NewsCut Flashback: The day Baby Face Nelson came to Brainerd

(Originally published May 31, 2013)

“Can I tell you about the history of the building?” Matt Foy of Brainerd said to us late yesterday as we were exploring a couple of holes outside the building that houses his Design Consign shop in the city’s downtown.

He couldn’t have known that the person I had just been interviewing on another topic yesterday — Wendy DeGeest — knew exactly how the holes got there. They were intended to kill her father, who was the last living survivor in the building the day Baby Face Nelson came to Brainerd.

That the two came to meet each other on a streetcorner was the sort of pure, delightful chance that keeps bloggers coming to work each day.

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DeGeest’s father — Zane Smith — was a teenager employed as a courier at the First National Bank. On October 27, 1933, Smith returned from an errand to find all of the employees of the bank lined up along a wall. Nelson’s gang was robbing the joint but needed the combination to the safe.

He told his story to the Brainerd Dispatch (founded by his father) years ago:

“Baby Face Nelson crouched down on his knees in front of a huge pillager,” said Smith in 1999. “He jumped to his feet and took after me. He took ahold of the top collar of my top coat and twirled me around and socked me in the jaw.”

The blow knocked Smith off of his feet and he was dragged across the floor to a spot where the bank janitors, Mr. and Mrs. L.A. Peterson, and guard Bob Titus, were located.

One by one the bank employees were corralled and stretched out on the front office floor until they numbered a baker’s dozen. When the tellers arrived, each was taken in turn to open their separate vaults.

Nelson and his gang escaped with $30,000 — about $500,00 in today’s dollars. With mining operations and the railroad in full tilt, Brainerd had a lot of cash around town.

Nelson fired his machine gun into the ceiling, ran out to the getaway car, and sprayed the building with gunfire. “They simply sprayed up and down the street as they left to make sure that no one was going to bother them,” said Smith in 1999. The bullet holes now belong to Mr. Foy.

His shop was closed when we arrived but he was delighted to reopen the building to give us a tour. It was a pawn shop when he and his parents bought it a few years ago. The old windows had been drywalled over and he found them by accident, staying up all night to uncover them and preserve them. He removed the fake ceiling and found the original tin one, with the bullet holes still there.

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And the big vault? “It’s still right below us,” said Foy, who clearly has a historian’s heart.

Whatever history he was missing, Ms. DeGeest filled in yesterday.

They’ll get to know each other better. Foy wants to follow Northfield’s Jesse James Days idea and celebrate the day a Chicago mobster knocked off a Brainerd bank starting — maybe — this October.

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Zane Smith died in 2003, the last person alive who was in the bank that day.

In Brainerd in 1933, you could rise from courier to become a bank vice president. Mr. Smith proved it.

  • Angry Jonny

    When I went to college in Brainerd, I lived in the upstairs apt. of Zane Smith’s house. He was an interesting guy with a never ending supply of stories, the most …notorious, I guess…of which was this one. At first I was like, “Whatever, man…”, but it was the real deal. He was like a walking, talking encyclopedia of Gull Lake.

  • Guest

    SERENDIPITY

  • kevins

    Interesting story.