Once Upon a Time

Illinois bank robberies common in early 1920s

The Fowler Illinois Bank was robbed in 1925 before the Illinois Bankers Association protection plan was in place. | Photo courtesy of "From Rails to Roads; the Story of Fowler, Illinois" by Kevin Ahern
By BETH LANE
Posted: Jul. 19, 2020 12:01 am

In 1924, Illinois had 40% of the bank robberies in the United States. It took a bank robbery in broad daylight by unmasked men at the Fowler Bank 15 miles north of Quincy to demonstrate that Adams County was not excluded from the troubles that plagued the Illinois banking industry.

In the 1870s, Quincy was the site of the largest bank heist in the country when $250,000 was stolen from First National Bank. A total of $85,000 in cash was carried away in carpet bags, the rest being in stocks and bonds, and bearer notes. Since then, the area had been spared major bank robberies. Quincy Sheriff Grubb thought that was due, at least in part, to the lack of paved roads, allowing criminals a quick escape to Chicago, Kansas City or St. Louis. But things changed in 1925.

Far from being an individual operation, most bank-robbing gangs were highly organized. In 1925, bank robbers stole more money than the U.S. government took in from taxation, roughly $3.8 billion. Being a bank teller in Illinois was a dangerous occupation. And robbery was expensive to borrowers. Bankers, to balance their red ink, charged $6 per thousand as a premium against loss from robberies.

In 1924, neighboring state Iowa took steps to correct a similar situation and lowered its loss premium from $6 per thousand to $1.

In April 1925, the bankers of Adams County, including all Quincy banks plus 16 banks from small surrounding towns, met to organize protection under the guidance of the Illinois Bankers Association. The IBA had hired R.C. Saunders, former Des Moines, Iowa, police chief, to implement a plan. The IBA then embarked on a county-by-county tour of Illinois seeking to set up protective forces and integrate them into a statewide network.

In the fall of 1925, 16 Illinois bank robberies were in villages with a population of fewer than 800 people, and a correspondingly small police force. Iowa had 56 bank robberies in 1920. After Gov. William L. Harding implemented the Iowa Bankers Protective League using Saunders' plan, that number fell to eight robbery attempts in 1924, with three being successful.

The IBA plan was organized under the sheriff's office, with the community choosing and deputizing citizens as town guards. Each guard was supplied with a .45 caliber revolver and a Krag carbine rifle, the brand approved by the U.S. government. The men were trained in the use of firearms and required to complete target practice each month. In addition, the banks would post in their windows a red card stating: "$1,000 will be paid for the capture or taking of any robber or robbers, burglar or burglars, Dead or Alive!"

Along with the three to five local guards, all area telephone operators were trained to sound the alarm when notified and provided with contact numbers of other local sheriff's and agencies to immediately cast a net to catch the criminals. All railroad ticket takers or toll collectors were likewise trained.

Under the plan, an agreement was forged to allow area communities to send vagrants to Quincy to the workhouse, with the fee for their maintenance paid by the referring town. It was common practice for gangs to send an advance man to the town, posing as a vagrant while scouting the bank, likely escape routes and gathering information.

R.C. Saunders had a sketch found in a robber's car in Albian, Ill., drawn by a "tramp." It showed the business section of Albian, the interior and exterior of the bank, the number of officers on duty, the road by which to arrive and the one by which to depart, the possible sum to be stolen and even a tentative day for the robbery.

It was Saunders' opinion that if a vagrant knew he had to stay away from Adams County, or break rocks in the Quincy workhouse, he would go elsewhere.

The Fowler bank job in May 1925 netted the robbers about $2,000 in cash and $45,000 in notes. Two men entered the bank, pulling guns on the two employees and emptying the cash drawer. The safe was closed, but not locked and quickly emptied.

About this point, another bank customer, Gale Tout, manager of a lumberyard, entered the bank with $95 cash to be deposited. It took him a minute to notice the drawn pistols pointed at him. He soon had his hands over his head, cash still in one of them. This brought on some dispute between the robbers, according to Mr. Tout, with the older one saying, "Aw, let the poor devil keep his money. It's not insured and the banks' money is."

Soon the customer, cashier, bank president and the $95 were locked in the vault. The robbers joined a third man waiting in an auto outside and sped away.

They used a car stolen in Quincy as the getaway vehicle and drove it to a little-used lane near Mendon where another car was parked. They were going fast enough to leave 20 feet of skid marks as they stopped but tarried long enough to remove the license plates from the stolen auto before leaving.

They also broke out the car's rear window to be able to fire freely at anyone pursuing them.

The three in the bank vault were heard by a young man entering the bank, who quickly raised the alarm, and they were freed. Since the bank protection plan had not yet been implemented, the robbers made good their escape, and although one man was later arrested in Kansas City, he was not extradited to stand trial before he managed to post bail and disappear.

The getaway driver was sentenced for another robbery, but he escaped from his jail cell.

The Illinois IBA plan was implemented, and in May 1926 there were 102 county banker federations, town guard organizations in 33 counties and about 2,500 armed guards. Prison sentences had been increased for bank robberies, and cooperation between five states was helping in prosecutions. Thirty active bank robbers had been sent to prison and losses reduced by half a million dollars.

 

Beth Lane is the author of "Lies Told Under Oath," the story of the 1912 Pfanschmidt murders near Payson, Ill., and the former executive director of the Historical Society of Quincy and Adams County.

 

Sources:

"Bankers and Police are Working Out Plan to Check Bank Robberies," Quincy Daily Herald, Oct. 9, 1925.

 

"Bankers Send Large Number to Meeting Here," Quincy, Daily Journal, May 28, 1926.

 

"Bankers will Make County Bandit Proof," Quincy, Daily Journal, April 23, 1925.

 

"Bank Robberies in Illinois Cut," Quincy Daily Herald, Nov. 5, 1925.

 

"The Editor's Telescope," Quincy Daily Herald, May 18, 1925.

 

"Fowler Robbery Made Big Stir Here," Quincy, Daily Journal, Jan. 8, 1926.

 

"Plan to Stop Bank Holdups Now Recalled," Quincy, Daily Journal, May 15, 1925.

 

"Round the Town," Quincy, Daily Journal, Jan. 10, 1926.

 

"Shift in Cars Shows Bandits Were Prepared," Quincy Daily Herald, May 15, 1925.

 

"Town Guard System if Inaugurated by Bankers and Sheriff of Adams County," Quincy Daily Herald, April 22, 1925.

 

"Unmasked Men Rob State Bank of Fowler in Broad Daylight and Speed Away in Ford Car," Quincy, Daily Journal, May, 15, 1925.

 

"Urging Town Guard System for Illinois," Quincy Daily Herald, Nov. 24, 1925.