Bentz Alcatraz Photo - First Year
Yet another example of the ease with which a kid can go bad when missing a parent, Bentz loses his father to a runaway horse when he is only nine years old ... an event that causes his mother Rose to uproot her family of nine children to Tacoma, Washington where the family lives off the insurance money from Mr. Bentz's death, and income that Mrs. Bentz earns running a boarding house and local theater (a brother, Tim, will be recruited by Eddie into changing stolen bonds into cash at 70 cents to the dollar ... a lucrative occupation until he too is put behind bars). Not enjoying doing without or living by way of hand-me-downs, young Bentz is soon stealing playmates bicycles, cigarettes, scrap metal, and anything else he get his paws on ... and unlike later in his criminal career, he gets caught a lot. By the age of 16, he is sent off to the State Training School for juvenile delinquents in the town of Chehalis on burglary charges ... which he soon escapes. In 1912, he will be arrested for auto theft, locked up, escape from a Tacoma jail cell, caught again, and ends up serving time in the state pen in Walla Walla, Washington.
Washington State Penitentiary - Walla Walla
Out and on the loose after the end of WWI (Bentz will tell associates he talks his way to freedom by convincing prison officials to release him so he can sign up to fight for the Canadian army against the Germans ... prison records through show him being in prison as of January 5, 1920), the outlaw begins moving up the ladder of criminal endeavors, shifting from nighttime burglaries of retail establishments and stealing cars, to evening break-ins of banks and post offices, pilfered compliments of the cutting heat supplied by a 150-pound acetylene torch. Weary of lugging the heavy equipment around on jobs, Bentz will decide to begin working during the day ... counting on guns, trained accomplices, fast cars, and applying his mind to the project for a successful result, he, along with Harvey Baily, are the king of the yeggs (underworld parlance for bank robbers) by the time the 1930s arrive.
The Bentz strategy for successful bank robberies includes going to public libraries to research the bank the outlaw wants to plunder to the point where he develops a formula to tell when the banks assets will be maximized, casing jobs posing as a possible investor in the bank or a businessman looking to open a new account, instead of taking cash when proceeds are divided, Bentz goes with receiving bonds that can be sent out of the country for cashing at 70 cents on the dollar, escape routes are mapped and practiced, robbery roles for each gang member are researched and gone over until everyone knows their role, and all the roles of the other robberies, women are treated with respect (so as not to cause any male hostages to go "hero" on the robbers), and gunplay is to be kept to an absolute minumum. Additionally, Bentz follows a policy of not getting greedy by never doing more than three jobs in a calendar year (although once caught and sent away, he will claim to have been involved in over 100 robberies, a number that doesn't jive with limiting his yearly work ... no one will ever really know how many jobs he pulled off before being sent away to prison) ... and he adopts two very different personas. On bank jobs he usually dresses in overalls and acts like a criminal hayseed, talking out of the right side of his mouth and leaving the red hair atop his thick six-foot muscled frame uncombed (for some reason, most of his victims at bank jobs fail to note the very recognizable triangle of broken blue veins on his forehead that is a souvenir from his birth), but away from robbery, he never stays in one place for very long, but when he does, all his stops are lavish hotels and apartments, he travels with five chests of books that include works by Voltaire, Shakespeare, Casanova, Washington Irving, and Robert Louis Stevenson (along with a collection of pistols, a bullet-proof vest, and occasionally, a dismantled Thompson sub-machine gun), golfs frequently (getting down to rounds in the low 80s it is said), wears stylish clothing, eats at the best restaurants and nightclubs, goes to museums and the theater, collects coins and artwork, and takes up amateur photography.
Hiding in plain sight, working with various partners and gangs, Bentz works jobs from coast-to-coast ... along with Harvey Bailey, he is the chief suspect in a Lincoln, Nebraska job that nets $2,870,000.00 in loot, raids a bank in Holland, Michigan, and mentors George "Machine Gun" Kelly on the traits of a good yegg when, along with Albert Bates, the trio takes down scores in Texas, Mississippi, and Washington, along with robbing financial institutions in Port Orchard and Bremerton, Washington (while living in Tacoma). Wealthy by the standards of the day, in 1931, at the age of 36, he falls in love with a girl he meets in Chicago, 18-year-old Verna Freemark, from South Milwaukee, marries her, and moves to the shores of Lake Michigan, where he resides at Long Beach, Indiana ... a favorite summering spot for lawbreakers and celebrities of the era that include Ma Barker and her nefarious sons, future Public Enemy #1, Alvin Karpis, fiery radio personality Father Charles Edward Coughlin (his audience will number 30 million before he is taken of the air in 1939 for his support of many of the policies of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini, and antisemitic views), and gangster, Jack "Legs" Diamond ... semi-retired, acting as a consultant on other crooks' jobs for a percentage of the take.
Bates & Kelly
Legs Diamond & Alvin Karpis
Sadly, in 1933, after being introduced by Alvin Karpis, Bentz takes under his wing a young crook from the Chicago rackets that is looking to get into robbing banks ... Lester Joseph Gillis, soon to become better known as the infamous Baby Face Nelson. For a fee, Bentz picks a bank (the gang is expecting a payday in the realm of $75,000), puts together a plan, maps out escape routes, arranges for machine guns and armored vests ... everything for a successful caper (he also introduces Nelson to San Antonio gunsmith, H. S. Lebman who will supply Nelson and the Dillinger gang with automatic pistols modified into machine guns which will kill several police officers and FBI agents). Planning on sitting out the 8/19/1933 raid on the People's Saving Bank of Grand Haven, Michigan, he is first persuaded to go along in the role of driver (for a larger cut of the proceeds), and then at the last moment since the men on the job are all rookies at bank robbery, convinced to lead the robbers inside the bank. It is a serious error for the master thief as things start going wrong almost as soon as the robbers step into the bank at around 3:00 in the afternoon ... a former college football player identified by Bentz to Baby Face Nelson as the most important person to control is not watched closely enough and trips a silent alarm that alerts local police and local businesses, when the crooks and their hostages come outside, they are meant by gunfire, and shocked to discover that their driver has fled with their escape vehicle ... all good fun for Nelson, who begins shooting up the streets of Grand Haven (until Bentz reminds him that the group's ammo reserves are in the missing car ... along with the gang's escape maps), in the chaos of trying to get away, most of the loot is dropped (the take is less than $5,000), one of the gang is captured, beaten to a pulp by angry citizens (in the gunfire outside the bank, four citizens are wounded, but surprisingly, no one is killed), the first car the bandits grab from a local driving through town is almost out of gas (behind the wheel, Bentz will drive the originally planned escape route from memory), they steal a second ride from a farmhouse that blows a tire and crashes, and finally get back to Lake Michigan late that same night after a third vehicle is high-jacked.
Site Of The Robbery
While Baby Face Nelson reacts to the fiasco by deciding he has learned enough to form his own gang (he also tracks down the driver that abandoned the gang and machine guns him to death later in the year), Bentz's response is markedly different ... realizing only after seeing him in action that Nelson is unstable, and knowing the legal heat that is coming the way of the Midwest in response to the activities of John Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd, Machine Gun Kelly, and the Barker-Karpis gang (days after the Grand Haven job the group will kidnap William Hamm), the day after the robbery he leaves his lakeside retreat, and moves to the New England region, settling in Portland, Maine where he becomes Frederic Wendell, buys a home, mothballs habits that the authorities might be aware of like visiting old book stores, going to the theater, and golfing, and becomes the legit owner, president, and sales manager of Ultra Products Company that produces small metal horses, dogs, elephants, and toy soldiers wrapped in cellophane envelopes and sold in candy stores ... and he cases banks while out on the road pushing his product line, just in case the business requires a cash infusion. Whether missing the adrenaline rush of taking down a bank, or for the business, Bentz is soon back to his old antics, with scores in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Vermont. With the June, 1934 robbery of the Caledonia National Bank of Danville, Vermont though he makes a serious mistake ... in May, due to the depredations of Dillinger, Karpis, and others, bank robbery has now become a Federal offense and Bentz soon finds his face in the newspapers and in post offices across the nation.
Caledonia National Bank
Toy business over, Bentz and his wife move to New York City, where for a time, the outlaw vanishes among the masses and by moving to a new location each month ... a life style that quickly sours on Verna, who decides she's had enough and will go back to South Milwaukee where her parents reside (Bentz pleads with her not to go). And on arrival, she is taken into custody on harboring charges by FBI agents that have been watching the house of her folks. Grilled for hours, she makes only one mistake, and mentions one of the places they stayed in New York run by a very nice landlady, aware that her husband has already left the location and never returns to a place he has stayed before. Fate of course is laughing, and sure enough, this time Bentz does return to the apartment. Hiding out in a six-story Brooklyn building in the room of burglar friend, the outlaw offers his friend better furniture than he currently has as payment for his stay ... new furniture that Bentz gets from the landlady as payment for a money loan that he gave to the woman while he and Verna were her guests. Deal ... when the FBI shows up to question the woman, she tells of the transaction, and the FBI get an address from the trucking company that moved the furniture to Brooklyn.
Hoover Publicity Photo
On the morning of March 13, 1936, Bentz is sleeping peacefully at 1492 Bushwick Avenue in Brooklyn when his slumber is disrupted by banging on the door, a gruff announcement that the FBI has the building surrounded and Bentz needed to surrender, followed a few seconds later by the sound of broken glass as gas grenades are fired into the apartment. Surprised, but somewhat prepared, as the burglar and his family flee their home, Bentz puts his escape plan into affect, climbing into a dumbwaiter and hauling himself into the empty room above for a rooftop escape from the area. Reaching the floor above in only a t-shirt and a pair of boxer shorts, Bentz is greeted by waiting FBI agents, grinning from ear to ear, when he reaches the floor above. Put on trial and quickly found guilty for the Caledonia bank robbery, Bentz quips, "I hope they send me to Alcatraz prison ... all my friends are there." Indeed they are, those that have survived the Public Enemy Era of the 1930s ... and Bentz gets his wish and is sent there too.
Prisoner #307 on "The Rock," Bentz behaves himself in prison and gets back to shore in 1948, but is immediately sent to Massachusetts to serve time for another crime until 1954, and then goes to a Wisconsin facility to spend time behind bars. Out finally in 1962, he violates parole by robbing a feed store and is sent back the same year, this time spending time at the Federal prison in Sandstone, Minnesota. Released in 1967, Bentz settles in Tacoma, Washington, and dies there from a heart attack at the age of 85 on Halloween evening of 1979. Mostly forgotten now, the outlaw once was atop the pyramid of Depression era outlaws and called the "King of Bank Robbers" by J. Edgar Hoover himself ... and once upon a time, was famous enough to find himself a comic book character ... rest in peace.
Comic Book Man