Bank robbery

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A masked man poses as a bank robber during a demonstration of a German device that protected cash and sounded an alarm during a robbery (1931). Bundesarchiv Bild 102-12762, Bankuberfall.jpg
A masked man poses as a bank robber during a demonstration of a German device that protected cash and sounded an alarm during a robbery (1931).

Bank robbery is the crime of stealing money from a bank, specifically while bank employees and customers are subjected to force, violence, or a threat of violence. This refers to robbery of a bank branch or teller, as opposed to other bank-owned property, such as a train, armored car, or (historically) stagecoach. It is a federal crime in the United States.


According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation's Uniform Crime Reporting Program. Robbery is "the taking or attempting to take anything of value from the care, custody, or control of a person or persons by force or threat of force or violence or by putting the victim in fear." [1] By contrast, burglary is "unlawful entry of a structure to commit a felony or theft."



Bank robbery occurs in cities and towns. This concentration is often attributed to there being more branches in urban areas, but the number of bank robberies is higher than the number of branches. [ citation needed ]

This has advantages both for bank robbers and for law enforcement. In urban areas the transportation infrastructure is more highly developed, especially where banks tend to cluster near retail shopping areas and commercial districts. Such banks are highly profitable targets for robbers, who are then afforded a number of potential escape routes. Law enforcement benefit by being able to respond more quickly, and the odds of catching a bank robber on or near the scene is higher than other types of crime. This is because most bank robberies are reported very quickly while the crime is in progress; most bank robberies occur during daylight hours, have multiple witnesses and with modern technology often produce photographic images that can be distributed and used immediately to canvass the local area. Consequently, many bank robbers are caught the same day. The clearance rate for bank robbery is among the highest of all crimes, at nearly 60%.[ citation needed ]

The urban location of the crime also contributes to its repeat victimization profile, a measure of how quickly a crime victim will suffer a repeat of the original crime. One study carried out by the Home Office found that in England, one third of banks at which a robbery has occurred will be robbed again within three months, while the same study found that in Tallahassee, Florida, one quarter of robbed banks will suffer repeat robbery within a week, and over half of robbed banks will be robbed again within a month. [2]


The Australian Institute of Criminology analyzed trends in bank robbery over a four-year period. Of the 808 bank robbery incidents between January 1998 and May 2002 in which the number of offenders involved in the hold-up was recorded, 55% were committed by lone offenders, 25% by pairs, and 20% by three or more robbers. Unarmed offenders accounted for 28% of robberies, caused the fewest injuries to victims (one percent of all victims' injuries), were the type of robber who most often used a note to threaten bank staff (46% of all their robberies), and failed most often in their robbery attempts (33% failure). Unarmed gangs inflicted the most injuries to victims (51%) and failed the least in their robbery attempts (6% failure). Armed robbers used a disguise more often compared to unarmed robbers, with armed pairs employing disguises most often (59%). [3]

According to the Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics injuries occur in about two percent and a death occurs in less than one percent of all U.S. bank robberies. [4] [5] Violent takeover bank robberies that are often portrayed in the media are rare. The majority of bank robberies taking place today are so-called "note jobs." These are usually accomplished by simply passing a written note to the teller demanding money. The idea is to attract as little attention as possible. In most cases, other customers present in the bank during a robbery are unaware of what is occurring. Standard bank policy is to avoid violence as much as possible, so they will normally hand over the money and try to obey the robber's demands. The robber usually makes away with cash, but in small amounts. According to British Bankers' Association data, in 2007 there were 106 attempted or successful robberies in Britain in which an average of 1.6 persons were involved. One third of attempts came up empty while the average haul for a successful attempt was equivalent to US$46,600. Yet 20% of the successes would later prove less than successful by virtue of the robbers being arrested. [6]


Patty Hearst takes part in the April 1974 Hibernia Bank raid with other SLA members. Hearst-hibernia-yell.jpg
Patty Hearst takes part in the April 1974 Hibernia Bank raid with other SLA members.

Early examples

According to The New York Times and the Saturday Evening Post , the first bank robbery in the United States occurred in March 1831 (the 19th according to the Times, the 20th according to the Post). Two men, James Honeyman and William J. Murray, entered the City Bank of New York using forged keys. This allowed them to empty the vault of more than $245,000 in bank money. According to the Times, it cannot be confirmed if this was a robbery or a burglary. [7] The Post later corrected this claim upon learning of a previous 1798 robbery of $162,821 from the Bank of Pennsylvania at Carpenters' Hall. [8] [9] The Carpenters' Hall theft also may not have technically been a robbery as there were no signs of force and the thief may have had a key. [10]

On September 14, 1828, five men tunneled through a sewage drain in George Street, Sydney and stole approximately £14,000 in promissory notes and coins from the vault of the Bank of Australia. It has been described as the first bank robbery in Australia and also the largest in Australian history at the equivalent of $20 million in today's currency. [11] [ clarification needed ]

On December 15, 1863, a man walked into a bank in Malden, Massachusetts, shot the 17-year-old bookkeeper, and stole $3,000 in large bills and $2,000 in small bills. The directors of the bank offered a $6,000 reward for the arrest of the murderer. [12] This has been described as the first armed bank robbery in US history. [10]

The heist known as the 1907 Tiflis bank robbery in June 1907 in the Russian Empire resulted in 40 deaths, 50 injuries, and the "expropriation" of 341,000 rubles (approximately 3.96 million 2018 US dollars) by Bolsheviks organised by (among others) Vladimir Lenin and Josef Stalin.

The first bank robbery in Denmark occurred August 18, 1913 in the bank Sparekassen for København og Omegn at Østerbro in Copenhagen. Two men, Danish salesman Lindorff Larsen and a German machinist Güttig, armed with revolvers, got away with 9000 Danish kroner. Güttig was arrested August 30 and Lindorff Larsen committed suicide after having fled the police. [13]

Bank robbery on the American frontier

Bank robbery is commonly associated[ by whom? ] with the American Old West due to a few infamous examples and portrayal in fiction. In reality, bank robberies were relatively rare. [14]

On February 13, 1866, several men believed[ by whom? ] to be members of the James-Younger Gang robbed the Clay County Savings Association in Liberty, Missouri, shooting a 19-year-old student and escaping with $60,000. This is claimed[ by whom? ] to be the first successful peacetime bank robbery in US history. [15] [16] [17] Previous robberies such as from the banks in St. Albans, Vermont more than a year earlier were perpetrated by Confederate soldiers, which some historians consider to be not robberies proper but acts of war. [18]

First known use of a getaway car

The August 29, 1909 edition of The Rich Hill Tribune contained a front-page news story entitled "Bank Robbers in Motor Car" and according to which two robbers used a gun to rob the Valley bank of Santa Clara of $7,000. They then used a hired automobile to escape and were chased by police and a posse of citizens also in automobiles, eventually leading to their capture. [19]

On December 21, 1911, two armed men of the Bonnot Gang intercepted a bank messenger outside a branch of Société Générale in Paris. They stole a satchel of money he was about to deliver to the bank containing roughly five thousand pounds and escaped in a stolen vehicle. [20] This is described[ by whom? ] as the first successful use of a getaway car in a bank robbery. [21] [22]

Great Depression era and "Public Enemy"

During the 1920s and 1930s, a significant increase in bank robberies in the United States occurred. This led to the formation of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the designation "Public Enemy" for significant wanted criminals. [23] This era saw the rise of famous gangs such as the Dillinger Gang, the Barrow Gang (1932–1934), and the Barker–Karpis gang. Other famous public enemies included Pretty Boy Floyd (Public Enemy No, 1 in 1934) and Machine Gun Kelly.

First known use of camera footage to apprehend a bank robber

In 1957, security cameras installed at St. Clair Savings and Loan in Cleveland recorded the first film footage used to apprehend and identify bank robbers. The robbery occurred on April 12, when a 24-year-old male pointed a gun at a teller while his accomplice, an 18-year-old female, stuffed over $2,000 into a bag. A third accomplice drove the getaway car. The three were captured shortly after video footage of the robbery aired on national news. [24]

Stockholm syndrome

In 1973, four hostages were taken during the Norrmalmstorg robbery in Stockholm, Sweden. After their release, the hostages defended their captors and refused to testify against them. This led to an academic interest in a phenomenon soon after referred to as Stockholm syndrome, wherein hostages, during captivity, paradoxically form a sympathetic bond with their captors as a survival strategy. [25]

Historical bank robbers

Jesse James (September 5, 1847 – April 3, 1882) was one of the most notorious bank robbers in American history.

Ned Kelly (December 1854 – 11 November 1880), Australian bushranger and folk hero, pulled off a series of bank robberies in Victoria and New South Wales.

Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, better known as "Bonny and Clyde" (active February 1932 – May 1934), were an American couple who went on a crime spree during the Great Depression with their associates, the Barrow Gang. They captured the public imagination with their image as a wild young couple. Along with their gang, they were credited with only ten bank robberies, often making away with as little as $80. They were eventually ambushed and killed on the roadside outside Bienville Parish, Louisiana by a posse of Texas and Louisiana lawmen.

John Dillinger (June 22, 1903 – July 22, 1934) robbed banks in the Midwestern United States. Some considered him a dangerous criminal, while others idolized him as a present-day Robin Hood. He gained this latter reputation (and the nickname "Jackrabbit") for his graceful movements during bank heists, such as leaping over the counter (a movement he supposedly copied from the movies) and many narrow getaways from police. On July 22, 1934, FBI agents cornered Dillinger in an alley outside a movie theater in Chicago, Illinois, where he was shot and killed by multiple agents.

George "Baby Face" Nelson (December 6, 1908 – November 27, 1934) was a bank robber and former associate of John Dillinger. He is notable for having killed more FBI agents in the line of duty than any other person. He was killed in a shootout known as The Battle of Barrington, outside Chicago.

Edwin Alonzo Boyd (April 2, 1914 – May 17, 2002) was a Canadian bank robber and leader of the Boyd Gang, which pulled off a string of heists, including the largest in Toronto history.

Clarence Anglin, and brother John Anglin, the infamous Alcatraz escapees, robbed a bank in Alabama.

In the early 20th century, Willie Sutton (June 30, 1901 – November 2, 1980) was asked why he robbed banks, and he was famously reported as answering: "Because that's where the money is." This is, in fact, a quote invented by the interviewer to make the story more interesting. [26] However, when asked, Sutton did write this statement and autograph it for his physician, so in a sense it is accurate.


In the 1920s, American banks added the security of alarm systems and concrete-reinforced, blast-proof vaults. [27]

Expended dye pack after a Los Angeles area Bank of America robbery, January 2, 2008. This particular pack was concealed inside a stack of twenty-dollar bills. Exploded dye pack after Bank of America robbery.jpg
Expended dye pack after a Los Angeles area Bank of America robbery, January 2, 2008. This particular pack was concealed inside a stack of twenty-dollar bills.

Modern banks have implemented modern security measures, like motion-sensing and high resolution color security cameras, time-locked heavy vault doors, silent alarms, exploding dye packs, bait money, and GPS tracking devices. Some banks supplement this protection with armed or unarmed security guards. [28]

Today's biometric technology makes non-violent methods of gaining access, even by the most experienced safe hackers and code crackers, nearly impossible. Modern vaults and safes are also reinforced to the point that the amount of explosives needed to blow them open would likely create unwanted attention and run the risk of harming the building to the point of collapse. By their very nature, even the most impregnable vault or safe eventually needs to be able to be opened and closed by someone. To circumvent vault and safe security features, robbers often kidnap the bank manager, but that is not always a successful ideal as banks have often removed the manager's ability to open the vault.

The police have new measures at their disposal to catch bank robbers, such as well-armed SWAT teams. Forensic identification techniques have also improved greatly; should a bank robber fire a gun, the police can trace the bullet to the exact firearm using ballistic fingerprinting. Martin Kemp, in a BBC documentary, once inquired on the effectiveness of an Uzi in a bank robbery, to which the firearms training instructor joked "that would be sixty-four pieces of evidence to convict you." The sawed-off shotgun, a common robbery weapon in the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand where handguns are difficult to obtain, is easily concealable but not particularly effective.

While it is not certain that the first time someone robs a bank they will be caught, if they continue to rob banks, they will most likely be caught. Few criminals are able to make a successful living out of bank robbery over the long run. Bank robberies are still fairly common and are indeed successful, although eventually many bank robbers are found and arrested. A report by the Federal Bureau of Investigation [29] states that, among Category I serious crimes, the arrest rate for bank robbery in 2001 was second only to that of murder. Today most organized crime groups tend to make their money by other means, such as extortion, drug trafficking, gambling, prostitution, loan sharking, identity theft, or online scamming and phishing.

A further factor making bank robbery unattractive for criminals in the United States is the severity with which it is prosecuted. United States Federal Sentencing Guidelines for bank robbery gives long prison terms, which are usually further enhanced by the use or carrying of loaded firearms, prior criminal convictions, and the absence of parole from the federal prison system. As with any type of robbery, the fact that bank robbery is also inherently a violent crime typically causes corrections administrators to place imprisoned bank robbers in harsher high-security institutions.

In film

Bank robberies are often a main plot in many heist films. Some of these films are based on the lives of historic bank robbers, such as Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), The Newton Boys (1998) and Public Enemies (2009) (based on the life of John Dillinger).

Dog Day Afternoon (1975), Set It Off (1996), and The Bank Job (2008) are based on actual bank robberies. Other notable but fictional examples include Point Break (1991), Heat (1995), and The Town (2010). In The Town, bank robbery is described as an element of life for residents of Charlestown, a neighborhood in Boston. However, this is exaggerated and is disputed by residents of Charlestown, who describe it as an outdated stereotype. [30]

See also

Related Research Articles

Baby Face Nelson American bank robber

Lester Joseph Gillis, known by the alias George Nelson and Baby Face Nelson, was an American bank robber. He was given the nickname Baby Face Nelson due to his small stature and somewhat youthful appearance, although few dared call him that to his face. Criminal associates instead called him "Jimmy". He became partners with John Dillinger, helping him escape from prison in Crown Point, Indiana. Nelson and the remaining gang members were labeled as public enemy number one.

Great Brinks Robbery

The Great Brink's Robbery was an armed robbery of the Brink's Building at the east corner of Prince St. and Commercial St. in the North End of Boston, Massachusetts on January 17, 1950. Today the building is a parking garage located at 600 Commercial Street.

Ma Barker American mother of several criminals who ran the Barker gang

Kate Barker, better known as Ma Barker and sometimes as Arizona Barker as well as Arrie Barker, was the mother of several American criminals who ran the Barker-Karpis gang during the "public enemy era" when the exploits of gangs of criminals in the Midwest gripped the American people and press. She traveled with her sons during their criminal careers.

Harry Pierpont American murderer

Harry "Pete" Pierpont was a Prohibition era gangster. He is perhaps most noted for being a friend and mentor of John Dillinger.

Shootout gun battle between armed groups

A shootout, also called a firefight or gunfight, is a gun battle between armed groups. A shootout often, but not necessarily, pits law enforcement against criminal elements; it could also involve two groups outside of law enforcement, such as rival gangs. A shootout in a war-like context would usually be considered a battle, rather than a shootout. Shootouts are often portrayed in action films and Western films.

Charles Makley American murderer

Charles Omer Makley, also known as Charles McGray and Fat Charles, was an American criminal and bank robber active in the early 20th century, most notably as a criminal associate of John Dillinger.

Homer Van Meter American gangster

Homer Virgil Van Meter was an American criminal and bank robber active in the early 20th century, most notably as a criminal associate of John Dillinger and Baby Face Nelson.

John Hamilton (gangster) Canadian criminal and bank robber

John "Red" Hamilton was a Canadian criminal and bank robber active in the mid 20th century, most notably as an associate of John Dillinger. He is best known for his lingering death and secret burial after being mortally wounded during a robbery.

Morris Johnson American bank robber

Morris Lynn Johnson is a Kentucky-born criminal, whose crimes include armed robbery, escape and rescue, bank robbery, and assaulting a police officer. He was briefly listed on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list in 1976.

Dillinger Gang

The Dillinger Gang was the name given to a crew of American Depression-era bank robbers led by John Dillinger and including other famous gangsters of the period, such as Baby Face Nelson. The gang was noted for a successful string of bank robberies, using modern tools and tactics, in the Midwestern United States from September 1933 to July 1934. During the execution of these crimes, the gang killed 10 men and wounded 7 more. During this period they also performed three escapes from jail that resulted in the death of a sheriff and the wounding of two guards.

Millennium Dome raid

The Millennium Dome raid was an attempted robbery of the Millennium Dome's diamond exhibition in Greenwich, South East London occurring on 7 November 2000. A local gang planned to ram-raid the De Beers diamond exhibition which was being held in the dome at the time. The gang had then planned to escape via the Thames in a speedboat. The De Beers diamond exhibition had a number of jewels on display, including the Millennium Star, a flawless 203.04 carats (40.608 g) gem with an estimated worth of £200 million and considered one of the most perfect gems in the world. Also on display were priceless blue diamonds. The attempted robbery was foiled by the Flying Squad of the Metropolitan Police Service, as a result of information from Kent Police Serious Crime who already had the gang members under surveillance for their suspected roles in a number of unsuccessful armoured vehicle robberies. The operation to foil the robbery was the biggest operation undertaken in the Flying Squad's history and at trial the judge in the case commended the way it was carried out.

John Paul Chase American bank robber and member of the John Dillinger gang

John Paul Chase was an American bank robber and Depression-era outlaw. He was a longtime criminal associate of the Karpis-Barker Gang and most notably Baby Face Nelson who later brought him into the John Dillinger gang. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover once referred to Chase as "a rat with a patriotic-sounding name". Chase and Nelson continued to rob banks with John Dillinger until Dillinger's death in July 1934. After the death of Nelson in November 1934, Chase fled back to California where he was arrested a month later on December 27, 1934. Chase was sent to Alcatraz where he became one of the longest-serving inmates;.

Eddie Bentz American bank robber

Edward Wilhelm Bentz was an American bank robber and Depression-era outlaw. He was associated with several high-profile public enemies during his criminal career, including Harvey Bailey, Albert Bates, George "Machine Gun" Kelly and Baby Face Nelson. He was eventually captured by the FBI and sentenced to Alcatraz.

Russell Clark (criminal) American bank robber and member of the John Dillinger gang.

Russell Lee "Boobie" Clark was an American thief, bank robber and prison escapee. He is best known as the "good natured" member of the John Dillinger gang and participated in armed holdups with them in a three-month crime spree across the Midwestern United States from October 1933 until his capture in January 1934.

The Cretzer-Kyle Gang was a Depression-era criminal group led by Joseph "Dutch" Cretzer and Arnold Thomas Kyle during the mid-to late 1930s. Largely active in the West Coast, they were one of the few groups to gain national attention outside the Midwest and also one of the last groups to be captured by the FBI at the end of the decade. Cretzer was killed in a failed attempt to escape Alcatraz resulting in the 1946 prison riot.

Eddie Green (criminal) American bank robber and member of the John Dillinger gang

Harold Eugene "Eddie" Green was an American bank robber and Depression-era outlaw during the 1930s, best known as a member of the John Dillinger gang. He was also associated with Frank "Jelly" Nash, Volney Davis and the Barker-Karpis Gang in his early career.

Herman Lamm German-American bank robber

Herman Karl Lamm, known as Baron Lamm, was a German-American bank robber. His robberies paid close attention to detail of the target properties, and he has been described as "the father of modern bank robbery". A former Prussian Army soldier who immigrated to the United States, Lamm believed a heist required all the planning of a military operation. He pioneered the concepts of "casing" a bank and developing escape routes before conducting the robbery. Using a meticulous planning system called "The Lamm Technique", he conducted dozens of successful bank robberies from the end of World War I.

Jeffrey Shuman is an American-French bank robber, dubbed "The Vaulter", considered to be one of Canada's most prolific bank robbers. In 1994, he pleaded guilty to robbing 14 banks in the United States, receiving a 12-year sentence, but was released in 2004, and fled the country while on parole. He then robbed 21 banks in Canada, before fleeing to France on his French passport. In 2016, he was extradited to Canada, and in 2017, was sentenced to 15 years in prison and ordered to pay back nearly $450,000 in restitution after pleading guilty to seven counts of robbery using a firearm.

Bonded Vault heist robbery of the Bonded Vault Company

The Bonded Vault heist was the August 1975 robbery of the Bonded Vault Company, a commercial safe-deposit business occupying a vault inside Hudson Fur Storage in Providence, Rhode Island. It served as the unofficial "bank" used by the Patriarca crime family and associates. The stolen valuables were worth about $30 million. According to The Providence Journal, it was among the biggest heists in US history and resulted in the longest and costliest criminal trial in Rhode Island history.


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