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Businessman J.T. Brown, son Phillip, had encounter with suspected bank robbers

James T. Brown, pictured in front of McElroy and Brown Transfer Co., at 215 Lyon. Photo courtesy of his granddaughter, Rhonda Brown Hall.


Phillip A. Brown couldn’t have been more than 11 years old on the fateful day of Oct. 6, 1931, when his eyes caught sight of the barrel of a Thompson submachine gun, better known during the Depression era of gangsters and bank heists as a Tommy gun.

The house where Phillip lived, located at Douglasville, on the south side of the 800 block of Hill Street in the valley between two topographical swells, had a single gasoline pump located in the front yard. The fuel was used by his father, James T. Brown, to service the fleet of Brown Transfer Company trucks.

Just before noon on this particular sprightly day, young Philip was outside with his father, near that pump. A car, described as a Roadster filled with fancifully dressed white men, pulled into the yard.

James T. Brown, an astute man of color who had earned the respect of those who knew him, at first shooed the car and the men to go on, get out of here …

And then he saw the Tommy gun.

After a pause for reflection, he said succinctly to his young son, “Give the men some gas, Phillip …” The youngster obliged.

As quick as that, up the hill to the west the car and its occupants went, up past the back of the Cruikshank’s then-abandoned manse, and soon out of sight. But the car and its occupants were never out of young Phillip’s mind, for it is upon events such as this that family legends are built.

The Browns couldn’t have known at the time, but shortly after 11 a.m. on that very same day, there had been an armed robbery at the columned limestone Farmers and Merchants Bank building, some eight blocks to the east on Broadway, between Main and Third, and that their “customers” at the gas pump were likely the culprits.

Bank robbery

A daring daylight robbery took place at 11 a.m. Thursday, Oct. 6, 1931, at the Farmers’ and Merchants’ Bank and Trust Company on Broadway in Hannibal, Mo.

Five or six unmasked, well-dressed men entered the lobby, pointing their guns at the bank’s employees, who were told to lie down upon the floor. The occupants of the building’s balcony offices were summoned downstairs to join their colleagues. Even customers who had the misfortune of banking at this particular hour, including Roy Medford, were ordered to the floor.

Clarence B. Parks, the 41-year-old assistant cashier, was told at gunpoint to unlock the door to the vault. Once inside, men gathered all of the bank’s cash, plus securities on hand.

Estimates are that the bank heist, from start to finish, took only five minutes to complete. No one outside of the bank noticed anything out of order, including Hannibal police officer John Ryan, who was standing on a nearby corner.

Some eye witnesses suggested the get away car crossed the bridge into Illinois. Others believed the car headed west on Broadway. Regardless, the get-away was a clean one, and while arrests were made, the case was never officially solved.

Insurance covered the bank’s losses.

Eye witnesses to this daylight robbery included:

* Lester Houchins was a 23-year-old cashier on duty at the time of the heist, and he was living with his parents, E.B. and Alice Houchins on North Locust Street. Houchins later served as a long-time assessor for Marion County, Mo. He died June 12, 1995. He was survived by his wife, Maxine.

* Roy Mefford was a customer during the bank holdup. He worked as a manager for Shell Petroleum Corp., which in 1929 had locations at 623 S. Main, 1611 Market and 2902 St. Mary’s Ave. Also in 1929, he lived at 2918 McKinley. He ultimately left Hannibal, and was employed by Shell Oil Company, working as a supervisor for 20 years. He retired to Sun City, Ariz., where he died in 1986.

* Miss Hattie E. Wilmot worked as a bookkeeper for Holme and Hickman Insurance Co., offices located within the bank. Born in 1898, she worked for the insurance company throughout her career. She died in 1973, and is buried at Holy Family Cemetery.

* Ollie H. Bland, 48, bookkeeper, lived with her husband, John H. Bland, a rock quarry driller, and daughter Mary Edna Bland at 3924 Evans St. in Oakwood.

* Ben Hawkins Hickman, a fire insurance agent for Holme and Hickman, was about 37 at the time of the robbery. In 1931 he lived at 1116 Center St., with his wife, Harriet, and children Holme and Mary V. Hickman.

* John Twitchel Holme served as president of the bank in October 1931. Born in 1871, he and his wife, Luna Holme, lived at 203 Maple Avenue. He died March 3, 1949, and is buried at Mt. Olivet Cemetery. Mr. Holme was the son of John T. and Mary Virginia Levering Holme.

* J. Frank Mahoney, born in 1901, spent his career with Farmers and Merchants Bank, first as a teller and later cashier. He died in August 1953, at the age of 52. He was survived by his wife, Rose, daughter, Anne, and a son, Robert J. Mahoney, who at the time of his father’s death was studying for the priesthood in Rome, Italy.

Other employees mentioned in connection with the bank’s robbery: Bessie Walten and Margaret Moore.

Note: Details of the bank robbery were obtained from digital copy of Quincy Herald Whig and The Quincy Journal, Tuesday evening, Oct. 6, 1931.

Note: Thanks to Rhonda Brown Hall for sharing her family’s priceless oral history.

Prime Minister Winston Churchill inspects a 'Tommy gun' while visiting coastal defense positions near Hartlepool on July 31, 1940. Wikipedia

This undated photo, from Steve Chou’s collection, shows the Farmers’ and Merchants’ Bank, when it was located on the north side of Broadway, between Third and Main.

Mary Lou Montgomery, retired as editor of the Hannibal (Mo.) Courier-Post in 2014. She researches and writes narrative-style stories about the people who served as building blocks for this region’s foundation. Books available on by this author include but are not limited to: "The Notorious Madam Shaw," "Pioneers in Medicine from Northeast Missouri," and "The Historic Murphy House, Hannibal, Mo., Circa 1870." She can be reached at Her collective works can be found at


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