Notorious bank robbers paid visit to Willmar

‘Machine Gun’ Kelly among those involved in 1930 heist

The day started out like most other days in downtown Willmar: quiet and uneventful. Business owners were arriving at their stores in the morning and exchanging greetings with one another as they unlocked the front door.


The scene shortly after the bank robbery on on July 15, 1930, after armed men stormed into the Bank of Willmar and left with bags of money. Photo contributed by Kandiyohi County Historical Museum.


Soon, citizens began to patronize many of the downtown businesses, including a grocery store, hardware store, tailor shop, land office and a jewelry store to name a few. The sun-splashed sky combined with the mid-70s temperature produced a nearly perfect day on July 15, 1930.

But inside the Bank of Willmar would soon prove otherwise.

Five armed gunmen were about to get away with nearly $70,000 in cash, gold and bonds. These weren’t locals on a crime spree. These were hard-core thugs. Three of the five men spent time in Alcatraz prison at one time or another.

On the intersection of Litchfield Avenue and Fifth Street in downtown Willmar in 1930 stood four sturdy, brick buildings on each corner. These buildings housed the Bank of Willmar, the Tallman Investment Building, Red Owl and the Security National Bank.

Bank of Willmar president P.B. Hong had taken the day off and was at his cottage on Eagle Lake north of town. So Vice President C.F. Olson opened the bank for business that day.

Little did Olson or any of the citizens of this modest town in west central Minnesota anticipate what was about to happen.

At 10:15 a.m., a 1930 blue-green Buick Sedan pulled up outside of the bank with five well-dressed and clean-shaven gunmen getting out.

Three of the men entered the bank carrying high-caliber revolvers, while a fourth man stood guard outside the front door with a revolver. The fifth gunmen positioned himself outside on the northeast corner of the Bank of Willmar where the streets intersected.

The exact identities of the five men (a sixth man involved in the plot was not in Willmar at the time of the robbery) were unknown until the recent discovery of an autobiography written by J. Evetts Haley in 1973, called Robbing Banks was my Business: The Story of J. Harvey Bailey, naming the six men involved in the robbery and disputing some newspaper accounts of the robbery.

A relative of Bailey’s, who requested anonymity for this article, filled in some missing details of the robbery from some notes Bailey had jotted down in preparation for the book. Haley did not use a lot of the information provided by Bailey about the Willmar robbery, instead concentrating more on other robberies.

There are only six copies of the book remaining in circulation, according to Luke Jastrzebski of the University of Texas at El Paso Library, which has one of the copies.

According to witness accounts reported by the Willmar Daily Tribune (now West Central Tribune), Bailey and two other gunmen entered the Bank of Willmar. Bailey, the mastermind of this particular robbery, barked commands to the approximately 25 workers and customers.

“Put your hands up,” Bailey demanded, before then ordering them to lie down on the floor. But one man, John Swenson, was reluctant to cooperate, thinking the robbery was a hoax. Bailey, who was in no mood for jokes, severely kicked Swenson in the shins, sending him sprawling to the floor.

Bailey had convinced George Kelly, famously known as “Machine Gun” Kelly, to join him in the Willmar robbery. Tommy Holden, Robert Steinhardt (Frisco Dutch), Joseph Cretzer (Dutch Joe) and Sammie Silverman (Jew Sammie) also joined the gang for this particular caper.


The Tallman Building in downtown Willmar still has pock marks visible where the bullets sprayed during the shootout. Photo by Scott Thoma


Stationed at the outside corner of the bank was Cretzer, carrying a machine gun. Kelly was brandishing a handgun and was positioned outside the front door. Bailey, Silverman and Steinhardt entered the bank.

Bailey ordered the tellers behind the cages, Albert Nordstrom and George Robbins, to hand over any money they had. Both cages had around $3,000.

Nordstrom and another employee, A.E. Struxness, were then taken into the vault and forced to open the safes. One of the safes was empty, while the other two contained a combined $60,000 in currency, gold and negotiable securities. Nordstrom and Struxness filled a large sack with the contents of the vault.

As the robbers were preparing to make their escape after eight minutes, the alarm went off. Irate, the gunmen immediately suspected Robbins. Bailey grabbed him by the back of the neck and manhandled him toward the front door, threatening to use him as a hostage as payback for setting off the alarm. But once at the front door, Bailey hit Robbins on the side of the head with his gun, knocking Robbins to the ground.

As the robbers reached the front door, two businessmen began shooting at the robber (it was first reported that there were three but one later admitted he did not shoot). Rudy Paffrath, a jeweler, grabbed a .32 revolver from under his counter and ran to the scene, hid behind a car and began shooting. The robbers returned fire. Sam Evans, a carpenter who was working at a nearby building, retrieved a rifle from the Olberg-Bergquist Hardware store and also began firing from behind a vehicle.

“I was just a little boy when my grandpa (Rudy) died, but I remember my father (Lowell) telling me that my grandpa received death threats over the phone after the robbery,” said Todd Paffrath. “They said ‘we’re gonna get you, Paffrath.’ My grandpa was a bigger man and not afraid of too much.”

Interviewed by the Willmar Daily Tribune, Evans claimed he shot the driver of the car through the front windshield and saw him slump over the wheel. One witness claimed he saw a gunman jump in the back seat of the car and pull the injured driver into the back, while another man got in the driver’s seat. With all five men aboard, witnesses told police and reporters that the vehicle headed south down Fifth Street and then turned east at Becker Avenue. Several men carrying guns got in vehicles and gave chase but failed to catch up to the robbers.

Fearing there were vehicles following them, the gunmen spread tacks behind them on a country road outside of town.

Bailey’s account of the gunfire exchange seems to make more sense. He claimed that Silverman was seated in the back seat and was shot through the back window of the car and slumped over the front seat with shards of glass spraying over the other four men in the vehicle. Bailey, who had jumped into the driver’s seat upon exiting the bank, then sped away.

Since the car drove south initially upon leaving, the front of the vehicle likely was facing that direction while it was parked. Evans was shooting from the northeast at the corner of the Security National Bank and would have likely shot Silverman through the back window, as Bailey attested.

The gunmen dumped Silverman’s body in some sheltered brush outside of the Twin Cities, Bailey revealed.

Another robber was shot in the leg, possibly by Paffrath, as he exited the bank and left a trail of blood from the front door to the waiting vehicle. According to Bailey, that man was Steinhardt.

Three innocent bystanders were wounded by crossfire. One 60-year-old woman was shot in the chest with the bullet exiting her back. Another bullet hit her in the hip. Her daughter was hit in the leg. Donald Gilman, who was 19 at the time, was hit in his right heel. Gilman, who eventually became a dentist in Willmar for many years, died recently at the age of 100.

“He never really talked about it with us,” said his daughter Carmen Borstad, of Detroit Lakes, referring to herself and her sister, Audrey Omlid, of Minnetonka. “Our mother told us a little bit about it, but I don’t recall him telling us anything about that day.”

One woman watching the events unfold that morning from inside a building across the street from the bank wrote down the license plate number of the gangster’s vehicle. That vehicle was later found in Minneapolis, where Thomas Holden was waiting in another vehicle with Ohio license plates, according to witnesses that saw four men get out of a car riddled with bullet holes and enter a waiting vehicle. The Ohio vehicle was also later found abandoned in Minneapolis.

There was $1,000 reward put out by the Minnesota Criminal Apprehension Bureau for the gunmen, but no one was ever able to identify them, and they were never caught and tried for the Willmar bank robbery.

Special thanks to the Kandiyohi County Historical Museum for their contributions to this article

BANK ROBBER PROFILES

Harvey Bailey: Often referred to as “The Dean of American Bank Robbers,” Bailey was 42 years old at the time he robbed the Bank of Willmar. He was one of the most successful bank robbers in the 1920s, walking off with nearly $1 million. He spent time in Kansas State Prison in 1932, but escaped a year later. He was recaptured and sentenced to life in prison in 1933. He was then incarcerated at Leavenworth Penitentiary before being transferred to Alcatraz in 1934. He returned to Leavenworth in 1946 and was released in 1964 at age 76 and worked on his autobiography with Haley when he was 85. Bailey died on March 1, 1979 at age 91.

George Kelly: Kelly did not have the “Machine Gun” moniker attached to him until he married Kathryn Thorne in Minneapolis two months after the Willmar bank robbery. Thorne, who also had a criminal past, purchased a “tommy gun” for Kelly, although he claims that he never fired it during any of his robberies or other criminal activities. He was three days short of his 35th birthday when he helped commit the Willmar robbery. Kelly eventually was arrested for other crimes in 1933 and sent to Leavenworth Prison. But because he bragged that he would soon escape, he was transferred to Alcatraz on Sept. 4, 1934. He died on his 59th birthday of a heart attack in prison.

Joe Cretzer: Cretzer got an early jump on crime as he was in and out of jail since 1927 when he was only 16 years old. Although eyewitness descriptions of the gunmen attested that the youngest member was in his late 20s, Cretzer was only 19 at the time, perhaps appearing older with his suit and straw hat. After a series of robberies, Cretzer was eventually caught in 1939 and sentenced to 25 years in prison. He broke out of McNeil Island prison, but was caught and sentenced to five more years. Following another escape attempt, he killed a U.S. Marshall and was sentenced to life in prison in Alcatraz in 1940. Twice, he tried to escape from Alcatraz, killing two guards in one attempt with other prisoners. He was only 35 years old when he committed suicide in prison in 1946.

Tommy Holden: Holden had escaped from Leavenworth Penitentiary five months before becoming involved in the Willmar robbery at age 34. A little over a year after the Willmar robbery, Holden and a partner robbed the Duluth Bank, securing $58,000. Holden was arrested in 1932 after a series of daylight robberies and released in 1947. Two years later, he shot and killed his wife and her two brothers in Chicago and was the first fugitive ever placed on the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted List. He was eventually arrested in 1951 and given a life sentence. Holden died in prison two years later at age 57.

Robert Steinhardt: Steinhardt, at age 46, was the oldest of the bank robbers to descend upon Willmar. He was arrested over 25 times in his life, but never for the Willmar caper. He was a well-known figure in the Twin Cities night clubs and gambler circles. He died in Minneapolis at age 60 from a heart attack.

Sammie Silverman: Not much information is available about Silverman, other than he was from Chicago and was recruited for the Willmar robbery at age 28 by Holden. No mug shot was available because he had never been arrested and died young.

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