At 9:15 a.m. on Tuesday, October 20, 1931, a large black, high-powered Lincoln automobile, heading east, came to a stop in front of the Frank Hintzman Funeral Parlor in the 400 block of Main Street (Menomonie, Wisconsin). While the driver, a small time hoodlum named Frank Webber, stayed at the wheel and kept the motor running, three men jumped out of the car. No passerby took note of the bulges under their coats as they briskly walked the half block to the Kraft State Bank, which had just opened for business.
When they reached the front entrance they drew their guns and rushed into the lobby of the bank and for three terrifying minutes forced patrons and employees to lie on the floor. While two robbers kept their guns trained on the victims, the other scooped more than $90,000 in cash and securities from the open vault.
Bank guard Vernon Townsend, following orders not to open fire in the bank if there was an armed robbery, tripped the alarm and found his way to the roof of the building, where he hoped to be able to get a chance to shoot.
At the sound of the alarm Webber pulled away from the curb in front of the funeral parlor and rushed to the middle of the street. Putting the car into neutral he stepped out on the street. With his back to the lake and facing the bank, he swept his machine gun back and forth to discourage armed vigilantes and threaten anyone who felt like a hero. A moment later the bank's door flew open and the three robbers exited using a young James Kraft and very frightened Mrs. A. W. Schafer as hostages and shields. As they emerged, Mrs. Schafer stumbled and fell to the sidewalk, which probably saved her life because the frantic men did not stop to pick her up as they rushed to the waiting getaway car.
The car sped off with a roar under a hail of bullets coming from the guns of Winfield Kern, owner of a restaurant in the block, who became so excited he shot through his plate glass window at the fleeing men. Townsend shot from the roof of the bank and Ed Grutt, a clerk in the nearby Farmers Store, plugged away at the bandits from a second-story window. Grutt's shots were answered by an ineffectual blast from Webber's machine gun. In the melee Webber was hit in the eye by a bullet fired by one of the citizens.
Streaking eastward on U.S. 12, the fleeing men turned on County Trunk B. Armed vigilantes, stalwart Menomonie citizens drawn to the site at the sound of the alarm, took off in pursuit along with Dunn County sheriff "Ike" Harmon. Back at the bank all attention was paid to the wounded bank cashier William F. Kraft.
As the getaway car raced north on B, the robbers paused to throw a handful of flat-headed nails in the roadway in the hopes of causing flat tires in the cars of their pursuers. Webber, suffering terribly from his wound, died on the highway. It is believed by some that the men turned on their hostage, James Kraft, and in revenge shot him in the back of the head. They headed east on old Suckow Road, then stopped briefly at the entrance drive to the Ranney farm and pushed the bodies of Kraft and Webber out onto the side of the road.
The three thugs drove on, with the sheriff and others in hot pursuit. But they had a good lead and were never seriously challenged although they continued to spread nails on the roadway.
They had planned the robbery well. Days before, they had traveled their escape route, stopping at secluded and abandoned farms where they stashed five-gallon cans of gasoline so that they could avoid going through any village or stopping for gas at a gas station.
Charles Preston Harmon, one of the bandits, had also been hit at the bank. It is believed that shots from Ed Grutt's gun pierced Harmon's neck and damaged his knee. As the trio sped north Harmon was in agony. They stopped the car at an abandoned farm, stretched him out on the ground, threw him a handful of securities in case he managed to survive and then drove off. He died on the spot a short time later.
Harmon's death left two members of the gang unhurt, unknown by authorities, and free. They simply disappeared. Posses formed in Menomonie and took off in various directions hoping to find some clues to the whereabouts of the men, but it was all for naught. No one outside Dunn County reported a car of that description.
Suspecting that the fugitives had been based in St. Paul, a well-known refuge for criminals who promised not to commit crimes in that city, District Attorney A. W. Galvin and detectives sought to find their answers there, but without luck. Galvin even traveled to Alcatraz Prison in California to question Alvin Karpis, a notorious hoodlum and bank robber who was well acquainted with others in the game. He gave Galvin no satisfaction but did tell him that Menomonie was known by the gangsters as the "city with the crooked bridges," referring to the twisting Highway 12 as it crossed three bridges and made its crooked way around the milling company buildings at the mouth of Wilson Creek. Traffic had to slow down to make the curves and Machine Gun Kelly, Ma Baker and sons, John Dillinger, Baby Face Nelson, and Karpis were always on the lookout for Menomonie police to nab them as they negotiated the turns. None of them were ever stopped.
Finally Galvin and the detectives on the case concluded that another small time crook by the name of Robert Newburn was their man. A trial some months later in Menomonie ended in a hung jury but in a new trial in Hudson, Newburn was found innocent. The investigation and trials took place over several months.
Meanwhile, the two who got away were captured eight months after the Kraft Bank job. Francis Keating and Tommy Holden were apprehended on a Kansas City, Missouri golf course and sent back to Leavenworth Prison from which they had escaped in February 1930.
No one bothered to tell authorities in Menomonie that the leaders of the Kraft Bank job had been captured!
In his 1993 book More Wisconsin Crimes of the Century, author Marv Balousek selected the Kraft State Bank robbery as one of the bloodiest in the state's history. It had been the 34th bank holdup in the state in that year alone.
Edited by Larry Lynch and John Russell
Published by the Menomonie Sesquicentennial Committee
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