This Week in South Side History

Bloody 1953 bank heist hit silver screen

Movie gave boost to then-unknown Steve McQueen

by Jim Merkel


At 94, Melburn Stein has been retired longer than he served in the St. Louis Police Department.Yet he still has dreams about April 24, 1953, when he was nearly killed more than once in what was to become known as the Great St. Louis Bank Robbery.

The sensational robbery at the Southwest Bank at South Kingshighway Boulevard and Southwest Avenue attracted a crowd of police officers and onlookers.

It ended with a police officer injured, two bank robbers dead and one robber injured. The getaway car’s driver eluded police but was quickly caught.

One robber took his own life, saying “They’ll never take me.” Stein killed the other one as the robber rushed to the front door using a woman as a shield.

The bank’s directors, who were holding a board meeting in a room in the bank, threw their wallets in a wastebasket and hid under a table until police used tear gas.

In the end, police recovered the entire heist – $141,000.

It was the stuff you’d see in a 1950s crime movie, and people in Hollywood agreed. In 1959, United Artists released a movie about it, “The Great St. Louis Bank Robbery,” starring a new actor named Steve McQueen.

The man who played Stein had a special knowledge of the part. It was Stein himself, ordered by the city police board to play the role.

“Frankly, I didn’t think McQueen was all that great,” Stein said, adding that McQueen was distant and self-contained.

Living in Creve Coeur and still spry enough to cut his own grass, Stein credits his Marine Corps training to saving him amidst the gunfire. It told him to bend down and become a smaller target.

Stein shot the robber holding the hostage after she passed out of his line of fire.

“It was a calculated shot,” Stein said. “I had plenty of time to think about it.”

The dying robber went for a .38-caliber revolver in his belt and almost shot Stein. Fortunately, Stein noticed what the robber was doing.

“I reached down and got the gun,” Stein said. “Just to think about it gives me the creeps.”

Stein stayed on with the city department and retired in 1973 after 31 years.

The officer who was injured, Cpl. Robert Heinz, didn’t do as well.

A bullet that struck him in the head lodged in the skull around the ear and was not removed. He lost his equilibrium and had to retire.

Last week, retired Southwest Bank President Ed Berra showed off the old vault that had held money stolen in the robbery. Now an advisory board member and a consultant to Southwest, Berra started with the bank in 1959.

After the robbery, the bank increased the numbers of armed guards or introduced them at branches that didn’t have them, said Berra, 78.

Pictures on the wall of the Southwest Bank office include a newspaper photo of the robbery.

“I can’t believe that’s over a half-century ago,” Berra said.

Note: I hope Jim Merkel will forgive me using his article as my blog entry. Jim, if you ever read this, just remember who made you famous as the Grinch.


I’m listening to a re-broadcast of the an interview with Missouri’s (first) Poet Laureate Walter Bargen on public radio. It was on this morning when a friend called my cell phone to say, “Hey, Mark Tiedemann’s on the radio! Bye!” I walked out to my car and tuned in the station to listen. Then, just now, Emily called my cell, “Hey Mark Tiedemann’s on the radio! Bye!” Mark is president of the Missouri Center for the Book and a good friend. (His blog is here.)

As the host was asking the obligatory questions about poetry (why doesn’t it ryhme?), I was taken back to high-school when the creative writing class was assigned the task of defining poetry. I admit I was at a loss to define it. I do remember though, that by the time we were finished discussing it, I had a word. A word that has stayed with me all these years. I heard it tonight listening to Mark try to describe why he picked Mr. Bargen for the Poet Laureate of Missouri.

The word is universitality. Not universality; but universitality.

The poet’s job (and all other artists, I would argue) is to reveal the universitality of a thing. A clear example of this revealing would be a sculptor “revealing” the sculpture within a block of marble. A poem reveals a moment in time and exposes the eternal lying just beneath.

I’m reminded of one of favorite books, The Time Falling Bodies Take to Light by William Irwin Thompson. I can’t exactly remember the quote I’m trying to think of, but it was something like “the eternity that lays at the end of every exhale.” I was looking for that book just the other day to give to Emily. She wanted to know what the meaning of life was so I recommended the Book of Job and this one by Irwin.

I’ll leave you tonight with a couple of quotes from these two great books:

First, from Job, chapter 28 verse 22-28:

So where does Wisdom come from?
And where does Insight live?
It can’t be found by looking, no matter
how deep you dig, no matter how high you fly.
If you search through the graveyard and question the dead,
they say, “We’ve only heard rumors of it.”
God alone knows the way to Wisdom,
he knows the exact place to find it.
He knows where everything is on earth,
he sees everything under heaven.
After he commanded the winds to blow
and measured out the waters,
Arranged for the rain
and set off explosions of thunder and lightning,
He focused on Wisdom,
made sure it was all set and tested and ready.
Then he addressed the human race: “Here it is!
Fear-of-the-Lord—that’s Wisdom,
and Insight means shunning evil.”

And second, from Thompson:

“Forms of knowledge change as society changes. Sometimes these changes are small and incremental; at other times the changes are transformations of the structures of knowledge and not merely the contents. From religion to philosophy, from alchemy to chemistry, from legend to history, the social organization of knowledge changes as a new elite comes in to challenge the old authorities. But this movement is not simply a linear and one-directional shift toward increasing rationalization and de-mystification; when the rational historian has come in to take away authority from the mystical and tribal bard, the artist has returned to create new forms of expression to re-sacrilize, re-enchant, re-mythologize.”

This Week in South Side History

St. Louis annexed Carondelet in 1870

from the South Side Journal Tues. April 1, 2008

written by Jim Merkel

Two visitors came to Carondelet on April 7, 1870 ready to make official the biggest change ever in the community’s century-old history.

They were the St. Louis city register and the marshal, appearing at the office of the City of Carondelet with an order to turn all city documents over to them. They came after the state legislature passed a law annexing the community to St. Louis.

The visit marked the end of the City of Carondelet, which traced itself to a village established three years after the founding of St. Louis.The community began in 1767, when a Frenchman named Clement DeLore Treget crossed the Mississippi to Spanish land on the west side. He started a community called Louisbourg, or “Vide Poche” (empty pocket). Later he changed the name to Carondelet, in honor of the Spanish governor general.

The village grew steadily and was incorporated as a city in 1851. Industry and railroads came to the area, including James Eads’ boat works, where the ironclads were produced that helped the Union take control of the Mississippi during the Civil War.

Despite the city’s industrious residents, the monster to the north grew faster and finally absorbed Carondelet in 1870.

“There clearly is some evidence to suggest that some people in Carondelet were unhappy about being annexed by the city of St. Louis,” said NiNi Harris, a Carondelet resident and author of numerous books on St. Louis historical topics.

But Harris said the community benefitted greatly from becoming the city’s southernmost neighborhood. The annexation brought professional police and fire departments, the immediate construction of two new schools and the opening of Carondelet Park in 1876.

“Though the community lost this sense of independence and to a little bit lost its sense of being distinct, the advantages were many,” she said.