Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Daring daylight holdup, plucky girl clerk

Pittsburgh Press
March 10, 1929

"BANDITS SHOOT GAS OFFICIAL IN DARING AMBRIDGE HOLDUP" was the headline at the top of the March 10, 1929, Pittsburgh Press' front page. The information in this post is based on that Press account.

The story sounds like a scene from a crime novel: a brazen daylight heist by armed and dangerous bandits who are tricked into leaving without all the loot by a brave and resourceful young woman.

On Saturday, March 9, two bandits brandishing guns entered the Maplewood Ave. office of the Ambridge Gas Co., one of Ambridge's oldest businesses.*

Pittsburgh Press
March 10, 1929

"Hold up your hands," the robbers ordered the two people in the office at the time, Archibald D. Pew, General Manager, and Miss Beatrice Murray, "girl clerk," according to the newspaper. March 9 was the last day that customers could pay their February gas bill, so "the bandits apparently expected the receipts to be heavy." Murray had a roll of money on her desk so she could count it and stepped between the robbers and her desk, hiding the money from their view.

The robbers rifled drawers looking for loot, and one began stuffing bills and checks into his pocket. Unexpectedly, John Staley, a meter reader, came into the office, and the robbers turned to point their guns at him. While the robbers were distracted by Staley's entry, Pew tried to escape through a back door to call for help. One of the robbers then shot Pew in his arm.

The robbers asked Murray where more money was. Still standing between the robbers and the money on her desk, she told them there wasn't any more, they'd gotten it all. The robbers ended up with close to $3,000 from the drawers, which would be about $41,200 in 2015.

The robbers then ran out of the building, waving their guns, to a waiting getaway car which sped in the direction of "Freedom and Woodlawn." Woodlawn is present day Aliquippa, across the Ohio River from Freedom, so I'm guessing the car headed somewhere north.

Ambridge police set off in pursuit, helped by bystanders who gave the police the make and license plate number of the car. I don't know if the police ever caught the robbers. If I do find out more, I'll update this post.

Dr. A. N. Mellot and Dr. C. S. McGeorge treated Pew.

The scene of the robbery, 467 Maplewood Ave., still stands, next to the Maple Restaurant. It's currently the office of Michael P. Fecko Insurance.

467 Maplewood Ave.
September 27, 1915

Update June 5, 2015: I found an article in the March 11, 1929, issue of The Daily Times headlined "2 BANDITS FLEE NET OF POLICE. Wrong Number of Auto Given Posses Makes Easy Flight of Gas Office Robbers." According to the article "Despite the intensive man-hunt staged by state, county and borough police through the tri-state district during the past week end," the gas company robbers remained at large.

The article went on to say that the eyewitness who had given the police the fleeing car's licence plate number had made a mistake. The plate number belonged to a miner in Cambria County, and on the day of the robbery, the car was in the miner's garage all day while he was at work.

Were the bandits ever identified and apprehended? If I find any more information, I'll post another update.

Update May 23, 2018: The (alleged) robbers were arrested on the Monday after they robbed the gas company, thanks to a tip to police and an Ambridge cop's suspicions.

Maplewood resident, Mrs. J. J. Gross, had noticed an unfamiliar, unusual car parked in front of her home the day of the robbery. Mrs. Gross described it to police as an "ancient" brown Studebaker touring car with curtains that could be lowered like window shades. 

Ambridge police officer Cliff Harling suspected the robbery had been committed by local men, and he knew of only two cars in Ambridge that met Mrs. Gross' description. One of those cars was owned by James Howard, who not only lived a few blocks from the gas company, but also had a police record.

Hartling wanted to arrest Howard the day of the robbery, but his superiors decided to wait until Monday, when the police arrested Howard, as well as Harry Moose, at Howard's home "in the alley back of the regent theatre (sic)." (The Regent Theatre once was on the corner of 5th and Merchant Sts., later the location of the Penn Theatre in the 1940s and early '50s.)

Both men were taken to the gas company where they were identified by clerk Murray and the meter reader Staley.

Howard was described as "to have otherwise been what good citizens are not" with a "considerable police record" in an Ambridge News-Herald article (March 12, 1929). Among his other reported crimes: "shooting up a Beaver insurance collector's automobile on Eleventh street, one night last summer."

Hartling said he believed he could connect Howard's Studebaker with yet other robberies, including the January 12 holdup of the Butler store at 14th St. and Duss Ave.

According to the March 12, 1929, Daily Times article about the arrest, Howard's wife turned over $235 to police, said to be part of the money stolen from the gas company. Reportedly, Howard also sent three $100 money orders to Washington D.C. the day after the robbery.

One new detail of the robbery provided in the News-Herald article was that during the robbery, Murray had not just shielded money from the robbers, but had sat on some of it during the robbery!

I'll keep looking for information on what happened to Howard and Moose after they were arrested.

* The Ambridge  Gas Company, incorporated on November 20, 1903, predated the creation of the Borough of Ambridge, which incorporated in 1905. The company remained in business until 1963, when Columbia Gas took over Ambridge's gas service.

** The text with the Press photo says:
The little office of the Ambridge Gas Co., 467 Maplewood ave., that borough, was the scene of a daylight holdup yesterday when two bandits shot General Manager Archibald D. Pew in the arm and escaped with $3,000. Below is Miss Beatrice Murray, 23, of Merchant st., Ambridge, plucky girl clerk who safely concealed a roll of currency from the intruders.

No comments:

Post a Comment