“You can’t rob a bank on charm and personality”
Born on June 30, 1901, in Brooklyn, New York, Willie Sutton became famous for something he didn’t say. When he wasn’t robbing banks, he worked briefly as a clerk, a driller and a gardener. Well attired, he was the politest of bank robbers.
One victim said witnessing one of Sutton’s robberies was like being at the movies, except the usher had a gun. He usually carried either a pistol or a Thompson submachine gun. After all, as he said, “You can’t rob a bank on charm and personality” but took pride in never using his weapon. He was nicknamed “Willie the Actor” or “Slick Willie”. He robbed his first bank in 1927.
On 5 June 1931 Sutton was jailed for 30 years on assault and robbery charges but on 11 December 1932 he escaped by scaling the prison wall on two joined-together 2.7-m (9-ft) long sections of ladder. On 15 February 1933 he and a friend tried to rob the Corn Exchange Bank and Trust Company in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, but were put off by a nosy passerby.
Exactly eleven months later, on 15 January 1934, Sutton and two confederates broke into the bank though a skylight and robbed the bank after tying up the staff and security guard. He was arrested on 5 February and sentenced to 25-50 years in the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia. On 3 April 1945 Sutton made his fifth attempt to escape and did succeed in freeing himself, albeit temporarily — he was arrested the same day.
Returned to prison, this time on a life tariff, he was transferred the Philadelphia County Prison, Homesburg, Pennsylvania. On 9 February 1947, during a snowstorm, he escaped dressed as a prison warder. On 20 March 1950 he was added to the FBI’s list of “Ten Most Wanted Fugitives”. On 18 February 1952 Arnold Schuster spotted Sutton on the New York subway and telephoned the police.
The act cost the 24-year-old his life and Sutton was returned to jail. In his career he robbed probably 100 banks, netting $2 million.
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA
Monday 15 January 1934
On Christmas Eve 1969 68-year-old Sutton, by now ill with emphysema, was released from Attica State Prison. The following year Sutton appeared in an advertisement for the New Britain, Connecticut Bank and Trust Company’s new photo credit card. He said on the commercial, “Now when I say I’m Willie Sutton, people believe me.” On 2 November 1980, Willie Sutton died in Spring Hill, Florida, at the age of 79. He was buried in the Sutton family plot at Holy Cross Cemetery in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn on 7 November.
YOU SHOULD KNOW:
When asked why he robbed banks, Sutton is said to have replied, “Because that’s where the money is.” In 1976 the words were used as the title of his second autobiography (I, Willie Sutton was published in 1952), Where The Money Was: The Memoirs Of A Bank Robber. He wrote, “I will now confess that I never said it. The credit belongs to enterprising reporter [Mitch Ohnstad] who apparently felt a need to fill out his copy. Why did I rob banks? Because I enjoyed it. I loved it. I was more alive when I was inside a bank, robbing it, than at any other time in my life. I enjoyed everything about it so much that one or two weeks later I’d be out looking for the next job. But to me the money was the chips, that’s all.”