Recalling the day Dillinger came calling

Nashuan recollects famous outlaw’s invasion of her childhood hometown

The Nashua Telegraph was among newspapers that carried the "War on Crime" illustrations, which reflected "true stories of G-Men," such as the one that depicted the 1934 Mason City, Iowa bank robbery by the Dillinger gang.

When I picked up the phone the other day and heard a somewhat familiar voice start talking about the daily almanac we publish on the editorial page, my first thought was something like, “oh, jeez, there must be something missing from today’s entry or maybe a date is incorrect.”

Because as careful as we are in editing submitted material like the almanac, once in a great while a sharp-eyed reader will point out a minor inaccuracy or omission that somehow got past us.

Not this time. Instead of preparing myself to thank the eagle-eyed caller for the feedback, I sat silently, hanging on the caller’s every word.

I was listening to a fascinating story by a fascinating woman, longtime Nashua resident Maida Latvis, who you’d never guess from her remarkable ability to recall even tiny details from her childhood is past 90 now, still living in the North End home she and her late husband, John (he was 96 when he died), bought soon after World War II.

So what was this fascinating story all about?

This account of the Dillinger gang bank robbery in Mason City, Iowa, appeared in the Nashua Telegraph, although on an inside page.

Well, it involves legendary 20th-century outlaws and American folklore, topics that seem to become intertwined as stories are told and new research is done over the decades.

Had March 13, 1934 not been a school day, a third-grader named Maida Baumgardner may have been in downtown Mason City, Iowa, shopping with her mother, and she just may have gotten the chance to see unfold before her very eyes one of America’s most noted 1930s bank robberies, perpetrated by a gang of seasoned outlaws led by none other than the infamous John Dillinger.

But almost as exciting for little Maida Baumgardner, who in 1946 became Maida Latvis, was hearing a first-hand account of the drama from her mother, who I’m guessing was called upon by family, friends and townfolk to retell the story until she grew hoarse.

Fortunately for her immediate family, the details of what she just witnessed in real-time were still fresh in Mrs. Baumgardner’s mind.

“She saw them take out the hostages, they made them stand on the running boards,” Latvis recalled, referring to the Dillinger gang’s rather clever way of shielding themselves from police.

Courtesy photo by MASON CITY PUBLIC LIBRARY An historic photo of the First National Bank of Mason City shows the building around the time John Dillinger and his gang robbed the bank in 1934.

In those days of course running boards ­ the wide steps that ran along each side of vehicles ­ were larger than those of today, which are often affixed to truck frames both as an assist to climb into the cab and for show.

People could also ride on them, which is precisely what Dillinger’s gang ordered their hostages to do.

Latvis said her mother watched from across the street as the gangsters began to pile into the car, described in historic accounts as a dark blue Buick sedan. Others ordered the hostages, estimated at between 20-26 people, onto the running boards and the rear bumper.

Moments later, Latvis’s mother told her family, the sedan took off, the hostages clinging to both sides. One can only imagine what was going through the hostages’ minds: Will they push us off at high speed? Will they kill us once we’re out of town?

Well, Latvis’s mother said, the gangsters did stop once they were safely away from the city proper, but mercifully, they simply dropped off the hostages, probably telling them to take their sweet time walking back to Mason City.

“They just left them there. They didn’t need them anymore,” Latvis said her mother recalled. The “hostage pool” was made up of bank employees, customers, people just walking by and customers at a shoe store next door.

She also said she saw a police officer take up a position behind a large boulder in a park across from the bank, according to her daughter. It stood, and still stands, as a renovated office building, at the corner of North Federal Avenue and State Street.

Mrs. Baumgardner watched the action from her vantage point at the edge of that park.

“She was up at one end of the park, she could see it all,” Latvis said.

According to a very well-done account of the infamous event by Terry Harrison, an archivist with the Mason City Public Library, a police officer named James Buchanan, upon realizing a robbery was going on, “armed himself with a shotgun and took cover behind the GAR monument in Central Park.”

Buchanan could very well be the officer Latvis’s mother saw, the “large boulder” being the monument to Mason City’s Civil War veterans of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR).

At least one gangster shot at Buchanan, Harrison’s account states, but missed; he couldn’t return fire “because of the human shield around the robbers.”

While curious townfolk began assembling around the perimeter, one woman, watching the movie-set-like drama play out from the dress shop where she worked, was suddenly gripped by terror: “She saw her husband, a teller at the bank, being led out of the bank and forced to stand on the rear bumper” of the gangsters’ car “as it moved slowly north on Federal Avenue.”

Yikes.

As for the gangsters, who wounded two people but by either luck or discipline ­ I bet on the former ­ they didn’t kill anyone. Dillinger is said to have suffered a fairly minor flesh wound to a hand.

The library’s account of how the whole thing went down is a tale right out of the Untouchables era.

Besides Dillinger, the gang is said to have included another infamous outlaw, George “Baby Face” Nelson; along with John “Red” Hamilton, Eugene “Eddie” Green, Tommy Carroll, Homer Van Meter, and either Joseph Burns or Red Forsythe, but one witness said there were “six men and one woman” in the gang that day.

Here are some key moments gleaned from Harrison’s archival account.

The gangsters parked their car behind the bank. Two stayed with the car, while others took up their assigned spots around the building. When it was time to move, Dillinger and two or three others burst into the bank “shouting orders and shooting into the ceilings and walls.”

A bank guard, stationed in his elevated bulletproof observation booth near the front door, fired a tear gas cartridge at the robbers, which was proper procedure at the time.

It hit one of the robbers, the account states, but the guard was in trouble: his tear gas gun jammed. One of the gangsters turned and sprayed gunfire at the guard, shattering his supposedly bulletproof booth, but luckily for the guard he was not hit.

While a couple of robbers cleaned out tellers’ cash drawers, another took the bank cashier to the vault, the account states.

Meanwhile, the bank’s switchboard operator, unseen by gangsters in her second-floor balcony office, crawled across the floor to a window and shouted to a man below for help, that the bank was being robbed.

Unfortunately that man was Nelson, who raised his machine gun and hollered back: “You’re telling me, lady?”

Once it was learned the hostages were OK and nobody was killed, the picturesque north-central Iowa town of Mason City buzzed for days as the hundreds of witnesses compared stories and gave rise to one of Mason City’s “where were you, what were you doing, when … “ moments.

For years, Latvis said, city officials left undisturbed the spots where gangsters’ bullets struck the old First National Bank building, both outside and inside.

To this day, Latvis said, she retains great fondness for her home town, which she still visits every summer, although the family moved to nearby Le Grand for a time before returning to Mason City to care for her aging grandmother.

Spotting that almanac item in The Telegraph last month “brought back so many memories” of her childhood, Latvis said. Seeing “Mason City” in print in her adopted hometown after all those years triggered years worth of pleasant memories that had nothing to do with Dillinger or the infamous bank robbery.

According to Harrison, the archivist, a reporter named Carl Wright, who witnessed the robbery, probably described the event best: ” … a state of exhilaration, once the danger was over.”