Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Sixty Grand in Sixty Seconds: One of Richmond’s Great Unsolved Robberies

Just another city alley?

Today, it is just another city alley, notable only that the buildings beside it now extend above it and block out the sun, making the alley in the 800 block of Main Street seem dark and foreboding.  Walking through the gloom from west to east, the pedestrian welcomes the sunlight ahead and the cheerful blue awning of the Commonwealth Park Suits (the former Hotel Rueger) across the street.  Few today emerging at the mouth of the darkened alley would suspect that this spot was the scene of one of Richmond’s great unsolved robberies. 

Certainly such a thing was furthest from the minds of William Harvey Cogbill and William B. Jones as they made their way up Ninth Street hill through the dirty snow on a gray and cold March 2, 1934.  Cogbill, an armed bank messenger with a long history at State Planters Bank, left the bank at 904 East Main Street with Jones, his escort, and turned uphill toward the Federal Reserve Bank, then in the building now housing the Virginia Supreme Court.  Cogbill carried a canvas satchel with $60,000 in small bills.  

Transporting this kind of money to the Federal Reserve where they would be credited to State-Planters was a routine transfer, and both Cogbill and Jones, bundled against the cold, were at first annoyed when a large dark touring car pulled abruptly out of the alley and blocked their path.  Their annoyance turned to astonishment as three nicely-dressed men in suits and overcoats emerged from the Essex sedan, grabbed Cogbill and Williams, and hustled the two stunned bank employees out of sight behind the car, idling in the alley.
Cogbill, age 55, and Jones, described as “the elderly porter,” at first thought they were the victims of a joke – until guns were pointed at them.  “Several times fellow-workers at the bank have passed me and in undertones jested to hold me up,” Cogbill explained.  “I thought this was another such occasion for the moment.”  Cogbill and Jones were so taken by surprise that they hardly looked at their captors faces, but the display of guns quickly dispelled the idea this was a prank. The shaken Jones’ only comment later was, “I never had seen such big guns.”

  One robber told another to look for Cogbill’s pistol, and then removed it from the messenger’s holster as the third pinned his arms behind him and shoved him down on the cobblestones in the slush behind the car.  The robbers grabbed the satchel with the money, dove back in the car, and made a left up Ninth Street and immediately turned right on Bank Street, rounding the corner by the Hotel Rueger.  They were never seen again.
Police all over the state were put on alert.  A hot tip from Petersburg turned out to be false lead.  A ticket agent at Broad Street Station phoned in a report of a party of neatly dressed men who boarded a train headed north shortly after the robbery.  Removed from their train car at gunpoint by the police in Washington, they turned out to be on their way to a funeral in Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania. 

Hotel Rueger - The Robbers rounded the corner here and were never seen again.
The entire Ninth Street robbery was so fast, taking less then a minute, that one eyewitness to the event could only offer the fact the car had chains on the tires as a clue.  A witness was found, however, who was able to produce a license plate number, which was traced to a car stolen in Washington two weeks earlier.  And there the trail went cold. 
$60,000 was a huge amount of money in 1934, whose value today would be approximately $900,000, but despite the enormous sum involved, there were no arrests in the case. One fact of the robbery was emphasized again and again in the newspaper coverage: the $60,000 was insured and the depositors would not lose a cent.  It was the era of bank failures and it was judged important that the public be assured that within twenty-four hours of the robbery on Ninth Street, a check for the entire amount had been presented to replace the funds. 

 A mail truck from this Federal Reserve building in Richmond was held up in 1934 - 77 years ago this coming March 2nd.

Only a day old, as a news story the $60,000 robbery was already in eclipse by March 4th.  It was shoved down below the fold on the first page of Richmond newspapers by John Dillinger’s sensational escape from a jail in Crown Point, Indiana.  By the following week, the holdup in Richmond of a Federal Reserve mail truck and the murder of the driver near Broad Street Station drove the Ninth Street holdup further from the public eye.  The eventual discovery of the getaway car in a local garage weeks later was practically the last mention of the event in the press.
And the nicely dressed men who had been driving that black Essex?
Whoever they were, they got away with it.

- Selden Richardson.

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