How an ND woman kidnapped by gangster 'Creepy' Karpis and shot in his getaway car finally got justice
The mystery of who robbed a Wahpeton bank in September 1932, endured until the man bragged about it 40 years later. He was 'Public Enemy No. 1' and 'the scourge of the Midwest.'
Ruth Whipps was used to standing out in the crowd. In the fall of 1932, the 46-year-old bookkeeper was the only woman who worked at Citizen’s National Bank in Wahpeton, North Dakota.
But even she wasn’t quite ready to stand out the way she did on Sept. 30 when she was grabbed by a bank robber, forced to cling for dear life to the outside of his speeding getaway car, and riddled with bullets.
For decades, she never knew the identity of the man. But in 1971 — when she was 85 years old and living in a nursing home — she found out that the man who took her hostage was one of America’s most notorious gangsters, “Public Enemy No. 1.”
It seems Ruth would have quite the story to tell the other residents at the nursing home.
And that’s what she did in a special column she wrote for the now defunct, The Farmer-Globe newspaper of Richland County. The readers were in luck. Her mind was sharp. She was still able to relive that day like it was yesterday. The following paragraphs include her memories of the day. Later, the illusive gangster himself tells his side of the story.
A 'beautiful' day to rob a bank
“It was the last day of September in 1932 and a beautiful fall day in North Dakota. I went to work as usual at 8 a.m. All went well until about 10 a.m.,” Whipps said.
She said a strange man came into the lobby and just stood there. After a while when he noticed the lobby was empty except for one female customer, he was joined by three or four other men with revolvers.
“We were told to get down on the floor, which we immediately did, including the lady customer,” Whipps said.
According to Whipps, the bank’s cashier, S.H. Murray, did not drop to the floor. Instead, he ran to his locker to get a gun. On the way, he sounded an alarm.
“That was as far as he got. One of the robbers gave him a neat rap on the head with his revolver, which put him on the floor in double quick time,” Whipps said.
The robbers went on to take whatever money they could. But they weren’t done yet. They grabbed Whipps and the “lady customer,” Doris Stock, to use as “human bullet shields” as they attempted their getaway.
The men jumped inside their car, a Hudson, but made the women cling to the running boards as they sped away. The women screamed, at first in terror and later in pain, when gunshots fired by police and others struck them.
This is how The Fargo Forum led with the story the next day: “Waging a desperate battle for liberty after robbing the Citizens’ National Bank of $6,707, five bandits left behind them two bleeding and helpless Wahpeton women.”
The bandits eventually dropped Whipps and Stock at an abandoned farm where they were rescued hours later suffering blood loss from the gunshot wounds to their legs and hips.
“I still carry many of the pellets in my hip, very few of them came out, but they don’t bother me,” Whipps said in 1971.
But what did bother Whipps was that no one was ever arrested. No one was sure who robbed the bank and put two innocent women in the middle of a gunfight.
However, the answer came in 1971, when a man named Alvin Karpis, 'fessed up to the crime.
The confession of ‘Creepy’ Karpis
Karpis, nicknamed “Creepy” (for his sinister smile) was the leader of the Karpis/Barker gang which committed robberies, kidnappings, and murders all over the U.S. in the ‘20s and ‘30s.
In 1934, he had been named “Public Enemy No. 1" for his continued criminal activity. He was also called "the scourge of the Midwest." He was captured in New Orleans a short time later by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover himself.
Karpis was convicted in 1936, not for the bank robbery, but for his role in the kidnapping of wealthy St. Paul brewer William Hamm Jr., He served 33 years in prison, 26 of them at the infamous Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary.
Karpis’ involvement in the Wahpeton robbery was not common knowledge during his imprisonment. But shortly after being released in 1969 and exiled to his native Canada (leaving the U.S. was part of the condition of release), he started to talk.
He had become something of a minor celebrity, an oddity of sorts as the three Public Enemy No. 1’s before him (John Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd, and Baby Face Nelson) had all been shot dead. But Karpis was captured, served his time and walked free.
Film of him from the time, shows him blending into the crowds in the streets of Montreal - looking less gangster and more middle school math teacher.
Perhaps hoping to make a buck or satisfy his ego, he put pen to paper and wrote “The Alvin Karpis Story,” detailing how he became a criminal at just 14 years of age when he met Ma Barker and her sons.
But what caught the attention of people in North Dakota, was his confession to pulling off the bank robbery in Wahpeton on Sept. 30, 1932.
At last, an answer for Ruth Whipps and the others caught up in the tragic day.
Bullets rained like hail stones
Karpis’ recollection of what he called “a strictly routine job,” in Wahpeton closely matched Whipps’ memories
He wrote of grabbing Whipps and Stock after the robbery and making them stand on the running boards of the getaway car.
“The cops held fire when they saw the girls on the running boards, but as soon as we cleared the alley, girls or no girls, they opened up at our rear tires. They were shooting buckshot and the stuff rained on the back of the car like hailstones,” Karpis wrote.
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He said the women were “screaming hysterically” as they “bounced along the road at 50 mph.”
Karpis said after one of the women was shot by a sniper he gave her a shot of morphine.
He was probably talking about Whipps who remembered the incident differently, “he offered me a shot in the arm, a drink, and cigarette, all of which I politely refused.”
Upon dumping the women at the abandoned farmhouse, Karpis said, “I told the other girl not to blame us, that they could blame the trigger-happy guy who fired at the car.”
Did a local farmer help him get away?
After dropping off the women, Karpis knew they wouldn’t get much further in their damaged Hudson.
“The car was rattling like it was going to fly into a million pieces when we pulled into a farmyard beside an ancient dilapidated house. An old Essex sat in the yard,” Karpis wrote.
They asked the farmer if it would run. He said it would. Then he looked at the gang’s getaway car in shambles and said, “What’s this here all about?”
They told him they had just robbed the Wahpeton bank and they’d give him a few dollars to take his car.
According to Karpis, the Depression-era weary farmer seemed happy to help.
“You robbed the bank, did you?” he said.” Well, I don’t care. All the banks ever do is foreclose on us farmers.”
Again, this is Karpis’ story. So it’s hard to know if the farmer was really “happy to help” as Karpis claimed or frightened that the gangsters weren’t really giving him a choice.
A sense of justice
So what did the people in the middle of the robbery think when they learned in 1971 that “Creepy” Karpis was responsible for the crime?
Murray, the cashier, still living in Wahpeton said he was “astonished” that it was Karpis.
“We always thought it was Pretty Boy Floyd,” Murray said. “We heard he had confessed to a lot of bank holdups, including ours.”
Murray also mentioned that a week after the robbery he received a postcard written in blood, threatening him for pulling the alarm. It had been mailed from Willmar, Minn.
By 1971, Doris Stock had married W.E. Rule and was living in Louisville, Kentucky. She, too, was surprised that it was Karpis.
“I didn’t think that we were being so ‘honored’ at the time. We thought it was someone much less notorious.”
Ruth Whipps, for a time, also thought it was Pretty Boy Floyd, but when a reporter from The Farmer-Globe showed her photos of Karpis that day in the nursing home, she knew he was the guy.
“That’s the way he was dressed, too. He wore a suit with a white shirt and tie and a straw hat, only he had a gun in each hand,” she recalled.
A fitting nickname
News reports of Karpis around the time of his book release show a man who seemed to have very little remorse for what he had done in Wahpeton all those years ago.
He bragged that he had “made Hoover’s reputation” since the FBI chief had captured him. He said Ma Barker, nicknamed “Bloody Mama” was just a plain old hillbilly woman and his friend Al Capone was “a really nice guy.”
To some, he came off like a smug creep with little interest in anyone but himself.
Book critic Jack McPhaul of the Chicago Sun-Times wrote, “In professional and private life, he was no friend to man or more to the point, to women. Snug in hideouts, the thief did nothing to help his wife, or later, his pregnant girlfriend when they were arrested.”
He was actually in a brothel when he heard his pregnant girlfriend had given birth to their son. Interestingly, the madam there would be the one to tip off the FBI of his whereabouts.
“It couldn’t have happened to a more deserving fellow,” wrote McPhaul.
Karpis moved to Spain in 1973 and died from natural causes in 1979.
Ruth Whipps, the soft-spoken bookkeeper, lived until she was 90. She took to her grave the terror of that wild ride on the running boards in 1932 as buckshot whistled around her head and bullets struck her flesh.
But she survived in spite of “Creepy” Karpis. She had finally learned his identity. Turns out, she implied, it wasn’t really one worth knowing.
“They weren’t very nice men.”