Standard Oil of Memphis Robbery – 1927

In February 24, 1927 two masked men entered the central office of Standard Oil Company in Memphis, Tennessee armed with revolvers. Their intent was robbery and cashier J.P. Tucker was their target.  The dutiful employee had just finished preparing the receipts for transfer to the bank when he was startled by the brazen act.  One of the men fired a shot into the ceiling as the other grabbed for the money.  As the robbers rushed out one of the other employees hurled a soda water bottle at the men which missed.  This shattering of the bottle against a wall resulted in another wild shot as the men fled.  Leaping into a car, they dashed away.  The entire episode took minutes but netted the dastardly duo nearly $7,000 in cash and around $63,000 in checks.

Standard Oil Company was one of the largest companies in the world and had offices and stations located in every state.  Their central office at Memphis in 1927 was located on Commerce Street near the Louisville & Nashville Railroad.  Even though it was usually secure, this was the second robbery in less than two years.  In late 1926 thieves broke into the offices of Standard Oil overnight.  Getting away clean, they took nearly $2,000 in checks and cash.  This robbery was still under investigation when the daylight invasion occurred.

The city of Memphis knew these daring robbers had to be captured and put a number of detectives on the task.  They were headed by Inspector William T. Griffin.

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Will Griffin was one of the top men at the department and quickly deduced that this operation had to have an inside man.  That guy was Jack Richard Clifton, age 33, who was a clerk in the accounting office.  After being picked up, he confessed to his role as coming up with the idea but not being involved with the actual robbery.  This native of Senatobia, Mississippi had been a trusted employee for about three years at Standard Oil.

According to his confession, the entire plan had came into being just a few weeks ago.  Two men, who he refused to identify, asked him if they could keep their car in his garage.  When they came back later, all three men got into a conversation about where he worked.  They wanted to know when the money was carried to the bank and he told them.

Clifton was actually at work when the robbers came in with guns drawn.  The car that the criminals used was soon found burned near Oakville Sanitarium.  Without anymore information from Clifton, Inspector Griffin would have to rely on eyewitness accounts and dedicated police work.  A little bit of luck would help too.

Lonnie Crawley, also known as Crawford, was picked up at Lepanto, Arkansas.  He had been identified by one of the cashiers but they weren’t sure of his involvement. After picking him up they found that he also called himself Trigg Avenue.  With his detention, Griffin hit a dead end.  Both men refused to talk.  In fact Clifton had become a suspect in another robbery of an employee at Standard Oil in the parking lot a few months back.

With his chief suspects not saying anything and with no more eyewitnesses, Inspector Griffin  was gonna have to rely on luck.  Thats when he got a call from Sheriff Thomas McArthur of Quitman County, Mississippi.  He had a tip on a man he believed Griffin was looking for.  That man’s name was Ira G. Allen, a local trouble maker from Tate County.  This red headed young man fit the description of their suspect and McArthur heard he was in Memphis.

Inspector Griffin knew he was gonna need help in arresting Griffin so he gathered his men and set his plan in motion.  At first they laid a trap for him near Whitehaven on Horn Lake and Hernando roads.  Armed with shotguns, Griffin was ready for whatever was gonna happen.  Thats when he got a call saying Allen was at a cafe on Monroe street.  Five detectives were dispatched from headquarters and they quickly surrounded Mike Wallace’s Cafe where Allen was eating lunch.  In front of at least a hundred customers and bystanders the police moved in on their man.  Surprised, Allen attempted to pull a knife from his belt when two strong detectives overpowered him while a third took his weapon.  Apparently Ira was so drunk he could barely stand as they manhandled him back to the staton.  He was charged with two counts of highway robbery, carrying a pistol, destroying an automobile and larceny of an automobile.

Looking into Ira Allen’s background painted a picture of a young man spiraling out of control.  Even though he came from a good family, his father was a school superintendent, Miller had started getting into trouble after being discharged from the marines.  He was a heavy drinker and had contracted tuberculosis.  This last bit of information linked him with one of the men now locked up who also had that disease.  In fact both men had taken treatment at Oakville Sanitarium where the burned car had been found.

Although they believed he had committed both Standard Oil robberies, they could only convict him in the second one. No other suspects were found guilty and Ira refused to talk. He was sentenced from five to ten years, but was pardoned after two.  Allen was sent home to his father who promised to see him committed for mental illness.

In 1930 he was found guilty of armed robbery at the Rendezvous lounge in Coahoma County, Mississippi and sentenced to prison. Once again he was released early and sent home.  His tuberculosis had worsened and Ira Allen passed away on August 12, 1937.  His friend and suspected crime partner John R. Clifton, who was also from Tate County, died in 1946 of tuberculosis. With their deaths, the mystery of the Standard Oil robbery ended.  No money was found and no person had ever confessed or spent much time in jail.

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Detective Griffin would later win national fame for his involvement with the capture of Machine Gun Kelly in 1933 at Memphis.  After retirement he lived quietly and passed away on November 13, 1947 in Memphis, Tennessee.

References:

“Clarion Ledger” Jackson, MS. July 8, 1927 – Page 5

“The Tennessean” Nashville, TN. July 8, 1927 – Page 8

“Clarion Ledger” Jackson, MS. August 7, 1927 – Page 5

“Clarion Ledger” Jackson, MS. July 8, 1927 – Page 1

“The Knoxville Journal” Knoxville, TN. June 26, 1929 – Page 3

“The Tennessean” Nashville, TN. March 15, 1927 – Page 2

“The Knoxville Sentinel” Knoxville, TN. July 7, 1927 – Page 2

“The Clarksdale Press Register” Clarksdale, MS. July 28, 1934 – Page 3

“Clarion Ledger” Jackson, MS. October 17, 1930 – Page 11

“Journal Gazette” Mattoon, Illinois. Wednesday, September 27, 1933 – Page 4

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