A Burning Cold Morning (Part 2)

I am sure that convicts, even dying ones, tell lies all the time.  I do not think that sets them too far apart from the rest of humanity.  Truthfulness may not be our strongest virtue.  Researching things as frequently and as in detail as I often do has also made it obvious that there are all kinds of false leads, apocryphal stories, urban legends and misreported facts about every imaginable historical event.  So, some random journal entry about a generally insignificant criminal’s death is not exactly a eureka moment.  I have always given a little extra weight to “dying utterances” though and it did seem likely from the info in the journal that Leo probably knew his time was up when he pulled that guard in close for those last words.  It struck me as interesting and worth a second look so I dove in and, well, that was a long time ago.  The story that unfolded from my research is truly an interesting one, a hidden tale of Minneapolis and the surrounding area that includes all of the usual trigger words; criminals, murder, deceit, gangsters and explosions.  It also includes things that will give you more hope, things such as bravery, courage, forgiveness and redemption.  And I definitely found out that Leo Humbert was not as insignificant as he seemed to be at first.  For now, let’s step back into time a ways and onto the baseball field in New Munich, Minnesota on July 6th, 1910.

new munich mn 2017

new munich mn 2017

 

It was, and still is, a very small town, although between 1900 and 1910 it had gone through one of its two large population booms.  A forty percent increase had left New Munich with one hundred and ninety residents by 1910 and that growth would continue for another decade, ending in 1920 when the population was three hundred and twenty five.  Since that time, things have pretty much stayed the same.  The Hombert’s (for that was Leo’s last name at birth) had been in the area for awhile by the time this growth started, having moved to the area in 1891 after getting married in Ohio.  The patriarch, Benjamin Hombert, a man with sloping shoulders, blue eyes and thick brown hair, was a farmer and occasionally picked up extra work as a day laborer.  He and his wife Lizzie produced a large family of four girls and four boys, of whom Leo was the third youngest of all, and the most junior boy.

part of 1910 census hombert family only

part of 1910 census hombert family only

As a child Leo was wiry and “all angles and edges” as his mother wrote in her diary several times, and he had the sharp features which he would carry with him through most of his life.  They all helped their father on the farm and the family was generally known as honest and hard-working.  The Hombert’s took good care of their children and seven of them became solid parts of the Stearns County community.  Leo, however, would do little to ever repay or appreciate the nurturing and safety they provided.

Ben Hombert’s  great passion, other than his family, was baseball and he played on the local team, a collection of energetic and scrappy men, all much younger than him.  The team was known for getting into fights on the field, although Leo’s father never participated and was know as “Softy” because of it.  He played mostly in the outfield and could still catch up to a fly ball pretty well although his arm was “not the force it used to be,” as he would say.  Ben encouraged his children to come and watch his games and practices, hoping to give them insight into his own love of baseball.  He had not been greatly successful in this though, and although his daughter Olivia though it was a grand game, Ben had hoped one of his son’s might pick up the sport and play alongside him.  Leo seemed to be his last chance for this and he often would take the boy, protesting or not, along with him.  It probably was not the best way to encourage a youngster to like something, and young Leo would usually misbehave in some way as his father was on the field.  This usually amounted to pranks or general mischief but this particular day would mark what could later be identified as the beginning of a long criminal career for Leo Hombert.

It was a Wednesday, their usual practice day, and the team was trying to get in a practice session before the rain, which was threatening in the eastern sky, started to fall in earnest.  A game was coming up against a good Saint Cloud club and every man on the team wanted to beat them.  Light, intermittent showers had been falling throughout the day but there was a break in the weather around two p.m.  Although on many occasions only a few of the players made it, this session was fully attended as the local newspaper was sending a photographer to take the team’s picture.

new munich baseball team 1910 courtesy lakesnwoods

new munich baseball team 1910 courtesy lakesnwoods

Whether they would admit it or not, all of the men were looking forward to cutting that page out of the edition in which it appeared, or buying a few extra copies to keep around and show off.  There were not many opportunities for celebrity in New Munich.

The team manager was Charlie Amsden, a man born in Sauk Centre who had moved over to New Munich to work in a bank owned by his brother Michael, who was also the owner of the local baseball club.  While Michael was tall and imposing, Charlie had been crippled by an accident in his early teens and years of limited mobility had left him frail and thin.  He often looked like he was wearing clothing that was several sizes too big, usually because he just could not find items to fit his very thin frame.  The move to New Munich though had seemed to energize him and his brother had purchased a top of the line wheelchair for Charlie.  After that he was often seen zipping down the aptly named Main Street of the town and the residents liked his quick smile and dry sense of humor, especially when he applied it to himself.  He also had taken on the task of managing his brother’s baseball club and found great enjoyment in the camaraderie of the team.  As they were all assembled that day, circled around their proud owner in front of the chicken wire outfield fence of the field, Leo began his life of crime with a crippled man as his victim.

…to be continued

A Burning Cold Morning (Part 1)

humbert at time of death

Humbert at time of death

Leo Humbert was an old man when he gave up his last secret, the one he had kept over all the years and even through all of the rather abrupt revelations about his life.  Those had started the moment he was arrested in Denver on September 23, 1967 for the robbery of two state banks in Minnesota; Grey Eagle and Loretto. Both of those robberies had happened earlier in that same year and the arrest exposed a man who had successfully hidden a long and interesting criminal past from his wife of twenty-three years, their daughter and everyone else with whom they associated.  They knew him as the simple, very successful and soft-spoken traveling salesman who lived with them on 39th Avenue Northeast in Saint Anthony, Minnesota, accompanying them to church at Victory Lutheran every Sunday.  Leo was an average looking man, five foot nine and around one hundred and sixty pounds with thinning brown hair that formed a stark window’s peak on his pale forehead.  His features were sharp, with his blue eyes piercing you when he was serious and lighting up when he laughed.  He was diligent, kind and caring, although often absent due to his work and sometimes a little too distracted by newspapers.  When he was home, his early morning walk down to the newsstand was mandatory, regardless of wind, rain, snow or any other inconvenience or obligation.  He would return to the house to read them in detail at the kitchen table, drinking repeated cups of dark, thick coffee and nibbling on saltine crackers.  That was about all they knew of him until the call he made from the Denver jail on September 25th, informing his wife Amanda that he needed to explain a few things.

He had not told her everything, supposing I think that his version would be the only one she might hear.  That turned out not to be true at all, especially as the agents of the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension did an excellent job of questioning her in detail about his life.  Even though she had not known him until 1943 they seemed intent on figuring out if she happened to know about anything he may have done before that, and they had plenty of questions about what he had been up to since.  Her answers had been simple and straight-forward; she knew nothing, could not imagine him doing anything like robbing a bank, and certainly did not think he had committed any other crimes.  The investigators eventually left her alone but not before much more of her husband’s story had become obvious to Amanda.

Leo Humbert picture

Leo Humbert

Leo Humbert was born on March 7th, 1901 and managed to stay out of any significant trouble with the law for exactly twenty years and two hundred twenty-five days.  His arrest on that morning, October 18, 1921, for an embezzlement scheme that netted him four years in prison, set off a long run of crime and punishment that occupied the next twenty-two years of his life.  Along the way he stole cars, forged documents, trafficked in stolen goods and ultimately began robbing banks.  His most notorious known robbery was of the Meire Grove bank, which he held up twice in the space of five weeks, along the way picking up an accomplice by the name of John Williams.

humbert and williams wanted poster

Humbert and Williams wanted poster

The two of them also managed an escape from the Stearns County jail and spent time on the run with a two hundred dollar bounty on their head.  Eventually they were caught and Leo received a life sentence in 1929, which he began serving at Stillwater State Prison.  Things went well enough for him there that he received parole in 1937 but he only made it a few months before being returned due to violations of his release.  After that he stayed there until 1943, when he received another chance at parole and began the life with which Amanda thought she was familiar.

humbert at parole 1943

Humbert at parole 1943

He had kept his past a complete secret from her and she had been devastated by the revelations of the agents as well as what she started reading in the newspapers.  Reporters, along with detailing the sordid details of Leo’s crimes, had dug up the fact that he had married a stripper from the Gay 90’s nightclub in downtown Minneapolis.   That marriage had taken place in Albuquerque just the year before his arrest, on what Amanda had believed to be one of Leo’s business trips.  This revelation had been enough for her, and she had taken her daughter and moved away into obscurity and sorrow.  Those reporters had also managed to find an entry in the Who’s Who of Commerce and Industry that listed the high school drop-out and career criminal Leo Humbert as a doctoral graduate from Duke University and a retired Army colonel.  That entry still remains a mystery.

His story is interesting of course, and certainly caught my attention for a few long hours of research one Sunday.  It would have ended there except for the fact that I also turned up a journal entry from a guard at the Hennepin County Jail.  Leo had been transported back to Minnesota by the US Marshal’s service after his arrest in Denver and he was housed in that county jail, awaiting a hearing on the bank robberies.  This guard had been on duty the night of Sunday, October 22nd 1967, the night that Leo was reportedly found unresponsive in his cell.  He would die that night, just a few hours later,  and the official reporting has always referenced insulin shock as a possible cause of death.  That seemed plausible as, although no medical history supported it, Leo had told Hennepin County officials during his admitting process to the jail that he was a diabetic.  This guard’s journal entry seemed to tell a different story:

10/22/67

On duty today at jail – the usual for most of the shift.  Around 7 pm I took my break and left Chaz (the new kid) at the gate.  When I got back, he stated that a doctor had come to check on Humbert (a bankrobber brought in from Denver for a stick-up job in Grey Eagle).  Stupid kid – no medical visits that late at night except for emergencies and there weren’t none of those.  Went to check on the guy but it was too late – eyes were rolling back in his head.  I got to him just before he passed out.  He grabbed my collar and said something but I couldn’t hear it.  He said it again – still not sure but I think it was ‘that hotel fire, 1940, murder, look up the clock-maker.’  Weird stuff – might have been 1914 he said but the rest I’m pretty sure about.  Covered for the kid of course (he hadn’t even made the faker sign the book so wasn’t much to it).  They’re saying it’s a diabetes thing – here’s hoping to that sticking.

…to be continued