One of Chicago’s Original Organized Crime Rings
Depending on your point of view, the “Car Barn Bandits”, who wreaked havoc in Chicago in 1903, were either the first or the last of their kind. Some saw them as the first organized crime ring to operate in the city, which would make them a foreshadowing of things to come, while others saw their exploits as something out of a Wild West dime novel, hearkening back to an earlier generation. No matter what they were, they were undoubtedly one of the deadliest gangs to terrify pre-Prohibition Chicago.
The bandits were young men, barely out of their teens, and the gang was made up of Peter Niedermeyer, Gustav Marx, Harvey Van Dine, and Emil Roeski. They had all grown up together on the Northwest Side of the city and all came from good families that offered them love, support and a good education. Somewhere along the line, though, they simply went bad, creating a record of robbery and murder that shocked Chicago at the time of their capture.
Their criminal exploits began in the summer of 1903, when they committed a number of robberies, hold-ups and murders. On July 20, they robbed a bar on Milwaukee Avenue, wounding a saloon keeper named Peter Gorski. On August 2, they struck again at a bar on West North Avenue and killed the owner, Benjamin La Grosse, and a twenty-one year old customer. They committed robbery and murder at Greenberg’s Saloon, located at the southwest corner of Addison and Robey Streets (now Damen Avenue), and followed that with another hold-up in a tavern at Roscoe Street and Sheffield Avenue. By all accounts, the bandits were having more fun than they had ever had in their lives.
One August night, while walking around the city, the gang noticed some men counting money inside of a railroad car barn. This gave them an idea and they began planning another robbery. On the night of August 30, 1903, Niedermeyer, Marx and Van Dine, met on 63rd Street on Chicago’s South Side and walked over to the City Railway Company car barn, which was located just two blocks away. They found the door unlocked and they simply walked, in and pulled their guns on the startled clerks. They immediately began searching for money. Van Dine smashed open a door with a sledgehammer and stormed into an office. According to Marx, he saw police officers outside and to hurry things along, fired a few shots into the ceiling. A window was smashed open and Niedermeyer began shooting out of it, aiming for the men that had been spotted outside. They weren’t police officers but railroad workers and in the confusion, a railroad motorman was killed and two cashiers were wounded. Meanwhile, Van Dine had ransacked the office and came out with a bundle of cash under his arm. “I’ve got enough, boys!” he shouted at his friends and the bandits fled from the scene, running toward 60th Street.
The area seemed deserted and no one followed them as they strolled down the old midway into Jackson Park, the now abandoned site of the World’s Fair of ten years before. They roamed the park and the ruins of the Exposition until daybreak, and then they divided their loot, which came to $2,250. They took a streetcar downtown and celebrated their success with cigars and a big breakfast. Afterward, they had a grand time reading about their “daring robbery” in the morning editions of the local newspapers. The stories noted that the police had no idea as to the identities of the young robbers.
Image of the Chicago City Railway Company Car Barn murder suspects (left to right) George Eichendollar, J. Blake, George McElroy, J. Doyle, Al Doyle, D. Lynch and Tony Scapardine standing shoulder to shoulder in a police station in Chicago, Illinois. None of these men was actually one of the Car Barn Bandits.
The next day, the three boys, along with Emil Roeski, spent the afternoon in Humboldt Park, smoking cigars and reading more stories about the robbery. They began to dream of something even more adventurous – robbing trains. After a night at an expensive hotel, they used some of their ill-gotten gain to purchase train tickets to Denver, Colorado, believing that it would be easy to buy dynamite in one of the nearby mining towns. They enjoyed themselves for a few days in Denver and then went to Cripple Creek, where they purchased a bundle of dynamite in a mining supply store. They quickly returned to Chicago, still making big plans.
The robbery turned out to be a bust. They packed about fifty pounds of dynamite near the Northwestern Tracks in Jefferson Park and made plans to stop the train. Roeski waved a red flag at the train as it approached, but the engine never even slowed down. Angry, he pulled out his revolver and fired a shot at the train, which finally stopped it. Unfortunately for their plans, it stopped too far away from the dynamite for them to rob it and the bandits ran away.
The failed robbery attempt frightened the young robbers and they became increasingly paranoid. Van Dine spent three days at his window with a rifle, waiting for the police to come. He finally calmed down but his paranoia, as it turned out, was not unjustified. The police were looking for them. It was not for the failed train robbery, but for their earlier robberies. The methods the young men had employed in various tavern hold-ups caused the police to suspect they were the Car Barn Bandits.
In spite of the fact that they knew the police were looking for them, the bandits boldly went out drinking, paying big tips and brandishing their revolvers. The police tracked down Gustav Marx first and they came to arrest him at Greenberg’s Saloon, which he and his friends had robbed earlier that summer. Police Detective John Quinn came in the front door and Detective William Blaul slipped in through a side entrance. When Marx saw the officer walk in, he quickly pulled his gun. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Quinn come through the front door and he turned and shot him. As he fell lifeless to the floor, Blaul opened fire and wounded Marx in the arm. Blaul grabbed the bandit, who tried to flee, and dragged him across the room to a telephone. He called the station house for back-up as Marx begged him to “Kill me! Kill me now!”
But Detective Blaul didn’t kill him. Instead, he took him to the police station and locked him up. Marx fumed in his cell for a while and when his friends didn’t show up to bust him out, as they planned to do in the event that any of them were captured, he angrily decided to confess every detail of the Car Barn Bandits’ crimes. He spilled his guts about twenty robberies and six murders – seven, counting the shooting of Detective Quinn.
The police began a massive manhunt for Niedermeyer, Van Dine and Roeski. Word came in that a general store owner had spotted them in the town of Clark Station and it was realized that they planned to make their escape into the wilds of the Indiana Dunes. Eight detectives were quickly dispatched on their trail but the men quickly became lost in the tangle of unmarked roads, sand dunes and forests. They followed several leads but became lost over and over again. One of the wagons that they were traveling in overturned in the sand, injuring a few of the detectives.
Eventually, late in the night, they found a dugout in the dunes that was located about two hundred feet from the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad tracks and three miles from the closest town. The hideout was empty but some leftover sausage links found inside showed that it had recently been in use. This meant the bandits were still somewhere nearby.
The detectives stayed the night in a barn near Edgemoor, Indiana. When daylight came, the farmer’s wife brought them coffee and they went out into the November snow. Later that morning, they found another railroad dugout, similar to the one they had discovered the night before. The dugout was the cellar of a railroad telegrapher’s home that had burned down years before and it was surrounded by fresh footprints in the snow. However, the entrance to the dugout had been covered with boards and the detectives had trouble finding another way inside. After some time, an old staircase was discovered and the detectives took up position around it, revolvers in hand, and shouted for the bandits to come out.
A reply was heard from the darkness below. “We’ll come out when you carry us out!” a voice cried, and the sound was followed by several gunshots.
The detectives fired their guns down the staircase and after a pause, Niedermeyer’s face appeared at the bottom of the steps. The detectives assumed that he was surrendering, but instead, he pulled out two guns, fired manically at them and then ducked out of sight. The exchange of gunfire continued, with dire results for the policemen. Officer Joseph R. Driscoll was shot in the abdomen and Officer Matthew Zimmer was wounded in the arm. Harvey Van Dine came out of the dugout long enough to shoot Zimmer again, this time in the head.
As the police officers pulled back, the bandits made a daring escape from the dugout. They ran away on foot, firing at the detectives as they hurried toward the woods. Niedermeyer was hit once in the neck as he ran down a hill into a ravine, but managed to get back up and keep running with the others. The bandits escaped while the detectives wired for reinforcements and tried to tend to their wounded comrades. They were able to flag down a passing train and the wounded men were put on board and taken to a hospital. Officer Driscoll died a few days later.
Fifty police officers with repeating rifles were rushed to the scene on board a special train. They followed the tracks south, stopping to examine the deserted dugout where the bandits had been found. The room was well-stocked with food and ammunition and outfitted with bunk beds.
The original detectives, now five in number, followed the bandit’s trail through the snow, passing a brakemen’s cottage that the outlaws had tried to break into and failed. As they followed the footprints and occasional spatters of blood in the snow, they were startled and opened fire on what turned out to be nothing but Niedermeyer’s overcoat, which he had strung up in some tree branches as a decoy. One set of tracks, Roeski’s, led into a cornfield and the others continued south. Roeski, who had been wounded badly in the gun battle, was captured in the cornfield later that day.
Niedermeyer and Van Dine made it to the town of East Tolleston, four miles from the dugout. There, they found a Pennsylvania Railroad gravel train sitting on the tracks, preparing to leave. The engineer had gone to get dinner for the fireman, Albert Coffey, who was still in the cab. The bandits climbed into the cab and put a revolver to the fireman’s head. A brakeman, L.J. Sovea, thought the bandits were rail yard drunks and he jumped up and grabbed Niedermeyer by the wrist. During a struggle, Sovea was shot in the face and his lifeless body was dumped on the side of the tracks.
The bandits forced Coffey to start the engine and he took them two miles to the town of Liverpool, where a locked switch prevented him from going any farther. Niedermeyer and Van Dine made him back up almost a half mile and then they jumped out of the cab and ran across the prairie.
Meanwhile, posses made up of farmers and police officers formed in East Tolleston to pursue the men. Liverpool had been warned about them by telegraph and sent out posse of their own. They tracked down the fleeing robbers as they ran toward a cornfield and opened fire on them – with shoguns filled with birdshot. Niedermeyer and Van Dine were both hit in the face but the wounds were far from fatal. Nevertheless, they surrendered. They were taken back to Liverpool and then sent back to Chicago. Indiana Governor Winfield Durbin promptly issued a statement: “I congratulate the authorities on the capture. Chicago can keep the prisoners – Indiana doesn’t want them.”
The six-month crime spree of the Car Barn Bandits had finally ended. The laughing young men were quick to admit to their robberies and murders and all of them were soon charged with murder and put on trial. The bandits confessed to not only crimes in Chicago, but other hold-ups around the country. They wanted to make sure that everyone knew just who had committed the crimes. Niedermeyer kept track of the crimes that offered rewards and demanded that his mother be given the money since he had provided the information. The confessions told of daring lives of crime that became the stuff of short-lived legend. It was revealed that they had robbed one hundred and fourteen people, and killed eight, in just sixty days. The case captured the attention of the public and newspapers around the country sent reporters to Chicago to cover the trial.
Nothing could be done to save the young bandits at their trials since they had already confessed to everything they had done. Niedermeyer, Van Dine and Marx were tried together and Roeski was given a separate trial since wasn’t present at the Car Barn robbery. Attempts were made to show that the boys were “victims of society” and also to show that insanity ran in Van Dine’s family, but the jury wasn’t fooled. The first three defendants were found guilty and sentenced to hang.
At Roeski’s trial, Marx swore that he, not Roeski, had killed nineteen year old Otto Bauder on July 9 at Ernest Spire’s tavern on North Ashland Avenue, a crime for which Roeski was accused.
However, on April 20, 1904, Roeski was found guilty of murder, but the jury decided to spare his life since there was still some question as to whether or not he pulled the trigger during Bauder’s murder. He was taken away to Joliet prison and his friends were scheduled to hang two days later.
Car Barn Bandit Gustav Marx, waiting for his execution at the Cook County Jail.
The bandits were housed at the Cook County Jail before their executions. Niedermeyer attempted suicide by trying to cut his wrist with a lead pencil and by swallowing the sulfur tips of matches. On the day before the hangings, though, the three condemned man sat quietly talking and smoking with their jailers.
Outside of the jail, a crowd that numbered almost one thousand gathered to wait for news about what was happening inside. A detail of one hundred police officers surrounded the jail to keep the onlookers in line and to prevent them from loitering on Dearborn Street.
A crowd gathered on the street outside of the jail, awaiting word of the Car Barn Bandit’s executions. The young criminals created a sensation in Chicago in the early 1900s.
Niedermeyer was scheduled to be the first to die, insisting to anyone who would listen that he would “die game”. But when the time actually came to go to the gallows, his courage gave away and he nearly fainted. The guards placed him on a gurney and wheeled him to the scaffold. Too weak to stand, he was strapped to a chair and a hood was placed over his head. The trap was sprung and the bandit dropped to his death, still seated in the chair. The shroud fell off and the assembled crowd was shocked by the gruesome sight of his face as he strangled to death. His neck was broken, but it took him nearly twenty minutes to die.
Marx was brought out next. He was praying and holding a crucifix as he walked to the gallows. He continued to pray as the shroud was placed over his face and the rope slipped around his neck. He died instantly.
Van Dine also prayed as the trap was opened and like Marx, he died when his neck snapped.
For years, the Car Barn Bandits were hailed as the most famous criminal gang in Chicago history. On numerous occasions, gangs of amateur bandits who idolized them were captured, sometimes while lurking in the bandits’ old hideouts. Eventually, though, they faded into history and by the latter part of the twentieth century, were almost completely forgotten.