Bank robberies are a serious business, but the robbery of the Clearing State Bank that took place on July 9, 1921, definitely had comic aspects ala Keystone Cops, although in this case Lemont cops got the upper hand in the end.
The gang of six was led by Martin “Big Six” Sicks, a notorious bank robber with a reputation for big heists, and Michael Geary, a convicted cop murderer and prison escapee. Geary had been serving two life sentences for killing Policeman John Rowe and civil war veteran H. J. Stevens in a holdup of a Lake Street ticket station. He had escaped in 1917 from the old penitentiary, was recaptured after two weeks, and escaped again in 1920 when he and eight other prisoners tunneled under the stockade from the honor farm at Lockport, IL.
The men had planned carefully—so they thought. On a Saturday morning the bank would be full of cash from the Corn Products payroll and because it was a weekend there would be few bank employees. One man stayed behind the wheel of the getaway car, two guarded the street, and three entered the bank waving guns. They forced the customers and employees into the vault, grabbed all the cash and bonds in sight, ran from the bank, jumped into the getaway car, and headed southwest on Archer Avenue.
Laughing and congratulating themselves on the ease of the robbery, the men counted their take— $15,000. But the fun was just about to begin. Soon they heard sirens; it appeared that a bank teller had set off an alarm, and a police car was in hot pursuit. Traffic was heavy on Archer, as people came out to enjoy the fine day. Neither car made much headway as they dodged through and scattered cars right and left. When the robbers got to Main Street, they decided to turn toward Lemont in an attempt to elude the police car.
Instead they found the road full of people on foot, heading to their favorite fishing spots, picnic areas and swimming spots at the quarries on a lovely summer day. Can you picture it: hordes of children and adults watching the cars speeding toward them?
The frustrated robbers were blaming each other when one had a brilliant idea. He grabbed handfuls of bills and coins and threw them out the window of their car. Children and adults scrambled madly, crawling around to grab what they could. The following police car screeched to a halt to avoid the crowd and policemen tried to move the people from the road and recover the bank’s money. They soon realized the money was lost and made their way slowly through the scrambling crowd to resume their pursuit, having lost valuable time.
Meanwhile, the gang roared into town. Geary grabbed an armful of money, ran from the car into a private home. He threw money on the owner’s bed, and told her he would make her rich if she kept her mouth shut. Amazed, she ran from the house. Geary settled himself comfortably on the back porch and pretended to read a paper, thinking he could fool the police that way. The other robbers felt they would have a better chance to escape if they split up, so they deserted the car and ran off in different directions.
The police, led by Chief of Detectives Michael Hughes, cordoned off the area, but as word spread through the town crowds of people assembled, talking in groups in the streets, running around looking for crooks—and money—and further impeding the police.
Ultimately, Sicks and Geary were found hiding under a sidewalk, one man was said to have been found hiding in a coal bin in someone’s basement, and another was found hours later on the northwest side of town, hiding in the bushes and mumbling about bad luck and “this cursed town.” The fate and identity of the remaining robbers is lost to history.
While Michael Geary waited in county jail for transfer to Joliet, a loaded revolver and a number of saws were found in his cell. He died in Joliet penitentiary in 1935 of a heart attack.
In the end, $7000 of the stolen $15,000 was recovered. No Lemont resident turned in missing money.