Wilsey Bank Robbery

Wilsey State Bank built in 1890. (Courtesy of Morris County Historical Society.)

Monday September 14th 1903 two tramps wandered into Council Grove.  W. H. Call and ‘James Butler’ (aka Sam Dunn) walked into Black Hardware Company at 131 West Main Street and purchased three sticks of dynamite from Mr. Puryear the clerk.  After the men left the store they continued down the dusty alley where they picked up a discarded tin can and carried the dynamite in it.  They continued west out of town walking the Missouri Pacific tracks until they disappeared in the shadows of evening.

The next day, Tuesday September 15th, the two vagabonds strolled into Wilsey.  Butler and Call stopped in at Harvey Myers grocery store where they bought five cents worth of bacon, five cents worth of coffee and five cents worth of Lenox soap.  They also purchased bread from Mrs. Moler and then loafed around for the remainder of the day where they were seen as late as 10:00 p.m.

About 2:00 a.m. Wednesday the 16th citizens in Wilsey were startled by three successive explosions as the Wilsey State Bank vault was blown open.  Although several parties were awakened by the concussion, it was not until 5:00 a.m. that cashier Henderson was made aware of the robbery.  Henderson then phoned Mr. Prater and Ed Williams who were stockholders and directors of the bank to inform them of the robbery.  Upon investigating the scene, a partially used bar of Lenox soap (used to stop up the cracks in the safe) and a tin can were found.  Butler and Call had managed to get away with $2,500 in bills and silver.  The manhunt was on.

Folks in the Diamond Creek area reported seeing the two men late Wednesday afternoon; “The negro took the Santa Fe south.  The white man walked over the fields and disappeared south.”  After a week having passed with no clue as to their whereabouts, it was considered to bring in bloodhounds to track them down.  Of course, so much time had lapsed the scent was cold.  One scoffer brought attention to the fact that a couple years prior, blood hounds were brought to Council Grove at great expense as well as disappointment to track down the elusive ‘Jack the Peeper.’

When Sheriff Pitsenberger caught up with Butler and Call, some two weeks later, they were found camping in a corn field north of Herington with about a dozen other loafing characters.  Safe cracking tools were found upon them and so they were arrested.  Butler was arrested along with Call as he claimed to be his partner.  The nature of their partnership seems questionable as Butler claimed to be a miner and Call a bricklayer.

A preliminary hearing was held at Council Grove for Butler and Call resulting in Butler being released due to lack of evidence and Call being put under $1,000 bond to appear in court in December.  Regardless of the lack in evidence connecting him to the Wilsey robbery, it was made clear in a few weeks that Butler was an old hand at the safe cracking business as well as being associated with an organized gang of bank robbers.  In the latter part of October Butler participated in a bank robbery at Burrton, Kansas, where he was shot in the arm and captured.  Sheriff Pitsenberger again had the satisfaction to see Butler behind bars when he went to Newton to identify Butler as the same suspected in the Wilsey robbery.  While there, Pitsenberger found a man by the name of White who was also caught in the Burrton robbery.  White was seen a few weeks prior in Council Grove giving $20 to a Thompson who was charged in robbing the Wilsey bank.  I have found no further mention of this Thompson.

The Emporia Gazette reported for the December term of court W. H. Call and George Roberts would be tried for their alleged involvement in the Wilsey bank robbery.  We don’t know anything else about this Roberts, but he must have been picked up later as a suspect.  We do know that Call was released as there was not enough evidence to connect him to the crime.  The Emporia Gazette stated, “There is a big loop between seeing the men camping and looking suspicious, and proving that they robbed the bank.”

The Wilsey State Bank had a new safe put in and increased their burglary insurance to a $5,000 policy.  A few years later the bank would build a new brick building which stands today and serves as City Hall.

There are many details I have not been able to apprehend in this case, but one big question remains.  What became of the $2,500 that was taken from the vault?

New brick bank built about 1905 or 1906. (Courtesy of Morris County Historical Society.)

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3 thoughts on “Wilsey Bank Robbery

  1. Buying bread and then “loafing” the day away and not being able to “apprehend” all the details of a case with apprehended, but not convicted (?) bankrobbers and apprehended but not accounted for monies. I appreciate your histories, vocabulary and word play, Derrick. Please keep it up, sir! The funny thing with the pictures is that there remains a building in Wilsey that looks like the first bank, though I never heard that it had been one so it may just be a similar styled building that managed to withstand the years (and dynamite?) but I don’t recall one like that brick building. I’ll have to take a look around mainstreet…

    • I actually didn’t intend the ‘bread and loafing’ pun, I just ran out of synonyms for loafing. The first wood frame bank building pictured at top did survive the explosion. It was moved to a different location when the new brick was built. The brick building pictured at the bottom has since had most of the windows bricked up and the front raised so the roof slopes to the rear of the building. So it looks a bit different today.

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