5 of History's Great Bank Robberies

When the famous bank robber Willie Sutton was asked why he robbed banks, he supposedly replied, "That's where the money is." Sutton claimed he never actually said it. Pity. Someone should have. Anyway, here are the stories of five famous bank robberies.

1. The Great Northfield, Minnesota, Raid

OK, in terms of actual success, this 1876 robbery was a bust. But it had a heck of a cast: legendary bandits Frank and Jesse James; Cole, Jim, and Bob Younger; and three lesser known outlaws. Their target was Northfield's First National Bank, which the gang settled on after casing a half-dozen other towns. Clearly, not enough casing, as the robbery couldn't have gone worse. The bank's cashier refused to open the safe, an alert passerby sounded the alarm, and townspeople killed two of the robbers as the rest escaped. A week later, a posse killed or captured all of the other outlaws except the James brothers, who escaped home to Missouri. It was the beginning of the end for 19th-century America's most notorious bandits. Worse still? The take from the Northfield bank was a mere $26.70.

2. Hitler's Treasures



As the German army rolled through Europe in World War II, it ransacked the banks of other countries, transferring the loot to the central Reichsbank in Berlin. But when the U.S. Third Army neared the German capital, the stolen booty was hidden in mines near the village of Merkers. Unfortunately for the Nazis, the Third Army captured Merkers before the treasure could be moved again. And it was truly a treasure: 55 boxes of crated gold, 8,198 bars of
gold bullion, and a few tons of artwork. The total value of the precious metals and currency was put at $520 million, and it took 50 years to return the loot to the robbed countries. In 1997, several countries waived their remaining claims, and the funds were used to aid Holocaust survivors.

3. Thinking Inside the Box(es)



In early 1976, the Lebanese capital of Beirut was in the throes of a civil war. Palestinian guerrilla groups had gained control of the city's aptly named Bank Street and set about knocking off a dozen banks. The biggest prize on the lot? The British Bank of the Middle East. To get to the loot, a PLO-affiliated group blasted through the wall of a Catholic church next door to the bank. Next, imported Corsican safe-crackers were employed to open the vault to get to the safety-deposit boxes. Over a two-day period, the robbers loaded trucks with $20 million to $50 million in currency, gold, jewels, and stocks and bonds (not bad for a couple days' work). The bad guys got away, though some of the stocks and bonds were later sold back to their owners.

4. More Francs Than a Wiener Schnitzel

(Image credit: Flickr user valix)

How many Frenchmen does it take to rob a bank? Well, at least 10, if you're talking about the 1992 Bank of France robbery in Toulon. Using inside information from a bank employee, the gang kidnapped a guard's family and forced the guard to open the bank's doors. But just in case the "we've got your family and we'd be happy to off them" tactic wasn't convincing enough, the group decided to ensure the poor guy's cooperation by strapping explosives to him. Apparently, it was pretty effective. Once inside, the robbers removed the film from the surveillance cameras, emptied the vaults of 160 million francs (about $30 million), and took off in several vans—including one belonging to the bank. Within two months, most of the gang was caught, betrayed by the bank employee (not to be confused with the guard) who'd helped in the job. But several of the robbers still got away, and amazingly, less than 10% of the loot was ever recovered.

5. The Trench Coat Job



It was past quitting time when two men wearing buttoned-up trench coats let themselves into the Seafirst Bank in Lakewood, Washington, a suburb of Tacoma. Flashing a gun, the pair stuffed 355 pounds of cash—$4.46 million—into sacks and made a clean getaway. This 1997 heist wasn't the work of amateurs. Nope. Ray Bowman and William Kirkpatrick were real pros. In fact, between 1982 and 1998, Bowman and Kirkpatrick were believed to have robbed 28 banks around the country for a total of more than $7 million. Even more impressive: only once was there gunfire, and no one was hurt. A special FBI task force was formed, but it was stupidity that finally tripped them up. Kirkpatrick was stopped for speeding in late 1998 by a Nebraska state trooper. A search of the car turned up four handguns, fake badges, two ski masks—and $1.8 million in cash. Meanwhile, Bowman had failed to pay the rent on a storage locker in Kansas City, Missouri. When the owner opened it, and found a virtual armory of guns, he called the cops, and they collared Bowman at his suburban Kansas City home a few weeks after Kirkpatrick's arrest. The dapper duo was convicted in 1999, with Bowman getting slapped with 24 years, Kirkpatrick with 15.


From mental_floss' book Forbidden Knowledge: A Wickedly Smart Guide to History's Naughtiest Bits, published in Neatorama with permission.

Be sure to visit mental_floss' extremely entertaining website and blog!


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