Sunday, August 30, 2009

Public Enemies in North Iowa

About once a year, Mitchell County Sheriff Curt Younker pulls the machine gun out of its display case, goes to a shooting range and lets a round go.

By DEB NICKLAY / The Globe Gazette

Mitchell County Sheriff Curt Younker looks down the sights of a Thompson Submachine Gun -- more popularly known as a Tommy Gun -- used by rural sheriff's departments in the 1930s to help combat gangsters.

About once a year, Mitchell County Sheriff Curt Younker pulls the machine gun out of its display case, goes to a shooting range and lets a round go. This is a Thompson submachine gun — but there was a time when everyone knew it by its nickname: Tommy gun. “In the 1930s, rural counties were given the guns to help them fight gangsters,” Younker said, feeling the weight of the weapon.

North Iowans knew all about guns in the summer of 1934 — in fact, Cerro Gordo, Howard and Mitchell counties formed the stage on which the last days of some of the era’s most notorious outlaws were played out. John Dillinger made his run on the First National Bank in Mason City in March and died in July in Chicago. After Dillinger’s death, Charles Arthur “Pretty Boy” Floyd took over the spot as Public Enemy No. 1. Floyd came to Mitchell County that summer. Few today know of Floyd’s summer living on a small farm near McIntire.

Younker, who enjoys researching law enforcement history, said gangsters 75 years ago found the Midwest “easy pickings” for robberies. “There were small banks, small towns and little or no law enforcement,” he said. Floyd first spent some time near Bonair, in the northeast part of Howard County.

Then, according to Younker’s research, Floyd and two others — some believe one of them was Lester Gillis, also known as Baby Face Nelson — moved just south of McIntire in Mitchell County to the Lee Bosteter farm.

Vivian DuShane, who grew up in Little Cedar, said Floyd’s sister lived in Mitchell County and he had visited before that summer. “I had some friends tell me they had danced with him — he was a good-looking guy — in the dance hall above the store in David,” DuShane said. That store burned down in 1933.

The late Arthur Keston, who farmed nearby, said Floyd was in the county most of the summer of 1934. He said the visitors came to his farm. When Keston happened to look into their vehicle, he realized the men were carrying “enough guns for an arsenal.”

Deputy Will Owens and A.G. Haight, a state agent for the Department of Investigation (later the FBI), went to the Bosteter farm on Oct. 11, 1934, to investigate whether or not Floyd was actually in the area. Pulling into the farmyard the pair saw a man outside — later identified as Floyd — who stopped, saw who they were and jumped into his Ford to escape. Floyd sped out of the yard and headed east on a gravel road. Owens reported that two men came running from a cornfield north of the road. Floyd quickly stopped, the men got in and Floyd continued his high-speed trek. Owens and Haight pursued Floyd in their car and got off four shots, hitting the auto.

Floyd found himself heading down a dead-end road. He spun back around, speeding west again. Owens and Haight abandoned their car and took cover in nearby woods. The gangsters riddled the car with bullets while Floyd drove around it in a ditch then circled back to the road. The officers fired on the Floyd vehicle but it was never known if they ever hit the gangsters. Owens and Haight continued to chase Floyd’s car, but were outdistanced near Riceville, the newspaper reports of the day said.

Floyd’s car — later found burned in Numa, in Appanoose County — bore license plates stolen from a woman’s car in Britt. The trail went cold in Missouri, but just 11 days after the confrontation in McIntire, Floyd was killed by FBI agents in Ohio. Oddly, the Bosteter family figured prominently in another incident on October 20 — this time involving murder. Two men robbed a general store in Johnsburg, just north of Stacyville, in Minnesota. John Freund, the storekeeper, was shot and killed. The men fled into their waiting car, which held a third man. They left with $20 and cigarettes.

The proximity to the McIntire incident had many believing that Floyd had returned to the area. But it was Lee Bosteter — who owned the farm upon which the Floyd gang spent the summer — who was arrested, along with Francis McNeiley and Elroy McKeever, from Missouri. On Jan. 3, 1935, a grand jury indicted McKeever and McNeiley for first-degree murder. Bosteter, who claimed he was only the lookout man and never entered the store, was charged with second-degree murder and grand larceny. He was sentenced to five years. McKeever later confessed that he had shot Freund.

Later, McKeever testified that Bosteter ran into the store after the killing to steal cigarettes. A first-degree murder charge was filed against Bosteter. He pleaded guilty to manslaughter and had another 15 years added to his sentence. McKeever was sentenced to life in prison. McNeiley, who had confessed to the slaying of two Missouri police officers in 1933, was extradited to Missouri, where he was later convicted and hanged for his crimes.

By the end of 1934, all of the major players in Midwest bank robberies were dead. Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow were killed in May, Dillinger in July, Floyd in October and Nelson in November. Part of the reason may have been that 1934 marked the first year FBI agents could either make arrests or carry weapons. Younker said seven murders were attributed to Floyd, including six police officers.

At his funeral in 1934, Floyd’s mother screamed at the crowd, “My boy never hurt nobody.” “What a major case of denial,” Younker said, with a shake of his head.