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Stealing money, hearts in life of a bank robber

Maggie Braun

By A Contributor

Sutton is a fascinating story that deftly weaves fact and fiction.

Willie Sutton was a notorious bank robber whose career spanned 40 years. He was born in the slums of the Irish section of Brooklyn in the early 1900s. Willie’s mom grieved over the death Willie’s younger sister, and his dad toiled as a blacksmith but wasn’t very affectionate. Willie also had an older sister and two older brothers. His brothers bullied him mercilessly, but he wouldn’t tell on them because he thought a snitch was the worst thing in the world.

His family’s apartment was similar to all the others nearby and had no running water and no bathroom. Willie’s mom saw potential in him to be a priest, so she enrolled him in a Catholic school. There, ironically, he met two friends, Happy and Eddie, who were to become his partners in crime.

Willie’s mother acquired “lung sickness” and his dad lost his job. America was heading into a depression. After grammar school, Willie and his friends applied for jobs all over New York but they were competing with masses of unemployed men. When his dad’s business began slowing down because people were using bicycles and cars instead of horses and carriages, the family had to move to an even smaller apartment.

Willie and his friends grew increasingly angry at the banks. As a teenager, Eddie lamented, “The Crash of ‘93? My old man saw people standing’ in the middle of the street bawling’ like babies. Wiped out. Ruined. But did those bankers get pinched? Nah - they got richer. In ‘07…when the banks fell apart, when the market did a swan dive, didn’t them bankers walk away scot free again.”

In the fall of 1916, Willie, Happy and Eddie had all found jobs. Willie worked at a bank but after seven months was laid off. Happy and Eddie lost their jobs, too. Willie met the girl of his dreams, Bess Edner, at Coney Island. Her family was wealthy, and Bess was forbidden to see him.

Willie went to talk to Bess’s father to plead his case. Mr. Edner offered to pay Willie to stay away from Bess, but he refused; he was in love with Bess. Bess’s father threatened to send her to Germany to keep her away from Willie.

Bess came up with the idea of robbing one of her father’s work safes. Then they could take the money and run away together. Happy decided to help Willie and they stole $16,000. Unfortunately, they were caught a few days later, just before Willie and Bess could elope. It was Christmas 1919. Willie didn’t get serious prison time, but his parents disowned him and Bess was shipped off to Germany.

Will found another job but was quickly laid off again. During Prohibition, Eddie and Happy were making good money dealing booze. Willie went hungry and was behind in his rent until Eddie introduced Willie to a safe cracker named Doc.

From Doc, Willie learned about the world of con artists. Willie was pretty good at robbing banks, but eventually got caught and served hard time in 1923 in Sing Sing. Willie was suspected of trying to escape and was sent to a prison near the Canadian border. That stint lasted three years and almost killed him. Just before he was put into prison, he found out that Bess married another man, but Willie never stopped loving her.

Each time Willie was released from prison, he tried to “go straight,” but the economic times were hard and he could never keep a job. Thievery became his way of survival. He never shot or hurt anyone, even at the height of his career. All told, he robbed about 100 banks and made off with about $2 million. One of the fascinating parts of the book involved the details of a prison escape in which he and others tunneled under the prison using a spoon as a shovel.

The story starts with Willie’s final release from prison in 1969 and is told in first person by Willie with includes flashbacks of important events and sites in his life.

The story is superbly written and gives the reader a real feel for life in New York during the hard times of the early 1900s. The author, J.R. Moehringer, is a former Nieman Fellow at Harvard and won a Pulitzer Prize for feature writing in 2000.

Maggie Braun is a teacher at Manhattan High School.

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