Depression-era bank robberies were back in the public consciousness a few years ago with the release of the movie, "Public Enemies," part of which was filmed in the Columbia County.
The film's protagonist, the infamous John Dillinger, never robbed the Poynette Bank, but 75 years ago this week, a pair of men tried, only to be thwarted by a brave clerk who may have saved the fortunes of many residents.
The Poynette Bank, then located on 110 N. Main Street, was held up by two armed gunmen around 9:45 a.m. July 20, 1937. There were three workers in the bank at the time: cashier Arthur Jamieson, 44, son of bank owner Hugh Pierce Jamieson, clerk Rolland Webb and bookkeeper John Waugh.
According to the July 23 issue of the Press, the trio saw one man approach the bank "cage" and announce, "This is a holdup!
"The bandit who approached the bank window was apparently in a high state of nervous tension, for, although the attendants, upon hearing the command, did not make any definite moves to immediately resist, the gunman suddenly fired a shot and bounded up on the projecting desk of the window and fired about five shots in rapid succession over at the men working in the bank. As he jumped up on the ledge, Mr. Jamieson, then realizing the affair was not a joke, moved toward the bandit and received two bullets through his leg, one through the calf, and one through the thigh. Mr. Webb fortunately escaped injury when a bullet passed through his shirt at the chest at an angle, going under his right arm. John Waugh, the bookkeeper, also escaped unscathed in the hail of bullets."
The gunman and an accomplice fled down the street, without any money, around the corner to their car, which was parked a block away. Despite his wounds, a bloodied but determined Jamieson pursued them down the street, catching the attention of residents.
Chase in on
Truck driver William Bube saw and heard the commotion and gave chase in his vehicle, unarmed, as the gunmen sped out to U.S. 51, but was forced to turn back when they pointed a gun at him. Village Marshal Allen Bisbee was in the village hall at the time of the holdup, and the the Press speculated the robbers were watching him, as he was on the street nearby a few moments earlier, and the gunmen entered the bank as soon as he walked into the hall.
William Gundlach of Arlington was in the bank transacting business at the time and at first paid little attention to the man as he approached the cage, but when shots rang out and he realized what was occurring, he slipped unharmed into the back room. Mrs. John Erickson and her daughter, Mathilda of Morrisonville, who were also in the bank at the time, flung themselves on floor and escaped the flying bullets.
The gunmen were described as "being dressed in blue overalls and wide brimmed hats, one quite short and stocky, the other taller." No subsequent articles in the Press detailed any further information on the two gunmen, and it is thought they escaped any subsequent search by police.
Jamieson was rushed to a Portage Hospital by Dr. R. B. Dryer and was released to a doctor's care, though the Press reported he returned to work, refusing to leave.
The Wisconsin State Journal reported that holes were left all over the bank walls by the "wildly fired" shots, but Jamieson was the only one hit. Waugh, the bookkeeper, was out of the line of fire.
The getaway car was described by witnesses as a dark-colored 1935 Ford V-8. The State Journal reported Bube's chase.
"I followed the car to (U.S.) 51 and then south until one of the men crawled into the back seat of the car and pointed his gun at my car," he said. "Then I stopped and came back."
Jamieson described the gunmen to Portage officials as one about six feet tall, wearing dark glasses and the other short and heavy-set. Both, he said, carried guns and both wore slouch hats pulled low, overalls and work shirts.
Witnesses said that Jamieson's action frightened the bandits away. When the man mounted the ledge outside the cage, they said Jamieson moved towards him and as Jamieson did so the gunman opened fire.
According to the State Journal article, Webb and Waugh said that when the men announced their intentions, the employees refused to move and open the locked cage door as ordered and one gunman then started to climb inside the cage.
"I didn't see the men come in but when I heard the first shot I dropped to the floor and so did my mother," said Mathilda Erickson.
Gundlach, manager of a canning factory at Arlington, said he heard the men say "this is a stick-up" but his back was to them and wasn't sure what was happening.
"I thought someone was having a little fun, but when they started shooting I knew something was wrong," he said. "I glanced toward the door and saw one man standing there with a gun. Then I beat it for a back room."
Remembering the incident
Roberta Brendel was 16 years old in 1937 and remembers "Art" Jamieson as a quiet man who always passed her house on Main Street on his way to work at the bank.
"He always carried 'PKs,' which were the forerunner of Chiclets, and he always had those in his pocket," she said. "Believe me, if I was out by the sidewalk and I saw him coming, he'd reach in his pocket and get a piece of gum for me."
When it came to letting a couple of thugs make off with the money in his father's bank, Jamieson - a veteran - was much less generous. Brendel said the fact that much of the family's wealth was in the bank was surely a reason he responded so bravely.
"It was the fact that, 'That's my money,'" she said. "In the Great Depression, banks folded up like an envelope, but the Poynette Bank stayed open thanks to the Jamiesons' financial situation; they kept it open with their own personal finances, and nobody lost any money."
News of the robbery attempt and Jamieson's chase of the two men down the street were "big news" in Poynette for some time, Brendel said, particularly on the old "party line" telephones.
"After all, Poynette maybe had a population of 600," she chuckled. "I'm sure news of the bank robbery traveled much faster than what the (newspaper) did."
Thank you to Ann Repka and the Poynette Historical Society for photos and research assistance.