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​The Kulm Bank Caper: A 97-Year-Old Cold Case on the Prairie

HPR Abroad | January 7th, 2023

By Rick Schlecht

kathyja49@drtel.net

Who among us mystery buffs and sleuths are not familiar with the Hasbro board game, CLUE? Its host of unusual suspects contemplating a crime in some room within a mansion, with access to weapons of opportunity, was sure to push our brain pans to the extreme limit, digging for clues exposing the culprit.

However, real life is not a board game and not every crime can be solved. Some become a 'cold case file.' One such case in North Dakota turned 97 years old last July. It happened early Saturday morning around 1am on July 18th, 1925, in the town of Kulm.

Kulm Messenger publisher Vincent C. Lewis summed it up like this, "Saturday morning, July 18th, 1925, will be remembered by Kulm citizens as possibly the most thrilling and daring attempted robbery that has ever been recorded, when the First State Bank of Kulm was victimized."

His poignant summation was a representation of a much grander story of the exciting events to be splashed on the front page of the Kulm Messenger, under the heading, 'Kulm Bank Robbery,' on Thursday, July 23rd, 1925. According to the Kulm Centennial book, 1892-1992, with five robbers involved in the heist.

The five strangers arrived by car and parked on the outskirts of town, then hiked to the bank. Witnesses described the robbery as “well-planned,” and the actions of the robbers were “calm and precise.” Telegraph and telephone lines were cut beforehand. Two of the men broke into the bank through a window to blow the vault door with Nitroglycerine. The other men, armed to the teeth, remained outside to act as lookouts and guards.

The first explosion came at exactly 1:52 AM and violently jolted the sleeping townsfolk awake. Several more explosions resulted, but to no avail, before the residents were able to arm and organize themselves to engage the robbers.

In an instant, bullets were flying in all directions and the sleepy town of Kulm was a shooting gallery. By luck or divine intervention, no one was killed. By the time the 13th explosion was set off, the reinforced Die-Bold safe would not reveal its secrets, so the five disheartened robbers spirited themselves away as quietly and mysteriously as they had come.

During The Great Depression of the 1920s and 30s, the mere mention of the name "Robin Hood" in some parts of the country produced romantic images of flashy robber barons robbing banks in spectacular fashion, then fleeing the long arm of the law in powerfully built V-8 engine getaway cars, heroes to some, scoundrels to others. Nevertheless, these amazing crimes put some small towns on the map to be salaciously talked about for years to come.

Colorful names were passed around supper tables like a steaming plate of savory stuffed cabbage for the curious family to chew on. Names like John Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd, Baby Face Nelson and Bonnie and Clyde, to name a few, always whetted those appetites.

However, these particular bandits did not get their start in bank robbery until the early 1930's. They couldn't possibly be responsible for earlier robberies, like the one at the First State Bank of Kulm, on July 18th, 1925, so, who was?

According to eyewitness accounts, five strangers walked into town. They were organized and well-prepared, courteous and composed under pressure. Their operation was well-planned. It's possible these men were familiar with Kulm's lights out policy for all city streets at midnight. It's possible these men were familiar with the interior of the bank. And finally, it is possible these men had prior knowledge of the location of grain bin doors outside, to use as a fortification with a sharpshooter inside to deter townsfolk.

This type of planning requires reconnaissance. Recon is something this writer humbly knows a little bit about...so who would go through all this trouble?!

Well, one name comes to this writer's mind, Herman "The Baron" Lamm. Mr. Lamm was a Prussian soldier who was kicked out of the Army for cheating at cards. Disgraced, Mr. Lamm left Prussia for America before the start of WWI. A vagrant and small-time thief after WWI's end, he managed to work his way up to larger robberies. Later he would often recruit men from the infamous Birger gang, who ran bootlegging operations out of Illinois. With associates W.H. Hunter, James "Oklahoma Jack" Clark, G.W. "Dad" Landy, and Walter Dietrich under his tutelage, this crew victimized a dozen Midwest states until 1930, North Dakota being one.

Mr. Lamm believed a heist required all the planning of a military operation. He would assign each man a specific job and train him. Jobs such as, "vault man," "lobby man," "driver" and "guard." His system became known as, "The Lamm Technique."

On December 16th, 1930, Lamm, Hunter and Landy died in a shootout with 200 officers outside Sidell, Indiana. Bandits Clark and Dietrich survived the firefight. They were sent to prison in Indiana, and, once there, met John Dillinger. Mr. Dillinger was taught The Lamm Technique, and the bank robbery industry from that day forward was forever changed.

The technique netted the Lamm gang over $1 million dollars during their spree. Today, some of Lamm's heists remain unsolved. That old building, the First State Bank of Kulm, knows their identities, but remains silent as the grave. This would never happen in the game of CLUE.

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