The Year of Fear by Joe Urshel is a true-crime recap of the thrilling manhunt for Machine Gun Kelly (available September 8, 2015).
It's 1933 and Prohibition has given rise to the American gangster—now infamous names like Bonnie and Clyde and John Dillinger. Bank robberies at gunpoint are commonplace and kidnapping for ransom is the scourge of a lawless nation. With local cops unauthorized to cross state lines in pursuit and no national police force, safety for kidnappers is just a short trip on back roads they know well from their bootlegging days. Gangster George “Machine Gun” Kelly and his wife, Kathryn, are some of the most celebrated criminals of the Great Depression. With gin-running operations facing extinction and bank vaults with dwindling stores of cash, Kelly sets his sights on the easy-money racket of kidnapping. His target: rich oilman, Charles Urschel.
Enter J. Edgar Hoover, a desperate Justice Department bureaucrat who badly needs a successful prosecution to impress the new administration and save his job. Hoover's agents are given the sole authority to chase kidnappers across state lines and when Kelly bungles the snatch job, Hoover senses his big opportunity. What follows is a thrilling 20,000 mile chase over the back roads of Depression-era America, crossing 16 state lines, and generating headlines across America along the way—a historical mystery/thriller for the ages.
George and Kathryn Go To Work
On a warm morning in 1932, George and Kathryn Kelly were getting dressed for work in their comfortable Fort Worth home.
George loved watching his wife get dressed almost as much as he liked watching her undress. She was a stunner with the kind of frame that fine clothes were just made to adorn. She assembled herself into a brown silk blouse that draped off her shoulders and breasts as if it had been constructed specially for her by the finest seamstress in Dallas.
The gentle friction of the beige wool skirt she pulled up over her silk slip purred slightly as it glided over her hips. When she was finished tucking and smoothing, she snapped the waistband closed with a definitive click, like the sound of a .38 slug sliding into its chamber.
She plucked a weighty diamond brooch off the dresser and pinned it near her throat. Its sparkle drew George’s eye to the lovely little pool of flesh at the base of her throat, where the exquisite lines of Kathryn’s neck joined the frame of her shoulders. She slipped her arms into the beige suit jacket and tugged gently at it, pulling it into place. She set a smart beige cloche hat atop her head and tilted it ever so slightly to the right. It sat on her auburn hair like the crown on a European monarch and warmed her brown eyes into a deceptive look of coquettishness.
She turned gently to her husband, seeking the fawning approval that he was always eager to provide.
George, too, looked sharp. Tall and muscular, he knew how to polish the image with just the right amount of fashion-savvy style and masculine panache. Today he was wearing a custom-made brown English wool suit, with a creamy linen shirt. His tie was a ballet of greens and browns. His shoes, brown wingtips, were polished like brass. When he gazed at Kathryn, his hazel eyes looked as green and seductive as a cat in heat.
They were in the banking business and they were about to begin their twelve-hour commute to Boulder, Colorado, to go to work.
They nestled into the warm leather seats of their sixteen-cylinder Cadillac convertible roadster and headed north with smiles on their faces and Lucky Strikes glowing between their fingers.
George loved his Cadillac almost as much as he loved Kit. The car was the pride of General Motors and the envy of carmakers around the world. When GM introduced it in 1930, the company boasted: “the sixteen-cylinder Cadillac initiates a new trend in motor car design.” It was “designed for enormous acceleration, unheard of hill-climbing ability, and more speed than perhaps any man will care to use.”
In short, the perfect vehicle for a man in George’s line of work.
Off the assembly line it could cruise easily at eighty-five miles per hour. But after George’s mechanics got finished customizing it, the car would race along at more than one hundred miles per hour on the paved roads of the nation’s state highway system. They’d also reinforce the suspension to handle the heavy loads of liquor George would haul and the extra cans of gasoline he’d pack in the trunk because the monster engine would barely eke out eight miles a gallon.
And it looked like a dream, with billowing oval fender skirts, teardrop headlamps, glistening chrome-spoked wheels and whitewall tires. It turned as many heads as Kit.
They arrived in Denver slightly after 9:00 p.m. and pulled up to the garage next to a small bungalow on the outskirts of the city.
“Kit, come on baby, move over to the driver’s seat,” said George. “We’ve got to change cars.”
Albert Bates, who’d rented the bungalow and the garage, walked out of the house and greeted the couple in the yard.
“You sure took your time getting here, George,” said Al. “It was dark over an hour ago. The coast was clear.”
George was moving gear from the Cadillac to a nondescript Buick they would use in the morning. “We stopped for a leisurely dinner, Al. You know how Kit likes candlelight and wine. No rush anyway, you’ve got the job all laid out.”
Bates poured them all a glass of whiskey, the finest contraband in the country, and spread out a hand-drawn map of the neighborhood on the table. He marked the major streets, the stop signs, the police patrol route. He outlined the best approach to the bank and where Kit would need to park the getaway car. They then went over the layout of the bank’s interior—the teller locations, the vault, the president’s office—and the guard’s routine. He showed them the ideal escape route and several others in case something unexpected should happen.
“How far away is the police station?” George asked.
“It’s far enough away to make getting there difficult for the cops. Nine, ten blocks. We can be out of town before anyone can get them on the phone.”
George had spent a lifetime as a bootlegger. He knew how to elude the law and he knew the roads and highway system as if he had designed them himself. He knew his cars and how to race them around the back roads, avoiding bottlenecks, bridges and areas where a roadblock might slow his escape. Once he was in the car and moving, there was no way he’d get caught from behind. Hell, he’d be out of the county before the cops were done cranking up their pathetic Model As.
After a few hours’ sleep, George and Al threw on some cheap gray suits and waited impatiently while Kit primped in the house’s single bathroom. She emerged in a silk navy-blue dress and carried a wide-brimmed hat. She also carried a men’s suit that had been tailored to fit over the dress. Al took the wheel of the car and Kit lay across the backseat in case there were any early-morning looky-loos, who’d see only two men heading out for work.
Along the way, they stopped briefly so Kit could don her masculine garb and take over the driving duties. George looked on admiringly. Best looking wheelman he’d ever worked with.
She backed expertly into an open parking spot in front of the bank, positioned perfectly for a quick getaway.
“Good luck, fellas,” she said as she pulled a revolver from under the seat.
As the two entered the bank and headed toward the tellers, Al pulled a sawed-off shotgun from under his coat.
“It’s a holdup!” he announced. “Hands to heaven, and no yelling!”
George tossed a canvas bag over the counter to each teller. “Fill ’em up, girls. And be quick!”
As he did, the bank’s elderly guard was moving warily in George’s direction. Al yelled out a warning and George turned his .38 in the guard’s direction. The guard was fumbling to remove his sidearm from its holster. George fired off a single round, clipping the guard in the arm and dropping him to the floor as the panicked tellers stuffed stacks of wadded-up bills into the bags.
“You stupid son of a bitch! I warned you! Do what you’re told!”
He grabbed the bags from the tellers and the two jogged quickly back to the car and jumped in as Kit sped away.
“What happened?” she asked. “You scared the hell out of me when I heard that shot.”
“The old bank guard wanted to be a hero, so George shot him,” said Al. “Nothing serious. He’ll survive.”
“Could have shot the old guy in the heart,” said George, “but I’ve never killed anyone and don’t intend on starting.”
Al could not make a similar claim. He’d shot an earlier partner who he thought had been cheating him. He wouldn’t have to worry about that with George, though. George was all business and he played it straight. He had a reputation going all the way back to his bootlegging days as the most honest thief you’d ever meet. But although it was true he’d never killed anyone, the fact was he didn’t need to. There were plenty experienced killers among the members he’d assemble into bank-robbing teams. If he needed a shooter, he could get one with a single phone call.
Yet another rural western bank had been relieved of its deposits—$15,000 in this case. The handsome couple in the front seat of the nondescript Buick were heading back to pick up their shiny new Cadillac roadster and were busy making bigger plans.
First, off to Mexico to lie low and spend some of their recent earnings. George spoke fluent Spanish and, along with his extravagant tips, he was a popular customer at the lavish beach resorts that Kit favored.
Since his release from Leavenworth Penitentiary in February 1930, Kelly had been on a tear, robbing banks at the rate of nearly one a month. The jobs were getting to be almost routine, but with the Depression dragging on, the take was getting smaller and smaller. Banks had less and less money in their vaults, and some were simply closing up shop and going out of business as panicked customers pulled out their cash. George had a feeling his real good thing was not going to last forever. Worse, the couple’s lucrative sideline—running booze—looked like it would be drying up if the Democrats won the upcoming election and their gin-sipping candidate made good on his promise to bring the era of Prohibition to an end.
From their R & R vacation spot, they would begin the planning for a series of jobs that would set them up for life—an audacious scheme that Kit had dreamed up. It involved a series of kidnappings of high-net-worth individuals in the lawless Southwest that would—if everything went according to plan—bring them $1 million in cash and set them up for permanent retirement in the luxury lifestyle they had grown so accustomed to. They were about to graduate into the burgeoning Snatch Racket that was about to become the latest calamity to afflict the country.
* * *
When Franklin Delano Roosevelt took office in March 1933, he inherited a surreal and almost unimaginable American nightmare. The country had become a cauldron of poverty, starvation and environmental disaster. A pervasive lawlessness infected nearly every city, town and godforsaken outpost in the forty-eight states he would need to rescue.
Since the Stock Market Crash of 1929, almost 90 percent of its value had been lost. Much of the nation’s upper class was wiped out. The ripple effects of those losses decimated the middle class and those less fortunate, as well. Average household incomes dropped by a third. Thousands of banks closed. Local and community banks foreclosed on nearly one million homeowners. Business failures and the collapsing real estate market deprived cities and states of tax revenue, which resulted in draconian cuts in the few social services that existed. Municipal workers, police and teachers were laid off or went unpaid. Thousands of schools closed or reduced hours. Millions of students dropped out.
The gross national product (GNP) had fallen to half its 1929 level. Industrial investment dropped by 90 percent. Automobile production was down nearly 70 percent, as were iron and steel production and nearly every other industry that provided work for Americans. Sixteen million jobs had evaporated. The per capita income was lower than it was in the early 1900s.
John L. Lewis, head of the United Mine Workers of America, was not engaging in hyperbole when he asserted that the diets of most members of his union had sunk “below domestic animal standards.”
The national unemployment rate, which was as low as 3 percent before the market crashed, pushed north of 25 percent. For non-farm workers it was almost 40 percent. In many cities it stretched as high as 80 percent. But those numbers masked the reduced hours and trimmed wages of the workers who managed to hang on. Those who couldn’t walked the city streets in a daze looking for work, food or hope. And there just wasn’t any.
Proud men and women who populated the nation’s cities—from the architects and engineers who designed them to the ironworkers and carpenters who built them—stood in breadlines for hours. Occasionally, they would form up into a mob and attack the food trucks that passed by making their deliveries. At night, a desperate few would organize raids on local grocery stores, kicking in windows and looting them dry before the police could arrive.
The misery was even greater on the farms and ranches of the Midwest and Plains, where the Great Depression had arrived years earlier. The droughts that started in the late ’20s continued unrelentingly into the ’30s. During the war years, as Europe’s farmland was incinerated and destroyed, American farmers had stepped up, increased production, expanded their acreage and fed the world. After the war ended and the verdant fields in Europe returned, the price of everything produced in America plummeted.
Overproduction from the war years had stripped much of the land of its fertility. The drought dried it up and it simply began to blow away—slowly at first, but eventually in dust clouds so thick they would choke cattle and blacken the sky at noon. American farm production had dropped 60 percent from 1929 to 1932.
That was the state of the nation that Roosevelt was elected to rescue: bankrupt, starving, without hope and growing increasingly violent.
Just months before he was to take office, Roosevelt himself had narrowly escaped an assassin’s bullet. Attending a celebration rally in Miami after returning from a cruise aboard his friend Vincent Astor’s yacht, an assassin fired five times in his direction, fatally wounding Anton Cermak, the mayor of Chicago, who was standing next to him. And while the violence that day was deemed a national disgrace, it was indicative of the kind of nation the President governed. In major cities, particularly Chicago, large, entrenched criminal empires had been established essentially by providing to the citizenry the very things that the government had outlawed: liquor, gambling, prostitution and a small collection of lesser vices. To protect their business operations, these organized crime families set up their own codes, laws and accepted business practices. They hired their own enforcement operators and bribed the local cops to either look the other way or lend a hand for an accepted price.
In the ’20s and ’30s, law enforcement was primarily a local affair. Law officers were beholden to area politicians, many of whom were beholden to the local mob. The untrained, underfinanced web of law enforcement in 1933 consisted of a mere collection of four thousand county sheriffs, eleven state police forces and a handful of big city operations—all with conflicting degrees of cooperation, political affiliations and corruption. (Currently, there are more than eighteen thousand law enforcement agencies and nearly one million law enforcement officers.) In many towns it was not too much of a stretch to say that the local mob not only ran the criminal activities, but the government and law enforcement, as well.
The New York Times lamented that “the criminal courts of this nation have become in effect a protection to the criminal through the web of technicalities, objections to evidence, delays, appeals, straw bond, parole, and pardon at the disposal of unscrupulous criminal lawyers.” The 1931 editorial noted that since the declaration of war in 1917, the number of murders associated with the crime wave in the United States was greater than three times the 50,280 deaths caused by World War I. (The murder rate in the ’30s was twice that of contemporary times, and the vast majority went unsolved.)
The banking collapse and FDR’s pledge to end Prohibition were putting the squeeze on a particular brand of outlaw plying his trade in the middle of the country. These men, who operated in loosely organized small units or on their own, were viewed by the local populace as the direct descendants of the legendary Western outlaws who roamed the West robbing trains, banks and wealthy ranchers. The modern equivalents in the ’20s and ’30s were highwaymen, bootleggers and bank robbers. But the Depression and the impending legalization of liquor sales were wiping out their lucrative businesses. There was little money left in the banks, and there was no money on the road. But there were plenty of wealthy fat cats at the top of the food chain who still had plenty of cash in their pockets and in their vaults. If your business is thievery, you go where the money is. And, in 1933, there were precious few places to raid. But if you could snatch a member of the moneyed class, ransom them off and get away with the cash, you could get rich.
Out of this state of criminal desperation, the Snatch Racket was born.
An accelerating scourge of kidnapping was about to envelop the nation, and it had almost no means of combatting it. The bootleggers and bank robbers who operated with virtual impunity out West were well aware that fleeing county and state lines left the local law without the authority to give chase, and that handing off that authority to another county or state was a coordination nightmare. Outlaws, with their fast cars, superior weaponry and the tacit support of the locals, were agonizingly hard to chase and capture. It would be the same for those who turned to kidnapping.
FDR, who was hatching plans to expand the federal government to combat the Depression, recognized the need to create a national law enforcement arm to combat the rampant criminality that was bleeding the country.
What Roosevelt wanted was a national force that would be small, well-trained and largely invisible to the public. But, most importantly, it would be beholden to no state or local politician. It would be the law enforcement arm of the federal government. But national police forces were perceived by many as the stuff of dictators and European potentates. In the United States, with its aversion to concentrated federal power and big government, there had been no appetite for one.
But in the hot summer of 1933, as Roosevelt completed his ambitious first 100 days in office, those big-government fears would begin to abate. An unlikely confluence of criminal events would soon put the need for a national police force on center stage.
* * *
George Kelly’s road to criminal notoriety was unlike those of his contemporaries. Most of the other gangster types roving the South and Midwest were the charmless products of tough or impoverished backgrounds. George was the son of well-to-do parents in Memphis, Tennessee. Born George Francis Barnes Jr. on July 18, 1900, he grew up comfortably middle class, attending Catholic schools and getting by on his innate intelligence rather than applying himself to any serious scholastic pursuits. He worked as a caddy at the local country club and, when he was old enough to drive, he began smuggling liquor into the dry state of Tennessee from over the state line in nearby Arkansas.
George was the product of a loveless marriage. His mother suffered constantly from the inattention of her husband and his distant relationship with his children.
When George got wind of a rumor that his father was carrying on a relationship with another woman across town, he staked out the house and, when he got evidence of the tryst, he confronted his father by barging into his office the next day. George agreed to keep the information from his mother in exchange for a hefty increase in his allowance and liberal use of the family car.
George used the car and his cash to expand his liquor-running business. He found willing customers among the members of the country club where he worked, and soon they were setting him up with so many patrons he no longer needed to hump clubs around the course for measly tips. When the enterprising high school entrepreneur would get busted by the local police, his father would dutifully bail him out and use his influence to get the charges dropped.
George fled his home life the way most middle-class kids do, by going off to college. Even though he’d dropped out of high school, he managed to pass the college entrance exam and enrolled at Mississippi A&M (now Mississippi State University) as a probationary student. But he spent most of his time and money on the co-eds he charmed and the parties they attended. By the beginning of his second semester, he’d run up some 55 demerits—which he famously tried to reduce by climbing to the top of the school’s flagpole to fix a broken pulley. Ultimately, he dropped out and returned to Memphis and the business he’d started, which would later expand to great profit when the Volstead Act brought in the Prohibition era in 1919.
Back in the gentleman bootlegging business, he set his sights on the beautiful daughter of a wealthy businessman, Geneva Ramsey. But Ramsey’s father, George, was well aware of the young lothario’s reputation, criminal and otherwise, and he forbade his daughter from seeing him. He sent her away to boarding school when George persisted in his romantic pursuits.
Eventually, they eloped and got married in Mississippi, assisted by none other than the governor’s daughter, whom Geneva had met while at school.
On their return, Ramsey relented and took George into the family with reluctant acceptance that eventually grew into genuine affection. He gave him a job at his construction company and George worked with great enthusiasm, adopting Ramsey as the “father I never had.” The couple had two kids, and Ramsey was naturally taken with his grandchildren, just as he was with his new assistant. But tragedy struck in 1925, when a dynamite charge exploded prematurely and killed Ramsey. His widow, Della, was forced to sell the company, and she generously set George up in various businesses, from selling cars to goat farming, but George was not the businessman that his father-in-law had been and he failed at all of them.
Eventually, George returned to the life of a bootlegger, wearing fashionable suits and snap-brimmed fedoras as he hauled his liquor in fast cars with his golf clubs cohabitating with the contraband in the trunk. Geneva hated the new life with George, gone so frequently, alternately getting chased by police or rivals and ending up in jail in all sorts of places. When she’d had enough, she took the kids and left him.
With Geneva gone, George took off for the wilds of Kansas City, an open city for criminality of all measures and styles. He changed his name to George Ramsey Kelly, using Ramsey as his middle name in deference to his departed father-in-law. He got serious about the business of bootlegging, which was growing increasingly profitable as the Prohibition era dragged on.
He was arrested a number of times in connection with his criminal exploits. In Santa Fe on March 14, 1927, in Tulsa on July 24 and then again in Tulsa in January 1928. But bootlegging in the rural Southwest was a well-tolerated crime, and if the right people were paid off and the right protection acquired, the penalties were light from the local authorities. But he made the foolish mistake of getting caught selling liquor on an Indian reservation, a minor crime, but because it was on federal land, it was a federal offense. On January 13, 1928, he was convicted and sent to Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary, where he was thrown in with a bunch of hard cases with long rap sheets—the type of men who really did belong there. It was there he would meet the people who would change his life forever, most notably a tight group of professional bank robbers: Francis “Jimmy” Keating, Tommy Holden and the legendary Frank “Jelly” Nash.
Kelly used his math and accounting skills to work his way into a cushy job in the prison’s records office. With access to all of the inmates’ personal statistics and fingerprints, Kelly was able to expertly fabricate fake IDs for Keating and Holden that allowed them to walk out with a work crew of less notorious inmates assigned to farm labor. Once out, they ditched the work crew, changed into civilian clothing and simply walked away. (Nash, the wily veteran, didn’t need any help. He walked out in a similar fashion a short time later.) The three had told Kelly that if he was looking for work once he got on the outside, he should come by the Green Lantern tavern in St. Paul, Minnesota, and look them up. When Kelly was released two years later on good behavior, he was tougher, smarter and had a whole cadre of experienced criminal pals he was looking to reconnect with. And he knew exactly where to find them.
* * *
The Green Lantern was a major clearinghouse for underworld activities of all sorts run by an Orthodox Jew named Harry “Dutch” Sawyer, who had St. Paul’s notoriously corrupt police department in his pocket. At the Green Lantern, Dutch could put you together with big-time criminal gangs who might be in need of an additional player for a bank heist, burglary, safecracking, shakedown, extortion or whatever other kind of racket you were into. If things didn’t go as planned, he could lead you to a friendly auto body repair shop where they wouldn’t ask questions about the bullet holes in the fender or the shattered back window. If you needed to arm up, he could get you the kind of weapon you desired. Suffer an unfortunate injury on the job? He could get you the best treatment from a skilled, no-questions-asked member of the medical profession. In need of female companionship? He could arrange that, too. And if you needed to unload some marked bills, government bonds or any other hard-to-fence item, he could get you the best rate going.
In 1930, the Green Lantern was a very popular spot. Dutch arranged for employees at the Prohibition-crippled Schmidt Brewery to provide him with beer through a tunnel system. St. Paul Police Chief Tom Brown drank at the bar and worked his various “business deals” with Dutch. In the areas of the country bordered by Chicago, St. Louis, Kansas City and the Canadian border, there were few significant criminal activities that didn’t have a connection to the Green Lantern. It was “big time,” but you needed an entrée to get in. And when George got out of prison, he had one.
Dutch was running what was commonly referred to around St. Paul as the “O’Connor System.” From the turn of the century to 1920, Police Chief John O’Connor ran the crime and law enforcement operations of St. Paul. O’Connor was both a law enforcement officer and a criminal enforcer. He was known as the “Smiling Peacemaker,” both for his Irish charm and his ability to keep trouble out of his town by accommodating and protecting those who would ply their trades outside of it. The equation was simple; it didn’t matter what kind of criminal you were, you were protected in St. Paul as long as you didn’t commit any crimes within the city limits. It was a system that worked well for the banks and citizens of the city. The city fathers were happy to live in ignorant bliss and enjoy the crime-free environs of their proud state capital.
On the other side of the river, in Minneapolis, a similar system was run by a tall, affable Irishman named Edward G. “Big Ed” Morgan. It was a perverted form of law enforcement, but it worked particularly well, as long as you lived in the Twin Cities. However, once you got outside the city limits, the countryside was ravaged by the criminals that the O’Connor System protected.
By the early ’30s, fully 20 percent of the bank robberies in the nation occurred within an easy drive of St. Paul. In 1933 alone, forty-three bank robberies had drained $1.4 million from regional coffers (approximately $20 million in contemporary value). The pillaging teams that formed at the Green Lantern hit small community banks in little towns virtually unknown to the rest of the nation: Hugo, Sandstone, Elk River, Cushing, Savage, Shakopee and on and on. They hit the banks in neighboring North and South Dakota, as well. The county sheriffs and amateur guards hired by the local banks were unprepared and ill-equipped for the marauding robbers who would swoop in carrying machine guns, sawed-off shotguns and pistols stuck in their belts. And even if they were lucky enough to have a squad car, they would be left in the dust as gangsters sped away in fast Cadillacs and Packards, back to the safety and comfort of St. Paul.
This was the fraternity Kelly was able to join with Keating and Holden and Nash as his sponsors. He would begin his on-the-job training almost immediately after leaving prison from the guys who were the very best in the business. Nash was the old-timer with a criminal résumé that stretched back more than a decade. Nash was part of the team that robbed the Katy Limited on August 20, 1923—the last successful horseback-mounted train robbery in American history. Nash’s charm and erudition were noted by the Associated Press when reporting on the robbery: “Four men under the leadership of a suave outlaw, who chatted amiably with his victims about the merits of a certain well-known political writer and discussed current questions of the day, held up the Missouri, Kansas & Texas train 123 southbound near Okesa, Okla., early today and robbed the express and mail cars of packages,” the story noted.
Nash had spent so much time in prison libraries that he’d become something of a Shakespeare scholar, quoting liberally from his works for comic effect when the time was right—jokes that went right over the heads of his thuggish compadres. When he walked out of Leavenworth, he’d taken the library’s copy of the Bard’s collected works with him.
Nash worked frequently with another Green Lantern denizen by the name of Harvey Bailey. Bailey was thought to be the most successful bank robber in the country. He had basically invented the modern form of bank robbery—one that emphasized meticulous planning, precise timing and hasty escapes over country roads using the finest and fastest of Detroit’s products. He’d study road maps, often at the county surveyor’s office, and drive them ahead of time for practice, always plotting alternative routes in case things didn’t go according to plan. He knew where the traffic cops were stationed and when the patrolmen walked their beat. There wasn’t a cop in the country that could catch Bailey when he was fleeing a job. He’d be flying down back alleys in speedy escape cars before the local lawmen even knew their town had been hit.
Bailey would study a bank for weeks or months before he would pull a job. He could judge the health of a bank by the commercial activity of its city and county. He knew when payroll deposits were made and the cash on hand would be greatest. There was no point in risking your life to rob a bank that was low on money.
Bailey robbed his first bank in 1920, and by the end of the decade his successful plunders included the Denver Mint and Lincoln National Bank, which netted him and his crew a cool million in cash and bonds, which he then laundered through Sawyer at the Green Lantern. The losses suffered by the Lincoln Bank were so severe that it closed its doors a short time later. Bailey had stolen so much money in fact, that in the late ’20s he quit the business and went straight, investing in real estate and opening a group of gas stations and car washes in Chicago. But when the market crashed in 1929 and his bank failed, Bailey’s legitimate businesses were wiped out and he had to return to the kind of work he did best.
Keating and Holden had been incarcerated so long they needed a couple of jobs to retrain for the modern era. So Dutch assigned them and Bailey, along with their rookie friend Kelly, to assist Sammy Silverman and Robert Steinhardt from Chicago on a job planned to knock over the bank of Willmar, Minnesotta. For George, the amiable bootlegger who’d never been in on a bank robbery, it was baptism by fire.
Bailey brought in his longtime partner and legendary gunman, Verne Miller. Miller was a former county sheriff from South Dakota and a combat-hardened army marksman who’d served in World War I. He’d taken his talents over to the criminal side after the county fathers had sent him to prison on an embezzlement charge. If there was the risk of gunplay on a job, Verne Miller was the kind of man you would want on your team. Bailey was uneasy about the Willmar raid because he had not participated in the planning and in his view it was poorly planned—in fact, not really planned at all. Steinhardt and Silverman were going to take the place by force and surprise. This was not the way Bailey liked to work, but, not wanting to disappoint Dutch, he agreed to go along.
On the day of the job, the group assembled, each grabbing a tommy gun or sawed-off shotgun and a sidearm out of the trunk of the assault cars. Kelly was assigned to guard the bank’s front door while the others went inside to empty the vaults and cover the customers.
The group sped into Willmar, jumped from the cars with guns drawn and burst into the lobby. There were sixteen employees and nine customers milling about.
“Lay down or we’ll blow the hell out of you!”
The crowd dove for the floor. Steinhardt covered them as Bailey went to work on the tellers and the vault, filling satchels with cash and bonds. When the bank’s vice president was slow to comply with the order to hit the floor, Steinhardt clubbed him with his gun and kicked him into compliance.
But the bank had done some planning. A silent alarm switch had been installed under the counter to alert the police and a group of unofficially deputized neighbors. As Bailey leapt the counter, he noticed a teller lift his leg, tripping the silent alarm.
“I’ll kill you for that,” snarled Bailey as he pushed the teller to the floor. Steinhardt and Silverman were having trouble getting the vaults opened and valuable time was wasting away as a small crowd, alerted by the alarm, began to assemble outside as Kelly tried to keep them at bay waving his weapon from side to side and threatening to shoot.
Inside, Bailey and Steinhardt grabbed the bank’s vice president and threatened to kill him if he didn’t give them the safe’s combination.
“Then shoot,” he replied stoically. “I don’t know it.”
Another teller was not so defiant and finally got the door open after a sizeable delay. With their satchels full, they headed for the door. Bailey put his gun on the cowering teller who had tripped the alarm.
“Stand up, I’ll need you,” he said, grabbing him by the collar and forcing him to the door as a shield. Bailey’s compatriot grabbed a woman off the floor and did the same. When they burst outside, Kelly let loose a volley of machine-gun fire to scatter the crowd as the escape car approached. But the crowd was returning fire and a bullet whizzed past the head of Bailey’s shield. As it did, the teller ducked violently, getting free of Bailey’s grip. Bailey clubbed him to the ground with a swift blow from his rifle’s butt and the kid crawled along the ground back into the bank and reached up to lock the door as the frightened employees were jumping out the rear window to flee the scene.
The female hostage was doing little to dissuade the townsfolk from returning fire in her direction. Bullets tore past her head until she was finally released as the gang jumped inside the escape car and started returning fire into the crowd.
Mrs. Emil Johnson was standing on the corner holding her two-and-a-half-year-old granddaughter, Annette Ruth, in her arms when a bullet tore into her. Her daughter screamed. As she tried to drag her mother and daughter into the safety of a doorway, she, too, was hit. A third round hit the bag the child was holding.
As the cars sped away back to St. Paul, they were peppered with gunfire from the vigilantes strategically positioned along the way. One round shattered the rear window of one of the getaway cars and hit Steinhardt in the back of the head. He slumped forward and passed out as blood splattered the car’s interior and sent shards of glass shrapnel into the other occupants.
Still, the gang eluded their pursuers and fled back to the Twin Cities with $142,000 in cash and securities.
The next edition of the Minneapolis Journal was topped with bold headlines reporting the raid:
MACHINEGUN BANDITS RAID WILLMAR
STREETS SPRAYED WITH BULLETS, 3 SHOT
Citizens Held at Bay Before Machinegun While Gangsters Scoop Up Currency—Townspeople Fire Upon Fleeing Auto
“The robbery,” said the Journal, “was one of the most daring in the history of the Northwest. The outlaws used a modernized version of the Jesse James practice of half a century ago to shoot up the town after the holdup.”
“The bandits certainly were thorough in their work,” one eyewitness noted. “They were not amateurs. I just saw one of them. He appeared about 35 or 40 years old and was fairly well dressed.”
The Journal noted that the Willmar raid was the thirteenth successful holdup on Minnesota banks since the beginning of the year. And at $142,000, it was the biggest theft to date.
To Bailey it was totally botched. He vowed to only work on jobs he planned himself in the future. He’d taken the job as a favor to Dutch, but it seemed every time he agreed to help someone out, there was trouble. And he hated trouble. Trouble brought notoriety and notoriety brought the law. Bailey liked to keep a low profile, and stay as anonymous as possible. Other people had often been suspected of pulling the jobs he’d executed. But Bailey didn’t care who got the credit as long as he got the money.
In the Willmar robbery, nobody had cased the place. Nobody had staged it, nobody had mapped out alternative escape routes, so everybody got confused once they got inside. It took eight minutes to get in and get out, and that was way too long. (By contrast, when Bailey and company robbed the Denver Mint, it took all of ninety seconds.) Worse, there was gunplay and people got hurt. That was something the cops could not ignore, no matter how well they were being paid off.
Within days of the Willmar job, the Bankers Association of Minnesota and the Dakotas began urging county officials to band their sheriffs’ departments together into a unified police force and join with citizens’ groups to arm up and fight the gangster scourge. The Saint Paul Pioneer Press announced the initiative with a banner headline.
3 N.W. STATES MAP WAR AGAINST BANDITS
“Preparing for the greatest crime drive in the history of the northwest, organizations in three states have evolved plans by which they hope bank bandits will be an expression of the past.”
At a special meeting of county officials, E. F. Riley of the North Dakota School of Science urged the arming of special deputies with machine guns and high-powered rifles in every town, city and farm community in the state.
“We are going to war on bandits and meet them with the same poison they use in staging their holdups—machine guns, high powered rifles, special automobiles with mounted guns and airplanes,” he declared. “Every garage and filling station along main highways will be equipped to meet the invasion of bank robbers.” He also suggested that machine guns be mounted in second-story offices across the street from local banks.
Dutch Sawyer did not like the heat that the Willmar job was bringing. Still, in the northern Plains states, crippled by drought and the Depression, he knew there were precious few funds available to supply the states with the kind of armaments they would need for their grand plans.
Silverman had gone to the Green Lantern to get Dutch to provide him with a team and Dutch had obliged, for his usual cut of the proceeds. He knew Silverman was a trigger-happy hothead who shot a policeman and four bystanders when he robbed a bank during the Republican National Convention in Kansas City in 1928. But that was not something that concerned Dutch. What did concern him, however, was his discovery that Silverman had cheated Dutch’s team out of their fair share of the take from the Willmar job. He sent Verne Miller out to square things up.
On August 14, a double-deck, seven-column headline in the Saint Paul Dispatch announced the end result of that misguided slight.
3 GANGSTERS MURDERED
ON ROAD NEAR WILDWOOD
Verne Miller tracked down Silverman and two of his hoodlum buddies near a resort at Lake Minnetonka, popular among the gangster crowd for R & R unmolested by local law enforcement. Miller killed all three and hung their bodies from a tree near a desolate road that was popular as a trysting spot for young couples visiting a nearby amusement park.
George Kelly was getting quite an education in the way banks were robbed and business was conducted in the new Wild West. Although the murderous gunplay terrified him, robbing banks was a lot less work than running booze, and the payout was exponentially better.
Following the Willmar fiasco, Bailey took Kelly under his wing and taught him how to rob banks without all the drama and fireworks of the Willmar job.
Two months later, Bailey took Kelly, Miller, Holden and Keating to hit the Ottumwa Savings Bank in Iowa. It went off without a hitch. With one in the getaway car and one on the door, Holden, Keating and Bailey burst through the door and Bailey jumped the counter to grab a clerk who was going for his gun.
“We won’t hurt anyone, but do as we say,” he explained.
Holden grabbed the bank’s vice president, H. L. Pollard, and put a gun to his temple.
“Open the vault door and don’t stall, or it goes through your head.”
They were out the side door, into the getaway car and on their way before the alarm even sounded.
Kelly continued to team up with members of the group throughout the year and into the next until his education was complete. Then he started branching out on his own, and turning his criminal pursuits into a family affair. In doing so, he would be breaking one of the cardinal rules of the Bailey bank-robbing system. “Don’t ever work with women,” Bailey had told him. “They can’t keep their mouths shut.”
* * *
At Leavenworth, Kelly had been introduced to a comely young Texan who’d come to the prison to visit her incarcerated uncle. She’d caught his eye and he bulldozed an introduction. She responded in the way that women had always responded to the rakish George Kelly. From prison, they struck up a pen pal relationship, and once he got out and established himself with his new bank-robbing buddies, Kelly decided to take it to the next level.
At that time, Kathryn was shacking up with a bootlegger named “Little Steve” Anderson in Oklahoma City, sharing in both his affections and his business. Kelly, who’d managed a successful multi-state liquor-running business before his little misstep on the Indian reservation, offered his expertise and assistance to the duo, and in no time he was sharing in their profits and Kathryn’s affections, as well.
She was smitten with the smooth-talking ex-con. In almost every way, Kit was the classic gangster moll. The hardscrabble Texan was a schemer who’d spent her life getting by on good looks and bad attitude.
Kathryn was born in Saltillo, Mississippi, as Cleo Brooks in 1904. At age 15, she married a field hand named Lonnie Frye and gave birth to a daughter, Pauline. Soon after, she divorced Frye and took off with Pauline.
She then changed her name to Kathryn because it had more of a movie-star sound to it than the frumpish Cleo. She married again, but left her new husband right about the time her mother, Ora, extricated herself from Kathryn’s father, J. E. Brooks. With no love lost between Kathryn and her father, she was thrilled when her beloved mother finally left him.
Ora remarried a connected Texas county politico named Robert Shannon, who preferred to go by his nickname “Boss.” Boss owned a farm in Paradise, Texas, where Kathryn soon relocated, set up a little bootlegging business and started renting out space at the farm to criminal associates who were on the run or needed to lie low. She continued trading up husbands, and the next rung on her ladder was a bootlegger and small-time crook named Charlie Thorne.
For a woman with so many husbands and the occasional foray into the “escort” business, Kathryn was an insanely jealous wife.
While she was away on business, she discovered that Charlie was cheating on her. She headed back home, telling one of her associates, “I’m bound for Coleman, Texas, to kill that god-damned Charlie Thorne.”
When she confronted Charlie with accusations of his philandering, an enormous row ensued and Charlie ended up dead on the floor with a bullet through his head.
Kathryn called the police, and when they arrived there was a neatly typed suicide note next to the illiterate bootlegger. If the police were suspicious, they didn’t bother to investigate. Why investigate the murder of a man most people wouldn’t miss and wanted dead anyway?
Kathryn, who’d seen her share of tough, charmless gangsters, had never met a man like George Kelly. He was classy, smart and he dressed like a million bucks. Better yet, he had money in his pocket and connections with a lot of big shots up north.
One September afternoon when Steve was out of town, George invited Kit out to dinner. Over drinks, he interrupted the small talk with a startling proposal.
“Let’s get married!” he blurted.
Kit didn’t miss a beat. “All right, big guy. When?”
George grabbed his fiancé and hustled her out of the restaurant in a delirious rush. They sped back to Anderson’s house, where Kit picked up her belongings—along with Anderson’s prized bulldog, whom she loved—and headed up to St. Paul, where Kelly’s connections could arrange the hasty nuptials without all the bothersome paperwork, legal documents and irksome questions about all those outstanding warrants for his arrest.
After the nuptials, they drove down to Dallas for a short honeymoon and some long days of shopping. George wanted his bride wearing a brand-new wardrobe of the latest fashions. Kit was an absolute clotheshorse, and she was never happier than when she was acquiring new baubles and adornments. And when Kit was happy, George was happy.
George often told people he was in the banking business when they asked what he did for a living. So on their honeymoon Kit and George played the roles of a banker and his wife on a shopping spree. They’d spend their way through the finest stores in town and dine at the best eateries while pounding down shots in gulps from George’s flask and the bottles in their room.
They were madly in love—with each other, with money, with booze, with cars and with the kind of lifestyle that could be yours if you were a successful criminal in Depression-era America.
Copyright © 2015 Joe Urschel.
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Joe Urschel is Executive Director of the National Law Enforcement Museum in Washington, DC, where he previously was the Executive Director of the Newseum. Urschel is a former managing editor of USA TODAY where he also served as a senior correspondent and columnist and has worked for the Detroit Free Press as a reporter, critic and editor. His journalism honors include awards from the National Association of Newspaper Columnists, the National Association of Sunday and Feature Editors and an Emmy. He lives in Virginia.