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Thursday, August 7, 2008

The Ford Motor Company Robbery of 1921

Posted By on Thu, Aug 7, 2008 at 1:35 PM

556f/1242671946-fordpayrollrobberytombstone.jpg A battered tombstone in Forest Hill Cemetery is the only visible reminder of one of the most notorious robberies in our city’s past.

In the early part of the last century, the Ford Motor Company operated a manufacturing plant on Union, where The Commercial Appeal stands today. On the morning of August 10, 1921, two Ford employees, chief accounting clerk Edgar McHenry and special agent Howard “Shorty” Gamble drove to a bank on Second Street to pick up that week’s payroll — a satchel containing $8,500, which was an enormous sum in those days. They were accompanied by two Memphis police officers, Polk Carraway and W.S. Harris.

They returned to the Ford plant and parked in front of the building. Just at that moment, a blue Cadillac pulled alongside. Four masked men jumped out with revolvers and shotguns and shouted “Hands up!” Before anyone could move, the bandits opened fire, killing Carraway and Gamble and wounding Harris. “They were shot down by cold-blooded murderers, who never gave their victims a dog’s chance,” said The Commercial Appeal later.

Still clutching the satchel, McHenry made a bold dash for the entrance — and made it. “I don’t know what made me do it,” he recalled later, “and I can’t tell you how I got to the door of the office. Everything happened in a flash.”

The payroll was saved. Frustrated by this sudden turn of events, the four robbers jumped back in the Cadillac and raced eastward. Within minutes, witnesses would report the car had passed the community of White Station, apparently heading towards Germantown and Collierville. What nobody reported, though, was that at some points, the bandits turned south, away from the city.

At police headquarters, as soon as the call came in that the Ford company had been robbed, the cops began their pursuit. They realized their low-powered Fords would be no match for the speedy Cadillac, so they commandeered a faster vehicle — which just happened to be a dark-blue Cadillac.

Meanwhile, out in Collierville, the deputy sheriff set up a roadblock on Poplar, reinforced by some 40 citizens toting rifles and shotguns. And sure enough, just as they had expected, a blue Cadillac came racing toward them. When it didn’t stop, they opened fire.

It was the wrong car. They had fired on the Cadillac filled with four policemen who were pursuing the bandits. More than 100 bullets peppered the vehicle before it rolled to a stop off the road. “Every man who possessed a weapon must have fired,” reported the Memphis Press-Scimitar. The passengers in the car drove through a “gauntlet of death.”

Police lieutenant Vincent Lucarini — one of our city’s most popular police officers — was dead. Other officers in the car had been shot in the head, face, and shoulder, but they would survive. Newspapers summed up the grim toll that morning. On the side of the law: three dead, two critically wounded, three injured. The payroll had been saved, but the crooks had escaped, and reporters feared the gang had made a clean getaway: “Four men in a stolen car had dashed upon the scene, murdered two men, wounded a third, and sped away, with none of the eyewitnesses able to give a description of the bandits.”

But then witnesses came forward, who had seen a young fellow named Thomas Taylor Harriss sitting behind the wheel of a blue Cadillac parked on Union that morning. It didn’t help that “Red,” as his friends called him, was “a bizarre chap, distinctive in look, action, and manner. No one ever got a good look at him once and failed to recognize him a second time. The robes of a Carmelite nun could not conceal him.”

And so the police nabbed their man just one night after the botched robbery. Searching his room, they found letters addressed to two brothers, Jesse and Orville Jones, and quickly arrested them. The fourth member of the deadly quartet was arrested a few days later, a fellow named Edwin von Steinkirk, who insisted he was a German baron. (He wasn’t.)

The newspapers didn’t think much of that, and they also didn’t like the way Harriss spelled his name with an extra “s” at the end. But: “The electric current [meaning the electric chair] can cut off a long name from the face of the earth as easily as it can a short one.”

But it never came to that. Jurors could not reach a unanimous verdict, a requirement for the death penalty, so all four men were handed life sentences and taken to the Tennessee State Penitentiary in Nashville. Records from so long ago are sketchy, but historian Paul Coppock reported that none of the men stayed in prison very long, each of them being paroled after serving 15 years or so.

The victims were laid to rest. Funeral services for Lieutenant Vincent Lucarini were held at his home at 176 South Cooper, and then his body was taken to Nashville and buried there. Policeman Polk Carraway was taken to his parents’ home in Kern, Oklahoma, and buried there. Only special agent “Shorty” Gamble was buried here, in Forest Hill Cemetery. His landlord told reporters, “I was always worrying about him guarding that payroll every week, but Shorty said, ‘If they ever get that money, it will be over my dead body.’ Now the money is safe, but he is dead.”

Main Source: “Death in August,” by Michael Finger (Memphis magazine, July/August 2005)

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