Criminal, American Folk Figure. Many perceive Willie Sutton as a reincarnated lovable Robin Hood. On the contrary, he was a hardened criminal who used loaded guns, pistols and sometimes a Thompson submachine gun to rob while putting countless innocent people in harms way. He garnered millions, robbing some 100 banks during his 35 year career, but had little time to enjoy his stolen money as he spent most of his life in prison. He was born William Francis Sutton Jr. in Brooklyn, New York, the fourth of five children. He became a school dropout after the eight grade leaving home to work at various temporary jobs, clerk, driller and at times a gardener. He found his calling at an early age starting at ten with pilferage. Soon, he attempted burglary after breaking into the business of his girlfriend's father, taking money so the pair could elope. The marriage soon ended in divorce after he was incarcerated for the deed. He watched his targets for days or weeks, studying the employees' routines. He could win a bank manager's cooperation by appealing to his ego. Adept at makeup and hair dye, Sutton knew the power of disguise and even fabricated a letterhead for a fictitious acting school so he could get any uniform he needed: messenger, cop, postal carrier or whatever the need. He usually arrived at the banks or stores slightly before they opened for the day and then with the employees tied, locked in rooms or incapacitated, proceeded with the robbery. He was not only an innovative robber, but earned the nickname 'Slick Willie' for his prison escapes, some successful most foolhardy with quick apprehension. However, he did manage to depart from three of America's escape proof penitentiaries. His moniker has stuck in the American language usage and the phrase 'slick willie' has come to indicate a persons character. While incarcerated at the Philadelphia County Prison in Homesburg, Sutton and other prisoners fabricated, then dressed as prison guards. They carried two ladders across the prison yard to the wall after dark. Caught in the light of a searchlight, Sutton yelled, 'It's okay, it's only us' and they proceeded to scale the wall and escape. During a stay at Eastern State Penitentiary, Philadelphia, Sutton and fellow convicts spent a year fashioning an elaborate tunnel which featured brace supports, fans and lights. He was one of 12 convicts who escaped the institution through the opening. This was his milestone fifth attempt from the facility. The escapees went in different directions but all were recaptured the same day by Philadelphia police officers. Aging and in poor health with chronic emphysema and facing major surgery, he was given a Christmas eve gift with release from Attica State Prison. He was relatively quiet in his post-prison life. State Welfare was his mainstay. Ironically, a bank in Connecticut hired him to for a credit card television commercial in which Willie proclaimed it was safe even from a 'slick' person such as himself. However, he was never issued one of his very own. His sister cared for him in the last years of his life. He passed away at her residence in Springhill, Florida from emphysema at age 79. He was interred in the family plot in Brooklyn. Willie Sutton is remembered...His alma mater, Eastern State Penitentiary was closed and taken from service in 1971. After years of decline it was declared a historic site and the old prison is being restored. Tours are now scheduled during the summer. One can see the cell where Sutton was incarcerated, view the many artifacts and then take a guided tour of the fabled tunnel where he and eleven other inmates disappeared into the Philadelphia night more then sixty years ago. Nearby is the London Grill where 'Slick Willie' stopped while in flight for a quick pint. This club now features a special Sutton dinner served with Willie Sutton Amber Lager. While in prison he co-authored the book, 'I, Willie Sutton' with Quentin Reynolds which was published in 1953. Also in his postprison life, Sutton co-authored a book with Edward Linn, 'Where the Money Was-The Memoirs of a Bank Robber.'
Bio by: Donald Greyfield