Willie Sutton Is Dead At 79 (2)
19 November 1980, Albin Krebs, The New York Times
He invariably entered the bank after the arrival of the first employee, usually a porter or guard, then welcomed the other clerks at gunpoint. When the manager arrived, he would warn him that his employees would be the first to be shot if there was trouble. The robber and his helper or helpers were always gone before the bank opened for public business.
One Escape Nearly a Work of Art.
His prison escapes, even the failed ones, were equally well planned. When he was at Eastern State Penitentiary in Pennsylvania, for example, he painstakingly sculptured, out of little chunks of plaster and gobs of clay, the head of a sleeping Willie Sutton.
It took him nearly a year to do it, and his plan was to use the head, in combination with pillows and blankets, to make his guards think he was in his bed when he was on his way to freedom. He did not use his art work, however, instead joining other inmates who made a break through a tunnel.
He remained free for several hours, and after he was caught he commented ruefully, – I had no business going out with those boys. I had no plan. But because he had gotten beyond the prison walls, the break was considered by him and his guards to be a success.
Mr. Sutton was reared in a tough Irish-American neighborhood near Prospect Park in Brooklyn. His parents were churchgoers who found it difficult to believe that their son, before he was 10 years old, had earned a reputation as a thief.
Willie stole fruit and vegetables, candy and tobacco. When he was only 9, he broke into a grocery and rifled the cash register of $6 in change. By the time he was a teen-ager, he was at One-Arm Quigg’s Poolroom, a hangout for hoodlums.
One of the poolroom crowd was murdered in 1921, and young Sutton, the chief suspect, dropped out of sight for two years, a period he spent learning the art of safe-cracking from a dandyish old jailbird named
Doc Tate. When he was arrested in 1923 on the homicide charge, the spindly young man was badly beaten by the police, a circumstance he was to remember and resent the rest of his life. He was acquitted of the homicide charge.
His first stay in prison resulted from a botched safe-cracking job in 1926. After his release, he pulled two small bank robberies and a daring daylight holdup of a jewelry store, getting away with $120,000. Then in 1930, Willie the Actor was born.
Got a Start on Broadway.
He was walking down Broadway one day and, at a bank, noticed that the guards looked not at the faces but at the uniforms of messengers and armored-car guards arriving at the bank.
Dressed as a Western Union messenger, he got into the bank, and handed a fake telegram to a guard. – As soon as both his hands were occupied, I merely reached down and lifted his revolver out of its holster, – Mr. Sutton later recalled.
He and a friend got away with $48,000. The messenger role was the first of many Mr. Sutton was to play in holdups, all of which were enacted with little change from the original Broadway bank script. In his bank-robbing career, Willie the Actor posed as a bank guard, a window cleaner, a policeman, a striped-pants diplomat and a mover. Two months after he became the Actor, he was caught and sentenced to 30 years in Sing Sing. Two years later, in 1932, he cut his way out of an escape-proof cell and was back in New York, robbing banks. The police were soon hot on his trail, however, and he moved to Philadelphia, where, after his first big job, he got caught.
Then followed 11 years at the Eastern State Penitentiary and the several escape attempts that won him his reputation in the crime world of being an escape artist. The fact that most of the breakout attempts were unsuccessful did not seem to matter to his admirers. On Feb. 9, 1947, 18 months after he was transferred from Eastern State to the escape-proof Holmesburgh County Jail just outside Philadelphia, he engineered a spectacular escape that was executed during a snowstorm.
While he was at large, the object of an intensive manhunt, he got credit for many crimes he did not commit.
The Final Role.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation had circulated Wanted posters throughout New York and Willie Sutton, always careful, moved to a Queens boarding house where the tenants were Puerto Rican and spoke no English and read no Wanted posters. He was safe – until that day Arnold Schuster saw him on the subway and followed him into the street and told two policemen he thought he had seen Willie Sutton, the nation’s most notorious bank robber. Mr. Sutton was arrested soon after.
The Sutton story was sold to television. The proceeds, along with money earned from the sale of the book he wrote with Mr. Reynolds, were used to set up the Willie Sutton Helping Hand Fund, a charitable trust – to combat juvenile delinquency and rehabilitate exconvicts.
In 1959, Mr. Sutton told lawyers he had no hope of making another escape and expected to spend the rest of his days working in the laundry in Attica.
He also made observations about himself that could serve as his own epitaph, – I devoted myself strictly to robbery. That was my business. I was in a business where I couldn’t permit people to know much about me, or they could harm me. All my life I was practically a fugitive. I was never a big-shot criminal, only a notorious criminal.
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