I rob banks because that's where the money is (Willie Sutton January 20, 1951)
adsgarsonotoole at GMAIL.COM
Thu Feb 7 20:08:29 UTC 2013
A WSJ reporter asked me about the saying attributed to the famous bank
robber Willie Sutton. The attribution of the statement is
controversial because Sutton writing in his 1976 biography denied that
he made the well-known remark.
The ADS list archive has a relevant cite dated March 9, 1952. The
words were not attributed to Sutton. There is no sender name on the
ADS post, but I think Barry Popik found the cite. The same message has
a relevant cite dated March 15, 1952. The words were attributed to
Sutton, and this cite is listed in the YBQ. These cites are given
The first cite below is a 1951 cite I located with an instance of the
saying credited to Sutton. Also, below is a cite I found dated March
30, 1952 that is interesting because Sutton used the quotation during
an actual interview. This seems to be the earliest direct evidence
that Sutton made the remark, but the context was not the traditionally
[ref] 1951 January 20, The Saturday Evening Post, Volume 223, Issue
30, Someday They'll Get Slick Willie Sutton by Robert M. Yoder, Start
Page 17, Quote Page 17, Saturday Evening Post Society, Indianapolis,
Indiana. (Academic Search Premier) [/ref]
Someone once asked Slick Willie Sutton, the bank robber, why he robbed
banks. The question might have uncovered a tale of injustice and
lifelong revenge. Maybe a banker foreclosed on the old homestead,
maybe a banker's daughter spurned Sutton for another.
Sutton looked a little surprised, as if he had been asked "Why does a
smoker light a cigarette?"
"I rob banks because that's where the money is," he said, obviously
meaning "in the most compact form." That eye for the simple essential
may be the secret of a singular success.
[ref] Nevada State Journal, "Scuttling of Carson City's Mint in 1890's
Set Off One of Nevada's Greatest Scandals" by Peggy Trego, Quote Page
3, Column 1, Reno, Nevada. (NewspaperArchive) [/ref]
There seems to be a standing philosophy among thieves that the best
target for larceny is "the place where the money is." That's why
Willie Sutton, recently arrested as one of the country's number one
crooks, chose banks.
[ref] 1952 March 15, Redlands Daily Facts, The Newsreel by H. V. Wade,
(Freestanding short item), Quote Page 8, Column 1, Redlands,
California. (NewspaperArchive) [/ref]
An age-old question is cleared up satisfactorily by Willie (the Actor)
Sutton. Asked why he robbed banks, he said, "That's where the money
[ref] 1952 March 30, Oregonian, Section: The American Weekly (Magazine
Supplement), Willie Sutton talks by Fred Curran, (Subtitle: The First
Reporter to Interview the Nation's Most Wanted Bandit), Start Page 4,
Quote Page 4, Column 3, (GNBank Page 123), Portland, Oregon.
For a while after that Willie overworked his messenger-boy role. He
brought a box of roses to Mrs. S. Stanwood Menken, a New York society
leader, and left with $150,000 worth of her jewels. The same trick
took a total of $375,000 from four other society women.
But jewels were getting hard to dispose of, so Willie went back to
banks. "That's where the money is," he explained to me simply. "Other
[ref] 1976, Where the Money Was by Willie Sutton and Edward Linn,
Quote Page 120, Viking Press, New York. (Verified with scans) [/ref]
The irony of using a bank robber's maxim as an instrument for teaching
medicine is compounded, I will now confess, by the fact that I never
said it. The credit belongs to some enterprising reporter who
apparently felt a need to fill out his copy. I can't even remember
when I first read it. It just seemed to appear one day, and then it
If anybody had asked me, I'd have probably said it. That's what almost
anybody would say. Like Dr. Dock said, it couldn't be more obvious.
Or could it?
Why did I rob banks? Because I enjoyed it. I loved it. I was more
alive when I was inside a bank, robbing it, than at any other time in
my life. I enjoyed everything about it so much that one or two weeks
later I'd be out looking For the next job.
The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org
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