July 1, 2015
During the 22 days that David Sweat and Richard Matt were on the loose, I had occasion to mention to an acquaintance the name Willie Sutton. I was dismayed by the blank expression that name inspired. This happens to me more and more often as I get older and older. There was a time when, just as the name Enrico Caruso could be used interchangeably with the phrase “great singer,” the name Willie Sutton could be used interchangeably with the phrases “bank robber,” “prison escapee,” and “master of disguise.”
Sutton, who was born in the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn in 1901, was a bank robber and prison-escape artist. Because of his use of disguises, he was known as “The Actor.” At various times in his career, he posed as such things as a mailman, a telegraph messenger, a police officer, a window cleaner, a prison guard, and a maintenance man.
After a series of robberies and a prison term for safe cracking, Sutton was sent to 30 years in Sing Sing in 1931. He got his hands on a firearm, took a guard hostage, and escaped on December 11, 1932, using a makeshift extended ladder to get over the prison wall.
He moved to Philadelphia and resumed his vocation until he was arrested again and spent about 15 years as a guest of the commonwealth. On April 3, 1945, Sutton and eleven other inmates escaped from the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia by crawling through a tunnel — Sutton’s fifth attempt to break out of this prison — but he was arrested the same day by city police.
Because he was a four-time loser, Sutton was sentenced to life in prison and sent to the Philadelphia County Prison in Homesburg. On February 10, 1947, he and other inmates, dressed as prison guards, carried two ladders across the prison yard to the wall after dark. The story goes that the watchtower searchlights found the men, but Sutton yelled, “It’s okay,” and no one interfered with the escape.
That escapade earned Sutton a place on the FBI’s list of ten most-wanted fugitives.
Sutton was said to have good manners, and he dressed to go along with his demeanor. In a wry coincidence, that turned out to be his undoing. Police, knowing of Sutton’s penchant for fine clothes, distributed his photograph to tailors and haberdashers. A clothing salesman — 24-year-old Arnold Schuster — saw that photograph in his father’s store. On February 18, 1952, the young man recognized Sutton on a subway in Brooklyn and followed him to a gas station where Sutton intended to buy a car battery. The young man called the police, and Sutton was arrested yet again. Less than a month later, Schuster was shot to death in what was presumed to be a mob hit against a squealer. No one was ever charged with the crime. In an autobiography published in 1976, Sutton wrote, ”Throughout my career I had plotted and planned my jobs to make sure that I would not have to hurt anybody, and now, after it was over and I was sitting in jail, a good-looking, promising young man had been killed because of me. The laughter of the gods.”
Sutton already had a life sentence plus 105 years hanging over his head, but he was tried again for a bank robbery in Queens and had his lease extended another 30 years, this time at the Attica State Prison.
Because of his failing health, however, he was released on December 24, 1969. The following year, he did a television commercial promoting a new credit-card program offered by the New Britain, Connecticut, Bank and Trust Company.
Sutton was reputed to have said, when he was asked why he robbed banks, “That’s where the money is.” Sutton, however, denied having said that although, he added, if someone had asked him that question that might have been his reply.
“Why did I rob banks?” he wrote toward the end of his life. “Because I enjoyed it. I loved it. I was more alive when I was inside a bank, robbing it, than at any other time in my life. I enjoyed everything about it so much that one or two weeks later I’d be out looking for the next job. But to me the money was the chips, that’s all. Go where the money is…and go there often.”