Friday, March 15, 2013


3/13/1934 - After fifteen minutes at the First National Bank of Mason City, Iowa, the Dillinger Gang has collected a group of over thirty hostages to use as human shields in their departure from town.  

                                               The bank building

The chink in their armor though is the sterling marksmanship of elderly judge John C. Shipley.  Grabbing an old six-shot revolver from his desk on the third floor of the bank building, the judge leans out the window of his office, takes deliberate aim, and fires a shot at one of the robbers on the street below.  No fool, Shipley then withdraws back into his office, just in time.  In front of the bank, surrounded by hostages, John Dillinger jumps with pain as he is suddenly struck in the right shoulder by a bullet from above.  Wheeling quickly, he raises his machine gun and blasts away at the window he believes he has been shot from, but his assailant has vanished.


Shuffling inside individual circles of hostages, Dillinger, Tommy Carroll, Baby Face Nelson, Eddie Green, Homer Van Meter, and John Hamilton make their way to where John Paul Chase is waiting in their getaway car, a large dark blue Buick stolen the year before in Chicago.  Continuing the animosity between the gang and Mason City, Green fires a round at a jeweler gawking at the proceedings from in front of his store (the bullet misses) and Judge Shipley goes back into action.

                                               Escaping in style

Leaning out of his office window again, the judge lines up a new target, one he deems important because the man is carrying a large white sack stuffed with money.  Carefully aiming so as not to harm a hostage. Shipley pulls the trigger of his revolver again, and again scores a hit.  Two for two on holing outlaw right shoulders, continuing the bad day he is experiencing of tear gas fumes, slow moving bank employees, and being forced to leave behind over $200,000 in cash, the victim of Shipley's excellent aim is Hamilton, a veteran of being wounded during robberies who has just recovered from the hits he took robbing an East Chicago bank in January.  He is lucky however, in that like his friend Dillinger's hit, the wound is more painful than it is life threatening.


Outlaws back in the Buick, as if the getaway is part of a circus act or fraternity stunt, the men force a cadre of hostages to cling to the sides and rear of the vehicle, and to sit inside with the outlaws ... a mob in motion that witnesses to the escape estimate as being in the realm of from twenty to twenty-six individuals on and in the sedan.  Moving at only 10-15 mph on a winding route through the city (they will actually stop at the Kirk Apartments and let off one of their hostages, Minnie Piehm, when the woman yells at the outlaws that they are passing her home), Baby Face Nelson still feels the need to continue firing on the citizens of Mason City.  Unaware that a robbery has taken place, Clarence McGowan is out for an afternoon drive with his wife and five-year-old daughter when he encounters the bandits on the road.  Moving up to pass the slow moving vehicle covered in people in front of him, McGowan comes under attack from Nelson's machine gun.  Firing out of the back of the Buick (several slugs pass through druggist hostage Carroll Mulcahy's wind blown lab coat), .45 slug fragments hit McGowan in the abdomen and knees, and one more Mason City resident is on his way to the town hospital.  And Mr. Baby Face is not done with his attempts to inflict mayhem on the locals. 


Reaching the city limits, Nelson orders a fast stop, gets out, and attempts to fight it out with the police cars that are following the slow moving gang.  It is a murderous and suicidal idea that Dillinger will have no part of, and with his order to Nelson to get back in the car, he takes over what had been the gun crazy shooter's gang.  Frustrated he is not being allowed another opportunity to trigger his machine gun, the killer squirt contents himself with throwing roofing nails all over the road ... including under the tires of the gang's own car.  Once more Dillinger is the voice of calm for the gang, and noticing the potential danger, has Nelson quickly correct his mistake.

                                        Mr. Thompson's invention

Eventually the gang is back at the gravel pit where they met earlier.  Fully snowing now, they shed most of the freezing hostages there and their getaway picks up speed as they distance themselves from Mason City.  For Nelson, the highlight of the escape will be almost 
hitting Mason City Police Chief E. J. Patton with rifle fire when the lawman's vehicle comes too close to the fleeing bandits.  For the rest of the gang the favorite moment is taking care of a fundamental need of life ... eating.  Seeing hostage Bill Schmidt is only holding on to the Buick with one hand while the other clutches a large bag, the bandits do what bandits do and steal the sack away from the young man ... and to their delight discover Schmidt is a delivery boy for a Mason City deli and the bag is full of roast beef, chicken salad, and pastrami sandwiches, and a number of sliced pickles.  Chow time, between continuing to monitor the pursuit behind them and count how much cash they have acquired from the First National, the gang devours every scrap of food in the bag!  Two hours into their escape they are finally free of pursuit and drop off the last two hostages.

                                                        Outside Afterwards

By 11:00 in the evening the gang is back in St. Paul, tired, bleeding, and richer than they were at the start of the day by $52,000.  Safe in a city where they pay the cops to look the other way, the next priority for the gang is to immediately get Dillinger and Hamilton patched up.  Using contacts they have with underworld kingpin Harry Sawyer, the two wounded outlaws are routed to fifty-year-old Dr. Nels Mortensen by Pat Reilly, a twenty-seven-year-old Irish-American bartender who does odd jobs for the gang when not pouring drinks at a local watering hole called the Green Lantern. 

                                                   The Sawyers

Masking how they actually came by their wounds with a cover story about a downtown gunfight with drunks, the two men are quickly patched up and sent on their way.  For Dr. Mortensen, the president of Minnesota's Board of Health, the visit is a costly one.  For helping the criminals and not reporting their visit, when the FBI finds out about the doctor's midnight callers they decide to make him an example for others who might be tempted to do the same ... blasted in local newspapers for his actions by the Department of Justice, the doctor will go to trial on harboring charges and spend a year behind bars for his few minutes of medical work (though to his dying day at the age of eighty-seven he will claim he did not know that one of his patients was John Dillinger).  As for Mr. Reilly, when he is caught in June, he too goes on trial for harboring and will be fined $2,500 and sent off to the Federal Reformatory at El Reno, Oklahoma, for twenty-one months. 

Vanishing in plain sight once more, John Dillinger and Homer Van Meter will once more be front page news at the end of the month ... when they engage in a gun battle with Federal and local officers of the law at St. Paul's Lincoln Court Apartments.

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