Throughout the years, history has proven to us that crimes of any description are not selective to a particular location, nor are they committed by those whom we would necessarily expect. Crime can happen anywhere, at any time, even in our own backyard, and the perpetrators may be those we least expect. They may live in the same neighborhood, shop at the same stores, dine in the same restaurants and attend the same social events.
This was especially true as details were uncovered about the lives of those who rattled the safety and took advantage of the employees working at the Caledonia National Bank and its surrounding community on June 4, 1934. Little did citizens suspect that at least two of these dangerous criminals visited Danville at different times. They studied and charted our back country roads and visited the local library. One was even given a guided tour of the Caledonia National Bank by one of its officials.
Edward Wilheim Bentz was described by J. Edgar Hoover in his book Persons in Hiding as the,“shrewdest, most resourceful, intelligent and dangerous bank robber in existence.” In his underworld of crime, he was regarded as a“super hero.” He gained the utmost respect of other hardened criminals, who often looked to him for advice regarding their next holdup. He was regarded by his associates as being at the top of his profession. Eddie Bentz had garnered the title“Respectable Eddie” by those who knew him best, especially law enforcement officials, who described him as one of the craftiest and most dangerous bank robbers in the country. For those who were as good at their job as Bentz, bank robbing proved to be a lucrative profession in those days. Bentz claimed to have an annual income that was rarely less than $100,000.
If the name Eddie Bentz was less recognizable than some of the more publicized criminals of the day, it was because that was the way he preferred it. He liked to keep a low profile and was known to thousands of honest citizens as a gracious man -- generous, educated and with impeccable morals. Even his closest neighbors never suspected that he was a hardened criminal. They saw him as nothing but a true gentleman.
After pulling off a big job, his accomplices would party and carouse. Bentz, however, preferred peace, quiet, books, art and good companions. He was an avid reader with an insatiable thirst for knowledge and read every book he could get his hands on. He owned several volumes of rare books, searching old bookstores from coast to coast during his travels about the country. Frequently he would correspond with collectors of old coins, in an attempt to add to his own valuable collection. He was an amateur photographer, often recording motion pictures of the cities while planning his next job. He could chat with ease about the fine points of the city with any tourist as he cased his next bank robbery. Hospitable and social, he enjoyed entertaining, nightclubbing and dancing and according to Hoover’s book, Eddie’s ambition was“to play every worthwhile golf course in America.” He shot a respectable round of golf with a score often in the low 80s.
He preferred to locate among scholarly types or the rich and famous whenever he was changing his residence, something he did every few months. He would charm the proprietor of the apartment building or hotel into believing he was a cattle dealer or the district manager of a large corporation. If ever they were questioned by police about suspicious persons in the building, he felt that his pleasant acquaintanceship with them would more likely eliminate him from doubt or suspicion.
A shrewd“business-like” bank robber, Eddie took every possible precaution to avoid capture. He often carried a crisp chauffeur’s uniform with him and would wear it when necessary to evade law enforcement should he have the misfortune of being pulled over for a traffic violation. He would suggest to the officer that his employer, usually a noted doctor, had encountered an emergency demanding the need for a speedy getaway. After dining in a restaurant, Eddie would discretely wipe each glass, plate and piece of silverware carefully to obscure his fingerprints.
When moving to a new city, Bentz routinely memorized the first three digits of the telephone number of the local office of the FBI. If ever he saw anyone in his presence dial these numbers, he would make an immediate exit.
Edward Wilheim Bentz was born to German immigrants in Pipestone, Minn. on June 2, 1894. His father, who was a house mover, was killed by a runaway horse when Eddie was just nine years old. His mother, Rose, took Eddie and his eight siblings to Tacoma, Wash. where with her husband’s life insurance she was able to buy a large home. She provided the family with a respectable, middle-class life by operating a theater and boarding house.
Bentz began his life of crime at an early age, stealing cigarettes and bicycles from his friends. At the age of 16, he was shipped off to a State Training School on a burglary charge, and then escaped. His life of crime continued over the years in several states with an array of charges ranging from auto theft, burglary and fugitive from justice.
Following his early years of unorganized crime, he aspired to become a bank robber. In his words he felt,“they were the aristocracy of the criminal profession.” Even as a rookie, Eddie realized that the keys to success in this business were education and organization. He used his infrequent stints of imprisonment as an educational experience, learning the tricks of the trade from older, more seasoned criminals, who were always eager and willing to help out the young guys. Fourteen times in his 26-year career, he was sentenced to serve time in jail for his crimes. In several jurisdictions around the country, he was sentenced to more than 34 years; though he only served seven. He escaped twice and was paroled at least five times, or released with the minimum sentence. He once stated in an interview that he believed he had held up between 50 and 100 banks throughout his career, but could not remember the number of burglaries.
When he was planning a job, Eddie would visit the local library and study documents about a bank’s assets and liabilities to determine how much cash would be in a bank at a particular time. He became an expert at interpreting financial statements. He wanted to know,“how much buck there was for the bang.” Sometimes he would even pose as a potential investor or a customer opening an account, enabling him to familiarize himself with the bank personnel and their responsibilities and habits. He often would wrangle a guided tour of the facility, taking note of the bank’s security features.
He read everything dealing with law enforcement and regularly kept up with any changes in state and federal statutes, refusing to get involved with anyone who broke those laws. He only remained with any one gang for a short time, and, being a leader in the underworld, he was able to pick and choose his associates.
Because of his tremendous knowledge, other gangs sought out his financial advice. He learned that negotiable bonds and other securities could be worth much more than cash when sold. Insurance companies would buy bonds back at five, 10 or even 15 cents on the dollar. He would offer robbers who worked with him in holdups a major part of the cash if they would give him the other bonds and securities, which were normally burned. This increased profits on a job immensely. Bentz operated on the theory that the public quickly forgets, and, if he hid the stolen bonds away for a long enough period of time, they could be safely sold. He boasted that, throughout the country, he had $1 million worth of bonds buried, waiting to be“cool enough” to place on the market. Bentz therefore insisted that there be a minimum of gunplay on his jobs. He felt guns should be used for intimidation only. An article in the February 1939 issue of True Detective magazine,“How G-Men Trapped Ed Bentz,” quoted him as saying,“When there is a killing, the bonds are worthless. Any robbery where guns have to be used, apart from intimidation, shows poor planning.”
On Sept. 17, 1930, the Lincoln National Bank and Trust Company of Lincoln, Neb. was held up for more than a million dollars in cash, bonds, and commercial paper. Bentz was the leader and organizer. It was termed one of the greatest robberies in history at the time, forcing the bank’s liquidation.
Throughout all the turmoil and frequent arrests landing Eddie in and out of jail, one woman remained faithful to him. She patiently waited for him, but one day he cast her aside for greener pastures. In 1931, he met a pretty, dark-eyed girl named Verna Friemark of South Milwaukee, Wis. Verna’s sister happened to be married to a bank robber and associate of Bentz, named Joe Cartwright. On one occasion, during one of his frequent visits to the Cartwright home, he was introduced to Verna. Eddie, always dressed to perfection, wore a stunning and well-fitted dark blue suit, crisp shirt and sharp tie. He was six feet tall and somewhat thuggish-looking in appearance with crinkly reddish hair. He had a triangular-shaped patch of bluish broken veins on his forehead. Despite his ruddy complexion, he was tanned and glowing from hours on the golf links. Amiable, and often smiling, he frequently talked out of the corner of his mouth. Verna and Eddie exchanged glances, and it seemed there was an instant mutual attraction between them. Soon, the pair became constant companions.
Verna, just 17 years of age, had completed her junior year of high school when she ran away from home and headed for Chicago. While in Chicago, Eddie showed her a lifestyle that she had never known. He took her to fancy nightclubs and cafes and bought her expensive clothes. As the two grew closer, he felt the gentlemanly thing to do was to tell her of his past. Verna found it thrilling to know a real bank robber who carried guns and wore a steel vest. He carefully explained to her that a relationship with him could end in his imprisonment, since he was often a“hunted” man. Eddie wanted Verna to become his wife, and on Jan. 7, 1932, Verna Friemark became the wife of Edward Wilheim Bentz in Pierce, Wash. Verna was just 18; Eddie was 32.
The lifestyle of a bank robber proved appealing to vulnerable young women like Verna Friemark, who had only dreamed of living a glamorous life with all the fancy trimmings that the earnings of men in this profession could afford. Little thought was given to the fact that this income was acquired on the wrong side of the law and one day amends would inevitably be made. That is, of course, as long as honesty about one’s profession was forthcoming as in the case of Verna and Eddie.
This was not so much the case for a young woman named Doris Crane from the little town of Danville, Vt., who was trying to find her way in the big city of Chicago.
Next issue of Bringing The Bank: A Tale of Two Eddies– Prelude to a Crime, Part II