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posted on 28 August 2016

Historical Echoes: That's Where The Celebrity Advertising Was, Or The Gentleman Bank Robber

from Liberty Street Economics

-- this post authored by Amy Farber

In 1970, New Britain Bank and Trust (inactive as of 1984) ran a television advertisement that starred a real-life bank robber touting a safety feature of its new "face card." (A History Channel video includes interesting preliminaries about how the journalists obtained the ad; the ad itself starts at 5:44.) Why would this bank be willing to create such an ad?

Of course, neither this bank, nor any other bank, nor any Federal Reserve Bank would condone the act of robbing a bank. But this particular thief, the notorious Willie Sutton (1901-80), was different from typical bank robbers. Let's consider why:

He was a "gentleman" (assuming it's even possible to be both a gentleman and a bank robber). The video linked to above states: "He carries a gun but never shoots .... It seems he doesn't like to upset his victims. One reporter writes he'll leave the dough behind if a woman screams or a baby cries." He did not belong to a gang and he did not trust mobsters, although he did have accomplices. Sutton says he wrote his first book (mentioned below) partly out of horror that school kids were making a hero out of him and wanted to show them why they should not follow in his path.

He was ingenious. Sutton was a really good student and believed his high marks prevented him from being expelled the times he got into trouble. His mother wanted him to become a priest and he himself wished to be a lawyer, but he couldn't afford the books. According to a blog post, "Sutton, who always made a point of getting all the education he could while incarcerated, had become a sort of jailhouse lawyer through his self-education. He put together writs for fellow inmates and helped spring a few." He was the author of two books, I, Willie Sutton (1953) and a second memoir (1976). One of Sutton's nicknames was "Willie the Actor," another was "Slick Willie." He was a master of disguise, obtaining entry into guarded buildings by posing as a mailman, a Santa Claus, a delivery person, a police officer, a window cleaner, and more. He was extremely proficient at escaping jail. (Seven escapes are listed here; the Smithsoniandescribes one in detail; a story on video focuses on the same escape.) A passage in his first book explains how he came to learn one aspect of disguise through his acquaintance with an actress:

It was while I was sitting in this dressing room that I discovered the world of make-up. I came to know some of the actors in the play and I'd watch fascinated as they completely transformed themselves. I learned that you could flatten the nose by inserting corks in the nostrils; that you could use pads to fill out hollow cheeks; that there were face powders that could transform a young face to the parchment-like skin of old age. I saw what these actors did with wigs and mustaches. Again, I was getting an extremely valuable education that would come in very handy later on.

He was reformed (at the time of the ad, and well before). According to ablog post that details the unlikely string of events that led to Sutton's last arrest, when Sutton was finally free in 1969, he spent "the last years of his life speaking up for prison reform [and] giving banks tips on how to prevent robberies." A 1970 Time magazine article (subscription required) about the commercial had the title "Willie Sutton, Bankers' Friend." It seems a precursor to hackers offering their skills to help prevent hacking.

He achieved folk-hero status. In J.R. Moehringer's fictionalized account of Sutton's life, Sutton (2012), the author characterized the bandit's public perception in this way:

In his heyday, Sutton was the face of American crime, one of a handful of men to make the leap from public enemy to folk hero. Smarter than Machine Gun Kelly, saner than Pretty Boy Floyd, more likeable than Legs Diamond, more peaceable than Dutch Schultz, more romantic than Bonnie and Clyde, Sutton saw bank robbery as high art and went about it with an artist's single-minded zeal. He believed in study, planning, hard work. And yet he was also creative, an innovator, and like the greatest artists he proved to be a tenacious survivor.

Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary, now a historic site, offers Sutton as celebrity on its website. It also celebrates Al Capone and a number of others that spent ("did") time there. One-and-a-half minutes into the videoin which the bank ad appears, the two narrators walk into a bar nearby the penitentiary (the bar likes to pretend that Sutton had a drink there after his tunnel escape) and they are served by a waitress who knows an awful lot about Sutton. "Our house beer's named after him," she says.

And for the record, it was and still is a common misperception that when asked why he robbed banks, Sutton said, "Because that's where the money is." It's hilarious, but he didn't actually say that (scroll to the bottom for the story). Sutton states as much in his second book, but credit for thoroughly researching the fact goes to blogger Steve Cocheo, whoexplains that quote was probably made up by a journalist. According to a post:

The earliest print sighting of the coined phrase dates to 15 March 1952, when it appeared in Redlands Daily Facts, a Southern California newspaper. Today it is so commonplace that a handful of social scientists have dubbed the process of considering the obvious first as "Sutton's Law."

More people think it's true that the quote is Sutton's than know it's false (even the Federal Bureau of Investigation's website hasn't yet caught on). The best part is, although he didn't say "Because that's where the money is," he went on to name his second book Where the Money Was: The Memoirs of a Bank Robber (1976). That's smart.

Further Links

The New York Daily News revisits its 1952 article about Sutton's capture in February 2016.

In March 2013, New York Newsday catches up with the cop who collared Willie Sutton (about Donald P. Shea).

New York Newsday summed up Shea's life in a July 2016 obituary.

Newsday illustrated an August 2016 reader letter about the Shea obituary with an interesting photo of Sutton's booking in which everyone looks exhilarated except for Sutton.

See also an interview with Rich Gold, who made the only documentary so far about Sutton, In the Footsteps of Willie Sutton (trailer), which won various awards at film festivals but did not get picked up for distribution (yet).


The views expressed in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York or the Federal Reserve System. Any errors or omissions are the responsibility of the author.


About the Author

Amy Farber is a research librarian in the Federal Reserve Bank of New York's Research and Statistics Group.

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