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1911 bank robbery attempt put Laurel in the spotlight

Laurel's Main Street in 1911 was a dirt road with vacant lots between businesses and houses, and the pace of traffic was slow. People on foot far outnumbered sputtering automobiles and pungent horse wagons, and walkers had to step lively to avoid piles of horse manure in the street.

Citizens National Bank of Laurel was a tiny brick building on the corner of Main and Fourth streets. The bank was built in 1890 for approximately $7,000, half of which was the cost of the vault. The original structure is still there, totally absorbed into the current building.

In 1911, the bank was still run by its first president, Charles H. Stanley Sr. A Civil War veteran, Stanley had been a keynote speaker at a 1903 reunion of the 1st Confederate Maryland Cavalry held in Laurel. Stanley had also served as mayor of Laurel from 1891-1893.

Down the street from the bank was the law office of George P. McCeney, who served as Laurel's magistrate, which was similar to a justice of the peace, and was mayor from 1918-1920.

Stanley and McCeney both played a role after a Sept. 8, 1911 attempted armed robbery at the bank, carried out by a lone teenager with a handgun.

On Sept. 9, 1911, The Baltimore Sun published a detailed account of the robbery attempt.

According to the Sun's story and other newspaper accounts, 17-year-old John R. Morgan, wearing a duster coat with a blue cap pulled over his blond curls, waited outside the bank for a half-hour, leaning on a building across Main Street and reading a newspaper. As Morgan crossed Main Street to the bank, he quickly donned a mask, known then as a "false face." These masks were to become tragically common at the end of the decade, worn by World War I veterans who sustained serious facial injuries.

As Morgan bounded up the steps to the bank, he drew a handgun from his coat pocket then walked briskly to the teller's window, where Laurel resident Harry A. Block was making a deposit to teller A. Leroy Bevans. Aiming his pistol at the teller, Morgan yelled "Hands up!" Neither Block nor Bevans took the command from the youngster in the mask seriously, which annoyed the nervous teenager. "Come, be quick! Hands up or I'll blow your brains out!" Morgan said, according to newspaper accounts.

Deciding the robbery was real, the two men put up their hands. As Block tried to inch his way toward the door, Morgan said, "Stand where you are! If you move, I'll shoot you, too!"

Morgan passed a bag through the window to the teller, ordering him to "put all the money you've got in the drawer into that bag, and do it quick." Spying a wallet on the counter, he told Bevans to hand it over. Bevans argued with Morgan, explaining that it only contained discount notes that had no value. In the middle of this argument, a door from the other side of the bank opened, and cashier George W. Waters stepped out with a pistol in his hand and fired a shot into the air.

With only his gun in his hand, Morgan took off for the door. Waters shot again — this time aiming for the robber — but missed. As Morgan ran down the steps outside the bank, his mask fell off. According to the Sun, he "fled up the street with the agility of a deer."

Crossing Fourth Street, Morgan jumped a fence into Frank Little's yard, disappearing into the thick bushes at the back of the yard. He ran up the alley between the houses and farms that backed up to each other from Main Street and Prince George Street, desperately looking for a hiding place.

The gunshots from Waters' pistol immediately drew a crowd. Residents and police rushed to the bank to find out what happened from the bank employees and customers. As described in the Sun, "Then searching parties were organized and the hunt for the fugitive began. Cashier Waters took every precaution to prevent the robber's escape either by trolley line or railroad."

The Sun story continued: "The police in Washington and Baltimore were notified and fast teams were scurrying the roads from the town to see that no strangers passed out. With Laurel surrounded by the eager men so soon after the attempt on the bank had failed it was concluded that the highwayman had not left."

Hiding in outhouses

A few minutes later, some children playing near Della Cooper's barn behind Prince George Street saw a long coat covering the opening of the barn's loft. After being alerted by the children, Cooper went into the barn with a hatchet to investigate. As she started up the ladder to the loft, a voice above said, "Don't come up, lady, I'm here."

Cooper ran to get help, and Morgan jumped down and took off running, leaving his duster and gun in the loft. According to the Sun, as Morgan ran from Cooper's barn, "he was seen by Howard Smith, Jr., a strapping youngster of 18 years, who at once gave pursuit." Smith lost sight of him as the robber ran further up the alley, but eventually found him locked in an outhouse in the cemetery behind St. Philip's Episcopal Church, and Morgan meekly gave himself up.

Morgan was placed in handcuffs and walked back to the bank. He was guarded by Constable Valentine Kaiser until Charles Vahle, a Baltimore detective, arrived to interrogate the prisoner. As the Sun colorfully described it, "Mr. Vahle attempted to sweat the prisoner, who at first told a weird tale."

Morgan at first told Vahle that his name was Henry Jackson, that he was from Yuma, Ariz., and he was 17 years old. He said he arrived in Washington two days before with 50 cents in his pocket and took the "electric car" to Laurel. Hungry and desperate for money, he decided to rob the bank.

The detective was joined in the interrogation by magistrate McCeney and bank President Stanley. Morgan told the officials he "had never been to Laurel before and knew nothing of the bank or the country, but determined, had I been successful, to seek liberty by crossing the railroad track and taking to the woods beyond. I spent the night hanging around the town and getting some sleep in the outhouses."

As for the aborted robbery, Morgan is quoted as saying, "Those pistol shots took my nerve. The last shot came near to getting me. I felt the sting of the bullet on my ear, and I wish to God now it had killed me." The Sun's story claimed "The boy's eyes filled up with a haze as he said this."

Dateline Laurel

At this point, the story went out over the Associated Press wires, and newspapers across the country soon reported on the attempted robbery.

The Indianapolis Star ran the headline: "Posse Captures Youth Who Attempted to Hold Up Bank." The story quoted Morgan as saying, "I decided to rob the bank or kill every man in it." That quote was never in the Sun's extensive coverage, and it's unknown where it came from.

The Sandusky (Ohio) Register's headline read, "Curly Haired Youth Tries Bank Robbery." The Logansport (Indiana) Daily Tribune had a simple headline of "Bandit" followed by "Is Found To Be Only A Boy When His False Face Is Removed After A Near Bank Robbery."

Dozens of newspapers ran the story, calling Morgan "Boy Bandit" or "Young Desperado," and they all contained the imaginary quote.

After hours of interrogation by Vahle and Stanley, Morgan came clean with the true story.

"His eyes were swimming with tears" as he told the officials that his name was John R. Morgan. He was 17, but he was from a town in Virginia near Roanoke. He ran away from his father and ended up in Laurel. He was desperate for money.

When Stanley asked Morgan if he had any other relatives that could help him, "the now stricken youth bowed his head on the table with deep emotion and his frame shook. When he raised up, his eyes were moist and his lips trembling." Morgan confessed he had a sister in Baltimore.

The Sun dramatically concluded its description of the interrogation: "Again the head dropped and the body twitched. Morgan said no more."

McCeney remanded Morgan to Upper Marlboro to face a grand jury. At his trial, according to the Sun, "much sympathy was expressed for Morgan, on the ground that it was his first offense, that he was at the time out of work and in desperate straits, and because his cause was espoused by his two sisters, both of whom are nurses in hospitals."

Stanley testified and appealed to the court for clemency for Morgan, asking that he be sent to reform school instead of prison. The court received numerous letters on Morgan's behalf in response to his hard-luck story. Morgan was found guilty and

sentenced to five years in the state penitentiary. According to the Sun, Chief Judge Bristow "gave Morgan to understand emphatically that the court was letting him off very easily."

The attempted robbery was the talk of the town for months. At Citizens National Bank, work went on and bank employees became instant celebrities. The bank's executive board, meeting a month after the attempted robbery, voted to confiscate Waters' pistol for shooting a hole in the ceiling.

Waters did just fine, however. He succeeded Stanley as the next president of the bank in 1913.

Jim McCeney, former Citizens National Bank President Don Henyon and PNC Bank Manager Bernie Robinson assisted in researching this article.

History Matters is a monthly column rediscovering Laurel's past. Information for this story was found at the Laurel Historical Society's John Brennan Research Library. Do you have old pictures or stories to share about a historic event in Laurel? Email Kevin Leonard at info@theleonardgroupinc.com.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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