The Robbers Who Should Have Quit

Some people just don’t know when to quit.

Granted, that’s a trait that we normally admire. The sports team that keeps pushing to a win when their score is way down during a game. The guy that’s not exactly the sharpest knife in the drawer who keeps trying and studying hard to eventually earn their high school or college diploma.

These are inspirational examples. We cling to them, hold them close to our hearts. They give us hope, because if so-in-so can do such-in-such, then we can surely accomplish our comparatively piddly little goal.

But sometimes, people should just quit while they’re ahead.

We have no reason to suspect that Harry Hamilton was a bad police officer. He spent several successful years on the Davenport Police Department in eastern Iowa, even earning high praise and a newspaper write-up when he stopped a teenaged pickpocket.

harry hamilton
Harry Hamilton (Courtesy of the Daily Times)

For whatever reason, being a good, honest cop wasn’t enough for him. He must have wanted something more, something that maybe offered better money or prestige. To achieve his goals, he quit the police force and became an editor for the Rock Island News in the nearby city of Rock Island, Illinois.

The Rock Island News was a notorious paper. More than what some would colorfully-refer to as a ‘scandal rag,’ the News deliberately and maliciously aimed to spread lies and deliberately destroy reputations.

The paper was founded and run by John Looney, the premiere crime kingpin of the region during the earliest few decades of the 20th century. While his initial goal was to slander the reputation of another local paper in retaliation for a perceived personal slight against him, Looney quickly learned that the News could effectively be used to blackmail anyone with money.

To do that, he or one of his associates would either write up a sample story that revealed details of alleged activities of a given someone. It didn’t matter if what was said was true at all. What mattered is that people would believe the accusations against the person in the write-up, ruining their reputations.

Everything was all set to print, unless, of course, Looney and the News could be persuaded to keep things off the headlines. For a small fee, all troubles were wiped miraculously away.

This was the environment that Harry Hamilton was employed in. His boss was a man named Dan Drost, who was Looney’s chief lieutenant in all of his illegal operations. Harry was well aware of the activities that these men were engaged in. For his part, he actively participated in publishing articles that he knew weren’t true.

Hamilton’s luck ran out and he was arrested for libel. He was sent to jail, insisting all the while that he wasn’t going to talk. Eventually, however, turning state’s evidence against his fellow criminals became more appealing than a life behind bars.

After being released, Hamilton returned to Davenport. For someone who apparently disliked being in jail as much as he did, he didn’t make many qualms about involving himself in criminal activity again.

This time, he was arrested for burglary and returned to prison in 1920. By late 1921, Hamilton had once again been released. Taking up residence in Davenport, he was determined to make a fresh start of things.

He told people that he was going to go straight. Nope, no prison life for him anymore. He was going to be straight as an arrow and be a contributing member of society. No more crime, no more bars on the windows.

The problem was that the city was having some economic problems of its own, which meant that jobs in Davenport were a little thin on the ground. Of course, being a known criminal who had spent time in jail probably wasn’t helping him win over a new employer, either.

I’d like to say that Hamilton gave things the good college try and exhausted every lead. We won’t ever know that. What we do know is that he finally threw in the towel and decided that he was going to rob a bank.

To help his cause, Hamilton enlisted the help of a man named Roy Purple. A local barber who liked to hang out with hardened criminals, Purple was seemingly eager to join in.

They decided that their target would be the Stockman’s Saving Bank in Long Grove, Iowa, about twenty minutes north of Davenport.

longgrove_bank
The Stockman’s Savings Bank in Long Grove, Iowa. Author’s Collection

Long Grove was primarily an agricultural area surrounded by miles of farmland. The would-be robbers might have figured that because there wasn’t a police force and the citizens of the quiet town wouldn’t be used to the outbreak of sudden violence, then they might not put up as much resistance. Or, they might have thought there wouldn’t be as high a chance of being recognized by someone who knew them.

Whatever their reasons, they had chosen their spot, and began to plan.

They bought a big, fast car called a Hudson Six to help them get away faster. They got guns and a small black bag for carrying the money in. They knew the route they would take to and from the bank.

Hamilton and Purple were as ready as they were going to get. It was time.

   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. Several 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, concealing 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, Hamilton and Purple, looked at each other in confusion and frustration, trying to figure out what to do. This hadn’t been part of the plan. It was the middle of the day, for crying out loud! Why wasn’t someone there?

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 robber’s 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.

Hamilton and Purple 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.

Hamilton and Purple relented, settling for locking them behind an inner gate instead. Their heist now complete, the two made their way toward the door.

Purple, with the bag firmly in hand, went first. As he stepped out onto the stairs, he suddenly stopped, staring at something. There, down the road, was a man behind a telephone pole, holding a gun.

The barber could have gone back inside, or just decided to try and run to the car. Instead, in a slow-motion minute that changed his fate, Purple raised his gun and started shooting.

The world outside exploded with the sound of gunfire.

Purple took the stone steps down as fast as he could, breaking into a run as soon as he hit flat ground. After a few steps, he felt a searing, white-hot pain in his chest, and then nothing. He felt himself falling, almost like floating through deep water. By the time his body hit the cold, hard concrete, Roy Purple had already drifted away.

To Hamilton, the gunfire 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, Hamilton 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 driver’s 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.

Roy Purple was dead, shot through the heart only a few steps outside of the bank. The Vigilantes 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.

Four days after the robbery, Hamilton died from his wounds.

The Vigilance Commission had done its work. The robbery was prevented, and all but 10 cents of the stolen money was recovered. The Vigilantes and other individuals who 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, the bank building is still there on the corner of the former downtown. If you look carefully at the brickwork under the large picture window near the doorway, you can still see bullet holes, etched like scars into the edifice.

When you look at them, spare a thought for Harry Hamilton and Roy Purple, two would-be bank robbers who would have been better off quitting while they were ahead.

I am an author and historian who writes about long-forgotten and out of the way events and places. I love the bizarre, the unusual, and the downright weird. I write a regular blog at my website, www.johnbrassardjrcom.wordpress.com, and also manage a facebook page about things of historical interest called The Kitchen Table Historian.

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