History of Heists Excerpt


In the first week of October 1892, a historic bank robbery occurred in Coffeyville, Kansas. On October 5, most of the members of the Dalton Gang, the most feared group of bank robbers since Jesse and Frank James, were gunned down during a botched holdup of two banks at the same time. The Daltons had terrorized banks throughout Kansas and what today is Oklahoma, and the gang’s decimation brought about nation relief and national headlines.

Also in the first week of October 1892, a bank robbery shocked Erie, Pennsylvania, the hometown of the authors of this book. On October 3, four well-dressed young men walked into the lobby of the Keystone National Bank around half past twelve in the afternoon and tried to hold it up. One robber shot an assistant cashier in the cheek. The Erie Daily Times called the incident a “highly sensational attempt at bank robbing today that bristles with all the details wanting in the most lurid story that ever influenced the minds of impressionable youth.”

For Erie residents, the attempted heist of their hometown bank was no less important than the Daltons’ failed raid in Coffeyville, though the events Kansas would be (and deservedly so) much more famous across the United States. Every bank robbery or attempted bank robbery affects the community where it takes place, but some heists are more notable for any number of reasons: the robbers involved, the historical context, whether the heist was an isolated incident or part of a wider trend. Banks are robbed every day in the United States, and bank robbery has been a fairly regular crime in America since shortly after the Revolution. But not all bank robberies are equally momentous.

In writing this history of bank robbery in the United States, the authors had to be selective. This book is not meant to be an encyclopedic volume, a work that details every bank robbery that has occurred in America since 1776. Instead, it examines bank robbery as a serious crime that has developed and changed. Bank robbery is not a crime unique to the United States, but it is a crime that, perhaps more than any other, has helped influence and define the nation, particularly how Americans have viewed crime over the centuries. The most famous bank robbers in the history of the United States—Jesses James, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, John Dillinger, Willie Sutton—are also distinct characters in our national drama. They are crooks who continue to captivate American imaginations into the twenty-first century, and who also reflected their times. As Jesse James helped define post-Civil War America, so Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid influenced the nation’s views of the West, and John Dillinger and his gangster contemporaries became identified with the Great Depression. Many bank robbers went on to be portrayed in well-regarded movies, such as Bonnie and Clyde and Dog Day Afternoon, reinforcing bank robbery’s hold on American thought.

Thieves are not the only characters in this book, though they are among the most colorful. Also introduced are the authorities who tried to stop the bank robbers, including governors, soldiers, U.S. marshals, presidents, and one official who, at the height of his control, was more powerful than any of them: J. Edgar Hoover, the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, an agency Hoover fashioned to be, more than anything else, the nemesis of bank robbers nationwide. As bank robbers became more skilled, so did the banks’ methods of security, and so, too, the police and the federal agents. This book explores those relationships as well.

Like so many aspects of America society today, bank robbery has undergone a shift connected to the advance of the digital age and the Internet. The number of bank robberies has declined as the number of online financial frauds has increased. Why rob a bank, and risk getting captured or killed, when you can steal just as much money by duping someone while working anonymously on a computer? Yet bank robberies still occur, and they continue to draw attention and fascination. No single crime is more synonymous with crime in the United States than bank robbery, whether it ends in a bloody shootout in Coffeyville, Kansas, or with police finding four young thieves after chasing them through the streets of Erie, Pennsylvania. No matter where in America they have struck, bank robbers often have been unforgettable. Their heists—some strange, some sad, many of them violent—are intertwined with the larger story of the United States.

Jerry Clark
Ed Palattella
November 2014
Erie, Pennsylvania