The year 1911 marked the earliest ever use of a motor vehicle in the commission of a crime, according to author Richard Parry in his book The Bonnot Gang. Brian Burrough, author of Public Enemies: America’s Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, gives 1915 as the earliest use of an automobile in an American bank robbery. There are other claims of events similar to these, all of which occurred from 1909 forward, except for two earlier incidents in Boone County that have been overlooked.
The Florence Deposit Bank opened for business in 1904, and was a successful endeavor from the start. The news of our growing community and its rapidly filling bank vault must have reached the ears of criminals in the area. The fledgling business became the target of unwanted criminal attention within just a few years of its grand opening.
In the wee hours of November 4th, 1907, Miss Amanda Murray noticed a light in the bank and alerted her brother, James Murray, who served as the Florence Postmaster. Murray quickly retrieved his weapon and roused the local priest, Father William Kathman, who provided armed backup. As they approached the bank, there was an audible explosion that roused several other nearby citizens who quickly joined Murray and Fr. Kathman.
As the posse of concerned residents neared the scene, they encountered an unusual sight; a large, red automobile was parked in front of the bank. The first locally-owned car arrived in Burlington in 1901, but the sight was still quite rare in our rural community, where transportation was largely horse-powered. Aside from the car, the group noticed some damage to the bank and several strange men who were definitely not dressed for farm work.
It was later reported that dynamite was used to blow a hole in the back wall of the building, but the party of citizens arrived before the men could attempt to crack the safe. There was also gun-play from both sides, but no one was wounded; the bandits sped away, empty-handed. Witnesses reported one bandit was overheard calling another “Bill” and at least one gang member wore a “silk opera hat.” Despite the heavy resistance met in Florence, the criminals were not finished with Boone County. Just a few nights later, a similar unsuccessful attempt was made on the Petersburg bank. Once again, the would-be bank robbers left without their loot, heading out of town in the first known getaway car on record.
By Hillary Delaney, Local History Associate