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Bentz, Eddie (1894-1979), Bank Robber
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Tacoma's Eddie Bentz was never as famous as some of his partners in crime, such as Machine Gun Kelly or Baby Face Nelson, but then, Eddie never liked cheap publicity. J. Edgar Hoover, or more probably his ghost writer, wrote of the Depression-era crook, "Eddie Bentz preferred peace and quiet, his books and his art, and good companions." Hoover also said that other Depression-era hoodlums called Bentz "the shrewdest, most resourceful, intelligent and dangerous bank robber in existence."
Edward Wilhelm Bentz, the son of German immigrants, was born on June 2, 1895, in Pipestone, Minnesota. (Bentz on at least one occasion listed his birthplace as Pipestone, South Dakota, but there is no town of that name in that state. However, Pipestone, Minnesota is less than seven miles from the South Dakota border.) When he was about 9, his father, a house mover, was killed by a runaway horse. His mother Rose took Eddie and his eight siblings to Tacoma, Washington, where she provided him with a respectable, middle-class upbringing in a large home, aided by her husband’s life insurance, and her operation of a theater and a boarding house.
Little Eddie took to crime early, stealing his playmate’s bicycles, cigarettes, and scrap metal. When he was about 16, he was shipped off to the State Training School in Chehalis on a burglary charge, and escaped. He spent his youth as a not-particularly-successful burglar. After a 1912 arrest for auto theft, he escaped from the Tacoma jail, but was caught again and ended up at the state penitentiary at Walla Walla.
There is an apocryphal story, no doubt started by Bentz himself, that he talked his way out of Walla Walla by declaring his intention to go to Victoria, B.C., and sign up to fight in World War I with the Canadian Army. In later years he claimed that various bits of shrapnel and old gunshot wounds were the result of his fight against the Kaiser. Both claims are highly unlikely. The United States entered World War I in April 1917, and in June of that year Bentz registered for the draft from his cell at the penitentiary. There is no known evidence to support his claim that he was released from there to fight for a different country in a war in which his own country was a combatant. In addition, the 1920 U.S. Census shows Bentz still residing at the prison as of January 5, 1920.
What is undisputed is that while he was in jail, Eddie learned a new burglary technique called "weeding." The idea was to break into a retail establishment and walk out with a few items at a time whose absence wouldn’t be noted.
Not Doing Time
Eddie went to the Midwest and racked up arrests in Illinois and Missouri, but charges were dismissed. That happened a lot. Throughout his career, Eddie was frequently arrested but did very little jail time. He was picked up by the Seattle police twice in the 1930s as a fugitive from justice, which he was, but was turned loose both times.
From his misspent youth until 1936, Eddie was sentenced to 34.5 years by various jurisdictions around the country, and actually served only seven years due to early parole or release at the minimum of a sentence. He also jumped bail frequently and successfully talked his way out of accusations.
Working his Way Up
Eddie worked his way up from nighttime retail burglaries and car theft to breaking into banks and post offices at night and cutting into safes with a 150-pound torch. But bank robbery was changing. Traditionally safe-crackers had done it at night. By the 1920s, however, faster automobiles and better roads had led to the invention of the getaway car.
By one account, Eddie was fed up lugging that heavy safecracking torch around. He was quoted as saying, "I’m through. From now on I’ll take these joints in daylight during business hours." By another account it was a matter of prestige. He told an FBI agent, "I decided to become a yegg. A bank robber, you know. They’re the aristocracy of the criminal profession."
Eddie minimized risk by keeping his bank robberies down to three a year, after carefully researching his targets to determine how much buck there was for the bang. He’d spend time in the public library studying documents about a bank’s assets and liabilities and bond inventories, and developed a formula to use this data to determine how much cash would be in the bank at a particular time. "A lot of those mugs never had been in a public library," said Eddie of his fellow bank robbers. "It pays to be educated" (Hoover).
He’d also pose as a possible investor in the bank, or as a businessman thinking of opening an account, and wangle a guided tour of all the bank’s security features. He’d also size up the bank personnel, determining which tellers might resist or get hysterical. "I’m a big farmerish-looking fellow, sort of easy-going, like to laugh and talk and be chummy with people, and that doesn’t match up with their ideas about criminals," he explained.
He was also adept at laundering bonds, which involved mysterious overseas transactions, and let his accomplices take the cash from a holdup, while he took the bonds, which he managed to liquidate for 70 cents on the dollar.
Amiable and Intellectual
When not robbing banks, Eddie enjoyed life, never staying anywhere for long, and living lavishly in hotels and apartments. He enjoyed golf -- he reportedly shot in the low eighties -- coin collecting, visiting museums and theaters, and amateur photography and filmmaking, as well as nightclubbing and dancing. He was an excellent dresser except when robbing banks, when he occasionally wore farmer’s overalls.
An avid reader, he patronized antiquarian booksellers wherever he happened to be, and traveled with five trunks which held many valuable books by authors including Voltaire, Casanova, Washington Irving, Bunyan, and Stevenson as well as a collection of revolvers, a bullet-proof vest, and occasionally a machine gun.
Thuggish in appearance, beefy, six feet tall, with crinkly reddish hair and an ominous looking triangular shaped patch of bluish broken veins on his forehead, he was amiable, smiling often and talking out of the side of his mouth. He was also hospitable and sociable, and enjoyed organizing a family reunion.
Eddie later estimated he’d pulled off a hundred bank robberies during his career, working with various accomplices, but seldom the same ones twice. Nobody knows exactly which heists he was involved in, but it seems clear that he and George "Machine Gun" Kelly robbed the First Trust and Savings Bank of Colfax, Washington, of $77,000 in 1932. He was also suspected of being involved in a $2 million robbery in Lincoln, Nebraska, in 1930, and bank robberies in Port Orchard and in Bremerton, Washington.
In 1931, he was living in Tacoma. There, he married 18-year-old Verna Freemark, whom he had met in Chicago as a teenaged runaway from South Milwaukee. Eddie, now 36, prepared to retire with his young bride on his ill-gotten gains, and proceeded to work only as a consultant to other bank robbers who would pay him a percentage of the take for his casing and planning skills.
Eddie and Verna spent their summers on the shores of Lake Michigan in Long Beach, Indiana, then a popular hoodlum retreat for the likes of Ma Barker, Legs Diamond, and a Father Phillip Coughlan, a kind of chaplain to hoodlums. The Bentzes told the priest that they couldn’t have children and wondered if he could help them adopt.
Mistakes Were Made
It was there in 1933 that he was approached by a fresh-faced kid named Lester Gillis, whom the world would come to know as Baby Face Nelson. Nelson aspired to be a big-time bank robber, and asked the semi-retired yegg to plan one for him. Eddie obliged, locating a good bank to knock off in Grand Haven, Michigan, and arranging details such as Tommy guns and a barrel of roofing nails to throw down on the street to slow down pursuers.
Against his better judgment, Eddie got talked into playing an active role in a robbery that went very badly wrong, including a getaway-car driver who got away alone before the robbers emerged from the bank, an armed citizen taking on the robbers, Baby Face Nelson spraying rounds of automatic weapons fire, hostages falling off the running boards of moving vehicles, and some fumbled carjackings.
Eddie escaped, but he was hot for the first time in years. He retreated to Portland, Maine, bought a large home, and went legit, serving as owner, president and general sales manager of Ultra Products, a toy company. Soon he was on the road, selling toys. It was on toy business that he noticed the Caledonia National Bank at Danville, Vermont, and liked what he saw. And, when Ultra Products needed an injection of capital, he went back to his old ways.
Eddie’s luck began to run out. The FBI was after him, as bank robbery had become a federal crime. Because he was so hot, he and Verna had to give up their flamboyant lifestyle and lie low, avoiding old haunts such as nightclubs, golf courses, and antiquarian booksellers. Twenty-two-year-old Verna, bored by life on the lam, left him and went home to South Milwaukee. There, FBI agents grilled her and she made one slip, revealing a place in New York where he had once stayed -- a slip that led to his 1936 arrest.
A Visit with Friends
Eddie confessed to the Caledonia Bank job in Vermont and the botched robbery in Grand Haven, Michigan, but refused to name any accomplices. He told agents he hoped he’d go to Alcatraz, as "all my friends are there." Eddie got his wish, but boasted that he had millions hidden in bonds which he’d retrieve when he got out.
There has been some mystery about Eddie’s later years. Several sources say Eddie died in prison and so was never able to get those bonds he claimed he’d stashed away.
Eddie's Old Age
Records show he was paroled from Alcatraz in 1948, and sent to serve time in Massachusetts until 1954, then served time in Wisconsin until 1962. After a parole violation that same year, he was taken to a Federal prison in Sandstone, Minnesota.
But by 1967, it appears he was a free man living back home in Tacoma. His death certificate says he died of heart failure at his home at 5411 South Thompson Street late on Halloween night of 1979, age 85. The death certificate, perhaps alluding to Eddie’s brief stint as a legitimate businessman in Portland, Maine, lists Eddie’s occupation as "salesman" and his "kind of business or industry" as "specialty advertising."
Bryan Burrough, Public Enemies (New York: The Penguin Press, 2004); J. Edgar Hoover, Persons in Hiding (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1938); Steven Nickel and William J. Helmer, Baby Face Nelson: Portrait of a Public Enemy (Nashville: Cumberland House, 2002); Duane Swierczynski, This Here’s a Stick-Up: The Big Bad Book of American Bank Robbery (Indianapolis: Alpha Books, 2002); FBI parole report prepared by J. F.Durkin, re: Edward Wilhelm Bentz, with aliases, Boston MA File No. 91-1 LEE, April 2, 1936; Admission Summary re: Edward Wilhelm Bentz, Prisoner Register No. 48025-A, U.S. Penitentiary, Atlanta GA, April 27, 1936; Edward W. Bentz draft registration card, June 5, 1917, copy in possession of John Caldbick, Seattle, Washington; "United States Census, 1920 for Edward W Bentz," FamilySearch.org website accessed May 16, 2011 (https://www.familysearch.org/search/recordDetails/show?uri=https://api.familysearch.org/records/pal:/MM9.1.r/M8J5-HP1/p_207715319).
Note: This essay was modified on May 16, 2011 to include new information about Bentz's alleged service in World War I, to correct the year of his birth, and to note a discrepancy in records regarding which state he was born in.
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Eddie Bentz (1894-1979), ca. 1932
Courtesy Steven Nickel and William J. Helmer, Baby Face Nelson: Portrait of a Public Enemy
Lester Joseph Gillis, aka Baby Face Nelson (1908-1934), Illinois State Prison, 1931
Courtesy Steven Nickel and William J. Heller, Baby Face Nelson: Portrait of a Public Enemy