Town remembers train robbery

GARRETTSVILLE – Train heists, masked bandits, getaway cars and a federal manhunt may sound like plot-points for a Hollywood action movie, but for those familiar with Garrettsville’s history, they are elements of a very real event that has since been woven into the village’s fabric.

On Nov. 7, 1935, the eyes of a nation – including those of FBI leader J. Edgar Hoover – focused on the tiny Garrettsville train depot, where a gang of masked bandits executed what many historians call the last significant train heist in American history. The train was bound for Warren.

Historian Jane Ann Turzillo studied the heist for her book, “Murder and Mayhem on Ohio’s Rails,” which is now available.

“With the way it was planned and the attention to detail, yes, I’d probably say that’s true,” Turzillo said.

Now, more than 78 years after the heist, community members, students and historians will descend upon Garrettsville for a ceremony 6 p.m. Wednesday at James A. Garfield High School, where the state recognizes the heist with a historical marker.

The ceremony also will double as a public thank-you to emergency personnel and others who responded to a March 22 fire that damaged or destroyed 13 businesses in a downtown block of historic buildings.

The local fire department received mutual aid from 34 departments, including Warren Township, Southington, Mesopotamia, Newton Falls and Braceville.

The historical marker ceremony will feature guest speakers, including Rep. David Joyce, R-Chardon, and Hiram College President Dr. Lori Varlotta. Garfield students, dressed in 1930s garb, will re-enact the heist.

Julia Thomas, the event organizer and a driving force behind getting state funding for the marker, said the Ohio Historical Society has strict parameters for successful grant applications.

“It was a difficult process to complete,” Thomas said.

“For a lot of people, history has taken a back seat to the hard sciences. It has always been important to me,” she said.

Thomas said both the robbery and the ensuing investigation have fascinated her for decades.

The mail train coming from Cleveland and bound for Warren rolled to a sudden halt when Alvin “Creepy” Karpis and his crew of five fired their machine guns into the air.

Karpis was one of three leaders of the Barker-Karpis gang, which he co-founded with ”Ma” Barker’s son Fred.

After the men, wearing handkerchiefs over their faces, threatened to blow up the train cars with dynamite, their money demands were met.

In all, the robbers claimed about $34,000 cash and more than $12,000 in bond securities, a haul that, according to Turzillo, Karpis believed would be much more lucrative.

Still, the group netted what equates to a little more than $700,000 by modern standards.

“He knew there were payrolls going to Warren and, I can’t prove it, but I think part of those payrolls may have been dropped off at some point before the robbery or it would have been a bigger haul,” Turzillo said.

Karpis, who was the mastermind of the operation, idolized 19th-century outlaw Jesse James, even wearing an “Old West” duster with a specially sewn pocket to conceal his machine gun and 20-round clip during the robbery.

The bandits’ getaway car – a Plymouth – took the crew to Port Clinton, where an airplane awaited them.

“Karpis had hired a pilot and two of them flew out of Ohio the following morning,” said Turzillo, at which point they flew to Hot Springs, Ark. “He had everything so perfectly planned, from driving out of the area full of all kinds of switch-backs and misdirection, to flying out the next day.

“I wake up in the morning and think about writing books and you may wake up and think about being a journalist. Alvin woke up in the morning, and he felt this was his calling in life. Elliott Ness was after him for years and could never get him,” she continued.

However, what Karpis and his crew could not have anticipated was a young, bold director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, J. Edgar Hoover. The heist put Karpis at the top of the FBI’s “public enemy” list, and he was considered the “most wanted man in America” by Hoover.

In May of 1936, with much of his crew either arrested or dead, Karpis was finally taken into police custody in New Orleans. Hoover himself made the arrest – his first – according to FBI files.

The arrest came during a time when government agents – or G-Men – were garnering the kind of attention usually reserved for movie stars or famous outlaws.

“That’s the reason Garfield High School have the ‘Fighting G-Men’ as their mascot,” Thomas said. “As far as we know, this will make the historical marker essentially the only one in the nation affiliated with a high school sports team.”

Karpis served a 26-year sentence at the prison on Alcatraz Island, Calif.

Wednesday’s dedication ceremony will also include documentary footage of Karpis recalling his arrest by Hoover.

Also Wednesday, organizers will also honor Garfield Local Schools for receiving a Straight-A Fund state grant.