Margaret O’Neill walked into the First National Bank in West Middlesex to make a deposit and saw papers and cash scattered across the tiled floor. Telephones rang at empty desks. No one was in sight. That was strange, especially on a Monday morning. Then O’Neill heard a muffled voice. It seemed to come from nowhere.
Alarmed, she exited the bank and ran across Main Street to the local grocery store. West Middlesex is a town of 1,200 residents near the Ohio border in Mercer County. Big city newspapers called it a “country village.” Nothing ever happened there. Until this day, March 22, 1954.
The local grocer served as bank president. He wasn’t in when Mrs. O’Neill arrived, but an employee summoned John Walker, owner of a nearby hardware store. Walker was a bank director. He rushed to the corner gas station to get owner Daniel Grundy, and the two hustled to the bank.
Once inside, the two men heard a voice calling from inside one of the bank’s two vaults. It was Ernest L. Clinger, the cashier. A heavy calculating machine blocked the vault door. Walker and Grundy quickly pushed it aside. Clinger shouted a warning: Don’t touch the combination. He then gave Walker and Grundy instructions: Turn the wheel to the left. That will release the bolt.
The vault door swung open. Clinger and six others emerged from the stuffy four-foot-wide room.
News that something odd had occurred at First National Bank quickly spread through West Middlesex. Soon, curious residents gathered outside the front door. The town’s only police officer arrived on the scene. He was followed by the state police, the FBI and a gaggle of newspaper reporters and photographers.
Investigators learned that two men had entered the bank around 10 a.m. and approached bookkeeper Kathleen Mitchell.
“This is a stickup,” the men announced. Mitchell laughed. “Are you kidding?” she said. One of the men answered by pointing a gun at her face.
“Do what we tell you and nobody will get hurt,” the man said, sounding like a character in a James Cagney movie.
The men ordered Mitchell into the bank’s main office, where two other bookkeepers and Clinger stood at their desks. All were ordered to walk into a vault in which records were stored.
Clinger placed his foot on the vault door to keep it from closing completely. Clinger was 47 years old and lived in an apartment above the bank. He wanted to keep fresh air flowing into the vault.
One of the robbers scooped up money from the main cash drawer. The other took up a position just inside the bank’s entrance to deal with unsuspecting customers. Three arrived during the robbery. All were ordered into the crowded vault.
The bandits pounded on a safe containing more than $40,000, but the safe refused to open. After approximately eight minutes inside the bank, the two frustrated robbers decided it was time to go. They slammed shut the vault’s heavy iron door and locked it in place with a bolt operated by a wheel mechanism, thus trapping seven people inside. Luckily, the two men did not spin the combination wheel, which would have made the victims’ release much more difficult.
Before fleeing, the robbers pushed the calculating machine in front of the vault door. No one noticed the two as they exited the bank and drove away.
The men made off with approximately $4,000. In their haste, they failed to notice $2,300 lying in plain view on a counter.
State police quickly set up roadblocks throughout Western Pennsylvania but had no luck in capturing any suspects. The bandits seemed to have simply disappeared.
Finally, a year and two days after the robbery, the FBI announced it had arrested and charged two men: Walter E. Skiba, 37, and Edward Albert Townsend, 32, both of Cleveland. They were being held in other states on bank robbery charges in Indiana and Michigan.
The 50-year-old bank was torn down in the late 1950s, and a new bank built in its place. Years later, it too was torn down. A modern bank with a drive-through window now occupies the site.
These days, few people in town know anything about the day more than 60 years ago when two inept criminals put tiny West Middlesex on the front pages of newspapers throughout the region.
— Steve Mellon