Thursday, April 13, 2017

The Great Castle Shannon Bank Robbery April 12, 2017

Copyright © 2017          John F. Oyler

April 12, 2017

The Great Castle Shannon Bank Robbery

The March program meeting for the Bridgeville Area Historical Society was a very entertaining talk by retired Keystone Oaks middle school history teacher Edd Hale, entitled “The Great Castle Shannon Bank Robbery”. When I first heard the title, I thought it would be more appropriate for a British comedy starring Alec Guinness or perhaps an Abbot and Costello film, rather than for a presentation to an audience of history buffs.

Turns out I wasn’t far wrong. Although the event was tragic – five men eventually died – it was peppered with absurd incidents that did indeed, as Mr. Hale commented, “smack of the Keystone Kops”. His ability to communicate an interesting bit of local (at least to the South Hills) history in a humorous fashion appealed greatly to his audience.

The event occurred almost a century ago, on May 14, 1917. At the time the research was done for this presentation (twenty years ago), there were still a few people around who remembered it, including a lady who had witnessed much of it from a window in her home, when she was a child.

The chief villain in the story is a Russian immigrant named Mikhail Titov who lived in Pittsburgh’s Soho District and worked as a laborer in one of the steel mills. He happened to stop in Castle Shannon one day and have lunch at the Waterman Hotel, a popular watering hole located at the intersection of Castle Shannon Boulevard and Route 88. While there his view included the Castle Shannon First National Bank, on Poplar Street, just beyond the P & WV trestle.

In those days Castle Shannon was a busy little community far enough from Pittsburgh to be considered almost rural. Its principal industry was coal mining, and the bank served a valuable function serving the miners and their employers.

Back in the city Titov began to discuss the idea of robbing this specific bank with three other Russian immigrants – Sam Barcons, John Tush, and Haraska Garason. They concluded it was a good idea, but that they needed an automobile to pull it off. Their landlady, who may well have been in on the scheme, suggested they contact Nick Kemanos, an acquaintance of hers who had just purchased a new Maxwell. One of its luxury accessories was an electric starter. The elimination of the necessity to crank the vehicle to get it started made it an ideal getaway car.

The gang hired Kemanos to chauffeur them all day for seven dollars. He claimed, later, that he had no knowledge of the plan and was just an innocent bystander. On the appointed day he picked up the four desperadoes and headed for Castle Shannon. Not wanting to arrive until some predetermined time the gang stopped at a bar and imbibed enough alcohol to measurably impair them.

They drove into Castle Shannon through Mt. Lebanon, parking the car (headed away from Castle Shannon) at the end of the paved street. All the Castle Shannon streets were still dirt at that time. The parking spot was in front of “Dr. Brown’s house”, about where the Ice Castle is today. The gang piled out of the car, leaving Kemanos behind. The bank was about two blocks away, down Washington Avenue (now Castle Shannon Boulevard), then up Poplar Street.

Each member of the gang was carrying a 38 semi-automatic pistol. When they entered the bank they found one customer in it, a gentleman named Stanley Rawa, who coincidentally spoke Russian. He was engaged with teller Frank Erbe. Also coincidentally Erbe had had a premonition that morning and had brought his pistol with him when he came to work.

The robbers announced the purpose of their mission and instructed Rawa, in English and in Russian, to leave the teller’s window and retire to a chair in the corner. Tush magically produced a piece of rope and tied him up. Erbe took advantage of the interruption to dive behind a desk and begin shooting at the intruders. Although they reportedly were inebriated, they returned the fire and hit him five times, rendering him “hors de combat”.

At this point Head Cashier Daniel McLean came out of the vault and was startled at the uproar. He raised the large ledger he was carrying in front of his face; a single shot went through it into his forehead, killing him instantly. With both adversaries out of the way the robbers then proceeded to empty the vault and attempt their getaway.

In the interim all the citizens in the immediate vicinity responded to the gunfire in the bank by digging out their personal hardware and ventured out into the streets to investigate. The local justice of the peace, “Squire” George Beltzhoover, appropriated someone’s shotgun and advanced toward the bank, arriving there just as the robbers were leaving. When they ignored his command to stop and throw up their hands, he pulled the trigger and was shocked to realize the weapon was unloaded.

The Squire threw down the gun and ran around the bank. Two of the desperadoes, Barcons and Tush, ran around the other side and immediately encountered him at the bank. One of them hit him in the face with a bag full of silver dollars, breaking his nose and seriously impairing his motivation to arrest them. Not knowing for sure where the car was, they set off on foot toward the Castle Shannon Golf Course, with several armed civilians at their heels.

Realizing they were eventually going to be apprehended both robbers decided to commit suicide. Tush was successful; Barcons, despite having the muzzle of the pistol in his mouth, missed his brain and only blew off part of his face. He was taken into custody by the posse, who had a difficult time protecting him from irate Castle Shannonites who wanted to lynch him.

Meanwhile Titov and Garason were high-tailing it back to the getaway car. Eventually they were able to awaken the sleeping Kemanos and get the Maxwell onto the highway, heading for Pittsburgh. Their pursuers immediately looked for cars to chase them and eventually settled on Laughlin Funeral Home’s hearse. After several slapstick moments eleven of them piled into the hearse and zoomed down Washington Avenue in hot pursuit.

With the horn honking and other vehicles scattering out of their way they sped through Mt. Lebanon and onto Greentree Road. Lo and behold, they spotted the Maxwell in the distance, chugging along at a normal speed. When they caught up with it, they were dismayed to learn that Kemanos was alone in it. He reported that his riders had gotten out two or three miles back. He was arrested, as an accomplice, and the Maxwell appropriated.

About half of the $17,000 stolen from the bank was recovered with Barcons and Tush; the remainder and both Titov and Garason were never heard from again. Barcons was convicted of murder and died in the electric chair. Kemanos was acquitted of one murder, then convicted of the other (Erbe died from his wounds two days after the robbery). While in jail awaiting appeal of the second conviction, on double jeopardy grounds, he died during the 1918 Flu Epidemic.

The speaker reported several conjectural theories that the two escapees had managed to find their way back to Russia with enough stolen money to live comfortably. An interesting theory, but did anyone manage to live comfortably in Russia during the Bolshevik Revolution?

In retrospect, despite the tragedy of five deaths, the combination of four inebriated, bumbling robbers encountering a community full of equally bumbling civilians armed with deer rifles and handguns did manage to produce a drama filled with comedic episodes.

Next month’s program dealing with “The Clemente Museum and the Memorial to Roberto Clemente” will be presented by Vince Mariotti, a docent at the aforementioned museum. It will occur at 7:30 pm on Tuesday, April 25, 2017, in the Chartiers Room of the Bridgeville Volunteer Fire Department on Commercial Street. The public is cordially invited.

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