The Liberty Hotel was a solid, 19th-century building at the southern end of the New Castle streetcar line, by the Mahoningtown railroad station. Its upper floors accommodated a selection of permanent and short-stay residents, and its ground floor housed a restaurant, a bar and commercial rooms that were rented, over the years, to various businesses. On May 23, 1932, during the period when the Mahoning Trust Company operated a bank on the premises, it became the scene of the most vicious robbery in New Castle’s history.
Each week, two employees, accompanied by a police officer for security, drove to one of the big banks in downtown New Castle to collect the cash that the bank used to cover local firms’ pay roll transactions. On the day of the robbery, they were carrying $23,000 in a satchel that was chained to the floor of their car.
They arrived at the Liberty Hotel at half past eight in the morning. As usual, the policeman, Officer Clarence Campbell, got out of the car first to see that the way was clear to take the money into the bank. He glanced up and down the street and turned to the car to tell the bank employees that everything seemed to be safe. As he did so, a man who had been sitting outside the door to the bank pulled a sawed-off shotgun out of a box that he’d had on his knees and shot him in the back from a distance of a few feet, blowing a hole through his spine and shredding his liver and lungs. The coroner later assured his family that he wouldn’t have known what hit him.
Two men ran out of the lobby of the hotel, levelling machine guns at the car and demanding the money. The bank employees handed over the satchel and the three men jumped into a maroon sedan that had pulled up alongside the bank’s car, then they sped south to Montgomery Avenue and on out to the Mount Jackson road. As they went, they tossed handfuls of roofing nails behind them to prevent pursuit.
It all took less than a minute.
Police blocked every road out of Lawrence County, and officers from surrounding cities and towns spread out across western Pennsylvania. Border towns were guarded, hundreds of motorists were halted and questioned and, as the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported, “all the aids of modern science – the radio, the police teletype, the telegraph and the telephone” were employed, but the robbers somehow slipped through the net.
It was discovered that the man who had shot Officer Campbell had stayed in the Liberty Hotel the previous night, using the name Tom Tenerico. He’d passed the evening in the bar, talking to the staff and other patrons, before going up to bed, and the police were able to get a good idea of what he looked like. A manhunt was launched across neighbouring states and a $2,500 reward was put up for information leading to the arrest of the robbers, but none of them was ever seen again. After three years had passed, the reward fund was shut down, the money reabsorbed into general funds, and life at the Liberty Hotel went on much as before.
Bernard Dickey would have been just out of high school when Officer Campbell was killed. When he went for a drink in the Liberty Hotel bar one night just before Christmas in 1947, he was thirty-four, with a job in the United Engineering and Foundry Co, and it’s possible he had no idea of the history of the hotel. Even if he had, it probably wouldn’t have stopped him doing what he did. Why would it? “Tom Tenerico” was never caught, so there was no reason why Bernard Dickey should be.
Harold Unangst, one of the locals, was in the bar the night Bernard was there. He’d been talking to a young woman and paying for drinks with a fat roll of nearly $300, consisting of two $100 notes wrapped around a bundle of smaller currency. He walked the woman home to her house just before midnight and was on his way back to the hotel when he was set upon by two men, who punched him to the ground and robbed him of his money. Even though it was clear that his attackers must have been in the bar that night and had followed him when he left, Unangst said he didn’t recognise either of the men, whom the New Castle News described in these terms: “Thug No.1, tall, thin scar on face, brown jacket, brown trousers. Thug No.2, short, red checkered shirt.”
The following summer, Bernard Dickey was arrested (we don’t know why; perhaps on a tip-off) and confessed to the robbery. He was Thug No.2, and he said that Thug No.1 had been John Assid, a truck driver who lived on Rabbit Street, right around the corner from Lafayette Street, where Harold Unangst had been attacked. John Assid claimed he was innocent, but was taken to the county jail anyway. There was no more news of the case, and there is no record of any sentence being passed on either of the two men. Bernard appeared in the newspaper a final time later that year, when he was admitted to hospital after an industrial accident in which a 300-pound weight fell on his foot, crushing the bones.
Bernard died in 1974, at the age of sixty-one. The Liberty Hotel, by then a run-down dive, in the news mainly for bar fights and gambling arrests, was closed down by the authorities a few years later, and was destroyed by fire at the end of 1977.Sources: New Castle News (23 May 1932, “Bandits Kill Officer; Seize Fund of $23,000”; 24 May 1932, “Slayers Of Police Officer Temporarily Make Their Escape”; 23 May 1934, “Officers Slayers Still At Liberty”; 17 Jan 1936, “Launch Instruction School For Police Here On Thursday”; 1 June 1948, “Makes Robbery Charges”; 1 Nov 1948, “Man Injures Foot”; 19 April 1974, “Card Of Thanks”)
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Regarding the Liberty Hotel bank robbery: There’s a couple details the older residents of Mahoningtown who remembered that morning would tell that don’t appear here. For instance, the local legend is that Officer Campbell was told to put his hands up by the man with the shotgun and his reply was, “I don’t put up my hands for anybody!” Then he was shot. Makes for good legend, but interesting twist to the story if it’s true. The other detail that is missing is that many believed the men were members of the John Dillinger’s gang.
Thanks for the information, Joseph. Are you from New Castle, originally? Or do you just know lots of stuff about old bank robberies?