Homer Chrisner, “Bank Holdup”, 7 Feb 1935

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The depression shut down Homer Chrisner’s Ellwood City sales business and threw him and his employees out of work. He remained a respected figure in the area, served as a borough councilman for a spell and continued to pursue his hobby of poultry breeding, which was something of a passion of his—only a few months before he walked into the state bank in Bessemer with a loaded pistol, he delivered a speech entitled, “My Favorite Poultry Breed”, which was reportedly well received by his audience of local farmers.

Homer spent the latter half of 1934 planning the bank robbery. His sales work had taken him through all the towns around the Ohio-Pennsylvania border north of Pittsburgh, and he settled on Bessemer—a couple of hundred houses in the shadow of a cement and limestone factory, ten miles west of New Castle—as the easiest target. He selected as his accomplice Edward Scales, aka Jack of Diamonds, a Youngstown barman and numbers writer who had recently been released from prison after serving a sentence for the attempted rape of a minor. Together, they planned the details of the hold-up and enlisted the help of a woman called Nellie Sellers who would act as their getaway driver.

On 31 January 1935, they drove up to the bank on Poland avenue in a red Chevrolet that Edward had stolen from a garage in Ambridge some days earlier. Homer and Edward pulled bandanas over their faces and walked into the bank, leaving Nellie Sellers—later described by witnesses as “a visibly nervous Negress”—in the car with the engine running.

Homer stood by the door while Edward walked up to window number two and pointed his pistol at the cashier, Charles Weitz. Before Edward could speak, Weitz dropped to the floor and shouted for help. From the back room entered a large man, V I Mandich, a former Croatian soldier who had fought against the Germans in the first world war and taken part in the Russian revolutions of 1917 before emigrating to America, where he had taken up the post of assistant cashier of the Bessemer bank. He approached Homer and Edward, who lost their nerve and ran out into the street. Weitz took a revolver from under the counter and followed them.

The Chevrolet was already moving off as Homer climbed inside. Edward struggled to catch up with it and, when Weitz started shooting at him and the car (which took a bullet in the rear fender), he ducked off the road and headed in the direction of the creek that ran behind the cement factory.

The car disappeared up the Hillsville road and the cashiers called the police. A young man said that he had seen a Negro running into the cement company office building, and Edward was found hiding in the cellar, behind the furnace. He was unarmed, having dropped his pistol outside the bank.

Homer and Nellie Sellers drove thirty miles to Warren, Ohio, where they hid the car in a garage that Sellers had rented from a man who had been led to believe that she was hiding the car from her husband, who wanted to take it from her. Homer drove in his own car to Pittsburgh where, alone and dispirited, he threw his revolver from the Sixth street bridge into the Ohio river.

Their efforts to evade capture were useless. The police in New Castle, who had taken custody of Edward Scales, had already forced him to give up the names of his accomplices. Within a few days, all three were in custody, charged with assault and intent to rob. Homer and Edward were given five years in the penitentiary and Sellers was sent to the workhouse. Homer twice applied to the governor for a pardon, on grounds that are unclear. Both pleas were refused. Of him, and the others, there appears to be no further trace.


Sources: The Greenville Record-Argus (31 Jan 1935, “Bank Holdup At Bessemer Frustrated”; 1 Feb 1935, “Seek Woman In Bessemer Bank Robbery Plot”); Huntingdon Daily News, 31 Jan 1935, “Cashier Thwarts Hold-Up At Bank”; Charleston Gazette, 31 Jan 1935, “Cashier Of Bank Routs 4 Bandits; One Is Captured”; New Castle News (5 Oct 1932, “Council Abates Tax Penalties”; 3 April 1934, “Grangers Have Poultry Meeting”; 1 Feb 1935, “Police Get Clues On Companions Of Bank Bandit”; 1 Feb 1935, “See Early Capture Of Pair Wanted In Bessemer Hold-Up”; 4 Feb 1935, “Arrest Two More In Bessemer Bank Hold-Up Attempt”; 5 Feb 1935, “Accused Trio Pleads Guilty”; 9 Feb 1935, “Bessemer Bank Bandits Enter Pleas At Court”; 18 Sep 1936, “Would Be Bank Robber Is Asking To Be Pardoned”; 6 Nov 1937, “Applications For Pardon Are Filed”; 7 June 1938, “Mandich Is Veteran Of Many Engagements” ).

9 Comments

  1. Pingback: Edward Scales, “Susp.(Holdup)”, 20 Dec 1934 « Small Town Noir

  2. johnny says

    Wonderful story. For Homer, being a first timer, you would think he would get probation at some point. Poor Edward Scales, he seems to be plagued by bad luck in all his criminal endeavors.

    Thank you again.

  3. Thanks, Johnny. You’re probably right about Homer getting probation. Then again, five years doesn’t sound too bad for a planned armed robbery, even one that wasn’t followed through properly….

  4. Followed you here from your other great site–Love this one, too!
    I assume you also follow the excellent Shorpy.com?
    Lance

    • Thanks Lance – good to hear from you again. Glad you like this blog, too. Yes, Shorpy is quite brilliant, isn’t it? I love any of the giant street scenes, and there are also four or five shots of the lobby of a theater (in Washington, I think) that are just amazing…

  5. What a great, well written story. The sting in the tail at the end about the unknown fate of Homer is very effective. Truth really is more interesting than fiction.

    • Thanks very much indeed, Andrew. You’re very kind. I should point out that this story is probably the most high-octane and action-packed one that’s likely to be posted. We’ll be back to New Castle’s usual drunk drivers and cash-register robbers for a while, I should think…

    • Thanks, Marilyn – that’s good to know. Is there anything else you could tell me that might help to fill in some more of Homer’s life? I always regret it when all I can find to write about someone is the story of the crime that they had their mug shot taken in connection with. There’s always so much more to people than that one event. If you’d like to email me instead of writing on the website, you could let me know in the comments and I’ll get in touch. Thanks again!

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