The Great Bank Robbery… Plus the Rest of the Story
On Monday, Nov. 23, 1931, the 3,784 residents of Western Springs were going about their normal routines: commuters catching trains, homemakers buying groceries and school kids enjoying a field trip. Then, machine gun bullets filled the air.
While many village residents know that a bank robbery occurred here in 1931, most don’t realize that the morning’s events began unfolding even before the robbers entered the bank.
At 9:20 a.m., a vacant house at Ogden and Forest avenues was set afire by persons unknown. Passing motorists saw the house burst into flames just as a young man ran from the house toward a blue Lincoln or Cadillac, jumped onto the running board, and sped away. See second photo.
Moments later, a similar blue car was seen on Lawn Avenue, alongside what is now the Harris Bank. Four men exited the vehicle. One carried a Thompson sub-machine gun and guarded the door, while the other three armed robbers entered the bank and directed everyone to stand against a wall with their hands up. They took $4,498 from the tellers’ cages. Then, they ordered the employees and customers into the vault, but did not lock it. See third photo.
As the robbery was unfolding, a clerk employed by the Henrikson-Rose grocery store, four doors west of the bank, saw what was happening and phoned the village office. While police had no radios or cell phones in that era, the village had installed a red light atop the downtown water tower—sort of an early version of the “bat signal” of comic lore. Seeing the illuminated light, the sole policeman on patrol duty, in this case Chief Clarence Berg, was to telephone the office and respond wherever needed.
When the Chief saw the light aglow and learned of the robbery in progress, he rushed to the bank, only to encounter the robber with the machine gun. When told to raise his hands, he instead ducked into the nearby post office, from which he exchanged fire. The robbers then fled, one of whom was wounded. A resident carrying a handgun also fired at the fleeing robbers from the railroad platform. See fourth photo.
In the exchange of gunfire, the owner of the grocery store, John Henrikson, was slightly wounded when he stepped out to see whether the incident was over (it wasn’t). A group of kindergarten students, out for a walk with their teacher, was also caught in the cross-fire on Burlington Avenue. Betty Jane Whitehall, of 3836 Johnson Ave., was wounded just above the knee. Fortunately, both John and Betty Jane would fully recover. See first photo.
Based on several eyewitness accounts, the entire robbery took little more than three minutes. The robbers’ car turned east onto Burlington, then south onto Wolf Road. Bystanders reported seeing another large auto following the getaway car and then change passengers. A stolen blue Lincoln with some blood stains was found abandoned later that evening in Downers Grove, and the robbers were never apprehended.
The media, like today, pounced on the story, running a staged photograph of the bank employees and the police chief, now all celebrities. See sixth photo.
But, now, the rest of the story.
Just as the robbery was unfolding, the fire department received a call concerning the previously mentioned house fire on Ogden Avenue. Even though the interior of the house had been soaked with kerosene and badly scorched, the fire was quickly extinguished. Some concluded that the bank robbers were responsible and had set the fire as a diversionary move. However, the only clue to the identity of the arsonist was a hat that was left behind, which Chicago Police described as a “typical gangster hat."
Following the incident, the bank’s insurance company covered their loss, and the homeowner also reportedly collected $1,000 for the fire damage. But the Western Springs Times, the only local paper at the time, was critical of police efforts to stop the robbery. Because of the civilians wounded in the cross-fire, the paper suggested that the village might be better served by stationing four or five trained riflemen in various vantage points to protect the business district and, thereby, deter future robberies of this type.
Fortunately, this suggestion was not adopted and, since then, Western Springs has not experienced an armed bank robbery.