Loud noises coming from the front of the bank woke John Eldridge and his wife in Sully, Iowa, about 3 a.m. on January 30, 1920. The couple lived behind the Sully State Bank, and Eldridge didn’t hesitate to grab his shotgun as he headed toward the front of the bank building to investigate. He shot at two men who ran a few blocks to an auto that whisked them away toward Des Moines.
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Turned out Eldridge interrupted a couple of robbers who had used crowbars and mallets stolen from the local blacksmith shop to smash through the front door of the bank. They were on their way out after robbing 15 lock boxes. They would have gotten into the bank vault holding about $30,000 had Eldridge not interrupted. Although the robbers had cut all the telephone lines going into Sully, somehow residents got word out to the Des Moines police who were on the lookout for the robbers.
The Sully robbery was one of many tied to a couple who were arrested in November 1920 in Minneapolis. Federal agents used a sting operation to capture Clyde Smith and one-time Davenport, Iowa, resident Cin Bearse. The pair ran a detective agency in Minneapolis, but it was a cover for their illicit endeavors.
Posing as an individual who had stolen Liberty bonds for sale, agent Thomas Porter, known to Smith as “Old Tom, the Crook,” arranged to meet with Smith in Rochester, Minnesota. When Smith paid Porter $5,000 for the phony bonds and deposited them in a Rochester bank, bank authorities, who were in on the bust, informed the feds. After arresting Smith, agents moved in on Bearse, who was at her Minneapolis apartment. The New York Times reported agents discovered $30,000 in bonds, including those taken from the Sully bank. Bearse was arrested and taken to the county jail.
The trial for the two, accused of robbing banks in Minnesota, South Dakota, Wisconsin and Iowa, began in April 1921. During the trial Bearse, a 42-year-old grandmother testified in her own defense and took the opportunity to verbally attack Frank W. Sommer, one of the federal agents involved in her arrest. She claimed he had entered her home without a warrant as he looked for evidence. He refused to allow Bearse to kiss her aged mother goodbye before taking her off to jail. And she claimed, Sommer had cursed at her.
“The next morning he called on me in jail and told me to prepare for my arraignment. When I tried to talk to him he swore and told me he did not want any more of my lies,” Bearse told the courtroom. And she said when she asked for a lawyer, Sommer said she did not need one.
The Star Tribune, a Minneapolis newspaper, reported Bearse and Smith were surrounded by friends and seemed in excellent spirits as they waited for the jury to deliberate. After 26 hours, the jury returned, telling the judge they could not reach a verdict. Their deliberation resulted in nine jurors voting for conviction and three acquittal. The judge dismissed the case. However, in April 1924 Smith and Bearse were again facing a jury, as charges were brought against them for possession of altered Liberty bonds with intent to defraud. This time, the pair used an interesting defense, claiming they were merely doing their jobs as detectives trying to trap a known robber and murderer, Barney McTague, in hopes of earning a $50,000 reward. The jury didn’t buy their story. The two were sentenced to 15 years in the federal penitentiary.
- “Bank Robbed,” Wausau (Wisc.) Daily Herald, Jan. 30, 1920.
- “Bond Swindle Jury Retires, Minus Verdict,” Star Tribune (Minneapolis, Minn.), Apr. 29, 1921.
- “Defendant in Bond Fraud Case Assails Two U.S. Officials,” Star Tribune (Minneapolis, Minn.), Apr. 28, 1921.
- “Former Davenport Women, Now Detective, Sent to the Pen For Fifteen Years,” Quad-City Times (Davenport, IA), May 22, 1925.
- “Get Alleged Bond Thieves in Plot,” Daily Tribune (Wisconsin Rapids, Wisc.), Nov. 10, 1920.
- “Jury in Bears-Smith Case Fails to Agree, Dismissed,” Star Tribune, Apr. 30, 1921.
- “Sully State Bank Robbed Early Today,” Des Moines Tribune, Jan. 30, 1920.
- “U.S. Bonds Recovered,” Chicago Banker, vol. 50, p.11, Nov. 13, 1920.