Most will not know much if anything about the crime in La Porte County in 1926. However, with all of the publicity about the exhumation of the body of the noted bank robber, John Dillinger, it brings back memories of a crime in La Porte that was attributed by many to this noted individual.
This event occurred at the Peoples Savings and Trust Bank at 912 Lincoln Way (later housing the Governor’s Palace and since 1995, the home of Dick’s Bar). Some of the local people who were employed by that bank at the time of the event were Donald L. Collins, then a teller and later retired as President of the First National Bank and Trust Co., cashier Harry Keller, teller George Petering and bookkeepers Winifred Hastings and Alice Fick.
The day to remember is Nov. 26, 1926 — it was a Friday. It was announced in the local newspaper that the 1920s were the “first of two postwar binges that brought money to the average worker as production increased and the banks had a store of cash”. This was also a time when John Dillinger had risen to be one of history’s “classic” hoodlums.
It was about 11 a.m. when the individual assumed to be Dillinger and four cohorts entered the bank. They waved their guns and ordered employees to lie down on the floor and cashier Harry Keller to unlock the safe. One of the robbers blew out a glass window.
The information reported that it didn’t require the bandits more than five minutes to clean the cash off the counter, pick and choose out of the vault and head for the getaway car parked outside on Lincoln Way. Everything happened so suddenly that no one tailed the escaping bandits. At the time, bank employees figured the loss was about $30,000 in cash and another $60,000 in negotiable bonds, old liberty bonds.
For years, the Peoples Bank robbery was ranked as a record cash “haul” for an Indiana bank robbery, “but the big money era erased that record”. Just a day before the anniversary date of La Porte’s bank robbery, that in 1973, one of American Fletcher National’s branches in Indianapolis was hit by several well-armed gunmen and the loss exceeded $230,000.
For years after the La Porte robbery, rumor tried to tie the famed or infamous John Dillinger to the Peoples robbery. But the unsolved robbery was partially solved in 1975 when an 88-year old Joplin, Missouri man, who claimed he figured in the La Porte robbery, gave an “interview confession” with WLS-TV in Chicago.
Ted Hartzell, who was a Herald-Argus reporter at that time followed up with an interview of John Harvey Bailey who told about his days as a “professional” bank robber and the successful heist of cash in La Porte. Bailey served three decades in prison for his way of life. He was quoted as saying “this wasn’t my bunch. It was Charley Fitzgerald’s bunch, but we got away with it”.
According to records, Dillinger was serving time in the Indiana Reformatory on Nov. 12, 1926 and authorities insisted he was in the Reformatory on the day of the La Porte robbery. He was sentenced to the Reformatory on Sept. 15, 1924 and remained there until transferred to the Michigan City Indiana State Prison on July 16, 1928. He was released from prison on parole May 23, 1933 and according to published information went on a “rip-roaring crime spree” at that time.
It was reported that the bank closed as a result of the robbery and the depression.
La Porte County Historian FERN EDDY SCHULTZ can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.