Missouri and Ozarks History

Information and comments about historical people and events of Missouri, the Ozarks region, and surrounding area.

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I'm a freelance writer specializing in the history of the Ozarks and surrounding region. I've written sixteen nonfiction books, two historical novels, and numerous articles. My latest books are Wicked Women of Missouri, Yanked Into Eternity: Lynchings and Hangings in Missouri, and Show-Me Atrocities: Infamous Incidents in Missouri History.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Avilla (Mo.) Bank Robbery

About two o'clock in the afternoon of May 18, 1932, the Bank of Avilla, Missouri, was held up by two bandits who entered the bank with revolvers drawn. Neither man wore a mask, although one wore sun glasses and the other had his face painted with some sort of brown substance to disguise his appearance. In a report published in a Joplin newspaper later that same afternoon, the pair were described as young men, but the next day a different Joplin newspaper said they were middle-aged.
The holdup men forced cashier Ivy Russell and bookkeeper Evelyn Shelton to lie down behind the teller's cage, and they and ordered Mrs. C.R. Stemmons, who was Russell's sister and a customer of the bank at the time, to take a seat in a chair at the front of the bank. Another customer, Harry Hightower, entered during the robbery, and he, like the bank officials, was made to lie on the floor.
The robbers then forced Russell to get up and retrieve the bank's cash from the safe. The take amounted to about $2,000. Threatening Russell, the bandits ordered him outside to their car and took him along as a hostage during their getaway. The bandit car, reported to be a 1929 Model A Ford sedan, sped west out of town along Route 66. The bandits turned north about two miles outside Avilla and drove about two more miles before stopping at the side of the road, where they bound Russell's hands and feet with tape, shoved him through a hedge row into a wheat field, and sped away.
The telephone operator at Avilla reported the robbery immediately after it happened, and law officers from Joplin and other surrounding towns were put on the lookout. Meanwhile, Russell was able to work his way free, and, hailing a ride, he was back at the bank less than an hour after the holdup. He reported that he saw the bandits head west on a back road after they shoved him through the hedge row, but no further trace of the outlaws was reported.
The men who held up the Avilla bank were later identified as part of the Leo "Irish" O'Malley gang, although two men hardly constitute a gang, and I'm not sure whether it's even definitely known that O'Malley himself was one of the two men who pulled off the Avilla job. In addition, the title "O'Malley Gang" was apparently something of a misnomer, as Leo O'Malley was supposedly not even the leader of the gang. The gang was reportedly made up mainly of ex-cons from Missouri who had started out as the Ozark Mountain Boys. However, newspapers had dubbed the outfit the Irish O'Malley gang after they pulled off a number of robberies in southwest Missouri, northeast Oklahoma, and surrounding region. Another report says the O'Malley gang came about as a result of the merging of the Ozark Mountain Boys with another gang.
After the Avilla robbery, the O'Malley gang committed a number of other crimes in the four-state region over the next few years, including robbing a bank at Neosho, Missouri, in early March of 1935. About three months after the Neosho job, the gang held up a bank at Fort Smith, Arkansas, and most of the members of the gang were caught and sentenced to prison in the wake of the Fort Smith robbery.

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