08 Aug First National Bank Robbery
First National Bank Robbery
Lamar, Colorado, May 23, 1928
As with many things related to our family history, my first knowledge of the First National Bank robbery came from my grandmother, Nellie B. Creaghe (1894-19770, in the early 1950’s. At that time, the space previously occupied by the bank was the home of the “Corner Pharmacy”, a drug store complete with a genuine soda fountain in the back. As kids, we sort of vaguely knew what had happened there, back in the old days; but it seemed like a long time in the past. It was not until the last several years, when talking to Michael Gordon Moore, that I became aware of how involved members of our family were in this, the most notorious event in Lamar’s history.
It was one of the not uncommon bank robberies committed by gangs in small towns across the Midwest in the 1920s and 30s. A group of relatively unsuccessful yet experienced career criminals, labeled the “Fleagle Gang” by the press, was active a few years before the more famous examples of this genre of robbers and murders: Bonnie and Clyde, John Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd, Baby Face Nelson, and Machine Gun Kelly. Operating in the Great Depression, these more colorful characters were romanticized and seen as a bit like Robin Hood in some people’s eyes. The Fleagles themselves were later portrayed in song ( “The Fate of the Fleagle Gang”) and served as a model for a Li’l Abner comic strip character – “Evil Eye Fleegle.”
However there was nothing romantic, humorous, or noble about this crime. It resulted in the needless deaths of four innocent people and four more deaths of more deserving criminals, all for a relatively small amount of money.
First, a brief look at a summary of the actual events and then we will look at how our family was involved.
Jake Fleagle, whose family had a horse ranch near Marienthal, Kansas was one of the “masterminds” and leaders of this group of misfits. Twelve years before, Jake had served a year in the Oklahoma State Penitentiary for robbery. Importantly, his fingerprints were taken at that time. This was in the infancy of this science. The techniques were in place but a systematic retrievable storage system had not yet been devised.
Older brother Ralph had a similar past. The two of them began planning the Lamar Bank Robbery as early as 1920, actually casing the Lamar Bank several times over the years. In 1927 George Abshier was recruited as an accomplice. Later, since the job was felt to be too big for only three, Howard, “Heavy” Royston was brought in to complete the gang.
The entire group then made trips to Lamar to reconnoiter and finalize plans for the hold up and their escape. Lamar was not a large town at the time (perhaps 3,500 people) and four, out of place men hanging around the small downtown area would certainly have been noticed. In fact, the bank president himself became suspicious and placed armed guards around the bank for a brief period of time. However, the practice was stopped some time before the robbery. He was also concerned enough to keep a single action .44 caliber pistol near his office desk in the bank lobby.
The First National Bank itself was in the center of the downtown business district on the northwest corner of Main and Olive Streets. The plan was for the gang to enter through the front door at the southeast corner of the building, conduct the robbery, and then exit through the side/rear door near the alley further west on Olive Street where they had parked their getaway car. The plan fell apart immediately.
Dressed in overalls, armed with pistols, and carrying pillowcases, the four men entered through the front door at 1:00pm on Wednesday, May 23, 1928. They quickly positioned themselves along the south wall which formed the long axis of the narrow bank and shouting the usual commands associated with an armed bank holdup.
The bank president, seventy- seven-year-old Amos Newton “Newt” Parrish, was standing near the door to his very small office at the front of the bank along the north wall. Even before the shooting started, he sensed something was amiss. Stepping quickly into the office he grabbed his pistol, cocked it, and shot the closest robber, Royston, in the jaw, severely wounding him. He cocked again but the pistol misfired. Cocking again, Parrish was able to get off another shot just as he was hit in the head by one of the two shots fired by the very tough Royston. This exchange was carried out at such close range that both men had powder burns on their faces. Another member of the gang, possibly Jake, fired five shots through the frosted glass window of the office, perhaps hitting Parrish again in the head before he fell, mortally wounded.
During the few seconds that this encounter took place, forty-year-old John” Jaddo” Parrish, cashier and son of Amos Parrish, broke for a closet behind his desk, presumably for a firearm. Ralph Fleagle stepped over the low rail in front of the desks in pursuit and fired twice, one shot missed. The other shot struck the younger Parrish in the heart, killing him instantly.
In less time than it takes to read this, two people had received fatal wounds. In six more minutes, the gang, including the bleeding Royston, placed the loot – cash and bonds – in the pillowcases, took two bank employees hostage, and left by the side door on Olive Street. All six entered the getaway car and fled, eventually heading north of town. With Prowers County Sheriff, Lloyd Alderman, in pursuit the fleeing gang released one hostage but kept the other, Everett Kesinger. Soon after beginning the pursuit, the sheriff’s car was partially disabled by rifle fire, and the gang disappeared into western Kansas in spite of an “areoplane” having been called into the search (a first for Colorado).
About 10:00 pm the night of the robbery, the gang kidnapped Doctor William Wineinger, a thirty-seven- year- old father of a three-year-old girl, after using a ruse that a man needed care following a farm accident. The doctor drove his own car; and when he did not return in the next evening, Thursday, his wife reported him missing to the nearby Garden City Kansas Police Department.
At 11:00 am the following morning, Friday May 30th, the doctor’s body and car were located by a Colorado National Guard airplane in a remote ravine north of Garden City. He had been shot in the back of the head with a shotgun. His body, followed by his car, was then pushed over the edge of the ravine. There was a great deal of blood, including a single bloody fingerprint on the glass of the right rear window of the car. The print was successfully preserved and transferred. The print was sent to the Bureau of Identification, precursor of the FBI, and filed with other information related to the case.
The trail then went cold until almost two weeks later when on June 12th Kesinger’s body was found under the floorboards of an abandoned shack near Liberal, Kansas. There were no further developments for nine months.
On March 9, 1929, a man calling himself William Holden was arrested in Stockton California as a suspect in a train robbery. Charges were dismissed and he was released. However, fingerprints and mugshots were taken and eventually sent along to the now FBI in Washington D.C. In the organization, there was a very dedicated fingerprint expert with a remarkable memory, Al Ground, who had been obsessed with the single print from Doctor Wineinger’s car that he had received almost a year earlier. He initially matched the California set of prints to Jake Fleagle’s taken 13 years before in the Oklahoma Penitentiary, but there was something in his memory that was triggered by the right index fingerprint. He began checking likely case files. On his eighth try he found the match in the file for the Colorado and Kansas murders. Jake Fleagle had been identified as part of the gang. This was the first time the FBI solved a case from a single finger print.
Now investigators could start putting the pieces together. In late July 1929, they found a letter at the Fleagle ranch near Garden City from Ralph with instructions to send return mail to General Delivery in Kankakee, Illinois. Sheriff Alderman left immediately for Illinois, alerted postal authorities, and ten minutes later Ralph Fleagle walked in asking for his mail. After his arrest, Ralph was transported by plane from Chicago to Garden City (another first in U.S. law enforcement) and by car to Lamar. Later he was moved to Colorado Springs, where he was “subjected to intense questioning” (Betz, p.103). By mid-August, Fleagle had agreed to a plea deal with Prowers County District Attorney, Malcom Erickson – life in prison instead of the death penalty. He then gave up the three other gang members: Royston, Abshier, and brother Jake.
It turned out Royston had just been arrested on August 16th as a result of good police work unrelated to Ralph’s confession by Sheriff Joe Zwinge of Calaveras County, California. George Abshier was also picked up one day earlier in Grand Junction Colorado based on an anonymous tip. Jake could not be found.
However, the other three trials started on October 8, 1929. Abshier was first, he was convicted and sentenced to death four days later after 90 minutes of deliberation. Howard Royston’s case started two days later, October 14, with the same results and three hours of deliberation. Ralph went to trial six days later, October 22. In the interim, the state reneged on its agreement not to seek the death penalty. He was convicted and sentenced on the 26th.
All were transferred to the Colorado State Penitentiary in Canyon City where they were hanged in July 1930 – Ralph on the 10th with Abshier and Royston following on the night of the 18th.
Meanwhile Jake Fleagle remained at large with possible sightings reported from Mexico City to Canada. He was finally tracked down to the Branson, Missouri Area. On October 14, 1930. He was lured onto a train in Branson by an elaborate subterfuge with twenty-three lawmen scattered throughout the train. When confronted by officers who suggested that he surrender, Jake responded by pulling two guns. He was shot down with a wound to the abdomen. Death came the next day.
To make this interesting story brief, much has been left out of the narrative. Many times this results in unanswered questions. If the reader wants more details, the definitive source is, “The Fleagle Gang” by N.T. (Tom) Betz. If something anywhere in the text is stated as a fact, it came from that book unless otherwise indicated.
We shall now explore how the Creaghe family was involved in the events previously described. As mentioned, Lamar’s population was about 3,500. As a result, almost everyone in town had some exposure at one level or another to this event. However, some of our relatives played significant roles.
Granby Hillyer (1875-1942) and his brother-in-law Arthur C. Gordon (1884-1965), were both well respected, prominent attorneys known statewide. At the time of the trials, Hillyer had moved from Lamar and was living and practicing in Denver. He married Saint George Creaghe’s oldest daughter, Anna (1878-1968) in 1900. Arthur and the youngest Creaghe girl, Lola (1875-1956) were married in 1916. Both were well acquainted with the Parrish men who were killed in the robbery. Granby served as an active pallbearer for the elder Parrish at his funeral May 27th 1928. Arthur served as Mrs. Parrish’s personal attorney throughout this time. On October the 15th 1930, he had the pleasure of informing her that Jake Fleagle had finally been captured. Arthur also served as the attorney for the First National Bank in the matter of distributing the reward money to the various people who contributed to the capture of the gang.
However, the brothers-in-law’s greatest contributions came when they were hired by Prowers County to serve as special prosecutors to assist the District Attorney Malcom Erickson and Assistant D.A. Allyn Cole in this locally unprecedented case.
Even though he had moved to Denver, Granby was engaged by the county commissioners for a fixed fee of $500 at the end of July 1929. Jury selection was to begin on September the 30th.
However, one week before, on the 23rd, while still living in Denver, Granby, 53, and the widow, Mrs. Margret Knight, 32, were in the midst of a “drinking party” (p.174), presumably at her home, when they began quarreling. Somehow, Granby ended up slightly shot in the shoulder. It was unclear whether it was suicide attempt on Granby’s part or whether Mrs. Knight, in a drunken argument, shot him. This was never resolved, but nothing came of it officially. However, Sheriff Alderman wanted Granby removed, but the commissioners and his friends refused to allow it. His wife Annie, as she was known in the family, was not pleased, “I thought he was in Lamar” (p.174).
George Abshier’s trial moved forward following an unrelated delay. The defendant kept a journal, “The state was represented by District Attorney Erickson, deputy District Att. Cole, and Special Prosecutors Gordon and Hillyer, all old timers, at the game” (p.186).
It seems that the bulk of the courtroom work was handled by the two D.A.s Erickson and Cole. Arthur Gordon was mentioned as bringing in “a box filled with guns” (p.190) which were used as evidence.
Madge Creaghe – Madeline Luz Creaghe (1884-1943), Saint George Creaghe’s second daughter identified as ADA Cole’s secretary, testified identifying the transcript of Abshier’s confession (p.197). The trial was over on October the 12th with a conviction and sentence to death.
Royston’s trial began two days later on October 14th. The two D.A.s left the jury selection to Gordon and Hillyer. Apparently, they may have handled most of the case in that Gordon arranged for the court, including the jury, to march the one block up Main Street to view the scene of the crime. He was the one who made the iconic statement, “The State rests,” at 9:30am on the 16th.
All four of the prosecution team then met briefly to decide a legal strategy, and Arthur then rose to make the initial closing argument for the state: “These men [A.N. and Jaddo Parrish] were my friends…there is only one possible verdict – murder in the first degree.” (p.217).
The defense council then had their say, and then Granby Hillyer followed with the final statement for the prosecution:
“This crime was so damnably atrocious the whole nation is watching to see what will be done with these men…When we know all the facts, how can we refrain from doing our plain duty, even though it may be disagreeable?” (p.218)
The patient was given to the jury at 11:16am. Three hours and five ballots later, the jury returned a guilty verdict and sentence of death.
Next up was Ralph Fleagle, possibly the “brains” of the gang. After some wrangling to get around the fact that the state had promised a life sentence for his confession and was now backing out of the deal, the trial began on October 22nd. According to the Denver Post, Granby Hillyer was in charge of the prosecution’s case. It was apparent that he was selecting a jury that would not scruple to return a death penalty. D.A. Erickson began the prosecution with the opening statement.
Granby handled the cross examination of a key witness for the defense regarding the plea deal. He also questioned Mrs. Parrish about whether or not she had agreed to the deal. She denied doing so: “They killed my husband! They killed my son! And I want them hanged higher than Hamon!”(p.246) He also cross examined Ralph Fleagle himself. On the 26th the case went to the jury which returned a guilty verdict and a death sentence.
Following their involvement in these cases, the two attorneys returned to the private practice of law, Hillyer in Denver and Gordon in Lamar. In fact, at some point Artur and his son, Arthur St. George “Woody” Gordon established their law offices on the second floor of First National Bank building, just above were the robbery took place. For more details, see the December 15, 2015 Blog on this website.
Madge Creaghe was also involved in the very beginning in that she almost witnessed it. As her nephew, St. George “George” Creaghe (B. 1924), remembers it, the four-year-old George and his mother Nan Spivey Creaghe (1887-1954)were in a car driven by the forty-four-year-old Madge.
“We were headed north on Main Street at the main intersection [Main and Olive Streets] … And there were men running in every direction and cars…backing out and making U-turns, and spinning their wheels, guys running with guns. Aunt Madge rolled down the window and said “What happened?” Whoever was running by with a gun in his hands said ‘The bank’s been robbed and Mr. Parrish was killed!’ So, we, I was in Lamar, that close [minutes] to the Fleagle Gang robbing Lamar National Bank” (George Creaghe interview).
After the trial, guns were handed out as souvenirs to some of the participants. Arthur Gordon was given Ralph Fleagle’s “lucky” gun, a cheap .38 he had used in the robbery and possibly to shoot A.N. Parrish. Gordon passed it on to his sister in law, Madge Creaghe. According to one of her nephews, John S. Creaghe (1921-2011), she kept it in the drawer of her bedside table. In the 1930s, John and some of his cousins would slip up the stairs to play with it. The pistol was eventually given to the Big Timbers Museum in Lamar where it can be seen today along with other artifacts from the crime.
Gerald (Jack) F. Creaghe (1879-1941), St George’s oldest son, was a friend of both the Parrish men. They were all members of the Elks Lodge, probably did business together. Jack was part of the family cattle business and would have had need of banking services. And, of course, Lamar was not a large town, and the number of business people was probably quite small.
Jack knew the senior Parrish long enough and well enough to have said,
“If Newt had followed my advice and let the bandits have their way, he’d be alive today. I told him repeatedly that no amount of money was worth the risk he’d take in trying to defend his possessions. Bank robbers are prepared to kill and they won’t be bluffed” (p.20).
When it came to guns and criminals, Jack knew what he was talking about. Mr. Parrish did not heed the advice.
Both the Parrishes were buried four days after the crime on May 27th 1928 in a massively attended double funeral. Jack was an active pallbearer for the younger Parrish, J.F. “Jaddo” (p.39).
This was a nasty event that effected almost everyone in the small community to some extent or another. However, the memory of the robbery is fading with new generations. There is no plaque on the wall of the building to serve as a reminder or memorial to the four victims of this crime. Perhaps the City Fathers will see fit to place one on the hundredth anniversary in 2028.
Stephen B. Creaghe, May 25, 2017
Author’s note: In 1998, I met and became friends with Nelson Cole who, it turned out, is the grandson of Allyn Cole, the Assistant District Attorney in this case. After his time in Lamar, Cole moved to the Glenwood Springs area in western Colorado. Small world.
Betz, N.T., The Fleagle Gang, AuthorHouse, 2005. This is the definitive work on the 1st National Bank robbery. Tom Betz a is third generation native of Lamar and his grandfather was the editor of the Lamar Daily News at the time of the events described.