the daring acts of a smiling bandit

Roy G. Gardner (1884 – 1940) was once America’s most infamous prison escapee.

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He was the most dangerous inmate in the history of Atlanta Prison and was dubbed by newsmen the “Smiling Bandit”, the “Mail Train Bandit”, and the “King of the Escape Artists”. He was said to be attractive and charming, standing just under six feet tall, with short, curly auburn hair and blue eyes.

red haired David Wenham found here

Gardner began his criminal profession as a gunrunner around the time of the Mexican Revolution. He smuggled and traded arms to the Venustiano Carranza forces until he was captured by soldiers from Huerta’s army and was sentenced to death by firing squad, but, on March 29, 1909, he broke out of the Mexico City jail along with three other American prisoners after attacking the guards.

Mexican revolutionaries found here

Eventually, Gardner ended up in San Francisco, where he robbed a jewelry store. He was arrested, and spent some time in San Quentin, but was paroled after saving a prison guard’s life during a violent riot. Gardner landed a job as an acetylene welder at the Mare Island Navy Yard, married, fathered a daughter, and began his own welding company. 

San Quentin prisoners found here

Gardner then gambled all of his money away on a business trip in Tijuana at the racetracks. On the night of April 16, 1920, Gardner robbed a U. S. Mail truck of about $80,000 in cash and securities. The job went smoothly, but the outlaw was arrested three days later burying his loot.  He was sentenced to 25 years at McNeil Island Federal Penitentiary but vowed he would never serve the sentence. As he was transported on a train with Deputy U. S. Marshals Cavanaugh and Haig, Gardner peered out of the window and yelled, “Look at that deer!”. The lawmen looked, and Gardner grabbed Marshal Haig’s gun from his holster. He then disarmed Marshal Cavanaugh at gunpoint. The outlaw handcuffed the two humiliated lawmen together and stole $200. He jumped off the train, and made his way to Canada.

Muntjac deer found here

He slipped back into the United States the next year, and started robbing banks and mail trains across the country. Gardner tied up the mail clerk to Train No. 10 eastbound from Sacramento and robbed the express car of $187,000 on May 19, 1921. The next morning, Gardner told the mail clerk of Train No. 20 to throw up his hands or he would blow his head off. When the train reached the Overland Limited, the elusive bandit darted down the tracks with an armful of mail. 

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Gardner was recognized at the Porter House Hotel and a convoy of police arrived in Roseville . Three federal agents captured him while he was playing a game of cards in a pool hall and he was sentenced to another 25 years at McNeil Island for armed robbery.

Trying to reduce his sentence he told Southern Pacific Railroad detectives that he would lead them to the spot where he buried his loot. The officers found nothing, and Gardner announced, “I guess I have forgotten where I buried it”. He was heavily shackled, with the addition of an “Oregon Boot”, and was once again transported on a train to McNeil Island, this time by U. S. Marshals Mulhall and Rinkell, both fast shooting veterans. During the journey, Gardner asked to use the bathroom, in which an associate had earlier hidden a .32 caliber pistol. Gardner came out of the bathroom, pointed the gun at Mulhall’s protruding pouch, and ordered another prisoner to handcuff the two humiliated lawmen to the seat. He relieved the officers of their weapons and cash before hopping onto another moving train.

Oregon boot found here

He arrived in Centralia, Washington, where he plastered his face with bandages to hide his identity, leaving one eye slit. Gardner told the Oxford Hotel staff that he had been severely burned in an industrial accident near Tacoma. Officer Louis Sonney became suspicious of the bandaged man, and when he saw a firearm in Gardner’s hotel room, he accused him of being the “Smiling Bandit”. Gardner fought back, but was arrested and a doctor removed the bandages to show that he was indeed the notorious train robber. This time Gardner, who was sentenced to another 25 years, was heavily ironed, and finally brought to McNeil Island.

Bandaged Berlusconi found here

After six weeks at the penitentiary, Gardner had convinced two other prisoners, Lawardus Bogart and Everett Impyn, that he had “paid off” the guards in the towers. On Labor Day, 1921, at a prison baseball game, they ran 300 yards to the high barbed wire fence where Gardner cut a hole, and the three men made it to the pasture as bullets whirled about their heads. Gardner was wounded in his left leg, but hid behind a herd of cattle. About the same time, he saw Bogart fall, badly wounded. Impyn was shot dead; his dying words were, “Gardner told us those fellows in the towers couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn“.

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Guards scoured the beaches and confiscated every boat on the shoreline, but no trace of the dangerous outlaw could be found. Gardner lived in the prison barn, getting nutrition from cow’s milk, and then swam the choppy waters to Fox Island where he lived off fruit in the orchards. Roy Gardner was now the “Most Wanted” criminal, and committed several crimes in Arizona before he was captured by a mail clerk during a train robbery in Phoenix in 1921. He was sentenced to an additional 25 years, this time at Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary. Headlines screamed, “Gangster Gardner brags, ‘Leavenworth will never hold me'”.

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In 1926, he tried to tunnel under the wall and saw through the bars in the shoe shop. The following year, he led a prison break and attempted an armed escape with two revolvers holding the Captain and two guards hostage, but the escape failed. In 1934 he was transferred to Alcatraz. While at Alcatraz, his wife divorced him. Gardner was paroled and released in 1938 after his appeal for clemency was approved.

On the evening of January 10, 1940, Garder wrote four notes at his hotel room in San Francisco, one of which was attached to the door warning: “Do not open door. Poison gas. Call police.” He sealed the door from the inside, then killed himself by dropping cyanide gas into a glass of acid and inhaling the poison fumes. 

“Please let me down as light as possible, boys,” Gardner wrote in a letter to newsmen. “I have played ball with you all the way, and now you should pitch me a slow one and let me hit it.”

Published in: on February 11, 2012 at 8:48 am  Comments (49)  
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break a leg – twice

Émile Buisson (1902 – 1956), a French gangster, was proclaimed French Public Enemy No. 1 for 1950. One of nine children, he and his brother Jean-Baptiste, both turned to crime at an early age.

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Emile served his first term in jail at the age of sixteen in a penal battalion in North Africa. The brutality of these battalions was unspeakable, however Emile managed to distinguish himself and earn the Croix de Guerre. But back in France, he again turned to crime and served many short terms in jail.

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In 1932 he helped to rescue his brother from jail with a bold plan. Jean-Baptiste had himself transferred to Strasbourg model prison at Ensisheim by confessing to a crime in Strasbourg and getting three years added to an eight year sentence. Once there he broke his leg by smashing it with a table leg. He was transferred to hospital, and that same night he jumped from a first floor window, breaking it again. But with the help of Emile, he made a clean getaway.

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Emile committed his first big robbery in 1937, earning himself the nickname “Crazy Mimile”. He was arrested one month later but escaped while awaiting trial. In 1941 he robbed the Credit Lyonnais bank, killing two employees in cold blood. Shortly after this he was caught by the Gestapo and sent to a military prison. This time he escaped by simulating lunacy until he was transferred to an asylum. 

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Over the next few years he took part in many holdups, always using sten-guns and Citroen ‘traction’ front wheel drives. Following the war, Paris was considered a dangerous city where gang killings were commonplace. The police were armed with sub-machine guns but after accidentally shooting an old drunk gentleman and a bus full of passengers they were forced to be a little more cautious with their firearms.

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He was finally arrested in 1950 by Roger Borniche, a French detective of the Sûreté Nationale and author of a number of books.

more dogs here

Borniche had started out as a singer, but his fledgling musical career was interrupted by the German invasion. In 1943, he joined the Sûreté Nationale as an inspector to avoid being shipped to a forced labor detail.

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In 1947, he was assigned to capture the escaped murderer, Emile Buisson. Borniche kept critical investigative files in his office, forcing the other investigators to bargain with him for their contents. He also competed with the other agencies for informants, who tried to play the investigators against each other for more rewards. He was sometimes shadowed by other investigators and would have to lose his “tail” to meet with an informant.

He was able to bargain with informants by offering them a signed permit to remain in Paris (despite being banned from the city by other police forces) and by delaying distribution of official warrants, keeping the notices locked in his desk. Borniche forced an informant to lead Buisson into a trap where he was captured eating lunch in a restaurant. Borniche was rewarded with a promotion and a 30,000 franc bonus. He retired in 1956 and  formed his own detective agency in Paris. His first set of memoirs, Flic Story, became the basis of a 1975 film featuring Alain Delon as Borniche and Jean-Louis Trintignant as Buisson.

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Albert takes a bubble bath

In 1989, Albert Spaggiari, a photographer who confessed to being the mastermind of an elaborate 1976 bank robbery on the Riviera, was found dead outside his mother’s house.

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He was 57 years old and had reportedly suffered from lung cancer. Before his death, Mr. Spaggiari had evaded and taunted law enforcement officials for 12 years, since his escape through a window in a magistrate’s office. His picture periodically turned up in newspapers and magazines, above captions such as ”Hello from Albert.”

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The robbery took place in Nice in 1976. A team of 20 men, led by Mr. Spaggiari, burst into the vault of the Societe Generale bank from a 25-foot tunnel they had carved over the previous several weeks between the bank and a branch of the city sewer system. They worked from Friday to Sunday, emptying safe-deposit boxes and seizing most of the bank’s cash reserves. The group, which became known as the ”sewer gang,” escaped with $8 – $10 million in gold, cash, jewelry and gems. During their stay in the vault, they cooked meals, drank wine and used antique silver tureens as toilets.

image from the movie found here

When officials discovered the scene on Monday, July 19, they found a message from the gang, ”Without Guns, Without Violence, Without Hate,” scrawled on one wall of the vault. 

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After a lengthy investigation, detectives closed in on Spaggiari in Nice and pried his confession from him. He was jailed shortly thereafter but escaped on March 10, 1977, from a magistrate’s office. He complained of the heat, got up and opened a window, and leaped out of it, landing on a car nine feet below. He was whisked away on the back of a motorcycle. The driver, Gerard Rang, was later arrested, and Mr. Spaggiari was sentenced in absentia to life in prison.

Six other men were arrested with Mr. Spaggiari in the robbery, which inspired a film, ”The Sewers of Paradise.” Three of them were acquitted and the others were given prison sentences of five to seven years.

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In his book Mr. Spaggiari complained of the messy conditions under which he worked to bring off the Nice heist. He also mourned that he was unable to open 3,500 safe-deposit boxes because he lacked the proper equipment, and described using massive quantities of bubble bath to help scrub off the sewer slime.

scrubbing off in the bath found here

Published in: on January 16, 2012 at 7:39 am  Comments (47)  
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Gentleman Gerry and the upright jerker

Gerald Chapman (1887 – 1926), called the “Count of Gramercy Park”, and “The Gentleman Bandit” was an American criminal who spoke with a near impeccable English accent.

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After being convicted on a bank robbery charge and transferred from Sing Sing, he first became acquainted with ‘Dutch’ Anderson, a swindler and ‘gentleman’ crook, while imprisoned in Auburn State Prison in 1908. Following both men’s paroles in 1919, they conducted successful bootlegging operations in Toledo, Miami and New York City.

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They also managed to amass $100,000 through confidence trickery. Chapman rented an apartment in exclusive Gramercy Park and acquired a pretty English “wife” named Betty, who was as much a born lady as he was a born gentleman.

more photos of old New York here

In 1921, along with another former Auburn inmate, Charles Loeber, Chapman and Anderson began committing armed robberies. On October 24, the three men forced a U.S. Mail truck to stop at gunpoint on Leonard St, successfully taking $2.4 million in cash, bonds and jewelry. 

mail truck found here

While the police were searching frantically for leads, Chapman was back at 12 Gramercy Park, throwing dinner parties for his wealthy neighbours. In another robbery at an American Express office, the gang added a further $70,000 to their capital.

Eluding capture for more than eight months, Chapman and Anderson were eventually arrested after being betrayed by Loeber. While Chapman sat with a detective in the Federal Building on Broadway, he feigned some kind of attack, slumping in his chair and gasping for water. As the detective left the room, Chapman, with hands shackled, rushed out a window and ran along a narrow cornice. He was recaptured but the escape attempt made headlines and he was described as a modern day Robin Hood.

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In an Atlanta penitentiary, faced with a 25 year sentence, Chapman swore he would escape. He stole small pieces of cord from the workshops and braided them into a rope. From stolen cutlery he made a file and a crude hook. When he complained of stomach pains he was admitted to hospital for observation. There he persuaded a “trusty” in the same room to join him in an escape attempt.

more prison weapons found here

They filed through the bars, severed an electric cable (plunging the prison into darkness) then used a rope of bed sheets to get to the ground and over the wall. Two days later they were tracked by bloodhounds and recaptured. Chapman was shot twice as he tried to run away and was transferred to a civilian hospital. While he was there Betty came to visit him and managed to smuggle in a gun. He used it to force an intern to hand over his white coat and walked out of the hospital to freedom once more.

NOT this Betty (found here)

Chapman and Anderson joined forces again and drove east in a stolen car, committing burglaries as they went. They were foiled in an attempt to rob a department store when police arrived and blocked their exit. Shots were fired and Chapman managed to escape once more.

On 17 January 1925, Chapman’s luck ran out and he was arrested leaving the house of a doctor friend and extradited to Connecticut. During the six-day murder trial in Hartford, crowds gathered due to his status as one of the “top 10” criminals in America. The jury deliberated for 11 hours, after which Chapman was found guilty and eventually sentenced to hang. He proclaimed his innocence to the end, asking in his final appeal for “justice, not mercy”. Chapman was executed by the upright jerker** on April 6, 1926.

**The upright jerker was an execution method and device intermittently used in the United States during the 19th and early 20th century. Intended to replace hangings, the upright jerker did not see widespread use.

As in a hanging, a cord would be wrapped around the neck of the condemned. However, rather than dropping down through a trapdoor, the condemned would be violently jerked into the air by means of a system of weights and pulleys. The objective of this execution method was to provide a swift death by breaking the condemned’s neck.

Published in: on January 4, 2012 at 8:38 pm  Comments (48)  
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it started with a bicycle theft

Forrest Silva Tucker is best remembered for one of the most innovative escapes in San Quentin’s history. But twenty years later in 1999 he wasn’t so lucky…

San Quentin weightlifters found here

A 78-year-old career bank robber, who once tweaked San Quentin guards by escaping with two colleagues in a prison- made kayak named “Rub-a-Dub-Dub, Marin Yacht Club,” is in trouble again.

DIY kayak found here

Forrest Silva Tucker, a reputed member of the real “Over The Hill Gang” in Boston, is in custody on suspicion of robbing a Florida bank and leading sheriff’s deputies on a car chase.

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In trying to avoid arrest Thursday, Tucker allegedly blundered into an enclosed schoolyard and was captured after he lost control of his vehicle and crashed into a palm tree.

Deputies said the chase ensued after Tucker, wanted for a bank robbery earlier that day in the town of Jupiter, was spotted visiting his girlfriend in Pompano Beach.

real life girlfriend from “Dog Day Afternoon” found here

You don’t normally think of a 78-year- old man having a girlfriend, but apparently he had quite a way with the ladies,” said a spokesman for the Broward County Sheriff’s Department.

Back in August 1979, Tucker and fellow inmates William McGirk and John Waller had daringly launched a home made kayak from a partially hidden beach on prison grounds.

Their flimsy craft, made of pieces of plastic sheeting, wood, duct tape and Formica, lasted just long enough for them to paddle several hundred yards to freedom right under the noses of the tower guards.

Toothpick ferris wheel made by San Quentin inmates found here

Within a matter of months, McGirk and Waller were back at San Quentin. They were tried twice for escape, but both times amused jurors refused to convict them. Tucker, meanwhile, remained free.

The next time he surfaced was a few years later in a Boston credit scam. The judge hearing the case freed him on his own recognizance after Marin County prosecutors said they did not want to try him for the San Quentin escape. Lost in the official correspondence between the two states was the fact that Tucker still had years to serve on his original San Quentin sentence. Tucker walked out of the Boston court and never went back.

At the time of his arrest for the Bay Area robberies, Tucker already had a rap sheet going back to a 1936 bicycle theft. There were also two other convictions, including a Florida bust in which he had escaped from a South Dade County hospital by picking the lock on his leg irons.

Shop for your human restraints here

Over the next few years, Tucker was identified by law enforcement agencies as a member of a group of elderly criminals in Massachusetts called the “Over the Hill Gang,” which robbed supermarkets in Boston and its suburbs. He was suspected in 17 armed robberies over the years, most recently in southeastern Florida.

Tucker’s 20 years as a California fugitive came to an ignominious end against a palm tree last week.

Cell tower disguised as palm tree found here

turn over a new moon

Why would anyone change their name from Henry Moon to Henry Smith? Especially if they were a magician and an escapologist?

Henry was imprisoned in a New Brunswick jail for horse stealing. During his incarceration he feigned illness and escaped though was recaptured shortly afterwards.

strong man

This time he was forced to wear handcuffs and neck and leg irons. These were connected to each other and attached to an iron ring in the wall, so he couldn’t move at all. The iron collar was made of a flat bar of iron over an inch wide, but Smith managed to twist it from his neck and broke it in half.

arlene

One night the jailer investigated a noise coming from Smith’s cell. At first he found nothing. But then he noticed that the bars of the cell had been practically sawn through and that the prisoner had somehow freed himself completely from his chains. On another occasion, despite new window bars and heavy-duty door locks on his cell, the prisoner was discovered with a woman kneeling at his bed. It was an extraordinarily convincing figure of his wife, and the magical scene was made in the pitch dark from scraps of cloth and straw, and a three-foot wooden trough that had contained his drinking water. He was chained with heavier irons, but next morning was found to be free again. After a thorough search a minute saw was found that Smith had made by cutting microscopic serrations in a steel watch spring.

araki

image by Araki

One morning the jailor found that Henry had again freed himself from his chains. The links were found to be separated, but they had been somehow broken and not cut. Thinking they had some kind of magican on their hands they replaced these chains with seven feet long ox chains stapled to the floorboards, which Henry also managed to break into pieces.

Later, again handcuffed in total darkness and without any tools, he made an entire troupe of full-size puppets using straw, rags, burnt wood and his own blood for colour. The incredibly life-like group consisted of ten players – men, women and children – who danced with motion, ease and exactness. Word spread and Smith soon had visitors for his extraordinary magic show from all over; there was even one gentleman from Ireland.

AnnPennington

Ann Pennington (click photo to make Felix dance with Ann)

Smith also seems to have had the ability to make fire at any time, and proved it by starting fires in his cell with no apparent means. Telling fortunes using tea-leaves was another of his skills. He left the jail a free man, but a few months later, was arrested again. Apparently he’d crept into a young lady’s bedroom and stolen one of her earrings as she slept.

fire

When this term of imprisonment was up, he presented his prison keeper with a pocket knife, into the handle of which he’d set a tiny watch which kept perfect time.

calvacade

watch found here

Published in: on November 10, 2009 at 7:29 am  Comments (29)  
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