Today, you will find the new Village Market standing where the original Peoples Bank of Gambier once stood, but you’d never guess from the produce and snacks that now occupy the building that a bank robbery once occurred there.
On the afternoon of Oct. 6, 1933, three men burst into the Peoples Bank of Gambier at its former location, wielding revolvers while a fourth stood outside their car, holding an automatic rifle.
These men were about to commit Knox County’s first bank robbery, and, as legend has it, they were members of the infamous Depression-era gang led by John Dillinger.
In fact, Dillinger was in a jail in Lima, Ohio at the time of the robbery, but one of his close associates, Charles Makley, was among the Peoples Bank robbers. Six days after the robbery in Gambier, Makley would aid in Dillinger’s escape from jail.
The Gambier robbery proved difficult for Makley and his crew.
When the bank’s cashier at the time, J.R. “Ray” Brown, saw the robbers enter, he ducked behind the counter, grabbed a revolver, lifted it up over the counter and started blindly shooting at the robbers. Makley grabbed one of the bank’s customers, J. Grant Dwyer, a Kenyon student from Middleton, Conn., and used him as a shield as he fired back.
“Dwyer said a gun was stuck in the back of his neck and that the bandit then used him as a shield,” an article in the Oct. 12, 1933 edition of the Collegian said. He survived the incident.
Makley won the firefight by shooting Brown three times through his hand. He grabbed Brown as a hostage while the remaining robbers made off with $714 from behind the counter, which is about $13,000 today. They didn’t have time to break into the inner vault.
As the robbers left, F.R. Hagaman, who owned a store where the Kenyon College Bookstore is now, had heard the gunshots in the bank and fired at their car as they left. The robbers returned fire, leaving 13 lead shotgun slugs in the his storefront.
Paul Ralston, a grounds and maintenance staff member for Kenyon and also the town’s deputy sheriff, got into a car with Frank Armstrong, a civilian, to chase the robbers. They were both unarmed.
At the bottom of the hill, Ralston and Armstrong found Brown, who had been dumped there by the robbers as they were making their getaway on state route 229. Brown shouted at the duo when they stopped, “Don’t mind me. Go on and get the —— (sic),” according to an article in the Oct. 7, 1933 edition of the Daily Banner, a newspaper in Mount Vernon.
Ralston and Armstrong were closing in on the robbers when the car suddenly stopped and opened fire with an automatic rifle. One of the bullets made it through the hood of the duo’s car and got lodged in the speedometer. Unarmed, the two abandoned the chase.
About a half hour later, more police arrived on the scene and followed the robbers’ route. The officers were stopped down the road by several women who were shouting at them. The women warned them of a “nest” of roofing nails, dumped by the robbers during their escape, farther down the road.
The next day’s issue of the Daily Banner stated that the robbers had “eluded all pursuit” and that “chances of capturing the gang are admittedly small at present.” Both Brown and Dwyer later identified a picture of Charles Makley as the leader of the gang that had robbed the bank.
In the aftermath of the robbery, several ex-convicts from Cleveland were suspected of the crime, in addition to a well-known bootlegger from Mount Vernon. Brown, who worked at the bank until his retirement in 1967, was always a little uneasy after the incident.
A year later, another Daily Banner article details how Brown held three strangers at gunpoint in the bank after he saw one of them reaching into his pocket. The three men were actually bank examiners reaching for their credentials.