Aug. 17--ALMA, AR -- It was once stolen by notorious criminals Bonnie and Clyde or by Ma Barker's equally villainous gang, and it now rests quietly in downtown Alma.
Belonging to Alma businessman Lee Hackler, the large, cast-iron safe has caught the attention of many area history fans, including Jeff Hill, a volunteer for the Fort Smith Museum of History and a researcher on area history. Weighing about 4,000 pounds and built in the "cannonball-safe" style between 1908 and 1911, the rounded safe is thought by many to have been targeted by either Bonnie and Clyde or Ma Barker's gang during a late-night heist of the Commercial Bank building in downtown Alma in the summer of 1933, Hill said.
"A town marshal named Henry Humphrey was walking down the street on Fayetteville Avenue after midnight and saw a shadowy figure, almost like the figure wanted to be seen," he said. "The shadowy figure took off running, so the marshal chased him. When the marshal came around the corner, another man had a gun pointed at the marshal."
The men tied up the marshal, put him on the floor of the bank and then backed a tow truck up to the bank door, Hill said.
"These men dragged the safe with a cable, using the truck that was stolen from an oil field in Kibler," he said. "It took them an hour to hook the cable up to the safe and pull the safe out of the bank. They did this while the tied-up marshal watched."
Once the safe was loaded onto the truck, the criminals drove away, but they were unable to open the safe, Hill said. The crooks became frustrated by their inability to crack the safe's code and decided to abandon it, he said.
"They called it a cannonball safe, because of how it was built," Hill said of the safe, which was purchased from a Mountainburg bank by Hackler's friend, the late Bill Gregory, in the 1970s. "You had people like Butch Cassidy blowing up square-shaped safes, so manufacturers started making safes in a circle, so when the dynamite blast hit it, the blast would go around and be deflected by the safe."
A lot of people think Bonnie and Clyde took the safe from Alma, but Bonnie and Clyde did "smaller jobs, like robbing grocery stores," he said.
"It could have been Ma Barker's gang, because Ma Barker's gang was known for backing trucks up to banks," Hill said. "But either way, it's a strange coincidence since Bonnie and Clyde were in Fort Smith that night.
"Bonnie was wounded badly and on bed rest that same night in Fort Smith, holed up in a hotel," he added. "Clyde told people that he didn't leave her side that night, and Bonnie wasn't with Clyde when he was coming from Fayetteville and was stopped by the marshal."
Hackler thinks Bonnie and Clyde were "most likely" the ones who stole his safe.
"Oh, I hope it was Bonnie and Clyde who stole the safe," he said with a laugh. "I really think it was them."
"Or it could have been Ma Barker and her gang," added Hill with a smile. "The strange thing is, the marshal was said to have identified Clyde from a mug shot after he was tied up in the bank."
A number of historians think it was Clyde and his brother, Buck Barrow, who stole the safe from Alma, while others have another theory, Hill said.
"People think it could have been Clyde and a guy he rolled with, W.D. Jones, who was played by Michael J. Pollard in (the 1967 film, 'Bonnie and Clyde')," he said. "The next day after the safe was stolen in Alma, the marshal gets an emergency call from Fayetteville, saying that two men had just robbed a grocery store. The marshal goes up there to meet them on the road, and the machine guns come out. It turns out, it's Bonnie and Clyde there."
During the exchange of gunfire, the marshal was killed before a sheriff's deputy fled the scene, which is near where the A to Z stores now stand north of Alma, he said.
"The deputy is running and one of the bad guys is spraying the entire area around him with bullets," Hill said. "This guy, W.D. Jones, is spraying a strawberry field patch, trying to get the deputy."
Seemingly gaining confidence, the deputy turns around to shoot back at W.D. Jones. One of the deputy's bullets sliced off one of Jones' fingers, he said.
"W.D. Jones gave an interview to Playboy magazine in 1968, where he talked about getting his finger shot off," Hill said. "He said, 'Oh yes, I remember being in Alma. Alma is where I got shot.'"
Hackler said he plans to donate the safe, which still has money in it locked behind its secondary, smaller door.
"If someone involved in history wants it, we'll give it to them as a museum piece," Hackler said. "There's probably not a lot of money in there."
Hackler said the combination to the safe's bottom door was unknown by Commercial Bank employees in the 1960s, so they would always leave the door open.
"Word is, a new bank employee didn't know the door couldn't be unlocked, so they shut the door," he said. "Everyone in the bank turned and looked at that employee and said, 'What did you just do?'"
When asked if it was possible Clyde and Ma Barker's gang worked together to steal the safe from Alma, Hill took a deep breath.
"Ma Barker's gang was from the Tulsa area, and Bonnie and Clyde always hovered around the Missouri line," he said. "It's possible they worked together, but who knows?"
Hill said he hopes to involve University of Arkansas at Fort Smith archaeology students and staff in one of his research projects.
"I want to take some UAFS students out with metal detectors up on U.S. 71 to look for shell casings from the shoot-out between the marshal, deputy and Clyde's gang," he said. "It would be so great to find one of those shells up there and preserve those as part of the area's history."
Copyright 2014 - Times Record, Fort Smith, Ark.