Syracuse Journal, November 2, 1933
CHICAGO (INS) — Federal agents and police joined today in a search for Verne C. Miller, member of the notorious Harvey Bailey gang, after he shot his way out of a carefully-laid trap amid volleys of machine gun fire.
With a blazing pistol in hand, the desperado escaped last night from his Sheridan Road apartment hotel, jumped into an automobile driven by his sister-in-law, Miss Bobby Moore, and sped away.
Miller is wanted for the massacre of five men in the Kansas City Union station on June 7. A known accomplice of George “Machine Gun” Kelly and Harvey Bailey, convicted kidnappers, Miller is said to have wielded the machine gun in the Kansas City killings.
Not a day passed in the early 1930s without at least one newspaper story about gangsters and their exploits. Thus anyone reading the above item in 1933 was expected to be familiar with "the notorious Harvey Bailey gang," even if such a gang existed only in the minds of policemen and reporters.
Phrases such as "With a blazing pistol in hand, the desperado escaped" were de rigueur for journalists, as was "the most dangerous criminal in the country." Verne Miller would be so described at least once, Harvey Bailey several times. While both men were dangerous, other criminals were more so. I'm sure neither Miller nor Bailey appreciated the newspaper attention, because being noticed was the kiss of death for gangsters, though at least two of them — Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow — actually seemed to enjoy the notoriety. And look where that got them.
As a bootlegger-turned-bank robber and murderer, Verne Miller attracted little attention — certainly none nationally — until he was identified as one of the participants in what became known as the Kansas City Massacre, a tragedy that increased the federal government's determination to rid the country of men — and women — who were robbing banks, killing innocent bystanders, and, in general, spreading terror.
Miller may be better known today than when he was alive more than 80 years ago. People who write about him — and a lot of people do, actually — describe him as the most enigmatic of the gangsters who emerged in the 1920s and flamed out in the '30s.
I think they reach this conclusion because Miller became an adult — of sorts — while in the United States Army, served honorably through our Mexican expedition in 1916 and in France during World War 1. Upon his discharge in 1919, he became a policeman in Huron, South Dakota, where he had lived for awhile as a teenager.
Thus there's an assumption Miller was a young man intending to walk the straight and narrow. I don't think that's necessarily true. Perhaps Miller simply wanted a civilian job that would give him authority, a uniform, and the right to carry a gun. He might also have thought policemen had a license to steal. Or maybe it just seemed like a good idea at the time.
Lacking a memorable family-given name or a catchy nickname, Miller would forever be identified as the outlaw who formerly was a sheriff, without the reminder he was a very young man when he wore a badge, and that he didn't wear one very long. In fact, it was while he was a sheriff that Miller began his life of crime.
IN 1913,Vernon Clate Miller had set out on his own at the age of 16, moving from Brule County, South Dakota, to Minot, North Dakota. He lied about his age — claiming he was 21 — in order to enlist in the North Dakota National Guard.
This and much more I read in a 1996 article by Brad Smith in South Dakota Magazine, and an interesting biographical time line on a South Dakota public radio website. The time line was based on Smith's 2002 book, "Lawman to Outlaw: Verne Miller and the Kansas City Massacre."
I've found several other on-line stories about Miller and events in which he supposedly participated, plus newspaper articles from the early 1930s. There are conflicting accounts, and, unfortunately, Miller and most of his outlaw friends did not live long enough to correct the stories written about them. We have to rely on questionable, though often interesting testimony from contemporaries who managed to outlive Miller, gangsters such as George "Machine Gun" Kelly and Alvin "Creepy" Karpis.
Those in authority at the time aren't much help, either. Lawmen and the courts were interested in convictions. Without much effort, I found stories about four men wrongly convicted for crimes that may have involved Miller. Three of those men actually were bank robbers in the wrong place at an inopportune time — they were arrested and convicted a robbery committed by others.
So if you continue reading, keep this in mind. Several of the details are fuzzy. Also, the Internet has revived the spirit of creative, often yellow journalism. What we have are electronic versions of those dime novels that made heroes out of Old West outlaws.
I hasten to add that most websites about outlaws made famous during the Prohibition and the Gangster era of the 1930s make a point of condemning them for their horrid deeds. Some of those outlaws — men and women — may have been nice to their mothers, but, in general, they were the scum of the Earth, regardless of the hard-luck stories they could tell.
Many of them had no allegiance and were motivated by money and/or the desire to stay alive. Life was cheap, and for many life was all too short. Verne Miller made it to 37 ... and that was older than a lot of people in his line of work.
Buffalo Courier Express, November 30, 1933
DETROIT (AP) — Detroit police tonight said that finger print comparisons had established that a nude body found in a suburban roadside ditch today was that of Verne Miller, notorious gangster.
Miller was a suspect in the Urschel kidnapping case and in the shooting of Frank Nash, Oklahoma mail train robber, and his four guards in the Kansas City Union Station last June.
The body was recovered by police after a stranger had notified residents of the locality where the body would be found. The stranger disappeared before police arrived.
Dr. D. W. Johnson, county medical examiner, said the man had been dead for approximately 24 hours and that the body was placed in the ditch early today. The body was wrapped in two blankets and tied into a jackknife position with a clothesline. The back of the skull had been crushed, apparently with a blunt instrument. A thatch of red hair and a mustache aided in the identification.
Three other known gangsters have been killed and a fourth seriously wounded here during the past week in what authorities believed may be a fresh outbreak of gang warfare. With the slaying early Sunday of Abe Axler and Edward Fletcher, members of Detroit’s Purple Gang, police announced they expected reprisals.
The following day Walter Tylczak, escaped convict, was found shot to death and James Doretti was shot and seriously wounded as he escaped from an automobile in which he told police he had been “taken for a ride.”
Or, as it was illustrated in a comic strip called, "War on Crime," from the Lodger Syndicate of the soon to be defunct Western Newspaper Union:
VERNE MILLER was born in 1896, worth mentioning because he shared a trait with many movie stars and pitchers Satchel Paige and Dizzy Dean. That is, he gave various birthdates at various times, often changing his birthplace, as well. One of those birthdates — 1891 — undoubtedly was given when he enlisted in the North Dakota National Guard.
His World War I draft registration card, found on familysearch.org, the Mormon website (and a valuable resource for people researching their family trees), lists Miller's birthplace as Kimball, South Dakota, a tiny town in Brule County. That seems to be the truth.
Those making excuses for Miller's eventual trip to the dark side have several to offer. I'm not among those who believe a parents' divorce is always traumatic for their children, but in Miller's case there was an additional jolt. He was raised not by his father or his mother, but his uncle, Clarendon Miller, also in Brule County.
If Clarendon Miller is the same person as the U. S. Census lists variously as Clarem, Clark and C. D. Miller in Brule County, South Dakota, then Verne Miller had plenty of company, because his uncle and aunt, (who died during her 30s), had at least 12 children living with them at one time.
Also, Clarendon Miller, according to another online source, was a farmer and a Brule County official, at various times serving as commissioner, treasurer, and, perhaps most significantly, sheriff.
Miller reportedly left his uncle's farm after finishing fourth grade, though his age at that point may have been older than your average fourth grader. After his discharge from the North Dakota National Guard in 1914, he moved back to South Dakota, settling in Huron, working as an auto mechanic.
Raids by Pancho Villa along the Texas-Mexico border prompted the United States to send an Army to deal with the colorful Mexican rebel. The North Dakota National Guard was put into service, and in June, 1916, Miller was recalled and sent to Mercedes, Texas. Seven months later, Sergeant Verne Miller returned to Huron, South Dakota, and in June married Mildred Brown.
By then the United States was at war with Germany, so a month after his wedding, Miller was back in the Army, training for service overseas. In April, 1918, Miller's unit was sent to Europe. He was wounded twice, gassed once, and recommended for an officer's commission. The fighting ended before he could be promoted. (As far as I know, this is Miller's account of his war service; his overseas Army record may have been lost.)
War veterans have always faced difficulties returning to civilian life. Assuming his account was true, Miller undoubtedly was affected by the battles, the wounds and the gassing, but apparently he seemed fit when he was discharged and returned to Huron early in March, 1919. By the end of that month he had joined the police force. According to his World War I draft registration card, he was 26 years old. In truth, he was four years younger, and more than a little pig-headed.
NOT SURPRISINGLY, Miller was a tough, aggressive policeman, unafraid to confront troublemakers and quick to draw his gun. As such, he was admired by some residents, disliked by others,, though he won points for helping found the local American Legion post and being active in Kiwanis. Perhaps he had learned from his uncle how to be a politician.
The fly in the ointment was his relationship with Police Chief Tom Johnson, who did not appreciate Miller's swagger. So in May, 1920, Miller resigned the police force after only 14 months, citing his unhappiness with the chief.
Miller would leap over the police chief by running for sheriff of Beadle County, population about 19,000. He became the local Republican Party's nominee. Meanwhile, scandal swept the incumbent sheriff, Fred Anderson, out of office. Seems he was protecting a local gang, keeping them out of jail, even assisting with their robberies.
Supporters of Democratic candidate E. S. Brock claimed Miller was involved with the same gang. It's possible there was truth to the accusation. No matter. Verne Miller won the election — by 11 votes.
AS SHERIFF, Miller picked up where he left off as a policeman, aggressively pursuing lawbreakers. It was the early days of prohibition, and Miller was especially tough on moonshiners. Or so it seemed.
He also waged a personal war against speeders and drivers who disregarded other traffic laws. At least twice he fired warning shots at speeding motorists, which earned him a warning from the Beadle County Commission. Some residents must have sensed their new sheriff was a loose cannon, or a ticking time bomb.
But in March, 1922, the Republican Party enthusiastically endorsed Miller as their candidate for re-election. Weeks later they would drop him from the ticket, because ...
In June, a local judge accused Miller of protecting friends who were moonshiners. The sheriff reacted by raiding the still, but that may have been a cover-up or a farewell gesture, because for all practical purposes, Miller's days as a lawman were over. His first overt crime was about to be discovered.
Two weeks after the accusation, Miller's wife left Huron to care for an ill aunt in Rochester, Minnesota, where she, too, became ill and was hospitalized. Miller used his wife's illness as an excuse for a short leave of absence. He also announced his intention to visit a government sanitarium for treatment of his gas-damaged lungs. This gave him time to go into hiding, because ...
Whether it was the expense of his wife's treatment at a Rochester hospital, or a loss of income from his friends' moonshining operation, or simply get-out-of-town money, Miller had been pocketing money he had — as part of his job — collected from county residents who were delinquent about paying their taxes. The amount of money he stole from Beadle County varies with the telling — anywhere from $2,800 to $6,000. One story says there was only $46.70 left in the county till when Miller fled.
He deserted his wife, and went into hiding in St. Paul, Minnesota, notorious as a safe haven for criminals (so long as they promised the corrupt police department they would not commit crimes within city limits — and, oh, yes, give the St. Paul police a cut of whatever crimes they did commit ... out of town).
ON HALLOWEEN, 1922, few days before he could have been running for re-election, the disgraced sheriff was arrested in a St. Paul hotel. Four months later, after pleading guilty of four counts of embezzlement, Miller was fined $5,200 and sentenced to two to ten years in the South Dakota State Penitentiary in Sioux Falls.
Miller proved a model prisoner and was assigned as the warden's chauffeur. He became a free man in 18 months. After three months as a farmhand, a condition of his parole, Miller did what a lot of people did at the time — he became a bootlegger and hooked up with like-minded and recently divorced Vivian Mathis, aka Vi Mathews. (Mildred Miller would wait until 1929 to obtain a legal separation from husband.)
In June, 1925, only six months after completing his parole requirements, Miller was arrested on five counts of transporting and selling liquor. His uncle and father posted his $1,500 bail, but Miller stiffed them by not showing up for his next court appearance.
GANGSTERS in the '20s and '30s seemed to have their own social network. As a result, bank robberies, kidnappings and murders often would be committed by men, sometimes women, assembled from different cities.
Soon after becoming a bootlegger, Miller was in contact with the Al Capone mob through the usual go-between, Gus Winkler. Miller also began participating in bank robberies, and was involved in shootouts with police. In 1929 he was indicted for shooting at a prohibition agent, but again didn't stick around for a court date. He and Vivian Mathis fled to Canada.
It's from this point that versions of Miller's life story raise eyebrows. Google him and you'll find stories that, in Canada, Miller ran gambling interests for Louis "Lepke" Buchalter, a notorious East Coast crime figure. Perhaps he did, perhaps didn't. Miller and his girl friend returned to the States a few months later.
Schenectady Gazette, June 2, 1930
CHICAGO, June 1 (AP) — A war of extermination between rival liquor organizations was signaled today by the execution of three gangsters and the probable fatal wounding of five other persons, one a woman.
The dead, all members of the combine headed by Terry Druggan, overlord of the Turbulent Valley district were:
Sam Pellar, 32; Michael Quirk, 40, and Joe Bertsche.
George Druggan, brother of Terry; Mrs. Vivian McGinnis, 27, wife of a Chicago attorney and companion of George Druggan; Tony Tornatore, Joseph Ferrari and Sam Monistar, the latter three reputed members of the Joe Aeillo gang.
Pellar, Quirk, Bertsche, Druggan, Mrs. McGinnis and an unknown companion were seated at a table alone in the dining room of the Hotel Manning at Fox Lake, a summer resort near here, when a band of gunmen suddenly appeared at a front window.
With the dispatch of an army execution squad, the killers leveled sub-machine guns against the glass, discharged round after round of slugs into the restaurant, and then drove away in the darkness.
Pellar, Quirk and Bertsche, whose records as gunmen and racketeers extended back to the period when Dion O’Banion held sway over the Chicago badlands, were killed instantly. Druggan and Mrs. McGinnis were each struck by four slugs, while the unidentified diner apparently escaped the withering spray of bullets.
A lone waiter at the restaurant told police the unknown man took Druggan and Mrs. McGinnis from the blood-bespattered floor and carried them to an automobile. Two hours later the pair was deposited at the emergency entrance of the University Hospital in Chicago, 40 miles from Fox Lake.
A number of Chicago specialists were summoned to the hospital by an anonymous caller and they performed emergency operations on the pair, but attaches of the institution tonight said there was little prospect for their recovery.
About an hour after the Fox Lake shooting, Tornatore, Ferrari and Monistar were ambushed on a north side street by two gunmen who fled in an automobile. The trio was reputedly identified with the Aeillo-Moran gang of liquor racketeers, although police said that during various changes in gang alignment, the three may may have switched their allegiance to the Druggan gang.
Chicago and Lake County officials investigating the shooting advanced a maze of theories, including one to the effect the outbreak may have been connected with the slaying yesterday of Philip Gnolfo and the wounding of two companions in the valley district, an Italian colony on the near southwest side.
One of many theories about the above event, recalled as The Fox Lake Massacre, is that it was instigated by Verne Miller, who exacted revenge on those responsible for the disappearance of a friend, Chicago mobster Eugene "Red" McLaughlin, whose body would surface a few days later in a Chicago canal.
Again, maybe he did, maybe he didn't. It's more likely the Fox Lake shootings were what police and the press suspected at the time — another chapter in the Chicago gang wars. At least eight Chicago mobsters were killed in the days leading up to the Fox Lake incident and a couple of days after.
Miller was reputed to be especially good with a machine gun. According to legend, he could write his name with bullets when he fired into a wall. Maybe. Maybe not. Legend also said Bonnie Parker was handy with a machine gun, while, in truth, she couldn't hit the broad side of a barn, though she could look menacing in a photograph.
Moving on, there's general agreement Verne Miller did participate in the next event:
Buffalo Courier-Express, July 16, 1930
WILLMAR, Minnesota, July 15 (AP) — Five machine gun bandits, moving swiftly in a well-planned raid, descended on the Bank of Willmar today, shot up the town in a fashion reminiscent of the James gang, wounded two women, one probably fatally, and escaped with $50,000 after exchanging shots with citizens.
Although it was estimated that more than 100 shots were fired by the bandits, the only casualties were the two women — mother and daughter — who were shot down in the final burst of firing as the robbers sped out of town. Windshields in several automobiles were shot out in the fusillade and windows shattered in buildings adjacent to the bank.
Despite the close watch kept on the roads, no trace of the bandits had been found tonight. They fled southward and none of the citizenry attempted pursuit, although several sped their departure with shotgun and revolver fire. The driver of the bandit car apparently was wounded in the exchange and was dragged from behind the wheel.
Physicians tonight held little hope for recovery of one of the victims of the bandits’ bullets, Mrs. Emil Johnson, who was shot through the arm and in the chest as she walked along the sidewalk with her daughter, Mrs. Donald Gildia, who also was shot, but the bullet wound in her leg is not considered serious.
Only eight minutes were occupied by three bandits in gathering up $37,000 in cash and $13,000 in negotiable bonds after intimidating 25 employees and customers in the bank, while two others with machine guns held a crowd of more than 100 at bay outside.
While the three gunmen in the bank hurriedly rifled cash drawers and the vault, their companions on the outside kept the crowd cowed by an occasional burst from their weapons.
In making their exit from the bank building, the three bandits used George Robbins, vice-president, and Miss Mary Walker, a customer, as shields from possible attack by the crowd.
The Verne Miller time line claims the Willmar bank robbery was the work of what some reporters called the Holden-Keating gang of Chicago, named for Tommy Holden and Francis "Jimmy" Keating. Miller joined when he moved to Chicago after his return from Canada. Another member was Harvey Bailey. The gang soon would include George "Machine Gun" Kelly and Frank "Jelly" Nash, though it was a loose organization of ever-changing participants, depending on the particular robbery.
As for the Willmar job, unfortunately I found no follow-up on the condition of the unfortunate Mrs. Emil Johnson, though I kept in mind the press in those days often listed the worst-case scenario for people shot or injured in accidents.
Whether Miller was responsible for the next mess is questionable, but possible, because at least one victim was linked to the Willmar bank robbery:
Buffalo Courier-Express, August 14, 1930
ST. PAUL, Minnesota (AP) — Three men were slain last night, victims of a gangland warfare in what police believe was the outgrowth of a quarrel over slot machine concessions.
Two of the men were identified as Frank Coleman of Kansas City and Sammy Stein, also known as Sammy Hackle, of Minneapolis.
They were found last night by General W. F. Rhinow, head of the state bureau of criminal apprehension while touring a lonely road near Wildwood, an amusement resort on White Bear Lake, northwest of here.
The third victim, unidentified, was found early today when authorities searched the vicinity after the discovery of three hats.
All three were found within a radius of 200 yards of the spot where a small car was parked beside the road.
Identification of Coleman, who Sheriff Maher of Washington County termed a member of a Missouri mob, tended to strengthen his theory the trio was slain by a rival gang. The automobile bore Missouri license plates and Coleman’s pockets indicated he had lived in the Missouri city.
Police believe the third victim was Butch Myer of St. Paul.
Stein, they said, was wanted in the recent Willmar (Minnesota) bank robbery when five men armed with machine guns escaped with $142,000 in cash and securities.
Possibility that a fourth body might be found was disclosed after a fourth hat and a gallon of moonshine was found near the same spot.
ST. PAUL, Minnesota (AP) — Two of the three men found shot to death on an unfrequented road near here last night were identified late today as members of a gang of five which robbed the bank of Willmar, Minnesota, of $142,000 on July 15.
Identification was made by two of the bank’s staff when they viewed the bodies of Harry Silverman, alias Stein, and a man whose name has not been learned.
Brad Smith, in researching for his book, "Lawman to Outlaw: Verne Miller and the Kansas City Massacre," learned that years after the event "Machine Gun" Kelly testified Sammy Stein, Frank Coleman and a gangster later identified as Mike Rusick were all killed by Miller.
Stein, according to Kelly, had double-crossed the gang after the Willmar bank job. Rusick and Coleman were killed simply because they were with Stein at the time.
However, as indicated in the short sidebar to the above article, Coleman may also have been part of the gang that held up the Willmar bank, which could indicate it was Miller who was the double-crosser, if, indeed, he actually did the killing. Gangsters were not the most reliable sources of information, and the often affable "Machine Gun" Kelly was not above telling an interesting tale.
Another thing about Verne Miller: Most stories about him say that by 1930 Miller was a hopeless drug addict and suffering from an advanced case of syphilis, which made him irrational and less trustworthy than ever. (Because of his background as a lawman and his reputation as a hothead, Miller apparently was never popular with other gangsters. He did get along with Frank "Jelly" Nash, and that would prove unfortunate for both of them.)
In 1931 there was Wisconsin bank robbery that may mistakenly have become part of the Verne Miller legend that has spread across the Internet.
New York Sun, October 20, 1931
MENOMONIE, Wisconsin (AP) — An assistant cashier and a robber were killed today as four machine gun raiders looted the Kraft State Bank of an undetermined amount of money today.
James Kraft, 19, son of W. F. Kraft, president of the bank, was kidnapped and slain by the bandits, while W. R. Kraft, 22, another son, was mounded, not seriously, because he failed to point out where the money was.
The robber was killed by shots fired at the car in which the quartet sped out of town after spraying the street near the bank with machine gun bullets.
Bank officials said a hurried check indicated the robbers took about $10,000 after overpowering 16 persons in the bank, including six customers.
The bodies of James Kraft and the bandit were found on the highway six miles from here by possemen who followed the raiders out of town.
The younger Kraft had been shot. Officers believe he was slain in reprisal, after pursuers’ bullets killed their companion.
James Kraft, at work with his brother, was not missed until after the robbers fled. The latter were forced to hurry because Vernon Townsend, bank guard, set off a burglar alarm and began firing at the waiting car where one man sat with a machine gun.
Officers says Kraft was kidnapped in the belief that having him would prevent pursuers from firing and make possible a safe escape. The robbers, after dumping the two bodies from their car, continued to flee.
W. R. Kraft was shot in the side as he lay on the floor. The leader of the raiders refusing to accept his word they had all the cash, cursed and threatened him, and then fired point blank at the prostrated man. Physicians believe Kraft’s lung may have been punctured.
As the car sped away, one occupant was heard to cry that he was shot. Edward Trinko, who fired six shots, said he broke a window in the rear. Officers said the manner in which the robber was wounded indicated he was shot as the car fled, while James Kraft was slain later by the thugs.
The Verne Miller time line claims Miller participated in the Menomonie robbery, with the rumor he shot gang member Charley Harmon either because Harmon had killed James Kraft or because Harmon was simply inept.
However, if witnesses are to be believed, Verne Miller was not present for this robbery, committed by four persons — Harmon, Frank Webber, Tommy Holden and Francis "Jimmy" Keating. Also, both Webber and Harmon were shot by citizens of Menomonie. It's possible James Kraft also was fatally wounded by a bullet fired by citizen Edward Trinko, but that was something too unpleasant to consider. Better to blame the robbers, who, after all, could have been guilty. In any event, such killings were not thoroughly investigated at the time.
It's unlikely a fifth robber — Miller, for example — was present. I can't see five robbers taking two hostages, unless one of them would be forced to stand on the running board of the getaway car. The second hostage in this case was a customer, Mrs. A. W. Schafer, who stumbled and fell on the sidewalk.
The bank guard, Vernon Townsend, had slipped away and gotten to the roof of the building and started firing at the outlaws' car. The robbers were so frantic to reach the vehicle, they did not stop to grab their fallen hostage.
The Menomonie bank robbery, the 34th such holdup in Wisconsin that year, is considered one of the state's bloodiest.
The next bank robbery of note has a surprise ending, at least for three young men who were in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Buffalo Courier-Express, June 18, 1932
FORT SCOTT, Kansas, June 17 (AP) — Three young women employees of the Citizens National Bank were kidnapped and used to shield the escape of five unmasked men who robbed the institution today.
Fern Kerr, a stenographer, was placed on the running board of the robbers’ car. She screamed as the machine started away from the bank and was released.
Eula Kepley and Mildred Baucom were forced into the automobile and compelled to put their heads out of the windows. A few blocks from the bank they were freed, without being harmed, though Miss Kerr was prostrated by her experience.
One of the men stood guard outside the bank with a machine gun while his four companions entered. Harry Parrish, assistant cashier, and Leslie Wolfe, teller, were slugged with revolvers when they were slow in obeying commands.
The bank was closed to check up on the amount of money taken.
The robbers fled in the direction of Pittsburg, Kansas, dropping nails on the highway which punctured the tires of pursuing automobiles.
Lee McCreedy, Fort Scott fireman, who approached the bank as the robbers emerged, identified one of the men who carried a machine gun as Charles “Pretty Boy” Floyd, from published photographs of the Oklahoma outlaw.
NEVADA, Missouri, June 17 (AP) — Vernon County officers reported tonight they had arrested three of the five men who robbed the Citizens National bank at Fort Scott, Kansas, of $30,000 today. No loot was found.
The men were taken by surprise as they sat in a parked motor car in which were found two long-range rifles, a sawed-off shotgun and several pistols.
The men refused to talk. They were brought to jail here by their captors, Sheriff W. E. Butner and two deputies.
Sheriff Butner said none of the three was Charles “Pretty Boy” Floyd, Oklahoma outlaw sought as a member of the gang. He expressed the belief companions of the trio held here had escaped with the money.
This robbery also was most likely done without the participation of Verne Miller, though a Wikipedia page includes Miller's name in a list of the Fort Scott robbers. Trouble is, there are eight names on the list; only five men robbed the Citizens National Bank. Holden and Keating were two of them, along with Alvin Karpis and Harvey Bailey, and probably Fred Barker.
Among those convicted for the Fort Scott robbery, however, were Frank Sawyer, Jim Clark and Ed Davis, the trio arrested by Sheriff Butner in Nevada, Missouri. All three would escape prison, at least once, though Sawyer was never free long enough to commit another crime. Clark and Davis eventually were caught and tried for other crimes, Davis going to the gas chamber in 1937, Clark remaining in prison until 1969, the same year Alvin Karpis was released and finally told authorities Clark, Davis and Sawyer had not participated in the Fort Scott bank robbery.
When released from the Kansas State Penitentiary in Lansing on September 18, 1969, a philosophical Frank Sawyer said he was not bitter about his arrest in Nevada, Missouri, by men "who were just trying to do their job." Besides, he added, "we were getting ready to rob another bank," admitting there were several crimes for which he hadn't been punished.
Sawyer was a participant in 1933's most newsworthy prison break, from the Kansas State Penitentiary on Memorial Day. The escape was led by Harvey Bailey and Wilbur Underhill, the man perhaps most deserving of the label, "the most dangerous criminal in America." Sawyer was rather quickly re-captured; most of the others remained at large long enough to commit mayhem elsewhere.
Bailey, for example, helped rob the Fort Scott bank. Among other things, Bailey was known as "The Golf Course Gunman," so it was appropriate that 23 days after the Fort Scott robbery, he and two other participants, Keating and Holden, were arrested while playing golf on the Old Mission golf course in Kansas City. Rumor is they were set up by another part-time gang member, Bernard Phillips, who was supposed to play golf with them that day, but never showed up.
According to Paul Maccabee's 1996 book, "John Dillinger Slept Here: A Crooks' Tour of Crime and Corruption in St. Paul," Phillips was on the course that day, playing a hole behind the others. Phillips was a former Chicago policeman who had a habit of disappearing when other gangsters were caught. The story is he disappeared while on a trip to New York City with Miller and Nash, who killed him. Again, maybe they did, maybe the didn't.
Phillips' body was never found. According to Maccabee's book, when the FBI questioned Phillips' girl friend, Winnie Williams, she told them her boy friend had been stabbed to death with ice picks, covered with lime, and buried on a lonely road. How she would have known such a thing wasn't revealed.
Back to the golf course arrest, communication — and police department cooperation — being what it was in those days, Kansas authorities did not alert Wisconsin officials that Keating and Holden, the two men who escaped after robbing the Menomonie bank, had been captured. So that remained an open case in Menomonie for several years.
ACCORDING to the Miller time line, the gangster paid a visit to his father and his siblings in September, 1932, the last time the father would see his son alive. Three months later Miller was with Alvin Karpis, Arthur and Fred Barker and three others for what Karpis did best, though not necessarily this time.
Gloversville and Johnstown Morning Herald,
December 17, 1932
MINNEAPOLIS, December 16 (AP) — A policeman was killed and two other persons critically wounded today by bandits who held up the Third Northwestern National Bank and escaped with approximately $20,000 in cash and $10,000 in securities.
Six patrons and ten employees were in the bank, located in a small neighborhood community two miles from the St. Paul municipal limits. When the bandits entered, an employee pressed a burglar alarm button connected with police headquarters as customers and workers were lined up.
Police broadcast an alarm. Patrolmen Ira L. Evans and Leo R. Gorski, cruising nearby in a police car, hurried to the bank. They arrived just as three bandits rushed out, their arms filled with loot.
A fourth bandit, armed with a machine gun, followed and opened fire as the police car drew to the curb. Evans fell with more than twenty wounds. He died before reaching a hospital.
Gorski received at least five wounds. Physicians said he had only a slight chance of recovery.
The bandits drove to Como Park, St. Paul. Several of them had entered another automobile when Axel Erickson and Arthur Zachman, who were peddling Christmas wreaths, came along. Erickson slowed down his car and again the machine gun went into action.
Erickson slumped forward and Zachman took the wheel and drove hurriedly away. At St. Paul hospital tonight, physicians said Erickson was not expected to live.
Nine months earlier, Karpis, the two Barkers, and four others, had robbed the similarly named Northwestern National Bank of Minneapolis with much better results — $50,000 in cash, approximately $150,000 in securities and made a clean getaway without firing a shot.
Incredibly, after the second Minneapolis bank robbery, a fellow named Leonard Hankins, who has getting a haircut across the street from the bank at the time, somehow was arrested and charged with being one of the robbers. Hankins was from Kentucky and hadn't been in Minneapolis very long, therefore was considered an outsider.
Because two policemen had been killed — Leo Gorski died of his wounds two days after the robbery — authorities were overeager to solve the case, even if they offered up only one sacrificial lamb. The truth about Hankins came out in March, 1935, when Jess Doyle, one of the actual robbers, was indicted in connection with the kidnapping of Edward Bremer. Doyle gave a full account of the 1932 Minneapolis bank robbery, listing all of his associates — Alvin Karpis, Arthur "Doc" Barker, Fred Barker, Lawrence De Vol (aka Larry Colton), William Weaver (aka Phoenix Donald), and Verne Miller.
Obviously innocent, Hankins was kept in prison by Minnesota authorities until 1952. Then he was exonerated, released, and given a lifetime pension by the state of Minnesota. Hankins then wrote a book, "Nineteen Years Not Guilty."
AS FOR MILLER, in 1933 he and his girl friend, Vivian, rented a house in Kansas City and called themselves Mr. and Mrs. V. C. Moore. According to the time line, this happened on April 1. Three days later "Mr. Moore" was in Nebraska with Alvin Karpis and friends.
St. Joseph (Mo.) Gazette, April 5, 1933
FAIRBURY, Nebraska, April 4 (AP) — Machine gun bandits today looted the First National Bank here of $27,643 and engaged in a furious battle with officers that left seven wounded.
Shattered windows and shot-perforated buildings attested to the exchange of shots between the desperadoes and police.
The bandit gang of six sped out of town in a large sedan bearing Iowa license plates, leaving only a meager clue behind them in the form of a brief case containing an automatic pistol and a set of Kansas license plates.
A deputy sheriff, five citizens and one of the robbers were wounded. Keith Sexton, bookkeeper in the bank; Peter Johnson, Des Moines, a traveling salesman; E. L. Simkins and Deputy Sheriff W. S. Davidson were struck by bullets from the bandits’ submachine gun.
Two bank employees were slugged when they were tardy in obeying the desperadoes’ command to “stretch out on the floor.”All were recovering tonight.
One of the bandits was believed wounded by Davidson’s gunfire as their automobile roared away in a wake of machine gun bullets, carrying two women as hostages. The women were released unharmed a short distance from town.
The wounded robber, Earl Christman, died on April 6. According to author Gus Smith, Christman died at the Kansas City home of the bogus Moore family.
Two months later Verne Miller's gangster buddy, Frank Nash, was captured near Hot Springs, Arkansas, setting up one of the saddest chapters in the history of the federal law enforcement agency (which would not be known as the Federal Bureau of Investigation until 1935).
It is called "The Kansas City Massacre" or "The Union Station Massacre," a botched attempt by Verne Miller and others to rescue Nash from federal agents and other police who were attempting to deliver the gangster to Leavenworth Prison. (There were some who thought the shooters were not out to free Nash, but to assassinate him, but now that seems unlikely.)
A more detailed story is told elsewhere on this website, but here's one way to look at it:
Miller is generally blamed as one of the shooters. The most widely held belief is that Charles "Pretty Boy" Floyd and Adam Richetti were the others, but there's little evidence to support that conclusion.
Whoever joined Miller that day, they opened fire in the Union Station parking lot when Nash and four officers were entering an automobile.
Two things may have confused Miller and the other shooters: Nash was told to ride up front in the passenger seat, not in the back between two lawmen, as expected. Also, the bald Nash had grown a mustache and was wearing a toupee when he was arrested. An officer pulled the toupee off Nash's head at the time of the arrest, but perhaps he was wearing it again when he was shot.
So it's possible Miller and the other shooters didn't recognize Nash when the opened fire. Nash and four officers were killed that day, but one policeman who wasn't even hit by a bullet was the one sitting in the middle of the back seat.
The incident makes Verne Miller a marked man for gangsters as well as federal police who will find the massacre a convincing argument for the granting of additional fire power and authority when it comes to waging a war on crime.
One reason to doubt the participation of "Pretty Boy" Floyd and Adam Richetti is they were not hunted down by other gangsters the way Miller was.
On July 22, 1933, George "Machine Gun" Kelly and Albert Bates kidnapped oilman Charles Urschel from his Oklahoma City home, and before the case was wrapped up with the convictions on nine people, Verne Miller's name got dragged into it.
Tried with Kelly was his rather colorful wife, Kathryn, who at some point after her arrest, talked to her lawyer, John V. Roberts, about the upcoming trial and a potential witness, a man named Luther Arnold. The lawyer told Mrs. Kelly not to worry because Miller "will take care of Arnold if he testifies in this case." Also, it was believed some of the ransom money wound up in Miller's hands.
But the Urschel trials would be held in October. During most of September Miller and the Kellys were on the loose.
Troy Times, September 22, 1933
CHICAGO (AP)— Five machine gunners, laying a smoke screen, robbed four Federal Reserve Bank messengers of mail sacks in the heart of the financial district early today, and later killed a policeman as they wrecked their speeding car.
The bandits' loot was said to be worthless.
W. C. Bachman, cashier of the Federal Reserve Bank, said the bags contained "nothing but canceled checks, worthless to anyone but the banks."
Postal inspectors, city and state police joined in an effort to capture the daring band, and government criminologists studied the two automobiles abandoned by the robbers and the elaborate equipment for clues.
Suspicion focused on George "Machine Gun" Kelly and Verne Miller, Southwestern bandits. Highway maps well thumbed in the Texas-Oklahoma region were found in the bulletproof car that crashed a mile west of the Loop.
In the swift and daring execution of the robbery, police saw the expert hand of the notorious outlaws who seek defense funds for Harvey Bailey, on trial for kidnapping.
Shortly after midnight two cars drew up beside the Continental Illinois National Bank and Trust Company on Jackson Boulevard. A pall of black smoke shot from the exhaust of the rear car, shielding the robbers.
So quickly was the robbery executed that the two bank guards had to opportunity to draw their weapons. They were disarmed, the bags snatched from the messengers and the robbers sped away, leaving one car behind.
At Halstead Street, the speeding car collided with another and overturned. As the bandits crawled from the wreck, two policemen ran up.
The bandits sprayed them with machine gun bullets, killing Patrolman Miles Cunningham. His companion, Morris Fitzgerald, ran for a police callbox and summoned help.
Commandeering a passing automobile, the gunmen fled to the south, again trading automobiles later.
In the abandoned car police found all the paraphernalia of a well-organized robbery gang. There were drums of machine gun ammunition, cartridges for revolvers and rifles, a blue dress, supposedly used for disguise. A can of liquid was believed to be fuel for the smoke screen. There were several extra sets of license plates from various states, presumably from stolen cars.
On the front seat was a first aid kit,, containing anti tetanus serum, iodine and bandages.
I wonder what was going through the minds of Alvin Karpis and the Barker brothers, Fred and "Doc." You'd have thought police would have known by then that the actual robbers were members of the Barker-Karpis gang. They may have momentarily felt safe in the belief they weren't the prime suspects in the robbery, but their pride must have been hurt ... just a little bit.
Where Miller was at point is uncertain, but Kelly and his wife were in Memphis until they were located by police and arrested on September 26.
Miller shows up in Chicago on October 31, which gets us to the story at the top of the page and his escape from the trap police set for him the next day.
What happened next, according to Greg Smith's biography of Miller, is the fugitive began making arrangements to go to Europe, and contacted a mobster named Al Silvers in New York to get a fake ID. Bad mistake for Silvers, who ignored warnings not to assist Miller, now persona non grata with the mob.
On November 20, 1933, Silvers' nude, trussed up body was found near Somers, Connecticut. He was beaten and strangled to death and wrapped in a cheap auto robe.
Nine days later Miller's nude, trussed up body was found outside of Detroit, also wrapped in a cheap auto robe. He had dyed his hair and grown a mustache. In the process, the man who once resembled actor Joe Kirkwood Jr., portrayer of comic strip boxer Joe Palooka in a series of films, wound up looking like Freddie Mercury. He was identified through his fingerprints.
Vi Mathis and Bobbie Moore, arrested in Chicago for aiding Miller's escape there, both serve time. In 1935 Mathis moves to Sioux Falls, becomes a drunk and marries her boss, who runs a hotel. She dies in 1944 at the age of 38.
With Miller's murder, federal authorities are certain one of the three shooters from the Kansas City Massacre has been eliminated. The following October, in eastern Ohio, near East Liverpool, "Pretty Boy" Floyd is gunned down while being chased by federal and state police. Adam Richetti, who, for months, had been hiding with Floyd, was arrested in Ohio two days earlier.
Richetti was sent to Missouri and tried as the third shooter in the Kansas City Massacre. He is found guilty and on October 7, 1938, executed in the gas chamber.
There seems little doubt that Verne Miller, who was living in Kansas City in 1933, was one of the shooters at Union Station. Evidence against Floyd and Richetti was iffy, but there was never an official review of the case, considered one of the most significant in our history, and certainly one of the most important to the organization now known as the FBI.
In his book, "American Agent," crime fighter Melvin Purvis said:
"The turning point of the war against crime in this country came, without warning or premonitory thunder, on June 17, 1933 ...
"Until the Kansas City massacre, the Department of Justice and other law enforcement officials had been compelled to meet the challenge of crime with makeshift and blunted weapons. State line and technical matters of jurisdiction were burdensome barriers in the way of truly efficient police work.
"But the men who died on the Union Station plaza did not die in vain. The public revulsion which followed the exploit of Verne Miller, 'Pretty Boy' Floyd and Adam Richetti resulted in the passage by Congress of laws which endowed the corps of special agents with new and extraordinary powers.
"The government gave us more money, men and better backing — and it was as a direct result of this heavy artillery that the special agents were able to meet the hoodlums on their own battleground and take them to a cleaning."
The following year — 1934 — would not be a good one for gangsters, particularly Bonnie Parker, Clyde Barrow, "Pretty Boy" Floyd and John Dillinger.