Gangsters in Gambier
Did the notorious John Dillinger really rob the Peoples Bank?
The story is a natural for legend-weaving. On October 6, 1933, a gang of armed men hold up the Peoples Bank of Gambier. The bank's cashier, J.R. "Ray" Brown, engages them in a gunfight. He's shot in the hand, and the gang seizes him and throws him into their car, escaping with $714.
The robbers? According to legend, John Dillinger himself, Robin Hood manqué of the Great Depression, led the gang and faced down the barrel of Brown's pistol.
The truth of the matter is a little less colorful. As it turns out, while the four (or possibly five) robbers were indeed associates of Dillinger, the famous criminal himself could not have been a participant in the Gambier robbery. On October 6, he was in the county jail in Lima, Ohio, awaiting trial for a bank robbery the month before in Bluffton, Ohio. Less than a week later, Dillinger was broken out of the jail by four of his gang members, who killed the local sheriff in the process.
Among those four gang members was Charles Makley, the actual leader of the Peoples Bank heist. "Fat Charles" and Dillinger became acquainted as fellow inmates at the Indiana State Prison, where Dillinger served eight and a half years for the botched robbery of a grocery store. Makley was identified by Ray Brown and one of the two customers in the bank at the time of the holdup, Kenyon student J. Grant Dwyer.
The breathless newspaper descriptions of the robbery and its aftermath conjure up images from the television series The Untouchables and gangster movies starring the likes of George Raft and Edward G. Robinson. It's difficult to read them without hearing the voice of Walter Winchell in your head, doing the narration. "Ray Brown, cashier, who defied the bandits' order to 'stick 'em up' and fired three times at one of them, was shot three times through his right hand and was then kidnaped and used as a shield by the bandits, who made their escape in a running gun battle with F.R. Hagaman, who heard the shooting in the bank and emerged from his tin shop, across the street, with a shotgun. Hagaman fired twice at the fleeing car, and a burst of revolver and shotgun fire answered him." He later picked thirteen lead slugs from the front of his shop.
Brown's kidnaping by the bank robbers was short-lived. He was unceremoniously dumped from the gangsters' car at the bottom of the College hill, just outside Gambier.
Between September 1933 and July 1934, Dillinger and his gang terrorized the Midwest, killing ten men, wounding seven others, robbing banks and police arsenals, and staging a total of three jail breaks. On July 22, 1934, Dillinger himself was killed outside Chicago's Biograph Theater with gunshots fired by three FBI agents working with the bureau's legendary Melvin Purves. None ever revealed--or perhaps knew--who fired the fatal shots. One of the three agents, Herman Hollis, was killed in November of that year in a fatal shootout with Dillinger contemporary and sometime colleague Lester Gillis, better known as "Baby Face Nelson."
Although he was never officially charged with the Gambier crime, Makley was eventually apprehended for the Lima jail break and other crimes and was returned to Ohio, where he was convicted of the murder of the Lima sheriff and sentenced to death. But in true outlaw fashion, he cheated the hangman, dying instead in a hail of bullets while attempting yet another escape.
In later years, Ray Brown, known to generations of Kenyon students as Banker Brown, took some pleasure in recounting his starring role in Knox County's first-ever armed robbery of a bank. The grandfather of Geoffrey R. Enck of the College's Class of 1968, Brown lived out his life in Gambier, serving as the Peoples Bank's cashier for forty-four years and dying peacefully at the age of seventy-two in 1967. He is memorialized at Kenyon in the J. Ray Brown Scholarship, which benefits a Knox County student attending the College.
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