I’ve always loved history and every once in a while my TV job allowed me the opportunity to have some close brushes with it. I was reminded of one such case this week on the 80th anniversary of John Dillinger’s unscheduled withdrawal from the Security National Bank at 9th and Dakota in Sioux Falls and my interview with a lady bank employee taken hostage by Dillenger that day and lived to tell the tale.
It was “Public Enemy Number 1’s” first hold-up since escaping from an Indiana jail three days earlier using a hand-carved wooden gun and then stealing the sheriff’s own car to make his get-away. Dillinger high-tailed it to the Twin Cities where he quickly assembled a gang including the infamous killer, Lester Gillis, also known as Baby Face Nelson. They needed cash and sped off in the direction of Sioux Falls in a brand new Packard to get some.
I’d known about the Dillinger bank robbery in Sioux Falls long before the historical marker went up on the side of the old Security National building. I think it was Sioux Falls historian, Carol Mashek, who showed me damage to the structure believed caused by wayward Tommy Gun bullets fired by the robbers that day and there were plenty..both inside the bank and out.
What I didn’t know, however, is that one person directly involved in the whole ordeal was still alive and on the 70th anniversary of the robbery was going to receive an honor from the Mayor of Sioux Falls for her heroism so many years ago. When Bill Hoskins of the Old Courthouse Museum asked if I’d like to meet and visit with Mary Lucas Hawkins, I couldn’t wait.
Mary Lucas was born in Estherville, Iowa in 1909. Her dad worked for the railroad and in 1921 his job brought the whole family of nine to Sioux Falls where Mary attended Cathedral High School then Nettleton Business School. By 1934, Mary was putting her business skills to good use working as a bank teller and excited about her upcoming marriage to Dale Hawkins.
When we sat down to visit in the Old Courthouse Museum three blocks away from the Security National Bank, I asked what she remembered about that morning 7 decades earlier.
“I saw this big green car coming down 9th street. We happened to be looking out the window. I made the remark that it looked like a bunch of bandits.”
She was right and moments later Dillinger and four of his gang members wearing overcoats and brandishing Thompson Machine guns burst into the bank screaming orders. One of the employees managed to trigger the alarm which also set off the bell just outside the building which riled the robbers to no end. Mary said she was sure they were going to kill everyone..especially when Baby Face Nelson jumped up on a table, looked out the window and spotted motorcycle cop, Hale Keith, running to the scene. Nelson fired through the plate glass and put four slugs into Keith who somehow survived.
In spite of guns firing and people screaming, cooler heads prevailed and after scooping up some 49 thousand dollars in cash, Dillinger ordered a retreat to the get-away car using five bank tellers, including Mary Lucas, as shields. “They were in the middle and we were around them to keep anybody from shooting at them.” She said. When the gangsters jumped inside the Packard, the hostages were told to get on the running board and hang on. It wasn’t a real hot pursuit, though because one of the officers in front had managed to put a bullet through the big car’s radiator slowing their escape South out of town. I asked Mary why weren’t the police right behind? She said, “Well, they tried to but they(Dillinger gang members) were throwing out all these big carpet tacks. Anyone that came along had a flat tire.” Not to mention that every so often a gangster would hold a machine gun out the window and fire right past the hostages heads at anyone who came close.
Eventually, around what would be 43rd street, the Packard gave out from overheating so the gang forced a farm couple from Canton to pull over and confiscated their Dodge..taking along the loot and some extra cans of gas but leaving the shivering hostages standing by the road. That’s when a fellow drove up in his car. “And he stopped and said, what in the world are you doing out here in this weather with no coats? We promptly told him what happened so he brought us back to the bank.” Mary told me.
It was a much relieved bank president when he saw his girls back safe and sound shaking from cold and fear but alive. Mary says, “And he gave us a shot of something. I don’t know what but it was probably the first drink I ever had.”
Mary Lucas Hawkins got married shortly after the incident and eventually settled with her husband, Dale, in Billings, Montana where they found great success and became highly respected contributors to the arts and philanthropic causes. Mary died in December of 2009 at the age of 100. She was known as a Grand Dame of Billings for all her service and devotion to so many organizations especially the Western Heritage Center.
All possible because she survived that harrowing experience clinging to the window of John Dillinger’s Packard on a chilly March morning in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.