Episode 14 - Bank Robbers (Rerun)
The Fed just put in their order for next year’s cash - a whopping $233 Billion. With all of that new money distributed through Federal Reserve Banks throughout the country it begs the question - Has the Fed ever been robbed? Today’s episode!
This is Alexander Bagehot, and you’re listening to The Bankster Podcast, the only podcast dedicated to the fascinating and ever more consequential world of central banking.
Each Federal Reserve Bank is responsible for distributing the paper currency into circulation. As we learned in Episode 2 of Season 1, 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. So the order for next year’s money includes over 7.4 Million notes worth over $230Billion. Of those 7.4 Million bills the 2.1 Million were for $1, 1.8 Million $20 and 1.6 Million $100.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?
I’m working on a number of great upcoming shows, and seeing the Currency Print Order come out the week before last, I decided to rerun a story I did last about the Chicago Mob’s attempted robbery of the Federal Reserve. For those of you that are registered for the show notes emails you’ll get an email this weekend summarizing the last two episodes and links to all of the great resources used. For those of you not registered - you should do so - it’s a great community, www.thebanksterpodcast.com.
Ok - onto the robbery!
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.
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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!