Barrens Bandits, Part 2: Flight from justice and a fight for freedom

The bandits flee the posse after their bold bank robbery, and two other men are charged with crimes they didn’t commit.

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Dalles of the St. Croix, 1920s (Arthur Adams, via Hennepin History Museum)

The bandits had been on the move for some 36 hours or so when they disappeared into the darkness of Interstate Park. Having somehow survived a barrage of gunfire from bridge guards, flipped their car, and fled into the woods, they must have stumbled through the night to get away from their pursuers.

The posse believed they had the criminals cornered. While searchers spread out, they expected to easily capture the gang once day broke, especially with reinforcements from Stillwater and Minneapolis en route.

Later, the world would learn their names, and their aliases: James Laughlin, aka Red Stanton, who was identified as the driver of the car, and Buck-Tooth Hogan, Shine Allen, J. B. White, Curley Wheeler, and Bill Bailey, all with so many pseudonyms it’s hard to decipher which was their given name.

Clutching their $14,000 in loot, probably wearing the same dark suits they wore while robbing the bank, the bandits found an escape route on the river. They stole a camper’s boat tied up near the old sawmill, and struck off downstream. Without oars, they could only drift along.

The river was low. The gage at St. Croix Falls registered flows below 2,000 cubic feet per second, a typical late summer flow. It might have meant they ran aground on sandbars and rocky shoals. The moon had been full the night before and likely provided some help.

Confusion at bridge

Meanwhile, at the bridge, the guards must have been inflamed, their adrenaline pumping from the gunfire and speeding automobile, the spectacular crash and chase. Bert Gibbs was not badly wounded (after a quick surgery to extract the bullet, he rejoined the posse), but nonetheless, these big city bandits had shot at all of them. The guards were probably also angry that they had failed to stop them, and that the bandits were still out there somewhere.

Then, around 3 a.m., a car came down the Wisconsin side again. Nervous deputies were alerted. As the car approached, a guard shouted an order to halt.

In the car were three local boys on their way home from a dance in Balsam Lake. When they saw the lights and guns and heard an order to stop, they feared they were being robbed, so they ignored the command. The guards started shooting, putting numerous bullets through the car’s body and tires.

Before the young men made it to the bridge, St. Croix Falls officer John Ericson let loose with his shotgun, badly wounding Sidney Topness as several slugs hit him in his left side and right arm. While the wounds were first feared fatal, Topness eventually recovered and lived into old age.

The community was outraged later about this incident. The bandits and their car were on the Minnesota side, and local citizens didn’t know why someone would open fire on a car coming from Wisconsin. Many residents thought deputizing so many men was risky. Topness’s father said he would sue.

The incident later led to the formation of a new law enforcement idea that spread across the state. Chisago County was the first to organize volunteer “rangers” who would be ready to chase such robbers at a moment’s notice. Within a few years, counties across the state had such groups, numbering 4,000 rangers total.

Second time’s the charm

When day broke and the sun began to light the sky, the search expanded, and the cops found traces of the trail. On an island a ways downriver, they discovered a sandwich crust and oily paper bag — but did one of them really grab food while bailing out of the car?

Farther down, they found the stolen boat adrift, and footprints that indicated the bandits had gone ashore in Wisconsin. The cops tracked them until the prints joined a well worn path, and they lost the trail. Some believed the outlaws had caught the Soo Line train out of Dresser, which would take them south and across the St. Croix again at Cedar Bend, and eventually into the Twin Cities.

Now the local police called St. Paul, despite the department’s untrustworthiness as friends of mobsters. St. Paul detectives reportedly raced the train from Dresser to the station so they could search it, but came up empty. Who knows if the people of Chisago County believed them.

The bandits had in fact not caught the Soo line. They went farther east to the hamlet of Wanderoos, where they broke into a garage and stole a small car.

Now they did what they should have done in the first place. They headed north, finally heading toward Superior again after their wild detour across the river. And they split up. The whole area must have been on the lookout for a group of five men now, and the group wouldn’t have been difficult to spot.

The gang first headed back to the friend’s house outside Frederic. There, two men caught separate trains north, and the others drove to Spooner to take the train from there. They reunited in Superior a couple days later to split up the cash, and then parted ways again, to “drift” back to St. Paul separately. Meeting again on Iglehart Street in St. Paul, they split up the cash from the bonds, which one of the bandits had exchanged along the way.

Slowly, the cops gave up the chase. Five outlaws had evaded some 200 searchers. But most of the men would slowly be brought to justice over the years ahead, while ensnaring a couple innocents.

Prosecuted with perjury

The historic Chisago County courthouse, which was used from 1876 to 1990, was moved to the Almelund Threhing Show grounds for preservation. (McGhiever/Wikimedia)

Gang leader Red Stanton was one of the first to be tracked down, but he pulled a fast one. Located in a Fargo jail on a theft charge when Chisago County deputies found him, he pleaded guilty to the North Dakota charge before he could be extradited to Minnesota to face the bank robbery. He was sentenced to five years, after which he could be turned over.

Stanton’s stunt indirectly cost two other men several years of imprisonment.

George Hughes and Louis Thorvick were both falsely accused of being involved in the robbery over the course of the year following the crime. Hughes was a known criminal who was arrested in October 1921 for stealing a car and identified as one of the bank robbers. He had spent time in the federal prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and Idaho state penitentiary. With a record and refusing to take the stand in his own defense, Hughes was quickly convicted and sent to Stillwater.

Later, a hotel registration showed Hughes had been in Des Moines, Iowa the night of the robbery, but his defense failed to provide the evidence at trial and Hughes would spend the next decade behind bars. A day laborer who had been made a Chisago County deputy in September 1921, a couple months after the robbery, named M.L. Hammerstrom was charged with transporting Hughes from the Chisago County jail to the Stillwater prison after he was convicted.

Hammerstrom later testified to a grand jury that, during the trip, Hughes had named Louis Thorvick as another member of the gang. Since Hughes was actually not involved in the crime, it’s hard to believe he knew who was or wasn’t involved. Perhaps he had a personal grudge against Thorvick, or perhaps Hammerstrom made the whole thing up, committing what would later be called “rank perjury.”

Thorvick lived in St. Paul, a largely law-abiding hod carrier, a skilled laborer who supported bricklayers, mixing mortar and carrying bricks and mortar to the masons in a carefully orchestrated system. The Norwegian immigrant may have later drunkenly boasted he was involved, having worked in Chisago County previously.

Wrongful convictions

After Hughes’ supposed incrimination of Thorvick, Deputy Hammerstrom took it upon himself to track down the hod carrier at his favorite lunchroom in St. Paul. There, Hammerstrom said the Norwegian not only confessed to taking part in the crime, but said the loot was hidden in a swamp in Bald Eagle, near White Bear Lake. A search party came up empty handed. That had no effect on Hammerstrom’s accusation and Thorvick’s prosecution. The bank teller, customers, and townspeople once again traveled to St. Paul, and identified Thorvick as one of the robbers.

Thorvick testified that the day of the robbery, he was at work on a home construction on Randolph Street in St. Paul. But the homeowner was called to testify, and he said the work had been done in August and September. It later turned out Thorvick had misremembered, and had simply been at work on a different house the day of the robbery.

But Thorvick was also able to testify that he had been home in St. Paul the night of the 23rd, as it was his landlady’s birthday, and he had joined a party for her. The landlady and her family all backed up Thorvick’s account, but it was not enough. The jury convicted him.

By the fall of 1922, both Hughes and Thorvick were in the Stillwater prison for crimes they had not committed. All the actual criminals still walked free. The two falsely accused quickly met and determined they were not only both innocent, but had never set eyes on each other before.

The unlucky pair were forgotten.

Criminal confesses

Red Stanton evaded Minnesota police three times by pleading guilty to further offenses in North Dakota, finally finishing his incarcerations in February 1926, when he was promptly taken into custody by Chisago County deputies, who brought him back to face trial over the Almenlund robbery.

At this time, Stanton told the sheriff and county attorney that Hughes and Thorvick were not involved in the robbery. He scoffed at the two “nobodies” being involved in such a professional job. He gave a detailed statement explaining the crime, swearing the two others played no part at it.

The court didn’t come back into session until April, at which time Judge Alfred Stolberg had to recuse himself because he had joined the posse back in 1921. Another delay while a replacement was appointed.

Once the trial finally began, under Judge Charles Callaghan of Rochester, Stanton made a weak attempt to deny his involvement. His lawyers tried to show clothes found in the car did not fit him.

Outside the courtroom, 15 members of the new Chisago County rangers patrolled with shotguns.

Thorvick and Hughes were both brought to the trial in Center City under heavy guard to testify. Only Thorvick was put on the stand, where he was reprimanded for shouting that he had been “railroaded,” before testifying that he had never seen Stanton before.

The next day, Stanton was convicted and sentenced to life in prison by a jury that took 30 minutes to deliberate. He was sent to Stillwater.

Ten years a prisoner

Louis Thorvick, left, and attorney Michael Kinkead. (Minneapolis Tribune)

Louis Thorvick was not content to spend the rest of his life in prison for a crime he did not commit. He had consistently maintained his innocence, but few convicts will admit their guilt. He had no money and no connections, until Red Stanton’s statements in Chisago County.

In early 1926, assistant U.S. attorney M.F. Kinkead took up Thorvick’s cause. Kinkead would later serve five years as county attorney for Ramsey County. The lawyer worked tirelessly to prove Stanton’s account of events was accurate, backing up his testimony about the innocence of Hughes and Thorvick.

Kinkead was clear that Chisago County Deputy Hammerstrom had fabricated the entire story about Thorvick.

The case went before the state parole board twice before they accepted the truth. In July 1931, 10 years after the robbery, the officials set both Hughes and Thorvick free.

“The first thing I’m going to do is get a job,” Thorvick told reporters as he was released. A few days later, he told a reporter he felt “lost.” He spoke nervously, said he let five street cars go by before he could muster the courage to board one, and was afraid of people. He said he spent those first few days laying in the grass under trees. He also demanded compensation for his imprisonment, and a bill was later introduced in the legislature to award him $25,000. It did not pass, but the state eventually paid him $5,000.

The five bandits may have escaped capture in the first days after their robbery, but few eluded justice. Red Stanton spent the rest of his days in Stillwater prison. “Curly” Wheeler was shot to death in the Blackstone Hotel in St. Paul. “Seattle Whitey” was incarcerated in Washington state for other crimes. “Shine” Allen served a 20-year sentence for robbery in Waupun, Wisconsin. Bill Bailey disappeared, the only one of whom no trace was found.

In the end, the Almelund Bank Robbery cost not just $14,000 in stolen funds, but also two young men’s wounding, the beginning of a long investigation by law enforcement, and the wrongful incarceration of two men. It arose in a dangerous time, as criminals found safe haven in the northwest Wisconsin wilds and the sanctuary city of St. Paul. It pitted big city gangsters against rural residents.

The St. Croix River flowed through the middle of the story, just like it had for 10,000 years, and does so today.


Comments

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5 responses to “Barrens Bandits, Part 2: Flight from justice and a fight for freedom”

  1. Michael J Gallagher Avatar
    Michael J Gallagher

    Greg, I really, really enjoyed your account of the gangster history in our area. Nice work!!

  2. Troy Avatar
    Troy

    excellent!

  3. Susan Avatar
    Susan

    Greg,
    Fun!
    Our own Bonnie and Clyde, Jesse James.
    New genre for you to add to your repertoire- historical thrillers?
    Looks like a winner.

  4. Claire Avatar
    Claire

    Love it! Who’s writing the screenplay?

  5. Kristen Zschomler Avatar
    Kristen Zschomler

    Mr. Seitz – could you please share your primary sources around M.L. Hammerstrom’s involvement, including the Grand Jury testament? Based on my research, Thorvick admitted knowledge of the robbery in a speakeasy in Saint Paul and that is what led to his arrest. See the first page article titled “Lifer Denies Holdup Guilt; Asks Pardon” in The Minneapolis Journal Minneapolis, Minnesota · Tuesday, March 04, 1930. The article states that “Thorvick walked into a St. Paul speakeasy after newspapers had carried the story of the Almelund bank robbery. Drinks and a boastful air trapped him. He was interested in the robbery for he had worked in that community and knew some of the person involved. A reward had been posted for the bandits. Boasting Results in Conviction. “I know all about that robbery”, he boasted. His companions questioned him until Thorvick had, by innuendo, virtually admitted that he took part in the stick up. One day he was told the police were looking for him. He reported to the police station and was arrested. Trial of Thorvick was short and to the point. Evidence was produced to show that he had admitted the robbery in the speakeasy.” Thank you!

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Barrens Bandits, Part 2: Flight from justice and a fight for freedom