This is the third and final installment in our series on Wanted Posters featuring couples. As you may recall, we came across the Wanted Posters in the County Attorney’s correspondence. Harold Wallace, the Salt Lake County Attorney in the 1930s and 1940s, was on the FBI’s mailing list during the Public Enemy Era. The last couple has what I think is the most surprising ending.
This poster, released February 8, 1938, features Maurice Denning and Evelyn Bert. The poster lists multiple aliases for both. According to the poster, Denning was wanted for “the robbery of the following National banks: First National Bank, Hawarden, Iowa, October 15, 1934; First National Bank, Dell Rapids, South Dakota, November 7, 1934; Security National Bank, Superior, Nebraska, November 22, 1934; First National Bank, Smith Center, Kansas, February 1, 1935; First National Bank, Hudson, South Dakota, January 5, 1935. He is likewise wanted for participation in the robbery of seven State banks.” Adding those up- that’s 12 bank robberies!
Evelyn Burt does not appear to have directly aided in the robberies; she was only wanted for harboring Denning.
Denning was an Iowa farmer by trade, but he ran afoul of the law when he got caught using stolen license plates. His next offense was more serious: he got involved in bootlegging. While serving his bootlegging sentence he became friends with hardened criminals William “Billy” Pabst and his partner in crime Earl Keeling, both convicted bank robbers. Once they were all out of prison they formed a gang including a box-car bandit, Thomas Limerick, and Pabst’s nephew, Francis Harper, an escaped convict. They became known as the Denning-Limerick Gang.
They began their crime spree in August 1934 and by November were recognized as the top public enemies in the Midwest. Unlike earlier blog subjects Ben and Stella Mae, the Denning-Limerick gang treated their hostages more harshly, including when they were accused of torturing a farmer so he’d reveal where he had money hidden. However, they used the same technique as Ben when fleeing, they too took hostages and made them stand on the get-away car’s running boards as human shields until they got out of town. This practice had also been used by the Dillinger gang, which likely gave both Ben and Denning the idea.
The Denning-Limerick Gang realized they needed a hide-out/base of operations and choose a house in Kinney, Nebraska. Kinney was a boom/bust railroad town that was on its way to becoming a ghost town, so it served their purposes well. However, it wasn’t long before law enforcement figured out where they were and a task force of several agencies surrounded the house. Unfortunately for the task force, only two members of the gang were actually there at the time. The two fugitives pretended to surrender, but then made a break for it, fleeing on foot. The officers opened fire. Earl Keeling, one of Denning’s prison companions, was hit almost immediately. A sheriff’s deputy shot him in the back, the bullet exited through his abdomen. He managed to keep running another half mile before collapsing. He survived until the next morning when he passed away at the hospital. Frances Harper, the other man in the house when law enforcement showed up, fared a little better. He had some minor wounds, but managed to steal a car and made it all the way to Kentucky before his capture. He ended up in Alcatraz and was listed as an escape risk.
Meanwhile back in Nebraska, Denning and Limerick returned to the Kinney hide-out in a stolen car the night of the raid. Police had arrested the four women in the house, including Denning and Limerick’s wives, Alice Denning and Catherine Limerick. All of the women were charged with harboring fugitives. You’ll notice that Evelyn Bert was not there; it’s unclear when she became involved with Denning. At least one newspaper blamed her for Denning’s entry into serious crime because he was trying to impress her. When Denning and Limerick arrived at the house they realized that something was wrong so they kept driving. Police fired on them, but they were able to get away and soon after ditched the bullet-ridden car.
Law enforcement finally caught up with Limerick in a nightclub in Missouri in May of 1935. He was arrested because of his involvement in a fight. He confessed to the bank robberies and was given a life sentence, first going to Leavenworth then to Alcatraz. On May 23, 1938, Limerick attempted escape, but was killed by a guard.
Denning disappeared. In July 1936 the FBI upgraded him to Public Enemy Number One. He was “the most successful Public Enemy” and was never captured.
Salt Lake County Attorney’s Correspondence, series AD-006. Salt Lake County Archives.
Entry contributed by Dr. Michaele Smith, Archivist, Salt Lake County Archives.
Chris Dunker, Beatrice Daily Sun, July 22, 2009