Is it strange that every time I walk into a bank I lightly case the joint? I look for video cameras, security guard positioning and speculate where the vault is. To me, it’s just natural, given that a bank has a vault full of cash and money makes the world go around. Who wouldn’t be curious?
So many classic movies have been made with the premise of a bank robbery, many based on the jobs pulled from people on this list. Modern day pop culture has kept the tradition alive with movies such as Point Break, HEAT and Reservoir Dogs. Robbing a bank is the ultimate risk and reward, full of thrills, hard cash and consequences if caught. Today it’s very hard to pull off a bank job, yet each day approximately 20 banks are robbed in the U.S. alone!
Most bank robbers, at least the popular ones, had characteristics that set them apart. Maybe it was how they asked for the money, their appearance or getaway. Regardless, some of them found more success than others, however, all of them eventually were caught and persecuted. Still, there’s got to be something to walking into the prison yard and being asked what you do and reply with “Bank Robber.” There are much worse things to put on your prison resume.
Here are 15 of the greatest bank robbers of all time, some with a little fame, others not as much and some the basis for major motion pictures. Read through and the next time you visit your bank, remember to take a look up and smile for the camera.
15. Bonnie and Clyde
Most bank robbers act solo or with groups of accomplices, but Bonnie and Clyde were the rare duo that went on a crime spree that included bank robberies as well as gas stations and retail outlets. The plan was pretty simply – stay out of our way or die. Think Natural Born Killers without Rodney Dangerfield and Quentin Tarantino/Oliver Stone script/director drama. They were the ultimate “on the run” couple living on the farthest point of the ledge. Over a dozen people were murdered by this duo until cops finally killed them. In case you haven’t heard, there’s a movie (1967 Arthur Penn film) that details the adventures of Bonnie and Clyde.
14. J.L. Hunter “Red” Rountree
I love the story of J.L. Hunter. I keep telling myself that if I live to be old (over eighty) that would be a good time to try heroin or other drugs because, why not? J.L. Hunter robbed his first bank when he was 86 years old. He would simply slide a piece of paper with the word ROBBERY on it to the teller. Unfortunately for Rountree he got caught each time he robbed a bank and ended up doing 12 years in prison where he eventually died. When asked why he did it, his response was because it felt good, sometimes for days at a time. Exactly my point, you are 86, why not?
13. Lester M. Gillis (Baby Face Nelson)
Sometimes you are born into the lifestyle, and for Lester M. Gillis that came at the tender age of 12 when he first shot someone with a gun. Gillis would become known as Baby Face Nelson and despite being very short (5’4”) and small (133 lbs) he was a dangerous individual during the golden age of gangsters. In addition to violence, Baby Face Nelson also robbed banks, completing his first job by the age of 21 years old. Baby Face didn’t have a long career, killed by federal agents at the age of 25. There are many perks to the gangster lifestyle; long life expectancy isn’t one of them.
12. Charles Arthur “Pretty Boy” Floyd
Charles Arthur, a.k.a. “Pretty Boy Floyd” believed in having the right tool for the job, which is why he always brought his machine gun to a bank job. Floyd wasn’t your typical gangster bank robber though; no, he was providing a service. After a bank robbery it wasn’t uncommon to find “Pretty Boy” handing out bags of cash to people and ripping up mortgage papers also stolen from the bank. Arthur was a modern day Robin Hood, providing a service for people in need by stealing. One difference of course is that he used a machine gun versus a bow and arrow. Again, right tool for the job, that makes sense.
11. Henry Starr
It goes without saying that it takes “balls” to rob a bank, so I guess the term “brass balls” would apply to Henry Starr. Starr liked to rob banks during the day, sometimes with his picture pasted on a Wanted Man poster on the very walls of the banks he robbed. From 1874 to 1921 it is estimated that Starr robbed over 21 banks, stealing $60,000 in cash. That would be the equivalent of approximately $5 million today. Also, Starr starred in a silent movie based on his criminal activity titled A Debtor to the Law. Maybe it’s not “balls”; maybe “cocky” is the right word to describe him.
10. Patty Hearst
I’ll admit that Patty Hearst probably belongs more in a “Most Interesting” versus “Greatest” bank robbers list, but here you go anyway. Hearst, the heir to millions, was kidnapped and later arrested as an accomplice with the Symbionese Liberation Army after they robbed a bank in San Francisco. People worth millions don’t typically get involved in robbing banks (unless of course that is how you made your millions). I guess you can blame “Stockholm Syndrome” here, but this is pretty crazy even to me (someone that totally believes Johnny Utah would join the Dead Presidents in their bank robbing adventures).
9. Mark Mikhaylich
Mikhaylich was known as the “Holiday Bandit” due his frequent robberies in late December. Mikhaylich never wore a mask and at 6’5” it is surprising he had a successful 2-year run before finally being caught. He started with several banks in New York City and then moved to New Jersey before coming back to the city where he would eventually get caught driving a stolen delivery car. There has to be some disappointment that comes with getting caught because cameras picked up the license plate of a stolen getaway car. No one pulled off more armed robberies in New York since Mikhaylich started his holiday spree in 2009.
8. Candice Rose Martinez
The year was 2005 and at only 19 years of age, the “Cell Phone Bandit,” Candice Rose Martinez, was famous for her bank robbery execution. Martinez, an attractive college student, would approach a bank teller while talking on her cell phone. Not fake talking on her phone as a distraction, but carrying on an actual conversation while slipping the teller a “this is a robbery” note. Turns out she was talking with her accomplice, a boyfriend driving the getaway car outside the banks. The surveillance footage was issued worldwide via news channels, giving Martinez instant bank robber street cred as well as notoriety she probably didn’t want. Martinez and her boyfriend would rob 4 banks in Northern Virginia, stealing just under $50,000 before they got caught and prosecuted.
7. Jesse James
Jesse James was a ruthless bank robber who was so confident in his work he would leave behind press releases of his recent crimes. James started as a soldier in the Civil War and then, after the war was over, set out to knock off financial institutions to become rich. Jesse James didn’t spread the wealth, he was in it for himself and sometimes that meant a few eggs would be broken (he mistakenly killed a cashier during a heist in Missouri). A legend of the Wild West, in addition to robbing banks James was an expert train robber, because if you can’t get your kicks robbing banks then try to steal from something that is moving!
6. John “Red” Hamilton
For John Hamilton, robbing banks wasn’t his first choice. After getting pinched for robbing a gas station, he met John Dillinger and others in prison who taught him the trade, and then escaped prison to work with Dillinger and his associates. In January of 1934 Hamilton and his crew robbed over $20,000 from a bank and gunned downed an officer. Dillinger was charged; however, many claim it was Hamilton who pulled the trigger. Hamilton, along with Dillinger, were public enemy number one (or one and two I guess) as their gang robbed several banks around the Chicago area. In April of 1934 they pulled off a bank job, but the getaway went awry and a shootout ensued. John Hamilton was hit and died shortly after. He was buried by Dillinger.
5. Frank “Jelly” Nash
Nash was a jack of all trades when it came to robbing banks. Whether armed with guns, coordinated with a gang or using explosives, anything was on the table if it meant leaving the building with bags of money. Although rumored to have been a “nice guy,” he murdered his partner, Nollie “Humpy” Wortman, after they completed a job. Frank Nash knocked over 200 banks in his time and is known by many as the most successful bank robber of all time. He died after being shot by cops during a failed rescue attempt by his crew (Nash was on his way to prison).
4. Charles “Chaz” Williams
Williams and his gang were known for being able to do bank jobs in under a minute. During the sixties, Williams was linked to over 60 robberies across the East Coast and Midwest. Eventually he would do some time (all bank robbers eventually do some time), but that didn’t keep Williams from his day job. He conned his way into a program that allowed him out of prison during the day to attend the University of Michigan. Of course “Chaz” rarely made it to class; instead, organizing bank heists to steal more federal money. Eventually someone caught on, but talk about not being able to keep a good man (or bad man) down.
3. Butch Cassidy
As great of a criminal as Butch Cassidy was, there are still questions as to how he died. Is it possible he is still alive? Given he was born in 1866, not likely. Cassidy was the ring leader of the gang known as the Wild Bunch, a group of Wild West criminals that loved to stick up banks, rob trains and then (presumably) drink whiskey and fight in saloons. Cassidy didn’t need much, just his crew and a reputation that bled intimidation. The skies darkened when Cassidy got close, that’s how badass he was during the time of the Wild Wild West.
2. John Dillinger
John Dillinger was almost as famous as Al Capone. Dillinger wanted to be more famous than Capone and let everyone know who he was. If you ever got robbed by John Dillinger you knew it because he would have told you so. Robbing banks was Dillinger’s bread and butter, and often included elaborate plans that placed him front and center, demanding attention of security, tellers and customers. Eventually the F.B.I. made Dillinger a priority and brought him down one night in Chicago by shooting him several times in front of a mob of people, as if Dillinger planned it himself.
1. Willie Sutton
It’s funny how a lot of bank robbers never wear disguises anymore. Willie Sutton loved using disguises to rob banks. Sutton was the Cal Ripken of bank robbers, participating in over 100 bank robberies over a 35-year span. It is estimated he stole over $2 million from banks. In addition to being a master bank robber he was also a master of escaping from prison (which is good when your job is robbing banks on the outside). His means of robbing banks were never violent; in fact the machine gun he carried was empty. In the end Sutton worked as a security consultant for banks. The most famous line about robbing banks was coined by Willie Sutton when asked why he continued to rob banks: “Because that’s where the money is.”