A car careened in front of a mail truck, breaking Charlotte’s morning calm on November 15, 1933. Four men bounded out of the car, one armed with a Tommy gun, to commit the biggest crime yet in this sleepy city of 80,000.
They disarmed the driver and cut off the lock with wire cutters. Mobsters grabbed Charlotte Federal Reserve sacks just picked up from the train depot. The gangsters sped off with more than $100,000 in cash and bank notes.
Chief of Detectives Frank Littlejohn arrived on the scene to investigate the heist. Only a few days before he had gotten a tip that something big was coming down in the Queen City.
Through his nationwide network of sources, he knew it was a mob job, but that was all he knew at the time.
America’s Finest Detective
A tall, lanky man, Littlejohn had a big nose and an outsized ego to match. He was good, and he knew it. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover called him America’s finest detective.
The Pacolet, SC native moved to Charlotte in 1917 to run a shoe store. In the 1920s, Littlejohn worked as an undercover federal agent to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan.
Charlotte hired him for 80 days in 1927 to bust an uptown prostitution ring. The shoe salesman stayed on the police force for 30 years, rising to the rank of Police Chief.
Soon after the robbery, police found the getaway car outside the city limits. Thieves had stolen the new black Plymouth from East Morehead Street two weeks before knocking off the mail truck.
Littlejohn told cops to drive every route to determine where the thieves had been hiding. He instructed postal carriers to ask if anyone on the routes had recently rented a garage.
A woman on 10th Street had important information. She had rented a room to two men, and arranged for them to use her neighbor’s garage.
The landlady had seen them heading west on foot. Littlejohn and his men knew there were two more bandits. They, too, headed west.
Following a tip about an unfamiliar car near the site of the Plymouth’s theft, police homed in on the second hideout. The occupants had left in a hurry. Littlejohn sorted through the detritus left behind. Twenty-seven pieces of torn paper, when reassembled, turned out to be a Chicago rent receipt.
He got descriptions from the landlady, who told them that one of the men was always carrying a violin case. He surmised that was for the Tommy gun. Based on the receipt, descriptions and fingerprints, Littlejohn hit the road to Chicago.
Meanwhile In Chicago
Al Capone and Roger “The Terrible” Touhy were in a struggle for supremacy for Chicago’s illegal liquor trade. Capone framed Touhy in the kidnaping of brewery magnate William Hamm. This was one crime he hadn’t committed.
So, “The Terrible” sent his men to Charlotte to raise much needed cash for his court defense.
Touhy hadn’t figured on Littlejohn’s prowess and determination. Two weeks after the crime, Littlejohn had rounded up most of Touhy’s gang. Basil “The Owl” Banghart, Ludwig “Dutch” Schmidt, and Isaac Costner were behind bars. Each man spent more than 30 years in prison for the crime.
Police found the body of Charles “Ice” Connors in an alley. It was riddled with machine gun slugs and wrapped in barbed wire.
Touhy beat the Hamm kidnaping frame-up. Then, Capone framed Touhy in the kidnaping of Jake “The Barber” Factor, brother of cosmetics impresario Max Factor.
Touhy beat this wrap, too. He was not prosecuted for his part in the Charlotte hold-up.
Littlejohn continued his service, and spent 12 years as Chief of Police.
Always outspoken, Littlejohn publicly criticized a 1958 City Council decision. City fathers fired him 15 days before his scheduled retirement.