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The Bank Robbers Who Couldn’t Shoot Straight (Or Do Anything Right, Really)

When the Duffy Brothers were deported from the U.S, they hatched a plan to bring Bonnie-and-Clyde-style armed robbery across the pond. Their plan had more holes than a bullet-riddled safe.

The Bank Robbers Who Couldn’t Shoot Straight (Or Do Anything Right, Really)

The American gangsters entered the British bank at three minutes to closing time on a Friday afternoon. Three men — two brothers and an accomplice — arrived outside, wearing black masks and gloves, horn-rimmed glasses, and narrow-brimmed trilby hats pulled low over their foreheads. They were armed with two revolvers and an automatic pistol. It was 2:57 p.m. on June 2, 1933, and the bank was the Cattle Market branch of Lloyds Bank in the soot-black industrial city of Newcastle upon Tyne in North East England. Outside, at the Friday meat market, butchers and wholesalers closed up their stalls and rinsed blood from their cleavers. Inside, at the end of a busy week, bank clerks tallied up receipts and attended to the last straggle of customers, including apron-wearing market workers and a 15-year-old girl. The masked men pushed through the bank’s double doors and raised their guns: “Everybody stand still and put up your hands.”

The brothers were Joe and Tommy Duffy, a pair of self-proclaimed American gangsters. They described themselves as hardened villains who had run with America’s most notorious criminals and served time in the country’s toughest prisons. They claimed reputations as violent enforcers and armed robbers — and had the broken noses and gunshot wounds to prove it. Now they were bringing the bullet-spraying American bank robbery to sleepy England, where armed robberies were virtually unknown. But their gangster credentials were about to be severely tested. They had chosen the wrong bank, in the wrong city, at the wrong time, and there would be terrible consequences.

Chapter One: Mail-Order Gangsters     

The Duffy brothers were American gangsters who had been born to Irish parents in Edinburgh, Scotland, two of a family of nine sons. Joe immigrated in 1923, ending up in Detroit, and Tommy followed across the Atlantic a few months later. Joe was then 20 years old and Tommy — the more rambunctious of the pair — was 18. Joe was looking for work as an auto mechanic but couldn’t seem to find any. Tommy described himself as a “regular little roughneck.” He was a fearsome brawler and hoped to become a professional boxer in the United States. When that didn’t work out, the brothers tried a series of jobs: restaurant dishwashing, skyscraper construction, railroad work. They may also have tried to become farmers. But, according to an anonymous associate who spoke to London’s The People newspaper in 1933, “They soon quit that for the rackets.”

This was the era of the gangster, the bootlegger, the racketeer. Prohibition and a thirst for illicit alcohol were allowing organized crime groups to flourish. Al Capone was waging war on the streets of Chicago. Arnold Rothstein was building a criminal empire in New York. Prominent gangsters, pictured on the covers of newspapers in chalk-striped suits and fedoras, became nationally infamous. The hit movie Underworld, starring George Bancroft as gang boss Bull Weed, was the first of a series of gangster pictures that helped turn their protagonists into glamorous antiheroes.

By their own account, it was the ease of obtaining guns that led the Duffys to become gangsters. They saw an ad in a magazine, sent off $18.73 and received two revolvers in the mail. The brothers became holdup artists, targeting stores and payroll trucks. They also ran shipments of booze over the border from Canada for bootlegging gangs and became linked to some of the biggest names in American crime.

The Duffys ran with Capone’s mob in Chicago and with Rothstein’s accomplice Jack “Legs” Diamond in New York. Tommy claimed Capone offered him a job after spotting him during a boxing match. According to their “ex-gangster” associate, the Duffy brothers always carried guns and were “absolutely callous and cold-blooded.” They also looked the part. “Both the Duffys dressed immaculately,” said the associate. “They wore silk monogrammed shirts and paid as much as £2 for ties and £10 for shoes.” (Equivalent to about $177 and $885 in 2021.)

By the summer of 1926, the brothers were living in New York in a furnished room on the second floor of a red-brick rowhouse on West 11th Street. In early 1927, they held up Nathan Wolf’s drugstore on Eighth Avenue and walked out with $60 in cash. A week later, they robbed the Beck-Hazzard shoe store, also on Eighth Avenue, and took $25. These were relatively small takes, but the brothers would later claim to have committed several more high-profile armed robberies, including at least one bank robbery.

Certainly, their activities brought them to the attention of law enforcement. New York Police Commissioner Joseph A. Warren listed the Duffy Brothers on a lengthy wanted list of holdup gangs, alongside the likes of the Laughing Gang, the Harlem Terrors (also known as the Sucker Gang), and the Headache and Aspirin Gang. Commissioner Warren promised to rid the city of this scourge.

One evening in March 1927, the brothers were oiling their revolvers to prepare for a holdup when one of the guns went off and shot Joe in the left shoulder. Tommy rushed his brother to Saint Vincent’s Hospital, just a few blocks away. There, doctors treated the wounds — and called the New York Police Department. Detectives arrested the Duffys and searched their room, where they found the revolvers. A report in the New York Daily News referred to the Duffys as “immigrant brothers led astray by revolver ads.” Interviewed by the newspaper, Tommy and Joe claimed to have turned to crime due to poverty and admitted only to the Nathan Wolf’s and Beck-Hazzard stickups. The detectives believed they were guilty of several others. Both brothers were convicted of robbery in the first degree and sentenced to 20 to 25 years in jail. Joe was 24 and Tommy was 22. They would not be eligible for parole until March 1947, 20 years later.

The Duffys were initially sent up the Hudson River to Sing Sing but were soon separated. Joe went to Auburn State Prison, where the tough “Auburn system” of solitary confinement and enforced silence had been developed. Tommy went to Clinton State Prison in Dannemora, known as Little Siberia for its ice-cold winters. During their stays, both brothers experienced deadly riots in which several guards and prisoners were killed. Tommy was in the thick of the trouble and spent six months in solitary confinement. But Tommy said that while inside they were well looked after by their gangster friends, who ultimately used their “political pull” to get them out of jail.

In April 1930, after serving a little over three years, the Duffys’ sentences were commuted to deportation by New York Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt. “It seems to be the sensible thing to do, to deport them,” said Roosevelt, who was two years away from being elected U.S. president. Tommy asserted that “the Diamond mob in New York got going with the palm oil for me,” meaning they’d greased someone’s palm with a bribe. Given Tommy’s penchant for embellishing his gangster bona fides, his version of events is probably exaggerated. More likely, Roosevelt just wanted the Duffy brothers out of the country. But whatever the truth, the brothers were placed into steerage on the SS Duchess of Richmond, and arrived back in Scotland on U.S. Independence Day, July 4, 1930, determined to introduce American gangster methods to Britain.

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Chapter Two: Searching for a Second Act    

The headline in the Scottish Weekly News read: “My Life as an American Gangster.” The author, named alongside a gun-toting photograph, was Tommy Duffy. Published 18 months after the brothers’ return to Scotland, the article was a lurid tale of violent holdups and bank robberies straight out of a Hollywood gangster picture. It was a hugely exaggerated and often ludicrous account of bullet-blazing shootouts and high-speed pursuits featuring an A-to-Z cast of infamous gangsters.

One character it did not feature was Joe Duffy. Tommy didn’t mention his brother, and many of the events he did write about in an apparent attempt to cash in on his criminal reputation were entirely fictionalized.

It was a more shocking and incriminatory story than the one the brothers had given to the Daily News following their arrest in 1927. In that modest account, there was no suggestion of any association with Al Capone or Legs Diamond, or of any criminal activity other than two stickups. Perhaps the brothers were playing down their criminal connections in hopes of leniency. But their circumstances at that time — operating from a rented room with mail-order guns for low-value takes — did not seem particularly glamorous. The discrepancy between that Daily News story and the Weekly News account suggested that the Duffys wanted to inflate their reputations from small-time crooks to big-time gangsters. With their sensationalist account, the brothers had an agenda. At least initially, they intended to become movie stars. Gangster movies were big business. Hollywood released more than 30 crime pictures between 1930 and 1933. British studios also churned out crime movies, including the early pictures of Alfred Hitchcock.

But the nearest Joe and Tommy got to silver screen stardom was a period working as movie extras at Elstree Studios near London. After that, they went back to Edinburgh and worked as tracklayers for the city’s tram system. But honest work didn’t suit them, and Joe was fired after stealing copper wire from the tram lines.

Then, according to their anonymous associate, they began to scheme up ways to raise enough money to bribe their way past immigration and back into the American crime game. “They told me they were desperate to get back to the United States,” said the associate. “They knew quite well they could never make crime pay over here.” The brothers reckoned they would need a few hundred pounds, and they could think of only one way to get it. They tracked down some guns — probably decommissioned World War I weapons that had been reactivated on the black market — and planned an armed robbery.

Tommy and Joe asked their associate to join them in “the holdup business.” He refused, claiming he would never carry a gun. Instead, the Duffys recruited an Edinburgh tracklaying colleague named William Abbott to be the third member of their robbery gang. Abbott was a married man with a 6-year-old child and was undergoing treatment for tuberculosis. He was known to local police but did not have a criminal record. He certainly had no experience of American gangster methods, nor apparently a full understanding of the implications of using them in Britain.

Strict firearms regulations and tough punishments meant armed robberies were extremely rare in Britain. Laws brought in to curb the circulation of military weapons following the war heavily restricted the purchase and possession of guns. Criminals convicted of gun crimes could expect lengthy prison sentences and brutal floggings with a cat-’o-nine-tails — a flailing whip. If a criminal killed someone while committing a gun crime, they could expect to be hanged. But, according to their anonymous associate, the Duffys were willing to do anything to get back to the United States, no matter the consequences. “Nothing else would have induced them to take such a risk,” he said, “for both of them had a deadly fear of the ‘cat.’”

While these kinds of crime were virtually nonexistent in Britain, the public was familiar with them. British newspapers awed readers with tales of American armed robberies that seemed as distantly romantic as tales of the old Wild West. One editorial boasted that Britain, with its fearsome justice system, would “never suffer the gunman.” But in 1932, a British criminal named James Spenser, who had recently served time in California’s San Quentin prison, warned of an imminent “invasion” of American gangsters. “Their mouths are watering at the thought of London with its unarmed police,” Spenser wrote in a much-syndicated newspaper column. “What a city to loot! Scotland Yard should be on its guard.”

For the Duffys, Newcastle upon Tyne, in the northeast of England, must have represented an even more appetizing target. It was more compact and less hectic than London, with fewer police officers — none of them armed with anything more than a truncheon. Importantly, the town was situated on the main road and rail routes between the brothers’ primary haunts of London and Edinburgh. The Cattle Market branch of Lloyds Bank seemed particularly vulnerable. It was small but busy. Late on a Friday afternoon, it was likely to be piled high with weekly deposits — including takings from Friday’s wholesale meat market. The Duffys planned to march through the front door, terrify the occupants into submission with their guns, and walk out the back door with the cash.

But Newcastle, a medieval walled city, had a long history of fending off aggressors, from marauding Viking raiders to invading Scottish armies. Proud of its relentless production of coal, ships and Newcastle Brown Ale, neglected by the government and disregarded by the rest of the country, this was a tough-as-nails city that was used to looking after itself. Its residents — known as Geordies — spoke in a dialect that was mostly impenetrable to outsiders. They were fiercely protective of their community. By 1933, the global depression was biting the city hard. Times were tough, and every penny was wrought from sweat and blood. The people of Newcastle would not give up their hard-earned money without a fight.

Chapter Three: The Wrong Bank

“Everybody stand still and put up your hands.” One of the masked bank robbers, thought to be Joe, leaped onto the counter and leveled his gun at chief teller Leonard Harrison. Startled and acting on instinct, Harrison picked up a £5 bag of silver coins and hurled it at the robber, striking him in the face. Joe recoiled and yelled to his accomplices: “Shoot him! Shoot him if he moves!”

Another of the masked robbers, probably Tommy, stepped forward with his revolver and ordered the teller and other employees to hand over their guns. This was an unnecessary request in England. “We do not have guns,” the teller explained. Joe climbed over the counter and began to empty the cash drawer and fill his pockets with notes.

The masked men ordered the bank’s customers to kneel on the floor. The third robber, Abbott, began to tie their hands behind their backs with green cord. One customer, a 15-year-old girl, either refused or misunderstood and was pushed against a wall with a revolver pressed to her head.

Hearing the commotion, the bank’s acting manager John Ainsley came out of his office, then rushed back inside to telephone the police. Before he could reach the receiver, one of the robbers stepped into the doorway, pointed a gun at his face, and told him, “Put up your hands or I will shoot.”

Meanwhile, bank clerk Joseph Robson rushed to a barred window at the rear of the building and yelled for help. Workers in the adjacent buildings heard the yells but assumed there was a fire and called the fire brigade rather than the police. One of the robbers followed Robson and told him, “Put them up or you will get something through you.” Then, realizing the alarm had been raised, the robber asked, “Which is the way out?”

Robson indicated the barred window: “That is the only way out.” The gangsters had wrongly assumed that the bank had a rear exit. It was a calamitous error.

Outside, although the meat market was closed, it was still busy with butchers and other workers, burly men with big, bloodied hands who were clearing out for the week. A crowd of them hurried to the bank, again assuming a fire. One of the butchers, Robert Angus, jumped up onto the window ledge to look inside. He saw the three masked men armed with guns, and the bank staff with their hands in the air.

“At first, I thought they were skylarking [playing a practical joke], never thinking it was anything serious,” Angus recalled. Then another butcher, known as Big Jim, ordered his colleagues to fetch their “choppers” and the poles they used to raise the market’s sun blinds. Some of the men began to barricade the entrance to keep the robbers inside. But Angus told them: “Open the doors and let me in.”

Angus pushed through the double doors and strode into the bank, with a posse of other market workers behind him. He grabbed Abbott and, “by a trick of the knee,” sent him to the ground. The bank staff, realizing that help had arrived, began to fight back. Harrison, the teller, picked up a cash shovel and struck Joe behind the ear. Joe staggered forward, then was knocked to the ground by the bank’s junior clerk, George Chambers. By now, the fire brigade had arrived, and several firemen joined the fight. “It was a regular melee,” recalled Angus. “It was a real battle royal.”

Abbott ran toward the door and pointed his revolver at the growing crowd outside. One of the market porters raised a sun-blind pole and, “with unerring instinct,” hurled it at Abbott, knocking the gun from his hand. Ainsley, the bank manager, leaped onto Abbott and the two men began to wrestle on the floor. The meat men then pulled fast the outer doors, trapping the robbers inside, where they were outnumbered and fighting for their lives.

Tommy fled down to the basement and into the vault. Another bank clerk, Charles Robson, followed him down and locked him in. Upstairs, the bank staff and the butchers were “hammering away” at Joe and Abbott with fists, sticks and poles to prevent them from escaping. One of the customers, Kenneth Richardson, who was tied on the ground, recalled that one of the robbers — probably Joe — fell over him with blood streaming from his face.

At some point, one of the robbers — again probably Joe — fired his gun. It clicked harmlessly once, twice, three times, four times, and didn’t discharge. John Ainsley disarmed Joe and stood over him with the revolver. Four men leaped onto Abbott and beat him into submission.

By now, the police had been called. A large number of officers raced to the scene from the nearby Pilgrim Street station on motorcycles and in patrol wagons amid a wail of sirens, causing great excitement on the city’s streets. Workers peered out of windows and came out onto the pavements to watch the action. The police arrived at the bank at three minutes past 3 o’clock — six minutes after the robbery had begun.

“The raiders were caught like rats in a trap,” recalled Angus, the butcher. “They put up a good fight until the police came on the scene. They lost their nerve then, because they realized the game was up.”

When Police Inspector Andrew Donohoe entered the bank, he found Joe and Abbott unmasked and bleeding on the floor, surrounded by butchers and bank workers. In the basement, Tommy had surrendered his pistol to a fireman. Donohoe emptied Joe’s pockets and took possession of almost £292 in stolen cash and an empty coin bag bearing the words “Lloyds Bank, Cattle Market, Newcastle.” Both Joe and Abbott required attention from the police surgeon. Ainsley, the bank manager, had cuts to his face, and one of the clerks was slightly injured. “I cannot speak too highly of my colleagues,” said Ainsley. “All of them were very plucky.”

Witnesses reported seeing a fourth man who might have been keeping watch hurrying away from the bank as the crowd gathered. They also noted a “smart-looking” automobile, which might have been a getaway car. But a fourth man was never identified, and the three bank robbers did not get away. They were dragged from the bank, thrown into a patrol wagon, and taken into police custody.

Chapter Four: An Iron Hand

Joe Duffy, Tommy Duffy and William Abbott first appeared at Newcastle Police Court on the following morning. Joe’s head was swathed in bandages. All three gave false names. But Constable David Nielsen of the Edinburgh Police said he knew all three accused men, and he properly identified them by their real names. The men were charged with unlawfully and feloniously using offensive weapons to assault and rob the employees of Lloyds Bank. All three pleaded not guilty.

Prosecuting attorney David Ensor said the men had committed a crime that was punishable with “penal servitude for life and flogging.” A firearms expert testified that only one of the revolvers, a .455 Webley, had been loaded, and the robbers had attempted to fire it four times. It failed to discharge due to its poor condition. If it had discharged, it would have caused serious injury and perhaps death. “Someone was extremely lucky,” said Ensor. “I submit it does not matter a jot who was using the loaded revolver. They are all equally guilty.”

“This was the worst bank the accused could have chosen for the raid because it had no back exit, there being only a small heavily-barred window,” said Ensor’s prosecution colleague Harvey Robson. “Butchers from the market came to the assistance of the bank clerks, and civilians guarded the door against their escape.”

When asked if any of the prisoners would like to make a statement, Tommy stood and said, “I wish to say nothing. I am not guilty and my name is John Wilson.” But Inspector Donohoe presented to the court a copy of Tommy’s Scottish newspaper article featuring his real name and photo alongside details of his gangster activities in America. “He quoted an instance where he robbed a bank there,” said Donohoe, “and the methods were identical to those used in Newcastle.” The Duffy brothers’ self-portrayal as American gangsters — exaggerated or otherwise — ended up condemning them.

Joe, Tommy and Abbott were all found guilty. “You have carried out a raid which, thank goodness, is practically unknown in this country,” said the judge. “When it is carried out, it must and shall be suppressed with an iron hand.” He sentenced Joe and Tommy to 10 years’ imprisonment plus 15 strokes from the dreaded cat. The judge said the Duffys were “dangerous men,” but he believed Abbott had been their “cat’s-paw” — an exploited dupe. Abbott’s wife, Elizabeth, wept in court as her husband was sentenced to 12 months in prison.

The Duffys appealed their sentences. “Really, no act of violence was committed by the men,” claimed their defense attorney, Howard Grattan-Doyle. “The whole affair was a dismal failure.” But the judge pointed out that a 15-year-old girl had been held against a wall at gunpoint. She had been so traumatized that she could not be called to court as a witness.

The defense also objected to the fact that the Duffys had been characterized as American gangsters, while the evidence suggested they were “not the experienced gangsters they were thought to be.” “These men who were described as American gangsters did not really shape as violent men at all,” said Grattan-Doyle. But that picture had been painted by themselves, and their convictions for armed robbery in the U.S. had been verified by the British police. The appeal failed.

The case prompted reflection on both sides of the Atlantic concerning the differences between Britain’s and America’s gun laws and justice systems. “It’s getting as bad as in America!” exclaimed London’s Sunday Pictorial. No mercy should be shown to armed bandits, the newspaper declared, because Britain would never tolerate them. Another British newspaper said the American bandits must have got a “painful surprise” when they did not get away with their robbery. “We cannot have American gangster methods introduced into this country,” said the Shields News. “This sort of thing must be stamped out ruthlessly.”

In the U.S., newspapers said the case of the Duffy brothers plainly revealed “the weakness of American justice,” and lamented that criminals were more likely to get away in the States. “Criminals in Great Britain are much more likely than here to be caught, when caught to be convicted, and when convicted to serve their sentences,” wrote the Springfield Republican. Gun laws were also questioned, but newspaper campaigns to ban the sale of handguns received negative responses. (“Your slogan ‘Stop Selling These’ is a lot of hokum,” wrote a reader in a letter to the New York Daily News.)

Meanwhile, Howard Hawks’ Scarface movie — based on the life of Al Capone—cemented the image of the American gangster as a glamorous antihero among theatergoers. The real-life exploits of armed robbers Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow titillated newspaper readers. And on June 21, 1933, less than three weeks after the Duffy brothers attempted to rob Lloyds Bank in Newcastle, the Dillinger Gang robbed the New Carlisle National Bank in Ohio. It was the gang’s first armed bank heist, and its leader, John Dillinger, would become one of history’s most notorious bank robbers.

Back in Britain, the Duffy brothers were each strapped to a frame and flogged across their backs 15 times with the dreaded cat. The whip’s knotted tails could lacerate flesh and cause blackout-inducing pain. “It is safe to say that the two Duffys will never forget those 15 strokes of the cat,” said the Lafayette Journal and Courier. “Those lashes were no doubt laid on with gusto and sincerity. It was quite a comedown to be scourged to cells in England after selling a vainglorious story of gangster activities in the United States.”

Joe served his prison sentence at top-security Parkhurst on the Isle of Wight and Tommy at the granite-walled Dartmoor in the wilds of Devon. The Duffys would both die in Birmingham, England, in the 1970s. There’s no record of what they did for a living later in life. Neither brother ever returned to America, nor to the gangsterism they had fetishized and romanticized. Tommy had already written his ending back in 1932 in his Weekly News article. “My gangster days are at an end,” he wrote. “I would like to go back and see the old scenes and pals in the States. But I can’t. I must say farewell forever to the racket.” This time it turned out to be true.