True Tales: Great Bank Robbery Pt. 1By George T. Comeau
They entered the bank after the morning rush hour had ended. The off-duty police officer had just finished his shift, and business had been especially brisk that day. At 10 in the morning on Thursday, July 18, 1957, one of Canton’s most spectacular bank robberies was just about to take place. By the end of the day, the headline in the late edition of the Boston Traveller would read: “21 persons nearly suffocated in the vaults.”
It all sounds rather spectacular: a bold-faced daylight robbery in which 21 customers, staff and police are herded into a tiny vault, the door swings shut, and they wait to be rescued. Right out of central casting — the local residents, the bank manager, the stickup men — and it was all part of a vicious gang’s attempt to pull off one of the biggest robberies in Massachusetts since 1950.
The day started ordinarily enough. Special Officer Harry Brown had just finished his morning shift at the Norfolk County Trust Company, a federal bank located at the tracks next to the Canton Center railroad station. There is still a bank there today, but in 1957 the bank was much smaller and set back from the street.
As Brown walked out the doors, a typical Canton scene was unfolding on the street. The bank manager was talking with a customer. A woman left her two small children alone outside as she went to transact her business. Ethel Milligan, a substitute summer teller, was leaning into a car explaining to “Mrs. Beatrice,” a florist from Sharon, about the rules regarding her rather large deposit into a savings account. That is the kind of town Canton was in those days. The beat cop would double as a security guard, the bank teller would walk outside to help transact business, and mom had no fear of leaving her kids alone to play on the sidewalk.
Inside the bank, Mrs. Beverly Engley of Stoughton was doing some filing in the vault. Head teller Ronald Kennedy of Beaumont Street was waiting on Mrs. Janet Jefferson of 88 Sherman Avenue, and teller Donald Mull of Randolph was waiting on Daniel Aufiero, who was making a deposit. Everything seemed so normal.
Canton was a “normal” place, and the center of town was much more of a neighborhood those days as well. Across from the bank was a small variety store, Jack & Paul’s, owned by Police Sergeant John Ruane along with his cousin, Officer Leonard Merchant. Nearby, James Dykeman tended to his pharmacy and served hot coffee to patrons while they waited for their prescriptions. The street was full of friends and neighbors, and everyone knew everyone else.
The robbery actually began the night before in Boston. A getaway car was stolen outside the Custom’s House garage. A fruit wholesaler from Arlington reported his brand-new Oldsmobile 88 missing. That same car pulled into the train station at Canton Center the next morning. Inside, three men sat waiting for things to quiet down after the payday rush. As they got out, they followed 33-year-old Milligan into the bank. To their left sat Frank Yates, filling in at what we now call the “customer service” position behind a small desk in the lobby.
Yates looked up and a man was standing there. Standing up, walking over to him and asking if he could do anything for him was pretty much how it all began. The man simply said, “Yes, put your hands up,” as he pointed a .45 caliber automatic against Yates’ stomach. The robbery was now well underway. And in the next ten minutes several lives would change forever. In an instant the criminals had full control of the bank.
The tension was unbearable. Frank Yates had a heart condition and had suffered two heart attacks previous to the robbery. He was determined not to faint as his heart pounded in his chest. “At first I was so dumbfounded that I could not quite grasp what was going on,” he recalled afterward, “but when I finally did, I realized that he meant business, so I did as he said.”
The robbers were quite young to be engaged in a federal crime, and by all accounts, this would have been their first major heist. Yates reported to the local paper that man who pointed a gun at him was a “nervous little man who gave the impression of being on his first bank holdup. He kept urging the others to leave, and every time another person would enter the bank he would crouch in back of the half-wall partition, keeping his gun trained on me.”
Indeed the gun-wielding robbers were young, and two of them were brothers. The older brother, Alvin Campbell, was just 24 years old. Arnold, the younger boy, was 23. The boys had grown up in Roxbury, and both of them had long records even at an early age. Along with their accomplice, 22-year-old Donald Lester, these young men would pull off a stick-up with the icy skill of a seasoned gangster.
In fact, they were gangsters in the making. The men, all African-American, had begun to rise in the world of organized crime. The Campbell boys’ crime careers began when they were only 14, and Lester, whose criminal record covered more than two pages, became a criminal at 16. A judge would later remark, “I never saw such probation records. Fix after fix after fix. They are potential murderers.”
As the robbery unfolded, customer after customer continued to enter the bank. At the door they were greeted by the dapper leader, Alvin, who was referred to by his conspirators as “Duke.” Alvin Campbell stood guard just inside the front door, and as new customers arrived he pressed the gun against them and ordered them to line up with the rest. The other two robbers ordered the tellers to fill heavy brown shopping bags with cash from their drawers.
At one point during the robbery, on-duty Canton Police Officer Arthur Fitzgerald walked into the bank. “Fitzie” had a habit of stopping by on Thursday mornings during his rounds to cash his paycheck. Whistling as he entered the bank, he never noticed anything amiss until the gang relieved him of his service revolver and was told that if he “made one false move he would be shot.”
Fitzgerald was not the only one to walk in during the robbery. The bank manager, Mr. Leonard, who had been outside as the robbery began, walked into his bank and as he crossed the small lobby toward the gate, he was directed to stand against the wall with the other patrons. In due course they recognized him, and he was pushed to the vault where they threatened him with death if he did not open the tellers’ drawers.
Canton’s Ethel Milligan recalls the day as vividly as if it were yesterday: “There was a little box in my cash drawer, and I was afraid they were going to make me open it.” The box was empty and she did not have a key, wondering if they would even notice. It turns out the vault was their next target. The manager told the robbers that only the tellers could open the drawers inside the vault, whereupon each one was ordered to open their respective cash boxes. Milligan recalls, “Mr. Kennedy, the head teller, was sacred to death.”
Even today, Milligan’s voice shakes as she thinks back. “They meant business,” she said. “If you did not do what they said, then it was goodbye.”
Milligan is not the only person to remember the crime. Domenic Staula of Stoughton was also in the bank that day, and his testimony and the actions of the FBI would be critical to the legal history that was made that day in Canton.
Staula recalls, “Ronald Kennedy was the teller that day. I had cash and a check with a deposit slip and was standing in line. There was a friend of mine that was always pulling pranks on me, so when I heard the words, “All right, stick ’em up,” I said, ‘Cut the …’” Staula’s voice trails off as he is back inside that bank 55 years ago. “I had a gun pointed right at my head,” he remembers. “I thought of trying to subdue one of them, and yet I was afraid they might hurt somebody … I was 32 years old, a family man. They took us all and made us stand against the wall. The woman behind me was shaking so much that I could feel her.”
The robbery was just winding down, and 21 people were left standing against the wall of the bank with their hands over their heads. The criminals seemed to pause and wonder what to do with all these people. The solution was to herd them all into the tiny vault and close the heavy door.
Click here for Part 2 of the “Great Bank Robbery.”
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