Episode 14 - Birds and Bank Robbers
Has the Federal Reserve ever been robbed? And what’s all this talk about doves and hawks? On today’s episode we dive into the meaning behind “the birds”, and we tell the story of a 1930’s Chicago gang and their attempt to rob the Fed.
This is The Bankster Podcast, and I’m your host, Alexander Bagehot. Today is Episode 14 - Birds and Bank Robbers. Every episode we dive into the intricate world of central banking! I use one or two pieces of news from the Federal Reserve or monetary policy from around the world to summarize, translate, and explain a few points from the Centralverse. Now the Centralverse is the deep, the fascinating, the ever changing, and the incredibly consequential world of central bankers and the economies they attempt to support.
Each Federal Reserve Bank is responsible for distributing the paper currency into circulation. As we learned in Episode 2, the Treasury prints the money and the Federal Reserve distributes it. Every summer the Federal Reserve’s Board of Governors sends a “Currency Print Order” to the Treasury Department, telling them how much paper currency they would like for the following calendar year. It’s kind of like ordering your groceries on Amazon, where you tell them what you want and when you want it delivered. So the order for next year’s money includes over 7 Billion notes worth over $200 Billion. The money will be printed in either Washington DC or Fort Worth, Texas and then delivered to one of the 12 Federal Reserve Banks. That is a lot of cash!
Safeguarding this money until it is picked up by local and international banks is one of the most important jobs of the Federal Reserve. But it begs the question, Has the Fed ever been robbed? Well, stick around for the history section of the podcast and we’ll answer that very question. But first, as always, the news.
Last week the Federal Open Market Committee, met in the white pillared Eccles building in Washington DC to discuss the current state of the economy, and to make another decision about interest rates. If you were paying close attention to the news you surely would have caught a short headline or announcement about the results of the meeting. But unless you were reading or listening to a finance specific news source, the story was most likely not much more than a quick mention. This is because the meeting resulted in no change in the current policy. The Fed will keep interest rates in the .25-.50% range. It would have been much bigger news if they had raised interest rates. Which is actually what three of the voting members of the FOMC would have liked to do. And this brings us to the focus of today’s news section.
As you’ll recall, there are twelve members of the FOMC (although two spots are currently vacant because they haven’t been confirmed by the senate, not unlike the current vacancy on the Supreme Court. And one other quick aside and reminder, there are seven other Federal Reserve Bank Presidents who go to the meetings but who don’t get to vote because it is not their turn this year). So of the ten voting members of the committee at the meeting last week, three of them voted against the final decision.
The big news coming out of the FOMC meeting wasn’t necessarily that the rate will remain unchanged, but rather like this Wall Street Journal article said, “Three Fed Officials Dissent in Interest-Rate Decision, Want Increase Now”. The three dissenting voices were the presidents of the Kansas City, Cleveland, and Boston Federal Reserve Banks. After each meeting the Fed releases a public statement. These Press Releases have an even more structured pattern than the speeches that I discussed in Episode 12. I’ll do a detailed breakdown of what to expect in and how to read a Fed Press Release on a future episode, but for today we’ll jump to the very end.
The last paragraph of every post FOMC meeting Press Release lists the voting results. It starts out, “Voting for the FOMC monetary policy action were:” and then it lists all of the members that voted for the proposal put forth by the Chair, this time all five governors and the presidents of the New York Fed and St Louis Fed. Then it says, “voting against the action were:” Then it lists the three dissents and continues, “each of whom preferred at this meeting to raise the target range for the federal funds rate to 1/2 to 3/4 percent.” Sometimes the reason is the same for all of the dissents, and other times there are multiple reasons (again, not unlike a dissenting opinion on the Supreme Court).
As I read the Press Release, posted at exactly 2pm last Wednesday, I knew right away that this final paragraph would be the focus of attention coming out of the meeting. Something I talk about a lot on The Bankster Podcast is building a working vocabulary of Centralverse language and lingo. This episode seemed an appropriate time to introduce a few words and definitions that are used when talking about differences in opinion in Monetary Policy. The two terms we will define are and hawk. Let’s start with the birds.
The Dove has been used as a symbol going back thousands of years. In fact, the biblical account of Noah says that after the world had been flooded, it was a dove, carrying an olive branch, that brought the news back to the arc that land had been found, signaling the end of the great flood. The dove has also been used contemporarily as a sign of peace. It also has religious significance to Jews, Christians, and many pagans as well.
But the dove also has a place in the vernacular of the Centralverse. It is used as an adjective to describe economists or Centralverse leaders that are of the opinion that interest rates should be kept low to encourage economic growth. The opposite of a dove (similar to how it’s used in war) is hawk. So when discussing members of the FOMC you will often hear commentators describe members as being either doves or hawks. For example, here are a few samples: “The doves outvoted the hawks at the last committee meeting”, “The president nominates another dove to the Board of Governors”, “The Fed sticks to a dovish policy”.
When you hear the term dove (or one of its derivatives) you want to think low interest rates. When you hear the term hawk you want to think raise interest rates. Policy makers are not always one or the other. In fact, Janet Yellen, now considered in the dove camp, recommended many hawkish policies during the 1990’s. Whether somebody is a hawk or a dove at any given moment or before any big policy decision can often be determined by how they would answer the following question: What worries you most right now? If they answer that they are worried about inflation then they are a hawk. If they answer economic growth or unemployment worries them most they are a dove.
So going back to the Press Release from last week’s FOMC meeting we can see that the seven members voting in the majority wanted to keep interest rates low, which makes them doves in this case. And from that we know that they are nervous that the economy is not strong enough yet. The three that voted against the decision said that they wanted to raise the interest rate, making them hawks. We can infer from this decision that they are more concerned about inflation.
Now when you hear the terms dove and hawk used you won’t wonder if a science segment or peaceful protest interrupted your Centralverse news. You’ll understand that they are simply terms used to describe how an economist or Centralverse leader is feeling about the economy at the moment.
So now let’s wind the clocks back almost exactly 83 years to the day. The setting? Downtown Chicago.
Prohibition was nearing its end in the United States in the early 1930’s. The decade long ban of the sale of alcohol had given tremendous rise to organized crime all over the country, but Chicago stood out as especially infamous. This was the age of Al Capone, tommy guns, and speakeasies.
The Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago is a 17 story building with impressive corinthian columns. It was completed in 1922 and sits on the corner of Jackson and LaSalle at the heart of the city’s financial district.
Our story begins a short block west of the Fed on Jackson street at just after midnight on the morning of September 22, 1933. Five gangsters of the Barker-Karpis gang sat in a Hudson Sudan waiting and watching. The car had been outfitted with bulletproof glass windows and a specially designed exhaust that spewed dark smoke when the gangsters wanted to cloud an escape. Their moment had nearly arrived. They had received a tip about a transfer that would be happening early in the morning of the 22nd. Alvin Karpis sat in the driver’s seat with Fred and ‘Doc’ Barker beside him. George Ziegler and Bryan Bolton were also in the car with their Thompson submachine guns loaded - the infamous Tommy guns.
Karpis pulled the car forward when they saw the door to the Federal Reserve bank open and four men walk out into the night, two security guards and one man pushing a wheelbarrow stacked high with hefty bags. Karpis pulled the car up to the bank and abruptly stopped in front of the man with the wheelbarrow. Fred and George hopped out of the car with their Tommy guns loaded to fire. Within a minute they had grabbed the big bags and thrown them in the car without any shots fired. Karpis hit the gas and accelerated North.
They zig-zagged west and north a few blocks until they reached Adams street. At which time they hooked a left and zoomed over the Chicago river. The streets were mostly empty at this early hour of the night and the gangsters blew through the first five blocks west of the river. But just as they were making a right to go north on Halsted street they slammed straight into an oncoming Ford coupe. The accident threw their car into a telephone pole. As the glass from the accident was still falling two Chicago policemen, making their nightly rounds, happened to be coming up on the very intersection.
One of them, ran up to the Ford coupe from which they heard women screaming. The other officer, Miles Cunningham headed towards the Hudson, unknowingly taking his last few steps. Doc Barker saw Officer Cunningham coming over and yelled out, “Cop!” At which point Bryan Bolton aimed his Tommy gun and fired a round of shots right into Officer Cunningham, killing him instantly. The gangsters all hopped out of their car and commandeered another vehicle that had pulled up after the accident.
A few of them began unloading the heavy Federal Reserve bags from the crashed car into the newly stolen one. The others covered them by opening fire on the other policeman. When the second car of the night was full they took off again, southbound this time. They left the policeman and the passengers in the other car shocked and terrified but unhurt. However, during the streetside shootout one of the gangsters must have been injured because there was fresh blood found at the car afterwards.
To their utmost dismay and frustration, the gangsters made it only two miles south, to about 21st street, before their second car of the night ran out of gas. Once again they jumped out of the car flagged down another passing car with their Tommy guns and moved the merchandise. Now in car number three for the night Karpis took off. They made it to their destination, a garage on the southwest side of the city. I can only imagine the frustration that they were feeling as they unloaded the heavy bags they had stolen from the Federal Reserve. The escape plan had not gone as planned.
However, I’m sure they were anxious to open the bags and count the money that they had stolen. I don’t know if they untied the bags or cut into them, but that anxious excitement to count the money they thought would make them rich quickly dissipated as they saw the contents of the bags.
They were full of, listen to this, newspapers, mail, and old checks. Turns out the tip they’d gotten about the big payout transfer scheduled for September 22 wasn’t as solid as they thought.
None of these gangsters were ever charged for the crime. Alvin Karpis would be the final FBI designated “Public Enemy #1”. He was captured and arrested by J Edgar Hoover himself in New Orleans almost three years after the robbery of the Fed in Chicago. He spent 26 years in the Alcatraz prison in the San Francisco Bay - the longest person to serve there.
A few years later, in 1939, “Doc” Barker was also captured and sent to Azkaban. He, along with 3 other inmates attempted escape. They sawed through the prison bars, climbed the high wall and made it to the sea. But they didn’t make it far before they were pushed back by the tide. While on the shore of the island prison, hastily attempting to make a raft from scraps of wood on the beach, guards from the tower above opened fire on them. “Doc” was shot in the head and died shortly thereafter from the wound.
“Doc”’s brother Fred died in an incredible gun battle with the FBI in Florida in 1935. He and his mother “Ma” Barker kept up the gun fight for over 5 hours before they were both shot and killed. Bryan Bolton, captured in January of 1935 is suspected as having had a hand in giving the information to the FBI about the whereabouts of Fred and Ma Barker. The final gangster, George Ziegler, was the first to go, shot by fellow gangsters in a drive by shooting in Chicago in March of 1934.
Boy oh boy. Hollywood honestly could not have written a more intense bank robbery, Chicago gangster scene than this one! So despite the billions and billions of dollars of cash that the Federal Reserve holds, this unbelievably true event from 80 years ago stands as the only time a Federal Reserve Bank has been robbed. And all the gangsters got out of it was 50 lbs of old newspapers and mail.
If you haven’t already, you really should sign up for the show notes. Every episode I send out an email summary of all the key points and takeaways from the show, as well as links to more information. In the show notes to today’s episode, I’ll include some of the incredible sources I used during the making of this episode. I owe most of the content to an article on the front page of the Chicago Daily Tribune from September 23, 1933; a police memorial to officer Cunningham; and a few pages from a book called Public Enemies by Bryan Burroughs.
As always, send in your comments and questions about the Centralverse or the Bankster Podcast in general via email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Twitter or Facebook. Open up your phone now and leave a review of the podcast on whatever podcast app you’re listening to at this moment! It’s the best way to help others hear the incredible story of the one and only robbery of the Federal Reserve.
Today’s episode was written, edited, and produced by me, Alexander Bagehot. I dedicate this episode to Miles Cunningham. And to everybody else, thanks for listening. I’m Alexander Bagehot, and I’ll see you next time on The Bankster Podcast!