As we mentioned in an earlier post, we came across a folder of FBI wanted posters in the correspondence of the County Attorney and were especially interested in the posters featuring wanted couples. We wrote about the Birds; now we turn to Bennie and Stella Mae Dickson.
According to their poster they were wanted for “the kidnapping of Henry Metty and Claude Minnis” and for transporting them across state lines from Michigan to Indiana in November 1938. They were also wanted for the “robbery of the Northwest security National Bank” in Sioux Falls, South Dakota in August 1938. And lastly “for violations of the National Motor Vehicle Theft Act” in November 1938.
Bennie and Stella had promising beginnings, but seemed ill-fated by their teenage years. Bennie committed a teenage prank and the Judge decided to make a statement with a very harsh sentence. While he did commit a crime he always felt this conviction was unfair which fueled his future criminal endeavors. His time in prison also contributed to the escalation of his crimes as he became friends with much more hardened criminals.
Stella’s story is much sadder and more out of her control. At 15 years old she was brutally raped by a stranger, acquiring gonorrhea from this attack which required painful medical treatment. The social workers also did not maintain confidentiality, and news of her STD spread through their small town. With unfair rumors of her promiscuity swirling around her, unsympathetic social workers, and only painful medical procedures to look forward to, Stella fled to California. That is where she had the further misfortune of meeting and falling for a man from her home town, Bennie Dickson.
Shortly after meeting, the couple married and traveled to his family’s cabin in Lake Preston, South Dakota to honeymoon. Stella’s 16th birthday approached and the couple was very cash poor (this was during the Great Depression, after all). Benny had a solution: rob a bank. The couple’s criminal career started with a heist in Elkton, South Dakota.
As Outlaw Tales of South Dakota notes, “For her sixteenth birthday Stella Dickson robbed a bank. For her seventeenth birthday she was sent to federal prison” (92).
On August 25, 1938, Bennie walked into the Elkton Corn Exchange Bank, approached the two employees, pulled out a revolver and said, “This is a holdup. Do exactly as I say and there will be no trouble and nobody hurt” (92). He then spent the next 35 minutes waiting for the bank’s time lock safe to open. While he waited around 20 people came into the bank, including L. C. Foreman, the president of the bank. Bennie checked out each person, going as far as having the cashier look up the balances of their accounts. If they seemed able to afford the loss he would take their money, otherwise he did not take money from individuals, just the bank. He even went as far as returning a $20 bill one of the patrons had dropped.
After the time lock finally allowed him access to the vault, Bennie took the money and locked all 20-something people in the vault and left the bank. The captives flipped an emergency switch in the vault which set off a warning light in the nearby Dressel Store and they were soon released.
Bennie had enough money to buy his new wife a birthday gift and to get out of town. They were able to live on the proceeds of the robbery for 2 months before they felt the need to hit another bank.
This time their target was the Northwestern Security National Bank in Brookings, South Dakota. Brookings was a small college town which was recovering from its annual Hobo Day Celebration when Bennie and Stella strolled into the bank at 8:30am Monday October 31st. The “handsome young couple” carried a machine gun and a sawed-off shotgun.
Again they waited patiently for the time lock safe to open – this time they had to wait two and a half hours!
More than 100 people entered the bank while they were there, thanks to the busy weekend. This time instead of holding the customers hostage they tried to blend in while keeping the two bank employees compliant. At 11 o’clock, the time lock finally opened and they retrieved the money and went out to their car with the two bank employees. They made the two men stand on the running boards of the car and then drove several blocks. They ordered the men to jump off and then continued out of town. The bank employees quickly raised the alarm and a chase ensued.
Come back next week for the conclusion….
Entry contributed by Dr. Michaele Smith, Archivist, Salt Lake County Archives.
Tom Griffith, Outlaw Tales of South Dakota: True Stories of the Mount Rushmore State’s Most Infamous Crooks, Culprits, and Cutthroats, (TwoDot, 2008).
Matthew Cecil, The Ballad of Ben and Stella Mae: Great Plains Outlaws Who Became FBI Public Enemies Nos. 1 and 2, (University Press of Kansas, 2016)