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Dillinger plays a minor role in robbery retelling

By Paula Scott

Why should we retell the story of the 1933 robbery of the Citizens National Bank by the John Dillinger gang? Does it glorify a vicious criminal? That certainly wasn’t the effect of the Saturday, August 12 observation of Bluffton History Day that drew some 180 people to the corner of Main and Church streets.

Bluffton historian and Icon founder Fred Steiner told those gathered about the day when four armed men robbed the bank at 102 S. Main of $2,100. While Steiner shared the gist of the crime–including some 50 shots fired and the getaway route–his focus was on Bluffton residents who witnessed the robbery, many of whom he would interview in later years. And he emphasized how Bluffton News editor Clarence Biery provided many of the details known about the event in a 2,000 word article in the village’s weekly newspaper.

On Saturday, Church St. was lined with cars from the early 1930s–thanks to an appeal by local car collectors–and Ken and Debby Koontz provided their 1931 Chevrolet Sports Coupe to serve as the getaway car. A gangster in suit and hat–portrayed by Kevin Gratz–hopped in the coupe to reenact the getaway down Church St., providing onlookers with the distinctive sound of a vintage engine.

Steiner joked that the number of people who claimed to have witnessed the robbery would have filled the street.


However, only about ten people were on Main Street that day on August 14, 1933. For Steiner’s presentation, nine reenactors–some related to the witnesses–appeared in these roles (listed below). Some contemporary bystanders also came dressed in period costumes. For others, photographer Rae Staton had costumes and was ready to print their photographs on mock WANTED posters.

After these “witnesses” were introduced by Steiner, each went to stand in the spot from which the crime was observed. The audience learned what business then occupied the location (also listed below). The robbery lasted about four and half minutes, according to Steiner. Remarkably, it took just 15 minutes for the Allen County Sheriff to arrive from Lima, traveling down two-lane roads.

It takes an educated eye to pick out the four bullet holes that still scar the exterior brickwork of attorney Scott Basinger’s office at 101 N. Main. Inside, an authentic Dillinger wanted poster and newspaper from 1933 hang on the wall above the second oldest safe in the community. During the presentation, actual bullets from the robbery were displayed in a glass case. These are live rounds that apparently fell out of a pocket and were collected by Tom Benroth.

The exterior of Citizens National Bank has had a couple of updates since the 1930s, so people don’t always realize that this is the location of the robbery. In the 1930s, the bank on S. Main had a stone front with two-story-high fluted columns. A clock with green and white stained glass reading “CITIZENS NATIONAL BANK” projected from the corner. That stained glass panel is now displayed in the bank’s front window.

Steiner has also published a book, Four Men Walk Into A Bluffton Bank, that details the larger story of the Bluffton robbery. The book, now in its 5th edition, is growing as folks tell Steiner additional details. Steiner told the Icon, “People don’t have horrible memories of it, they have glorious memories of it.” And now the grandchildren of Bluffton residents are talking to Steiner about things he’s never heard before.

At the same time, Steiner is surprised by the size of Saturday's audience and says it exceeded his expectations: “The event seemed to grow; people were really interested and didn’t seem to know anything about it.”

When asked why he tells these stories, Steiner responded, “I just find them interesting.” And he loves how It make people think of their own family history: ”It awakens people to their own family stories. Some are interesting, some are funny, some are curious. Talk to your grandparents, they’ve got some stories to tell.”

A noon repeat of the Dillinger story was preempted by a dramatic thunderstorm. During the rest of the day, the weather alternated abruptly between sunny and stormy; a tornado at about noon was confirmed in Kenton. The 6:30 p.m. reading on Vine Street was also hampered by rain.


Jenny Bogart Donges as Harry Bogart, her grandfather; Harry saw the robbery from his father’s gas station.

Marilyn Murray Shelly as Dode Murray, postmaster, her great-uncle. Dode was at the post office, a location that is now Roots by Strattons. The current post office dates from 1940.

Neil Hauenstein as Edgar Hauenstein, pharmacist, his great-uncle who was known as the most distinguished gentleman in Bluffton. The pharmacy was in the same location as Twisted Whisk Cafe. 

Jim S. West as James and Bob West, son of James and nephew of Bob West; one worked at Hauenstein’s Grocery and the other at Siefield’s Bakery–now the Food Store location.

Beth Raeburn as Sam Bixel, dry goods store owner, her great-grandfather. The store was next to the bank.

Julia Triplehorn, age 6, as Charles Triplehorn, her great-great grandfather. Charles was the youngest witness.

Josiah Triplehorn, as Fred Zehrbach, his great-uncle.

Kevin Gratz as a Dillinger gang member on the street.

Cassidy Bush as Fairie Stager, Siefield's Bakery employee. When the gang shot and shattered the glass of the bakery door, the employees fled.

David Rodabaugh, Allen County Municipal Judge, as Clarence "Ted" Biery, Bluffton News editor. Ted was leaving the post office at the time of the robbery and watched from behind a parked car.

Don Burris as carpenter Harvey Shine. Waiting for a bus near the Presbyterian Church, Harvey was in the vicinity of five shots by the gangsters.

For more Bluffton history, see Steiner’s blog with historic photographs at

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