William Kraft, president of the Dunn County Bankers Association, was headed for the Hotel Marion in Milwaukee. It was the fall of 1927, 90 years ago.
Kraft was set to preside over a meeting of 50 vigilantes and bankers from Dunn County — not “vigilantes” in quote-marks, but honest-to-goodness vigilantes. Everyone was there to pick up some tips about protecting banks from bank robbers.
In 1926, Wisconsin bank robbers had made off with $300,000 (more than $4 million today, adjusted for inflation). In 1927, through September at least, there had been no such losses at all from Wisconsin banks.
After dinner, the featured speaker, A.M. De Voursney, manager of the Protection Department of the Wisconsin Bankers Association, shared practical wisdom.
First he gave the group the good news about the year-by-year comparison and attributed the difference to “the extension of the sheriff’s arm” that vigilantes provided in smaller communities and rural areas, where not only were banks being robbed, but stores, garages and filling stations were also under threat.
So the State of Wisconsin had come up with a plan: train vigilantes. “It has been our aim to choose men of character for his work,” said De Voursney.
He cautioned care in the use of guns: Use your gun when it will keep someone from using his. And, if you’re going to shoot at a vehicle, shoot low, shoot for the tires. “This is the most effective way,” he said.
“I would rather see a whole gang get away than kill an innocent man,” De Voursney emphasized. “Stay within the law in your work as vigilantes. Be reasonable with your rights and conduct yourself in this capacity in such a manner that people will not look down upon you.”
De Voursney also warned vigilantes to curb their enthusiasm. Don’t be bold “in appearance in the open.” Don’t make yourself a target; work from behind cover.
By the date of this meeting, vigilantes had been organized in southern Wisconsin’s Dane County for a year and a half. So far in 1927, there had been only two attempts in that county, neither successful. De Voursney had surely spoken to groups all over Wisconsin, but documentation shows he spoke to a group in Sauk County the year before in a similar setting. In Sauk County, the group was called the Community Guards.
To combat the Roaring Twenties crime wave, Wisconsin had also adopted harsh punishments for bank robbers, with prison terms ranging from 14 to 40 years. De Voursney said he hoped as word got out, those penalties would dissuade out-of-state gangs from “plying their trade” here.
Another tip: The Dane County group had painted traffic-control signs to be set up around the perimeter of active scenes, warning passing cars, “Stop! Vigilantes!”
Menomonie City Attorney Farnham A. Clark spoke next. He detailed Dunn County ordinances and Wisconsin statutes: what are felonies, when arrests are made with warrants and when without, what are the legal rights — and the legal responsibilities — of the vigilantes assembled.
Clark also offered some friendly advice. Make your arrest in a gentlemanly and businesslike manner. Do not use force unless necessary. But, when necessary, “give them all you’ve got.”
Their dinner dined and their meeting met, Dunn County’s bankers and prospective vigilantes returned from Milwaukee to the north woods.
The record doesn’t show how many robberies Dunn County vigilantes foiled. But famously, of course, the evening’s Master of Ceremonies, William Kraft, would see his bank robbed four years later on Oct. 21, 1931.
The Kraft State bank, as you probably know, was on the site of what’s now the parking lot for BMO Harris Bank in downtown Menomonie.