Since Ben and Stella had a head start they were able to get away, but the authorities had more to go on after the second robbery than the first. This time they also got a bigger take – over $47,000. Law enforcement was eventually able to track them to a campground in Topeka, Kansas and closed in on them, resulting in their separation and a shootout. Ben was able to get away, steal a new car, and return to pick up Stella who he left behind at the campground.
They then continued to allude capture by crisscrossing the country and stealing cars. In one close call with the law they took three men hostage in an attempt to get away (resulting in kidnapping charges). The couple also got in a shootout with a patrol car as it gave chase. Stella was the one doing the shooting this time and, even though she was given the name “Sure Shot Stella” as a result, it’s unlikely she was even really aiming or trying to kill the officers – she just wanted them to stop following. It was also during this gunfight that a bullet grazed Stella’s forehead leaving a scar.
The couple also managed to set up house in an apartment in New Orleans, but the FBI was turning up the heat so it must have been a stressful time for the couple even though they tried to find some semblance of normalcy. After the two bank robberies and the kidnapping, the FBI named them Public Enemies No.1 and No. 2. Less than 5 months later, the couple was lured into a meeting with an informant in St. Louis. Ben went alone to a hamburger stand for the meeting and realized too late that it was a set up. He tried to walk away, but several FBI agents were closing in. As he turned to run a young FBI agent shot him in the back – at least four times.
Stella was in the couple’s car down the street and may have witnessed the shooting, or at least saw the aftermath as she drove by. The FBI agents weren’t paying close enough attention so she was able to just keep driving. Stella must have been devastated by the loss of her husband. She started driving to her mother’s house. She ended up having to take rides from strangers who got her closer and closer home. But at least one of them found the petite blonde’s behavior suspicious. He realized she might be the woman the FBI was looking for and arranged to turn her in. The book “Outlaw Tales” notes that when agents took her into custody “she was unarmed, carried $70, and was wearing three rings, including the wedding set with seven diamonds… she also possessed a key to a New Orleans apartment and a poem Ben had penned. It read, ‘In the eyes of men I am not just/ But in your eyes, O life, I see justification/ You have taught me that my path is right if I am true to you’” (96).
Stella was sent to South Dakota to stand trial for bank robbery, holding a doll throughout the proceedings. This may have been a ploy to try to make her more sympathetic to the jury, or she was holding it for comfort (she was only 16 and a widow after all). Many of those involved in the prosecution of the case felt sorry for the young woman and some even suggested that coverture be applied to the case (coverture laws, according to dictionary.com, meant that a married women was “considered as under the protection and authority of her husband,” meaning that a woman couldn’t really make decisions for herself, that her husband’s authority was supreme. So a women might not be culpable for a crime if she was committing it at her husband’s direction – women weren’t supposed to defy their husbands. However, by the 1930s coverture laws held less sway). J. Edgar Hoover seems to have had a big influence on the outcome of the trial. While some wanted to show mercy to Stella because of her youth and gender, Hoover wanted to make an example of her and demonstrate the power and usefulness of the FBI. He put pressure on the judge and others involved in the case to do just that. Judge Lee A. Wyman determined Stella’s guilt and sentenced her to two concurrent ten-year sentences. On her seventeenth birthday she entered a federal prison for women in West Virginia.
Stella Mae was paroled in 1946. She was twenty-four years old. For a short time she was a flight attendant, but eventually settled into a career as a clerk at Kmart. She also took care of her disabled brother and made a quiet life for herself in Kansas. She did marry two more times, but both marriages were fairly short; neither men lived up to the memory of her first husband. Over time, she became more and more reclusive and President Nixon eventually pardoned her in recognition of the quiet life she had led since prison. She died September 10, 1995.
In his book, “The Ballad of Ben and Stella Mae: Great Plains Outlaws Who Became FBI Public Enemies Nos. 1 and 2,” Matthew Cecil argues that the FBI was having such a hard time fighting organized crime that they sought out cases with flashy criminals like Bonnie and Clyde and John Dillinger, who were much easier to capture. In this way the FBI could make a name for themselves. Once they had caught those notorious criminals they needed new and similar targets. So they turned the relatively small time criminals, Ben and Stella Dickson, into media sensations and blew their crimes out of proportion to make them seem much more dangerous than they actually were. Their manhunt also pushed Ben and Stella into a corner where they made increasingly desperate moves and eventually led to Ben’s death. And while the two most certainly were criminals who deserved to pay for their crimes, they were hardly enough of a threat to justify the outcome.
If you are interested in this story you can read it in much greater detail in Matthew Cecil’s new book.
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).