Volney, Rabbits, and Three-Fingered Jack…

Oddly enough, given that violent crime rates have been steadily declining for years now, people—especially in small town America—seem convinced that crime is on the upswing.

We got to talking about local crime the other day, and the person I was chatting with was surprised to hear that back in the 1920s and 1930s, our little corner of the world was a lot more like the wild west than our modern, bustling suburban community.

Bank robbery was rife, with bandits being chased through rural farmland by sheriff’s posses, and highway robbery was not unheard of. Our local dentist and his wife, for instance, were stopped by road agents on the Lincoln Highway—now U.S. Route 30—between Plainfield and Aurora and robbed of their money and jewelry. In August 1921, Kendall County Sheriff Martin Hextell fought a gun battle in downtown Yorkville with a man suspected of killing a West Chicago lawman.

The spate of criminal activity, aided by the mobility that better roads and fast automobiles offered, hit its height locally during the Dillinger years of the early 1930s.

Dapper John Dillinger orchestrated a crime wave in the upper Midwest during the 1930s with the help of a gang of colorful criminals eventually run to ground by federal agents..

Dapper John Dillinger orchestrated a crime wave in the upper Midwest during the 1930s with the help of a gang of colorful criminals eventually run to ground by federal agents..

In February 1935, the colorful Dillinger saga was far too familiar to far too many Kendall County citizens. The gang, including Dillinger himself and the homicidal maniac Lester Gillis who called himself Babyface Nelson, along with John “Red” Hamilton (nicknamed “Three Fingered Jack” by the press) had been frequenting the area for years, occasionally hiding out and, reportedly, making use of the services of a local doctor when one or the other of them needed to be patched up.

While the gang’s activities had been an undercurrent during the 1930s, that February, the gang’s last gasps became all too real.

Volney Davis was a minor member of the gang, but he was definitely connected. Agents of the U.S. Division of Investigation (the DOI would soon be renamed the Federal Bureau of Investigation) tracked him down and arrested him in Kansas City on charges of kidnapping a St. Paul, Minn. banker

While the DOI definitely wanted to chat with Davis about his recent kidnapping exploit, they also suspected he had information concerning the whereabouts of some Dillinger Gang members who were unaccounted for.

Famed G-Man Melvin Purvis and his task force of DOI agents had gunned Dillinger down the previous July in Chicago. And one by one, the rest of the Dillinger bunch and the loosely related Karpis-Barker Gang had been tracked down and either captured or killed. Davis, a member of the Karpis-Barker Gang, knew where some of the two gangs’ bodies were literally buried.

Volney Davis was an enthusiastic member of the Barker-Karpis Gang that had occasional dealings with the Dillinger bunch. He staged an escape from the custody of federal agents in downtown Yorkville.

Volney Davis was an enthusiastic member of the Karpis-Barker Gang that had occasional dealings with the Dillinger bunch. He staged an escape from the custody of federal agents in downtown Yorkville.

Davis, firmly in the custody of DOI agents Garrity and Trainor, was bundled aboard a chartered plane in Kansas City and sent off to St. Paul via Chicago, where a refueling stop was scheduled—and that’s where the fickle finger of fate intervened. Finding a solid overcast at Chicago, the pilot headed west looking for clear weather and a place to land. The fog gradually cleared over one of Eugene Matlock’s fields south of the Kendall County seat of Yorkville. Matlock’s neighbor, Bill Ford, saw the plane land and drove over to see what was happening.

As dusk was closing in and after asking where they were, the G-Men told Ford they needed to go into town to call Chicago. Removing Davis’s leg shackles so he could walk, they all piled into Ford’s car and headed into Yorkville. Ford, a friend of Kendall County Sheriff William Maier, suggested they go to the county jail where Davis could be locked up while the call was made, but the agents weren’t interested in sharing custody with the locals. “We don’t want any sheriffs in on this,” they told Ford.

So Ford drove them to the Hotel Nading at Bridge Street and West Hydraulic, at the south end of the Fox River bridge. On the way, Volney’s handcuffs were removed—after all, what could possibly go wrong?

Clean-cut and determined, Melvin Purvis got John Dillinger and Volney Davis while J. Edgar Hoover got the publicity.

Clean-cut and determined, Melvin Purvis got John Dillinger and Volney Davis while J. Edgar Hoover got the publicity.

Entering Charles Leech’s tavern on the hotel’s ground floor, Agent Trainor walked to the phone booth to call Chicago HQ while Garrity offered to buy Volney a beer. Garrity ordered two brews (these were the days before drinking on duty was frowned upon). As the agent raised his glass for a sip, Volney swung and connected with Garrity’s head, knocking him over a bar chair and to the floor. Then, as the Kendall County Record reported: “Turning, the prisoner made a running leap head-first through a nearby window. Garrity leaped to his feet drawing a revolver and ran to the window from which he fired three shots at the fugitive, who headed west after hurtling the iron fence which borders the hotel lawn.”

Volney, letting no grass grow beneath his feet, raced southwest on Hydraulic then zigzagged through a succession of Yorkville alleys, shrugging off his blue overcoat to increase his speed as he ran.

Three blocks south and a block west, his spirits must have soared when he spied Harlan Bretthauer’s V-8 Ford (speedy and lightweight, it was one of the gangsters’ favorite cars) parked at the Webster home with the keys in the ignition and a full tank of gas. Driving with his headlights off, Davis sped out of Yorkville. The abandoned car was later found in Wheaton.

Purvis didn’t run Davis to ground until June 1. It’s likely that after his capture he revealed the answer to a mystery that had been nagging the G-Men for more than a year: The whereabouts of John “Red” Hamilton, the last member of Dillinger’s gang unaccounted for.

John "Red" Hamilton was one of the unluckiest gangsters of the 1930s. Wounded in several gun battles, he'd already two fingers on one hand shot off--thus the nickname given him by the press, Three-Fingered Jack. After dying of wounds, he was buried in a shallow, unmarked grave just north of Oswego.

John “Red” Hamilton was one of the unluckiest gangsters of the 1930s. Wounded in several gun battles, he’d already had two fingers on one hand shot off–thus the nickname given him by the press, Three-Fingered Jack. After dying of wounds, he was buried in a shallow, unmarked grave just north of Oswego.

Dubbed “Three Fingered Jack” by the press and lawmen, Hamilton was one of Dillinger’s closest associates and also one of the unluckiest gangsters in history, being the most likely to be wounded should shooting break out—two fingers had already been shot off one hand during gang battles, thus his press nickname. But the G-Men need not have worried because by then Red had been dead for a year.

On April 22, 1934, Hamilton was with Dillinger’s gang during the DOI’s deadly, botched ambush at the Little Bohemia Lodge near Manitowish Waters in northern Wisconsin. Dillinger, Hamilton, and Homer Van Meter fled the scene. At St. Paul, Minn. the next day, local lawmen again ambushed the trio. During the fusillade, Hamilton was seriously wounded in the back by a bullet that penetrated the car in which the gangsters were escaping.

The trio drove to Chicago for help, where a mob-connected doctor refused to treat the obviously dying Hamilton. Seeking help from members of the Karpis-Barker Gang, they were directed to Aurora where Davis and his girlfriend, Edna “Rabbits” Murray, were living in an apartment on Fox Street (now East Downer Place). Hamilton died of his wounds there four days after being shot. Davis, Dillinger, and Van Meter (and possibly other Karpis-Barker Gang members) found a secluded spot roughly a hundred yards east of Ill. Route 25 about a half-mile north of Oswego (now the site of Eagle Ridge Park) to bury Hamilton in a shallow grave. Dillinger swore everyone to secrecy; he wanted to keep the G-Men guessing the gang members’ whereabouts.

After his capture, Davis likely spilled the beans about Hamilton’s whereabouts. After all, Dillinger had long been in his own grave. A team of agents dug the body up on Aug. 28, 1935. Dillinger had poured lye over Hamilton’s face and hands to obscure his identity, but a dentist from the Michigan City, Ind. prison was able to make a positive ID at Oswego’s Thorsen Funeral Home from Hamilton’s dental work. Kendall County Coroner Dr. F.M. Groner declared the body that of Hamilton; the coroner’s jury agreed. Hamilton’s sister paid to have him buried in an unmarked grave at the Oswego Township Cemetery, adding a final period to Dillinger’s gang. As a sidelight, the young mortician-in-training at Thorsen’s who was tasked with handling Hamilton’s badly decomposed body decided he was in the wrong line of work. “It was the smell,” he told me decades later.

Davis spent most of the rest of his life in Alcatraz. But unlike most of his contemporaries, he died of natural causes in 1979 in Sonoma, Calif. at age 77. He never returned to Kendall County after his two brief, though stimulating, visits in the 1930s.

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3 Comments

Filed under Aurora, Crime, Illinois History, Kendall County, Law, Oswego, People in History

3 responses to “Volney, Rabbits, and Three-Fingered Jack…

  1. John Hamilton’s fingers weren’t shot off. He lost them in a child hood sledding accident. He had been dared by other children to sled down a hill in front of a train.

  2. Pingback: How Presbyterians, John Dillinger, and the Depression helped create an Oswego business… | historyonthefox

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