Known as the ‘Baron of bank robbery,’ Herman Lamm singlehandedly revolutionised the art of armed robbery. Born the German city of Kassel on April 19, 1890 Lamm served in the German Army until shortly before the outbreak of the First World War when he was thrown out for cheating at cards. In disgrace, Lamm emigrated to America like so many other Germans looking for a fresh start.
Unfortunately for banks everywhere, Lamm’s idea of a fresh start involved armed robbery, particularly of banks. Banks, as bank-robber and escape artist Willie Sutton famously said, are where the money is, after all. Unfortunately, in Lamm’s opinion, bank-robbers were often undisciplined, unskilled thugs and their robberies were often improvised, hit-or-miss affairs. If a gang was lucky they might walk out with a big score and without a shot fired. If they weren’t they could all be killed or end up fleeing with almost nothing or nothing at all.
Not that that made any difference to judges who didn’t care whether the score was big or non-existent. Which was a particular problem in States like Alabama, Oklahoma, Mississippi and Texas where armed robbery was at the time a capital offence. In Lamm’s opinion bank robbers needed organisation, training and discipline. Robberies, in his opinion should be planned and trained for like military operations, as though Lamm and his gang were commandos operating behind enemy lines. Being an experienced soldier, Lamm was the man to provide those kind of skills.
It became known as the ‘Lamm Method’ or the ‘Lamm Technique’ and, with adaptations to cater for evolved opposition and modern society, many of Lamm’s techniques are still in use today.
There’s an old military saying; ‘Time spent on reconnaissance is never wasted.’ Being ex-military Lamm took that to heart. He cased banks well before a robbery, looking over their security, the number of entrances and exits, drew up floor plans and found a series of escape routes he called ‘git roads’ or ‘cat roads’ for after a robbery. Lamm wanted to know as much as possible about a target before even deciding whether it was worth hitting.
If it was, Lamm moved on to stage two; Preparation. What British soldiers call the ‘Five P’s’ (‘Prior Preparation Prevents Poor Performance’) was something else Lamm believed in firmly. For some robberies he used a building with a floor plan drawn up literally on the floor, similar to today’s Special Forces technique used to rehearse siege-breaking, prisoner-snatching, hostage rescue and various other duties.
Lamm recognised that escape was as important as entry. As the military do, Lamm never wanted to go into a target without first knowing how he and his gang would get out. He was often choosy about getaway drivers, preferring to pick auto racers because they were skilled at driving quickly, had a relaxed attitude to personal risk and turn ordinary cars into fast, highly-tuned escape cars with their mechanical knowledge. Lamm made his drivers choose several different routes from a robbery in case of roadblocks or posses. To ensure they knew every inch of all of them, Lamm also made his wheelmen drive every route with a stopwatch and drew maps and pace notes similar to those used by modern rally drivers.
Hardware mattered to Lamm as well. Like any soldier he wanted the best equipment for a dangerous job and applied the same logic to robbing banks. Lamm wanted the best available drivers with the fastest, most reliable cars. He also wanted the best weapons available. Granted, most professional bank-robbers wanted to go in and come out without a shot fired and Lamm was one of them. That said, if gunplay was the last option then he wanted his men well-armed and ideally wearing the early silk vests that usually stopped a standard handgun bullet or shotgun blast.
Lastly, with the job done and police and armed citizens in hot pursuit, the gang needed a ‘flop,’ a safe house to hide in until the heat wore off, especially if anybody was killed or wounded. Of course, the robbery itself was the most highly-planned and tightly-organised part of the whole thing.
All members of Lamm’s gang had specific roles during a robbery. The wheelman drove the getaway car and waited outside, engine running and foot on the pedal. The look-out waited outside the doors, watching for any sign of trouble from citizens, police or posses. The lobby man kept staff and customers under armed guard and ensured that any armed bank guards were disarmed, lethally if necessary. The vault man did the actual robbing, entering the vault and clearing the counters of cash, as much as possible as fast as possible. He had to work fast, Lamm having a maximum time limit on a robbery before his gang would leave regardless of the size of the haul.
All Lamm’s military-style organisation and ideas made for huge profits. Between the end of the First World War and Lamm’s death in 1930 his gang stole over a million dollars. By the standards of their time the Lamm gang were regarded as the most efficient, effective and successful American armed robbers of their era. The likes of Bonnie and Clyde could only dream of the kind of scores routinely taken by Lamm and his friends. A petty crook from Mooresville, Indiana then serving a long stretch for robbery certainly would. But more on that fascinating young gentleman later…
Unfortunately for the Lamm gang the end came violently. As is often the case with armed robbery, increasing skill and experience is eventually trumped by the law of averages. If you gamble your life often enough, you’ll lose sooner or later. Herman ‘Baron’ Lamm eventually did.
He’d been busted several different times under as many different names. Jail cells in North Carolina, California, Missouri, Wisconsin and Illinois were all honoured to receive the ‘Baron’ at different times. Despite accumulating vast experience and truckloads of cash, the gang only needed things to go wrong once. In Clinton, Indiana on December 16, 1930 that was exactly what happened.
Lamm’s choice of wheelman for the job simply wasn’t up to it. Faced with armed citizens and police officer he panicked during getaway and burst a tyre. The gang seized a second vehicle. This proved rather less than useful, the gang didn’t know its rightful owner had fitted an engine governor limiting it to only 35 miles an hour to stop his father from driving it recklessly. This being exactly what Lamm’s gang, a few men against over 200 armed citizens and cops, had in mind. Bad things, of course, come in threes, the Lamm gangs third choice had only a gallon of fuel which ran out in short order. Finally, they seized yet another vehicle which, while full of fuel, had a radiator decidedly less full of water.
Outside Sidell, Illinois the engine seized, leaving Lamm and his crew at the mercy of a posse by now in company strength. Walter Dietrich and James ‘Oklahoma Jack’ Clark were arrested and later drew life sentences at Michigan City. Lamm and accomplice G.W. ‘Dad’ Landy, who at 71 years old had started out in the era of ‘Butch’ Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, decided to take their own way out rather than face the rest of their lives behind bars. Short of ammunition and impossibly outnumbered, they saved their last bullets for themselves.
The ‘Baron’ had been dethroned, but that isn’t quite the end of the story. Remember the fascinating young gentleman with the long robbery stretch at Michigan City? Walter Dietrich and Jams Clark met him while doing their time there and offered him a deal. If he could earn his parole then he could help them escape. If he helped them escape then they’d join his gang and, in the meantime, taught their eager young apprentice everything they knew about the Lamm Technique.
That eager apprentice was a certain John Dillinger…