Bank Robbery in Brownton

It was a dark, chilly night in September of 1924. It was a quiet in Brownton – still and silent – a silence that was deafening, broken only by the “click-clack” of a pair of shoes as their owner strolled down the quiet street. It was 1am, and while the tiny town slept, Marshal Sanken was making his rounds. He checked the doors on shops in town, making sure they were secure and locked tight. Occasionally he would cup his hands around his eyes to peek inside a darkened shop window, just to make sure everything was in order in the orderly little town. He felt nothing out of order as he came by the powerhouse – the place where electricity was controlled for the town. Suddenly, and seemingly from nowhere, a cold, gloved hand reached out from the little building and enveloped itself around the Marshal’s mouth. A second hand reached for his arm and subdued the marshal. Inside were five men. They were cutting power to the town and were planning to rob the bank.

The men were armed and meant business. They’d scoped out town earlier that day, and felt they had a fool-proof plan. Under cover of darkness, they would sneak, silently, into town, cut the phone and telegraph lines, break into the bank, darken the interior windows, and blow the vault with nitroglycerin.

You could call it bad timing for Marshal Sanken.

The five men were inside the powerhouse cutting the wires when one of them spotted the Marshal walking down the sidewalk. They remained still, waiting in silence until the Marshal was close enough to grab. As he walked by the powerhouse, the men reached out and accosted him, gagged with a rag, and had his hands tied behind his back.

They took the bound Marshal with them as they made their way to the bank. Once inside, they put Marshal Sanken in the basement and went to work darkening the windows. Next, they blew the vault, or tried to at least. The vault was made of thick steel enclosed in brick and mortar. After four attempts to blow their way inside, they had done little but awaken several townspeople.

One man who was alerted by the explosions was H.E. Seeland, a restaurant owner who lived across the street of the bank. Seeland jumped from bed, grabbed a shotgun, and proceeded to a second story window. He saw the commotion at the bank and fired his gun into the air, hoping to scare the bandits off. Instead, his shot drew returning fire. Shooting from a second floor window, Seeland had the upper hand. While the bandits tried to scramble out of the bank, they were under constant fire from Seeland.

The five armed bank robbers had no choice but to abandon their heist and leave town. The gunfight was sure to alarm the town and soon more people would come to the aid of Seeland. They decided to flee the town, without the loot they sought after. They bolted from the bank and ran out of town as fast as they could, shooting out streetlights and returning fire toward Seeland.

The armed bandits were never caught. The attempted bank heist in Brownton was one of four in the region; Cosmos, Svea, and Kandiyohi were all targets of similar bank jobs. Authorities felt all four attempts were made by the same criminals. To this day, their identity remains a mystery.
-Brian Haines-


  1. Thomas B Ginkel says

    Brian Haines articles are amazing! He recommended a great book called “Over the Earth I Come”, which was incredible.
    Just wondering, did the Ojibwe and the “local” Sioux really hunt each other? You referred to a burning at the stake and bloody scalps in the “First 4th of July” article.