The 1953 Great St. Louis Bank Robbery

On Friday, April 24, 1953, three men and a getaway driver attempted to rob the Southwest Bank on the corner of Southwest Avenue and S. Kingshighway Boulevard in St. Louis, MO.  The St. Louis Police foiled the robbery, which became the focus of a 1959 movie, The Great St. Louis Bank Robbery.  The film is now in the public domain.

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Fred William Bowerman from FBI Most Wanted List – Public Domain

Fred W. Bowerman, an experienced bank robber, led the robbery crew.  Bowerman was 60 years old, while his crew were all in their 20s.  Bowerman expected to get in and out of the bank quickly but the robbery quickly went awry.  An alarm was triggered notifying the local district officers, who arrived before they had even gathered up all the money.

The driver, Glenn Chernick, who would later turn out to be a star college football player, left when he saw all the police arriving.  One of the robbers, Frank Vito, who was already facing other criminal charges from past offenses, committed suicide.  The last member of the crew, William Scholl, was shot, while trying to escape with a hostage.

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Still from The Great St. Louis Bank Robbery – Courtesy of Creative Commons

Bowerman attempted the same tactic but was shot by Officer Mel Stein, who was standing just outside the entrance to the bank.  Stein said as the hostage was well clear and Bowerman’s side came into view, he squeezed the trigger.  The impact knocked Bowerman to the ground, where he was disarmed.

Bowerman would die in a local hospital on May 2, 1953.  Scholl and Chernick would both be sentenced to 25 years in prison for their parts in the robbery.  A few bystanders suffered minor injuries but only the robbers were seriously hurt or killed.

Living St. Louis recorded the actual events of the robbery on one of their episodes.  Tim O’Neil also wrote a great pictorial article on the robbery in the St. Louis Post Dispatch on July 25, 2012.

In 1959, Charles Guggenheim shot a film noir about the robbery and actually filmed it in St. Louis using locations such at the bank, Tower Grove Park and the old South City Famous-Barr store parking lot.  Chernick’s character was named George Fowler played by a very young Steve McQueen.  Bowerman’s character was named John Egan played by Crahan Denton.  The remaining characters names were not changed.  Many of the actual policeman including Mel Stein and bank employees were also used in the film.

The Southwest Bank robbery will continue to be a famous chapter in the St. Louis history book.

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