$9,000 and a V8 Hupmobile vanish after 1929 small-town bank robbery tied to Twin Cities crime syndicate
Here's how a robbery out of the movies tied Pequot Lakes to a crime syndicate in Minneapolis and St. Paul.
PEQUOT LAKES, Minn. — The 8-cylinder engine chugs along as three men take a trip in a blue Hupmobile in late August 1929.
They spend a few days coming and going near Nimrod, Minnesota. Each day, a farmer reading in the field sees them and takes note, but he doesn't think much of the large, blue vehicle.
They travel to Pequot Lakes during the day and frequent businesses there — merchants, gas stations and similar.
Days later, those owners note some of their stock missing and think the trio responsible.
The group of men, around 35 years old, has a big day Wednesday and needs to prepare.
Tuesday, Aug. 27, they get gas in Nimrod. There, Mrs. Perkham, the woman who operates the station, notices the group is buying a lot of gas — nine gallons in a can and seven in the car.
The buyer says they want to be sure they have enough.
Perkham watches the blue car drive south before coming back again 15 minutes later and passing to the north. The farmer who has been watching them the last few days sees them again; but again, he doesn't think much of it.
Wednesday, Aug. 28, at Farmers State Bank in Pequot Lakes, President J.C. Nelson is seated at his desk toward the front of the bank. At a nearby bench are Mrs. Ingeborg Hartwig and her daughter, Grace, waiting to get money to purchase a home.
August Larson, cashier, and assistant cashier Gladys Aas are behind their counters, and bookkeeper Irene Sorenson is quietly counting money in the far back room of the building.
It is 10:15 a.m.
Two men in overalls walk quickly in the doors and up to Nelson's desk. The first one draws a gun and sticks it in Nelson's face, motioning for him to get up and walk toward the counters.
When he does, the second, big man leaps on Nelson's desk and draws two guns before shouting: "Stick 'em up and be quick about it."
In the back room, Sorenson hears the first half of the message and bolts out the back door to Pequot Motor Company across the street to tell Ben Anderson the bank is under attack.
The men at the bank, including a third lookout outside, do not appear to see her.
The man on the desk takes charge, giving directions to those in the bank, covering one group with one gun and the other with the second gun. He forces the employees and customers to lie down.
Larson doesn't know how long he will be lying down and attempts to make himself comfortable on his back before the man tells him to get on his belly unless he wants to "get his."
The other man ransacks the open vault, tossing all the loot onto the floor at first, then empties two cashier cages of stacks of silver coins.
Outside, at Pequot Motor Company, Sorenson is explaining to Joe Krechmer and Anderson that Nelson, Larson and the others are in great danger. In her excitement they do not immediately understand what she is trying to say, delaying their response.
Around this time, Clarence Risnes at the filling station across the street notices the blue car parked at the bank. Henry Volkman, also nearby, notices the vehicle as well. They do not realize anything is amiss.
A third man in a brown suit leaves the car and walks into the bank. Inside, the big man is still holding everyone at gunpoint.
"Hurry, Jack," the big man says to the other robber.
The newcomer helps his companion load silver coins, dollar bills, bonds and jewelry into feed sacks. When the safe is empty, they order the witnesses into the vault and close it.
They tuck their guns into their clothes and walk out the front door.
F.F. Murray, night agent at the railway depot, is on his way in the door at the same time. He hears the clinking of coins as the three leave carrying a feed sack and sees the barrel of a gun below the big man's sleeve.
"My first impression was that someone was taking a quantity of cash from the bank and had a guard for protection," Murray later recounts.
It's been only 3-4 minutes since the men first arrived.
Murray is not greeted in the bank by the president or any of the cashiers. That is the first clue something is off. It is when he sees the silver coins all over the floor that he knows what happened.
He rushes out the door to try to see the vehicle.
Murray, Risnes and Volkman watch as the blue vehicle burns out of the parking space and speeds off. They can only tell that the license plate is a Minnesota plate. They disagree if it is a sedan, a "California top" or convertible with winter liner.
At the same time, Krechmer and Anderson have raised the alarm and run into the bank from the rear entrance to find the victims already coming out of the vault.
On the road, an unidentified Pequot Lakes youth, who has heard of the incident, is on the lookout, sees the blue Hupmobile and follows it on Highway 19 south of Pequot Lakes as far as the M&I railroad tracks, five miles away, before the 8-cylinder vehicle leaves him in the dust.
That night, state troopers, Crow Wing County Sheriff Claus A. Theorin and agents from the Protective Department of Minnesota Bankers' Association gather with armed locals to form a posse of 50 men that splits in two, with one group going south of town and one going toward Backus.
With a coolness to be marveled at, Parks held the two at bay with a gun for more than half an hour until Sheriff Claus A. Theorin and his deputies, Charles Oberg and Sam Bloomstrom, arrived to take the two to the county jail.
The posse heading toward Backus alternates between driving and walking, and is able to identify the distinct markings of a single tire — U.S. Royal Cord mounted on the rear — on the road.
It is a style connected to the car by someone who says they saw the group the day before. They are able to track it as far as the Oshawa store west of Backus before the trail disappears.
Law enforcement assumes the culprits found some way to disappear, either by blending into the crowds at the Aitkin or Park Rapids fairs, or by inhabiting a farmhouse, quiet resort or cabin.
They assume the blue vehicle will be found abandoned in the area after the crew lays low.
Armed members of the posse search houses, resorts and cabins, and mingle in the fair-going crowds, but to no avail.
Except for the familiar names and locations, the above scenario could be a Hollywood film. But in this case it is actually true.
This account is pieced together from documents from the Brainerd Daily Dispatch, Pequot Review and one single diary entry from Ingeborg Hartwig provided by her granddaughter, Grace (Hartwig) Cox’s daughter, Helen Haynes.
The robbers made off with $9,000 as the total in small bills, silver coins, Liberty bonds and two diamond rings.
Reports suggest the robbers may have been inexperienced, as they left several stacks of silver coins at the cashier cages, $550 in the vault and another $2,450 in a second safe untouched.
They were also reportedly nervous, but they got away clean with mostly small bills that could be spent easily and nothing that would specifically attract attention as possible stolen goods, according to the Brainerd Daily Dispatch and Pequot Review.
Authorities are particularly searching for a party of five people, three men and two women who had been seen in Pequot during the last few days.
The event was not an uncommon one for its time.
In 1929, the United States was in the middle of its bank robbery era when Lester Gillis (Baby Face) Nelson, John Dillinger, Machine Gun Kelly and others were active. This was the third big heist in Crow Wing County in several years.
The First National Bank in Ironton had been robbed in November 1927 and a U.S. Postal carrier was robbed of $20,000 by armed men delivering payroll for miners from Deerwood to Crosby.
The Brainerd Daily Dispatch at this time was full of reports of robberies and tragedies throughout the country.
R. L. Parks, of Nisswa — a justice of the peace, owner of the Nisswa Garage and one of the 50 posse members — became a near victim of a robbery Sept. 13, 1929, according to the Brainerd Daily Dispatch article, "Nisswa Justice holds two burglars at bay with gun; Robberies cleared."
"With a coolness to be marveled at, Parks held the two at bay with a gun for more than half an hour until Sheriff Claus A. Theorin and his deputies, Charles Oberg and Sam Bloomstrom, arrived to take the two to the county jail," the article reads.
It was thought that the bandits might have had a hand in the robbery of the Pequot bank, but A. C. Larson, cashier, stated that they do not answer the descriptions of those who saw the Pequot holdup artists.
The two parties — Earl Granger, of Pine Island, and Ed Brown, of North Carolina — were linked to petty robberies in Minneapolis, Fort Ripley and Royalton. Robberies and burglaries were alarmingly common.
Finding those responsible for the Pequot Lakes bank robbery was made challenging by the uncertainty or disagreeing accounts by some witnesses. Though the robbers did not wear masks, the speed of the incident meant that descriptions of the suspects were not great.
It was known that two were wearing overalls, one of them a larger man, and the third was wearing a brown suit. Police had fingerprints, but they did not lead to any arrests.
Though initial reports described three assailants, the Aug. 29 issue of the Brainerd Daily Dispatch, titled "50 men hunt three men, two women as suspects in Pequot Bank Holdup," recounts witness tips that suggested two women came with the group ahead of the robbery and had been seen with the men.
"Authorities are particularly searching for a party of five people, three men and two women who had been seen in Pequot during the last few days," the article said.
No document before or after this mentions a search for the women with exception of one correction that likely frustrated searchers.
It is possible searchers may have been tracking the wrong vehicle to the Oshawa store. The tire itself may have been a wild goose chase based on misremembered information.
The Aug. 30, 1929, issue of the Pequot Review reported that the day before the robbery, Louis Malek, of Devlin's Garage in Hackensack, sold a U.S. Royal Cord tire to three men matching descriptions from the robbery in a blue car.
Malek later corrected this record in the Sept. 6 issue of the Pequot Review in an article titled, "Report tire purchase at Hackensack found in error."
"Such a tire was sold, but it was to a car containing young women rather than men in overalls," the correction says.
On Sept. 3, authorities still hoped to find the culprits hiding in the area. A Brainerd Daily Dispatch article, "Bandit car seen? Search continues," reports that farmer Bert Sabin in Mission saw a large blue sedan speeding past his property that morning.
The car was not found.
Theorin briefly hoped for a resolution to the issue when two men were ambushed in the act of robbing a messenger at the Pure Oil Company in Minneapolis, with one left dead and the other injured.
The Dispatch was the first to report on the issue in a Sept. 6 article, "Fails to link dead bandit with holdup," in which C.E. Olson, former clerk during the Ironton bank robbery, could not identify either of the culprits as responsible for the Ironton robbery.
Authorities attempted to question the surviving robber about the Pequot Lakes robbery, but the same day, Sept. 6, the Pequot Review released its own article, "Minneapolis police trap bandits wanted for questioning about Pequot Bank holdup, one dead."
Similar to Olson, the suspects could not be linked to Pequot Lakes.
"It was thought that the bandits might have had a hand in the robbery of the Pequot bank, but A. C. Larson, cashier, stated that they do not answer the descriptions of those who saw the Pequot holdup artists," the Review article reads.
The same issue of the Pequot Review included the article, "Bank bandits must have left vicinity,” which reads: "Hope that the three men who held up the Farmers State Bank of Pequot recently and escaped with $9,000 in cash and bonds might still be hiding in the vicinity have been abandoned, and authorities are making a check of the cities in an effort to apprehend them."
The final lead in the case simultaneously answered questions and left investigators at a dead end.
A Sept. 16 article in the Brainerd Daily Dispatch reported that the Pequot Lakes robbery had been the start of a string of robberies apparently tied to a crime syndicate in Minneapolis and St. Paul.
On Monday, Sept. 16, the Brainerd Daily Dispatch ran an article about the investigation titled "Bank robber syndicate working in state: First of raids carried out at Pequot."
The Pequot Review ran the exact same article Sept. 20 with the headline "Pequot Robbery work of gang, say officials."
In each one of the long list of robberies the bandits have used many similar tactics. Either a single man or three men committed most of the jobs and never did they leave an obtrusive clue that might lead to capture.
"The gang is believed to have started its series of periodical raids on Aug. 28 when a bank at Pequot, Minn., was robbed," the article reads.
The syndicate was reportedly connected to a score of robberies in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa and South Dakota.
The connection was made in part because of the way the syndicate operated, robbing banks within 200 miles of their home base. In all related cases, robbers also operated much the same way.
"In each one of the long list of robberies the bandits have used many similar tactics. Either a single man or three men committed most of the jobs and never did they leave an obtrusive clue that might lead to capture," the article says.
"Evidence of careful planning has been discovered about the scene of each robbery, burglary or holdup, leading investigators to believe the band has a wide ramifications (sic) with a secret service department to report on the best means of procedure.
"Brown declared he believed the bandits spent a few days at the scene of their crimes, then swiftly and surely carried out their plans and sped back in fast motor cars to their Twin City hideout," the article reads.
Though the syndicate had been implicated, the culprits behind the Pequot Lakes robbery were never identified.
"In only two instances have the perpetrators been captured and none of the blunderers are believed members of the syndicate," the article concludes.
Travis Grimler is a staff writer for the Pineandlakes Echo Journal weekly newspaper in Pequot Lakes/Pine River. He may be reached at 218-855-5853 or firstname.lastname@example.org.