1950 FBI wanted poster for bank robber Willie Sutton
Three images of William Francis Sutton stared out from the FBI wanted poster, and some auction-goer had already left a bid on it.
This criminal was better known as Willie Sutton – a notorious bank robber and the Houdini of prison escapes. The poster was released in 1950 and featured head shots of Sutton from the front and right side. He was “believed to be armed and is considered extremely dangerous,” according to the poster, although many described him as a kind and gentle bandit.
Sutton was known as “Willie the Actor” and “Slick Willie” because he executed his robberies in disguises. At a planned robbery in Philadelphia – which he suspended – he came dressed as a mailman. At a jewelry store in New York, he was a messenger. In other instances, he posed as a police officer and maintenance man, being careful to drop by the locations just before they opened.
He was first jailed in 1931, escaped a year later, and was apprehended two years later and jailed at Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, where he spent 11 years. Eastern State, which also had housed gangster Al Capone, is now open for audio tours and special events.
At that prison, Sutton is best known for a 1945 escape through a tunnel under the prison wall. He and 11 other men dug the tunnel to a freedom that was short-lived. Sutton was captured by two police officers within minutes after climbing out of the hole from the tunnel. He was sent to another prison outside Philadelphia, but he was undeterred.
One night two years later, he and several other inmates dressed as prison guards carried a ladder to the walls of that prison to climb over. When a light was shined on them, they waved it off, with him saying all was OK. He escaped again.
That’s when the FBI put out its wanted poster, naming him one of its Ten Most Wanted Fugitives. He was finally captured in 1952 in an arrest that held the drama of a Hollywood movie.
Retired New York police officer Donald Shea, who carried around a worn photo of Sutton those many years ago, recalled how the bank robber was finally caught, and the New York Daily News last year reprinted its account of the arrest and aftermath.
A clothing salesman named Arnold Schuster recognized Sutton while on the New York subway on his way home, according to Shea. Schuster followed the suspected Sutton to a gas station and then alerted Shea and his partner. The two officers later found Sutton working on his car and asked for identification. Sutton gave them a fake driver’s license, which looked real, and the officers left. They returned later with a detective and asked Sutton to join them at the police station.
He coolly answered their questions, Shea said, until they mentioned that they’d have to fingerprint him. That’s when he admitted that he was Willie Sutton. They also stripped him and found a gun between his legs.
All three officers were promoted to detective first grade, but poor Schuster got lost in the hullabaloo. His role was soon acknowledged, and he was given hero status. Not everyone was pleased at what he had done, and he and his family were harassed. Schuster was later viciously killed while walking near his home. The case was heavily investigated but no one was charged.
Sutton was returned to prison with two life sentences plus 105 years. Around 1969, Sutton, ailing with emphysema and other medical impairments, was released from Attica State Prison. He even did a TV commercial for Master Card credit card for a bank in Connecticut, and wrote two books.
He died in Florida at age 79 in 1980.
Sutton was credited with giving this answer to a question about why he robbed banks: “Because that’s where the money is.” In his autobiography, he was said to have denied ever saying it, crediting some “enterprising reporter” with making it up. He robbed banks, he said, because he loved doing it.
Over the decades of his robbery spree, he was said to have stolen more than $2 million.