The residents of Eldon, Iowa, couldn’t believe what they were hearing. One of their most respected citizens had been arrested for the robbery of the local bank. But it had to be true; a detective with the famed Pinkerton Detective Agency had solved the mystery that gripped the community for months.
In the early morning hours of Feb. 1, 1897, nitroglycerin had been used to blow the brick vault in the bank to smithereens. When Pinkerton detective W.F. Forsee arrived on the scene, he determined that the red stains streaming down the bank walls were blood splatters; so he guessed one of the robbers had been injured.
The thieves had made off with $6,900. They had stolen a buggy and team of horses from the Rich Brothers’ grocers to use as a get-away vehicle. The detective thought they remained in the vicinity because around noon the team and horses were found near Sugar Creek.
Some locals provided authorities with tips. Apparently there had been three strangers hanging around Eldon the night before the robbery. Two were tall and one short. One wore a “light overcoat.”
Months went by without any arrests in the case. In May City Marshal Charles Stevens was arrested along with an Ottumwa gambler named Richard Dodd. It didn’t take much persuading before the two spilled their guts and implicated their accomplices.
The marshal had planned the crime for several years. Originally he had gone to Des Moines to find an accomplice to help with the details. But the fellow he hired didn’t like the looks of things after he came to Eldon to scout out the bank building. He declined the marshal’s offer to participate.
So Marshal Stevens turned to Dodd. He was eager for the opportunity and said he knew some professional burglars in Chicago. Traveling to the Windy City, Dodd lined up Don Cameron, Jesse Hamilton, Thomas ”Buck” Murray, Bob “Old Bob” Durkin, Sam Ritchie and Joe “Indian Joe” Menard.
The robbers went to Eldon three times before the actual crime took place. The first two trips resulted in postponement of the robbery. First, the men were scared away by a man sleeping in an apartment above the bank. The second attempt didn’t happen because the gang feared the roads were in such bad shape they wouldn’t be able to make a quick get-away.
On the night of Feb. 1, while Marshal Stevens looked the other way, Menard, Ritchie and Murray entered the bank from a window and blew open the vault. They used the stolen team to meet Dodd at the outskirts of Ottumwa. Hiding out in Dodd’s basement in Ottumwa, they divided up the money. Dodd got $600, and they were supposed to leave Marshal Steven’s share with Dodd. However, the Chicago men took off — failing to leave money for the marshal.
It took years, but eventually all eight of the men were captured. Dodd had made a deal with authorities to provide evidence against the others. He ended up serving no time and moved to El Paso, Texas, to open up a gambling house. Cameron was not convicted for his participation as it was noted he merely helped with some of the preliminary plans.
Ritchie was captured in Baltimore, tried and acquitted when Dodd refused to testify against him. Hamilton was convicted, but his judgment was set aside. Durkin was arrested in New York City in 1898, convicted and served three years at Fort Madison.
Murray was convicted and sentenced to nine years at Fort Madison. Marshal Stevens served three years. Menard was captured, released on bail, jumped bail and wasn’t recaptured until 1905.
Cheryl Mullenbach is a historical columnist for the Clinton Herald who focuses on the state of Iowa.