THE GREAT CASTLE SHANNON BANK ROBBERY
In one stunning hour more than 80 years ago,
villains and vigilantes stage a wild shootout in the streets.
Copyright (c) 1997 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (PA)
May 18, 1997
Authors: Roger Stuart and Edward Hale
Spring was more than half gone when five men clad in business suits rode south from Pittsburgh in an open Maxwell touring car toward Castle Shannon, seven miles from the heart of the city.
They arrived in the sparsely settled farming and mining community, then the 9th Ward of Baldwin Township, at midday Monday, May 14, 1917, as tradesmen, schoolchildren, service workers and housewives paused for lunch.
Although sectioned mostly by dirt streets, the village was nevertheless a bustling commercial crossroads on the Pittsburgh Railways trolley line.
Townspeople could shop at six grocery stores; drink at several taverns; mail letters at the post office; get a haircut and shave at the barber shop; have a prescription filled at the drugstore; pick up cigars from the tobacconist; and trade at "a gents' furnishings store."
They could take lunch, as Stanley Rawa, a foreman at the South Hills Builders Supply planning mill, did with his boss, Hugh J. Brown, at Waterman's Hotel, where the John McGinnis and Co. grocery stands now.
Some would say the five outsiders who drove into town in the handsome touring car also stopped at the hotel for a quick drink. If they did, Rawa and Brown didn't notice.
Upon finishing their meal, Brown returned to work a half-block away while Rawa ambled another two blocks to the First National Bank to deposit $100.
Rawa walked in on cashier Daniel H.A. McLean and assistant cashier Frank Erbe as each was seated at a desk behind the brass-and-glass windowed counter that caged them.
Although Rawa noticed several men enter the bank, he paid them scant attention. Rawa sensed, then felt, their presence on both sides and slightly behind him.
Without warning, the small office in the imposing Greek Revival building on Poplar Avenue exploded in gunfire, the smoke quickly engulfing its interior.
In seconds, before the clouds blinded him, Rawa saw blood trickle down McLean's face as he held up a "good-sized book," trying to shield himself.
"I was frightened and started to move back to the front door," Rawa said. He thought he could run away. But one gunman said, "Stay here! Hands up!"
Somehow, despite the fusillade, McLean and Erbe grabbed pistols from the shelf under the counter and traded shots with the intruders before falling to the floor fatally wounded.
McLean, 45, a Mt. Lebanon widower, died leaving a daughter, Margaret, 15, and sons, Harold, 11, and Raymond, 8, as orphans. One bullet pierced McLean's skull, while another shattered his left leg.
Erbe, 32, lived in Library, and was finally on the verge of proposing to Leona Greiner of Castle Shannon. He was shot in the head, back, right arm and left shoulder.
As the cashiers fell, the gunmen stormed into the cage through front and back doors, some still shooting. They stepped over McLean, who lay in the vault's entrance, to loot the bank of more than $17,000 in cash and coins.
The bandits fired three to four dozen shots during their murderous, 10-minute assault on the bank, and 15 spent shell casings were recovered inside the building.
The homicidal holdup and aftermath would go down in Western Pennsylvania history as one of its most notorious crimes, despite the fact it occurred in what is often considered a more pastoral time.
Perhaps we've become so surfeited with violent crime in present-day American we tend to forget gunslingers and gunshots have long marred good national order.
But there were no television cameras during World War I to record sensational homefront news.
In that quaint era, those jobs fell to newspaper reporters, photographers and sketch artists. For them, the Castle Shannon bank heist and slayings made riveting headlines, compelling stories and classic forms of journalistic artistry that remain memorable 80 years later.
If court records are true, the great Castle Shannon bank robbery was Mishka Titoff's idea from bold start to bloody end.
But the enormity of Titoff's role was something Pittsburgh newspapers didn't report at that time, and trial records were never widely circulated.
Titoff, a McKeesport plant worker best known as Mike, targeted the imposing bank on his way to Monongahela one day.
Its dentil-lined portico and Corinthian columns made an indelible impression, despite its being difficult to spot from Washington Avenue (today's Castle Shannon Boulevard), as the village's main business street was called.
The bank nestled on Poplar Avenue between R.W. Martin's grocery and two Victorian homes behind the taller Odd Fellows Hall, where Poplar met Willow Avenue.
Titoff hatched the robbery plot with other Russian immigrants over drinks in a speakeasy in Soho, the Pittsburgh neighborhood where four of them lived.
Sam Barcons had known Titoff since the ringleader had arrived in Pittsburgh from Europe. They had boarded at that time in the same house on Tustin Street.
Haraska Garason had worked with Barcons in factories in both Russia and this country and, at the time of the robbery, shared a room with Barcons on Watson Street.
And John Tush was living in the same house with Titoff on Fifth Avenue.
At this point, the details become murky. Titoff knew he needed a getaway machine. Nick Kemanos was a cement factory worker who boarded at Titoff's sister's home in Universal (now part of Penn Hills) and who owned a five-seat 1917 Maxwell, which he had bought for $750 in 1916.
Kemanos would claim in court he was merely the unsuspecting chauffeur for the heist, earning only $7 for his part.
Barcons had quit his steel-working job on the South Side a month before the robbery. Garason was working in a hotel near the Castle Shannon bank. Tush had been discharged from his pipe mill job.
Neither news stories nor court records give even a hint that the immigrant Russian gang had political motives for the robbery, which occurred months before Bolshevik Communists seized power in Russia.
All records that are left indicate that the crew was just after the money, and they took their time scouting Castle Shannon and casing the bank before they robbed it. On the previous Friday, one member visited the bank to get change for a large bill.
For the robbery, they picked Monday, May 14, a day that Titoff wanted to celebrate. He arrived early, with Tush coming shortly after, at Barcons' and Garason's room, waking them at 7:15 a.m. and bringing with him $1 worth of whiskey.
"Why are you sleeping? Get up! This is my birthday. We will have something to drink."
Barcons obliged, downing five straight whiskies, each about 2 inches tall, while Tush matched him drink for drink for a couple of hours as they nibbled some meat the landlady fried for them.
It was about 9:30 when Kemanos arrived with his car and about an hour later when they all left for a saloon on the South Side, where Titoff again said, "Let's have something to drink."
Four of them remained in the tavern about a half-hour while Kemanos stayed outside.
Barcons would say he was so intoxicated by that time, that he slept on the 30-minute drive to Castle Shannon.
Rather than going straight to the bank, Titoff ordered Kemanos to park in front of Dr. Louis Brown's home on Washington Avenue, a quarter-mile from the bank.
Barcons would testify that Kemanos stayed with the car while the others walked to work.
"We are going to the bank, and we are going to take the money,' " Barcons testified, quoting Titoff, who then handed Barcons a loaded automatic. "I will go in first. You will follow me.' "
That's the way they did it: Titoff going ahead with Tush, Barcons and Garason following their leader three abreast.
"He told us there would be two people in the bank. When we came in, there was a third man," Barcons would testify. "First, they told them to raise their hands."
When the cashiers didn't, Titoff and Garason began shooting.
"I didn't shoot. When I saw they were falling, I went after the money. There w as a good many packages of money. I took some and gave some to Titoff."
They cleaned out the vault, sticking stacks of bills in canvas bags and stuffing them in their suit pockets before fleeing.
For a town that had no jail, not even a policeman, the Castle Shannon holdup became a testament to vigilante law enforcement.
Stunned initially by Rawa's presence, the bandits were even more surprised as they fled the bank to find that local residents had heard the shooting, grabbed their own firearms, formed a posse and begun chasing them on foot and in cars.
Margaret MacKellar Stimmel, a daughter of the bank's janitress, was a schoolgirl of 11 when she heard gunfire and saw posse members chase the bandits in two directions.
"I remember coming home for lunch. Mother was in the kitchen. I was at the table. There was a lot of shooting. Mother said, `Oh, my goodness! What's all that?' I said, `The kids said there was a mad dog running loose.' "
But the sixth-grader quickly realized she was wrong. Racing to the rear window in the family's second-floor apartment in the Odd Fellows Hall next to the bank and standing on a chair, she got a clear view of neighbors and businessmen in an unfamiliar role. It was like a scene out of a Wild West matinee at the Crystal Theater.
Not more than a half-block away, Justice of the Peace George H. Beltzhoover heard Mrs. Harry Chandler scream, "George! Come quick! They're robbing the bank."
Beltzhoover, 34, sprinted across Washington Avenue, cleared the railroad tracks and scrambled up an embankment onto Willow Avenue. At Willow and Poplar, Beltzhoover grabbed the two pistols that clothier Joseph Opferman thrust into his hands.
Almost immediately, Beltzhoover traded one gun for another vigilante's pump-action shotgun and continued up Poplar to Martin's grocery, next-door to the bank.
There, Dr. John C. Kerr, a coal company physician joined Beltzhoover, who handed him the other pistol.
As Kerr ran to cover the rear of the bank, Beltzhoover charged up six steps to the front portico and peered inside.
"It sounded like a shooting gallery," he would testify, noting how he backed down the steps to wait for the bandits to burst through the door.
"Throw up your hands! You sons of bitches!" he shouted as he "snapped the trigger" on the shotgun. "It wouldn't go off. I throwed it back, tried it three times. There was nothing coming from it. There was nothing in the gun."
Gang members had no such problem. As they blasted away at Beltzhoover, he decided it was "too warm" to stay put, so he turned to run between the bank and Martin's grocery store.
Around back, he rejoined Kerr and led the way to the opposite corner of the building, where he ran headlong into the robbers, one of whom walloped him in the face with a bag of stolen coins, breaking his nose.
Dazed and bleeding, Beltzhoover met pharmacist J.J. Doyle coming up the alley by Beltzhoover's mother's store, handed him the empty shotgun and told him to help Kerr continue the chase.
The bandits split into two pairs at that point: Barcons and Tush running away from the getaway car and Titoff and Garason dashing straight for it.
Barcons and Tush, still disoriented from booze and adrenalin, cut across neighbors' back yards and dashed toward the Castle Shannon Golf Club (now the Mt. Lebanon golf course).
Doyle and Kerr were right behind and flanked the bandits on the hilltops above the ravine into which they fled.
Kerr and Tush traded shots, both missing their marks.
Exhausted and fearing capture, the overweight Tush stopped. "Shoot yourself!" he called to Barcons, who refused.
Tush stumbled on roughly two-dozen more steps before he stopped again and committed suicide. Hearing the shot, and having lost his own automatic, Barcons turned back to grab the dead man's.
He then ran to the top of the hill and disappeared into the thick "wild woods" above Sleepy Hollow in Castle Shannon.
Realizing belatedly t he shotgun Beltzhoover had given him was empty, Doyle told Kerr he would return to the village for more ammunition and gather some other men to continue the pursuit.
While Doyle was gone, Kerr remained alone on the ridge, not daring to enter the dense woods for fear Barcons was lying in wait and would ambush him.
Unknown to Kerr, other posse members were forming at that moment down in the Sleepy Hollow area. Among those men was Ernest F. Fisher, an employee at Meuschke's Saxonwald Greenhouse.
The boss's son brought him word the bank had been robbed and the cashiers shot.
"He told me to hurry and get my guns and jump in the machine," Fisher would testify.
They drove about a half-mile from the greenhouse at Grove Station to the lower end of Sleepy Hollow, where they met a farmer and his daughter.
"There is a man hiding up there in the hollow," the farmer said, pointing to the thick woods above them.
Climbing up there, Fisher spotted what appeared to be a man's prostrate form between two logs. At the same time, Fisher heard Kerr, Doyle and other posse members heading down the wooded hill.
"If you move, I'll blow your head off," Fisher called out, approaching the man on the ground.
It was Barcons.
Posse members would say he shot himself in the mouth so the bullet blasted a hole in the top of his head. He would maintain, without credibility, that someone else shot him as he slept.
Opferman, the clothier, and Doyle, the pharmacist, yanked Barcons to his feet and marched him, critically wounded, from his wooded lair to a waiting car and drove him back to the village.
Back there, an angry mob of residents waited impatiently for news of the other chase - the one after Titoff, Garason and Kemanos, the chauffeur.
Beltzhoover recovered from his head-knocking sufficiently to direct that pursuit. Realizing that the bandits were running for a car parked up on Washington Avenue, he called for several men to get their cars.
But that took a while.
Meanwhile, Nicholas Yost, the local Pittsburgh Railways superintendent, had been alerted to the robbery. He gathered a pair of pistols and ran from his office about 100 yards south of where the getaway car was parked.
Titoff and Garason raced by his office, each carrying a bag in one hand and a gun in the other and firing back occasionally at their pursuers. Yost returned their fire, but was soon felled by a bullet in the left shin and stumbled awkwardly a few more steps before falling out of the chase.
He would say Kemanos leaned out of the getaway car and shot him as he approached.
Kemanos would deny it, insisting that he had no gun and no idea his companions had robbed the bank and didn't even associate the first shots he heard with such a thing.
"I looked around and didn't see anything. I rested again. Next, about four or five minutes, I heard shots again, much closer. Then I saw some of them running . . . two . . . two of those I drove there.
"They told me, `Quick, start! There is a fight back there. We want to go away.' . . . They were talking, saying, `Those sons of bitches made trouble over there.' "
Meanwhile, as chase cars rumbled to life down the street, a posse member asked Beltzhoover what to do if they caught up with the bandits, who now had a significant head start.
"Shoot! Shoot to kill!" he said.
But the vigilantes never got the chance.
Titoff and Garason escaped - with almost $9,000 in loot - at a crossroads about 10 minutes after leaving Castle Shannon to go to an unspecified coal mine.
"I told them I will bring them to this place, but they says, `The way you drive this machine, we would sooner walk.' "
The posse captured Kemanos as he motored nonchalantly along Greentree Road back toward Pittsburgh. He was unarmed and had only a $10 bill in his pocket.
They returned him to Castle Shannon, where the crowd waited.
The robbery, two murders, two chases, Tush's suicide, Barcons' capture, Kemanos' apprehension and Titoff's and Garason's escape were over in about the same one hour's time it takes to watch a "Gunsmoke" rerun on television.
But criminal investigation, trials and punishment also were packed with drama.
Had county detectives not arrived in the village about 1:15 p.m., the crowd that gathered in the business district might have wreaked summary vengeance.
It took detectives roughly 40 minutes to form up, arm and drive to Castle Shannon. In those days, before the Liberty Tubes and Fort Pitt Tunnels, the two quickest autoroutes to Castle Shannon from Pittsburgh were via the West End through Banksville, Dormont and Mt. Lebanon, or via the South Side through Carrick.
The detectives crossed the 22nd Street Bridge over the Monongahela and drove, ever so slowly, up the steep 18th Street hill because "our machine went bad," one would say.
By the time they finally got to Castle Shannon, the vigilantes - some newspapers would call them a mob - already had captured, roughed up or beaten their two captives.
Vigilantes had even appeased news photographers by posing Barcons in their midst so that the Pittsburg Leader would carry one such picture the next day on its front page.
Detective Harry B. Cochran would testify later about Kemanos' condition.
"His face was all swollen . . . commencing to discolor,"
"How was the injury inflicted?" defense attorney A.D. Cramer asked.
"By the mob," said Cochran, estimating its size at several hundred people.
"What did they do?"
"Beat him, punched him."
"In the head," said Cochran, noting that, in seeking vengeance, "The women seemed to be the worst," crying, " `Lynch him!' "
Detectives rushed Kemanos into Beltzhoover's mother-in-law's house as quickly as they could, Detective Michael J. Verosky said.
"We appealed to the crowd to let us have him, to let the law take its course. I went to Squire Beltzhoover and got him to go outside and talk to the peo ple he knew, to the women and men."
Barcons was taken in critical condition to South Side Hospital, where detectives wouldn't be able to really question him for two days.
Working through a nurse who could speak Russian, Verosky finally asked Barcons where Titoff and Garason were or might be.
"I don't know any more than you do," Barcons said. "We all ran, and I don't know where they went. . . . They might be in Pittsburgh and might be in New York."
Barcons said detectives might try the Soho speakeasy where Titoff and Garason so often drank and played cards - the same one where the gang had gathered to plan the Castle Shannon heist.
But they had vanished.
Barcons survived to plead guilty to first-degree murder in the deaths of McLean and Erbe. He was executed at Rockview Penitentiary in Bellefonteearly on Jan. 13, 1919.
He was taken to the electric chair at 7 o'clock, made no statement before receiving five electrical contacts and was pronounced dead at 7:15. No one claimed his body or belongings.
Tried separately for each cashier's slaying, Kemanos was acquitted of one but convicted of the other - in a prosecution assailed as unconstitutional double jeopardy.
He appealed to the state Supreme Court but died, before the court could rule, of influenza as a County Jail inmate during the great epidemic that swept the globe after World War I.
None of the cashiers' descendants ever heard much about the trials and double jeopardy arguments. What they know or remember most is how the murders affected their own loved ones.
Dorothea Peach of Baldwin said her parents learned of her Uncle Frank Erbe's death while riding a streetcar to Pittsburgh late that same afternoon to visit another of her father's brothers.
"A man was reading the newspaper in the seat ahead. Mother read it over his shoulder. She told father, who was sitting with her. When they got off the car downtown, the paper boys were yelling it around."
Robbery, slayings, posse, chases, captures, escapes and mob reaped bold banner headlines in all of the city's big daily newspapers.
Willa Dunn of Upper St. Clair said recently that the stark finality of her grandfather Daniel McLean's death was etched indelibly in her mother's memory.
"Someone presented her that evening with the bucket containing his uneaten lunch," she said. "They didn't soften it at all."
The long and short of it
The Gazette Times, which billed itself as "Pittsburgh's one big newspaper," ran one big lead sentence May 15, 1917, on its main-page single story on Castle Shannon's most celebrated bank robbery.
"The shooting-up of the First National Bank of Castle Shannon by four bandits in a daring daylight robbery that had all the thrills of the most lurid hold-up of the movies or dime-novel stories of `wild west' days, the deaths of two officials in a desperate battle in which they emptied their revolvers in a futile attempt to save the bank's funds from the desperados, a sensational running gun fight through the streets of the little community, the escape of two of the robbers in an automobile held in readiness for them, the fatal shooting of one of the gunmen supposedly by his `pal' when capture seemed inevitable, and an alleged attempt by the slayer to take his own life to save himself from the vengeance of an angry posse of citizens - these were features of a series of events which made the Pittsburgh suburb yesterday the stage of one of the most tragic spectacles of outlawry in the history of Western Pennsylvania."
- Transcript from inquest into deaths of cashier Daniel H.A. McLean and assistant cashier Frank Erbe, dated June 19, 1917
- Hand-written press releases from the coroner's office and testimony based on autopsy reports
- Accounts from The Gazette Times, The Pittsburg Press, The Pittsburg Leader and The Pittsburg Dispatch
- Transcripts of testimony from Sam Barcons' and Nick Kemanos' trials
- Appellate papers from Kemanos, who appealed his conviction to the Supreme Court
- Interviews with descendants and an eyewitness