Feature Articles

December 2001

The Owl

By John William Tuohy

     He was an underworld legend, a man's man, whose prison escapes made him a celebrity in every major prison from Atlanta to Soladad. He could drive a train, fly a plane, shoot a machine gun from a speeding car with deadly accuracy and pull off mail heists that produced a million dollars.

     Basil Hugh Banghart was born in Berville Michigan in 1900 and finished one year of college before he became a professional car thief, stealing over 100 cars in the Detroit area, still dubious but unbroken, before he was arrested in 1926 at age twenty-six.

     Prison sociologists rated him as "a professional criminal, recidivist with unfavorable prognosis. A sophisticated criminal who is astute, well poised, alert, but without social conscience or scruples. His I.Q 107."

     Banghart, dubbed "The Owl" because of his abnormally large eyes, had been associated with Gerald Chapman and George Dutch Anderson having met the both of them while he was doing time in Atlanta Federal pen.

     Chapman liked Banghart and took him under his wing and tutored him in the fine arts of mail robbery and prison escapes.

     Chapman had taught The Owl well. Assigned to a window washing detail, Banghart made his first, but unsuccessful, escape from Atlanta, by leaping 25 feet from a window he was washing into a marsh area on the other side of the prison's wall. He made his way to Montana, but was captured and sent back to Atlanta.

     His second escape was with George Chapman in 1927 but he was arrested in Pittsburgh a year later, in October of 1928, while trying to steal a car.

     Escorted by US Marshals back to prison, Banghart was taken to the federal building. Left alone in an office for several minutes, Banghart escaped by calling police and telling them he was an FBI agent who had been assaulted and overpowered by his prisoner, Basil Banghart, who had escaped after handcuffing him.

     The Owl gave the cops a description of the Marshal who was escorting him and said, "He's a dangerous, armed felon and a police imposter."

     Police, pistols drawn, flooded into the building and overpowered the FBI agent as he and Banghart walked through the building's lobby. The Owl disappeared in the confusion.

     He was arrested in Knoxville in February of 1930. Returned to Atlanta, he escaped again but was arrested in January 1932 in Detroit for armed robbery.

     Held in the South Bend Indiana jail, he escaped by throwing pepper in the guard's face, grabbing his machine gun and shooting his way to freedom.

     Banghart made his way to Chicago and went to work for Roger Touhy. While Banghart probably played a major role in the Touhy-Nitti union wars of 1932-33, there is only one incident on record where police suspected he was involved.

     In January of 1933, the Nitti organization trapped and killed one of Touhy's gunmen, a union extortionist named Jimmy O'Brien.

     Seven days later February 8, 1933, the Touhy's struck back.

     It was 15 degrees below zero and snowing. There was two feet of snow already on the ground. A dark colored sedan pulled up in front of the Garage Nightclub where Jimmy O'Brien had been killed.

     A tall man, identified as Banghart, and wearing a dark hat and overcoat, probably Basil Banghart, opened the front door to the club and said: "This is for Jimmy, you bastards!" and tossed a bomb into the bar room which blew the place to bits but remarkably didn't kill any of the occupants.

     In August of 1933, Banghart's occasional partner, Issac Costner, a Tennessee moonshiner working for the Touhy's as an enforcer, convinced Banghart to meet with an international con man named John Factor, AKA, Jake the Barber.

     Costner told Banghart that the Barber was wanted in England on a bonco conviction and needed to avoid extradition by kidnapping himself. Factor had promised Costner $50,000 if he would help make the kidnapping look real by picking up the ransom money.

     Remarkably, Banghart agreed.

     On August 17, 1933, Banghart drove to the forest preserves outside of Chicago where the ransom money was to be dropped.

     It was supposed to be an easy deal, a man in a cab would meet Banghart at the intersection of Wolf and Ogden roads and hand him a bag filled with 50k, in small unmarked bills.

     But, unknown to the Owl, two hundred and fifty policemen, cadets, Sheriff's deputies and FBI agents, two airplanes, sixty-two squad cars, ten machine guns and a dozen aerial bombs were waiting for him.

     Banghart and his partner, Ice Wagon Connor, were late picking up the money. They sped onto the roadway where the cab was waiting and pulled up to the cab's fender, screeching to a halt just barely avoiding an accident.

     Connors, in a gray summer suit, was on the passenger's side. He stepped out and walked over to the cab and looked at Officer McKenna in the back seat. "You got a package, a package for Smith?" he asked.

     The plainclothes policeman inside the cab nodded. "Yes. It's here."

     The cop handed Connors a package that contained nothing more than scraps of paper and then waved for the others to move in.

     Banghart and Connors saw the set up. Banghart floored the car while Connors threw himself into the back seat.

     Banghart raced the car down the road only to find it blocked by a dozen squad cars. Throwing the car in reverse, he raced down to the other end of the road and into another road block.

     The Owl threw the car in reverse again and dodged back and forth between the roadblocks, looking for an opening.

     At one point, McKenna and Meyers, the two cops in the taxi, drove up behind Banghart's car and fired the machine gun at the gangster, missing every shot. In frustration Meyers pulled the cab up alongside Banghart's car to give McKenna a better shot. McKenna let a burst go from the Tommy gun, but missed again.

     Banghart drove the car straight at the roadblock in front of him and the cops, not really sure if he would stop or not, moved out of his way and Banghart drove straight into the forest preserve to get out of the view of the airplanes above him.

     With the police only yards behind them, Banghart and Connor leaped out of the car and let it smash into a tree and ran away on foot and split up and escaped.

     With the Factor business behind him, or so he thought, in the winter of 1935, Banghart joined Roger Touhy and his gang in planning and executing what was then the largest string of mail robberies in history.

     Banghart's contribution was to steal $105,000 in federal reserve notes from a truck in Charlotte North Carolina in broad daylight.

     Unfortunately for Banghart, he used a stolen car for the heist, which brought the FBI into the case. The car was found outside of a Baltimore hotel a month after the robbery, and the FBI arrested Banghart shortly afterwards as he left the hotel.

     Banghart was returned to Chicago, where, to his surprise, he was indicted, along with Roger Touhy and four others, for kidnapping Jake the Barber Factor. The Owl had been set up.

     When Banghart was called to the stand during the Factor kidnap trial, the prosecuting attorney, Wilbert Crowley asked: "What is your occupation, Mr. Banghart?"


      The jury laughed but Crowley was confused. "What?"

      "I'm a thief. I steal...that's how I make my living."

      "What was the last place of your residence?"

      "601 McDonough Boulevard SE, Atlanta Georgia, but it wasn't permanent."

     Later in the day Crowley found out that 601 McDonough was the address for Atlanta Federal prison and called Banghart back to the witness stand to explain himself.

     "Why didn't you tell us," Crowley demanded, "that you were in prison?"

     "Four walls and iron bars," Banghart replied, "do not a prison make."

     Flustered, Crowley said, "So you escaped from prison, isn't that correct?"

     Banghart was indignant. "No. The warden says I escaped from prison."

      "And," Crowley asked, "What do you say?"

      "I say," replied Banghart, "that I left without permission."

      "The point is, Mr. Banghart, is that you are a fugitive, are you not?"

      "Yes I am. I am a fugitive."

      "From where, sir?"

      "Well hell son, from justice."

     The jury had a good laugh at the Owl's testimony but they found him guilty anyway. He was sentenced to 99 years for his role in the Factor kidnapping, plus 31 years for his part in the mail robberies.

     In 1935, Banghart started off his new career at Menard State prison by driving a laundry truck through the main gates.

     The escape was short lived, he was recaptured and sent to the main prison with Roger Touhy at Statesville.

     In October of 1942, Banghart escaped prison again, this time with Roger Touhy and four others, going over Stateville's enormous 45-foot walls in a daring daylight breakout.

     They were recaptured several months later after one of the escapees, Matlick Nelson, who had been severely beaten by Banghart for drinking, turned himself into the FBI and told the agents everything he knew about the escape.

     By nightfall, a small army of agents was slowly and carefully moving in around the gang's apartments.

     J. Edgar Hoover arrived on the scene to personally supervise the raid.

     At zero hour, powerful searchlights were turned onto the windows of Touhy's apartment and then a loudspeaker cracked the silence of the night. "Roger Touhy and the other escaped convicts! The building is surrounded. We are about to throw tear gas in the building. Surrender now and you will not be killed."

     Banghart wanted to shoot it out, but Roger didn't. They debated over what to do for the next ten minutes before Banghart shouted out the window, "We're coming out."

     "Then come out backwards with your hands high in the air! Banghart you come out first!"

     Banghart, wearing only his pants, appeared at the front door, his back to the agents. Roger, clad in fire-engine-red pajamas, followed him.

     The agents leaped on each of them as they came out of the building and knocked them to the freezing cold pavement and handcuffed them.

     A dozen agents rushed into the apartment and found five pistols, three sawn off shotguns, a .30/30 rifle and $13,523 in cash which they feature from jwtuohyhanded over to Tubbo Gilbert, who was still the Chief Investigator for the States Attorney's Office.

     When Gilbert returned the cash to the prisoners at Stateville prison, he said that he had only been given $800 by the FBI.

     After Touhy and Banghart were handcuffed, J. Edgar Hoover, surrounded by a dozen agents and a dozen more newspaper reports, strolled up to Banghart and said "Well, Banghart, you're a trapped rat."

     The Owl burst out into a huge smile, "You're J. Edgar Hoover, aren't you?" he asked.

      "Yes," Hoover beamed, "I am."

      Banghart nodded his head and said, "You're a lot fatter in person than you are on the radio."

      On January 2, 1943, The Owl was returned, by a massive and heavily armed convoy, to spend his 36th birthday in solitary confinement in Statesville.

     But State authorities had enough of Banghart and his death defying escapes. He was becoming a convict's legend. He had to be made an example of.

     Several days after his return, the Owl was dragged from his cell by eighteen federal marshals, chained at his wrists and ankles and sent by airplane to Alcatraz prison island.

     It was a stroke of bad luck for Banghart, for one thing, although he could fly a plane and drive cars better and faster than most mere mortals, Banghart had never learned to swim.

     The Owl was assigned to the prison kitchen where he and Alvin Karpis were assigned to the bakery although Banghart was later promoted to kitchen clerk, the same position Roger Touhy would hold at Statesville prison.

     "The Karpis Kitchen Crew", as it became known, was the stuff of convict legends. Banghart and Karpis learned to make wine out of cherry pie juices, spending all of their off time making and testing different types of wine and getting drunk. "The challenge was," Karpis wrote, "to avoid becoming an alcoholic."

     In 1959, after it had been proven that John Factor had arranged his own kidnapping, the Owl was transferred from Alcatraz back to Statesville prison.

     Eventually his conviction for kidnapping was overturned and his 30-year sentence for mail robbery was dropped for time served. In 1960, the Owl, now a graying man of sixty years, strolled out of prison for ever.

     There is, more or less, a happy ending to Banghart's story. When he left prison, his girlfriend of thirty years, Mae Blacock, was waiting for him as was a small but very respectable real estate fortune left to him by an aunt in 1945.

     The Owl lived out the remainder of his life in relative comfort on a small island in Puget Sound, watching the ships go by.

Mr. Tuohy can be reached by writing to

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