February 1, 2011

Lost Milwaukee Episode 1 - Daylight Jewel Heist! Gun Battle with Cops!

Welcome to the first installment of Lost Milwaukee, a new feature of the Historic Milwaukee, Inc blog. Each week, we will be taking a look at an unusual or amazing news item from Milwaukee's past.

Today’s entry involves a daring daylight robbery, a high-speed gun battle, and a case of very swift justice. Our story begins on April 1st, 1926. Four Michigan ferryboat hands, absent of cash, have schemed to knock off a local pawn dealer. The target of the heist is the Milwaukee Loan Office, 406 West Wells (a location now underneath the Frontier Airlines Center). At 10 am, three armed men burst into the office, shoving the proprietor, Siman Rueben, to the floor and emptying his cash register and safe. The plan was for the three to pack the loot into suitcases and dash up the block to North 5th and Wells, where 42-year-old John Malloy, the architect of the crime, would be waiting in a running taxi cab.

However, unbeknownst to any of the participants, a police detective, Henry Mauger, was transacting some business next door to the pawn shop. In a case of outrageously bad fortune for the gang, Detective Mauger stepped out onto Wells Street just moments after the robbers fled the shop. Seeing the men running with heavy cases, and hearing the shouts of Mr. Rueben, Mauger quickly surmised what was happening and drew his pistol. Just as the men had rounded the corner, he opened fire. 38-year-old William Knight, the slowest of the gang, was hit twice, one shot blowing off the tip of his right ear and the other striking and crippling his leg.

Milwaukee Sentinel Illustrations

 The plan now in shambles, the remaining two jumped into the waiting taxi with $500 cash and over $15,000 worth of watches and jewels. With a pistol to his neck, the driver was ordered to “drive like hell.” He tore up Wells, executing such a violent turn onto 13th Street that a motorcycle cop gave chase. Unaware why the taxi was driving so recklessly, or who the passengers were, the officer attempted to force the car to the side of the road. Malloy fired several shots from the vehicle as it sped southward. At 13th and Clybourn, a squad car joined the chase, with Malloy peppering lead at his pursuers. As the bandits zipped across the Muskego Avenue Bridge (now the N Emmber Ln Bridge), the police remained close behind, but with the roads still slick and snowy from a recent storm, they were unable to keep up and by National Avenue, the gang was lost.

A city-wide hunt was stymied for 30 minutes until a frantic call from Harry Ulirch, the hostage taxi driver, told police that they men had fled his cab at Bay and KK. Starting from that point, police and detectives blanketed the area, quickly finding and arresting 32-year-old John Vitalis and 20-year-old Clarence Fitz, the two who had escaped from Detective Mauger less than an hour earlier. Bafflingly, the two were apprehended at a Stewart Street “soft drink parlor”, less than four blocks from where they had ditched the taxi. Malloy had been a bit craftier, but not much. He was found a short time later, hiding in a potato sack in the basement of an Allen Street (now Becher St) house, just as close to the spot where they’d left the cab as his two thirsty accomplices.
Surprisingly, the most shocking part of this story is not the two salts who decided to have a quick drink while they held fifteen grand in hot loot and every cop in town was giving chase. The real shock comes when the men were convicted and sentenced… the following day. Just twenty-four hours after the crime, arrest, and confession of the gang, a judge hit the three bagmen, Knight still in bandages and likely crippled for life, with 3-20 years each in state prison. Malloy, being the ringleader, was hit with 3-30 years. That afternoon, the men were shackled and loaded on a train bound for Waupun. 

This is a far longer post than we will usually be making, but this story proved just too interesting to skip. Especially fun was the Sentinel’s special artwork for the story. The Journal tried too, but they don’t really capture the moment as well…
 Of course, the Journal did add some ‘pain lines’ to the wounded man, so that’s something. But they seem to show Knight being shot from behind (which he was), whereas the Sentinel shows his falling backwards, arms akimbo...
In fact… with a little MS Paint treatment… now he's ready for Super Sunday...

"Touchdown Jordy Nelson!"
Sources: Milwaukee Journal, April 1 & 2, 1926; Milwaukee Sentinel, April 2, 1926.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for such an interesting story...and amazing illustrations!