Few people can probably identify the criminal who was the first to be named the country's public enemy number one. The answer? Verne Sankey, who was given the title on the strength of two kidnappings and the possibility he was involved in a third — the abduction of the Lindbergh baby.

There was no evidence he was, but, when captured in 1934, he admitted his involvement in the kidnapping of 21-year old Haskell Bohn, son of a St. Paul, Minnesota, refrigerator manufacturer, and of Charles Boettcher a Denver millionaire.

Sankey hanged himself before he could be brought to trial, and soon he faded from memory, which might not have happened had he a catchy nickname, such as "Mastermind," or one his wife might have preferred — "Snake."

Sankey began his adult life as a railroad engineer, but found he could make more money as a bootlegger. When Prohibition's days were numbered, he and his friend, Gordon Alcorn, turned to bank robberies on both sides of the United States and Canada border.

In 1932, they kidnapped Bohn, and demanded a ransom of $35,000, but negotiated downward and settled for $12,000. Eight months later, they kidnapped Boettcher, and were paid $60,000, though Alcorn would claim Sankey made off with most of it.

Syracuse Journal, March 8, 1933
Manhunt Targets Verne Sankey
DENVER (INS) — An international manhunt was underway today for the asserted “brains” of a well-organized kidnapping gang as officers in Wyoming, the Dakotas and Canada looked for Verne Sankey, 41, and Gordon Alcorn, 33, believed to be carrying the $60,000 ransom paid for the release of Charles Boettcher 2d, wealthy Denver broker.

Sankey and Alcorn, alias Gordon Best, escaped from the kidnappers lair, an isolated ranch house in the South Dakota hills near Chamberlain, just before officers swooped down on the place early yesterday and captured Arthur Youngberg, 37, third member of the gang, who later vainly attempted to take his own life.

Carl W. Pearce, 36; Mrs. Verne Sankey, 38, and Mrs. Ruth Kohler, 39, sister of Mrs. Sankey, are held in the city jail here.

Charges of kidnapping have been filed against the six by United States District Attorney Ralph W. Carr for the abduction of Boettcher from his home here on February 12. He was held captive, blindfolded, for 17 days in the South Dakota ranch house. Federal charges were filed because he was taken out of the state. It is believed to be one of the first actions taken under the recently enacted federal “Lindbergh” statute, which carries no limitation on a maximum sentence.

Sankey and Alcorn eluded lawmen until early 1934. Sankey was captured by Chicago police and Federal agents in a Chicago barber shop on January 31. Alcorn was picked up two days later at a Chicago apartment house where he was living with Birdie Angeline Christopherson, a South Dakota woman he had married the previous May, while on the run.

Syracuse Journal, February 2, 1934
Maid Couldn't Refuse Sankey's Offer
CHICAGO (INS) — She was just a girl who had been “picked up,” Helen Mattern, companion of Verne Sankey, notorious kidnapper, said today.

“I was the maid who used to tidy up the apartments in the building at 4052 Kenmore Avenue. One of the men who lived there said he was W. E. Clark. He told me that if I would live with him, I wouldn’t have to work.”

That sounded pretty good to Helen. No more beds to make; no more floors to scrub. It sounded good then, but today, as she faced Federal agents who grilled her as to her relations with Sankey, it didn’t.

It was two months ago, Helen said, that she quit her job to live with the man she knew as Clark.

Today Helen, who is 28, not very pretty and none too careful of her appearance, was unable to explain why she should be suddenly taken into custody.

She hadn’t done anything, she kept telling the investigators. She didn’t know anything. Never had she heard the name of the desperado, Verne Sankey.

Most of the time since Helen has been held she has been crying. This hasn’t helped her looks any. Her face is smeared and her brown hair is matted from lack of care.

“Mr. Clark never spent much on me,” she said.

Helen claims she did not know there were a machine gun, a sawed-off shotgun and an automatic revolver in the apartment. Never did she suspect, she said, that “Mr. Clark” was a kidnapper. Their life together, she intimated, was always quiet and orderly.

Mrs. Earl W. Robinson, wife of the manager of the apartment building, substantiated Helen’s picture of tranquility.

“They looked like the nicest sort of people,” she declared. “I thought they were a country couple who came to the city for the winter. When the Federal agents came, I almost fainted, I was so shocked.”


Syracuse Journal, February 2, 1934
Meanwhile, back in South Dakota,
Mrs. Sankey Was Cold and Hungry

CHICAGO (INS) — Fern Sankey, wife of the country’s “Public Enemy #1,” was rearrested at the couple’s mortgaged ranch at Can Valley, South Dakota, shortly after her husband’s capture here Thursday in a barber chair. Her original bond of $5,000 was raised to $50,000.

She is known to have been left virtually destitute by Sankey, who took enough cash with him to live in considerable style for months, to have costly “beauty” operations for the removal of moles and other facial blemishes, and to maintain another woman here, and have several thousand dollars in his trunk when arrested.

Mrs. Sankey is reported as having said:

“Verne is one of the vainest men in the world. He has always been a chaser and women fall for him like flies. If he had his moles removed, it is more likely he did it so he would be better looking rather than to get rid of any marks that would identify him.

“I still have hope that he was using that woman, however, in some capacity as a blind. But if I find that he really was living with her and spending his money on her when I was hungry, freezing and praying for him, I not only will leave him flat, but I will tell all I know.”

The Sankey ranch, which assertedly turned the partially bald gambler to the kidnapping racket in order to lift a mortgage, was the place Boettcher was held captive until the ransom was paid.

Two of Sankey’s accomplices, Carl W. Pearce and Arthur Youngberg, were convicted in Denver and sent to prison for the Boettcher kidnapping.

Before the Dakota outlaw was taken away, Prosecutor M. K. Kinkead of St. Paul agreed to waive the right to try Sankey in Minnesota for the Bohn kidnapping. While the Federal kidnapping law under which Sankey will be tried provides a life penalty, the maximum he could have received if brought to trial in Minnesota is 40 years.

There was a $9,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of Sankey. John Mueller, the Chicago barber who had, for six months, shaved Sankey and cut his hair, remained unaware of his customer’s true identity, so he never contacted police and thus didn't receive any reward money.

He had no idea why Federal agents came into his shop and showed him a photograph. Mueller identified the man in the photo as a customer named W. E. Clark.

The agents never told the barber the man was Sankey, but said they had to arrest this particular customer. The Feds put men inside and outside of the barber shop and waited for Sankey to show up.

A few days later Sankey strolled in and seated himself in the chair, awaiting a shave, only to have agents step up and put guns to his head. The arrest was made quickly and quietly.

Soon Alcorn joined Sankey, who already was residing in a jail in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, having been delivered there by Federal agent Melvin Purvis. Sankey had been questioned about possible involvement in the 1932 Lindbergh case, but there was nothing to link him to that kidnapping.

However, he confessed to the Boettcher kidnapping and to the earlier Haskell Bohn kidnapping in Minnesota. Rather than face the consequences, Sankey hanged himself in his Sioux City jail cell.

Syracuse Journal, February 9, 1934
Sankey Chooses Death Over Prison
SIOUX FALLS, South Dakota (INS) — Grief-shaken and weeping continuously in her jail cell, Mrs. Verne Sankey today was on the point of a breakdown following the suicide of her desperado husband, confessed kidnapper of Charles T. Boettcher II. Sankey chose death rather than imprisonment for life.

Under indictment for the same kidnapping and confined in the county jail here, Mrs. Sankey cried hysterically when authorities told her “Verne is dead.”

Sankey committed suicide in his solitary confinement cell in the state penitentiary last night by hanging himself from a crossbar with a necktie.

Stolid, unperturbed and radiating an air of unconcern was Gordon Alcorn, indicted with the Sankeys in the $60,000 ransom abduction of Boettcher. Alcorn, occupying a cell adjoining Sankey’s, merely shrugged his shoulders as the gangster’s body was taken away to a mortuary.

Sankey brought his career as gambler, bootlegger and notorious kidnapper to a sudden end by fashioning a noose from his cheap necktie. He fastened the necktie to an upper crossbar in his cell, looped it about his neck and jumped off the cell cot.

Dr. W. Keller, penitentiary physician, announced Sankey dead from strangulation.

The two federal guards assigned to watch over the prisoner had turned their back on Sankey for only five minutes. When the pair, A. B. Neely and Frank Gilmore, returned, they found the desperado’s body swinging from the crossbar.

Sankey and Alcorn were to have entered a plea today before Judge A. Lee Wyman. Byron S. Payne, assistant United States district attorney, said Alcorn will definitely plead guilty. Payne said the prisoner would be sentenced immediately if a guilty plea is entered.

Sankey had appeared morose a few hours before his suicide, and asked H. D. Brown, Buffalo County attorney, if he might talk to his wife, who is a prisoner in the Minnehaha County jail awaiting trial for the Boettcher abduction.

Federal authorities recalled that Sankey had often boasted he would “never be taken alive.” His capture in Chicago came so suddenly he had no opportunity to use three poison tablets found sewn in the lining of his coat.

Alcorn told reporters he never got much money from Sankey, and claimed that what money he did receive from the Boettcher ransom was stolen from him — by Sankey. Alcorn also said it was Sankey who told police about his Chicago hiding place.

New York Sun, October 27, 1934
Mrs. Verne Sankey Acquitted
SIOUX FALLS, South Dakota (UP) — The government today reached the end of its campaign to punish the kidnappers of Charles Boettcher 2d, Denver banker, upon the acquittal of Mrs. Verne Sankey on charges that she helped plot the crime.

Mrs. Sankey, mother of two small children, was found not guilty of the kidnapping conspiracy by a Federal Court jury last night. Her husband, Verne, who gave up railroading for kidnapping, hanged himself in jail last winter while awaiting trial.

After the jury’s verdict, government prosecutors announced that Mrs. Sankey’s sister, Mrs. Alvina Ruth Kohler, would be released on bond today. The sister also was indicted on conspiracy charges. It was indicated the indictment would be quashed.

Boettcher was kidnapped last year and held for ransom in the South Dakota ranch home of the Sankeys. The government charged Mrs. Sankey was the “mastermind” of the crime, but she insisted it was engineered without her knowledge.

Gordon Alcorn, a lieutenant of Sankey’s, who is serving a prison term for his part in the abduction, testified that she knew the details “from start to finish.”

Alcorn began his sentence in Leavenworth, but was later transferred to Alcatraz. In both prisons he was a model inmate.

His family in Canada campaigned for many years to have him released from prison. In 1949, he was granted his freedom and deported to Canada where he led a quiet, law-abiding life until his death in Vancouver in 1982.

He probably would have been released from prison earlier but for two things — the impact of the Lindbergh case, which hardened the public attitude toward kidnappers, and Sankey’s suicide, which got him off the hook for his crimes. Some felt Alcorn was serving two sentences — his and his partner's.