The June 1974 issue of Zane Grey Western Magazine carries a story titled "The Notorious Oklahoma Bank Robbers," written by Frank Warner. The story concerns a bank robber named Robert Burns who in 1912 led a gang in a series of night-time burglaries of banks in which nitro was used on the bank safe. The gang was alleged to have included Burns, the nitro man, along with George Hollingsworth, Jimmie Morgan, Ed Hoskins, Homer F. Richards, Floyd Humbert, Henry Wells, and Lige Higgins.
Henry Wells is alleged to have made the claim that he took part in 32 of these bank burglaries.
Burns continued to operate all across the state, through 1914. Once captured, he testified against the other gang members. According to the story, Burns was visited in jail by Bill Tilghman. Burns described to Tilghman his technique in using nitro to blow the safes.
I thought I had seen just about everything that had been written about Henry Wells and Bill Tilghman, but this is the first time I have ever heard of Robert Burns. If anyone out there is familiar with Henry Wells, you will likely agree with me that nothing Wells may have said can be accepted as the truth. Henry Starr was the leading daylight bank robber of the time period. If this story can be believed, it would seem that Robert Burns was the leading night-time bank burglar of the time period.
Has anyone ever heard of Robert Burns?
Benjamin F. "Bennie" Burns (aka Barnard/Jimmie/Robert Burns etal) was a "Bank Robber Extraordinaire" of the 'old school' of safe-blowing Yeggmen.
On the night of July 6, 1901, Bennie and two of his junior associates, with lanterns in-hand, ambled into the State Bank at Stroud, Oklahoma Territory (O.T.). However, they weren't quite as successful that evening as they had hoped and planned. First, they discovered a couple of bank clerks, Amos Seaton & Earl Heath, living (sleeping) in the back rooms of the bank. The robbers quickly took them captive, tying and gagging them, before getting on with their main objective of "blowing the vault".
Bennie was a little "off his game" that night, using too much nitro on the job. The vault door blew-off, taking the interior fixtures and the front of the bank with it. The inner safe, however, where the money was kept, was damaged to an extent that further attempts to open it failed. The luckless and dejected yeggmen took $3.50, a watch, and a pistol from their bound & gagged hostages, and retreated to their lair to plan their next criminal masterpiece.
Unfortunately for the bank robbers, the Stroud bank was situated in Lincoln County (O.T.), and the Sheriff was none other than William M. "Bill" Tilghman, former Deputy U.S. Marshal and a law enforcement officer for nearly 30 years. (NOTE: He was Sheriff of Lincoln County from November 6, 1900 to November 4, 1902.) Tilghman started on Burn's trail in a buggy and was close at his heels when Burns was arrested at Cleveland (O.T.), and taken to the Pawnee County jail.
Tilghman had been so long an officer in pursuit of criminals that he knew most of the renowned crooks by sight, and often was able to tell 'who did this or that job' by the manner in which they performed it. When Tilghman fastened his eyes upon Burns in the Pawnee jail, he saw that he was looking at a man he did not know. To identify him might prove a hard task.
"Look here, stranger," said Tilghman to Burns, "you are a new one, and it is up to me to find out who you are and who your partners are. I've got a proposition to make to you. Under Oklahoma law, you are facing a "Life" sentence for conjoint robbery. We found the cashier's watch and pistol on you, stolen from them at the bank; and, you were in possession of a bunch of dynomite. If you'll come through, tell me who you are, the names of your partners and where they have gone, I promise that you will get no more than a year."
Burns was an Irishman of small build, a big nose, smooth face, of unusual intelligence and with an unmistakable Irish brogue. He looked at Tilghman curiously for a moment or two and then asked what assurance he could get that he would be given no more than a year. Tilghman was equal to the emergency and told Burns that, if the court should impose a harder punishment, the jail door would be left open and Burns could walk out.
Burns disclosed his identity to Tilghman and gave his information that led to the arrest of the other robbers. His two partners, Ed Hoskins & Jim Morgan, were captured, tried and sentenced to four years each in the penitentiary. Burns was sentenced to his promised one year.
Sage experts visited Burns to look at him and learn about his methods of blowing safes. He knew more about the mechanism of safes than did the experts, and laughed at them when they said that he could not blow open a screw-top safe. He told how such a job could be done and said that he had learned it from diagrams and reports made by officers of the federal government, who had made a number of safe-blowing tests, to ascertain the best make of safe to be used by the government. A copy of this report had been stolen.
Burns was an expert at making "soup", the high-octane explosive used to blow the massive vault doors, and interior safes. He explained that one crumbles twelve (12) sticks of dynomite into a gallon of wood alcohol, slowly bringing the misture to a thick, rolling boil. Then, it is strained through cheesecloth and the liquid is boiled again until it blubbers like molasses candy. There should be about a pint of "soup" at this stage of the process--enough to blow a freight train off the track.
Burns went to the penitentiary for the Stroud robbery; and, after regaining his liberty, he committed another robbery in Kansas and was given a five year sentence.
In December of 1909, the newspapers told of a mysterious explosion on the west side of the Arkansas River, near Tulsa. The spot, where the explosion took place, looked as if it had been blasted by a tornado. Small fragments of two human bodies were found in the surrounding neighborhood. The largest fragment was a forearm, bearing a tattoo mark, which had lodged in a tree.
That forearm belonged to Bennie Burns, noted safe-blower and burglar, who had operated in every State in the country, and who had long been a menace to banks in Oklahoma.
Tilghman went to the scene of the explosion; and, when he saw the tattooed arm, he knew that Bennie Burns would blow no more safes. The lawman had often seen the mark, when Burns was in jail at Chandler.
Local officers, investigating the explosion, were at a loss to account for the violent episode; until, a letter from a small town in southern Kansas, arrived for the Sheriff of Creek County. The writer said that he and Burns and another man were making "soup" over a fire, Burns doing the work. The writer had gone to a nearby stream for a bucket of water. Suddenly, the earth shook and trembled under him and he was thrown to the ground by an explosion that roared like an erupting volcano. The "soup" had exploded. He ran back to see what had become of his companions; however, all he found was a cavernous hole.
Some of Bennie Burns' contemporaries in the bank robbing business, who went on to careers of their own, were:
George Hollingsworth - Claremore & Vera banks (1912) and Foyil bank (1913); Homer F. "Blue" Richards - Foyil & Kiefer banks (1912) and Braggs/Korn/Ochelata/Vera banks (1916); Lige Higgins - Okesa (RR robbery - 1911) and Osage bank (1914) and Quapaw & Stroud banks (1915); and, Henry Wells (allegedly) - Kaw bank (1915), Avant & Waynona banks (1916), Dewey/Talalah/Pawhuska/Broken Bow/Lenapah/Centralia/Elgin banks (1922), Mannford bank (1923), Shidler bank (1924).
(Source: OKOLHA Journal [Vol. 6 No. 2 - Summer 2009, pp.17-19])
Stroud Messenger 7/5/1901 (pg. 1 / col. 5) "Unsuccessful Bank Robbery"; Chandler News [Stroud Star] 7/11/1901 (4/2) "Stroud Bank Robbery" - last Saturday night; Stroud Messenger 7/13/1901 (8/3) "One Man Captured"; Chandler News 7/18/1901 (2/1) "Landed In Jail" - Barnard (sic) Burns arrested at Cleveland; Chandler News 8/29/1901 (3/2; 12/3) "...Ed Askins (sic), arrested on suspicion of being gang member, who attempted to burglarize Stroud bank...jailed & charged."; Stroud Messenger 10/11/1901 (1/3) "Dist.Crt" - Territory v. Ben F. Burns & Ed Haskins (sic); Stroud Messenger 11/01/1901 (1/3) "Stroud Bank Robber (Jim Morgan)" captured at Tulsa.
Dallas Morning News [Guthrie dateline] 7/17/1902 - "Convicts (Ben Burns of Lincoln Co., etal) Pardoned (by Governor Ferguson)(from Kansas State Penitentiary at Lansing, Kansas).
Tucson Daily Citizen 12/17/1909 - "Old Safe Cracker Blown-up By Dynomite" - Jimmie (sic) Burns served time in Columbus (OH), Lansing (MI), and Atlanta (GA); Tulsa Democrat 12/23/1909 (6/6) "A Light on Mystery" - Jimmie (sic) Burns and Jack Carrigan blew themselves up last Wednesday (12/15/1909); Tulsa Daily World 1/24/1911 (6/4) "Robbers Killed in Explosion (almost a year ago)" - Bennie Burns and Jack Carrigan on Arkansas River. Burns did time at Weathersfield (CT), Atlanta (GA), and at Boston's House of Corrections.
I don't know anything about Robert Burns, but I know a lot about (Frank Warner) the supposed author of the article in Zane Grey Western Magazine. He was a prolific writer of western novels and True West type magazine articles from the 1930's through the early 1970's. Frank Warner was actually one of Gladwell Richarson's many pen names. The name he used to publish most of his western magazine writings was Maurice Kildare, but he had many other pseudonymns as well. I have several Zane Gray Western Magazines where he wrote every article in the magazine under different names!!! He published dozens of western novels, but most were published in England. On the up side, although he took some liberties with the facts, most of what he wrote had at least some basis in fact. I wrote an article about him for the recently published Coal Count History book. I will try to find it and post it if you are interested.
Yes, I would be very interested in reading your "recently published article" on Gladwell Richarson (aka Frank Warner, Maurice Kildare, etc.). Thank You!
Ok. I will post it as another subject in case anyone else has an interest or wants to add some information.
|Powered by Social Strata|