The morning of December 15, 1921 was just another winter morning in Long Grove, Iowa. The business district at the center of the small town was humming with activity as people went about their normal business.
People made their way along the streets, maybe stopping in for a haircut or a little gossip at the barber shop. Some went to the blacksmith shop to request work, or went into the pool hall for a little entertainment.
When the big car came roaring up the main road, it certainly got everyone’s attention. They watched as it braked hard in the front of the Stockman’s Savings Bank and two men came rushing out.
They wore handkerchiefs over the lower half of their faces, masking their features. With guns in their hands, they ran up the stairs leading to the banks’ door. One of them grabbed the knob, turned it, and … nothing.
The door was locked.
They tried again, desperately trying to open the door. Still, nothing. The door wouldn’t budge.
The two men looked at each other in confusion and frustration, trying to figure out what to do. After failing to come up with any good answers, they went back to their car and quickly drove down the road and out of town.
People immediately started talking about what they’d seen, and it wasn’t good. Two strange men with guns and wearing masks trying to get into the bank could only mean one thing – robbers.
Word spread fast. One especially energetic man took it upon himself to run all the way around the town, telling everyone that he saw about the masked men at the bank.
When E.A. Anschultz, a local grain dealer, heard the news, he didn’t believe it. People may have thought that it was a robbery, but there was no way that it could have been. It was all a big mistake. Anschultz began to make his way toward the bank. He was friends with the bank president, R.K. Brownlie. Surely he’d know what all this nonsense was about.
After talking with Brownlie, however, Anschultz quickly discovered that his assumption had been wrong. Brownlie and the bank bookkeeper, a young woman in her early-20’s named Jean Marti, had been out to lunch when the men had tried to get in. The two bank workers had no idea what had happened, and were just as surprised as everyone else.
Al Klindt, a blacksmith and mechanic whose garage was directly across the street, had also stopped in to talk to Brownlie. Klindt needed to know exactly what happened. After all, he was a Vigilante and it was his job to know.
Starting in about 1920, banks in Iowa experienced a rash of robberies and burglaries all across the state. The Iowa Banking Association, the dominant banking organization there, was determined to bring it to an end.
The banking association itself used the services of the Burns Detective Agency. In the late 19th century, Burns was able to handle all criminal investigations themselves, which included everything from forgeries to burglaries. As the population of Iowa grew over the next few decades, it became harder and harder for them to handle each and every crime. The wave of robberies in 1920 drove that point home further.
To complicate things further, the association couldn’t always rely on law enforcement to protect their assets.
Many rural towns didn’t have a police force of their own, and were often some distance away from larger urban areas which did have them. Even a local sheriff might take a good amount of time to respond, depending on how fast they received the news and how good the roads were.
After some deliberation, the association came up with a solution. They discussed it with the state, and soon after the Vigilance Commissions were born.
The way they worked was simple. For every bank that was a member of the Iowa Banking Association, at least four locals could volunteer to become a member of the Vigilance Commission, or Vigilante for short.
Each of these volunteers would then be officially deputized by the local sheriff and provided arms and ammunition for the express purpose of preventing burglaries and robberies at the bank, up to and including the use of deadly force.
The Vigilance Commissions would handle burglaries and robberies themselves. As locals. they were right in the area of the member banks, which minimized response times. By making them official deputies, it put the full power of the law behind them. These changes also took that responsibility away from Burns, allowing them to focus on frauds and forgeries.
Although they hadn’t been in operation for very long, the commissions became very popular. Young and old, volunteers stepped forward to help stand watch over their local banks; volunteers like Al Klindt.
As Klindt and his companions stood inside the bank, Jean Marti saw the robbers car drive past one of the large picture windows. The car had been seen driving around the area since it had left earlier, and now the robbers had returned.
Once again, the two men parked the car and ran up to the door. This time, they were able to go directly inside.
As they came in, Anschultz and Klindt walked out. For unknown reasons, the robbers didn’t stop them, and allowed them to pass unhindered out the door. Instead, the robbers turned their attention to Marti and Brownlie.
They pushed the bank employees into the office and began striking Brownlie, in his seventies at this time, in the head with their guns. Shouting, the robbers demanded him to tell them where all the money was at, while stopping periodically to comfort the frightened Marti, telling her that everything was going to be alright.
One robber left and began to dump money into a black bag they had brought with them. After a while, the other robber herded Marti and Brownlie into the vault.
The robbers demanded to know if the bank employees knew them. After receiving their assurance that they didn’t, the robbers started to close the vault door with the intention of locking the employees inside. Desperately, the president and the bookkeeper begged them not to.
They explained that the vault had a time-lock, and that once the door had been shut, then it could only be opened again when the correct combination was entered at the right time of day. There was a very good chance that they would suffocate long before anyone was able to do that.
The robbers relented, settling for locking them behind an inner gate instead. Their heist now complete, the two made their way toward the door.
The man with the bag went first. As he stepped out onto the stairs, he suddenly stopped, staring at something. Suddenly, he raised his gun and started shooting, running down the steps and around the corner.
The world outside exploded with the sound of gunfire.
To the remaining robber, they must have seemed to come from everywhere. If he wanted to escape, he had no choice but to run into the middle of it.
Bracing himself, followed his partner out the door. He raised his gun, firing at where he thought the shots might be coming from. Desperately, he ran toward his car. As he went, several shots hit him, but he didn’t stop.
The robber made it to the drivers side door and jumped inside. He jammed his foot down on the accelerator, but nothing happened. The men had left their car running so they could have a quick getaway, but the car was like a stone.
When the Vigilantes noticed that the robber wasn’t shooting at them anymore, they quickly made their way up his car. With guns in hand, they stood outside and told the robber to give up his gun. He asked them what gun they were talking about. The Vigilantes reached into the car, pulled him out onto the sidewalk, and handcuffed him.
The other robber was dead, shot through the heart only a few steps outside of the bank. The Viglantes hog-tied his body and left it on the cold ground, lying next to the bag of money that had cost him his life.
A short time later, the sheriff, Bill Bremer, arrived with the coroner and some policeman. They had been called about the robbery when the two men had gone into the bank. At the same time, others were also moving into action.
The Vigilance Commission members in Long Grove had armed themselves and taken up different shooting positions around the bank, including Al Klindt and E.A. Anshultz. A garage worker named Archie Henne had walked across to the robber’s car and shut off the engine.
When the first robber had come out of the bank, he had seen an armed Vigilante hiding behind a telephone pole and began shooting. He never stood a chance. The other vigilantes returned fire, killing him.
The coroner, upon seeing that the second robber was still alive, ordered that his handcuffs be removed and that he be taken somewhere he could be examined. The robber was carried into the pool hall across the street and laid on one of the tables.
An ambulance was called for him, and he was taken to Mercy Hospital in Davenport. While uncooperative at first, he soon confessed to everything.
His name was Harry Hamilton. He was a former policeman who had become an editor for a newspaper run by a local crime lord.
After he was sent to prison for libel, Hamilton turned state’s evidence against a major crime figure in the area in exchange for a shorter sentence. He was released, but was sent back soon after for his involvement in a warehouse heist in rural Iowa.
He was released in early 1921, and was determined to not go back. Unfortunately, Hamilton was unable to find work anywhere, so decided to rob a bank to make ends meet. Enlisting the help of a local barber named Roy Purple, the two planned to rob the bank in Long Grove.
Four days after the robbery, Hamilton died from his wounds.
The Vigilance Commission had done it’s work. The robbery was prevented, and all but 10 cents of the stolen money was recovered. The Vigilantes and other individuals who were were given a $1000 reward by the Iowa Bankers Association to be split among them.
Things went back to normal after that. The Vigilance Commission peaked in popularity, then was phased out by law enforcement. The Vigilantes themselves went back to their lives, their duty performed and completed. They had done what they had volunteered to do.
The men and women who were there that day never forgot what happened. The story was told and retold by locals, each telling relating how simple folk stood up against two bank robbers and had won the day. It passed from generation to generation, eventually passing from quaint story to local legend.
If you’re ever passing through Long Grove, Iowa, the bank building is still there. It’s still there on the corner, and looks almost exactly the same. While that’s interesting enough, be sure to take a closer look at the bricks near the doorway.
There, hammered into the stone, is a bullet hole made by a Vigilante weapon as they gunned down Harry Hamilton and Roy Purple on a cold winter’s day in 1921.
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