It Was Linton's Finest Hour
Ralston "Blackie" Linton stepped out of the shadows and into bank robbing history on a dark and cold November day.
It was Tuesday, Nov. 6, 1923, when Ralston and 11 others (some say as many as 20) invaded the town of Spencer, Ind., the Owen County seat, shortly before 3 a.m.
The first thing they did was isolate the city by cutting all telephone and telegraph wires.
After posting guards at various points in the city, the robbers used nitroglycerin and dynamite to break into the safes of the Spencer National Bank and the Exchange Bank. About $24,000 was taken (more than $340,000 in today’s money). The robbers, however, left another $7,000 in plain view at Spencer National, likely placed on the counter during the robbery and simply forgotten.
Since the day before the robbery was the final day to pay property taxes, both banks were flush with cash. All of the stolen money was taken from the safes. Safety deposit boxes at both banks were not touched.
Residents were alerted to the robberies when an explosion at the Spencer National Bank rattled doors and windows for six blocks. Any resident who came to investigate was quickly taken hostage.
A second explosion was set off at the Exchange Bank shortly after 3:30 a.m.
Despite the armed men, several citizens attempted to interrupt the safe-cracking, and at least three were injured by gunshots. Frank Gray was hit above his left knee; John Barge was shot in his left hip as he drove his automobiles down an alley; George Smith was injured when he was struck by a ricochet bullet.
Flossie Kirkham, the Bell Telephone night operator who was on duty upstairs from the Spencer National Bank, could not notify state police because of the downed lines and could only sit and listen to the commotion below her.
The editor of the Spencer Leader newspaper managed to find a working fire alarm, but the alarm seemed to trigger more activity by the robbers and several explosions followed.
The dual robberies were completed in about 30 minutes, and the robbers escaped by driving their vehicles in different directions out of town. A local posse attempted to follow one of the cars, but soon lost it in the darkness.
On May 15, 1924, however, Linton, Harry Palmer, William Highfield and William Evans were arrested in Terre Haute and charged with the robberies. In all, 12 men were arrested and charged after they were named by Raymond Powers, a member of the gang.
Powers said there were only 12 involved, but witnesses put the number higher.
The others arrested were Arthur Barr, Webb Barry, Dick Day, Albert Ross House, Paul Huhn, Mike Murphy and Fred Tosser. Lenny Mitchell, Jack McKinley and Dennis Whittenberg.
Huhn and House were apprehended in Tampa, Fla., and while awaiting extradition to Indiana, House escaped and disappeared.
Of the men identified by Powers, Day, Murphy and Tosser were already serving sentences in the Michigan City penitentiary for auto theft. All testified against Linton for sentence consideration.
Despite the testimony, the jury deliberated 55 hours before Owen Circuit Court Judge Herbert A. Rundell declared a hung jury on Nov. 24 and set a new trial date for January 1925.
But Linton wasn’t waiting. On Dec. 9, he and Highfield sawed through two doors and escaped from the unguarded Owen County Jail. Mitchell, who was also in the jail, declined to join them.
There was no word where Linton and Highfield were hiding, but to everyone’s surprise, on Jan. 12, 1925, Linton – accompanied by attorney Charles C. Whitlock – walked into the police station and surrendered. Highfield, however, remained at large.
Linton’s second trial began March 31. He testified that on the night of Nov. 5, 1923, he and his wife Pearl were in Terre Haute with friends Dave Lister and Cecil Harris. The jury didn’t buy it, and on April 10, after deliberating three and a half hours, found Linton guilty and recommended a 15-year sentence.
Just two weeks later, on April 16 at about 4:30 a.m., Linton – this time accompanied by Barr – escaped once again from the Owen County Jail. This time he had a key to his cell door.
A full manhunt was mounted and on April 21, Vermillion County Sheriff J.E. Lucan, accompanied by two Owen County deputies and three Clinton police officers, surrounded a small, single story house in Centenary, Ind., where Linton was hiding. More than 50 shots were exchanged but no one was injured.
Linton finally agreed to surrender, was taken to prison and more time was added to his sentence. He died Jul 13, 1982, at the age of 91 and is buried in Indiana. Other gang members served various sentences for the dual robberies and other crimes and all faded into history.