BROOKINGS- It was considered by most to be a “daring daytime robbery,” when two bandits made out with somewhere between 12 and 15 thousand dollars on Halloween morning in 1938. The pair of bandits were described as a “pasty” 30-year-old man and a “pretty” 17 year-old girl in the October 31st edition of the Brookings Register. The site of the robbery: Northwest Security National Bank, located at 4th St. and Main, where the Ram stands now, in downtown Brookings. This is a look back on Brookings’ first ever bank robbery through a rehashing of reports from the Brookings Register and Matt Cecil’s South Dakota history article titled “‘In the Eyes of Men’: Ben and Stella Mae Dickinson and the FBI Myth.”
It started on August 25th in neighboring Elkton when Benny Dickinson, 30 year-old Topeka, Kansas native, and his 17-year-old wife, Estelle, entered the Elkton Corn Exchange Bank. According to the August 25th edition of the Brookings Register, it was around 3:00 in the afternoon when “the man accosted cashier R. S. Petschow with a gun” and walked out with “all the money in the bank”, fleeing the scene in a Ford V-8 car. The Register reported that this was not the first time Corn Exchange Bank had been robbed. In 1931, the bank was robbed and despite this earlier heist, the bank still did not have any security system nor did it have any firearms in the building, Cecil reported.
According to reports, “the robber working in the bank seemed cool and collected, even amazingly so considering the circumstances. Only once did he appear the least bit nervous and that was just before the time clock was about to go off and he told the customers on the floor to sit up and face north.”
(Benny Dickinson, mug from Missouri State Pen.) photo via Matt Cecil’s “In the eyes of men”
Benny “coolness” was to be expected as he had some experience with crime in his past. As reported by Cecil, Benny had previously been convicted of a bank heist, spending seven years in the Missouri State Penitentiary, as well as a car theft, spending some time in the Kansas State Penitentiary. After his release, he met Estelle at roller-skating rink in Topeka, whom he married near Pipestone just weeks before the Elkton robbery, according to Cecil.
During the heist, Benny was considered a “gentleman” (or anything but a gentleman to some) to witnesses as he questioned why a druggist, J.E. Dunn, only had $18 in his bank account.
“Keep it – you probably need it worse than I do,” Benny reportedly told Dunn.
Throughout the heist, Benny repeatedly warned Petschow that he “would plug him” if he wasn’t careful, the Register reported. Fortunately, there was no shooting and no injuries during the Elkton Corn Exchange Bank heist of 1938.
Benny and Estelle made out with $2,187 (worth about $42,547 now) and apparently fled to eastern Minnesota, according to reports. In Cecil’s reporting , he discovered that the Dickinson’s hid the money at Estelle’s mother family farm near Tyler, Minnesota. They spent several weeks on the run following the heist, traveling to Topeka before coming back to Brookings County in October of 1938 for their next heist.
It was 8:30 in the morning on October 31st, 1938 when assistant manager John Torsey when felt something shoved into his back while opening the doors to Northwest Security National Bank in downtown Brookings.
“This is a holdup- just walk in as usual,” Benny reportedly said as he held a gun to Torsey’s back.
(Northwest Security National Bank (now the Ram) in downtown Brookings) photo via SD State Historical Society
The October 31st edition of the Brookings Register states that after entry, the pair of bandits, Benny and Estelle, both were armed. Benny with a “tommy gun” under his coat and Estelle a pistol. Once in the bank, it was soon learned that the vault was not accessible immediately, as timelocks would not let it open until 10:30 a.m., Cecil reported. Benny decided they would wait until the vault opened nearly two hours later. During this time, Benny stood behind R. M. “Dick” DePuy, vice president and manager of Northwest Security Bank, with the tommy gun pointed directly at him. The Register reported that DePuy “worked under terrific pressure” during the ordeal, completing “numerous loans” as business went on “as usual” during the entirety of the heist. Estelle waited in the lobby, with a pistol hidden under a newspaper, watching the entrance. Cecil later reported that during this time period, DePuy conducted business with over 50 customers, with the threat of a tommy gun omnipresent.
“We aren’t taking a thing from you,” Benny reportedly told employees. “This money is insured so do what you are told – and remember if anything happens you will be the first ones to get it (indicating his gun).”
While waiting for the vault to open, Benny collected money from a smaller safe and the teller’s drawers, leaving just enough to conduct business throughout the entire ordeal. There was also a rudimentary alarm system in the bank that Benny sniffed out and forced Torsey to cut, Cecil reported.
In a rather “funny” moment, reported by the Register, Benny ordered insurance representative John Hanten to bring his overcoat to him.
“Bring your topcoat over here,” Benny reportedly said. “How much did it cost you? It cost $25 huh? All right, go over to the till and take out $25 for yourself.”
The topcoat was reportedly used to cover up the money as Estelle and Benny left the bank.
Once the vault opened around 10:30 a.m., Benny forced Torsey and DePuy to load a pillowcase full of money and securities, as well as some silver and the rest of the cash that was missed earlier, Cecil reported later. Benny reportedly chuckled watching the two men awkwardly carry the heavy bags to the getaway car.
Now in the getaway car after briefly holding Torsey and DePuy hostage, the couple fled east of Brookings onto Highway 14, bound for eastern Minnesota, the Register reported. To keep authorities from chasing them, Estelle spread roofing nails on the road near the intersection of Sixth Street and Medary Ave., Cecil reported.
It was later found that the bandits escaped with $17,592 (worth $344,690 today), “plus stocks valued at more than $16,000,” Cecil reported. The funds from the heist were never recovered by authorities.
The man-hunt following the heist was extensive. Cecil, who reported on the couple extensively, wrote a book titled “The Ballad of Ben and Stella Mae: Great Plains Outlaws Who Became FBI Public Enemies Nos. 1 and 2,” which dives much deeper into Benny and Estelle’s exploits after the heist.
Benny and Estelle’s odyssey came to a conclusion in St. Louis, Missouri in the spring of April 1939, when Benny was shot outside a hamburger shop following a meeting with an FBI informant, Cecil reported. Estella, who was sitting in the car at time, drove away, back to her mother in Kansas City, before being apprehended by FBI agents days later. This ended a year of car-cashes, gun-fire, hostages, and even more bank heists.
(Estelle in her initial court appearance) Photo via Cecil’s “In the eyes of men”
Estelle was extradited to South Dakota following her arrest, to face bank robbery charges. Her appearance in South Dakota was that of a celebrity. Arriving by train, officials in Sioux Falls were worried that an “incident” could take place with the expected crowd present. She was transferred to the newly constructed Mitchell jail to avoid the crowds. Estelle was then sentenced to two concurrent ten-year sentences by a Federal District Court in Deadwood, Cecil reported, pleading guilty to two counts of bank robbery. Estelle served her time in Alderson, West Virginia before spending her remaining years in Raytown, Missouri, marrying “multiple” times. She died in 1995 at the age of 72.