State Exchange Bank Robbery
On a blustery cold day in February 1915, the State Exchange Bank – where the current USD #366 Board Office sits (on the northeast corner of the Yates Center square) – was robbed in broad daylight, sending the entire town of Yates Center into wild and lolling panic.
Shortly past noontime, while most of the bank employees were out for lunch, two well-dressed and unmasked men in their early twenties entered the bank, causally strolled to the teller-window, and asked whether a “Mr. Hines” had been in. By the time the cashier, W.J. O’Donnell, had finished answering this seemingly innocent question, however, he found a .33 caliber revolver staring him straight in the face.
“Throw up your hands and hold ‘em high,” growled one of the genteel young men, who then immediately proceeded to crawl in through the small opening of the bank window. In four minutes flat, nearly $5000 had been liquidated, through an act of thievery efficient enough to make even a Wall Street firm proud. Then, in a flash, the robbers were gone.
Soon after, as he had been locked inside the vault, O’Donnell began yelling at the top of lungs, wailing like wounded coyote, until the bookkeeper, Blanche Winters, entered the combination and freed him. The hunt was on. It seemed everyone in town had suddenly descended on the Yates Center square and surrounding neighborhoods, with cars
tearing about in every direction.
At about the same time, William Reedy screeched to a halt at the bank, then sprinted inside to exclaim that he’d seen the robbers beating a hasty retreat near the railroad tracks on the east side of town. Sheriff Carrol and half a dozen other men then loaded up, and blazed out to the spot Reedy had mentioned. Following a short search and apparently some poor hiding skills, the thieves found the Sheriff’s gun leveled at them with O’Donnell sneering “Young man, hold your hands just as high as you made me hold mine.” At this, multiple weighty bags of cash totaling around $4,130 thudded to the ground.
By the time the bank-robbers had been locked away in the old sandstone jail – south the current post office on the northeast corner of the square – it seemed all of Yates Center had taken to the streets to form an unruly mob, brandishing hundreds of shotguns and rifles, knives and hammers, and who knows, probably pitchforks and torches, too. Little did they know that the targets of their fearsome ire were already behind bars.
It would seem the story ends here, but No. After almost three weeks of madness-inducing incarceration, the bandits – now identified as Harry Milton and James Harmon – had had enough, and managed to escape the sandstone jail with $250 offered for their capture. Just how they escaped is unclear, but if you’ve ever seen inside the old jail with its two smalls cells contained inside a steel cage, and bounded within near-impenetrable walls, it’s an absolute wonder how they succeeded. Perhaps they had “inside” help, especially as a third prisoner claimed they suddenly possessed a knife, and threatened him with it, before worming their way free, climbing through a hole in the interior cage’s ceiling.
Though being sighted during their getaway near the Stoll garage building, Milton and Harmon were soon home-free. No trace of them would be seen again for another two months, when they were once again arrested. Harry Milton, whose real name was Jesse Billings, was sentenced to a maximum twenty-one years in the state penitentiary at Lansing, while his unseasoned companion succeeded in eluding prison due to the perception of him being youthful and naïve.
(The old stone jail was constructed in 1898, and in violation of human/prisoner’s rights, was used until 1967, despite being condemned as unfit for habitation four years earlier. Tours are available thanks to the Woodson County Historical Society.)