"Willie's got friends." My dad was reading to us from the Milwaukee Journal about the killing of Arnold Schuster, the man who'd recognized a notorious fugitive bank robber on a New York City subway, followed him to a garage in Brooklyn, and flagged down a police car. The flurry of publicity following the arrest of Willie "The Actor" Sutton included media interviews with Schuster, who'd come forward to claim what he believed would be a sizeable reward. That's when the threatening calls and letters started coming to his parents' home, where the 24-year-old Coast Guard veteran lived. The one my dad read to us stuck in my head like a permanent earworm. This was early March, 1952, and I was ten.
|Arnold Schuster (right)|
Willie Sutton and John Dillinger were the two famous criminals who invaded and stuck in my imagination growing up in a small Wisconsin town. Dillinger and a girlfriend reputedly had spent a night in the small hotel my dad eventually bought for his law practice. What stayed with me about Dillinger was that and the romantic drama of his death coming out of the Biograph Theater in Chicago. With Sutton it was "Willie's got friends." And the irony is that before Schuster's murder Sutton and his attorneys thought he had a good chance of winning an acquittal in the robbery trial he was facing. Popular opinion celebrated this lone robber, who, although he used guns as props, never shot or hurt anyone. Everything changed after the murder, as Sutton predicted it would when he learned Schuster'd been killed. "Oh my God," he said after the prison warden gave him the news. "This sinks me."
It did as he predicted, the taint by association sunk him good, as public goodwill and the trial jury turned against him. No one was ever convicted in Schuster's killing, which haunted Sutton the rest of his life. So he claims in Where the Money Was, the memoir he co-wrote with celebrity ghostwriter Edward Linn. Despite the sinking at that time, though, Sutton would rise and sink and rise and sink over and over until he died a free man at age seventy-nine. By then his Robin Hood popularity had returned despite his insistence he'd never thought of himself in that role.
"Not in my wildest dreams," he says in the book, "had I ever looked upon bank robbery as a revolutionary act, and busting out of jail had no social significance to me whatsoever. Hell, I was a professional thief. I wasn’t trying to make the world better for anybody except myself." That's likely truthful, as he saw himself, but in reading his story it's not hard to understand how others came to see the more romantic version. The others inluded Pete Hamill, New York Post columnist, who rallied support for a pardon as time was running out for one of Sutton's legs, which needed surgery or amputation to save his life. Hamill's open letter to Gov. Nelson Rockefeller came out two days before Christmas 1969.
"One by one, he hit every significant point: my age, my health, the thirty-five years I had already spent in prison, and the undisputed fact that I had never hurt anyone," Sutton said. "But more than that, he was able to hit exactly the right tone":
“We know what Willie did, but then he never made any secret of it. . . . When asked for an occupation, he once told a judge: ‘It was of an illegal nature. It was bank robbing.’ There were times when he was less than cooperative with authorities, but this was at least based upon principle. . . .
“In his extracurricular activities he was always a gentleman, a suave dresser, an expert on psychology, Irish history, and chess, and a gallant with women. He had an aversion to steam table food to be sure and three times broke out of jail. . . .”
"I don’t know whether Katherine’s letter or the Hamill column had any effect," he wrote, referring to a stinging appeal one of his attorneys, Katherine Spyros Bitses, also sent to Rockefeller and the newspapers, "But I don’t know that they didn’t, either. All I do know is that a few hours later they practically threw me out of the place.”
I took twenty-five pages of notes as I read Where the Money Was, and this could easily become the longest book report I've ever written. I'll try to keep it under control—my enthusiasm, that is. To avoid appearing too gullible. And yet, even if only half of what Sutton says in the book is true, it's still an account of one of the most amazing human beings I know of. About halfway through I started thinking, this guy had the soul of Mosby! For years I've been in awe of the guts, pluck, prowess, and pure joie de vivre of the Confederacy's Gray Ghost, Col. John Singleton Mosby, who, among his many astonishing feats, ran off a squadron of Pennsylvania cavalry singlehandedly one afternoon by pretending he had his own squadron just below the crest of the hill he'd reached. He swung his saber and charged down the hill, Rebel yelling, and the Yankees turned tail and fled.
Here's Sutton, dressed as a cop, on his way to rob a bank. He's crossing the street when a real police captain chews him out for...well, let's let Willie tell it:
“While I was crossing a busy intersection in Philadelphia in my uniform...I was hailed down by a police cruiser. A captain got out and bawled the hell out of me for having a button loose on my collar. I felt just awful about it—yes, sir; you’re right, sir; an absolute disgrace, sir—not because a police officer had stopped me right across from the bank I was about to rob but because I was being censured by a superior. I was a very conscientious cop right up to the time I stopped being a cop and started being a thief...
“On two separate occasions, motorists asked me if it would be all right to leave their car in a no-parking zone for a couple of minutes—they were just going to run in and pick something up. I lectured them severely. How could they ask a policeman for permission to violate a city ordinance? 'Now if you happened to ride around the block,' I told them, 'I might not be here when you got back.'”
Willie had a sense of humor that could have made him a star had he not preferred the challenge of robbing banks. Here's something that would have brought the house down had he delivered it in a stand-up routine at Second City:
“A trio of painters once arrived unexpectedly while I was taking a bank in Pennsylvania, and I simply told them to spread out their drop-cloths and go to work. 'The pay you guys get, the bank can’t afford to have you hanging around doing nothing. They’re insured against bank robbers but nobody would insure them against you robbers.' All during the robbery I was able to keep up a line of chatter about how I could have retired by now if we bank robbers had as strong a union as they did. Everybody had a good time, and by the time we walked out the door with the money they had one of the walls completely painted.”
The guy's so good I hardly have to write anything myself, just sort of stitch together some of his better stuff—which really isn't so easy, because so much of his stuff is so good. Even the unfunny part about the beating he took that nearly killed him. His description is so long I can only put part of it here, but it's enough to give you an idea of the toughness of this funny, charming, brilliant robber:
So they took me down two flights of stairs to the target room in the subbasement. A long narrow room, with three or four bull’s-eyes at the far end, and a long wooden table just inside the door. Soundproof. They could kill you and nobody would hear you hollering. After I had been ordered to strip, my hands were cuffed behind my back and I was picked up and thrown on top of the table with my stomach sticking up. There were six detectives there under the command of McPhee. One of them held me around the neck, a couple of them held my shoulders, and two others held my feet. McPhee and the other detective stood on opposite sides of the table, and with long rubber hoses they started to beat me methodically from my private parts all the way up to my neck. Then they turned me over and beat another tattoo on my back. When they were finished, my skin was completely black. I was one solid contusion, front and back. A slab of quivering pain.
And then they turned me over and started all over again. Unbearable! Every time they laid the hose on me, it felt like a red-hot sword stabbing into me. “Why don’t you kill me, you bastards!” I screamed. “You’ll never get me to confess.” And I knew that they wouldn’t. And the more they beat me the surer I became. They beat away at me for probably half an hour, and then I pretended to lapse into unconsciousness, which is almost impossible because the body stiffens in anticipation of every blow. But I suppose the body also must become desensitized when it reaches a certain level of pain, and the time came when I was able to let my mouth sag open and just lay there, inert, every time the hose came down on me…
It's not over yet. Nowhere near over. It goes on and on…
Fortunately, for you and me, I'm running out of space here. It was bad enough to read about it the first time. Two good things came of it, though—he survived without giving up any names, and from then on cops didn't bother beating him, because they knew it wouldn't work.
Okay, we're winding down here. I'll add that once Willie started getting caught and sent to prisons his focus shifted from breaking into places to breaking out. He masterminded escapes from three prisons, one of which had never been escaped from before. And when he got too old for that activity he started practicing law behind bars, helping other inmates get out with appeals or new trials. And he became a songwriter. We'll finish here with one he wrote making fun of the U.S. Supreme Court's practice of ignoring the flood of prisoners' writs of habeas corpus by simply affirming the appealed order without writing an opinion. Here's Willie's song:
I got the Affirm the Order
No Opinion blues
The Appellate courts won’t tell me why I lose
I wrote a brief like Darrow
And I cited Blackstone’s law
But the Judges thought that Blackstone
Was a General in some war
I got the Affirm the Order
No Opinion blues
The phrases that they use have me confused
I’m going to write the Court Supreme
And I’ll ask them what they mean
By their Affirm the Order
No Opinion ruse.
—WORDS AND MUSIC BY
W. F. SUTTON
“The song went on and on, the verses were endless,” Willie writes. “But then so were the writs that were being sung about.”
I guess by now you can see why Willie had friends. I don't know about friendship, but, although I'm a tad late, I am one unabashed, unashamed admirer.