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Back to the North Wood column: Buick fails would-be bank robber

10:37 AM, Dec. 3, 2012  |  Comments
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Author's note: Part 1 of 2.

It was July 1921 when John May of Medford first hit the papers of central Wisconsin, after he robbed the American National Bank in Marshfield, escaping with $1,700.

May, a chauffeur for wealthy Milwaukee cigar manufacturer Louis Kindling, decided to steal the Buick Roadster he drove and head north.

May later told a Stevens Point Journal reporter, "I may not be a good bank robber, but I can drive a car. When I left Milwaukee, I thought I could get away pretty easily, and I had it in the back of my mind to stage a bank holdup somewhere along the road. If they get me for one thing, they may as well get me for another."

May said he chose the Buick over a Cadillac and Dodge that were in Kindling's garage, because he thought it would hold up better. He hoped to hit a bank, drive to Prentice and jump a train for Minneapolis. From there, he wanted to make his way back to Milwaukee, assuming no one would look for him there.

Described as a good-looking young chap, not a vicious man at all, and with an exemplary war record, he was not the type thought of as a criminal.

After giving his name as Johnson in Marshfield, he robbed the Marshfield bank at noon when fewer employees were prsent and headed out of town just one step ahead of the law.

May went through Granton to Greenwood, then on to Owen and Curtiss. After a thrilling three-county chase, with speeds up to 110 mph, May finally was apprehended by a Price County deputy.

At 6 p.m. he stopped at a hotel for supper and was recognized by some people who were there, and although none made an attempt to apprehend him, he said he "lost his nerve" and jumped back in the car to head further north, where Deputy Wesley was waiting in Westboro with his car and rifle.

Wesley watched May tear through the village, and then took up chase over county roads. Many times he was close enough to May to have shot, but Wesley felt his car would hold up longer than the Buick, which was under a lot of strain, so he simply pursued.

His hunch paid off. Even though May was an excellent driver, he had to slow for corners, and that kept the law on his tail. When the Buick stopped in a farmer's yard due to motor troubles, Wesley was right there to apprehend him. Without using his gun, Wesley asked May to surrender, and he did, giving up the $1,700 roll inside his shirt.

Resigning himself to custody, he was taken back to Westboro shortly after 7 p.m., and Marshfield authorities were called, as was his widowed mother in Medford, who came down for the hearing the next day. May waived a preliminary examination and was bound over for trial with bail fixed at $25,000. Sheriff Mueller transported him to the Wood County Jail in Wisconsin Rapids.

May said when he left Milwaukee, he stopped in both Waupaca and Stevens Point to rob banks but lost his nerve. He then drank some moonshine and stopped in Marshfield. He said if things had not looked so right, he would have simply cashed a $20 bill and left, and had the cashier reached for a gun, he would have hightailed it out the door.

Needless to say, while held in jail, May was full of remorse. "You bet I'm sorry! I was down on my luck," he said.

May was transferred to the Stevens Point jail for appearance in circuit court in front of Judge Park where he was sentenced to 10 years at Waupun. But his story was far from over.

Rhonda Whetstone is a columnist for Marshfield News-Herald Media, Stevens Point Journal Media and Daily Tribune Media. Rhonda's Twitter ID is TribRendezvous if you wish to follow her musings there. You also can get previews of upcoming columns by clicking LIKE on Back to the North Wood on Facebook. If you have story ideas of a historical nature, email her at Rhonda.Whetstone@gmail.com.

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