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Minden Bank & Trust was robbed in 1938

by Minden Press-Herald

This week’s Echo of Our Past is a story from the years of the Great Depression in Minden. One disturbing development of that era was the increase in crime and the rise of legendary outlaws and bank robbers. While Bonnie and Clyde were frequent visitors to the Minden area they did not take part in our brush with the bank robbers of the 1930s. This article tells the story the robbery of Minden Bank & Trust during the summer of 1938, 80 years ago last week.

June 8, 1938, was a typical Tuesday morning in downtown Minden. Charleston Tillman, an 80-year-old resident of Heflin came into town early that morning. His first stop was the Minden Post Office where he picked up his “government check”. Leaving the post office, he crossed the street bound for Minden Bank & Trust, which was slated to open at 9:00 a.m. It was not yet 9:00, so Tillman struck up a conversation with James Frazier, a Minden resident, who was also waiting for the bank to open. While they were talking they noticed the approach of J. E. Harper, President of the Minden Bank. Harper, former Principal of Minden High School, had been the chief operating officer of the bank since it had opened in 1934. The bank was located in the unique, green-tiled-facade structure that had been built around 1900 for the Bank of Minden, the predecessor of Minden Bank that had failed in the bank crisis of 1933.

Harper spoke to the customers and told them he would let them in the bank, as it was nearly time to open. Harper entered the bank in a mood of apprehension; he had been warned by Bill Melton, State Policeman, that the authorities believed the robbers who had robbed the Bradley, Arkansas bank on Monday were still in the area. They were rumored to be planning another robbery somewhere in Northwest Louisiana. As the men came into the building, they saw Louis Scruggs, Assistant Cashier, standing behind the counter in the teller’s cage. Harper asked Scruggs a casual question and opened the door to the teller cage. Upon entering the enclosure, Harper was greeted by an armed bandit with a gun who ordered him to the rear of the institution — here he was bound at the wrists with copper wire and forced to sit with other bank employees already captured. The robber was a small man, weighing around 130 lbs, wearing a checked sport coat with a belted back. The two customers, Tillman and Frazier, were also ordered to the back of the bank and joined the prisoners. When Tillman asked the robber not to kill him he was told to “shut up” and when Frazier turned around to look at the robber he was warned to look straight ahead. These three men had become the latest participants in an ongoing crime that began earlier that morning.

At about 3 a.m., Harry Mahoney, Herbert Skaggs, and Dondo Davis entered Minden Bank by prying loose one of the new “burglar proof” screens on a rear window from its frame and then opening the window. The fourth member of the crew, Harry’s brother Truman Mahoney, dropped the men off at the rear of the bank and proceeded to a site on the Gibsland Road with the getaway car. According to the plan, he would wait until about 8:30 a.m. and then come into town and pick up the robbers. The robbers had “cased” the bank and knew it was holding an unusually large amount of cash because of the extensive oil and gas trading going on in the Minden area.

The three robbers waited in the bank for employees to arrive. The first to come in was Weyman West, a porter who opened the front door at 7:15 a.m. He was immediately followed by Earl Crews, bookkeeper. Both were seized, taken to the rear of the bank and their wrists bound with copper wire. Crews said that he saw only two of the bandits and that they were well dressed, of short stature, and were masked. He said that one of the men stayed with them, ordering them to keep their faces toward the wall and warning against attempting to give an alarm.

The next employee to arrive was Louis Scruggs, assistant cashier, who let himself in by the front entrance only to be confronted by two armed men. Scruggs was taken to the rear of the bank but later forced to stand behind the teller cage to prevent other arriving employees from being alarmed. Soon two female employees, Dorothy Hadwin and Clara Johnson, clerks, arrived for work and were taken to the rear of the bank where they too were bound. Miss Johnson told Scruggs as she arrived that she was going down the street to shop for a minute and would be back. He replied by telling her “no”, she must come in the bank. This process was repeated two or three times as Miss Johnson became increasingly angry. Finally, looking at the ashen-faced Scruggs, she realized that something was wrong and came inside.

Scruggs stated that one of the bandits forced him to the teller’s cage and told him to “act natural.” “We want a nice quiet party,” the bandit said, “and we won’t have it if you attempt to touch any buttons or give an alarm.”

After Harper, Tillman, and Frazier had been bound, the robbers proceeded with their work. Scruggs was then questioned by the bandits as to the time the time lock on the vault was set to open. When he refused to answer he was threatened with death, so he told the bandits that the lock was set for 8:30 a.m. Ordered to try the lock, he did so and found the vault open. He was then taken to the rear of the bank and bound with the others.

One of the bandits guarded the prisoners, huddled by the safe deposit box vault, while the others looted the main vault. J. E. Harper said that he had by this time managed to loosen the copper wire with which his wrists were bound but that the bandit guarding saw the strand of loose wire. “We have a smart guy with us,” the bandit said. Harper’s wrists were then rebound and his ankles tied with wire. He was the only member of the bank’s staff to be bound at the ankles. In addition, the criminals pulled Harper’s hat down on his head blocking his eyes. Another employee, Clara Johnson, had to “squirm” over at Harper’s request, and bite the hat brim and pull the hat up so Harper could see.

Harper said the bandits looting the front safe remained there for several minutes before one of the band returned and asked for keys to the safe deposit vault. He forced the prisoners into the safe deposit vault. The bandits intended to lock them in the vault but did not after the prisoners pleaded that suffocation was certain if the vault was locked.

The robbers warned their prisoners of instant retaliation for any attempt to create an alarm, and said they needed time to make a getaway. Harper said the bandits told him that he could loosen himself and other employees after 9 o’clock but that it might take “ten minutes to two weeks” to make a getaway.

Willie Washington and Lloyd Rochelle, employees of the Imperial Tailors, located across Green Street from the rear entrance of the bank, saw the bandit getaway from a window of their shop. A black 1936 Chevrolet, with an Arkansas license, in which four women were riding, drove to the rear of the bank, they said. One of the women got out, went to the door of the bank and knocked. She returned to the car and after several seconds, another of the women repeated the performance.

The car with the women then drove off, the witnesses said, and was immediately followed by a V-8 Ford, 1936 model, bearing Louisiana license plates. This car halted briefly by the door while the four bandits, one slouched over and carrying a sack of money, came out of the bank, and got into the car. The bandit car then drove to Pearl Street and turned to enter Pine Street, the last place the bandits were seen. Rochelle and Washington said the bandits were all of short stature, were wearing dark glasses and that three of them wore Panama hats.

Local police received first information of the robbery when J. D. and Travis Taylor, owners of Imperial Tailors, heard their employees discussing the incident. J. D. Taylor went to the bank’s front entrance and noticing that the window shades were up about 18 inches, peered in. Knowing that by 9 o’clock employees should be inside, and seeing none, he summoned Trentis Ivy, Minden policeman, who was standing in front of the Post Office. The two of them went to the rear door of the bank where they saw Weyman West, trying to loosen his bonds. Ivy went into the bank and assisted in freeing the employees while Taylor hurriedly notified the Sheriff’s Office.

Sheriff O. H. Haynes was called from his home in Shongaloo and immediately swore in several special deputies. All began an intensive search of Webster parish roads and known hideouts.

Officers in surrounding parishes and the state highway police departments were notified and the search extended to all North Louisiana, South Arkansas and East Texas. The Federal Bureau of Investigation was notified, and it informed the bank that an immediate check for the amount of the loss would be made and the F.B. I. agents had entered the investigation. Since the Minden Bank and Trust Co. was a member of the Federal Reserve Bank and carried Federal Deposit Insurance on its funds. Insurance on up to $30,000 in losses per depositor were covered. Harper noted that the bank had recently installed special “bandit-proof” equipment, which included bulletproof glass in teller’s cages, steel barriers and screens for all windows and doors.

Rumors ran rampant about the robbery. Popular speculation was that the robbery had been committed by Floyd Hamilton, a former member of Bonnie and Clyde’s gang. Another likely suspect was escaped convict Charles Chapman, who had ties to Webster Parish and was familiar with the Dorcheat Bayou area. Residents reported seeing vehicles matching the car used in the Bradley robbery containing armed men in the area during the days before the crime. For more than a month, local and federal authorities were unable to solve the crime. Then, according to one account, an overheard beauty shop conversation provided the key to solving the caper. The two Mahoney wives, Bessie (Mrs. Harry) and Mable (Mrs. Truman), got into an argument in an area beauty shop. During the fracas, one of the women let a piece of information slip that revealed their involvement in the crime. A customer who heard the conversation reported this information to the law enforcement officials. This opened the door to solving the crime and began a series of “soap opera” style happenings regarding the case.

The women were known to be staying with Mr. and Mrs. Frank Denmon, who lived on Lake Bistineau in Bossier Parish.

Authorities sent a local service station operator as an undercover operative to discover if the robbers were at the Denmon residence. Speculation up to this point had been that the robbers had escaped to the north, so the local area had not been carefully screened. The undercover operative used the guise of being a prospective cattle buyer to gain access to the Denmon property. He reported that some members of the gang were at the Bistineau residence. This placed authorities on the trail and they soon wrapped up the case.

Evidence found allowed the authorities to immediately arrest the Denmons as accessories to the crime. Soon after the Mahoneys were captured in Little Rock, Arkansas. Eventually, Herbert Skaggs was arrested in his hometown of Terre Haute, Indiana. The final member

of the crew, Dondo Davis was arrested when he returned to Indiana from Texas. Soon after their capture, Truman Mahoney, 27, and Harry Mahoney, 32, confessed to the crime and told their story. After this confession on July 27, the wives of the Mahoney brothers were charged as accessories before and after the crime along with Frank and Ida Denmon.

On August 24, 1938, Herbert Skaggs, 34, pled guilty to bank robbery. He was sentenced to serve 14 to 28 years on the state charges. The Mahoneys were present in court as potential witnesses but were not called to testify. The Mahoneys and Davis eventually pled guilty on October 11, 1938. The Mahoneys had arranged a plea before court but upon entering the courtroom at first refused to enter a guilty plea. After a conference with their wives they relented and pled guilty. All three received 14 to 28-year sentences. In response to the sentence the Mahoneys were silent but Davis commented, “Judge, that’s a mighty long time.” Great security surrounded the courtroom since the two Mahoney wives had already helped their husbands attempt one jailbreak from their cells in the Caddo Parish Jail.
Davis’ share of the money was not recovered. When first arrested, he had claimed Skaggs didn’t pay him. Later Davis admitted he took his share of the money in hopes of buying a “beer joint.” He spent about $1500 of his cash and lost the rest when his Tijuana motel room was robbed. Davis read of Skaggs’ confession in a Texas newspaper and concocted the story about not being paid out of anger over Skaggs’ admission.

The robbers faced a second, Federal, trial in late October 1938 where Davis and the Mahoneys were sentenced to 15 years in Federal Prison, Skaggs received a 10-year sentence. These Federal prison sentences were to run concurrently with the state sentence. Mrs. Ida Denmon was sentenced to two years in the Federal Women’s Prison at Alderman, West Virginia. Her husband was to serve his time in Louisiana, since he was already in the Webster Parish Jail on other charges.

Final accounting reported that the robbery had netted $18,226. 32 in cash and $9,000 in Bolivian Bonds. The robbers had gotten everything in the bank, except the rolls of nickels. These were discovered after the robbery by Dorothy Hadwin in her purse. Apparently, the robbers had intended to use her purse to hold the change and left it behind. She was pictured on the front of the local newspaper holding the bag stuffed with rolls of coin. Federal authorities credited Sheriff Haynes, Deputy Sheriff Prentiss Hough, President Harper and City Marshall Hamner with breaking the case. The final word on this episode belongs to Charleston Tillman. When asked by a reporter how he felt during the crime he replied, “ . . . it was the worst time I had since I done come into this world.”

Minden Historian John Agan’s column appears Tuesdays in the Minden Press-Herald.Special to the Press-Herald.

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