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August 21, 2015

Did This Tommy Gun Rob A Bank?

By Joel R Kolander

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When RIAC received a very fine condition Thompson submachine gun for our 2015 September Premiere Auction, it came with a pretty impressive claim to fame.  This legendary American firearm was purported to be associated with none other than notorious Prohibition-era gangster, John Dillinger.  The first I saw of this “Chicago typewriter” was the auction’s Photo Preview on our website that showed the following picture.

These photos are intended as a “sneak peek” to boost interest before our catalog is ready for publication and, as such, this particular item did not yet have our usual headline or description.  If it was a Dillinger gun, I knew I had to write about it.  Classic firearm, machine gun, historic provenance; it had all the right qualities for a great article and to raise some interest on a fascinating item.  However, with little to no information available, I went in search of someone at RIAC who would be more familiar with the firearm or who may have spoken directly with the consignor and know its full story.

If you’ve been attending, bidding, or even just watching our auctions, you know that guns need proof if they are said to belong to famous people, have participated in certain battles, or are decorated by famous artists.  Sometimes that proof is iron clad with many documents verifying a gun’s provenance through decades or even centuries, perhaps even passing through renowned collections or institutions to further lend credence.  Those guns we are able to sell with no reservations at all, and we certainly have.  Many guns have passed through Rock Island Auction Company with historic and exciting provenances!  We owe it to our buyers to verify those claims, if possible.

Then there are guns where the proof is not 100%.  Maybe there’s a gap in the timeline or any number of things, small or large, that allow for doubt to enter the picture.  These items cannot be sold so simply.  A careful balance must be made to convey what the consignor is representing and also to inform potential buyers of the possible doubt and let them make up their own mind with the evidence at hand.  Such guns are often given a headline stating that it is “associated with” a certain person, “attributed to,” or that an item is “reportedly” theirs.  These statements serve the purpose of satisfying responsibilities to both the consignor and the collector.

When I went looking for someone at RIAC more familiar with the item than myself, I wanted to know how we were going to be representing this Thompson.  Was it 100% John Dillinger’s gun?  Did he use it or was it used by a member of his gang?  Was a connection iron clad or just “likely?”  It turns out that it had arrived so recently that nobody else had yet dived into the item’s history.  If I wanted to tell this gun’s story, if it indeed had one, the responsibility of research fell to me.

Lot 1597: Historic Gangster Era Colt Model 1921 Class III/NFA Thompson Submachine Gun Confiscated from a Bank Robber by Dayton, Ohio Police with Documentation, FBI Case, Drum and Stick Magazines

I started by examining the paperwork that had come with the firearm.  It had arrived with many documents, period newspapers, and even some arrest records (these are all still included with the lot).  While much of this research was historically accurate about John Dillinger, his deeds, and his death, none of the sources mentioned a Tommy gun.  Correction: none of them mentioned a specific Tommy gun.  Most of them did describe his crimes and murders with the Thompson machine guns he had taken from various police arsenals, but that’s still a long way from identifying a specific serial number.

There was one document that was different.  That was the notarized copy of the “Form 10” that registered the fully automatic weapon per the National Firearms Act of 1934.  It gave some very concrete information such as the serial number of the gun (a match to ours) and where it was registered.  Most interesting on this form was line 4, which likely gave rise to the gun’s claim to infamy.

When I read, “confiscated from bank robber,” I’ll admit to thinking, “That’s pretty cool.”  Plus, it gave me a great starting point from a research perspective.  All I needed to do initially was check Dillinger’s history to see if this bank robbery matched his location at that time.  I began looking online through various Dillinger sources and things came into focus rather quickly, but it wasn’t what I wanted to see.

A brief internet search reveals that on September 6, 1924, Dillinger and local pool shark Ed Singleton had robbed Frank Morgan, a grocer in nearby Mooresville, Indiana.  They were caught in no time.  Singleton pled not guilty and received a sentence of two years.  Dillinger, on his father’s advice, plead guilty and received a plague of charges for his honesty resulting in two sentences of 2-14 years and 10-20 years.  To say that Dillinger didn’t do so well with that is a gross understatement, and he became a hardened, bitter man in prison.  He used the time to study other bank robbers, plan heists with his new acquaintances, and in a statement laced with foreshadowing Dillinger is quoted as saying, “I will be the meanest bastard you ever saw when I get out of here.”

On May 10, 1933, Dillinger was paroled thanks to a petition championed by his father, so that John might see his dying step-mother.  Unfortunately, she passed shortly before his return home.  Ever the opportunist, Dillinger put his prison-planned heists and robberies into action almost immediately in a stretch of terror that lasted until his death on July 22, 1934.  For those paying attention to dates, you’ll notice that Dillinger was a guest of the state of Indiana from 1924 – 1933.  Translation: there’s no way the Dayton, Ohio Police Department could have confiscated that Thompson submachine gun from John Dillinger in May 1930.

So what’s the real story?  Why was “confiscated from bank robber” typed on that line?  If it wasn’t Dillinger, then who was it?  Was the document even real?  Now the real digging could begin.

I began with the document that started it all – the registration paperwork.  Frankly, it all seemed to be in order.  Sure there are some handwritten notes on there, but they are easily discerned from the period typing that originally appeared on the document.  Also, the phrase “Confiscated from bank robber,” appeared to be original, having the same gentle tilt to the right that appeared on every other typed line of the document.  To me, that meant it was period type and not something added in subsequent years for glory or “bragging rights.”

As I was scouring the internet looking for any possible leads into Dillinger associated Tommy guns, I came across one name several times: Herigstad.  Many people were referencing his book in discussions online, so I naturally began to investigate it to see if it could also help solve the mystery behind this Thompson.  It wasn’t difficult to locate, Amazon has copies available, but those copies were $369.95!  I lamented this price for a moment, but then I looked at the “image previews” on the Amazon listing.  The last photo was opened to the page that specifically discusses the Thompsons used by John Dillinger.  What luck!  Knowing that this book would definitively confirm or deny any association with Dillinger, I requested that the book be purchased by RIAC.  Now $370, sounds like a lot for a book, but if it prevents a situation where tens of thousands of dollars are at stake AND it’s something that can be used for all subsequent Thompsons that come through our building, it’s a small investment to make.  The purchase was approved immediately.

The “photo preview” that appears on the book’s Amazon listing. Jackpot.

Upon receiving it, I discovered why it was considered such an important book.  Gordon Herigstad’s Colt Thompson Submachine Gun: Serial Numbers & Histories is a handsome, two volume set with a matching slipcase, and each installment contains over 1,100 pages.  These two books represent decades of dedication, intense research, countless follow-ups, hours of driving, weeks in front of a computer, many dollars spent, and I’m sure more than one or two sleepless nights.  The first volume discusses some of the prototype models, descriptions of the various models, but is mostly a cataloging of every single Thompson submachine gun by serial number.  Yes, every single one.  Sure, there are a few blank spaces, including a large range after SN10000 representing pending information on Thompsons that were exported, but the information that remains is a treasure of data, history, and research.  Herigstad’s research began in 1991, and he produced the sixth edition of this book (the one used for this article) in 2014.  That’s over two decades of research for a single book!  Thompson collectors the world over owe Herigstad a huge debt of thanks for his work, patience, and passion.

While waiting for the book to arrive, I began looking into other sources to see if there was a degree of truth to this claim.  Basically every life story of Dillinger references Thompson machine guns, so could this gun be associated with him on a date later than what was stated on the registration form?

After being paroled (May 10, 1933) and immediately resuming his life of crime, Dillinger was pinched again just as fast.  On September 22 he was arrested by the Dayton, Ohio police, but interred at the Allen County Jail in nearby Lima, OH.  This small fact is especially exciting because the original registration paperwork registers the gun to the Dayton PD.  A connection between the two seemed close but still lacked a final coup de grâce.

The original 1934 registration from this Thompson SMG

When he was searched at Lima, plans for what seemed to be a prison break were found on Dillinger, who of course had no idea what those documents were.  A mere four days later eight of Dillinger’s prison buddies cut their stay short at the Indiana State Prison using several shotguns and rifles that had been smuggled into the facility.  They killed two guards in the ensuing fracas and used a plan with uncanny similarity to the one found on Dillinger.

On October 12, three of these men and a recent parolee posing as lawmen came to the Allen County Jail in Lima where Dillinger was being held stating that they were going to transport Dillinger back to the prison for violating parole.  They were talking to Sheriff Jess Sarber, who lived on the upper floor of the jail with his wife.  The couple had just finished eating dinner when the knock at the door came.  When Sarber asked to see the men’s credentials to release Dillinger, they brandished their guns, prompting Sarber to go for his own weapon.  One of the criminals pulled his pistol faster and shot the sheriff two times before beating him unconscious with the firearm.  His wife gave them the keys to the cell, where they quickly released Dillinger, and made a hasty departure back to Indiana.  Before they left, they stole the sole Thompson belonging to the Allen County Sheriff’s Office, a 1921AC serial number 6099.  Sheriff Sarber died within hours.

With the gang all back together again, they began to put into action all the robberies they had planned while incarcerated.  To do this, they needed the deadly tools of their trade: bullet proof vests, more firepower, and lots of ammunition.  On October 14, two days after his escape, the Dillinger Gang burst into the police arsenal in Auburn, Indiana, overpowered the guards, and made off with the following, according to a local newspaper:

1 Thompson submachine gun (SN 8946), a .401 Winchester self-loading rifle, a .44-40 Winchester carbine, a .30 Calibre Springfield Army Rifle, three bulletproof vests and several pistols which include, a .45 Colt Automatic, .44 Smith & Wesson Revolver, .38 Smith & Wesson Revolver, 9mm German Lugar and a .25 Spanish Auto Pistol.

Still not satisfied with their growing stockpile of weapons, they held up the police station in Peru, Indiana, stealing several pistols, bulletproof vests, and another Thompson, SN 5878.  Finally meeting some arbitrary criminal guideline for being adequately armed, they robbed the Central National Bank in Greencastle, Indiana, on October 23, absconding with nearly $75,000.  All these acts were early in Dillinger’s blessedly short career.  He went on to rob several more banks, break out of one more jail (famously using a wooden gun), steal even more Thompsons, and take the lives of several more law enforcement officers.

When the book finally arrived I, of course, turned immediately to the Dillinger section and began pouring over the information to see if the Thompson in the upcoming auction, SN 6039, was mentioned as having a Dillinger provenance.  It wasn’t.  Granted, there were some possibilities that still existed, like that of Dillinger possessing Thompsons classified as “missing” to this day that were in the same shipment as those he was known to have, but it was a long shot. With no reason to believe otherwise, I needed to investigate other avenues.  If it wasn’t Dillinger’s, then whose was it?

Thankfully Herigstad’s book already had the answers for me.  Volume I of the two book set is the chronicling of the majority of Thompson serial numbers.  When I turned to find SN 6039 there was some rather unexpected information awaiting me.  SN 6039 was one of three Thompsons originally purchased by the Dayton PD.

It was initially disappointing news and seemed to be the nail in the coffin for any sort of Dillinger provenance.  But while it answered one question, it gave rise to new ones.  If Dayton PD is the original purchaser, why does the registration form conflict with that?  The book went on further to say that SN 6039 was shipped on January 21, 1930, while the registration form lists its “Date of acquisition” as May 1930.  Why the date discrepancy?  Were there two different guns being attributed to the same serial number?  What was going on?  I had two very reliable sources, a period government document and an authoritative book with decades of research behind it, but things still weren’t matching up.  With that, I decided to go to the source: the Dayton, OH Police Department.

After a few phone calls where I tried not to sound like some out-of-state weirdo seeking firearms records from the 1930s, I left a few messages and within a week had a call from a Sergeant Jeff Yaney in the Dayton PD Records Dept.  He would not have been out of line to just tell me that those records weren’t available or had been destroyed, it’s what I would’ve expected happens to documents that are over 80 years old, but he surprised me by being extremely helpful and volunteering to search for the information I was seeking.  What exactly was I seeking?  I told him about the possible, but at this point very unlikely, Dillinger connection and that I was looking for anything on the Thompsons owned by the Dayton PD: purchase records, transfer records, bills of sale, other registration paperwork, or anything that might give me another chance to find out the real, documented history behind these guns.  Little did I know that as I was contacting Dayton for information, Dayton would also soon be contacting me.

By the time I had called the Dayton PD, I had been looking into this Thompson for about a month in between other job responsibilities and projects.  Within days of contacting the Dayton PD and Sgt. Yaney, the Rock Island Auction Company received an interesting email.  It was from the Dayton Police History Foundation (DPH).  A Dillinger aficionado and friend of the organization had seen the image and knew that the DPH was interested in discovering the whereabouts of Thompsons owned by the Dayton PD.  He then contacted the DPH, who took up the lead, then somehow deciphered the nearly microscopic print on the image of the registration forms, noticed it referenced Dayton, and emailed RIAC to request more information.  Keep in mind, that the RIAC catalog was not yet available online. The item listing was not yet up which shows the document much more clearly.  Gun collectors and historians are an eagle-eyed bunch.

The man who emailed me was Stephen Grismer, a retired sergeant of the Dayton PD with 25 years of service to his name who now served as a trustee of the DPH.  He had no idea I had recently been in contact with the Dayton PD; it was a random coincidence that his email arrived within mere days of that phone call.  It was one week after I had received the Herigstad book, emailed my superiors that the Thompson had been originally purchased by the Dayton PD, and only days since I had contacted the Dayton PD.  I was more than happy to send Mr. Grismer the document, but I had a few questions of my own and this extremely serendipitous email came from a group that could not have been more perfectly poised to answer my questions.  I sent him the document, told him of my calls to Dayton, and asked if I might call him as well since it could be more quickly explained over the phone.  A fellow history enthusiast, Mr. Grismer quickly agreed, and we set an appointment to delve into Dayton’s surprising history.

First off, Steve alerted me that my search was starting in the incorrect place.  The Dayton PD Records Section have housed their archived arrest records at the Wright State University Archive Center since 1989, and usually questions such as mine are forwarded to the DPH.  Grismer’s association with both the PD and the historical foundation made him incredibly valuable to this mystery.  He also immediately brought to my attention the date discrepancy (Dillinger was in prison) and we agreed that any Dillinger association was extremely unlikely.  He also sent a photo (below) of the seized items when Dillinger was arrested in Dayton and no Thompsons appear in that photo.

Money, guns, & shells? Sounds like a checklist for an awesome weekend.‌‌Also, I love the expression that says, “Can you believe this?”

The exchange of information continued.  Steve sent me things as he found them, and I sent him the information and documents on our Thompson since it was unquestionably linked to the Dayton PD.  DPH searched the Dillinger files at Wright State University and found no records to the Dayton Tommy guns.  I scoured Herigstad’s books for more information, but without a way to cross-reference or Google search a book, that would have resulted in reading each individual page and then perhaps doing it again if the information was missed in the first pass.  RIAC did have some information with the gun on the Dayton house in which Dillinger was captured, that had since been razed, but that was about it.  DPH sent me a photo of a Cadillac “Bank Flyer” with some prominent Dayton policemen in front of it with some serious firepower, but ultimately, it felt like we were now grasping at straws.  Communication had slowed.  We needed a fresh piece of information to chase.

For me, there was little push beyond curiosity.  I figured that, at best, I would be able to pass along some historically verifiable information on to whatever collector would be lucky enough to purchase the gun.  If I got really lucky, the resulting research might even result in an extra bid or two.  DPH, on the other hand, had a more external form of motivation.  Never saying as much, and always exceptionally gracious with whatever information was received, one email revealed that a Dayton Police History Museum was in the infancy stages of becoming established.  The Dillinger story being important to that history meant that anything newly discovered would have a significant role in the museum.  The passion for local history and the pending museum was visible in their effort.

The Cadillac “Bank Flyer” (c. 1930) and the men of the “Flying Squadron.” The customized vehicle was outfitted with reinforced bumpers, impenetrable tires, radiator shield, bullet-proof windows, and custom racks on the inside to hold shotguns, Thompsons, gas grenades, bullet-proof vests, and other items.‌‌It was the escort vehicle when transporting Dillinger from Dayton to Allen County.‌‌L to R: Dayton Police Chief Rudolph Wurstner, Capt. Harvey Siferd, Officers, John Blake, Howard Reed, Brenton Collins, and Walter Geisler.

With information slowing two weeks into our search, DPH volunteered to look through some newspaper archives and other material to see what information could be found on any bank robbery that would’ve taken place in Dayton in May 1930.  At the same time, now knowing the serial number of one of the Dayton PD Tommy guns, they were seeking any additional information on it.  In the course of one weekend, we had our new lead.

DPH had found the serial numbers of two Thompsons that were ordered for the Montgomery County Sheriffs Office and was hoping I could offer some more information on the guns using the Herigstad text (Note: Dayton is located in Montgomery County).  They had also found newspaper articles dated May 6, 1930 detailing a bank robbery that had taken place!  We could almost smell the answers and our excitement was renewed.  My first step was to investigate the Thompson serial numbers given to me, 2621 and 4556.

A quick flip through the book revealed that these two guns were part of a larger, 5-gun shipment on April 7, 1927.  Thankfully Herigstad had already documented the serials of the guns in that shipment as 2621, 4186, 4418, 4556, and 4582.  The five guns were all ordered by the same person and were divvied up as such:

SN 2621: Model 1921AC   Sent to Montgomery County Sheriffs Office, Dayton, OH (1 of 2 owned)
SN 4186: Model 1921A      Sent to Dayton PD (1 of 3 owned)
SN 4418: Model 1921A      Sent to Dayton PD (2 of 3 owned)
SN 4556: Model 1921AC   Sent to Montgomery County Sheriffs Office, Dayton, OH (2 of 2 owned)
SN 4582: Model 1921A      Sent to Toledo, OH PD (1 of 13 owned)

The Thompson at Rock Island Auction Company was its own shipment on 1/21/1930
SN 6039: Model 1921AC   Sent to Dayton PD (3 of 3 owned)

This was very exciting data!  We had now uncovered all three of the Dayton PD Thompsons – information the DPH had been specifically seeking.  Based on those shipment records, several reasonable conclusions can be reached.

1.  If the “Bank Flyer” Cadillac in the photo is indeed from their 1930 model year, then the Thompsons shown in the photo with the “Bank Flyer” Cadillac were likely the first of the two Thompsons sent and not the Thompson available in our upcoming sale (SN6039).  Though admittedly, the photo could have been taken at a later date, even if it is unlikely.

2.  Since SN6039 was shipped on 1/21/1930 we can surmise a few things.  The first is that this photo was taken in the summer months of 1929.  Had it been taken in the summer months of 1930 (based on the foliage in the background) why would they omit their newly acquired third Thompson?  Also if this was taken in 1929, then we know that the Cadillac is either a) of model year 1929 or earlier or b) that car companies release model years of cars prior to the start of calendar years much as they do today.  Perhaps someone much more familiar with antique cars and the sales thereof can clarify in the comment section.

While I was tracing down the origins of the “Trench Brooms” purchased by the local Ohio agencies, DPH had been hard at work finding not only newspaper articles on the robbery, but also the first-hand accounts of officers involved in the action that day!  The connection with Dillinger long since discounted, now we could find out some of the things this Tommy gun had really seen during its life.  Newspaper accounts differ from the official police statements in some of the details, but the incredible story was coming together in exciting fashion.

Stay tuned for next week’s article that details the action-packed,

gangster era, bank robbery shootout!

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