Updated: 7 days ago
By Richard J Bottorff Fillmore County Historical Society Board Member and Local Researcher
Yeggs! What the heck is a Yegg? Headlines splashed across the September and October 1924 issues of the Wykoff newspaper: “Yeggs Blast Exchange State Bank.” It was the talk of the town, of course. I remember the re-creation of the event at Wykoff’s July 4th celebration in 1976 and still have coffee with the actors today. However, nobody really knows much about that long-ago crime; the burglars were rumored to have been caught in some far-off state and an article about them might be archived in a yellowed edition of the Minneapolis Star and Tribune. So I decided to put on my detective shoes and track down those “yeggs” (burglars) to find out as much as I could.
Even getting the exact date of the burglary proved problematic. The Minneapolis Star and Tribune ran a story on October 2, 1924 stating that the infamous deed occurred early on a Thursday morning, which would have been September 25, 1924. Meanwhile the Wykoff newspaper said the robbery occurred early Tuesday morning, meaning September 23, 1924. To set the record straight when issues of Wykoff history are in dispute, I often refer to my grandmother’s diary, but she didn't start keeping it until 1939. Undeterred, after digging into the matter, I determined that the heist probably happened at 3:15 am on September 24, 1924. The number of men and women involved were more than eight. They cut the telephone and telegraph lines coming into Wykoff, and used shot guns and rifles to threaten people awakened by the blasting of the safe and the clapping of the alarm. Miss Esther Bratrud and Miss Romona Sherman, school teachers living across the street in the boarding house (the town’s Behring building), got their windows shot out when they turned on the lights, as did Mrs Mary Wendorf who lived next door to the bank. The well-executed professional job netted $600, which even in 1924 wasn't much money for the effort involved. One day earlier would have given the robbers a much bigger payout because a lot of grain was sold in Wykoff the previous day.
First Big Break
The first big break in my research came in a Winona Daily News article written on February 6, 1925. In all fairness, I feel obligated to note that because these people were never actually charged with the Wykoff bank robbery, the term “alleged” robbers is appropriate. While we will never actually know the true identity of the robbers, this fact doesn't make the case any less interesting. The Fillmore County Bankers Association offered a $25,000 wanted dead or alive reward and hired the William J Burns Detective Agency to solve the case. The findings of the detective agency were the source of most of the information passed on to police and the press. After all, it was in the detective agency's best interest to show progress – real or speculative. Although not altogether accurate, the Wykoff Dover Bank robbery article in the Winona Daily News is worth a read. The Kinzie Gang, as they were known, should more appropriately be called the Kinzie-Dunning Gang, because the four main players were Robert Hale Kinzie (dob 6/3/1888), Rose Kinzie (dob unknown), Elmer Ellsworth Dunning (dob 1/6/1880) and Sadie Dunning (dob 4/16/1884). The other known associates were William “Jack” Marsh, Edward Welch and Edward Larson (though their birth dates are not provided). Larry “Post Office” Carr, a St Paul gangster, was incorrectly reported to be a gang member, and to have been killed by RH Kinzie right after the Wykoff burglary. Only problem with that theory is Carr died on September 8, 1924, several weeks before the Wykoff burglary. Nonetheless, Carr is a fascinating character as was his wife Josephine Brunell who died on April 24, 1927 in a “blind pig” shootout in St Paul. While Larry and Josephine might have known RH Kinzie or Dunning at some point, there is no evidence of this. Larry Carr was a known yeggman, and Kinzie had ties to the St Paul underworld. Carr's death did start an underworld feud that resulted in several deaths as retribution. If there was a disagreement between Carr and Kinzie or Dunning, all of them were capable of murder. Roy Rogers, a notorious St Paul bootlegger, pimp, and gangster whose name appears with this gang from time to time, was arrested for Carr’s shooting, but he was never convicted. (Because of the use of aliases, especially to local law enforcement, the task of researching news articles is at times difficult. Some news items were not included for this reason.)
World of Yeggdom
LaCrosse Sheriff Al Riley in an August 9, 1931 article in the LaCrosse Sunday Tribune explains how “Yeggdom” criminals were schooled. To understand the profession is to understand the culture and just how disciplined these yeggs were. We know that the Wykoff Exchange State Bank burglary involved at least eight to 11 people, including two or three women. A theft ring like this was also a trade school for younger “up-and-comers” to learn the profession. The gang would take a male or female adolescent under their wing and have them earn their keep first by begging on the streets. Sporting boils produced by lye or acid, and dirty, shabby clothes, the youngster would pull at the heart strings of every passerby. All earnings would go back to the gang. It was unforgivable for the child to keep the money, honor amongst thieves you know. After three years or so, the trainee would graduate to “look out” for burglar jobs and survey locations as well as watchmen, police, and the location of the safe. They would be assigned a “Jockerman” who was an experienced yegg that would be their teacher and mentor. Upon graduation, they would receive a moniker and a gun; however, the gun could only be used when their own life was in danger. A yegg with a gun was a “made man” in the gang; it was a great honor.
Nitroglycerin was first used in safe cracking after 1893. It was discovered that by soaking dynamite in water, the nitroglycerin could be extracted, mixed with soap and placed into the pried open cracks of a vault door. A fuse and detonator would be attached to the soap/nitroglycerin concoction, and the yeggs would flee up to four blocks away to wait for the blast. It took six blasts to open the Wykoff vault with this same concoction. Burglars like the Kinzie-Dunning gang were organized: jobs were planned, sites cased and getaways devised. If caught, as part of their training, yeggs were pledged to secrecy and taught how to survive police questioning in “The Can.” Aliases were common, with yeggs spending whole prison terms under an alias. We still don't know which alias Sadie Dunning and Rose Kinzie used – Dorothy Flournoy or Peggy Williams amongst many others. Things to remember when looking at the Kinzie-Dunning gang, both Hale Kinzie and Elmer Dunning were charged with carrying a concealed weapon, and neither were inclined to use an alias, which signified power and leadership in their culture.
Leader of the Pack
The gang’s leader in all likelihood was Elmer Dunning, as the oldest, most experienced member, though Hale Kinzie is often given credit. Certainly the two worked together. Elmer Dunning was a murderer, implicated in the James Brown murder in 1915, according to the August 29, 1915 issue of the Sioux City Sunday Journal. The gang was based in Sioux City, Iowa. Besides the great Wykoff Exchange State Bank burglary, they operated a car theft ring, and even blew their way out of a Newton, Kansas jail on May 24, 1924. But their specialty was safe cracking, and their range was the entire Midwest. Dunning, Kinzie and Marsh all spent time in prison and were considered “habitual criminals.” There are prison records for them in Fort Madison Prison, Iowa, as well as the South Dakota Penitentiary in Sioux Falls. Perhaps the most interesting person in the gang was Sadie (Waddington) Dunning. In 1897, she was married off at the tender age of 13 to Frank Bond at the time about 30 years old. After two years, Sadie came back to live with her mother; a neighbor declared her a bad girl that used foul language. Sadie was then sent to the Girls industrial School at Mitchellville, according to the March 2, 1900 issue of the Evening Times Republican. It is unknown if Sadie ever divorced Bond, but her name shows up again on Elmer Dunnings death certificate and grave stone. She appears as Mrs Sadie Dunning on Elmer's death certificate dated February 21, 1925, just five months after the Wykoff burglary. She died Sadie L Geeron on February 7, 1950. Elmer and Sadie did have a son together, Norman J Dunning (dob 8/11/1918). The law almost caught up with Elmer Dunning after an unsuccessful attempt to rob a bank at Farlin, Iowa on February 19, 1925, but he managed to escape in the subsequent shootout. He made it back to 319 South College Street in Sioux City, only to take his own life by hanging himself from the basement rafters; he also suffered from tuberculosis and hemorrhages. He died by strangulation on February 21, 1925. Sadie claimed the body and had him buried. His infamous career as a yeggman and highway man is too extensive for this article.
Robert Hale Kinzie, who went by Hale or RH in prison records, was married to a yet unidentified woman named Rose. He was a violent habitual criminal who earned a living by burglarizing banks and stealing cars. On a side note, his brother Gordon Kinzie, a jewelry store burglar, died in a police shootout in St Paul. The car theft ring Hale was part of would steal cars in Minnesota and Iowa, drive them to Milwaukee and Chicago, and trade them out with cars stolen there to bring back for clean registration. Kinzie, after the Wykoff-to-Farlin reign of terror, did his time, committed more crimes, and ultimately ended up dying on May 24, 1936. He was brought to St Vincent Hospital in Sioux City, Iowa for treatment of injuries suffered in what he said was a still explosion; doctors had to amputate his right leg. Authorities at the time said he was blowing open a safe and blew off his foot with nitroglycerin. He died a slow death due to shock and gangrene infection. The death certificate is evidence that Kinzie was, at least at the time of his death, a “cracks-man” – the gang person responsible for blowing open the safe. This was a highly skilled, obviously dangerous, position in the gang. He did not start out as a “cracks-man” but rose to it over a lifetime of learning and apprenticing in lesser roles. His wife Rose Kinzie has been near impossible to track down, if Rose is even her real name. A woman often identified as Kinzie's wife was taken into custody on several occasions. I have not had a lead in finding her true identity yet, but I will keep looking. Kinzie was listed as single on his 1936 death certificate; a woman named Gladys Welcher was the informant. Gladys V Welcher was a bootlegger and ran a “blind pig” establishment with her husband ER James at 517 West 7th Street in Sioux City. More than likely she was just a friend to Kinzie who would have frequented such establishments; basically his bartender claimed the body. Ironically, when researching Sadie Dunning, it wasn't until I saw Elmer Dunning’s grave stone and discovered a birth date for Sadie that I was able to track her down.
Rest of the Gang
Now for the rest of the gang. William “Jack” Marsh went to prison with RH Kinzie after the Farlin, Iowa shootout and appears in various thefts after that. Jack Marsh was very good at using an alias and William “Jack” Marsh, like Rose Kinzie, may not even be his real name. He had been in Ft Madison Prison in Iowa as William “Jack” Marsh at least three times. As of this writing no family history can be found for him. In the Burlington Hawkeye Gazette on October 1, 1931, there is an article about RH Kinzie, Jack Marsh and Edward Wilson having a hearing of habeas corpus for larceny of a motor vehicle. So five years after the Farlin, Iowa, bank burglary and shootout, the Kinzie Gang was at it again. The hearing was set for November 9, 1931. Edward Welch got away from the Farlin Savings Bank robbery, and in a Gazette article published on April 23, 1926, he was located in the county jail at Manitowoc, Wisconsin, with his wife (name unknown) for larceny and breaking jail. Iowa was seeking his extradition from Wisconsin for the Farlin bank job. As for Edward Wilson, not much is known. We know he was back in the Kinzie-Dunning gang by October 1931, and at the time of the Wykoff Exchange State Bank burglary was probably a low-level player. There certainly would have been more people and possibly even teenagers in the gang. A Wykoff resident’s account of the robbery at the time indicated that young boys were seen by bank president Fred Wendorf's house on the night of the robbery. This report is consistent with the social structure of these types of gangs. This oral history has not been confirmed but does speak to the level of research that went into the burglary before the infamous deed.
The Winona Daily News article of February 6, 1925 stated that the gang’s women were in charge, that they cased the bank and picked the mark. This is incorrect as the women gang members were certainly not in charge. The social structure of “Yeggdom” had a clear caste system. The women and children of the gang were used to pick marks, case banks, and gather as much information as they could about a job. The inherent innocence of a woman or child allowed them to poke around in a town without raising suspicion while a male drifter would get noticed by the locals. Before a professional gang, such as the Kinzie-Dunning outfit, pulled off a bank burglary similar to the Wykoff heist, they would have cased the location weeks before the robbery. Circumstantial evidence suggests that this did happen in the Wykoff case. Just 13 days before the burglary, the Wykoff Enterprise reported in its September 11, 1924 issue that William S Kidd's 1921 Ford touring car was stolen from the Methodist Church. Ironically, Kidd was a big supporter of First State Bank, the competition in town to the Exchange State Bank. This might just have been a coincidence, but a likely scenario is that the gang blew into town to case the bank and grabbed a car as an easy mark. Remember auto theft was their other specialty. The same article mentioned that a considerable amount of gas was stolen from a road workers’ supply tank. This gang of eight to 11 members would have had several cars in its caravan. Getaways were planned in great detail, often involving many vehicles. The gang was unlikely to pass up an opportunity to steal fuel for their caravan. But we will never know with certainty as this is speculative but no less interesting.
Great Exchange Bank Burglary
Now that we have introduced the players, the social structure and culture of gang life, and their modus operandi, we can answer this question: What happened in Wykoff's Great Exchange State Bank Burglary in September 1924? Let’s put it all together with the information we have uncovered so far. Keep in mind that this version of alleged events is somewhat speculative and based on certain assumptions we have made.
Elmer Dunning, wife Sadie, six-year-old son Norman (obviously not part of the burglary), along with RH Kinzie, wife Rose, Ed Welch and wife (whose name is unknown), Jack Marsh, Ed Wilson and a couple young apprentices used to travel Highway 9, known as the Buffalo Trail Highway, to get from Iowa/Minnesota to Chicago. Highway 9 was the Interstate 90 of that day and went right through Wykoff – a booming farm community that had money, hard-working thrifty folks, and two banks. The gang would have been familiar with the area, if not the town, from their activities of running cars to Chicago that they had stolen in Iowa and Minnesota. Wykoff was picked because it was isolated, its telephone and telegraph lines could be cut to knock out communication with the outside world, and it afforded an easy escape by road or rail. Two weeks before the burglary, gang members came to town. A woman and child, like Sadie and Norman, would have been perfect choices to case the bank, its employees and the law. Such an innocent pair would not raise any suspicion among the townfolk. The gang had picked a fall date because this was a prosperous time in Wykoff owing to crop and livestock sales.
Then around 3 o’clock in the morning, the heist began. The gang cut the telephone and telegraph lines, posted armed guards at all roads coming into town, and positioned lookouts at the bank president’s house as well as along Gold Street in front of the bank and behind it. The alarm sounded first, but was silenced by a volley of gunfire which woke the neighbors. When their lights came on, the gang shot out their windows and ordered them to stay down. Then the wedge men pried open the vault door wide enough to insert the nitroglycerin and soft soap mixture. After the door was wedged open, Elmer Dunning, the cracks-man, stepped forward to position the explosives, fuse and detonator. Then he cleared the area and lit the fuse. After the first explosion, he repeated the procedure five more times before the vault door finally opened. The $600 inside the safe was a disappointment, to be sure, as the gang had done much better in past heists. Any Wykoff resident approaching the burglars would have been killed in a gun fight. Afterwards the gang left town by speeding towards Olmsted County on County Road 5, eventually making it to St Paul, then back home to Sioux City. Their fate was sealed when they set their sights on Farlan, Iowa, their next mark, where they botched the job, got shot up, and caught.
That in a nutshell is our story of the Great Exchange State Bank Burglary, simple as it was. To be sure, there is no evidence that Sadie, Norman or any of the other gang members were in Wykoff or took part in the heist. But it makes a great story. . . .
So to answer our first question: “What is a Yegg?” The common definition is a burglar, especially someone who cracks open safes. The slang term first appeared in the early 1900s with usage peaking in the 1920s when the Wykoff bank heist occurred. But there is more to learn here. The world of Yeggdom represented a culture where young people were raised, trained and developed into criminals. The code of honor among yeggmen had a clearly defined pecking order. Members were trained to never give information to the law, and those who proved themselves were allowed to carry a gun as a badge of honor. Think of yeggs as being similar to gypsies in that they were drifters or knockabouts but being way beyond societal norms given their stock in trade of burglarizing banks. This is not to be confused with robbing banks. Bank robbers were violent daytime hold-up men who didn't necessarily put much thought into their crimes. Yeggs were nighttime burglars who preferred stealth and great planning. Now a team of yeggs given the right opportunity were capable of any crime that would make them money and any violence associated with that crime. Robert Hale Kinzie was unlikely to have killed Larry “Post Office” Carr in an argument over dividing up loot even before the Wykoff heist. As yeggman, they both would only kill in situations of self defense. Also, the yegg leader would intervene to solve such disputes. If one band of yeggs temporarily disbanded, another gang would recruit the skilled yeggmen set adrift. This might have happened with Larry “Post Office” Carr. As a armed yeggman with a reputation in the underworld, he might have joined the Sioux City gang as a temporary gig. Nonetheless, he was a St Paul yeggman and Sioux City was a little off his turf, so we will never know for sure. To sum it up, yeggs were more than burglars, they were organized and skilled criminals who earned the respect of their underworld compatriots.