There are many methods by which financial institutions can ready themselves for worst-case scenarios: they participate in the federal deposit insurance system, they follow a variety of banking regulations, and they prepare for natural disasters, for starters. But what about bank robberies, which typically strike their targets with little or no warning?
Not every bank is lucky enough to get advance notice of a plot in the works. Even fewer banks are located in a small town with local police intent on catching would-be thieves in the middle of the act and patient enough to stake out the suspects for a year and a half with the assistance of shopkeepers and residents.
Life magazine relates the tale of the two worst bank robbers in Mendham Borough, New Jersey: the initial discovery of their plans by the chief of police, the heightened alert that seemingly consumed a majority of the borough, and the delayed robbery attempt that finally occurred on October 18, 1961.
The heist was planned by two men beginning in the spring of 1960. Mendham was a small town, and strangers were easily spotted. Police chief Earl Moore, shoveling snow, noticed the strange men intently studying the Morris County Savings Bank down the block. Within a few days, Moore had gathered ample evidence that these men were planning to rob the bank. Within a few months, he’d begun to spread the word that a robbery might be in the works. Eventually, most of Mendham was aware that there were bank robbers on the prowl.
Time went by, and the townspeople continued to note all of their encounters with the men. Moore gathered evidence to file away in his manila folder labeled, “Planned Robbery of Mendham Bank.” The bank robbers continued to case the borough as months rolled on: nervously interacting with the bank’s employees, attempting to get local jobs, and being watched every step of the way.
Finally, in October 1961, the plotting thieves put their plans into action. A bomb threat was called into the local schools in order to distract the local law enforcement. However, as the Mendham police department was on high alert, no one was fooled. The next day, the Mendham bank manager happened to spot the robbers slowly driving behind the bank as he threw out his lunch in the incinerator. After the thieves drove by a few more times, they parked their car and entered the bank. Life magazine captured the arrest as it unfolded, which ended up encompassing everyone from the chief of police to the local butcher to the ladies’ garden club. Read more about what happened on that fateful afternoon in this piece.
After this article was published, members of the Mendham Borough community wrote into the magazine, with one reader sharing a critique of the article illustrations and another contributing a series of photographs he had taken as the robbers were being arrested and frisked. The magazine’s report ended there, but—rest assured—the robbers faced federal prosecution after encountering the persistent local police and borough residents.
The views expressed in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York or the Federal Reserve System. Any errors or omissions are the responsibility of the author.
Megan Cohen is a research librarian in the Federal Reserve Bank of New York’s Research and Statistics Group.