Let’s Talk Clovis: 1924 Clovis First State Bank robbery

A melodrama of the 1924 Clovis First State Bank robbery will be presented at Clovis Museum on Feb. 24 from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. (Clovis Museum)

The First State Bank in Clovis was established in 1903 by Richard Norrish (1844-1939) a wealthy immigrant from England. The first bank was located on the south side of Fourth Street between Pollasky and Clovis avenues just east of the alley in an old frame building.

In 1912 – the same year Clovis was incorporated as a city – Norrish built a new bank building at 401 Pollasky, the southeast corner of Pollasky and Fourth. The bank failed in 1925. It served as a judicial/municipal court until 1981. The building was leased to the Clovis-Big Dry Creek Historical Society and became the Clovis Museum.

Two men and one woman began their preparation for the Clovis First State Bank robbery on Jan. 29, 1924. They rented a home in Fresno for $65 per month, stole a blue Chandler car that they painted black, secured false license plates and purchased roof nails to dump on Clovis Avenue during their escape.

The trio consisted of Thomas “The Owl” Griffin, a member of the San Francisco underworld. He had served two terms in state prison and had previously participated in one payroll and two bank robberies. He traveled with Catherine “The Moll” Ryan, who would leave evidence at their temporary Fresno home that would eventually lead to their arrest. She was described as a fashionable woman adorned with several diamond rings. Felix “The Lone Wolf” Sloper was also a known criminal that had served a term in San Quentin State Prison.

It was noontime on a quiet day on Feb. 4, 1924 in law-abiding Clovis. Assistant Cashier Thomas Howison was alone in the bank. “The Owl” enters the bank and requests change for a $20 bill while “The Lone Wolf” sneaks behind Howison with his gun drawn.

Howison is tied up and forced into the bank vault. The robbers steal $31,800 worth of bonds, gold certificates and currency. As they were leaving, Emory Reyburn, Vice President of the bank, returned from lunch. They forced him against the vault at gunpoint.

They had parked the stolen Chandler on Fourth Street and threw the roofing nails on the road as they traveled south on Clovis Avenue. The nails deflated the tires of the pursuing merchants.

Boy scouts were excused from the Clovis elementary school on Pollasky and Second avenues to pick up the nails.

The getaway car was recovered and the police located the temporary home of the bandits. “The Moll” had left Oakland laundry marked cloth napkins from the Casa Rosa apartment in San Francisco. That evidence led to their eventual capture.

Sheriff William “Big Bill” Jones appointed Deputy O.J. King as lead investigator. King located and followed “The Moll” and on the 76th day of his investigation, he arrested them. The couple was returned to Clovis for trial. Evidence against “The Moll” was ruled insufficient and she was released.

On Feb. 26, 1925, it took the jury only 35 minutes to deliberate and sentence “The Owl” to Folsom State Prison. He worked in the prison rock quarry and on Nov. 15, 1926, he along with two other prisoners escaped by hiding on a flat railroad car loaded with rock.

They swam the American River on that bitter cold day. “The Owl” had sprained his ankle and his buddies abandoned him. Three days later, along railroad tracks 10 miles from the prison, he was found dead of pneumonia.

On April 10, 1925, “The Lone Wolf” was arrested for the murder of a police officer during his solo robbery of the Mercantile Trust Bank in San Francisco. He was found guilty of bank robbery and first degree murder and was hung at Folsom Prison on June 25, 1926.

A melodrama of the robbery will be presented on Saturday, Feb. 24 at Clovis Museum from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. The event is free to the public. The melodrama is a true story of our rich heritage.