For more than six decades, stories and tales have been told about the robbery of the Lowell National Bank in the 1930's, with several versions circulated. All the people in the bank at the time of the holdup were members of pioneer families, while the bank officers involved were pioneers in Lowell's banking industry.
Information for this column was taken from an original report in The Lowell Tribune written by Editor Ragon, who interviewed the bank personnel, people he know very well.
The excitement started early on a Tuesday morning, just a short time after the bank opened for business. Suddenly, a strange man poked a gun into the side of Cashier Peter A. Berg, who was already busy working one of the books.
The robber told him that it was a holdup and to get down on the floor. More robbers appeared, covered the other employees with their guns, and ordered them to get down on the floor. Banker Harold Love hesitated to get down, "and the robbers emphasized their order by shooting twice into the floor between his legs." All employees then quickly complied.
No customers were in the bank at the time of the robbery, and with the bankers quiet on the floor, the gunmen quickly scooped up the money from the safe which had just been opened, grabbed the cash from the tellers' counters, and stuffed all the loot into a handbag.
"The car driven by the robbers was a big Cadillac, and when it parked in front of the bank (cars were parked at an angle to the curb) there was only one man in the car, and he got out and left the motor running. No one seems to know where the other three men came from, but they were nearby and saw the car pull up and park," wrote Ragon.
Catherine Berg (Mrs. Malcolm Parry), daughter of cashier Berg, had parked their car in front of the bank, as she was going to take her father and Ida Hunt to Crown Point on business. The big Cadillac pulled up next to her and she saw the guns, but kept very still and pretended to read a newspaper and was not bothered by them.
As the robbers moved about the bank, they did not seem to be in a hurry, but the job was completed in just a few minutes. Before they left, retired druggist Davis C. "Doc" Driscoll passed in front of the bank on crutches, met businessman Carl Gragg, and commenced to pass the time of day with him.
The robber stationed at the doorway ordered Driscoll inside, and he complied after having been told a second time.
For reasons unknown, Gragg was allowed to leave. He went to his nearby office and telephoned the Grant Brothers store across the street from the bank to sound the alarm. Plans had been made years before that someone from the store would man a shotgun at a basement window, available at the time, but it was too late to thwart the robbers. (That hair-trigger shotgun is still a Grant family heirloom.)
The robbers left the bank and pulled their big car out of the diagonal parking place just when car dealer John Miller came up behind them in his car. The robbers evidently thought that he was trailing them and fired two shots out of the open rear window, smashing the radiator on Miller's car and leaving him very angry and confused.
George Heilig, who was the proprietor of a bakery-grocery a few doors away, was standing in front of his store during all the excitement, and was told to get back inside by the robbers, an order with which he quickly complied. Dr. Neal Davis was getting ready to back his car out from in front of his office across the street as the gang was leaving, and shots were fired in his direction, but missed him.
Ida Hunt came up to the Berg car in front of the bank, and the "wonder to many is why the bandits did not make Mrs. Hunt, Carl Gragg and Miss Catherine Berg go into the bank when they ordered Doc Driscoll inside.
The big Cadillac headed east on Commercial Ave., and as it passed the public square, all the robbers waved at Town Marshall Williams who was busy working there, and who waved back at them. Arthur Williams did not know that the bank had been robbed until later.
The robbers were said to have turned north off of Commercial Ave. onto Burnham St., then to Indiana Ave., and down old North Ave. past the Catholic Cemetery, and then disappeared into the countryside.
The robbers got away with about $5,000 in paper money, an amount covered fully by insurance.
With all the stories and tales told through the years, the question that often arose was, "Was it the John Dillinger gang?" Dillinger was rated "Public Enemy No. 1" at that time, and many banks were being held up during those Depression era years. He was blamed for so many robberies in the Midwest, that everyone wondered how he could be in so many places at the same time.
Dillinger was captured early in 1934 and lodged in the Lake County Jail at Crown Point, but on Mar. 3, 1934, he made a desperate escape using a wooden gun. He remained at large until he was ambushed at the Biograph Theatre in Chicago, Ill., on July 23, 1934, by a large group of policemen. He died of gunshot wounds. Was it Dillinger who held up the Lowell Bank? No one is sure. The 1903 bank building still standing at 316 E. Commercial Ave., is now a nicely decorated antique and gift shop. For a time the limestone front was hidden with a modern facade of decorative metal, but now the 1903 limestone facade is back for all to see, very close to the way it looked when built 96 years ago.
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