Super criminals blew their way into history
For a city as conscious of its criminal past as Los Angeles, our collective memory of local heists and homicides rarely extends back further than the 1950s.
Yet long before Southern California’s Geezer Bandit captured the public’s imagination, or the North Hollywood Bank of America shootout horrified the nation, Angelenos were transfixed by a debonair Baptist minister-turned-safecracker who was run to ground in a well-to-do neighborhood near Exposition Park.
By his own account, Herbert Emerson Wilson got well over $15 million during his Prohibition Era criminal career. A master “yeggman,” Wilson assembled a gang of “super crooks” in Toledo, Ohio, who waged a campaign of well-planned, high-stakes robberies. They held up armored mail trucks and blew up bank vaults and department store safes, almost always at night.
But it was the combination of Wilson’s well-bred demeanor and the violent execution of his crimes — he was convicted of fatally shooting a longtime accomplice and suspected snitch during an escape attempt — that enthralled reporters and readers.
“Personally, Wilson is a comely looking individual,” The Times said in June 1922. “He bears on his face none of the hallmarks of the thief and murderer, and if his identity were unknown a casual looker would set him down as a student of divinity, who was devoting his life to the amelioration of the condition of the heathen in foreign lands.”
Born in 1881 in Wyoming, Ontario, Wilson was the son of a chemist and inventor who, according to his son, perfected an “improved formula” for nitroglycerin. His boyhood, he wrote, “was unbearably strict and dull.”
Wilson’s parents wanted him to be a minister, so he became one. After serving in the Boer War in South Africa, Wilson pursued a career as a traveling evangelist, eventually settling down to minister to a church in eastern San Diego. It was while preaching there one Sunday in 1916 that he experienced an unsettling and sudden loss of faith, which caused him to put away his clerical robes forever. “I never wore them again,” he wrote.
It was a chance meeting in Detroit with a small-time criminal named Herb Cox that produced the germ of an idea. “I had always loved good tools, I certainly knew something about explosives, and I had a flair for organization,” Wilson wrote.
He recruited a group of criminal specialists, Determined to create a “mob” that could pull off foolproof jobs, Wilson recruited a group of criminal specialists. Wilson got a job in a safe factory in Canton, Ohio. “I saw how safes were put together, plate by plate.” Some of his new confederates, “the Judge,” “Little Benny” Harris and Cox were experienced “yeggs” or “boxmen” (safe-blowers). Others were strong-arm hoods he would later refer to with affection as “gorillas” and “apes.”
For the next five years, Wilson’s shadowy gang cut a swath across the United States, reaping takes in the tens and hundreds of thousands with each deafening blast in Cleveland, Detroit, Minneapolis, Omaha, Oakland and San Francisco. Each robbery was carefully choreographed. Gang members pored over blueprints, crafted disguises, flashed phony badges and donned night watchman uniforms.
But it was in California that the enterprise finally collapsed. In December 1920, they knocked off Hale’s Department Store in San Francisco for $60,000. Then, at 1 a.m. on March 7, 1921, the alarm went off at the Fifth Street Store at 5th and Broadway in downtown Los Angeles. The take: $49,000 in cash and securities. Detective Nick Harris was awakened by a phone call from Herman Sjostrom, the store superintendant: “Our safe has been blown open.”
“Drawers and papers were scattered throughout the enclosure,” Harris would later write, “and the big steel door, scarred and burnt by the discharge of high explosives, was hanging on one hinge. An electric drill had been used, and the ‘soup’ had been poured into a cup made of soft soap.…"
Unfortunately for Wilson, it was here that Harris caught him in his first mistake. “I found that an electric light globe had been unscrewed from its socket, to accommodate the cord leading to the electric drill.” On this light bulb were Herbert Emerson Wilson’s fingerprints.
LAPD detectives and sheriff’s deputies, along with Hale’s Department Store’s Special Officer Edward Shewbridge, coordinated their efforts to tail Wilson’s associates. Shewbridge followed Cox, then traveling from San Francisco to Los Angeles, and arrested him as he stepped off a ship in San Pedro. Cox sang like a canary.
Swiftly, Wilson was arrested at his home at 1508 W. Santa Barbara Ave. (The street has since been renamed Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.) Deputies burst into the house at 4 a.m., training their shotguns on him. By Wilson’s own account, he was sitting in an easy chair, wearing a smoking jacket, and reading Edward Gibbon’s “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” at the time. Authorities say they nabbed him as he attempted to hide in the attic.
Perhaps most shocked by the arrest was Wilson’s wife of 20 years, who described Wilson as “a model husband and clean living man” who never smoked, chewed tobacco, drank, gambled or cursed. “We have lived a godly life,” Mrs. Wilson told a Times reporter. “How many people can say the same?”
Even after his arrest, Wilson still made headlines. In April 1922, he, Cox and another man escaped from Los Angeles County Jail after sawing through a set of metal bars. Wilson was eventually recaptured, but not until after authorities say he shot and killed Cox, who was the prosecution’s chief witness against him.
A jury would convict Wilson of murder and send him to San Quentin for 25 years. Ultimately, he repented and wrote several books about crime.