Unsolved mystery: A ‘who-didn’t-do-it’ story
By Michele Jackson
The biggest belief about the Hartselle Bank Robbery in 1926 is that it was never solved – but this is only partially true. Here is the story of the Great Hartselle Bank Robbery.
March 16, 1926, several organized and experienced men came into town around midnight and took members of the town as hostages while they blew open the Bank of Hartselle safe and escaped in the night with more than $15,000. The bank was insured, and two other banks in town helped make the next business day a success, as dozens of investigators and officers filled the town, talking to witnesses and hostages.
WHAT happened that day has never been in question. WHO did it, however, has been the talk of the town for the past 94 years.
Six men were investigated in connection with this robbery. None of the charges stuck, and all were released. Some were later captured on other charges; some were never charged again; and some were shot while on the run for other offenses.
The problem is that criminals try not to leave a paper trail; they use aliases, and they have alibis. They pay for the best lawyers, and in the 1920s, people were loyal or they were “disposed of.” A network of safe houses – businesses owned by other criminals as a cover – and family members would hide them.
An investigator in Nashville spoke to a woman informant, who told of a farm in Mississippi owned by a doctor. Those who were hunted by the law after a crime would hide out for a while until the heat was off. Arizona had another hideout, deep in the hills, where men hid for several weeks until they knew they weren’t being followed.
The Hartselle Bank Robbery has been compared to the escapades of many western outlaws, such as the James Younger Gang. They were similar in many ways. They had hideouts, they would lay low for a while, they would “bury” their spoils, and they had a network of people and places to help. It was the same way at the height of the Prohibition gangs era.
People think of Hartselle as a place bank robbers would not have considered, but the fact is, back then the main roads and passenger railways went right through Hartselle. Chicago, Indianapolis, Nashville, Memphis, Birmingham, Florida and New Orleans were all major stops, with Hartselle being along the route.
Sure, Hartselle wasn’t on the lips of every criminal, but if you need money, any little town along the way becomes a target.
These guys literally passed through Hartselle dozens of times en route to elsewhere. Later in the 1930s, major Illinois gang members were living in the area, and some grew up in Jefferson and Cullman counties.
When you hear stories about the Civil War, you rarely hear about any major battles in Alabama, but it was a hotbed of skirmishes. It’s the same with organized crime in the first half of the 1900s; you just don’t hear it talked about much.
The Hartselle Bank Robbery might never have gotten a “solved” stamp. All who had a connection are long gone, and many living family members have no knowledge of their ancestors’ lives or insight into crimes they might have committed. Every week a new name appears, adding to the large collection of information amassed. It has really become an obsession, evolving into more than a Hartselle story – into a collection of criminal biographies waiting to be told.
Michele Jackson is a historical researcher and writer who is a member of the Hartselle Historical Society and has been working on a book about the Hartselle Bank Robbery of 1926.