Buffalo’s bicycle-riding bank bandit

The sensational robbery of the Bank of Buffalo on May 14, 1896, became even more sensational when authorities learned the supposed stickup was an inside job perpetrated by two sons of one of Springfield’s most prominent German residents.

The original story was that two men had entered the bank and ordered cashier Carl Kloppenburg, who was alone in the bank, to turn over cash from the teller’s window. The robbers then bound and gagged Kloppenburg and escaped, Kloppenburg told authorities.

Kloppenburg, however, was unable to keep his stories straight and came under suspicion almost immediately, and the plot finally came apart because of a broken bicycle chain and a rainstorm the afternoon of the robbery.

Within few days, authorities determined Carl Kloppenburg, 27, had been embezzling from the bank since January and knew he couldn’t continue to hide the thefts. As a result, he and his 17-year-old brother Joe confessed, they concocted a fake robbery.

The original plan had been for Joe Kloppenburg, who worked in a Springfield pharmacy, to drive a horse and buggy to Buffalo over his lunch hour, take the money from the bank, leaving Carl tied up, and return to the drugstore.

On second thought, however, Joe decided to ride his bicycle to Buffalo. He said he knew he could make the round trip by bike faster than using a buggy. What’s more, he said, a bicycle would attract less attention. The brothers also decided Joe would wear a false moustache and beard during the crime.

Despite a couple of false starts earlier in the week, the Kloppenburgs carried out the first part of the plan on May 14. Joe’s disguise, however, was a weak point: A.J. Duff, the owner of the Buffalo elevator, for instance, told police he had seen a bicycle-riding man “in disguise with a false moustache and beard very crudely attached to his face” leave town about the time of the supposed robbery.

The Illinois State Register described the collapse of the plot in a detailed story on Tuesday, May 19.

The rider went through Dawson like lightning, and a short distance south of that place, his trouble began. It began to rain and the roads became heavy. He bravely pushed on the pedals and plowed through the mud like a tile-digger, but his efforts were in vain. His wheel broke down and Irving Lee hauled him three-quarters of a mile. While he was sitting by the side of Kloppenburg Lee noticed the disguise. On account of his perspiring, the improvised beard and mustache began to come loose from the boy’s face and he endeavored to hide the fact from the driver by turning away his face. Lee noticed the make of his clothing carefully and observed that his pockets were bulging out, with the money which it is now learned he had in them.

The newspaper reported that a half-dozen other men in addition to Duff and Lee noticed the bicycle rider and his fake beard during his trip. What’s more, two men who were looking for the robber and who knew Joe Kloppenburg saw him walking his bike near Springfield following the crime. By then, however, Kloppenburg had abandoned his disguise, his coat – after tearing out all of its tailor’s marks – and $6 in coins that had been part of the loot. He told the men he had taken a pleasure ride, but his bicycle chain broke. They were suspicious, but went on without searching him.

The next day, searchers found the coat, along with scraps of paper from the rolled coins. The coat had unusual covered buttonholes, which, despite Kloppenburg’s attempt to disguise its origin, allowed police to identify the coat as coming from the tailor shop of Ben Lundahl. Lundahl’s records, in turn, linked the coat to Kloppenburg.

Faced with the traced coat and statements from those who had seen him on the road, the younger Kloppenburg quickly confessed. He also surrendered the stolen currency, amounting to about $300, which he had hidden in a Brightine box (Brightine apparently was a brand of silver polish) at the pharmacy.

The Kloppenburgs’ father, August, posted bond for Joseph. The elder Kloppenburg (1829-1915), who had opened one of Springfield’s earliest brickyards and had a number of other business ventures – the Register called him “a wealthy and most highly esteemed gentleman” – also offered to make good the bank’s losses if the bank would not prosecute his sons. Bank officials refused, and Carl Kloppenburg himself declined his father’s aid.

“I will go before the court and plead guilty,” he said, according to the Register, “and let them send me to the penitentiary. I would rather be there anyway, because I would be ashamed to show my face on the streets of Springfield.”

In addition to the $303 Joseph Kloppenburg rode off with, Carl Kloppenburg took another $400 from the bank’s vault. He planned to use that money to repay the funds he had embezzled, police said.

The Kloppenburgs also said that Edward Hoy, who worked with Joseph Kloppenburg at the drugstore, helped plan the robbery and then provided the younger Kloppenburg with an alibi for the period when he was traveling to and from Buffalo. (Among evidence against him, the Register reported darkly, “it is also said that Hoy has been an inveterate reader of the New York Police Gazette for the past twelve years.”)

However, a jury quickly acquitted Hoy of the charges during a trial in June. Hoy’s attorneys said Carl Kloppenburg implicated Hoy only after police had “sweated” Kloppenburg for several hours.

Carl Kloppenburg did plead guilty to larceny and served a term in state prison. He was living in Chicago when his father died in 1915. The charges against Joe Kloppenburg were stricken with leave to reinstate in December 1896. He apparently was never prosecuted; Joe was a resident of East St. Louis at his father’s death.

Hat tip: Thanks to Jim Allen of Mechanicsburg for drawing our attention to this piece of Sangamon County history.schs logo (2)

Original content copyright Sangamon County Historical Society. You are free to republish this content as long as credit is given to the Society.

 

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2 Responses to Buffalo’s bicycle-riding bank bandit

  1. Bill and Jane Vetter says:

    The story I read was printed on the front page of the Journal on the day after the robbery, and it had the robbers riding their bikes from Chicago, Shown as the first robbery by bike riders. It’s in the Abraham Lincoln Library on microfilm.

  2. editor says:

    Bill and Jane: Yeah, that was the original story — the Journal called it “the boldest bank robbery that ever occurred in this county,” and that version apparently was picked up by other papers all across the state. Two days later, though, the Register made kind of a big deal out of the fact that it scooped the Journal in revealing the Kloppenburgs’ involvement. Thanks for the additional info.

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