MASON CITY — The robbery of the First National Bank by a well-organized gang that included “Public Enemy No. 1” John Dillinger rates as one of the most talked-about events in Mason City history.
It happened suddenly on a windy afternoon, March 13, 1934, at about 2:40 p.m.
Coincidentally, a freelance photographer, H.C. Kunkleman, chanced to be making motion pictures of the First National Bank when the gang appeared.
Mason City Police Sgt. Greg Scott said the gang of seven carried Thompson submachine guns, popularly called Tommy guns, and .45-caliber handguns.
In contrast, the Mason City police carried .38-caliber handguns.
“They were out-gunned,” said Scott.
There was no way the police could have successfully engaged the gangsters in a gun battle and won, especially considering the fact that so many civilian bystanders were on the scene, Scott said.
“You’ve got seven members who are organized and have done their homework, which they had. They had apparently been in town the day before.”
Police Detective James Buchanan was in Central Park at the time and took cover behind a large rock. John Wallace, a deputy sheriff, was also in Central Park when the robbery occurred, Scott said.
John Dillinger, the best-known of the seven, guarded the front door of the bank from the outside. Lester Joseph Gillis, better known as Baby Face Nelson, stood out on East State Street.
The other members of the gang were Tommy Carroll, Eugene “Eddie” Greene, John Hamilton and Homer Van Meter. The seventh gang member is believed to have been either Joseph Burns or Ed Forsythe, according to Terry Harrison, archivist at the Mason City Public Library.
The police had no way of knowing the bank would be hit, Scott said.
“There was no intelligence information. There was a gang out of St. Paul in those days that had hit several Midwestern banks.”
Detective Buchanan always said Dillinger was involved in that gang, Scott said.
He proved to be correct.
Here are more remembrances by people who were there:
Recollections of the Dillinger bank robbery:
Don Schaffer, 92, of Mason City, was 18 when the First National Bank holdup occurred, on March 13, 1934.
He lived on North Jefferson Avenue in those days and was walking from his house to the home of a friend who lived on First Street Northwest.
“I was walking back there by the old Cecil Theatre when I heard gunshots. I thought they were making a movie.”
“Then I saw (Mason City Police Detective) Jim Buchanan behind a rock. He had a long-barreled handgun. He said to ‘get down or you’ll get shot.’
“I laid under a bush and saw the whole works. (Buchanan) raised up and fired a few shots at a guy standing by the front door of the bank (John Dillinger). He took that old machine gun and chiseled out all around the edge of the rock.
“And then up above there’s a dentist on the second floor. (Schaffer is probably referring to attorney and Police Judge John C. Shipley). He opened up a window slow. He fired down and he missed. The guy turned around and chiseled out the frame and some of the glass of the window. It was all dripping down on the sidewalk.
“Then a guy that lived on North Washington walked right up to the guy with the gun and said, ‘Are you guys making a move?’ The guy took the butt of the gun and hit him in the stomach and down he went. Pretty soon he started crawling across the street.”
Schaffer witnessed R. L. James, Mason City school board secretary, come walking around the corner onto Federal from State Street.
“He got shot in the leg. He grabbed his leg and went down. They had their guns on the whole crowd. They were turning around and around with their guns.
“I recognized Dillinger. He was dressed in practically a suit. The others had on pants, shirts and coveralls. Some had their shirts hanging. Some wore hats. There were no coats, but they were wearing heavy clothes because it was pretty cold that day.
“Baby Face, he was on the heavy-set side. The rest of them were pretty thin. He appeared to be left-handed.
“I watched when they came out and herded the people with their guns, got them on the side of the cars, on the hoods and on the back. They were kind of laughing. They weren’t worried.
“There were three touring cars, two black and one gray, with running boards. Two of the cars were parked kitty corner (at State and Federal), the other was in front of the bank.
“They drove slow and the crowd kept backing up. They went west on State Street. That’s the last I saw.
“Afterward, the people stood around talking and pretty soon they started leaving. I saw one guy who’d been shot in the arm. He came through the crowd. Blood was spurting out. Then the police came. The police tried to disperse the crowd, but they didn’t go.
“People said later, how come the police didn’t show up? But if they’d have come in force, there would have been a lot of people killed in the crossfire because there were people piled all over the place.”
Art Fischbeck, 88, of Mason City, was a freshman in Mason City High School when the First National Bank was robbed. School was dismissing just after the robbery. The high school was located two blocks north of the bank. Art’s father, Ralph W. Fischbeck, had a New England Life Insurance office on the third floor of the First National Bank.
“I had an evening paper route and I felt obligated to get those papers delivered. We heard about the bank robbery as school was getting out. I think everybody at the school knew about it. The kids went uptown to see it. We were all hurrying so much to get over there. The common attitude was that this was all part of a film. But when they went off in a car with the hostages I think people became convinced it was the real thing.
“Baby Face Nelson shot several rounds into a Hudson car coming up State Street. One bullet ricocheted off a window at the drug store across the street. Chet DeSart was working there. The bullet was right above him. Francis DeSart worked in the bank and was a hostage. The bullet went through the tail of his suitcoat jacket.
“I went over to the bank. I wanted to go to my dad’s office to see what was going on. There was a big crowd milling outside. People gathered like it was a circus. They weren’t letting anybody in the bank, but somehow I got inside. I went up to see my dad on the third floor. He wasn’t there. He was out of the office that afternoon.
“I knew they (Globe Gazette) would be putting out an ‘Extra.’ I made more money selling one paper that was an ‘Extra’ than I did delivering for a week.
“I was one of the first to get done with my newspaper route. I went back downtown. The first ‘Extra’ addition came out at 6:00. There were still a number of people downtown.”
Mason City artist Allen D. Patton, now deceased, wrote about the bank robbery in a family history. His father, Erwin J. Patton, was Mason City chief of police at the time. Allen Patton was drawing movie posters at the Palace Theatre, located about a block from the bank on South Federal, when the robbery occurred.
“One afternoon I was working at the theater and heard shots, but thought little of it until one of the theater people told me that someone had robbed the First National Bank. My first thought was of Dad, so I went out the back door of the theater to the police station. A few minutes later, Dad and the day captain drove in with bullet holes through the front of the car.
“Dad had been in the office across from the bank when the robbery occurred, so he witnessed the entire event and at the same time was on the phone organizing the law enforcement agencies. When the robbers left the bank with their car draped with hostages, Dad and the captain followed.
“West of the city limits, the robbers stopped and started firing with the rifles at the following car. Fortunately, neither Dad nor the captain were hit, but were persuaded to give up the chase.
“When Dad came home for dinner that evening, he had identified the leader as John Dillinger, along with four other notorious outlaws of that era. Dad’s prediction that the gang would hide out in St. Paul, Minn., that evening proved to be true. They all died with their boots on in various parts of the country. Dad was included in a book written many years later titled ‘The Dillinger Story.’ ”
John Wolf wrote the following recollection in 2007:
“My grandfather, Frank Jansen, was just a kid working at a gas station near Fourth and North Carolina when one day a car with some men pulled in to get gas. So my grandfather filled them up and one guy gave him a a $10 or $20 tip. Frank was thrilled because times were tough then and that tip was big money.
“Only later did he learn that those men had just robbed the First National Bank. Yes, Frank Jansen had just filled up the car for the Dillinger gang. Evidently, Dillinger let the hostages off the car before reaching the gas station, because Frank did not see anything like that, just a car with some guys in it. But, boy, did Grandpa and his family ever appreciate that tip!
Peggy Heneman was 12 when the bank robbery occurred. Her father, Fred Heneman, was a vice president at First National Bank in 1934.
“One Friday back in the 1930s, my father brought a revolver home from the bank and announced to Mother that he was going to get some shooting practice before John Dillinger and his gang hit the Mason City First National. I didn’t know about that until after it happened.
“My first inkling was a voice saying, ‘You’d better hit for home, Peggy Heneman. They’re robbing your father’s bank!’ as I crossed the street coming home from school.
“I further learned from Mrs. Riverdahl that the robbery was being announced over the radio in a blow-by-blow account while the downtown populace was held at bay in a half circle around the corner bank. The first-hand details came later from my father as he perched on the edge of the dining room table, regaling the rest of the family with the details of the exciting events of the day.
“Actually, my father was vice president of the bank and had a desk in full view of the front end of the lobby. His office was in a corner of the lobby next to President Bagley’s. He was in his place when he heard a sudden whooping and hollering, followed by a spray of machine gun fire.
” ‘Everybody down!’ came the order from one of the armed men who had burst into the bank lobby.
“As soon as the officers and clerks in their cages were able to respond, they obeyed, all except Mr. Bagley. He bolted into a conference room near his desk. This did not go unnoticed. A bullet through the lock soon returned him to the small group of officers, by then banded together to be led out of the bank and lined up across the front of the building.
“Up and down in front of these men, a gunman patrolled with his tommy gun. Dad tried to edge out of the line of fire of a policeman crouched behind a rock across the street.
” ‘Get back there, you S.O.B.,’ barked the man, and Dad promptly returned to his designated spot.
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“At one point, the gunman stopped, whirled around and sprayed bullets into a third-story window in the building next to the bank, then resumed his pacing. Across the street, the town square was filling up with onlookers. Some believed they were watching a movie shooting.
“Alongside the bank, a deaf man ignored a command to ‘Stop where you are!’ as he innocently walked down State Street. He was fired on, sustaining a non-fatal abdominal injury.
” ‘I thought there wasn’t going to be any hits!’ a third robber was heard to yell.
“Inside the bank, Mr. (Harry) Fisher (an assistant cashier) had been singled out to go downstairs to the vault and turn over the money. Entering the vault, the outer gate chanced to swing shut with a solid clang, leaving the fourth robber outside.
” ‘Oh dear,’ lamented Fisher. ‘I’ll have to push the money through the bars.’
” ‘Get the lead out of your pants! Hurry up!’ was the nervous reply.
“The entire performance was minutely timed and this man was due back upstairs and at the back door where the getaway car was waiting. He must have been exasperated by the methodical Fisher, as he carefully broke up the bands of bills to feed them through the bars into the waiting bag. Had the gunman been less nervous, he would have known Fisher had the means to open the gate. On cue, the robber left to join the men at the rear of the bank.
“Several bystanders were suddenly commandeered as hostages. Some were shoved into the getaway car while others were draped over the hood. The car, now carrying all but one of the gang, pulled around to the front of the bank and picked up the last man. In deference to the outside passengers, the driver gathered speed smoothly as the car left the crowd of bystanders.
“The hostages on the hood were let off a short way down State Street so more speed could be made. Gang members scattered tacks behind them, but did draw fire from pursuing police officers, who tried to puncture their tires. The gang escaped.
“The remainder of the hostages were let out one or two at a time until the car was well out of town. It was later learned that they traded this car for another planted at a gravel pit in the country, where they began their fateful trip to Chicago.
“I can still see my father’s eyes flashing as he recounted the events, spilling out unaccustomed ‘hells’ and damns’ along the way.
” ‘The man who had us in front of the bank was John Dillinger, no question about it. What a cool customer,’ he added.
” ‘I know he was hit in the shoulder when Shipley fired from his law office, but he never let on that anything had happened, except to shoot back.’
” ‘They must not have known about the guard station. Barclay got up there and threw a tear gas bomb (this appears to be inaccurate; bank guard, Tom Walters, reportedly shot the tear gas gun), which made things pretty unbearable in the lobby.’
” ‘Well, Fisher was the hero. They didn’t get nearly what they could have had.’
“In the quiet that followed, Mother asked wickedly, ‘Where was your gun, Fred?’
” ‘Oh, hell, I never gave it a thought,’ was the reply.
“Was it an honor to be robbed by Public Enemy No. 1? For a while, the whole town thought so, but that was in the Thirties, when G-men were romanticized and the public enemies were so few they could be counted.”
Former Mason City resident Robert Leewright wrote the following narrative about the Dillinger bank robbery when he was in the military. Leewright was one of the hostages on the getaway car:
“I’m an American in the Canadian Army now, but when this incident happened, back in March of 1934, I was living in Mason City, Iowa. That was the time when Dillinger was terrorizing the Middle West, robbing banks and even taking guns away from the police. One of his most publicized exploits was the broad daylight open robbery of the First National Bank of Mason City, Iowa.
“One windy Tuesday afternoon, in March 1934, near the bank’s closing time, about 2:30 p.m., I was cashing a paycheck in the First National. I had just finished cashing it and turned to leave. Suddenly several armed men rushed in yelling, ‘This is a hold-up!’
“All but one of the men ran around behind the bank counter to the vaults. One lone man with a tommy gun stood back to the wall, almost under the guard’s bullet-proof cage. The gangster with the tommy gun waved it around at us and barked commands: ‘Put up your hands! Don’t move! Lie down on the floor.’
“I obeyed mechanically. So did the others. I noticed one big man crouched behind a writing desk, squeezing himself unbelievably small in his fear. As in a dream, I wondered, ‘Why doesn’t the guard shoot?’
“The guard (Tom Walters) couldn’t for fear of hitting innocent people. Instead, he grabbed his tear gas gun and filled the bank with burning, smarting tear gas fumes till the gun clogged and he was helpless. I could hear pellets striking all around me and thought they were bullets. Perhaps my time had come.
“The gangsters turned their guns on the guard’s cage and poured a stream of bullets at the bulletproof glass till it cracked.The guard troubled them no more.
“As the bandits ransacked the bank, and the lone bandit guarded us on the floor, I lay there writhing in pain. Don’t know how the others stood it. I choked and spluttered and sneezed, my eyes ran buckets.
” ‘Oh, God, will this ever end?’ I thought, and swore the same oaths over and over.
“Once I looked up through crying eyes and wondered that our bandit guard could be so nonchalant. He merely held a handkerchief to his face. Once I thought he was laughing at me, but it must have been my imagination.
“But the gas in that closed-in place was getting him, too. ‘Hurry up, Bill,’ he yelled. ‘It’s getting worse in here!’
Bill and the others must have thought so, too. They hurried up, guns in one hand, fat white canvas bags in the other.
” ‘Get on your feet,’ they ordered.
“We got up, stiffly.
” ‘Gather around us. One false move and — !’
“We bunched together loosely, gangsters in the middle, and marched outside. One very young-looking gunman who walked beside me, real nervous, excitable and loud-mouthed, I later identified by pictures as Baby Face Nelson. There was $52,000 in the canvas bags they carried.
“I had a wild notion to run for it, but my feet didn’t follow the notion. They carried me gingerly outdoors and around the corner of the bank. There were people on the street, all standing motionless, watching. Many more people stared silently from across the street.
“Someone shot down from an upper window and was answered by a burst of shells from a gangster beside me. Another in front, whirled, screaming, ‘Who shot? Who shot?’
“I was beginning to feel better now, almost to enjoy the scene. I was still alive, wasn’t I, after all this? I could stand by the curb and watch the big, black sedan parked there, motor running.
“At a nod or a word from the gunmen, good citizens climbed on the sides of the car and on the back. Two scared women were thrust inside.
“Then that fatal nod came in my direction. Thunderstruck, I found myself climbing on the right front side, hanging onto whatever I could.
“Baby Face Nelson was still mouthing loudly and cursing. Then the gangsters got in the car and it moved off slowly.
“Seventeen people were in and on that car. Some woman hung on the outside, in the cold wind, with no coat. Someone else took their coat off and put it around her. The rear window was out of the sedan and a tommy gun poked through. The gangsters motioned to the fat druggist clinging on the back to pull in his coattails, they obstructed their vision.
“The sedan went carefully through traffic. No shots were fired at it. The police were lying low in the park across the street from the bank. They had had an exchange of shots with Dillinger earlier as he guarded the front bank door.
“The gangsters seemed to know their way perfectly. They turned down side streets and headed out onto the old road that leads to Clear Lake.
” ‘If any of you fall off, it’ll be too bad for you,’ they told us hostages.
“About a mile out of town, the gangster car stopped and Baby Face got out with a rifle. At each stop, those of us on the right side of the car had to get off, too, and line up alongside the road. That was a bit creepy. Maybe we were lined up to be shot. But no, Baby Face was throwing out tacks on the pavement behind us. Then he shot several times at cars behind us. The cars turned off. Baby Face got in again and we climbed on. Again and again, we stopped to throw out more tacks. Once Baby Face looked back and saw no cars in sight.
” ‘They won’t follow us, the sissies!’ he said bravely.
“A couple of miles further, we turned off on the county roads. I could see the men in the front seat poring over a paper — a map probably. They knew where they were going. First a mile or two south, then a mile west, then south, then west. We picked up speed on the dirt roads and I had a hard time holding on. It was beginning to feel very cold.
“We made another stop to let out a woman and her nearly grown daughter.
” ‘Tell the police not to follow us or it’ll be too bad for the rest,’ the woman was told.
” ‘I will, I will, you bet I will,’ the woman kept repeating. It was a little funny how desperately she repeated it. Then we went on.
“After more speeding south, the car turned east and crossed No. 65 Highway heading east. One of the bandits winked at me. I must have looked pretty scared. I later identified him as John Hamilton. Homer Van Meter drove. Dillinger was in the back seat.
“A half mile east of #65 Highway, the bandits stopped again and lined up everybody at the side of the road. Was this the pay off? Would they shoot us down in cold blood? That’s what we all thought and shivered from the cold. One man had to be told twice to get off the car. He was probably too scared to move.
“Two women were singled out and shoved into the back seat. They began to whimper and cry, but no one said anything. As the car sped away, we gazed, fascinated at the black muzzle of the tommy gun sticking out of the rear window.
“Some of us hastily dived into the ditch. Then it was gone and we made a wild dash down the road toward the nearest farmhouse. I didn’t think of myself as scared, but I was yards in front of everybody in that mad race away from the gangsters.
“We sat by the fire in a nearby farmhouse, blabbing about it all. Someone telephoned the police. Someone else just sat in a chair and shook all over for a half hour.
“The police took us home. Funny thing, it was hours before I could say a word to my folks about it all. No, I wasn’t scared. I enjoyed it all. But I’ll never forget it.”
Merrill Button, of Mason City, a native of Osage, remembers when his father and his uncle were stopped by the Highway Patrol and other law enforcement officers, who mistook them for members of the Dillinger gang.
“My dad, Lee Button, and my uncle, Claude Fuller, were driving from Osage to Charles City with a neighbor who had a broken arm, taking him to the hospital, when they were stopped on the highway by state troopers. They had been alerted to the fact that Dillinger was in this area. They were surrounded by officers. My uncle, who was visiting from Minnesota, looked a little like John Dillinger. He was thin and had black hair and a black mustache. He was about the same age as Dillinger. I suppose with the neighbor, who must have been in pain with his broken arm, it looked suspicious.”