One hundred years ago today, the St. Louis-based Egan's Rats mob committed their first bank robbery of note in the North St. Louis neighborhood of Baden.
After first gaining notice in the early 1890s as a gang of Kerry Patch hooligans known as the Ashley Street Gang, the Egan gang had evolved into the city's premier organized crime outfit. Headed for much of their history by Thomas "Snake" Kinney and Thomas Egan, the crew specialized in both traditional street crime and political terrorism. In addition to being best friends and brothers-in-law, both Kinney and Egan were active in Democratic politics, the former as a Missouri State Senator and the latter as chairman of the St. Louis Democratic City Committee. The Kinney-Egan combine controlled several key St. Louis political wards and was able to use their muscle to not only influence elections but the passage of laws that would benefit both themselves and their constituents. With money and favors exchanging hands both above and under the table, the Kinney-Egan operation usually ran like a well-oiled machine. The only messy periods were the periodic Election Days, where the kid gloves came off, and the Egan crew used muscle and bullets to get the desired results at the ballot box.
After Snake Kinney's death from tuberculosis in May 1912, Tom Egan assumed full control of the gang's St. Louis-area operations, with Kinney's younger brother Michael taking his place in Missouri state politics. Egan's Rats (Tom hated the name and told a St. Louis Post-Dispatch
reporter as much during a 1912 interview where he flaunted his crew's power) numbered over 300 men at their highest total and seemed virtually immune from prosecution for various criminal misdeeds, some of which included very public murders in downtown St. Louis.
As the great debate about whether or not to outlaw the sale and consumption of alcohol progressed in the early 1910s, Tom Egan accurately predicted that the Eighteenth Amendment would eventually pass. As a result, Egan went to great pains to construct a whiskey smuggling network between several cities in the Midwest and South. Known to be brutal and cunning, Egan was recognized as one of the most powerful crime bosses in the Midwest as the decade progressed.
With the ratification of the Eighteenth Amendment in January 1919, it looked as if Tom Egan's foresight was going to pay off incredibly in the form of thousands of dollars of profits from illegal bootlegging. As fate would have it, Tom would never see a cent of that windfall. In late 1918, Egan was diagnosed with the degenerative kidney disease then known as Bright's disease. In modern times, a transplant may have saved his life, but the crime boss continued to weaken throughout the winter. By the beginning of April 1919, the forty-four-year-old Egan was on his deathbed at his North City home at 4551 Arlington Avenue. Control of the gang fell to Tom's younger brother Willie.
Thirty-five years old in 1919, Willie Egan ran a popular saloon/restaurant known as Egan's Buffet at the corner of Fourteenth and Franklin streets. While a brilliant gangster and politician, Willie wasn't the natural leader of men that his older brother Tom was, and it just so happened that Willie assumed control over St. Louis's most powerful gang at an extraordinarily crucial time.
|St. Louis gang boss Willie Egan|
With the impending Prohibition of alcohol on the horizon, the dynamic of power in St. Louis's underworld was shifting away from the traditional political clubs to more open criminal businesses such as bootlegging. There was also a particular segment of Egan gang members who desired to make money through quick and decisive means such as armed robbery. These gangsters tended to be younger and more violent than their political war-trained predecessors; police would nickname them "The Red-Hots." As such criminal behavior tended to upset the apple cart and attract undue attention from police, Tom Egan would have squashed any notion his men had of bank robbery like a bug. However, by the spring of 1919, Tom was not in the position to squash much of anything. As a result, several of the "Red-Hots" began plotting a lucrative caper as their boss lay dying.
While the exact identities of the perpetrators of the upcoming heist were never made public, both the St. Louis police and Egan gang informant Raymond Renard would attribute it to Egan's Rats. Their target was the Baden Bank, located at 8200 North Broadway Avenue in the North City neighborhood of Baden. One suspected participant in the robbery was Max Greenberg, a clever member of the crew who would notoriously break away from the Egan mob and join the arch-rival Hogan Gang two years later. Baden, a residential neighborhood with a large German immigrant population, had somewhat lower crime rates than the rest of the city of St. Louis. Thus, they would not be expecting an armed robbery of their central bank branch.
|Egan gang member Max Greenberg|
Thursday, April 10, 1919, dawned fair and cool in St. Louis, the temperature around forty-four degrees. The Baden Bank opened for business at nine o'clock that morning. On the premises were the bank president, Frank W. Giese; head cashier Martin W. Muntzel; assistant cashier F.R. Baumgartner; teller Henry J. Fischer, and stenographer Ruth Pohl. Business was very light that morning, and nothing initially indicated that this would be any different than a usual business day. At precisely ten o'clock, a blue-black 1915 Hudson Super Six Phaeton containing eight men parked at the curb next to the bank's Baden Avenue side entrance. Two men remained in the front seat with the motor running while the other six exited the vehicle. All eight men were dressed identically in light gray raincoats and plaid flat caps; five of their number had handkerchiefs tied around their lower faces. When describing the heist to investigators a half-decade later, Ray Renard guessed that the outfits were Max Greenberg's idea. In retrospect, it was indeed a smart move to have the bandits dress identically, as adrenalized witnesses would instinctively focus on those outfits when describing the robbers to police. As one man stood guard near the side door, his masked cohorts rushed inside the bank.
There was no guard on duty that morning. In its ten years of operation, the Baden Bank had never been robbed. In fact, the very notion of bank robbery seemed inconceivable to most St. Louisans in 1919, the type of violent crime that belonged to the distant dime-novel past of Jesse James and his ilk. At the moment of truth, the bank's vault stood wide open as the employees "checked up" the money for the day. The five masked intruders leveled identical Army-issue Colt .45 caliber automatic pistols at the startled employees. Ruth Pohl let out a shriek as the lead bandit yelled out, "Throw up your hands!"
As there were no customers currently in the bank to deal with, the armed quintet quickly strode through the door that led behind the counter and cage. As three gunmen kept the employees covered, the other two produced cloth sacks and began gathering up stacks of cash from the shelves before cleaning out the loot from the open vault. The robbers also quickly searched counter and desk drawers for any money. At one point, one of the heisters noted an ostentatious diamond ring on cashier Martin Muntzel's finger and tried to snatch it. Muntzel twisted and raised his arm around so the bandit could not grab it. The frustrated gangster thrust the barrel of his .45 into the plucky cashier's face and told him, "Put both your hands up, or I'll kill you!" With their two cloth sacks now full, another of the robbers suddenly barked, "You all get in that vault." Muntzel, who had managed to save his diamond ring from its intended thief, protested that they would suffocate inside. Another bandit, described as being unusually tall, said, "We won't do anything like that." Still holding their hands up, the five bank employees were quickly herded into the vault. The bandits then closed the inner "day" door while leaving the massive vault door open. The heisters then made for the side door through which they had initially entered. It was later calculated that they had been in the bank for precisely four minutes as if operating on a strict time limit.
No sooner were they out the door when cashier Martin Muntzel quickly rummaged through an open safe-deposit box and fished out an old, single-action revolver. Muntzel then ran to the front door in time to see the bandits' Hudson Phaeton turning south on North Broadway. The escaping robbers, adrenaline pumping, were startled to hear the crack and pinging of three bullets fired through the bank's screen door by the gritty cashier Muntzel. Their driver immediately opened the throttle and accelerated down the avenue. A passing foot patrolman was roused by the sudden gunfire and saw the blue-black Hudson heading south at an increasing rate of speed. The unnamed officer commandeered a passing mail truck and ordered its driver to give chase. Standing on the truck's running board and hanging on with his left arm, the officer fired on the Hudson with his service revolver. One of the bandits, who seemed to be about thirty years old with a black mustache, leaned out of the Hudson's passenger side window and returned fire with his .45 automatic. No one was hit in the running gun battle. The Hudson's driver hung a sharp right turn onto Calvary Avenue and almost hit a pedestrian. Undeterred, the getaway driver gunned the Hudson up the avenue's steep incline and threaded the needle between Calvary and Bellefontaine cemeteries. The larger mail truck had a more difficult time negotiating Calvary's grade and fell behind in the pursuit. The robbers were last seen turning south onto West Florissant Avenue.
St. Louis police quickly arrived at the bank and began to take statements from the bank's employees and outside witnesses. The robbers were universally described as being young, between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five mostly, save for the older mustachioed bandit who fired on the officer during the pursuit. The pedestrian who was nearly hit at Calvary and North Broadway confirmed details about the getaway car and gave its license plate number as 144933. The plate was quickly traced to a member of Egan's Rats named Ernest "Bergadine" Miller. Now awaiting trial for stealing goods from railroad boxcars (an essential racket of the pre-Prohibition Egan gang), Miller claimed that his Hudson had been stolen sometime earlier. Police didn't buy his alibi and began taking a close look at the Rats while issuing an all-points bulletin for the vehicle. Over fifty suspects were rounded up from all points of North City and downtown St. Louis and put on the grill. Police got precisely nothing to work with.
Around ten o'clock that evening a car driven by Detective Ira Cooper, the first Black detective in the history of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department, caught sight of the wanted blue-black Hudson Phaeton as it drove north on Taylor Avenue. Cooper was accompanied by two other Black detectives, William Crockett and Charles Johnson, and gave chase. They noted that the Hudson matched the description of the Baden Bank bandits' getaway car but now lacked a license plate. Now alerted that he was being followed by police, the Hudson's driver hit the gas and turned right on Easton Avenue (modern-day Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive).
|STLMPD Detective Ira Cooper|
Detective Cooper and his partners followed close behind for a few blocks until the Hudson swung south on Pendleton Avenue. A block or two later, the Hudson turned east on Evans Avenue. At that point, the three detectives were suddenly halted in their pursuit. The first version said that two strange sedans had moved away from the curb and blocked their path as the Hudson disappeared down Evans. A second version, related by a police officer who wished to remain anonymous, stated that the trio of sleuths had been forcibly halted by a group of White policemen who were suspicious of three plainclothes Black men driving through the neighborhood at a high rate of speed. Whatever the reason for the delay, Detectives Cooper, Crockett, and Johnson were quickly moving again. At Sarah and Evans streets, the trio picked up two uniformed cops, a Sergeant Armstrong and Patrolman William Teppe. After a brief search, the task force managed to locate the Hudson in question parked near the corner of Cook and Whittier avenues. There was little inside the vehicle except one $20 gold piece, two $2.50 gold pieces, and a nickel.
Throughout the city of St. Louis and the surrounding area, the Baden Bank robbery dominated newspaper headlines. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch
printed an editorial inevitably comparing the robbers to Jesse James. While Egan's Rats wouldn't be publicly linked to the heist until Ray Renard's testimony in 1925, the police had an excellent idea that the trail of guilt led right to Willie Egan's saloon at Fourteenth and Franklin. With the benefit of hindsight, it seems that the heisters retreated to Egan's Buffet immediately after the job. As bank robbery was not yet a federal offense, the Rats had nothing to worry about from the embryonic FBI (then still officially named the Bureau of Investigation). After the evening papers began hitting city newsstands later that afternoon and the connection to Egan gang member Ernest Miller became public knowledge, they most likely designated one of their number to get rid of the Hudson Phaeton used in the robbery. The car disposal got a little hairy thanks to Detective Ira Cooper and his partners, but it was ultimately successful.
|Even the Post-Dispatch Weatherbird commented on the robbery.|
It was eventually determined that the Egan crew got away from the Baden Bank with a total of $59,310.15 (a little over $872,000 by current monetary standards). The denominations of their loot included several $1000 gold certificates, two $500 bills, several $50 bills, a total of $1500 in fives, tens and twenties in additions to 60 to 80 gold coins of various denominations. It was the largest bank robbery in St. Louis's history up to that point and would remain so for eleven years. A reward of $1000 was offered for information leading to the apprehension of the perpetrators; it remains uncollected to this day. Other than the four coins found in the getaway car, none of the loot was ever recovered.
On April 20, 1919, ten days after the Baden Bank robbery, gang boss Thomas Egan succumbed to Bright's disease. Egan's death, virtually concurrent with the successful bank job, signaled the beginning of a new phase in the history of his criminal organization. Gone were the days of politically motivated terrorism. No longer would the city and state Democratic politics determine the direction of the gang. After April 1919, the driving force in the Egan universe was cold, hard cash. With the coming of Prohibition and its thousands of dollars in potential bootlegging profits, in addition to the seeming inability of local law enforcement to stop a broad-daylight bank robbery, the city of St. Louis was riper than a summer squash in September. For the "Red-Hots" of Egan's Rats in the spring of 1919, the world was their oyster.
- While the eight perpetrators of the Baden Bank robbery remain officially unidentified, some of the Egan gang members suspected of participating included; Max Greenberg, Abe Goldfeder, Ben Milner, Ernest "Bergadine" Miller, Ben "Cotton" Funke, Edward "Big Red" Powers, Clarence "Little Red" Powers, and David "Chippy" Robinson. Out of those eight suspects, only three of them would die of natural causes.
- Two key members of Egan's Rats, William "Dint" Colbeck and Louis "Red" Smith, had not yet been discharged from the Army after their wartime service in France. Thus, they didn't participate in the Baden Bank robbery.
- At the time of the Baden Bank robbery, three suspected participants; Max Greenberg, Ben Milner, and Edward "Big Red" Powers were free on an appeal bond after their 1917 conviction of theft of interstate shipment in Danville, Illinois. The trio had been sentenced to a total of five years each, but Willie Egan utilized connections that enabled a presidential pardon petition to make its way to President Woodrow Wilson. After spending a few months in 1920 behind bars in Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary, all three men would be officially pardoned.
- Between April 1919 and November 1924, it was conservatively estimated that Egan's Rats had stolen close to 4.5 million dollars from the various bank, armored car, and messenger robberies that they committed.
- The Baden Bank remained in business until 1984. The building that formerly housed the bank still stands at 8200 North Broadway Avenue in North St. Louis. Other than a few boarded up and broken windows, it looks virtually the same as it did a century ago when Egan's Rats arrived to make their unexpected withdrawal.
The April 10-11, 1919 issues of the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, St. Louis Post-Dispatch
, and St. Louis Star
Daniel Waugh, Egan's Rats: The Untold Story of the Prohibition-era gang that ruled St. Louis, Nashville: Cumberland House, 2007.