Friday, January 24, 2014

Baby Face Nelson robbed a Grand Haven bank

A few weeks ago, my husband and I finally entered the 20th century (yes, I know I said 20th century...that's how far behind the times we were) and got expanded cable service. Thanks to the wonders of technology, we have access to more than one hundred channels, 95 percent of which we'll never watch. (But we do have the Big Ten Network, so it's all good.)

Anyway, I was wiling away an afternoon flipping through our dozens of stations when I came upon a program about John Dillinger, he of the Depression-era, "Public Enemy Number 1" fame. The show mentioned the fact that Baby Face Nelson, one of Dillinger's partners in crime, got his start as a gang leader after robbing a bank in Grand Haven. I had never heard that story before, so I did some research to learn more about it. Here's what I found out.

The man who became Baby Face Nelson was born Lester Joseph Gillis in Chicago in 1908. (During his criminal years, he used the pseudonym George Nelson, which explains his new last name; I'll get to the "Baby Face" part shortly.) Nelson became a ne'er-do-well at a young age. By the time he was 13, he had been arrested twice. Throughout his teen years, he took part in robberies and bootlegging operations. Reports differ regarding the source of Nelson's nickname, but a commonly told story is that he picked it up in 1930, when the wife of Chicago's mayor, from whom Nelson had stolen $18,000 worth of jewelry, described the culprit as having "a baby face" and being "hardly more than a boy." (Nelson was said to have hated the nickname, but it became so well known, he was stuck with it.)

Lester Joseph Gillis, aka, Baby Face Nelson

Nelson's connection to Grand Haven began when he met fellow career criminal Eddie Bentz, with whom Nelson decided to plan a bank robbery. Up to that point, Nelson's involvement in bank heists had been as part of larger gangs. This time, he wanted to be one of the head honchos. Bentz scoured bank records and posed as a prospective customer to gain insight into the physical setups of financial institutions throughout the Midwest. Eventually, he decided that the People's Savings Bank in Grand Haven was a good target. Bentz and Nelson gathered together a crew of miscreants, and made plans to rob the bank on August 18, 1933.

The result was like a macabre version of a "Three Stooges" short. Nelson and Bentz had amassed four men to help them. Three of those men would rob the bank, while a fourth would drive the getaway car. When the gang burst through the doors of People's Savings Bank at around 3 p.m., they brandished machine guns and ordered everyone---a cashier, a teller, three other employees, and three customers---to hit the floor. In the ensuing tumult, the teller, Arthur Welling, pressed an alarm that alerted the police, as well as the owner of the business next door. That man, Edward Kinkema, grabbed a shotgun and ran from his shop toward the bank.

People's Savings Bank, Grand Haven, circa 1900

Here's where things got a little loopy. The getaway driver, who has never officially been identified, took one look at Kinkema's gun and drove away, leaving his compatriots to fend for themselves. With the alarm ringing, Nelson and his crew knew their time was running short, so they used frightened bank employees as human shields and made their way out a side door. A growing crowd of armed Grand Haven residents met them. The result was a volley of gunfire during which the bandits shot four citizens. (Fortunately, none of the wounds was mortal.) However, Kinkema and a few other residents were able to subdue one of the robbers, a man named Earle Doyle, who was later convicted and sentenced to life in prison. The remaining gangsters, including Nelson, commandeered a nearby vehicle and made their getaway.

They may have escaped, but Nelson and his crew weren't out of the woods yet. The criminals sped away from Grand Haven, stole another car, then headed toward Indiana. They were within spitting distance of the Hoosier State when their vehicle suffered a flat tire near Hudson, a community in Lenawee County just north of the Michigan/Indiana border. At that point, Nelson and his crew stole a third car and, finally, made it to Indiana. In 1933, bank robberies were considered state crimes, not federal crimes, so Michigan police couldn't cross the border to catch their prey. The result? Nelson and his gang got away scot-free, though with only a fraction of the money they had stolen from the People's Savings Bank. Having left most of the cash behind during their getaway attempt, the crooks netted a take of only $2,300.

The robbery hadn't gone according to plan, but the fact that he had gotten away with it gave Nelson the confidence he needed to helm his own gang of thieves. Throughout the following year, he crisscrossed the nation, leaving a trail of robberies and murders in his wake. However, Nelson's career as a criminal mastermind didn't last long. After federal agents killed John Dillinger in July 1934, Nelson became Public Enemy Number 1. A few months later, in November 1934, he died during a shootout with FBI agents outside Chicago.

Newspaper reporting on the death of Baby Face Nelson, as well as
the deaths of two federal agents who were killed during the shootout.

Nelson differed from the "Robin Hood"-type criminals that Depression-weary Americans admired. Unlike many gangsters, he had no qualms about killing innocent bystanders during his heists, so the nation heaved a collective sigh of relief when his reign of terror was over. Michiganders likely took extra solace from his death, as they no longer had to fear that the gangster would return to wreak havoc in the state that had helped start his career as a gang leader.

Additional information:

In response to incidents like the Grand Haven bank robbery, during which criminals escaped prosecution simply by crossing state borders, the United State government passed the National Bank Robbery Act of 1934, which made the robbery of certain banks a federal, not a state, offense. This gave law enforcement personnel more leeway in apprehending criminals, and also allowed for stiffer penalties for those convicted of robbery-related crimes.

The building that housed the People's Savings Bank still stands, and is located at 300 Washington Avenue. It now houses a branch of Chase Bank.

People you might not have known were from Michigan

Every Michigander knows that Madonna hails from the Great Lakes State. The fact that Tim Allen comes from Michigan is old news, and celebrities like Jeff Daniels, Michael Moore, and Eminem have incorporated the fact that they're from Michigan into their movies, documentaries, and music, so their status as Michiganders is fairly obvious.

But what about the lesser-known Michigan celebrities? By that, I mean celebrities who aren't necessarily any less famous or important than the celebrities listed above, but simply those whom not many people realize are from Michigan. This post gives them their due. Read on to learn about stars of stage and screen you never realized once lived (and, in some case, still do live) in Michigan.

Ken Jeong

1. Ken Jeong---Wait, what? Yep, "Senor Chang," the Spanish teacher from the television show Community, was born in Detroit. He's probably more famous to other audiences as gangster "Leslie Chow" from the Hangover movies. Another mind-blowing fact: Before he became an actor, Jeong was a physician, and is in fact still licensed to practice in the state of California. Wrap your mind around that while you watch this clip from Community. (In order to keep this site PG-rated, there's no way I can, in good conscience, include any of his scenes from The Hangover.)

Link to YouTube video of Senor Chang

Terry O'Quinn

2. Terry O'Quinn---Fans of the television show Lost known Terry O'Quinn as the mysterious "John Locke," a role for which he won an Emmy in 2007. O'Quinn was born in Sault Ste. Marie and raised in Newberry, and attended Central Michigan University. Another fun fact: His last name is actually Quinn. He changed it when he was a budding actor and learned that another performer was working under the name Terrance Quinn. Here he is at work in Lost.

Link to YouTube video of John Locke

Elaine Stritch

3. Elaine Stritch---Elaine Stritch is a Tony Award winner (and multiple nominee) who has plied the stages of Broadway and the West End for decades. I'm slightly ashamed to say that the only reason I know of her is that she played Jack Donaghy's cantankerous mother on the television show 30 Rock. (However, she was one of my favorite characters in that show.) Stritch was born in Detroit, and recently moved back to Michigan (Birmingham, to be exact) to be closer to her family. Here's a clip of Stritch singing one of her signature songs, "Here's to the Ladies Who Lunch," from the musical Company.

Link to YouTube video of Elaine Stritch

James Caan

4. James Caan---Admittedly, Caan's days in Michigan were few---he attended Michigan State University during the 1956-1957 academic year before returning to his native New York City. Still, he made a mark on campus. Caan was a member of the football team (he later noted that his position was "tackling dummy") and studied economics. After leaving MSU, he became an actor and got his big break in 1971 when he starred as Brian Piccolo in the movie Brian's Song. A year later, he received an Academy Award nomination for his role as Sonny Corleone in The Godfather. Here's a clip from The Godfather, showing Caan in action:

Link to YouTube video of Sonny Corleone

Dick York

5. Dick York---Best known as the "first Darrin" from the 1960s sitcom Bewitched, York was born in Indiana and grew up in Chicago, but spent the last years of his life in Rockford, Michigan, where he's buried in Plainfield Cemetery. York spent five seasons on Bewitched before the chronic back pain he received during a previous project forced him to leave the show. Eventually, York moved to Rockford, where he became bedridden from emphysema. He died at the age of 63 in February 1992. Bewitched clips featuring York are hard to come by on YouTube (most of what I've found are entire episodes), but here's a segment with York, along with his TV daughter, wife, and mother-in-law:

Link to YouTube video of Darrin Stephens

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Meet a few of Michigan's heroes from World War II

Following up on my posts about Michigan's connections to the Civil War and World War I, here are a few biographies of Michiganders who performed heroic deeds during World War II.

Joseph Beyrle

On June 6, 1944, Muskegon native Joseph Beyrle was piloting a C-47 aircraft over the French coast. It was D-Day, when thousands of Allied troops swarmed the beaches of Normandy in an attempt to wrest France from German control. Axis forces attacked Beyrle’s craft, and Beyrle was forced to jump his way to safety. He evaded German forces for a few days, but eventually was captured and imprisoned. He escaped several months later and fought alongside the Soviet Army (another member of the Allied forces) for a month before making his way to the American embassy in Moscow and returning home in April 1945. Beyrle’s service with the Soviets made him the only American soldier to serve in both the American and Russian armies during World War II. He died in 2004 at the age of 81 and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

George Cannon

George Cannon was the first Marine to receive the Medal of Honor during World War II, an award that, sadly, he died while earning. Cannon grew up in Detroit and graduated from the University of Michigan. He joined the Marines in 1938 and eventually became a first lieutenant. Not long after the United States entered the war, he saw action on Midway Island, an American holding in the Pacific Ocean that was a frequent target of Japanese offensives. On December 7, 1941, the same day the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, they also launched an assault on Midway. During the encounter, a shell exploded near Cannon’s command post, seriously injuring him and several of his men. Cannon refused to leave until the other men had been taken to safety, and even after that, stayed at his post until other soldiers forcibly removed him. Cannon died from loss of blood, and was buried in Honolulu at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific.

Francis Hammerberg

It was February 17, 1945, a few months before the end of World War II, and two Navy divers at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii were trying to tunnel under a vessel stuck in forty feet of water. Suddenly, the wreckage collapsed, trapping the men under a mass of steel. Francis Hammerberg, a boatswain’s mate second class who had been born in Daggett and had grown up in Flint, dove to the rescue. He freed one man and was helping the other when a second cave-in pinned Hammerberg on top of the trapped diver. The two were eventually rescued, but Hammerberg died from his injuries. The men he assisted survived. Hammerberg received the Medal of Honor for his bravery, and is buried in Holy Sepulchre Cemetery in Southfield.


Nancy Harkness Love

Nancy Harkness Love could fly an airplane with the best of them. Born in Houghton, Love had taken to the skies as a teenager, and continued piloting into adulthood. Shortly after the United States entered World War II, she helped create the Women's Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron, which, a few years later, became the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP). The organization gave non-combat flying tasks to female pilots, thereby freeing male Air Force pilots for battle. The women handled such duties as hauling artillery targets and delivering cargo. The WASP wasn’t officially part of the military, so its members had to wait several decades until the government, in 1977, recognized them as veterans. Unfortunately, Love wasn’t around to see that day. She had died a year earlier, in 1976, at the age of 62.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Michigan in World War I

Following up on yesterday's post about Michigan's involvement in the Civil War, here are a few stories about the ways Michiganders made their mark on the war effort during World War I.

Harry Hill Bandholtz

A statue of Constantine native Harry Hill Bandholtz stands outside the American embassy in Budapest, Hungary. The statue honors the work that Bandholtz did to help restore normality to that country after World War I. During the war, Bandholtz served as a brigadier general, then as Provost Marshal General (basically, the guy in charge of the military police) for the American Expeditionary Force in France. After hostilities ended, Bandholtz was America’s representative on the Inter-Allied Supreme Command Military Mission, which is a fancy way of saying that he helped disarm Hungary’s military. (Hungary was one of the Central Powers that lost the war to Allied forces, including the United States.) Bandholtz also made sure that occupying troops left the country, and saved countless treasures in Hungary’s national museum from Romanian looters, allegedly by threatening the thieves with a riding crop. He died in 1925 at the age of 61 and is buried in the Constantine Township Cemetery.

Joseph Guyton

Like many patriotic young men, Evart native Joseph Guyton enrolled in the infantry during World War I. In 1918, he traveled to France, where he operated a machine gun. On May 24 of that year, Guyton was at the front line of a battle in the German territory of Alsace when an enemy bullet struck him in the head, killing him instantly. Guyton’s death gave him the unfortunate distinction of being the first American soldier killed in German-occupied land during World War I. He’s buried in Evart’s Forest Hill Cemetery. As an even-sadder coda, Guyton’s wife, Winona, died of the flu a few months after his death, and his only child, 11-year-old Olive, died of pneumonia five years later.

Robert Robinson

A bit of warning: this story isn’t for the faint of heart, especially those who get squeamish over injuries. Robert Robinson, a native of Wayne, was a Marine gunnery sergeant fighting enemy aircraft over Belgium when his plane experienced mechanical problems and became separated from the other craft in his formation. Twelve planes attacked Robinson and his pilot, but despite the fact that Robinson was shot 13 times, and received an injury so severe that a tendon was literally the only thing keeping his lower left arm attached to his elbow, he shot down one of the planes attacking him. Robinson’s aircraft eventually made it to the ground, his arm was saved, and he received a Medal of Honor for his bravery. Robinson spent his remaining years in St. Ignace, where he died in 1974 at the age of 78. He’s buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Civil War stories from Michigan

Michigan might not have been a hotspot of battle and intrigue during the Civil War, but our state still made a significant mark on the War Between the States. Following are stories about various war-related people and events that have a connection to the Great Lakes State.

Frank Baldwin
Manchester native Frank Baldwin received not one, but two Medals of Honor—the highest military award a serviceperson can receive—for bravery during and after the Civil War. Baldwin earned his first medal for actions he took in July 1864, when, as a captain in the 19th Michigan Infantry, he led a countercharge against Rebel forces in Georgia that led to the capture of two Confederate officers. He earned his second medal after the war, in 1874, when, as a first lieutenant in the 5th U.S. Infantry, he helped rescue two girls from Native Americans who were trying to kidnap them. Baldwin is one of only 19 servicemen to receive more than one Medal of Honor. He died in 1923 at the age of 80 and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.


Johnny Clem

Johnny Clem was 10 years old when his mother died in 1861. Heartbroken, he ran away from his home in Newark, Ohio, and tried to join the 3rd Ohio Infantry as a drummer boy. The 3rd Ohio refused him, as did his next choice, the 22nd Michigan Infantry. Clem tagged along with the 22nd Michigan anyway, and, despite his youth, saw a bit of action on the battlefield. He shot a Confederate general during the Battle of Chickamauga (earning him the rank of sergeant and the nickname “The Drummer Boy of Chickamauga”), and was briefly detained by Rebel forces in Georgia. Following the Civil War, Clem continued his career in the military, from which he retired in 1915. He died in 1937 at the age of 85 and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

George Armstrong Custer
Probably the most famous military man to come out of Michigan is George Armstrong Custer, who grew up in Monroe. Though he graduated last in his class at the United States Military Academy in West Point, New York, Custer proved adept at leading troops on the battlefield. During the war, he quickly rose through the ranks, becoming general of the Michigan Cavalry Brigade when he was only 23 years old. Custer was involved in several of the war’s major conflicts, including the Battle of Gettysburg and the Battle of the Wilderness. He was also present when Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia in April 1865. Custer left military service after the war, but eventually signed back on and took part in campaigns against Native Americans in the west. He died in the Battle of Little Bighorn in the Montana Territory on June 25, 1876.


Harrison Jeffords

Dexter native Harrison Jeffords held the American flag in such high regard that he died defending it. Jeffords, a colonel in the 4th Michigan Infantry, was traveling around Michigan, recruiting soldiers for the war effort, when a group of women in Monroe gave him an American flag to use as his regiment’s standard. Jeffords promised that he would guard the flag with his life. He followed through on that promise in July 1863, on the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg. During a retreat from Rebel forces, the 4th Michigan’s color-bearer dropped the flag that Jeffords had received in Monroe. Jeffords got into a skirmish over it with a Confederate soldier and received a bayonet wound, dying of his injuries the next day. Jeffords was the highest-ranked officer, Union or Confederate, to be bayoneted during the war, and is buried in Forest Lawn Cemetery in Dexter. 

Sarah Emma Edmonds

Franklin Thompson was a little different from the other members of the 2nd Michigan Infantry. From the outside, he looked like any other soldier, but on the inside, he was all woman. That’s because Franklin Thompson was actually Sarah Emma Edmonds, a Flint resident who, in a fervor of patriotism, cut her hair, donned men’s clothing, and became a soldier. Undetected, she worked first as a field nurse, then as a spy. When Edmonds contracted malaria, she deserted before a medical exam could expose her true identity. After the war, Edmonds’ story was revealed, and she settled into domestic life, getting married, having three children, and eventually receiving a pension for her wartime service. Edmonds died in 1898 at the age of 56.

Anna Etheridge

Anna Etheridge might not have been a soldier, but she showed the bravery of one. As a nurse and vivandiere (in other words, someone who sells provisions to soldiers) for the 2nd and 3rd Michigan Infantries, she brought water to dying combatants and pulled wounded men from the field of battle. During one skirmish, she got so close to the action that a minie ball pierced her hand. Etheridge was known as “Gentle Annie” to the men she served. Her kindness and courage were so well-known that she was one of only two women to receive the Kearny Cross, a Union award given to individuals who showed bravery and heroism. Etheridge died in 1913 at the age of 73, and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

4th Michigan Cavalry flag
When the Confederacy dissolved in May 1865, its president, Jefferson Davis, became a hunted man. Davis fled the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia, and began heading west, many believed to re-establish the Confederacy on the western frontier. If it wasn't for the 4th Michigan Cavalry, he might have succeeded. Members of the unit, along with soldiers from the 1st Wisconsin Cavalry, captured Davis, his family, and several members of his staff and household in Irwinsville, Georgia on May 10. Despite rumors that Davis tried to hide his identity by wearing a hoop skirt and sunbonnet, a soldier from the 4th Michigan reported that Davis had, in fact, been wearing only his wife’s dress and shawl over a man’s suit. The soldier didn’t seem to hold that fact against Davis, noting, “that was a perilous moment for [him]. He had the right to try to escape in any disguise he could use.” 

The Sultana

The Union soldiers who boarded the steamship Sultana in Vicksburg, Mississippi on April 24, 1865 were exhausted and disheveled, but above all, excited. They had just been released from Confederate prisoner-of-war camps, and the Sultana was taking them home. Among the group of nearly 2,500 passengers were more than 250 soldiers from Michigan. Legally, the ship could hold only 376 people, but the more men the Sultana’s owners could cram aboard, the more money they made, so passengers literally stood shoulder-to-shoulder. Around 2 a.m. on April 27, one of the Sultana’s boilers exploded, causing two more boilers to explode as well. The ship burst into flames and sank, resulting in the deaths of about 1,600 passengers. The explosion of the Sultana remains the biggest maritime disaster in American history, but because it occurred shortly after the war ended and President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, it remains largely unknown today.

You know who this guy is.

Michigan was a step ahead of other states in recruiting volunteers to fight in the Civil War. Even before hostilities began in April 1861, the state legislature had authorized the governor to create two militia regiments should the need arise. In addition, the city of Detroit, as well as the state government, donated a combined $100,000 to outfit the soldiers with clothing and provisions. President Abraham Lincoln was so pleased to see Michigan soldiers march into Washington, D.C. on May 16, 1861—the first combatants to arrive from a western state—that he is reported to have said, “Thank God for Michigan!”

Friday, January 10, 2014

How the Spartans got their name

A belated congratulations to the Michigan State University football team for winning the 2014 Rose Bowl! In honor of their victory, here's a post that describes how the school's nickname became the "Spartans."

This guy.

If it weren’t for a sneaky sports editor named George Alderton, Michigan State fans would be heading to Stater Stadium on crisp fall weekends to cheer on the Stater football team. Wearing Stater sweatshirts, they would fill the stands and pull Stater blankets around their wind-whipped shoulders. Maybe they would applaud a school mascot named Statey as he flexed his muscles and danced along to the Stater fight song.

For helping prevent this craziness, I think we can agree that Alderton deserves a big “thank you."
The story behind MSU’s almost-nickname begins in 1925, when Michigan Agricultural College changed its name to Michigan State College (MSC). By the mid-1920s, the school was offering degrees in areas other than agriculture, so along with its new name, school officials wanted a new nickname, something that would replace its current moniker, the Aggies. The Lansing State Journal, the local newspaper, held a contest to solicit ideas. Out of several entries, a winner emerged. This name, school officials hoped, would embody the school’s dynamic spirit and propel MSC from its agricultural roots into a world that valued strength and achievement.
That name was….the Staters.
That’s right, the school’s sports teams and students would be known as the Michigan Staters.
Alderton, the State Journal’s sports editor, had the same reaction to “the Staters” that you’re probably having right now. He figured the contest must have elicited at least a few names that were more exciting (and headline-friendly) than the word “state” with an “r” on the end, so he asked to see the losing entries. Among them, he found a slip of paper bearing the term “Spartans.” Alderton thought the name was a big improvement, and started using it instead of “Staters” in State Journal sports stories. Eventually, Dale Stafford, the sports reporter from Lansing Capital News, a rival newspaper, started referring to MSC athletes as “Spartans” in his stories, as did reporters from the college’s student publication. The name continued to spread, and from that point on, Michigan State’s student body and athletes have been known as the Spartans.
For more information:
Unfortunately, the new nickname led to this thing, but that's the subject for an entirely different post.