On This Day in 1909 – The Santa Clara Valley Bank Robbery, the world’s first using a getaway car.

To this day many people, including crime buffs, believe the world’s first bank robbery involving a getaway car was performed in France. The quasi-Anarchist Bonnot Gang are often credited with being first, escaping in a stolen Delauney-Belleville after robbing the Societe Generale bank in Chantilly, France on 21 December 1911. This isn’t accurate, although the Bonnots are rightly credited as the first European gang to use Browning automatic pistols instead of revolvers.

The Bonnot Gang committed the first successful bank robbery with a getaway car, but were not first to use one. That happened in California two years earlier. The town of Santa Clara and aspiring robbers Frank Smith and Leo Nevins (alias Joe Willetts and Fred Carr) share that dubious distinction. Quickly caught, Smith and Nevins would also share lengthy terms at San Quentin and Folsom and an unwilling place in the chronicles of crime.

Relatively speaking, bank robbery is one of crime’s newer phenomena. In the US it began during the 1860’s after the Civil War of 1861-1865. Until then thieves preferred burgling banks to robbing them. Many saw banks as too secure and the likelihood of gunplay too high. It simply didn’t fit their idea of risk versus reward. The rewards for burgling could often be far greater, the burgling of Philadelphia’s Bank of Pennsylvania vault netted $162,821. That would be a very tidy haul even today. In 1798 it was absolutely astounding. According to the dollar values of 1798 that haul today would be around $3,390,012.

From a technical standpoint it made more sense to many pre-war felons to tunnel into vaults or burgle with the help of crooked employees. They could take more time and often larger hauls stealing by stealth and the risk was far lower. Burgle a bank on a Friday night and it might not be noticed until Monday morning, Tuesday if the Monday was a public holiday.

The longer a burglary went unreported, the more time they had to escape with the loot. The less violence was involved (and preferably none at all) the less public outcry would force police to pursue them. A firefight leaving wounded citizens and bodies on the sidewalk only increased public outrage and thus police action. Even when robbing banks became more popular than burgling them professional robbers still regarded shoot-outs as the behavior of amateurs.

Armed robbery often involved violence, usually a shoot-out. If caught by a posse or outraged townsfolk many outlaws could expect summary justice, being left to hang from the nearest tree. Many were captured, sentenced and executed without ever seeing the inside of a courtroom. Even if they did survive being caught the courts were notoriously heavy-handed. Judges like Isaac Parker earned a grisly reputation as ‘the Hanging Judge,’ a reputation they didn’t always deserve.

Bank burglary wasn’t a capital crime, either, not before or after the Civil War of 1861-1865. In some post-war States (Alabama and Mississippi for instance) armed robbery definitely was. Regardless of whether anyone was hurt or even a single shot fired, some States could execute armed robbers and often did. Texas was even prepared to execute felons for being felons, what the State called ‘being an habitual criminal.’

After the war crime changed like almost everything else. On 15 December 1863, shortly before noon, an armed intruder walked into the Malden Bank in Massachusetts. Minutes later he walked out with $5000 after shooting cashier Frank Converse through the head. Converse, only seventeen years old, was the son of bank founder Elisha Converse. He died almost immediately. Killer Edward Green, a former postmaster and drunkard heavily in debt, was later caught and hanged for the crime at the Middlesex County Jail on 13 April 1866. His sudden ability to pay his debts had given him away. Returning the remainder of the stolen money didn’t save him.

On 13 February 1866 a group of former Confederate guerillas robbed the Clay County Savings Association in Liberty, Missouri. Behind them lay their first victim, a student shot dead outside the bank. With the war recently over and the James Gang initially composed of former ‘bushwhackers’ (as Confederate guerillas were known), the robbery may have been a political act.

What later became the James-Younger Gang was led at the time by former bushwhacker Arch Clement and it’s debatable whether Jesse James and older brother Frank were then members. Political crime or not, it’s often credited (wrongly) as the first daylight bank robbery in American history. It was far from the last for the James brothers.

If the US had a Golden Age of bank robbery it was from after the Civil War until the late 1910’s. The Crime Wave of the late 1920’s and early 1930’s, though bloody and brutal, was more of a flash in the pan.

Most people today are familiar with the crimes of the James-Younger Gang, John Dillinger, Willie Sutton and a host of others. The early bank robbers like James relied on their wits, a fast gun and a faster horse. Later they replaced horses with cars, often extensively overhauled to make them faster and easier to drive. Along with proper planning (courtesy of soldier-turned-criminal Herman ‘Baron’ Lamm who revolutionized the art of bank robbery) a gun and a getaway car are now standard practice. That all began in a quiet California town on 3 August 1909.

Today Santa Clara lies in Santa Clara County, not far from the county seat of San Jose. South of San Francisco Bay, Santa Clara County is home to Silicon Valley and the county is one of the most affluent in the nation. On the morning of 3 August 1909 it was a far smaller, quieter, sleepier place than it is now. ‘Fred Carr’ and ‘Joe Willetts,’ however, were about to disturb the peace in historic fashion.

The robbers of Santa Clara’s Valley Bank had the planning, the gun and the getaway car. Carr and Willetts were also the very first to replace horses with horsepower, trundling away with a shotgun and $7000 in gold coins. They didn’t get much further, their getaway driver saw to that. They beat the Bonnot Gang by a considerable margin, but not the posse led by Sheriff John Langford.

Carr and Willetts hailed from Oregon and, inspired by legendary outlaws like Jesse James, were determined to become legendary outlaws themselves. That were still teenagers didn’t trouble them much and Willetts at least had some criminal credentials. Captured after the Santa Clara robbery he was later identified as committing a previous robbery in Everett, Washington. Leaving a local bank with a paltry $1300, Willetts also shot a cashier while doing so.

Of Carr we know relatively little. Being the duo’s junior partner, he was certainly young. He was also impressionable, impulsive and foolish, the type of underling more experienced crooks like Willetts could easily dominate. Carr would spend the next several years in San Quentin regretting the fact. Willetts would draw ten years, plus there was the small matter of the Everett robbery.

Today’s bank robbers would use a car, van or possibly a stolen ambulance. They might also dress respectably to avoid arousing suspicion, something the Santa Clara robbers were smart enough to do. They’d also avoid using a hired car with an unwitting getaway driver, but that is with over a century of hindsight

Carr and Willetts hired a car and driver because they knew almost nothing about cars. They couldn’t drive them and didn’t know how to steal one. This being 1909, cars were rather thin on the ground at the time. Even the Model T Ford had only been in production for a few months. With that in mind and nobody ever having used one in a bank robbery, their decision seems less ridiculous than it first might.

As it was their choice of car wasn’t a bad one for its time. The Thomas Motor Company of Buffalo, New York had produced not only a car, but a thoroughbred. In 1908 a Thomson Flyer had won a race from New York to Paris. Covering a staggering 22000 miles in an equally-staggering 169 days, the Flyer had left Broadway and arrived in Paris 26 days ahead of the second-placed car. A major achievement even today, it was a sensation in 1908.

Osen & Hunter’s Garage provided the getaway car and driver. For Carr and Willets it was a simple task to visit a local garage and ask the manager. Sited on North First Street, the manager didn’t have one, but he could get one from nearby San Jose. According to the 14 August Los Angeles Herald of 14 August that was exactly what they did. All they wanted they said, was a:

“Sixty-horsepower Thomas Flyer to take them to Santa Clara.”

They left out the small matter of committing armed robbery once they got there.

With a car, driver and shotgun the duo headed for Santa Clara’s Valley Bank, arriving at around 10am. Pulling up almost directly opposite the bank itself, their expensive car and respectable appearance drew no attention or, more importantly, suspicion. The most anyone did was look at the Flyer, a rare sight on California’s roads at the time. To any onlookers they looked like two prosperous young men visiting the bank to do some business.

They were, just not the usual kind.

The bank was open for business. Vice-President Albert Harris, Cashier Fred Birge, Paying Teller Frank Roberts and Bookkeeper Charles Johnson were all at their posts and doing their day’s work when the Flyer pulled up outside. Within minutes Carr and Willetts were inside and the Santa Clara robbery was in progress. Unwitting wheelman James Brown sat outside, still unaware of what he was involved in. He wouldn’t be unaware very much longer.

According to the 14 August edition of the Los Angeles Herald two well-dressed strangers walked into the bank and ordered the only two customers present to leave immediately. Having done so the customers, a pair of Portuguese women, remained outside. There never having been a bank robbery involving a car they simply weren’t expecting any trouble and neither were the bank staff. That changed very quickly when the duo produced a shotgun and a sack. According to the Sausalito News edition of 21 August these were accompanied by the demand;

“Come through with the big gold.”

The staff hastily complied. While one of the robbers (probably Carr) leapt through the cashier’s wicket and started shoveling gold coins into the sack. The other made things even clearer by threatening to kill anyone who didn’t comply. Given his previous crime that was probably Willetts. The threat worked. Within minutes the sack bulged with over $7000 in coins, a heavy haul to carry.

Unlike his passengers driver James Brown knew plenty about cars especially his Model 35 Thomson Flyer. He didn’t know he was about to become the world’s first wheelman. Not surprisingly he wasn’t too happy when he found out and that was the pair’s undoing. The first Brown knew about it was when Carr and Willetts left the bank and piled into his car. According to the 14 August edition of the Los Angeles Herald they then ordered him to “Let her out,” preferably quickly.

Just to make things absolutely clear Cashier Birge appeared outside the bank entrance. In his hand was a loaded revolver. According to the Los Angeles Herald he fired only one shot at the Flyer as the robbers and their unwilling, extremely frightened driver made their getaway. Brown’s day was only getting worse. First he’d been duped into aiding an armed robbery and now he was being shot at. He needed no further incentive to drive away as though his Flyer had wings.

Birge had been both brave and sensible. The fewer shots he fired, the lower the chance of anyone being hit by a ricochet or stray bullet. It only took the sound of one pistol shot to alert everybody within earshot that something was wrong. Much of Santa Clara’s male population heard it and immediately rushed to help.

The Flyer wasn’t a Ferrari by any means, but it was certainly better than most cars of its era. At least it would have been if driver Brown hadn’t thrown a fake spanner in the works. When Smith and Nevins left the bank complete with shotgun and swag bag Brown at last knew what kind of trouble he was in, though its historic nature probably escaped him at the time.

Brown no doubt knew what awaited him if he didn’t think quickly. No jury in California would have believed he wasn’t in on the robbery and that most likely meant a long stay in either San Quentin of Folsom. That was assuming he wasn’t killed in a shoot-out, his passengers didn’t kill him to ensure his silence or that the rapidly-gathering crowd didn’t lynch anyone they caught. He must have known it was a fairly bad day when Folsom or San Quentin were his least-worst options.

As the trio trundled away from the Valley Bank, Brown thought quickly and then acted.

Accounts differ regarding precisely what he did. The Sausalito News reports him crashing his car into a tree around five miles from the bank. The Rich Hill Tribune of 19 August reports that he deliberately engineered a breakdown closer to the crime scene. Either way Carr, Willetts and their very heavy sack of coins were now trying to escape on foot.

Bank employees, Santa Clara Sheriff John Langford and much of the town’s male population were in hot pursuit and some of them were armed. Some were on foot while the rest commandeered cars, bicycles and anything else available. The robbers, struggling with gold instead of banknotes, found the going hard. Even the thought of a possible lynching only took them so far and the pursuing posse was getting closer with every passing minute.

Brown, meanwhile, was only too happy that his unwitting and unwilling participation had ended. He was alive, physically unharmed and managed to convince Sheriff Langford he wasn’t a hardened outlaw. He hadn’t been shot or strung up, either. About the best he could say for that particular morning’s work was that he was better off than his erstwhile passengers.

The not-so-deadly duo struggled gamely on, their pursuers gaining ever more rapidly. Eventually they caught up at a dry creek bed a few miles from Santa Clara. Realizing that fighting was futile and further flight was impossible Carr and Willetts surrendered and came quietly. Both bloodshed and a possible lynching had been averted.

Many might believe that lynch law had gone in California if not other parts of the country. It hadn’t, not by a long way. California’s last confirmed lynching happened in 1933 when Thomas Thurmond and John Holmes suffered mob justice for the kidnapping and murder of department store heir Brooke Hart almost twenty-four years to the day after Smith and Nevins were sent to prison.

Lengthy prison sentences were the best they could expect and that was precisely what they got. The posse didn’t shoot them, lynch them or handle them roughly at a time when outlaws could still suffer summary justice. Instead Sheriff Langford, Deputy Sheriff Lowell and a local citizen named Alderman arrested them, recovering the stolen gold in the process. Of a little over $7000 only forty, a twenty-dollar gold piece and four five-dollar pieces, wasn’t back in the Valley Bank’s vault by the end of the day.

Initially the two robbers at first refused to give their names when booked into the local jail. Despite refusing to identify themselves they were oddly talkative about their crime and their future plans. The Los Angeles Herald of 15 August 1909 quotes Willetts extensively:

“This Santa Clara robbery was only an experiment. We intended, if it was successful, to go after a bigger and richer institution next time and to clean up a lot of money before we were through.”

Going further into self-incrimination, Willetts helpfully admitted they’d come close to committing another robbery:

“We obtained a machine in Oakland and had it remain around the corner, just as we had in yesterday’s job. Carr and I went to the First National around noon and looked the place over. We were well armed and if there had not been so many clerks and so many people passing outside we would have held up the cashiers and tellers and tried to get all the money in sight.”

There was, of course, a very good reason for Willetts to try remaining anonymous and it failed. Giving false names when arrested, their time in the county jail persuaded them to reveal their true identities. When they appeared before Judge Godsbey they admitted their real names were Frank Smith and Leo Nevins and, both claiming to be under eighteen, sought to be tried in the juvenile courts instead of as adults.

Their reasoning was as simple as it was self-serving. When the duo finally revealed Smith at least knew he was in very serious trouble. While employees from the Valley Bank identified him for that crime, police soon found he was a suspect in the Washington bank raid as well. Two employees from the Everett Bank visited the jail, looked briefly at him and did the identifying. Their help firmly linked Smith to the robbery and shooting of the Everett cashier the year before. Being tried in California as a juvenile might just get Smith the same treatment when he faced his accusers in Washington State.

The pair were swiftly remanded to await trial and, if they were hoping to be tried as juveniles, they were to be sorely disappointed. On 31 August they’d appeared before Justice of the Peace Thompson in Santa Clara. Thompson had lost no time ruling they were to be tried as adults, sending their case back to the Superior Court.

The wheels of Justice turned far more swiftly in 1909 than they do today and it wasn’t long before Smith and Nevins stood in the California Superior Court for sentencing. On 19 November they heard their fate, the judge seeming to accept that Smith was the more culpable of the two.

Smith received a ten-year sentence in San Quentin and his troubles wouldn’t be over when he was paroled. He still had to answer charges from the Everett robbery when he was released in California. Nevins, considered the junior partner, received a comparatively short stretch. He would go to Folsom for only four years. These were considered lenient sentences at the time. Section 211 of the California Penal Code in 1909 defined robbery as:

‘The felonious and violent taking of money, goods or other valuable thing from the person of another by force or intimidation. Every person guilty of robbery shall be punished by imprisonment in the state prison for a term not less than one year, and which may extend to life.’

All told it could have been much worse, especially considering Smith’s previous offence. It was certainly better than they would have got in many other states. Not a shot was fired, the two robbers were under the age of twenty-one, nobody was seriously distressed and almost all the stolen gold had been recovered. That and Nevins’s obvious naivety was enough to secure fairly light sentences for both of them.

They’d attempted to be tried as juveniles to avoid heavier punishment, granted, but that was hardly surprising. Opened in July 1852, San Quentin is California’s oldest prison and by 1909 it had thoroughly earned its grisly reputation for suffering, violence and death. Until the opening of Folsom in 1880 San Quentin was California’s only state prison, although given Folsom’s reputation trying to avoid either was easily-understood even by the sentencing judge.

Of course it didn’t end at Santa Clara in 1909. The era of motorized mayhem was only just beginning. Santa Clara merely inspired generations of crooks to replace horses with horsepower. The Bonnot Gang’s successful robbery in 1911, a sensation at the time, sealed the deal. Criminals now knew that not only could they rob banks with getaway cars, they could also escape successfully. Once that had been proved the motor vehicle joined the underworld’s arsenal, as important as the guns they carried.

Smith and Nevins were the first, but far from the last. Another innovator was Old West outlaw Henry Starr. Still robbing banks in 1915 and an outlaw since 1893, Starr achieved what the Dalton Gang had failed to do and the James-Younger Gang never even tried, rob two banks in the same town at the same time. The Daltons had tried it on horseback at Coffeyville, Kansas on 5 October 1892 and been wiped out in the attempt. In doing so (or failing to) the slaughter at Coffeyville has entered American history and legend as much as the Daltons themselves.

It would be another twenty-three years before Starr did what the Daltons couldn’t. Starr was an Old West outlaw related by marriage to outlaw legend Belle Starr and with links to the Younger brothers. Cole and Bob Younger, of course, rode with Frank and Jesse James. His grandfather was Tom Starr, a legendary outlaw in his own right. Though an Old West outlaw to the bone, toward the end of his career Henry saw advantages in the new technology. Horses were old hat, cars were the future.

When Starr’s gang hit two banks in Stroud, Oklahoma on 27 March 1915 their means of escape was the getaway car. Successfully robbing the Stroud National Bank and the First National Bank at the same time, Starr’s gang did what the Dalton’s had been destroyed attempting to do. Starr and gang member Lewis Estes were both wounded and captured, but the rest of the gang made off with $5815 in America’s first double daylight bank robbery.

Within a few years of the Santa Clara raid American bank robbery was transformed by Herman ‘Baron’ Lamm. An illegal immigrant thrown out of the Prussian Army for cheating at cards, Lamm planned and led bank robberies like commando raids. He reconnoitered targets and drew up floor plans and maps of escape routes before a robbery. His gang rehearsed like actors using floor plans laid out by Lamm.

Lamm called escape routes ‘git roads,’ making his wheelmen drive them repeatedly using the maps and a stopwatch. Only when he felt they were ready to hit their target and escape unscathed did Lamm actually rob a bank. The ‘Lamm technique’ or ‘Lamm method’ was born and many of its basic principles are still used by bank robbers even today.

Lamm finally came unstuck during a robbery in Clinton, Indiana on 16 December 1930. Realizing capture was inevitable, Lamm shot himself. What became known as the ‘Lamm method’ was passed down to a new generation of felons. Lamm gang members Walter Dietrich and James ‘Oklahoma Jack’ Clark taught a new generation of bank robbers including Charlie Makley, Ed Shouse and Harry Pierpont. All incarcerated at the Indiana State Penitentiary in the 1920’s they in turn taught a young first offender named John Dillinger.

Like many pioneers Smith and Nevins couldn’t have known what they’d started any more than James Brown had known he was going on their robbery. Before Santa Clara a fast horse was the getaway vehicle of both choice and necessity. Since Santa Clara bank robbery has become a staple of crime not only in America but further afield. The getaway car has become a staple of bank robbery the world over.

Whether Smith and Nevins fully appreciated their place in criminal history we’ll never know. We do know that generations of bank employees, law enforcement officers and innocent bystanders certainly don’t. It wasn’t Smith’s last foray into armed robbery, either. There will be far more on him in a later chapter…

The stories of both the historic Santa Clara robbery and Smith’s criminal comeback can be found in my forthcoming book ‘Murders, Mysteries and Misdemeanors in Northern California,’ published on August 28 2020. My previous book ‘Murders, Mysteries and Misdemeanors in New York‘ is currently available.

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