just taken the car down to visit his brother.
“We need your car,” #BaronLamm proclaimed, all five men pointing their guns at Moody. “You’re out of luck” he started, but was cut off. “Get busy,” Lamm replied. “We want your car.” “Let me go in the house and get the keys,” Moody said.
In the house, Moody turned to his 70 y/o mother and said, “There are some bad men out in the barn lot, but don’t worry. Go down to the cellar.” He grabbed his .22 rifle and Mrs. Moody went straight to the telephone to call the Sidell PD. They were aware—Opr. Haase told them.
By this point, about 50-100 men had surrounded the cornfields of the Moody farm. Three @INGuardsman airplanes circled overhead. And @ClintonPolice Chief Helms and Ofcr. Burnside were on-scene. #BaronLamm and his men scattered into the cornfields.
Boetto had only 3 rounds left. But he was also an excellent shot. As the bandits fled into the field, Boetto took a shot over 300 yards away. He hit someone—possibly #BaronLamm—sending a $5 bill into the air. His second hit Clark’s machine gun. His 3rd went between his legs.
With the field surrounded, a slow-motion chase gave way. Moody and Chief Helms climbed a windmill for a better view over the cornfield—still 6+ feet high. Soon, about 200 men would surround the farm.
By about noon, Chief Helms would find Lamm with a gaping chest wound, probably from Boetto’s shot. He watched #BaronLamm die in that field. G.W. “Dad” Landy was about 50 rows over. Ordered to give up, he shot himself in the head.
Burnside—still in pain from his ribs—found James “Oklahoma Jack” making a run for a fence. He was arrested and taken to a secure jail in Terre Haute. E.H. Hunter was found bleeding from his earlier wound in a hog house by Danville, Ill. officer Mace Smoot.
Walter Detrich was found by the elderly Mrs. Moody under a pile of corn cobs. “Shoot his head off!” She told her son. Calmer heads prevailed and he was driven to the Danville jail.
During their interrogation of E.H. Hunter, Hunter slowly bled to death and died. All that survived was Detrich and “Oklahoma Jack” Clark, who were eventually tried and sent to prison in Michigan City, Ind.
While in prison at Michigan City, Ind., Clark and Detrich would meet a young inmate in their cell block. He was eager to hear all about the #BaronLamm method for bank robberies. That, for 13 years, made him the most successful bank robber in the U.S.
The inmate was a young John #Dillinger, who had also just been transferred to the prison. His promise to Detrich and Clark: “Tell me everything you know and I promise I’ll bust you out of here.” They did, and so began a new career and saga of bank robberies across the Midwest.