Who robbed this Minnesota bank in 1930? It was a mystery, until one man uncovered a tell-all book
Dogged persistence led to the discovery of a self-published book by the gang leader of the 1930 Willmar Bank robbery that left one robber dead and three citizens injured.
WILLMAR, Minn. — On a sunny, summer morning in 1930, one of the country’s most brazen and daring bank robberies occurred in the railroad town of Willmar, Minnesota.
The rat-tat-tat of machine gun fire punctuated the quiet of July 15 when five armed men robbed the Willmar Bank in the community’s downtown after 10 a.m. They made off with $70,000 in cash and bonds, but paid a dear price. One of the robbers was fatally shot in the back of the head as they fled the scene in their Buick getaway car.
Three citizens were injured by the hail of bullets that accompanied the robbery. Mrs. Emil Johnson was struck in the chest, and her daughter, Mrs. D. Gildea, in the hip, according to newspaper accounts at the time. Donald Gilmann, 19, was struck in the heel of his foot. All survived.
The robbers used bank worker George Robbins as a human shield to make their way out of the bank and to their car. A bank employee had triggered the bank’s alarm, and citizens had gathered. Jeweler R.S. Paffrath fired a .32-caliber handgun at the robbers' car. Sam Evans, a downtown worker, fired a rifle that he had grabbed from the Ohsberg-Berquist Hardware Store. Evans is believed to have fired the fatal shot.
The bank robbers were never captured, and for all these years later there has been something of a “who done it” mystique about the robbery. A few months after the robbery, the bodies of three known “hoodlums,” as newspaper accounts described them, were found near White Bear Lake. For a long time, their names were mistakenly associated with the robbery.
There were other names floated as to who the bandits were, usually with the preface “believed to be the robbers.” The name of Verne Miller was among those often incorrectly repeated as part of the team of bank robbers.
Now we know for sure, thanks to longtime Willmar resident and journalist Scott Thoma. He found the answer in a University of Texas library in El Paso, and through correspondence with a relative of the mastermind behind the robbery.
As long suspected, Harvey Bailey, once known as the “dean of bank robbers” in Depression-era America, was the mastermind. He was a meticulous planner and record keeper, and at age 85 in 1979, John Harvey Bailey told his life story of bank robberies across the nation to scribe J. Evetts Haley.
“Robbing Banks was my business” tells it all. Nearly two pages of the self-published book, of which only five copies are known to survive today, are dedicated to telling the story of the Willmar Bank robbery. The book also includes a copy of the 1930 edition of the Willmar Tribune's account of it.
Bailey kept detailed records of his years as a bank robber. He kept lists of every gun used on each of the various heists he orchestrated, as well as the names of the teams of robbers he drafted like a football coach for each job.
Bailey’s records fell into the hands, or should we say the attic, of a relative of his. She shared some of the information with Thoma. He promised to keep her identity anonymous, and does so now even after her death.
Thoma said he had conducted a private quest to learn the identity of the robbers for 10 years before striking gold with the discovery of Bailey’s book a few years ago.
Not only did it tell the names of the Willmar Bank robbers, but spoke of an unidentified source in Willmar who assisted them, a story never told before.
There was one problem when he first learned of the book, Thoma told an audience at the Kandiyohi County Historical Society on the evening of April 20, 2023. Of the five remaining copies, the only ones available were offered at a price of $1,200 each, or a bit more than Thoma felt able to pay.
But he learned about a copy at the Texas library, and made a call. A worker who Thoma said talked like a “California surfer dude” answered, and agreed to look for the book.
Thoma knew he had struck pay dirt when that library worker called back and recited the Depression-day monikers of the robbers, and Thoma asked: Who are these guys? They were the names of the Willmar Bank robbers, as named in the book by Bailey, the library worker told him.
Big names they were. The Willmar Bank robbery was the debut bank robbery for the notorious bandit known to history as George “Machine Gun” Kelly.
Kelly had already spent time in prison for bootlegging when he arrived in Willmar two days before his 30th birthday. That September he would marry Kathryn Thorne, who purchased a Tommy gun as a wedding gift and promoted him as “Machine Gun” Kelly. In Willmar, Bailey placed him at the front door of the bank to guard it with a handgun.
Bailey and robbers Sammie Silverman, aka “Jew Sammie,” and Robert Steinhardt, aka “Frisco Dutch,” entered the bank. Bailey ordered cashier George Robbins to help him clean out the vault. Silverman and Steinhardt, guns at the ready, ordered the 25 workers and customers in the bank to lie on the floor and not so much as lift their heads.
The youngest robber in the group, 19-year-old Joseph Cretzer, aka "Dutch Joe," was stationed on a street corner with a machine gun in case the police showed up.
A sixth member of the gang, Tommy Holden, waited at an undisclosed location away from Willmar with a second getaway car to assist the robbers. Holden was an escapee from Leavenworth at that time, and was afraid people would recognize him were he to show up in Willmar.
Bailey and another guy had ventured to Willmar in advance of the robbery to scope it out, Thoma learned from his anonymous source in Texas. Bailey had gone to a county office and told a man there that he needed a road map “so I can get out of town,” Thoma said.
“‘What are you doing, robbing the bank,”’ Bailey’s notes said the man asked. “‘Yes, I am,” he responded.
A deal was made for a cut of the proceeds, although it’s not known if Bailey ever paid up. Thoma said he suspects — but cannot know for sure — that the unidentified county man was the person responsible for calling police shortly before the robbery and sending them on a fake call on the other end of town. His notes indicate the man also provided him with information on the bank.
Thoma said there’s also reason to believe that the unidentified man was on the street during the robbery, pretending to shoot at the bandits as they sped away.
Thoma found all sorts of stories about the robbery in its aftermath, many rife with errors. It was initially reported that the driver of the robbers’ car was struck in the front of his head through the windshield.
A more accurate account emerged at the end of the summer, when the body of the robber was discovered by wild ginseng diggers in brush near Rochester. Sammie Silverman had been fatally shot in the back of the head. Evans was located northeast of the southbound robbers’ car when he fired the rifle, making it likely he was responsible for the fatal shot.
Bailey’s book confirmed this version as well. As for the death of Silverman, Bailey’s notes of the robbery included the comment “to whit.” The notes suggest that he and the other robbers considered the death to be just part of their business.
“They were badasses,” Thoma told the historical society audience. The robbers thought of themselves as a 1930s-era version of today’s rock stars, he said. They used their gangster monikers as if they were meant to be placed on bubble gum cards like professional athletes, he laughed.
The Willmar gang of robbers never worked together again, said Thoma. Bailey always recruited his accomplices separately for each heist. One year after the Willmar robbery, Bailey and a team made away with $2.7 million from the National Bank in Lincoln, Nebraska. The money was never found — nor was the money taken from Willmar.
Joseph Cretzer returned to western Minnesota to rob the Dawson Bank with another man at a later date, according to Thoma.
While the robbers got away with the Willmar Bank robbery, their lives of crime caught up with them all.
Bailey spent much of his life in prison until his release in 1964 at age 76. He was captured in a bank robbery that was planned by the gangster known as “Ma” Barker. “She couldn’t plan breakfast,” Bailey is reported to have lamented while in prison.
“Machine Gun” Kelly died in Alcatraz prison on his 59th birthday of a heart attack.
Cretzer committed suicide in prison at age 35 in 1946. He had previously killed two guards in an escape, but was recaptured.
Holden spent time in prison, was released and fatally shot his wife and her two brothers in Chicago. He died in prison at age 57.
Steinhardt was arrested many times, and died at age 60 of a heart attack in Minneapolis.