Famed bank robber Frank 'Jelly' Nash had home in Paragould

By

Published: Tuesday, October 28, 2003

Updated: Tuesday, September 28, 2010

By Terry Austin

Feature Writing Student

hrldoff@astate.edu

He was arguably the most successful bank robber in U.S. history.

He possessed an affable, only-in-the-movies "criminal charisma" that enabled him to escape from federal prison by ambling out the front door armed only with his favorite volume from the prison library.

His cohorts included some of the most infamous and hotly pursued gangsters of the 1930s.

He was the prize over which federal agents and gangsters battled in the bloody Union Station Massacre in Kansas City, Mo., a shootout that birthed the FBI as it exists today.

His remains, along with the evidence that might reveal his killer's identity, lie entombed in a mausoleum in Paragould

He was Frank "Jelly" Nash, by most accounts an amiable, charming man who just happened to rob banks and trains.

The Paragould Connection

In 1893, John "Pappy" Nash moved his family to Paragould, leaving his business interests in Oklahoma. John Nash became such a recognized and popular businessman in the area that when he died in 1931, scores of visitors descended on the mausoleum of Paragould's Linwood Cemetery for the funeral. Frank Nash, already notorious and targeted by law enforcement, was also expected to sneak into town, so many members of the Bureau of Investigation - as the FBI was known in its early days - as well as a large number of reporters were on hand, too. According to the book Heritage of an Outlaw, written by Clyde Callahan and Byron Jones, Frank Nash did indeed sneak into Paragould for his father's funeral, but he spotted the lawmen and contented himself with watching the funeral from a distance.

Paragould resident Ester Scott, a distant relative of the Nash family, discounted rumors that Nash stole into the funeral in disguise. Rather, she said in Callahan's book, he waited in Paragould until the authorities and press left town, and then slipped into the mausoleum for a final viewing of his father.

Today, several Nash family members are entombed in the mausoleum, including Alice (Long) Nash, John Nash's second wife; Perry and Hattie (Long) House, the son-in-law and daughter of Alice; and Carrie Nash, John Nash's third wife.

In July 1931, only John Nash was buried there. But less than two years later, another flood of visitors - this time in a wave of long, black cars - rolled into Paragould for the funeral of another man named Nash.

Your Friendly Neighborhood Gangster

"Frank Nash was, perhaps, the most successful bank robber in history," Callahan wrote. "Though this dubious claim to fame has never been publicized in the manner of the wild exploits of the James', the Daltons or the Wild Bunch, his saga was more noteworthy than any appearing on the outlaw scene, past or present."

Nash committed more than 20 successful bank robberies in less than two years, Callahan said. Nash also participated in more than 100 robberies of banks and trains as a part of the Al Spencer Gang and as the leader of his own gang. But despite his growing notoriety as a criminal, Nash enjoyed a reputation as a kind, polite man.

"It was rare to find anyone who didn't have something nice to say about him," Callahan said. "His personality was such many hometown friends never faced the fact he was really a criminal."

Though he could never substantiate it, Callahan learned of a legend that Nash, during one of his train heists, recognized several passengers from his hometown and comforted them while allowing them to stay on the train unaccosted.

Nash apparently charmed more than just his neighbors. In his book, The Union Station Massacre: The Original Sin of J. Edgar Hoover's FBI, author Robert Unger said that even prison and law enforcement officials frequently befriended Nash.

During Nash's numerous prison or jail stays, Unger said, he invariably ingratiated himself to guards and other officials. Nash was typically made a trusty, and this was the case when he was imprisoned in the federal penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kan. in 1924. While serving a 25-year sentence for robbing a U.S. mail train, Nash was given the privilege of working in the inmates' library. On Oct. 19, 1930, Nash picked up his favorite book - a collection of works by William Shakespeare - and strode unimpeded, still dressed in his prison uniform, through the main gates of the penitentiary and into freedom.

Hotfooting from Hot Springs

Nash's sentence at Leavenworth was his third stint in prison. Convicted of murder and sentenced to life in the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in 1913, Nash received a pardon a few years later. In 1920, he was sentenced to a 25-year term in the same Oklahoma prison for robbery, but was again pardoned a short time later. Nash's third conviction, however, was not likely to end prematurely.

Upon his escape from Leavenworth in 1930, Nash apparently fled to the Chicago area, where he got married, joined the Barker Gang and participated in several bank robberies in Illinois. In 1933, Nash, his wife Frances and her 8-year-old daughter Danella headed for a vacation in Hot Springs, which was at the time a place of refuge for gangsters and organized crime figures. The city was controlled by crime boss Richard Galatas, Unger wrote, and Galatas provided safe haven for those seeking protection from the law.

However, law enforcement officials were tracking Nash's movements, and in the early hours of June 16, 1933, three officials - Bureau of Investigation agents Joe Lackey and Frank Smith and McAlester (Okla.) Police Chief Otto Reid - arrived in Hot Springs. In a five-minute confrontation at Galatas' White Front Cigar Store, a shop frequented by underworld figures, they found Nash and forced him at gunpoint into their car.

Because Hot Springs' law enforcement was controlled by Galatas, and also because of the confusion caused by the actions of the three law enforcement officials who were apparently working outside of their jurisdictions, several roadblocks were set up between Hot Springs and Little Rock to capture the men who had "kidnapped" a man in Hot Springs. After successfully negotiating each of the roadblocks, the agents drove to Fort Smith, where they boarded a train headed for Kansas City. In Kansas City, they were to board another train bound for Leavenworth.

However, a late-arriving train in Fort Smith slowed the gun-wielding agents and the shackled Nash, and as they conspicuously waited in the train station, they were approached by a reporter from the Associated Press. Though Lackey would later officially report that they did not share any information with the reporter, the story that was filed a short time later seemed to indicate otherwise.

"Frank Nash, one of the last surviving members of the notorious Al Spencer gang of bank and train robbers that operated a decade ago, was recaptured today at Hot Springs, by three Department of Justice agents - who 'kidnapped' him on the streets of the resort city," the AP story's lead read.

"The Department of Justice men moved with utmost secrecy after rushing Nash out of Hot Springs in their automobile," the story said. "They revealed the identity of the prisoner for the first time here..."

In addition, Unger said, the story provided details about the train the agents boarded, including its scheduled arrival time in Kansas City. This information was in several morning papers that went out shortly after midnight Saturday, and it also moved across the wire of the Hot Springs newspaper, where it likely was read by Galatas' men. Whether it was a result of the AP's scoop or just blind luck, Nash's friends knew that he was being taken by train to Kansas City's Union Station, and that he would arrive early Saturday morning, June 17.

The Massacre

The train carrying Nash, Lackey, Smith and Reed arrived at Union Station at 7:15 a.m. Four more law enforcement officers - Reed Vetterli and Ray Caffrey of the Bureau of Investigation, and Kansas City policemen Bill Grooms and Frank Hermanson - were on hand to escort Nash through the bustling train station and into one of the police cars parked in Union Station Plaza.

The armed men spread out in the shape of a "V" behind Nash. When they entered the plaza, Nash - still in handcuffs - was placed in the front seat of one of the cars, and Reed, Smith and Lackey piled in the backseat, with Lackey sitting behind Nash. The other officers stood at various points around the car.

The events that followed continue to be the subject of discussion, disagreement and controversy. According to the FBI's massive case file on the event, a team of gangsters, determined to free Nash and led by Charles "Pretty Boy" Floyd and Adam Richetti, shouted and then opened fire on the car with their machine guns, killing four lawmen - Caffrey, Hermanson, Reed and Grooms - and also accidentally killing Nash. Lackey took three bullets but survived.

The events in Kansas City shocked and terrified the nation. J. Edgar Hoover, the young director of the Bureau of Investigation, seized the opportunity afforded by the shootout and lobbied for much broader powers for his bureau. In less than a year, the bureau was renamed the Federal Bureau of Investigation and was given much more sweeping powers regarding law enforcement. The agency, previously a collection of men who did mostly wire-tapping and investigations, became the well-armed enforcement wing of the Justice Department. From the Union Station Massacre, one could argue, sprang the powerful FBI of modern times.

Unger, however, has crafted a different version of events. Though he does not dispute the goal of the attackers, he does question whether the men who were ultimately killed or prosecuted in retribution for the events were actually involved. More troubling is Unger's contention that only two men, Grooms and Reed, were killed by attackers' fire. By reconstructing the crime scene based on the FBI's case files and eyewitness reports, Unger believes that Nash, Caffrey and Hermanson were all killed accidentally by Lackey. Lackey, Unger contends, was using a Winchester Model 1897, a particularly deadly shotgun with unusual characteristics with which Lackey was totally unfamiliar. The gun, in fact, belonged to Reed and had been brought from Oklahoma by the policeman. Lackey had mistakenly picked up the gun, thinking it was his own pump-action shotgun.

When Nash's would-be rescuers shouted at the officers that morning, Lackey - unseen inside the car - began trying to chamber a round in the shotgun. However, the gun seemed to jam, Lackey would report later. Unger contends that in the process of attempting to fix the gun, Lackey began the shooting when he accidentally fired the first shot of the day - a fatal round of buckshot into the back of Nash's head. As his panic worsened, Lackey's continued misfires also killed Hermanson and Caffrey.

Back to Paragould

After an autopsy in Kansas City, the body of Frank Nash was returned to Paragould for burial beside the bodies of the other deceased members of the family. According to one local source, another Nash funeral meant another memorable day in the town.

Michael Lasley, a former Paragould resident now living in Syracuse, N.Y., recalled the story his late grandfather, Johnnie Wilkins, told about Frank Nash's funeral. "He said there was a line of long, shiny black cars coming into town," Lasley said, "and the line was so long you couldn't see the end of it. As a kid, he thought those were all gangsters and 'G-men' coming to the funeral. I guess it seemed like somebody was filming a movie in his hometown."

There was no film crew in Paragould that day, nor any shootout between gangsters and lawmen. Frank Nash was laid to rest without incident, a smooth-talking escape artist who came up one escape short.

Comments

Be the first to comment on this article!

Click here to leave a comment
View full site