1932 Arrests in Bay City Precipitated Historic Midland Bank Robbery Attempt
Bonnie & Clyde Gang Target Tipped Vigilantes, Spelled Doom for Thugs
December 10, 2006
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By: Dave Rogers
Gary Skory, director of the Midland County Historical Society, and Jill LeBlance, collections and exhibits coordinator, welcome visitors to the attempted bank robbery exhibit.
Bank robbery scene on Main Street in Midland looks innocent enough but saw shooting episode in September, 1937 worthy of a Hollywood film.
Several hundred people recently thronged a reception opening a new gallery exhibit at the Herbert D. Doan Museum in Midland.
That such a crowd would find history such an attraction is in itself unusual; but the event in focus was exceptional: the 1937 attempted robbery of the Chemical State Savings Bank of Midland by Hamtramck bandits Anthony Chebatoris and Jack Gracey.
That crime led to an incredible skein of action worthy of Hollywood:
The tragic death of a Bay City truck driver shot by a robber and the wounding of two bank employees;
A vigilante killing of one thug and wounding of the other by a sharpshooting dentist with a deer rifle; and, topping it all
The last execution of 13 in Michigan's history, sentenced in Bay City by Federal Judge Arthur Tuttle.
Several other Bay City connections of the case add local spice to the story. Actually, there were two botched robbery attempts, one five years before the other putting police and vigilantes on the alert.
(The story of the first attempt is featured in a new book, "Ghosts, Crimes and Urban Legends of Bay City, Michigan" published by Historical Press, L.L.C. and is available at the Bay County Historical Museum, 321 Washington Ave., Bay City.)
The chain of events that led to the 1937 bank robbery attempt, and to Michigan's last execution, began in Bay City in 1932.
It all started when Ray Hamilton, 19, and Jean O'Darr, 22, two small-time thugs who were part of the Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow Gang of Oklahoma, arrived in Bay City by bus from Chicago.
The word had spread far and wide in the criminal "community" that $75,000 in cash arrived in Midland by train from Detroit every two weeks.
Bank President Clarence Macomber would stroll casually to the station and return with a large bag stuffed with cash. Often he was unguarded. The funds were the biweekly payroll of The Dow Chemical Co.
In the days before payroll checks, some of us remember, workers received cash in a pay envelope.
The pair of Oklahoma thugs took an apartment on Adams Street in Bay City, far from the intended target of the bank in Midland, to case the job from afar without suspicion and prepare for their robbery.
They made a fatal mistake by showing up at the bank and casing the scene in person, arousing suspicion by asking for change for a $20 bill. The bank alerted police that strangers were in town who appeared to have more on their mind than a quiet visit.
Four state police and two Bay City detectives, along with Midland Sheriff William M. Day, tracked the pair and closed in as they ogled girls at a roller skating rink on Water Street. The upstairs rink was an enterprise of the well-known Jennison family. (The building now houses the Bay City Auto Co., a classic car enterprise.)
When the arrests were made police simultaneously told Hamilton to "stick 'em up" and knocked O'Darr in the head with a revolver. He required treatment at Mercy Hospital.
Texas officers arrived and returned the pair to face murder charges. Bonnie and Clyde sprang Hamilton from a prison work gang in 1934 and the trio set off on a cross country crime spree.
The infamous couple was gunned down by Texas Rangers in Louisiana, their demise immortalized in the 1967 movie "Bonnie and Clyde" starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway. Hamilton, who had split with the duo, was executed for murder in Texas.
But the cat was out of the proverbial bag about the fact that criminals were targeting the fat Dow payroll apparently prime for the taking in a small mid-Michigan burg.
News of the Bay City arrests and the criminals' target had made Midland alert to any future robbery threat. A vigilante group was organized on Main Street in Midland by the sheriff and included a dentist, Dr. Frank Hardy, whose office was on the second floor above the Levine Mattress and Furniture store next to the bank. Dr. Hardy brought his deer rifle to the office and was ready five years later when he heard a commotion downstairs at the bank.
The sleepy, conservative town of Midland was rocked on September 29, 1937 when two bandits attempted to rob the Chemical State Savings Bank of The Dow Chemical Company's payroll, that by then had risen to $150,000 every two weeks.
Gary Skory, director of the Midland County Historical Society, summarizes: "When the shooting and screams of frightened citizens finally subsided, three innocent people had been shot, one of whom later died of his wounds, one bandit was shot and killed and the second one was wounded, apprehended, charged, found guilty and hanged for the crime.
"Life in Midland was changed forever, and the ramifications of the sentencing provoked passionate debate about existing legislation at both the state and federal level. The event even made international headlines."
The Midland County Historical Society (MCHS) exhibit "The 1937 Attempted Robbery of the Chemical Bank," runs through February 4, 2007 at the Herbert H. Doan Museum on Cook Road near Northwood University.
"This exhibit tells the story of that fateful day and how it affected Midland, the state of Michigan and the nation," says Mr. Skory. "It examines the issue of capital punishment within Michigan and the legal controversy behind this case. Visitors will learn about the courageous efforts of the bank president, the head cashier, the neighboring "shooting" dentist and other Midland citizens who ultimately thwarted the bank robbery and bandits' escape."
Admission to the museum and the exhibit is $5 for adults, $3 for children and free for MCHS members.
The Midland County Historical Society maintains Heritage Park, which includes the Herbert D. Doan Midland County History Center, 1874 Bradley Home Museum and Carriage House and the Herbert H. Dow Historical Museum. More information is available at the Historical Society's web site at www.mcfta.org.
Dave Rogers is a former editorial writer for the Bay City Times and a widely read,
respected journalist/writer in and around Bay City.
(Contact Dave Via Email at firstname.lastname@example.org)
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