Early Bank Robbers: Famous and Infamous
From the Prague Times-Herald, June-July 2011
by Jan Vassar
The tales of the bank robbers--famous and infamous--that passed through our part of Oklahoma are many. Dynamite Dick, the Cook gang, Henry Starr and Pretty Boy Floyd are some of the famous names that plied their trade here in the early years. Others were less known but often successful. Most know that Henry Starr and his gang made news by robbing two banks on the same day in Stroud in 1915. But perhaps you don’t know about some of the “hidden” history connected to that heist and a few others in Lincoln County.
The county’s first bank holdup happened on July 31, 1894, when five outlaws made their way to downtown Chandler and tied their horses in the alley behind the Lincoln County Bank. When the armed bandits entered the bank, its president, O. B. Kee, told them, “There is the money, gentlemen. Help yourselves.” The thieves took only $107 and overlooked another $300 on the counter.
The daring daylight robbery made front page news because it also included a murder, a shootout, a possible lynching and an attempted jailbreak. The robbery itself only lasted a few minutes but many saw all or parts of it and several became involved in the aftermath. W. B. Warren saw the outlaws from his house, went for his gun and was shot at several times by the escaping robbers but wasn’t hit. The county treasurer tried to shoot the outlaws but had the wrong size ammunition. A youngster fired at the robbers from a nearby doctor’s office. Two newspaper editors, a judge, a department store owner and a customer were also witnesses.
A woman standing at her kitchen window was lucky she wasn’t shot by the escaping bandits. Local barber, J. B. Mitchell wasn’t as lucky because he was hit while sitting in front of his shop across the street from the bank. He yelled at the robbers as they left the bank and when he got up from his chair one of the bandits shot him below the heart. He died immediately.
A sheriff’s posse went after the bandits and when they came in sight of them near Davenport they captured a wounded gang member whose horse had been shot from under him. The others got away. When Sheriff C. F. Parker and his men brought the man to the little log country jail on the courthouse square they were greeted by an angry crowd who showed a length of rope they had with them. Parker warned the would-be-lynch party to leave and they did. That night he put what he called “a strong arm guard” around the jail and the next morning the prisoner, escorted by a deputy, was sent to Guthrie. Later the sheriff discovered several iron bars at the jail had been sawed off, but he never found the saw blade.
Some thought the robbers had been in and around town for several days. Law officers soon learned that a freight wagon belonging to Sac and Fox Chief Moses Keokuk had been robbed as it traveled between the Sac and Fox Agency and Sapulpa a few days before the bank heist. Rumors were many about who the outlaws were, but the general belief was that the robbers were the Cook Gang since they were involved in a shootout west of Sapulpa two says after the Chandler bank robbery. It was never really solved, but by the end of the year most of the Cook Gang had been killed in other holdups.
The Carney State Bank was robbed in October 1896 by Dan Clifton, also known as Dynamite Dick, a former member of Bill Doolin’s gang. He was joined in the heist by Little Dick West but they were only able to take two pairs of shoes and $150 in cash.
Several days later the West-Clifton duo robbed the Sac and Fox Agency of $59 in cash, two gold watches, and some promissory notes. The outlaws missed the $46,000 cash in tribal payments that had been in the agency’s bank a week earlier.
The robbery of the Stroud State Bank was reported in The Stroud Star on July 11, 1901. A few days later Barnard Burns was arrested for the crime after the bank offered a $100 reward for the arrest and conviction of the robber.
Part Two of the series about Lincoln County bank robberies will discuss some little known details about Henry Starr.
Editors Note: Jan Vassar of Chandler has kindly provided history feature stories for all the Lincoln County newspapers free of charge since January of 2007, when she began writing them for the Centennial Cities series. Jan has provided us with 49 stories. She has submitted her latest four feature stories which will run during the summer in the Prague Times-Herald.
Part II“I love it, it is wild with adventure,” said Stroud bank robber Henry Starr about bandit life in Oklahoma. The year 1914 saw a record number of bank robberies in Oklahoma, and the Carney State Bank was one of 14 held up by outlaws that year. The unknown robbers took $2,835 from the small Lincoln County bank, a substantial amount for that early date.
The next year, 1915, was when the already well-known bank robber Henry Starr and five others robbed two Stroud banks on the same day. He and an accomplice, Lewis Estes, were shot, captured and brought to the county jail in Chandler. That’s when Starr became even more famous as he was dubbed “king of the bank robbers” and crowds came to the courthouse to view the injured outlaws.
Starr pled guilty to the Stroud bank robberies and was sent to prison for 25 years. He served only three years of the term and was paroled in 1919 by Oklahoma Governor and Chandler native. B. A. Robertson--perhaps because his former prosecutor said Starr “would lead the life of a good citizen” if treated fairly. President Theodore Roosevelt had cut one of Starr’s earlier prison sentences in half in 1903 and the bandit later named his only son, T. R. Starr, after the president.
The gun Starr used in the Stroud bank robbery is on display at the Museum of Pioneer History in Chandler, a gift of the Patrick family. Lee Patrick figured into the robbery since he was the vice-president of the Stroud State Bank and Starr marched him down the street with the gun during the holdup.
After Starr was taken to the jail in Chandler, he requested the sheriff to give the rifle to Patrick. “Lee had quite a visit with Starr that day at the jail,” wrote Patrick’s wife Cosette to the museum. She said her husband always maintained he was the only one Starr marched down the alley during the robbery. The Patrick family mailed the rifle--a 35 Remington semi-automatic [Model 8, 35 caliber]--to the museum in 1963 as a loan, but when problems arose with getting it insured, the Patricks agreed to donate the gun. Due to a mix up in records, it wasn’t accessioned until 1974.
Former museum curator Jeanette Haley said the plaque on the rifle and notes and letters from the Patrick family say one of the four notches on the rifle’s handle represents Chris Madsen, a deputy marshal shot during the Stroud bank robbery. Haley said since Madsen was only injured in the holdup and didn’t die until 1942, the notch is a questionable addition to the firearm. Photographs of the rifle have appeared in several publications about Starr.
After his release from prison, Starr formed the Pan-American Picture Corporation and produced and starred in the silent movie, “A Debtor to the law,” released in 1920. It depicted the Stroud bank robbery and much of its footage was filmed in Lincoln and Creek Counties in 1919. Some sources say he used the actual bank tellers as extras in the silent film.
A Chandler newspaper said the reenactment of the robbery was “not especially appreciated by the people of Stroud.” Others reported the picture wasn’t successful financially and Starr was “defrauded in the picture deal,” which some thought was “poetic justice” for Starr.
Dewey Peck, the former editor of the Stroud newspaper, promoted the film all over Oklahoma and sometimes wasn’t well received for introducing the movie and its star. In 1920 a Stroud newspaper reported Peck invited the Okemah mayor, its city council and “every pastor in the city” to listen to him explain the movie. Peck said they endorsed the film and he took in $600 from a packed house.
Starr may have been negotiating with a Hollywood film company to produce and star in more movies when he was shot and fatally wounded during his last bank robbery in Harrison, Arkansas, in 1920. On his deathbed Starr claimed he’d robbed more banks than any of the other famous robbers. Sources say he’d stolen more than $60,000 from 21 banks in 32 years.
An internet website claims that some of the loot from Starr’s bank heists may still be hidden only the Cimarron River in Stevens County, Kansas. This information could be from Starr’s own words since he said he wrote an autobiography in 1908 while serving a sentence in a Colorado prison for a bank robbery in that state. However, the warden of the Colorado prison said that Starr didn’t write a book while under his watch.
The Farmer’s National Bank in Chandler was robbed in 1925 when bandits entered the bank. Lined up officers and customers, took $6,000 in cash and gold and escaped in a Studebaker sedan. After that holdup and several others in the area, a local editor wrote that “Chandler banks are prepared to send out alarms if opportunity offers . . . And if you hear an alarm, stay away from the bank unless you are prepared to take part in the trouble.” The same editorial reported 21 arrests had been made and seven men held and charged with several bank heists in the area.
Pretty Boy Floyd, another famous Oklahoma bank robber, held up the Meeker bank on March 23, 1932 and took $500 in cash. Floyd was well-known in the area and there are stories that while on his holdup sprees he often stopped in Prague to buy homemade Czech wine.
Robberies by famous and infamous men continued to plague banks all over Oklahoma, especially as the depression set in. In 1933 two banks in Lincoln County were robbed and hostages taken. Part Three of this series will tell those stories.
The year 1933 proved to be a busy one for bank robbers in Lincoln County. Two of the heists included kidnappings and one ended with an interesting twist.
The first bank hold up in the county seat that year happened in Prague when three armed men with pistols and a submachine gun held up the Prague National Bank on a Monday morning in May of 1933. During the heist, they took two bank bookkeepers, M. E. Coleman and Bert Harris hostage. They were released unharmed one mile south of Prague.
After the bandits took $1,500 in cash they locked two bank employees and a customer in the bank vault. No shots were fired and their escape was made in a two-door sedan. Rumors that Charles (Pretty Boy) Floyd was one of the robbers were put to rest by Harris. He’d worked for the Maud bank when it was robbed by Floyd so he knew him by sight.
The Farmers and Merchants Bank of Tryon was robbed on October 9, 1933, when three men entered the bank after it opened early that Monday morning. They not only took money but also three hostages, bank cashier Clarence Hall, bank customer Arthur McConnell, and William A. Vassar, an attorney who had an office in the back of the bank.
The robbers scooped money from the counters and forced the three hostages into their car, a 1932 model Chevrolet which was parked at the back of the bank. Hall was put in the front seat with the driver, Vassar was seated in the back between two of the robbers, and McConnell was forced to ride on the running boards.
“During the holdup we were told to face the wall while one of the robbers held his gun on us and the other got the counter cash. Afterwards we were marched out the side door and no one saw our departure,” Hall wrote in the bank’s 50th anniversary history book. We were taken several miles in the country and released one at a time; Bill first, McConnell next, and I was let out a few miles further on, near the Mount Vernon school,” Hall remembered.
Meanwhile officers from Tryon and Chandler were notified of the holdup and kidnapping and began a search. At noon the sheriff’s office found a car that had been abandoned a mile south of a filling station near Warwick. Hall’s description of the car the and license plates numbers were traced to a kidnapping that had happened two days earlier in Purcell when a couple was taken hostage.The interesting twist to the story is that Vassar was elected county attorney in 1934--the year after the bank robbery and kidnapping. A few months after the election, Eugene Clark was charged with the Tryon bank robbery. He’d been captured and arrested near McAlester on February 16, 1935 by state law officers. Lincoln County Sheriff Buck Gilespy and Deputy Hubert Wagner brought him to Chandler where he was positively identified by Vassar, Hall, and McConnell.
Clark entered a plea of not guilty before County Judge Walter Hill and was scheduled for trial March 27 1935 with Emery Foster as his attorney. “We’ve swapped horses, and it is my turn now,” Vassar told a Chandler newspaper as he prepared to prosecute Clark during the criminal court docket in Mach of 1935. The charge was robbery with firearms and Vassar was one of those robbed at gunpoint and taken hostage by Clark and two accomplices.
The trial didn’t happened because Clark changed his plea to guilty on March 28, and the court sentenced him to 25 years in the state penitentiary in McAlester. Records in the Lincoln County Criminal Appearance Docket, in the case titled State of Oklahoma vs. Eugene Clark, list five witnesses. Three of the five listed, Hall McConnell and Vassar, were kidnapped by Clark. Vassar--now county attorney--was listed as prosecutor in the case.
We don’t know if the other two men who helped rob the Tryong bank in 1933 were ever apprehended.
The Oct. 9, 1933 bank robbery was the second time Hall had dealt with holdup men at the Tryon bank. The first was in 1922 when two men entered the bank and ordered him into the vault, took $500 and escaped in a car driven by another man.
According to newspaper accounts the robbers were pursued by “a bunch of organized farmers and businessmen” that traced two of them to Parkland and put them under arrest until law officers arrived. They recognized them as two of “Chandler’s noted characters, R. P. Walker and Jack Hill,” reported a Chandler newspaper editor, who said all of the “loot” was eventually recovered. Hall wrote in the bank’s history book that the “bandits were convicted and served penitentiary sentences.”
The Farmers and Merchants Bank of Tryon had been the scene of a daring heist the year after it was purchased by M. C. Sloan in 1907. He was living on the second floor of a rooming house that overlooked the bank building. He looked out his window after hearing a loud boom and saw some bandits dynamiting the bank vault.
Sloan then grabbed a gun and began firing at the bandits. He later said, “My head was willing but my feet retreated.” A detailed description of the 1908 bust is in the first chapter of Bill Vassar’s book, Memories of Tryon, published in 2001.