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History

The Great Bank Robbery

The Great Bank Robbery newspaper header

This is a true story of the great bank robbery at Momence, Ill., which created much excitement in January of 1895.

The robbers were caught in the act, and several of them were sent to the penitentiary for various terms. If memory serves they all have been pardoned since. The story of how the robbery was planned and how the robbers were captured is interesting and somewhat important. It throws light on the methods by which some detectives acquire great reputations. It also illustrates how justice, which is proverbially blind, ought rather to be possessed of the secret of second sight.

One afternoon a fashionably dressed, keen eyed man, wearing jewelry, came up to the office and sent his card in to "the old man." The "old man" was the Managing Editor.

The card set forth that the caller was at the head of a detective agency.

"Tomorrow night," said the detective, "an attack will be made by robbers on the bank in Momence. We shall have a force of men stationed about the bank building. When the robbers appear we shall surround and capture them. If you would like to have a man on the spot send him over to my office at 3 o’clock tomorrow afternoon."

The old reporter was given the assignment. At the appointed hour he called at the office of the detective agency and was introduced to a big, broad shouldered man who may be called Harkness, and who was to be the head of the party whose duty it was to capture the robbers. The two went to the train together. Four other detectives were on the same train, and still others were already on the ground, lying under cover until the time for action arrived.

On the train Mr. Harkness grew unnecessarily confidential and boastful. He had been, formerly, a member of the Chicago police force, which he had left for reasons not altogether complimentary to himself. He carried a big revolver in each of his outside pockets.

Presently he pulled from his trousers pocket a bunch of skeleton keys.

"Say," he said, with a knowing leer, "it wouldn’t be such a bad thing to find a bunch of keys like this in the pockets of one of the robbers, would it?"

Such a find would, of course, make it appear that the man carrying them was a professional criminal. The remark and the display of the skeleton keys did not appeal to the old reporter. It began to smell like a "put-up job."

A mile or two this side of Momence the train stopped for a crossing. Mr. Harkness and the old reporter climbed off the train into a snow-storm. It was already growing dark. Presently the other four "operatives" appeared. They also had left the train. In a moment a seventh man came out of the shadows and approached Mr. Harkness. The two held a whispered consultation. Then the stranger vanished towards the town.

"That's our stool-pigeon," said Harkness to the old reporter. "Everything's set and we'll pull it off tonight for sure. He's fixed it up fine. The gang leaves here at 7:30 o'clock in a sled. They are to drive six miles out into the country, where they are to blow the safe in the grain elevator where we have a lot of marked bills planted. While they are away we'll all get located ready for them when they get back to town. They are due about midnight, and will go at once to the bank building. A window is to be left open so that they will have no trouble in getting inside. The pigeon is to stay outside on guard. When we are all ready and have crept up close about the bank he'll give the alarm and run. Then the others will come chasing out of the bank and we'll collar 'em."

"Will you have to shoot them?"

"Not for a minute. We'll do a lot of shooting in the air, but nothing more. They're a lot of stiffs and we'll just scare 'em to death. They ain’t any of 'em dangerous."

Most of the party ate supper together in an upper room in the little hotel at Momence. Of course, no names were put on the register, and the detectives had gone into the hotel one by one at a side door. Nothing was done to excite suspicions in any way.

Presently the lookout reported that the sleigh full of robbers, with the "stool-pigeon" on board, had just driven by the hotel for their long ride into the country where the safe in the grain elevator was to be blown open and robbed. That gave plenty of time for a smoke before it was necessary to get into position.

About 10 o'clock in order to provide against the possibility of accident, Mr. Harkness sent his men to get into place. It was bitterly cold and a terrific blizzard was howling through the town, so that when the party started out the streets were entirely deserted. By way of protection from the storm until it became necessary to go out into the night a big vacant hall on the second floor of a business block opposite the bank building, which was on a corner, was selected as headquarters. Here gathered, besides the detectives from Chicago, the City Marshal of Momence, armed with an enormous revolver, and several of the other town officials.

Shortly before 11 o'clock the detachments were posted, entirely surrounding the bank building. The old reporter was assigned to duty with the City Marshal, and they were stationed just inside the entrance to a stairway leading to the upper stories of a business block on one side of the bank.

It is possible, but in the memory of the old reporter, it does not seem at all probable that two men have ever spent a more uncomfortable two hours - for that was the time which elapsed before the robbers appeared. In the first place the thermometer was a good many degrees below zero. Then a blizzard which cut like a knife was blowing, and, since it was altogether uncertain when the robbers might appear, it was necessary to keep perfectly still. Before long numbness began to creep over the two watchers. The City Marshal, in addition, was suffering from a natural attack of stage fright.

"An I'm only married three weeks," he stammered, his teeth chattering-with the cold. "I’ve got a premonition that somebody will be killed tonight, and I'm sure it'll be me."

But he was a brave man for all that, for when the attack finally came be clutched his big revolver in a hand numbed with cold and charged across the street in the forefront of the attacking party.

It was 1 o'clock before the sleigh containing the robbers came silently up a side street through the deeply drifted snow. Everybody on guard plainly saw it. The sleigh stopped first at a blacksmith's shop, from which were taken a number of hammers and other similar tools, to be used in breaking open the bank vault. Then the team was put away and the robbers approached the bank building. The stool-pigeon knew of the open window and was quick to find it. He let all his dupes inside and then, when all was ready, closed the window behind them and gave the alarm.

"Run, boys," he yelled, "the police are after us."

Instantly there was a charge from every direction towards the bank, and a perfect fusillade of bullets shook the silence in which sleeping Momence was wrapped. But even then the detectives took no chances in risking their personal safety. They did not close in until the robbers had got well away from the bank and had separated. Then two or three followed each man and ran him down at distances varying from half to three-quarters of a mile. In the confusion the "stool-pigeon" entirely vanished, and so far as the public knew for some time afterwards no such individual was involved at all.

The old reporter followed the chase after a young man who was looked upon as a sort of ring-leader of the band. He was finally caught by Harkness, who threw himself in triumph upon the prostrate figure of the exhausted boy and presently, when a number of witnesses had gathered, proceeded to pull from the trousers pocket of this captive a bunch of skeleton keys, which in appearance was an exact duplicate of that which he had exhibited on the train coming to Momence.

It developed some months later that the desperate "robbers" were in reality a gang of bad and wild young men, such as exists in many country towns. If left alone they would have probably confined their attention to the robbing of hen-roots and watermelon patches. They were quick, however, to accept the leadership of a professional crook and criminal like the "stool-pigeon," and were easily led into undertaking the robbery of a bank, and enterprise which, without inspiration, probably would have been entirely beyond them. On the trail the bunch of skeleton keys found by Harkness was a telling bit of evidence, and, if memory serves, everyone involved was sentenced to the penitentiary. Later the facts in the case were properly presented and pardons followed.