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I STOLE 16 MILLION
COME OUT WITH YOUR HANDS UP!
“Come on out, Wilson, you’re under arrest! Come out while you can with your hands up, you haven’t a chance! We’re Government agents, the house is surrounded, we know you’re in there! Come out or we start blasting!”
A barrage of blows on the downstairs door had snapped me from a sound slumber. I heard the shouted words as I scrambled out of bed and it was the devil’s own time to hear them, at 2 A.M. in the morning and less than twenty-four hours before Christmas Day. I remember thinking that some people have no consideration for others, that there is not enough kindness in this world. Then I leaped to a nearby window and looked down on the front lawn. Up in a California sky dirty clouds were scudding across the moon; the yard below was swarming with John Laws, armed with revolvers, rifles and machine guns!
They meant business!
I knew it and I didn’t wait to call out a greeting. Instead I wheeled and hurried down the stairs, wondering if I should go for my gun and make a fight of it. Of course I was mindful of the fact that if I did, my visitors would open up with their own artillery and the house could soon resemble a sieve. More important, so could I. No, a gun battle would get me nothing but premature death; I vetoed the idea even as I conceived it, but there still might be a chance for flight. In the gloom I missed my footing and cartwheeled down the last four steps. I rose and dashed to the breakfast room, pajama coat fluttering behind me, peeked through a crack in the window shade, and it was just as I expected. More cops!
Give them credit; the boys were doing their best not to disappoint me.
What a change three hours can make. At 11 P.M. in my comfortable home, attired in smoking jacket and having completed my reading of the last volume of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, I had gone to bed a wealthy, carefree man, with the spirit of the impending Christmas in my heart. And now this! Dazed by the suddenness of it all I stumbled back into the living room, eyes sweeping around the walls and again hearing a shouted command to come out with my hands up. But what had brought it all about? The police had no reason to suspect me. I was sky-high above suspicion; I never made mistakes!
I had no way of knowing that two days earlier three Gov-ernment men had grabbed my chief confederate, Herb Cox, on a Los Angeles bound train, or that for the past twenty-four hours he had been singing like a frenzied canary.
I stood there uncertainly, angered by my own sudden feeling of helplessness. I wanted to do something. I was willing to try anything but I couldn’t think of what to do. The gray matter seemed to have gone on strike and wouldn’t function, A heavy tread of feet resounded on the back porch. They were coming at me from both ways, and I heard the banging of the gunstocks that were being used on the door as battering rams. Mechanically, to get in the swing of things and do something—everyone else seemed to be doing something—I stepped to the nearby switch and snapped on the lights.
The hullabaloo was awakening others. Lights began to go on in the surrounding homes of that exclusive Los Angeles suburb.
But that bewildered-looking, pajama-clad fellow in the center of the room. . . . Was he clever, debonair Herbert Emerson Wilson, the former minister and king of the safe-crackers who always dressed for dinner? Was he the man who never made mistakes, who had successfully stolen more than $16,000,000 from armored cars, and blasted or torched safes throughout America during the Roaring Twenties? It didn’t seem possible. At that moment I must have looked anything other than the mastermind of crime.
“Come on out, Wilson! Come out with your hands up!”
I knew they had ideas for my future, ideas not in accord with my own plans for my Christmas dinner on the morrow—roast turkey with all the trimmings, to be followed by mints, coffee and a fat cigar in the living room. They would see to it that I would be dining away from home, and they don’t serve six-course meals in jail. More than that, with my unparalleled record in crime, they would probably toss me into a dark hole and throw the keys into the ocean.
More shouts, a few threats and I heard the splintering of wood that heralded the end. Strangely enough I had a mental flashback to a few hours earlier, of the Salvation Army lass who had been ringing a small bell on a street corner when I passed her. Her smile revealed even white teeth, she had said, “God bless you, Sir,” when I dropped a bank note into the yuletide pot.
But I couldn’t think of how I should combat the crisis on hand.
Then, almost simultaneously, the front and back door gave way and a wave of men surged into the house and towards me. They all appeared to be talking at once. I saw flushed, angry faces, hard eyes and twisted lips. In their eagerness to reach me, feet got in the way of more feet and one of my guests lunged forward to go sprawling before me. The clamor was appalling, like the combined din of a boiler factory and a madhouse. Someone yelled, “That’s him!” Another voice called out, “Keep him covered!” The next instant something happened which I had promised myself a thousand times would never happen. Strong hands of the law fell upon my shoulders!
It looked like the end of the road for the king of the safe-crackers. But was it?
August Vollmer, onetime Chief of Police of Berkeley, California, a former president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police and criminology authority for the Encyclopaedia Britannica, once wrote: “Herbert Emerson Wilson, with his syndicated crime methods, represented the highest peak that criminality has ever attained in this country or any other. No one, either before or since Wilson, has ever reached such a degree of criminal perfection,”
Yes, I cut quite a figure in the criminal world, just prior to and during the early days of the Roaring Twenties. What is more, I went in for a life of crime with my eyes wide open, aware of its hazards and endowed with the mental makeup to meet the dangers and the unexpected in its various fields. I took a course in law and a course in banking. I was honor student in my class in welding, where the instructor announced that I would distinguish myself in the future. I did—but not in the manner he expected. I spent several months employed in one of the largest factories for the manufacturing of safes in America, where I displayed such gusto and natural ability that I was offered a superintendent’s position if I would remain. But I had gained the knowledge I wanted and had other plans.
To put it briefly, I studied crime as a science that could be and had to be mastered—and I mastered it. I knew where to strike, when to strike, how to strike. I knew how to make a phantom-like departure, with no clues left behind me and puzzled cops running around in circles, complaining of aching flat feet. The burglar tools and techniques I invented set a standard still used in the underworld although criminals today, I am told, do not have the same skill and nerve I possessed.
For years I went on, with even my identity unknown to the police, while I blasted sixty-five big safes and vaults and robbed armored cars from coast to coast for a total take of more than $16,000,000. Yes, it probably came to more than that, but I never kept tally on what the members of my mob could have picked up while they were off duty. Once it was even considered necessary to call out the United States Marines to try to halt my activities in crime!
And during all those years and those many raids I made only one mistake. Just one. I forgot to break an electric light bulb.
Upon resigning as pastor of the First Baptist Church in East San Diego, I had collected the most talented mob of safe-blowers, forgers, con men and useful women that was ever assembled in one gang. Ask someone who had dealings with any of them. Their like will probably never be seen again—which is all to the good. All were “specialists” in their own lines—in explosives, “fronting,” burglar alarms, casing, strong-arm work, spotting or in other of the many crafts necessary to a criminal career.
We had people for every need, masters of every specialty. One Italian chap in the mob, the handsomest young fellow I ever laid eyes on, was often mistaken for Rudolph Valentino. He was employed by me solely to extract information from the young lovelies who worked in the various establishments we planned to plunder. The frigid type, the indifferent type, the shrewd type and even the gold digger—it made no difference to Tony Masino. When he turned on his Latin charm and offered kisses of fire, secretaries and stenographers sighed, closed their eyes and would have given him their ticket to heaven if they had one. That was about all Tony had to do to earn his pay from me—and how that boy enjoyed his work.
Disaster came to Tony one day, however, in the person of big Harry Woods, one of my strong-arm boys and a Tarzan in strength. The love artist was beaten half to death. Wishing to keep in practice, it seems that Tony sought to brush up on his technique with Harry’s girl. He never made that mistake again, and it was ten days before the Latin Adonis could leave the hospital.
I hired and fired help like the boss of any other big outfit. We had our own doctor and our own fences, who were in the market to buy anything and specialized in hot ice. We had our prop department with police uniforms, badges, false mustaches, false credentials and anything else we needed to make ourselves appear to be what we were not. And there were some mighty convincing actors in my outfit. With their lives at stake I have seen performances worthy of an Oscar. Crime was my business and I made it big business. I made it pay, pay and pay. And then one day it made me pay—with about twenty years!
I studied police methods. I improved on and used them to my advantage. We had dictographs and binoculars; we made blueprints, maps, and photographed banks, offices and factories before we struck. I had trick automobiles, yachts, hotels and apartment houses. I believe I was the first criminal ever to employ a plane in a professional capacity. And we had blondes especially tailor-made by nature for the tired business executive. With all this help, we were able to case as many as a dozen places at one time, then loot them all in one night.
I made it a point never to attract attention. After countless hours of research and experiments I perfected my soup (explosive) to such excellence that no safe could withstand it, and it was practically noiseless. I remember one night in Detroit, after I blew nine safes in a large building, all in a matter of a little over two hours, one of my boys, with admiring eyes, turned to me and said:
“That soup of yours, Chief, it’s great stuff and don’t make any more noise than a loud sneeze, but you should protect yourself and get a patent on it!”
There was a rule, strictly enforced in my organization and I harped upon it constantly: “Strike only at the highest, where the real dough is!” And we did just that and nothing else. Leave the peanuts to the monkeys. Once we were within scant inches of what would have been, and several times over, the greatest haul in the history of crime—$14,000,000! Sounds fantastic? Far from it. It’s a matter of record that can easily be found. Another twenty minutes was all that I needed. Just another twenty minutes, perhaps even less, and as far as that $14,000,000 was concerned, it would have been a case of “you’re mine, all mine.”
Later I’ll tell about it in detail.
We planned cleverly, we operated smoothly, as the boys and I moved from city to city for more than five years and never even came remotely close to a pinch, while the Pinkerton organization blushed and cops in a dozen states started talking to themselves. The early part of the Twenties found me the owner of a Los Angeles hotel, two apartment houses, several other valuable pieces of property and a suburban home equipped with the works—costly furniture, a cook, a maid and even a Japanese gardener.
I had gone a long way in crime since discarding the cloth.
I led raids on Sinclair Oil, Southern Railway, Harvard University, National Biscuit Company, Hale Brothers in San Francisco, Kroger Brothers in Cincinnati, the Fifth Street Store in Los Angeles, along with other big moneyed organizations and the banks in twelve states. I looked upon any haul that came to less than a $100,000 as a complete flop—a wasted evening. But I always made it a point, when away from home and looting millions throughout the country, to stay in inconspicuous hotels, dress conservatively and avoid all night life. I never tipped a waitress over a dime, and where I ate the meals were never over fifty cents.
I always carried a brief case and convincingly acted the role I sought to portray—that of a traveling salesman with a skimpy expense account.
I went in for jewelry as well as cash, and along with others I clipped the wealthy Mrs. Charlotte King Palmer of New York for gems valued at more than $700,000. I held up a poker game of the famous gambler, Nick the Greek, and escaped with the money that was there. On a pleasure trip to England, for a lark I cracked a safe for my girl friend who wanted the $70,000 lavaliere it contained. In time I began to think of myself as a real-life Raffles. I had more money than I could ever hope to use. The exaltation came with my matching wits with the law; it became an obsession with me, the fabulous loot from a robbery being as nothing compared to the sheer thrill of getting away with the crime.
Why once my mob and I, made reckless by continued success, even planned to rob the United States Treasury, and though we didn’t go through with the venture I still think we could have cracked it! What a caper that would have been if we had gone ahead with it. We planned to haul the gold away in trucks, a fleet of them if necessary; I had my own ideas as to how it should be done, and it would have made Drake’s looting of Lima look like the work of an amateur.
Nor have I been forgotten by certain law enforcement de-partments, although I am now over seventy-five. I was questioned by both the Canadian CIB and the American FBI after the famous Brinks robbery. This incident only reinforced my theory, arrived at the hard way: “A tough guy is a fall guy; a criminal is a damn fool who hasn’t been wised up to the fact!”
If I had only realized the folly of crime in the early part of the Twenties, I would not have the memory of that furious entrance of the law into my suburban home on the outskirts of Los Angeles, where a Christmas tree stood, awaiting its adornment of tinsel, ornaments and artificial snow. As I have mentioned, at first I was so stunned by the unexpected raid that I had been unable to do little more than stand in the living room and gape. Then Sheriff William Traeger of Los Angeles County, with a corps of Post Office Inspectors and Federal Officers, burst into the house. He informed me that I was under arrest, then asked if he and the others could search the house, courteously adding, “If you don’t mind.”
I didn’t mind in the least, being hospitable by nature; and I knew there was a certain compensation about it all. They would find no incriminating evidence of any kind in the house; long ago I made certain of that in the event that such a predicament as the present one would ever come up. Now it had and I was thankful for my foresight, but I decided to play the role of outraged dignity. I drew myself erect and in my best pulpit manner asked them what was the meaning of their presence in my home. I might still be able to bluff it out; it seemed to be my only hope.
“I am a retired minister, Gentlemen,” I threw at them with the accompanying glare I often used when admonishing my congregation for their sins. “What is the meaning of this outrage and why should I give you permission to search my home? What are you looking for?”
It didn’t work; I saw that at once. All of them gave knowing smiles, a few added chuckles and a Detective Shewbridge, a hulking brute whom I later learned had a bad reputation for roughing up his prisoners, laughed in my face and sneered, “Drop the act. You’re guilty as hell and you know it.”
They began to search the house while I stood there, trying to muster all the dignity that is possible, under the circumstances, for a pajama-clad man. They went over the place thoroughly, but the hunt was fruitless. My library, with its numerous volumes of dry classics, theological treatises and philosophical works, was what one would expect to find on the shelves of a minister’s study. My large folding secretary, searched to the smallest pigeonhole, disclosed nothing to connect me with criminal practices. Fishing tackle and golfing outfits conveyed no evidence of a damaging nature. In a wardrobe, however, they came across my former ministerial garments.
The find brought another sneer from Shewbridge. “So you really were a wearer of the cloth, eh? That’s great, just great, What a Shepherd you must have been—roulette wheels and crap tables in the church basement, with bootleg hooch served to the members of your congregation in their pews at a buck a swig!”
They all laughed. Then his eyes hardened. “All right, Wilson, let’s have it. Where do you keep your soup?”
I still stuck to my role of snow-white innocence. “Soup?” I asked. “Where do I keep my soup?” Then I said to all of them: “Well if you gentlemen are so hungry that you will break into a man’s home for some soup, I believe you will find several cans of it on the pantry shelves.” I added:
“May I suggest the vegetable?”
Again they laughed with the exception of Shewbridge. He wasn’t in the mood for humor, and I saw his right hand close into a huge fist. It told me what I could expect if he ever got me alone in a cell. Sheriff Traeger asked:
“Where do you keep your strings? We’ll find them if we have to go over the house a dozen times. Come on, where are your strings?”
“Strings” is the underworld term for electric fuse wires used to touch off explosives in blowing a safe. I looked perplexed, then stepped over to a small basket filled with accumulated strings, spools of thread, buttons and pins. I handed it to the sheriff, saying, “You’ll find some strings in this basket.”
It didn’t fool them. I was told to dress, and we were off to the Los Angeles Federal Building. They didn’t waste any time; the grilling started at once. As I have mentioned, I had studied law and was prepared for the ordeal. Now I demanded to see my lawyer. But a drowning man in the middle of the ocean can yell for a lifeboat till he’s black in the face, and that’s about all the good it will do him. This was the attitude of my interrogators as they began the task of making me “come clean.”
I don’t know just how many investigators were present at this conflict of wits, but there must have been twenty at least. They wanted to know everything about me. I had more questions fired at me in more ways and tones of voice than seemingly there are tongues in the world. They would plead with me one minute and become ugly the next. But I will give the Feds credit; there was no physical violence. Six hours passed, and my head fairly swam as I tried to speak frankly and still not incriminate my confederates or myself. By eight o’clock in the morning, however, I was still going great guns and maintaining my innocence. I said that their charges were all Greek to me. I didn’t know anything about million-dollar armored car holdups, blown safes, looted diamonds or bank robberies. No, I hadn’t made the bomb that caused the Wall Street Explosion, I didn’t clip the Kroger Brothers’ safe in Cincinnati for $500,000. I was a retired minister; it must have been two other guys. Then the session was adjourned, and my captors took me across the street for breakfast. Ham and eggs and black coffee helped to revive me and my confidence increased. So far they hadn’t been able to get a thing out of me, and they didn’t seem so sure of themselves. If I could just hold up....
Breakfast over, I was turned over to Detective Shewbridge and several California State Officers. We got into a car, but it was not until we were approaching the outskirts of Los Angeles that it dawned upon me that I was being shanghaied out of the city before I could communicate with my attorney. I turned to Shewbridge who sat beside me in the back seat. He looked smug as I protested and insisted upon my constitutional rights to be represented by counsel. Then I heard his quiet, “We’ll talk about it when we get out in the country a ways.”
I knew what he meant by that, and right then I decided to make a break for it before the truth could be tortured out of me.
My chance came in less than five minutes when Harvey Bell, a detective in the front seat, wanted to stop at his home, which was nearby, for some papers. The car pulled up before his house, and when Bell got out and started to walk towards it, somehow the vigilance of the others momentarily relaxed and they followed him with their eyes. This was it, I told myself, it was now or never. In the flash of an eye I leaped over the side of the car, kept right on going to a nearby alleyway and shot up it. I ran, ran—oh, good Lord, how I ran! Surprised exclamations and then orders to halt were shouted out behind me, but I pumped ahead at a speed worthy of a track champion. If I didn’t get myself to faraway places and fast, I knew I was a gone gosling. My chest rose and fell with my efforts, then suddenly seemed to burst into flame, but running with a speed made possible only when desperation is the pacemaker, the agony of my prolonged charge didn’t seem to matter. A revolver bullet buzzed past my ear; a second one tore into my coat pocket to smash my spectacle case, a third clipped my trousers, another flew between my legs. But my pursuers were far behind me, and every second I was putting more distance between us, mighty important distance.
So lowering my head, biting my lips and with fists clinched, I ignored the tortures that racked me and ran—ran—ran!
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