Alaska Life

Anchorage’s first bank robbery was also likely the most successful

Part of a continuing weekly series on local history by local historian David Reamer. Have a question about Anchorage history or an idea for a future article? Go to the form at the bottom of this story.

It was May 11, 1921, shortly after noon in the still-new town of Anchorage. An unknown man approached the Bank of Alaska on Fourth Avenue and slipped on a mask before entering. Like any respectable non-restaurant business then, the bank was nearly deserted during lunchtime. The bank manager, Ralph Moyer, was away at a chamber of commerce meeting. A single employee, Wanda Gelles (1892-1940), stood behind the counter. And a single customer, D.E. “Doc” Madden (1861-1924), proprietor of the Panhandle Pool Room, waited as Gelles finalized his transaction.

The stranger locked the front door behind him and pulled down the door shade. He turned toward the counter, pulled out a Colt revolver, and pointed it steadily at Gelles and Madden. The robber was short and heavyset. His dark clothing and checkered hat contrasted with the white of the full-length white mask. In clear English, the robber calmly ordered Madden to close the rest of the blinds. Then, the robber gestured toward the vault and told his captives, “Get in there! I mean business.”

Gentlemen are gentlemen always, so Madden allowed Gelles to enter the vault first. The robber closed the door behind them. Now alone in the bank, the robber quickly gathered the paper money in the cashier’s tray and escaped through the front door. Less than five minutes had elapsed since he first entered the bank. Ten minutes after the ordeal began, Mabel Light, a schoolteacher, happened by, heard the cries for help, and summoned Moyer to unlock the vault.

This was Anchorage’s first bank robbery, made more sensational by its success. Skill and planning were evident in the crime’s execution. Though Fourth Avenue was quiet during lunchtime, it was not wholly deserted. Yet, no one saw the robber either entering or leaving the bank. He possibly had a partner, a lookout. The robber ignored the coins in the cashier’s tray, too heavy perhaps, and made no attempt to raid the vault, thus sacrificing a more significant haul in favor of speed. In 1921, there were no roads out of town. The train to Seward and steamship to Seattle appeared only once a week. Still, the thief disappeared.

The robber(s) made off with $2,514, roughly $39,000 in 2021 dollars. Notably, the theft harmed no one. The bank was specifically insured against “daylight hold-ups.” Gelles and Madden suffered no physical or emotional trauma apart from some explicitly acknowledged storytelling fatigue. The Anchorage Daily Times sold out their robbery coverage editions.

Police chief Nathan Kitzmiller, Anchorage’s second police chief, led the investigation. His was less than three months into his tenure after the mysterious, unsolved death of his predecessor, Jack Sturgus. As Kitzmiller comprised the entire local police force, U.S. Marshals assisted.

Three suspects were quickly apprehended and almost immediately exonerated. Each of the men was far larger than the description given by Gelles and Madden. One of the briefly accused, Robert Cockburn, delighted in the misapprehension. He thanked Kitzmiller not only for the newfound notoriety but for the faith in his heretofore undemonstrated criminal skills.

The day after the robbery, a sandbag cudgel was discovered behind one of the nearby buildings. The public ran with the assumption that it belonged to the robber or his theoretical accomplice. The bag was made of sailcloth and sealed with a common seaman’s stitch. Maybe the robber was an experienced sailor, or maybe the amateur Sherlocks had too much time on their hands. Ray McDonald exhibited the weapon at the front of his Harmony Theater.

The robber’s cap and mask were also discovered in an alley for the little difference that made. He had made a clean escape. Law enforcement in all major Alaska destinations was alerted, but there were no breakthroughs or arrests. The robbery is one more Alaska mystery that will likely never be solved. The disappearance even became something of a local joke. For the next few years, every as yet unapprehended criminal was assumed to be holed up with the Bank of Alaska robber.

Jokes aside, the populace wanted a scapegoat. Drugs, bootlegging, gambling and prostitution were rampant in 1921 Anchorage. Many downtown businesses, especially the pool halls and cigar shops, were barely concealed criminal fronts. It was all beyond the ability of a single policeman to handle. One of the city’s first attempts to curb crime appears quaint now. That January, the city council unanimously passed the city’s sixth ordinance, which banned curtains in the windows of “cigar stores, pool rooms, and soft drink establishments.” The somewhat naive idea here is that without curtains, such businesses could no longer hide their illegal activities.

After the bank robbery, many locals called for the city to enforce existing vagrancy laws, which functionally made being homeless and/or unemployed a crime. A Daily Times editorial declared, “Enforcement will do one of two things: Drive the vags from the city or fill the jails. Now is the accepted time. There is still another bank and a few stores that remain unrobbed.” However, the deft handling of the robbery suggests that the culprit was not your average out-of-work laborer.

While news cycles were indeed longer then than now, the difference can be overstated. In a town as small as Anchorage — only 1,856 residents in 1920 per the Census — stories were rapidly exhausted. Everybody who wanted to know about the bank robbery knew about the bank robbery. And without any updates, the story quietly and quickly died. The last story about the holdup came on May 13, only two days after the crime. Baseball was the new local craze, with the 1921 season opening on May 15. The Daily Times stated, “Baseball is king. Bank robbers are taboo; the subject ceases to be of local interest and has passed into history.”

The midday was a popular time for bank robberies across the nation. Some banks considered closing for lunch. The Illinois Banking Association advised as such to its members and said, “It’s a wise man who profits by the experience of others — it may be your turn next. Do you want to be locked in the vault?”

There is little doubt that the 1921 Bank of Alaska robbery was the most successful bank robbery in Anchorage history. And if so, that raises the question of that robbery’s total opposite. The worst Anchorage bank robbery might be far more recent. On May 22, 2018, Michael Gale Nash robbed the midtown First National Bank Alaska on West 36th Avenue. He handed a cashier a note that said, “This is a hold-up. Please put the money they want in the bag. God help us!!!” The cashier handed him $400, and Nash exited the bank. However, the back of the note included Nash’s name and address. And he was arrested on the scene. An FBI spokesperson told the Anchorage Daily News, “He was sitting outside the bank counting his money when police arrived.”

Key sources:

“Bank of Alaska Held Up.” Anchorage Daily Times, May 11, 1921, 1.

“The Bank Robbery.” Anchorage Daily Times, May 13, 1921, 8.

Cole, Terrence and Elmer E. Rasmuson. Banking on Alaska: A History of NBA, Vol. 1. Anchorage: Rasmuson Foundation, 2000.

DeMarban, Alex. “Robber Who Wrote Name on Hold-Up Note is Caught Counting Money Outside Bank, FBI Says.” Anchorage Daily News, May 25, 2018, A2.

“Enforce Laws on Vagrancy; Drive Wasters and Loiterers to Labor or Leave Anchorage.” Anchorage Daily Times, May 13, 1921, 1.

“Officers Still Searching for Anchorage’s Bold Bankrobber.” Anchorage Daily Times, May 12, 1921, 1, 4.

“Opening Game of Triangular League Won by City Over Soldiers 4 to 3.” Anchorage Daily Times, May 16, 1921, 6.

“Robert Cockburn Duly Exonerated.” Anchorage Daily Times, May 12, 1921, 5.

“Tax on Dogs Given Passage by the Council.” Anchorage Daily Times, January 20, 1921, 1.