While Verne Sankey wasn't as famous as other 1930s gangsters, he was, for a time, a prime suspect whenever a clever or efficient kidnapping or robbery was reported. Federal authorities even tried to link him with 1932's Lindbergh case, but abducting babies wasn't Sankey's style; neither was murder.

His name also is the answer to a trivia question few people could answer: Who was the first person to be designated as our most wanted criminal?

He was infamous as a kidnapper, and had a farm in South Dakota, which is where he held Denver broker Charles Boettcher in February until the ransom was paid. Word is, Sankey's first choice for a Denver kidnapping was Adolph Coors Jr., but Boettcher, a member of one of the city's most prominent families, was a perfect second choice.

Boettcher also was the second person kidnapped by Sankey and his partner in crime, Gordon Alcorn. In 1932 they abducted Haskell Bohn, son of a St. Paul, Minnesota, refrigerator manufacturer. As was the story with most kidnappings, Sankey and Alcorn had to negotiate downward after their initial ransom demand of $35,000. They settled for $12,000, which seems a small amount, but it probably was more than Sankey and Alcorn picked up during their bank robberies on both sides of the United States-Canada border.

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 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 that 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. Alcorn shrugged at the news of Sankey's death, and no wonder — he told reporters he never got much money from Sankey. He 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.

In October, 1934, Mrs. Sankey was acquitted on a charge that she helped plot the Boettcher kidnapping.

Meanwhile, 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.