In 2010 Doug MacRay and a team of five took $3.5 million in cash during a Fenway Park robbery. By contrast, in 1995 Neil McCauley and a crew of three took down a Los Angeles bank and $12.2 million in cash. In 1988 Hans Gruber and a team of 12 (TWELVE!) lifted $620 million in bearer bonds from the Nakatomi Corp. But in 1977 Luke Skywalker and three squadrons of stub fighters flew through a hail of aircraft and surface cannons to destroy the Death Star.
(This piece was originally posted on author Victoria M. Patton’s blog. I remain grateful for her generosity and support.)
What do these four things have in common? They are all works of particularly well-written fiction. Which of the four is different from the others? Well, lets just say it is FAR more likely for a farm boy with no formal combat-flight training to destroy the ultimate power in the galaxy than for the accumulation of cash in one place depicted in the other three.
In 1863 a Malden Massachusetts night-auditor was shot and the heister got away with $5000, ($155,000, in 2020 dollars) in what is considered the first recorded bank robbery in America. Fast-forward 140-odd years and a 2006 report by U.S. News cited that the typical take from a bank robbery is just over $4000. The available cash on hand continues to trend down.
It’s a little different outside the world of bank security. Jimmy Burke and Lucchese crime family soldiers took $5.8mm ($23mm today) in the 1978 Lufthansa Heist. Allan Pace and a team of five took $18mm, ($31mm today) in the 1997 Dunbar Armored Robbery. Both were the largest robberies of their time. Both were outliers, resulting in global changes to industry security.
Armed robberies reached their zenith in the 1970s and 80s as thousands of men, (trained in high-risk-small-team tactics) transitioned from the war in Vietnam to the high-unemployment and cyclical recessions of civilian life. Cash-on-hand policies became an important part of security and loss prevention. By the time William Guess, (Polo Shirt Bandit) robbed his first bank in 1985, the take was only $1000. Carl Gugasian, the most prolific bankrobber in U.S. history, only netted $2mm in his 30-year career.
Back at the fiction section, there are folks who get it right. The late-great Donald Westlake populated his world with degenerates who pulled scores for brown-paper bags (opposed to duffle bags) of cash. Elmore Leonard also ducked the retire-to-the-islands-score trope. Most of his baddies fought tooth-and-nail for what would be a middle-class salary in the straight world. In Michael Mann’s masterwork Thief, Frank’s paydays are delivered in manila envelopes.
Bottomline, the amounts don’t matter as much as the reasons why. Westlake and Leonard’s baddies have no other options. Degenerates of one stripe or another, they cannot function in the straight world. The same could be said of Guess and Gugasian who were addicts–mostly to adrenaline. Edward Green, who committed the first bank robbery in 1863 was the Malden Massachusetts Post Master. He was also heavily in debt.
The reasons why are the “but for the grace of God (and allergies to police, handcuffs, and group showers) go the best of us” drama.