Plains Folk

Public Enemies

 

It took a serious public relations campaign to transform Ben and Stella Mae Dickson into Public Enemy No. 1 and Public Enemy No. 2, as designated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Yes, they did rob a couple of banks in 1938—first in Elkton, South Dakota, and after that one in Brookings. But they didn’t physically harm anyone.

 

Stella Mae was a teenager who caught some bad and tragic breaks. Her family in Topeka, Kansas, had a hard time during the Great Depression. Her brother was a polio victim, her mother perhaps less than attentive to her adolescent daughter.

 

Despite tough circumstances, Stella Mae did well in school until the time she suffered a sexual assault one night on her way home from roller skating. Soon she was in the juvenile justice system, and then she got tangled up with an older boy, Ben Dickson.

 

He seemed like a nice boy, from a good family. His rather was a known and respected chemistry teacher at Topeka High School. He had been a boy scout and even once saved a woman from drowning.

 

Ben seemed to fall in with a rough crowd, perhaps because of his career as a boxer; committed some petty crimes; and finally landed in the state reformatory on felony assault, for which the evidence was sketchy.

 

Anyway, Ben and Stella linked up, got married, and committed some bloodless crimes, including the two bank robberies. All this strikes pretty close to home for me. Topeka High School, a seriously Gothic building dating from 1931, is a familiar and fabulous landmark. Trivial fact for the day: its flagpole is set on a spar from the USS Constitution. How American is that?

 

Like many other Bison fans, too, I have dined at the Ram—the restaurant that now occupies the former First National Bank building of Brookings, South Dakota. In 1938 Ben and Stella held officers and customers at gunpoint for hours, waiting for a time lock on the safe to open. Officers and cashiers coolly closed loans and handled customer deposits the whole time.

 

Which is to say, Ben and Stella were not really scary characters. They even pulled off the occasional Robin Hood-style caper, sharing their take with people they adjudged worthy and needy. They may have been on their way to becoming legends.

 

That, perhaps, was why the FBI came down hard on them. Matthew Cecil is the author of a new book, The Ballad of Ben and Stella Mae, from the University Press of Kansas. He relates how during the 1930s J. Edgar Hoover embraced hard-hitting public relations in order to build the power and stature of his agency.

 

When federal agents shot it out with Bonnie and Clyde, it was great for the FBI. Hoover wanted to work the same sort of operation with Ben and Stella Mae. Problem was, they weren’t bad enough. So the FBI plied the popular press to brand the somewhat feckless duo as dangerous gunslingers and hardened criminals.

 

Ben ended up shot in the back by a federal agent in Forest Park, Missouri. Agent testimony about the episode was conflicting. It looks to me like they didn’t want to see Ben put on trial. Stella Mae was taken into custody and served her time.

 

There may be a moral, perhaps several of them, to this outlaw ballad. The author, Cecil, has a definite point of view, based on perusal of thousands of pages of FBI files. His judgments are hard to dispute.

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