The 1930’s was a time of great hardship as the country was mired in the throes of the Great Depression. While the “Roaring Twenties” featured the growth of organized crime related to the prohibition of alcohol, the early 1930’s became known as the “Public Enemy Era” due to a host of well-publicized criminals conducting daring bank robberies. Gangsters such as John Dillinger, George “Baby Face” Nelson, Ma Barker, Alvin Karpis, George “Machine Gun” Kelly, Harry “Pete” Pierpont, Charles “Pretty Boy” Floyd, and the duo of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow were as well-known as any celebrity. While the Midwest region bore the brunt of these robberies, the city of New Castle, Pennsylvania, would not be spared.
On the evening of Sunday, May 22, 1932, two out-of-town men checked into the Liberty Hotel in the Mahoningtown section of New Castle. They signed the register as Tom Tenerico of Pittsburgh and Jim Polasky of Youngstown. They hung out in the lobby and openly chatted with other patrons. The next morning they awoke early and appeared in the lobby. Tenerico, in possession of a narrow cardboard-like box, soon took a seat on a bench just outside the hotel and said hello to people as they walked along North Liberty Street. Polasky, with a large container that resembled a trombone case, remained in the lobby.
Meanwhile, a car arriving from downtown New Castle pulled up in front of the hotel. The vehicle contained two bank officials and a police officer delivering $23,000 in cash (about $370,000 in 2015 dollars) to the office of the Mahoning Trust Company. The bank office, located in the former bar area of the Liberty Hotel, was nothing more than a small, caged room. The money, belonging to the First National Bank of Lawrence County, was being transferred from the Union Trust Company to the closely affiliated Mahoning Trust Company so local employees of the Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR) could cash their paychecks.
New Castle Police Officer Clarence B. Campbell, his sturdy 6‘2” frame casting an imposing figure, exited the passenger seat and stood on the sidewalk directly in front of the hotel. Campbell had originally joined the force back in late 1921 and was a highly respected law enforcement officer. He had even been elected – in a surprise upset of three more qualified candidates – as the Chief of Police of Bessemer in October 1922, but it seems be never officially took the job and stayed on with the New Castle Police Department. Campbell, a longtime veteran of South Side service, had been assigned to the Seventh Ward or Mahoningtown district for the past several years.
While Campbell scanned the area the two bank officials, William McCombs, a teller with Mahoning Trust, and Ashley H. Hill, an official with Union Trust, remained in the car awaiting the all clear signal. McCombs was the driver, while Hill sat in the backseat holding a bank bag containing the cash. Another vehicle trailed behind and contained Leon E. McCleary, an executive with Mahoning Trust.
Campbell looked around and surveyed the scene along North Liberty Street. As he turned to give his approval to the bank officials, Tenerico hastily pulled a sawed-off shotgun from the cardboard box and stood up. He blasted Campbell in the back with a single shot (believed to be a slug) and started walking towards the alley beside the hotel. Campbell fell and was killed instantly. Polasky, armed with a machine gun, rushed from the lobby and made a beeline for the bank car. A third bandit appeared from the lobby and stood in the hotel doorway with a machine gun. Polasky threatened the bank officials and was able to secure the money without a struggle. A large Buick sedan, driven by a fourth man, appeared from the alley and the three bandits calmly got in and sped off.
The getaway car headed south as the bandits tossed handfuls of roofing nails out of the windows. The car was seen heading west along the Mount Jackson Road, passed through the village of Mount Jackson, and headed southwest into neighboring Ohio. Police authorities throughout Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia were soon alerted to be on the lookout. Despite the alert, and a few possible sightings, the vehicle slipped through the police dragnet. It appears the bandits passed through Columbiana and Canton and continued on towards Michigan.
However, tips and sightings started coming in from all directions. The New Castle News of Thursday, May 26, 1932, reported, “Late Wednesday the trail led eastward and officers in New Jersey took up the hunt for the bandits. There is a possibility that the mob back of the murder and holdup may have had headquarters in or around New York City and this angle of the clues is being investigated. The search through Canton, Lorain, Toledo, Akron and Detroit continues and every police department in Ohio, Michigan and West Virginia is lending its aid towards a solution of the crime.”
Lawrence County Detective H. Martin “Peck” Lee and his deputies took the lead in investigating the case. It was soon determined that the license plate on the getaway vehicle had recently been reported stolen from Lorain, Ohio, which led authorities to believe the bandits came from nearby Cleveland. Despite the massive manhunt no credible leads were established in the coming days and weeks. The three banks involved in the robbery put up a reward of $2,500, and the City Council offered another $500.
As the investigation continued a funeral was held for Police Officer Campbell on Wednesday, May 25, 1932, in the Highland Avenue home of Mahoningtown businessman Paul D. Weller. Among the attendees were Mayor Charles B. Mayne, fellow members of the New Castle Police Department, and many other law enforcement officers from around the region. After a solemn service Campbell’s remains were escorted by motorcycle policemen to his final resting place in Oak Park Cemetery. Police Officer Frank R. Reynolds, a 13-year veteran, was soon assigned to take over Campbell’s duties in the Seventh Ward.
Campbell, of #301 East Street, left behind his wife Mary and four children – Clarence Jr. (age 21), Mary (age 18), Roberta (age 17), and Billy (age 12). The May 27, 1932, edition of the New Castle News reported, “Council met in the city building today and agreed with Mayor Chas. Mayne that a month’s salary should be paid to Mrs. Clarence Campbell, widow of the slain policeman… Councilman (Stanley) Tresser and colleagues also instructed Solicitor Robert White to prepare a resolution of condolence to be sent to the widow and family. After 30 days from the date of death it is expected that compensation will be paid to the widow and any children under 16 years of age, of which there is one. The compensation it is understood will last 500 weeks.” (NOTE: 500 weeks is roughly nine and half years.)
Throughout the summer a host of convicts and other hoodlums were rounded up in various locations such as Pittsburgh, Youngstown, Akron, and Cleveland. County Detective Lee and his deputies escorted witnesses of the robbery to view the suspects, but with no positive results. What made things particularly troubling was that the men identified as Tenerico and Polasky openly chatted with folks prior to the daring robbery. Unfortunately, by the end of 1932 the investigation basically grew cold. Investigators continued following several leads, but nothing ever developed.
In the next few years fanciful reports linked John Dillinger and other infamous criminals to the robbery. Many of the claims are just plain preposterous. Nobody even knew who Dillinger was in 1932. He was serving a nearly decade-long prison sentence for a grocery store robbery and was not released until May 1933. Dillinger began his reign of terror a month later and was Public Enemy No. 1 until he was shot dead in Chicago in July 1934. What piqued interest locally was that the methods used in the Mahoning Trust robbery matched those of several well-known gangsters – most notably members of the Barker-Karpis Gang out of Ohio.
In early February 1933 the Liberty Hotel, having been seized by County Sheriff Frank N. Johnston, was sold to the First National Bank of Lawrence County. The Mahoning Trust Company was essentially dissolved and absorbed into the Union Trust Company in July 1933. I believe the Union Trust Company continued to operate a small bank in the Liberty Hotel for some time.
In the New Castle News of Thursday, February 6, 1936, the First National Bank and Union Trust Company posted the following: “Whereas, on May 23rd, 1932, the undersigned institutions offered a reward of $2,500.00 to the person or persons procuring the arrest and conviction of the murderers of Clarence B. Campbell, and, Whereas, during the more than three and one-half years intervening no person or persons have been arrested and convicted in the said murder, now, notice is hereby given to all concerned that the said offer of reward is this day rescinded and withdrawn.”
A few days later, on February 10, 1936, the following unattributed notice appeared in the New Castle News, “Withdrawal of the offer of a reward for the apprehension and conviction of the slayers of City Policeman Clarence Campbell does not mean that the city, county and State police have given up the search. It is true they have no tangible clues as to the identity of the men who participated in the slaying in the Seventh ward, but the machinery of law never stops and in this case should not. The killers of Campbell should be brought to justice.”
Despite the continued effort, and with few decent leads, the case faded into memory during the late 1930’s. The New Castle News of May 23, 1942, had a brief mention with, “TEN YEARS AGO. According to John C. McMillin, North Liberty street, it was ten years ago today, May 23, when Police Officer Clarence Campbell was shot to death by bandits, near the Liberty Hotel, then the Mahoningtown Bank. The culprits have not yet been apprehended. Mr. McMillin remembers the morning was quite frosty.”
Clarence Campbell completed a civil service examination in 1921 and the mayor recommended that he be appointed as a city police officer. To learn more about his appointment click on: NAME CAMPBELL AS POLICEMAN ARTICLE. About a year later Campbell ran for the position of Chief of Police of the Bessemer Police Department – and surprisingly he won! I believe he turned down the position and never officially went to work in Bessemer. To learn more about it click on: BESSEMER CHIEF ARTICLES. Campbell was accused of assaulting a local man in early 1923 and had to defend himself in court. To learn more about that case – of which Campbell was cleared in June 1923 – click on: CAMPBELL IS HELD ARTICLE. On the night of July 4, 1924, Campbell arrested three young men for a robbery on the South Side. To read about it click on: BELIEVE ROBBERIES SOLVED ARTICLE. Campbell was apparently a very good shot with his service revolver. To learn more about him winning a shooting contest in 1925 click on: CAMPBELL TOPS LIST ARTICLE. Campbell served as a dedicated patrolman in Mahoningtown for the last few years of his life and was well-known there. To read about him arresting a local youth for a robbery in 1930 click on: CAPTURES YOUTH ARTICLE. Campbell was from a family that were pioneers in the New Castle area. To read an obituary for his mother from 1930 click on: PIONEER RESIDENT BEING BURIED ARTICLE. To read Campbell’s obituary that appeared in the New Castle News click on: CAMPBELL OBITUARY. Dillinger was an unknown and in prison at the time of the robbery but rumors also persisted he might have been responsible for the heist and murder of Campbell. This article from January 1934 mentions him and others in connection with the robbery: DILLINGER MAY BE WANTED HERE ARTICLE.
The Liberty Hotel (tall building on left) was the scene of a sensational robbery during the “Public Enemy Era” of the 1930’s. On Monday, May 23, 1932, Police Officer Clarence Campbell was escorting several Mahoning Trust officials on their way to deliver $23,000 to a small branch office inside the hotel. As the two bank vehicles stopped in front of the hotel a trio of armed men shot and killed Campbell and robbed the bank officials. The bandits sped off in a getaway car and disappeared into Ohio. An investigation dragged on for several years the culprits ever never apprehended. (c1910) Full Size
A notice that appeared in the New Castle News soon after Campbell’s murder. (1932)
This photo shows the location of where the crime took place in front of the Liberty Hotel in Mahoningtown. (1932)