There are few more interesting criminals than Herbert Emerson Wilson.
Herbert Wilson was born in the little town of Wyoming, Ontario, Canada on 1 March 1881 to the deeply devout Malcolm and Christina Wilson. He had three sisters and four brothers.
His father was a chemist and inventor who came up with an improved formula for nitroglycerin. The fascinated young Herbert watched his dad at work in his lab and memorized a lot of things about explosives and big bangs which would serve him well in later years.
Unfortunately his father died young, after which his family moved to the nearby town of London, Ontario where Herbert attended high school. After leaving school he served in the Anglo-Boer War in South Africa as a member of the Canadian First City Volunteers and underwent training in Cape Town, Port Elizabeth and Grahamstown. He served well and after the war he took his place at Buckingham Palace with other distinguished Canadian soldiers where Queen Victoria presented them with medals.
After this sojourn abroad Herbert became an ordained Baptist minister and began a city mission in his hometown of London.
Leaving Canada he travelled around the US as an evangelist and settled down as the pastor of a church in San Diego. Less than a year later, one Sunday in 1916, in the middle of preaching his sermon he had an abrupt loss of faith.
“I never wore my clerical robes again,” he wrote.
His career switch would be a dramatic turnaround which once again proves that the truth can be stranger than fiction.
Sometime later Herbert bumped into a small time criminal named Herb Cox in Detroit and they got the idea of forming a well-organized and professional gang. They recruited a group of safecracking specialists (known as yeggmen) and strong-arm hoods to provide the “muscle”.
“I had always loved good tools, I certainly knew something about explosives, and I had a flair for organization,” Wilson wrote.
Wilson got a job at a safe factory in Canton, Ohio so he could observe how they were assembled, plate by plate, with a view to deconstructing them later.
For five years Wilson and his gang held up armoured mail trucks and blew up safes in bank vaults and department stores across the US in places such as Cleveland, Detroit, Minneapolis, Omaha, Oakland and San Francisco, where they had a profitable haul in December 1920.
Each job was perfectly planned from studying blueprints and floor plans to phony badges and uniforms. This attention to detail gave the gang great success.
Returning to California, the scene of his ministry, seems to have been a mistake as it was here that the gang’s luck ran out. At 1 a m on 7 March 1921 the alarm went off at Fifth Street Store on the corner of Fifth and Broadway in downtown Los Angeles. The gang got away with $49 000 in cash and securities.
Detective Nick Harris quickly rubbed the sleep from his eyes when he answered the insistently jangling phone.
“Our safe has been broken open,” gasped store manager Herman Sjostrom.
“Drawers and papers were scattered throughout the enclosure,” wrote Harris later, “and the big steel door, scarred and burnt by the discharge of high explosives, was hanging on one hinge. An electric drill had been used, and the ‘soup’ had been poured into a cup made of soft soap.…“
“I found that an electric light globe had been unscrewed from its socket, to accommodate the cord leading to the electric drill.“
This silent little light bulb told a story. Wilson’s fingerprints were on it.
The gang boss was arrested at his home at 4 a m. His account says that despite the hour he was sitting dressed in his smoking jacket and reading Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon. The police account differs: they say he was arrested while trying to hide in the attic.
His wife was astounded. Speaking to The Times she described Herbert as “a model husband and clean living man who never smoked, chewed tobacco, drank, gambled or cursed. We have lived a godly life; how many people can say the same?”
The Times made these remarks about Herbert in June 1922:
“Personally, Wilson is a comely looking individual. He bears on his face none of the hallmarks of the thief and murderer, and if his identity were unknown a casual looker would set him down as a student of divinity, who was devoting his life to the amelioration of the condition of the heathen in foreign lands.”
In the meantime Herb Cox had also been arrested and he promised to tell the authorities as much as he knew in return for a reduced sentence. So he became the chief State witness.
In April 1922 Wilson, Cox and another gang member escaped from Los Angeles county jail by sawing through bars. Cox was later found shot dead, so suspicion naturally fell on Wilson who was recaptured and charged with Cox’s murder.
There are some allegations that he was framed by the authorities so they could secure a conviction but no one really knows.
The jury returned a verdict of guilty of Cox’s murder and Wilson was sentenced to 25 years.
In prison he became an extremely prolific writer who penned over two million words about his amazing exploits. He amassed well over $15 000 000 during those five fast and felonious years.
He was released from San Quentin in 1935 after serving half his sentence, and deported from the US. He thus returned to Ontario where he rejoined his elderly mother in London.
In 1936 he was sent back to prison in Canada for six more years after being found guilty of defrauding A E Ames & Co of over $100 000.
He then went for a while to Australia to sample life “down under” before returning to his home country and settling down to honest living as a newspaper columnist, literary agent and artist in British Columbia. He also aptly opened a Crime Museum which he called Wilson’s Arcade of Mysteries.
He appears to have been camera-shy, not surprising considering his chosen calling, and thus I couldn’t find any decent pics of online despite a good search.
His autobiography I was King of the Safe-Crackers was published in 1955. It was published in the US in 1956 with the title I Stole $16 000 000.
Having lived a very chequered and colourful life, this enigmatic and elusive character passed away on 17 August 1968 aged 87.
The illustrious movie director Stanley Kubrick was fascinated by his life story and produced a screenplay “God Fearing Man”. Kubrick never got around to making it into a film but has finally seen the light of day after 60 years in a TV miniseries starring Michael C. Hall (2015).
It would be interesting to know what motivated Wilson to become a respectable and upright citizen by day and a successful criminal by night.
He’s certainly a real life example of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.