Martin Whelan, “Respected, and feared, by all.”


First, I heard of Estherville’s big bank robbery was a chance mention by Lyle Heven. Discussing the 700 building, the narrow brick building downtown which now is home to Mystic Tattoo, Lyle mentioned it had at one time been home to the Emmet County State Bank, and had been robbed at gunpoint. He went on to add it was our town’s only bank robbery.

A short time later visiting with Steve Bandow I mentioned the robbery. Steve chimed in his dad had told him all about it. According to Irv, one of the robbers stalked back and forth on the sidewalk in front of the bank with a gun loudly announcing to all, “we’re robbing this bank, stay the hell back!” He added one neighboring shop owner had a gun in his building but decided against using it. By Irv’s account, the fellow was so wracked with guilt for not taking action he later took his own life. Now the robbery happening back in the twenties and Irv growing up in Denison, Iowa, not Estherville, I figure he most likely heard the story from one of his coworkers after he moved to town. 

Of our area cemeteries, Oak Hill is my favorite. Aside from its natural beauty two other things always strike me, the size of the monuments, and the fact that many of the stones bear last names which are no longer a part of our community. On this day I stopped in front of the tallest stone in the cemetery, a stately white obelisk, and looked at the name. Whelan, Martin Whelan. Born 1856, died 1940. Never heard of him.

Curious I pulled out my phone and did a quick search. Immigrated from Ireland at 19, taught school at Old Swan Lake, this when it was yet our county seat. Was appointed County Sheriff. “Fearless to the last degree and very proficient.” Along with his deputy, Thomas Storhow, he caught two fearless horse thieves which won him a reputation throughout the state. During his time as our top lawman two railroads came through town. As his obituary states, “These were trying days for any Sheriff, Mr. Whelan was respected, and feared, by all.”

On to the state legislature in 1895 while also serving as a postmaster, this before serving two terms as Mayor. Clearly, Martin was a man’s man.

And then this, “Mr. Whelan had not been in the best of health since he was struck on his head by a revolver in the hands of one of the desperate men who robbed the State Bank when it was location at the corner of Lincoln Ave. and 7th Street.” It continues, “He was in the bank at the time and had in his hands, bonds belonging to others. He refused to obey the orders of the robbers and was stricken down by a blow to the head.” The story now had me in its grip.

They rolled into town, five of them, cool as cucumbers and armed to the teeth. Stopping at the Nathanson station west of the railroad tracks, they filled the 29 Buick with gas before proceeding to the bank, three of them going in.

The newspaper reports they used the foulest of language. Quoting the Sept. 5th 1929 Daily News, “M.K. Whelan was helping Mrs. Nellie Smith express 3350.00 in bonds to Minneapolis, her home, where she was planning on going that day. He had just taken the safety deposit box from the vault when the robbers entered and upon failing to comply with the command to lie on the floor was struck on the head by one of the bandits.”

The Daily News story continues, “Mr. Whelan then called for help and was struck a heavy blow that cut his head wide open. He yelled again and a surly fellow kicked him several times in the face finally putting his foot against Mr. Whelan’s mouth.” The robbers also pistol-whipped H. McKerral, vice president of the bank, when he was unable to open the time vault. Again, to quote the paper, “One bandit shouted an order to kill him while another stuck McKerral heavily on the head.” 

And outside? “While three of the gang were looting the bank the driver and fifth member were terrorizing everyone outside. A machine gun mounted in the front seat of the waiting car waved passersby away from the bank while still another bandit marched up and down the sidewalk in front of the bank with a shotgun ordering people from the streets.” Ok, so Irv had it right about the fellow with a gun on the sidewalk. Then there was this. 

“Clem Peterson, who operates a grocery store just east of the bank, went to the rear of his store and loaded his shotgun but when he returned, he decided it would be unwise and probably ineffective to shoot. The street was filled with people and there was danger, if trouble was made, of the bandits turning the guns loose on spectators.” 

Imagine that. The best Clem could have hoped for in 1929 would be a double barrel. If he was lucky his front door would have been within range of the fellow on the sidewalk, and the guy in the car with the machine gun. His only hope would be to pop out of his door and get one, then the other, before they him. Now what? Fumbling in his pocket for two more shells the bank door opens the remaining three bandits coming out with their gun blazing. Not a pretty picture, very likely the end of Clem and who know how many innocents. No, in my book Clem did right to hold his fire.

It was 15 year old Leonard Hackett who turned in the alarm. Leonard was the older brother of long time Estherville resident Clarence “Honey” Hackett who most of us from town knew well. Leonard got too close to the bank and was given the bums rush by the guy with the shotgun. Making his retreat he slipped around the corner to the west darting up the outside stairs to the second floor of the bank building where the telephone exchange was located. However, before the police could show up, the gang made their getaway by tearing out of town to the east. The last sighting of the car, which reportedly had Alabama plates, was from the Sherburn area where they blew by a road crew at a high rate of speed.

But what about Clem, our grocery store owner? Did he take his own life on account of the shame he felt for not using his gun as Irv had told his son Steve? I looked up his obituary which included an account of his death a scant month and a half following the robbery. The story goes on at length of how his body was found slumped over in the kitchen by his young daughter, the gas from a stove burner left on. The story discusses the possibility of suicide while also mentioning his family and friends did not believe that was the case. No mention was made of the robbery, but they did say he had recently closed his business as it was not making good money. Mention was also made of health problems which had been greatly bothering him of late. His wife pointed out the water in the tea kettle was still warm, suggesting the water had boiled over dousing the gas stove’s flame while Clem slept. I like to think she was right.

Likely though there was a lot of talk following the circumstances of his death so soon after the bank robbery. It is easy to imagine the tale being spun and repeated until it was accepted as the truth. Certainly Irv, coming to town long after the event, would have had no reason to doubt it.

Now, had Martin Whelan had access to that shotgun and a handful of shells? I will let you paint that picture. 


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