Notorious Bank Robbers in History

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John Dillinger

John Dillinger
Mug Shot

John Herbert Dillinger was one of the most infamous bank robbers in U.S. history. In the 1930s, Dillinger and his gang were responsible for three jail breaks and several bank robberies across the Midwest. The gang was also responsible for taking the lives of at least 10 innocent people. But to many Americans who were suffering from the 1930s Depression, the crimes of John Dillinger and his gang were escapades and, instead of being labeled as dangerous criminals, they became folk heroes.

Indiana State Prison

John Dillinger was sent to the Indiana State Prison for robbing a grocery store. While he served his sentence, he befriended several seasoned bank robbers, including Harry Pierpont, Homer Van Meter, and Walter Dietrich. They taught him all that they knew about robbing banks including the methods used by the notorious Herman Lamm. They planned future bank heists together when they got out of prison.

Knowing Dillinger would likely get out before any of the others, the group began to put together a plan to break out of prison. It would require Dillinger's help from the outside.

Dillinger was paroled early due to his stepmother dying. Once he was free, he started implementing the plans for the prison breakout. He managed to get handguns smuggled into the prison and joined up with Pierpont's gang and started robbing banks to put money away.

Prison Escapes

On September 26, 1933, Pierpont, Hamilton, Van Meter and six other convicts who were all armed escaped from the prison to a hideout Dillinger had arranged in Hamilton, Ohio.

They were supposed to rendezvous with Dillinger but found out that he was in jail in Lima, Ohio after being arrested for robbing a bank. Wanting to get their friend out of jail, Pierpont, Russell Clark, Charles Makley, and Harry Copeland went to the county jail in Lima. They managed to break Dillinger out of jail, but Pierpont killed the county sheriff, Jess Sarber, in the process.

Dillinger and what was now being called the Dillinger gang relocated to Chicago where they went on a crime spree robbing two police arsenals of three Thompson submachine guns, Winchester rifles and ammunition. They robbed several banks across the Midwest.

The gang then decided to relocate to Tucson, Arizona. A fire broke out at a hotel where some of the gang members were staying and the firemen recognized the group as being part of the Dillinger gang. They alerted the police and all of the gang, including Dillinger, were arrested along with their arsenal of firearms and more than $25,000 in cash.

Dillinger Escapes Again

Dillinger was charged with murdering a Chicago police officer and sent to the county jail in Crown Point, Indiana to await trial. The jail was supposed to be "escape proof" but on March 3. 1934, Dillinger, armed with a wooden gun, managed to force guards to unlock his cell door. He then armed himself with two machine guns and locked the guards and several trustees into cells. It would later be proven that Dillinger's lawyer bribed the guards to let Dillinger go.

Dillinger then made one of the biggest mistakes of his criminal career. He stole the sheriff's car and made his escape to Chicago. However, because he drove the stolen car over the state line, which was a federal offense, the F.B.I. became involved in the nationwide hunt for John Dillinger.

A New Gang

Dillinger immediately formed a new gang with Homer Van Meter, Lester (“Baby Face Nelson”) Gillis, Eddie Green, and Tommy Carroll as its key players. The gang relocated to St. Paul and got back into the business of robbing banks. Dillinger and his girlfriend Evelyn Frechette rented an apartment under the names, Mr. and Mrs. Hellman. But their time in St. Paul was short lived. 

Investigators received a tip about where Dillinger and Frechette were living and the two had to flee. Dillinger was shot during the escape. He and Frechette went to stay with his father in Mooresville until the wound healed. Frechette went to Chicago where she was arrested and convicted of harboring a fugitive. Dillinger went to meet up with his gang at the Little Bohemia Lodge near Rhinelander, Wisconsin.

Little Bohemia Lodge

Again, the F.B.I. was tipped off and on April 22, 1934, they raided the lodge. As they approached the lodge, they were hit with bullets from machine guns being fired from the roof. Agents received a report that, at another location two miles away, Baby Face Nelson had shot and killed one agent and wounded a constable and another agent. Nelson fled the scene.

At the lodge, the exchange of gunfire continued. When the exchange of bullets finally ended, Dillinger, Hamilton, Van Meter, and Tommy Carroll and two others had made their escape. One agent was dead and several others were wounded. Three camp workers were shot by the F.B.I. who thought they were part of the gang. One died and the other two were severely wounded.

A Folk Hero Dies

On July 22, 1934, after receiving a tip from Dillinger's friend, Ana Cumpanas, the F.B.I. and police staked out the Biograph Theater. As Dillinger exited the theater, one of the agents called out to him, telling him he was surrounded. Dillinger pulled out his gun and ran to an alley, but was shot multiple times and killed.

He was buried in a family plot in Crown Hill Cemetery in Indianapolis.

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Carl Gugasian, The Friday Night Bank Robber

Carl Gugasian
School Picture

Carl Gugasian, known as "The Friday Night Bank Robber," was the most prolific serial bank robber in U.S. history and one of the most eccentric. For nearly 30 years, Gugasian robbed more than 50 banks in Pennsylvania and surrounding states, for a total heist of more than $2 million.

Master's Degree

Born October 12, 1947, in Broomall, Pennsylvania, to parents who were Armenian immigrants, Gugasian's criminal activity began when he was 15 years old. He was shot while robbing a candy store and was sentenced to two years at the youth facility at Camp Hill State Correctional Institution in Pennsylvania.

After his release, Gugasian went to Villanova University where he earned a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering. He then joined the U.S. Army and relocated to Fort Bragg in North Carolina, where he received special forces and tactical weapons training.

When he got out of the Army, Gugasian attended the University of Pennsylvania and earned a master's degree in systems analysis and completed some of his doctoral work in statistics and probabilities.

During his spare time, he took karate lessons, eventually earning a black belt.

A Strange Obsession

Since the time that he robbed the candy store, Gugasian was fixated with the idea of planning and executing the perfect bank robbery. He devised intricate plans to rob a bank and tried eight times to make it a reality but backed down.

When he finally did rob his first bank, he used a stolen getaway car, which is not something he would do in the future.

Master Bank Robber

Over time, Gugasian became a master bank robber. All of his robberies were meticulously planned. He would spend hours at the library studying topographical and street maps which were essential to deciding if a chosen bank was a good risk and to help plot his getaway route.

Before he robbed a bank it had to match specific criteria:

  • The bank had to be located in a rural area off of a major highway.
  • It had to be situated next to a wooded area.
  • On the other side of the woods, there had to be a road leading to the freeway.
  • The bank had to close late during daylight savings time. This was in order that heavy clothing, gloves, and hats that helped him disguise his appearance did not look out of season.

Once he decided on a bank, he would prepare for the robbery by creating a hiding place where he would later stash evidence that connected him to the robbery, including the cash he had robbed. He would return to retrieve the money and other evidence days, weeks and sometimes months later. Many times he would only get the cash and leave other evidence such as maps, weapons, and his disguises stashed away. 

The 3- Minute Robbery

To prepare for the robbery, he would sit outside of the bank and watch what went on for days at a time. By the time it came to rob the bank, he knew how many employees were inside, what their habits were, where they were located inside, and if they owned cars or had people come to pick them up.

At two minutes before closing time on a Friday, Gugasian would enter the bank wearing a mask that often looked like Freddy Krueger. He would have all of his skin covered in baggy clothing so that no one could identify his race or describe his physique. He would walk crouched down like a crab, waving the gun and shouting at the employees not to look at him. Then, as if he was superhuman, he would leap off the ground and hop onto the counter or vault over it.

This action would always terrify the employees, which he used to his advantage to grab cash from the drawers and stuff it into his bag. Then as quickly as he entered, he would leave as if vanishing into thin air. He had a rule that a robbery would never exceed three minutes. 

The Getaway

Unlike most bank robbers who drive away from the bank they just robbed, screeching their tires as they accelerate, Gugasian left quickly and silently, making his way into the woods.

There he would stash the evidence in the prepared location, walk about a half of a mile to retrieve a dirt bike that he had left earlier, then ride through the woods to a van that was strategically parked on a road that led to an expressway. Once he got to the van, he would stash his dirt bike in the back and take off.

This technique never failed in the 30 years that he robbed banks.


One reason he picked rural banks was because the response time by the police was slower than in cities. By the time the police would arrive at the bank, Gugasian was likely a few miles away, packing his dirt bike into his van on the other side of a heavily wooded area.

Wearing a frightening mask distracted witnesses from noticing other characteristics that could help identify Gugasian, such as the color of his eyes and hair. Only one witness, out of all the witnesses that were interviewed from the banks that he robbed, could identify the color of his eyes.

Without witnesses able to supply descriptions of the robber, and without cameras that captured license plate numbers, the police would have very little to go on and the robberies would end up as cold cases.

Shooting His Victims

There were two times that Gugasian shot his victims. One time his gun went off by mistake, and he shot a bank employee in the abdomen. The second time occurred when a bank manager appeared to not follow his instructions and he shot her in the abdomen. Both victims recovered physically from their injuries.

How Gugasian Was Caught

Two inquisitive teenagers from Radnor, Pennsylvania, were digging around in the woods when they happened to spot two large PVC pipes stashed inside a concrete drainage pipe. Inside the pipes, the teens found numerous maps, weapons, ammunition, survival rations, books about survival and karate, Halloween masks, and other tools. The teens contacted the police and, based on what was inside, investigators knew the contents belonged to The Friday Night Robber who had been robbing banks since 1989.

Not only did the contents contain over 600 documents and maps of the banks that had been robbed, but it also had the locations of several other hiding places where Gugasian had stashed evidence and money.

It was at one of the hidden locations that the police found a serial number on a gun that was stashed. All other guns that they found had the serial number removed. They were able to trace the gun and discovered it had been stolen in the 1970s from Fort Bragg.

Other clues led investigators to local businesses, in particular, the local karate studio. As their list of possible suspects grew shorter, the information provided by the owner of the karate studio narrowed it down to one suspect, Carl Gugasian.

When trying to determine how Gugasian got away with robbing banks for so many years, investigators pointed to his scrupulous planning, following a strict criteria, and that he never discussed his crimes with anyone.

Face-to-Face With the Victims

In 2002, at the age of 55, Carl Gugasian was arrested outside of the Philadelphia public library. He went on trial for only five robberies, due to a lack of evidence in the other cases. He pleaded not guilty but changed his plea to guilty after a face-to-face meeting with some of the victims that he had traumatized while robbing banks.

He later said that he considered robbing banks as a victimless crime until he heard what the victims had to say.

His attitude toward the investigators changed, too, and he began cooperating. He gave them meticulous details about each robbery, including why he picked each bank and how he escaped.

He later did a training video about how to catch bank robbers for police and F.B.I. trainees. Due to his cooperation, he was able to get his sentence reduced from 115-year sentence to 17 years. He is scheduled to be released in 2021.

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Trench Coat Robbers Ray Bowman and Billy Kirkpatrick

Ray Bowman and Billy Kirkpatrick, also known as the Trench Coat Robbers, were childhood friends who grew up and became professional bank robbers. They successfully robbed 27 banks in the Midwest and Northwest in 15 years. 

The F.B.I. had no knowledge as to the identities of the Trench Coat Robbers, but were thoroughly schooled on the duo's mode of operation. In 15 years, not much had changed with the techniques that they used to rob banks.

Bowman and Kirkpatrick never robbed the same bank more than one time. They would spend weeks in advance studying the targeted bank and would know how many employees were normally present during the opening and closing hours and where they were located inside the bank at various hours. They took note of the bank layout, the type of exterior doors that were in use, and where security cameras were located.

It was beneficial for the robbers to determine what day of the week and the time of day that the bank would receive its operating cash. The amount of money the robbers stole was substantially more on those days.

When it came time to rob a bank, they disguised their appearance by wearing gloves, dark makeup, wigs, fake mustaches, sunglasses, and trench coats. They were armed with guns. 

Having honed their skills in lock picking, they would enter the banks when there were no customers, either before the bank opened or right after it closed.

Once inside, they worked swiftly and confidently to get control of the employees and the task at hand. One of the men would tie up the employees with plastic electrical ties while the other would lead a teller into the vault room.

Both men were polite, professional yet firm, as they directed employees to move away from the alarms and cameras and unlock the bank vault. 

The Seafirst Bank

On Feb. 10, 1997, Bowman and Kirkpatrick robbed the Seafirst Bank of $4,461,681.00. It was the largest amount ever stolen from a bank in U.S. history.

After the robbery, they went their separate ways and headed back to their homes. On the way, Bowman stopped in Utah, Colorado, Nebraska, Iowa, and Missouri. He stuffed cash into safety deposit boxes in each state.

Kirkpatrick also began stuffing safety deposit boxes but ended up giving a friend a trunk to hold for him. It contained over $300,000 in cash stuffed inside of it.

Why They Got Caught

It was sophisticated forensic testing that put an end to the Trench Coat Robbers. Simple mistakes made by both men would cause their downfall.??

Bowman failed to keep up his payments on a storage unit. The owner of the storage facility broke open Bowman's unit and was shocked by all of the firearms stored inside. He immediately contacted the authorities.

Kirkpatrick told his girlfriend to put $180,000.00 in cash as a deposit to buy a log cabin. The seller ended up contacting the IRS to report the large sum of money that she attempted to hand over.

Kirkpatrick was also stopped for a moving violation. Suspecting that Kirkpatrick had shown him fake identification, the police officer did a search of the car and discovered four guns, fake mustaches and two lockers that contained $2 million dollars.

The Trench Coat Robbers were eventually arrested and charged with bank robbery. Kirkpatrick was sentenced to 15 years and eight months. Bowman was convicted and sentenced to 24 years and six months.

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Anthony Leonard Hathaway

Anthony Leonard Hathaway believed in doing things his way, even when it came to robbing banks.

Hathaway was 45 years old, unemployed and living in Everett, Washington when he decided to start robbing banks. Over the next 12 months, Hathaway robbed 30 banks netting him $73,628 in stolen money. He was, by far, the fastest bank robber in the North West.

For someone new to bank robbing, Hathaway was quick to perfect his skills. Covered in a mask and gloves, he would move quickly into a bank, demand money, then leave.

The first bank that Hathaway robbed was on Feb. 5, 2013, where he walked away with $2,151.00 from the Banner Bank in Everett. After tasting the sweetness of success, he went on a bank robbing binge, holding up one bank after another and sometimes robbing the same bank multiple times. Hathaway did not venture far from his home which is one reason he robbed the same banks more than once. 

The least amount that he robbed ?was $700. The most he ever robbed was from Whidbey Island where he took $6,396.

Earned Two Monikers

Hathaway ended up being such a prolific bank robber that it earned him two monikers. He was first known as the Cyborg Bandit because of the bazaar looking metallic-like fabric that he dropped over his face during the hold-ups.

He was also dubbed the Elephant Man Bandit after he began draping a shirt over his face. The shirt had two cut outs so that he could see. It made him look similar to the main character in the movie Elephant Man.

On Feb. 11, 2014, the F.B.I. put an end to the serial bank robber. They arrested Hathaway outside of a Seattle bank. The F.B.I task force had spotted his light blue minivan which had already been tagged as being the getaway van in previous bank holdups. 

They followed the van as it pulled into the Key Bank in Seattle. They observed a man get out of the van and go into the bank while pulling a shirt over his face. When he came out, the task force was waiting and placed him under arrest.

It was later determined that one motivating factor behind Hathaway's unquenchable thirst for robbing banks was due to his addiction to casino gambling and Oxycontin which was prescribed to him for an injury. After he lost his job, he switched from Oxycontin to heroin.

Hathaway eventually agreed to a plea deal with the prosecutors. He pleaded guilty to five state charges of first-degree robbery in exchange for a nine-year prison sentence.

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John Red Hamilton

John Red Hamilton
Mug Shot

John "Red" Hamilton (also known as “Three-Fingered Jack”) was a career criminal and bank robber from Canada who was active in the 1920s and 30s. 

Hamilton's first known major crime was in March 1927 when he robbed a gas station in St. Joseph, Indiana. He was convicted and sentenced to 25 years in prison. It was while he was doing time in the Indiana State Prison that he became friends with the notorious bank robbers John Dillinger, Harry Pierpont and Homer Van Meter.

The group spent hours talking about the different banks that they had robbed and the techniques they had used. They also planned future bank robberies when they got out of prison.

After Dillinger was paroled in May 1933, he arranged for handguns to be smuggled into the shirt factory inside the Indiana prison. The guns were distributed to several convicts whom he had befriended over the years, including his close friends Pierpont, Van Meter and Hamilton.

On September 26, 1933, Hamilton, Pierpont, Van Meter, and six other armed convicts escaped from the prison to a hideout Dillinger had arranged in Hamilton, Ohio.

Their plans to meet up with Dillinger fell through when they learned that he was being held at the Allen County Jail in Lima, Ohio on bank robbery charges.

Now calling themselves the Dillinger gang, they set off to Lima to break Dillinger out of jail. Low on funds, they made a pit stop in St. Mary's, Ohio, and robbed a bank, making off with $14,000.

The Dillinger Gang Breaks Out

On October 12, 1933, Hamilton, Russell Clark, Charles Makley, Harry Pierpont, and Ed Shouse went to the Allen County Jail. The Allen county sheriff, Jess Sarber, and his wife were having dinner at the jail house when the men arrived. Makley and Pierpont introduced themselves to Sarber as officials from the state penitentiary and said they needed to see Dillinger. When Sarber asked to see credentials, Pierpont shot, then clubbed Sarber, who later died. Horrified, Mrs. Sarber handed over the jail keys to the men and they freed Dillinger.

Reunited, the Dillinger gang, including Hamilton, headed to Chicago and became the most deadly organized gang of bank robbers in the country.

The Dillinger Squad

On December 13, 1933, the Dillinger gang emptied out the safety deposit boxes in a Chicago bank netting them $50,000 (equivalent to over $700,000 today). The following day, Hamilton left his car at a garage for repairs and the mechanic contacted the police to report that he had a "gangster car." 

When Hamilton returned to pick up his car, he got into a shootout with three detectives who were waiting to question him, resulting in the death of one of the detectives. After that incident, the Chicago police formed the "Dillinger Squad" a forty-man squad focused only on the capture of Dillinger and his gang.

Another Officer Shot Dead

In January Dillinger and Pierpont decided it was time for the gang to relocate to Arizona. Deciding that they needed money to fund the move, Dillinger and Hamilton robbed the First National Bank in East Chicago on January 15, 1934. The pair made off with $20,376, but the robbery did not go as planned. Hamilton was shot twice and police officer William Patrick O'Malley was shot and killed.

The authorities charged Dillinger with murder, although several witnesses said it was Hamilton who shot the officer.

The Dillinger Gang is Busted

After the incident, Hamilton stayed in Chicago while his wounds healed and Dillinger and his girlfriend, Billie Frechette, headed to Tucson to meet up with the rest of the gang. The day after Dillinger arrived in Tucson, he and his entire gang were arrested.

With all of the gang now under arrest, and Pierpont and Dillinger both being charged with murder, Hamilton hid out in Chicago and became public enemy number one.

Dillinger was extradited to Indiana to stand trial for the murder of officer O'Malley. He was being held in what was considered an escape-proof prison, the Crown Point Prison in Lake County, Indiana. 

Hamilton and Dillinger Reunite

On March 3, 1934, Dillinger managed to slip out of the jail. Stealing the sheriff's police car, he returned to Chicago. After that break-out, Crown Point Prison was often referred to as "Clown Point." 

With the old gang now incarcerated, Dillinger had to form a new gang. He immediately reunited with Hamilton and recruited Tommy Carroll, Eddie Green, the psychopath Lester Gillis, better known as Baby Face Nelson, and Homer Van Meter. The gang left Illinois and set up in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Over the next month, the gang, including Hamilton, robbed numerous banks. The F.B.I. was now tracking the gang's crime spree because Dillinger drove the stolen police car across state lines, which was a federal offense.

In mid-March, the gang robbed the First National Bank in Mason City, Iowa. During the robbery an elderly judge, who was across the street from the bank, managed to shoot and hit both Hamilton and Dillinger. The gang's activities made headlines in all the major newspapers and wanted posters were plastered everywhere. The gang decided to lay low for awhile and Hamilton and Dillinger went to stay with Hamilton's sister in Michigan.

After staying there for about 10 days, Hamilton and Dillinger reunited with the gang at a lodge called Little Bohemia near Rhinelander, Wisconsin. The owner of the lodge, Emil Wanatka, recognized Dillinger from all of the recent media exposure. Despite Dillinger's efforts to reassure Wanatka that there wouldn't be any trouble, the lodge owner feared for the safety of his family.

On April 22, 1934, the F.B.I. raided the lodge, but in error shot at three camp workers, killing one and wounding the other two. Gunfire was exchanged between the gang and the F.B.I agents. Dillinger, Hamilton, Van Meter, and Tommy Carroll managed to escape, leaving one agent dead and several others wounded. 

They managed to steal a car a half of a mile away from Little Bohemia and they took off.

One Last Shot for Hamilton

The following day Hamilton, Dillinger and Van Meter got into another shootout with the authorities in Hastings, Minnesota. Hamilton was shot as the gang escaped in the car. Once again he was taken to Joseph Moran for treatment, but Moran refused to help. Hamilton died on April 26, 1934, in Aurora, Illinois. Reportedly, Dillinger buried Hamilton near Oswego, Illinois. In order to hide his identity, Dillinger covered Hamilton's face and hands with lye.

Hamilton's grave was found four months later. The body was identified as Hamilton through dental records.

Despite finding Hamilton's remains, rumors continued to circulate that Hamilton was actually alive. His nephew said he visited with his uncle after he supposedly died. Other people reported seeing or speaking to Hamilton. But there has never been any real concrete evidence that the body buried in the grave was anyone other than John "Red" Hamilton.

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Your Citation
Montaldo, Charles. "Notorious Bank Robbers in History." ThoughtCo, Aug. 1, 2021, Montaldo, Charles. (2021, August 1). Notorious Bank Robbers in History. Retrieved from Montaldo, Charles. "Notorious Bank Robbers in History." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 24, 2023).