Conclusion: The Great Castle Shannon Bank Robbery

July 4, 2017
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Courtesy Edd Hale
Daniel McLean and his wife, Agnes, who had died shortly before the events of May 14, 1917.
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Courtesy Edd Hale
Sam Barcons is the only one of the robbers for whom the researchers found a photo.
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Reprinted from “Images of America: Castle Shannon” by Sam Sciullo Jr. on behalf of the Castle Sh
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Harry Funk
The bank building as it looks today at 3734 Poplar Ave., Castle Shannon.
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Harry Funk
The interior of the bank building.
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Harry Funk
Dr. John Kerr’s former house as it appears today.

Let's start with Sam Barcons and John Tush, who headed from the First National Bank on Poplar Avenue toward what is now Mt. Lebanon Golf Course. On their tail was recently turned vigilante Dr. John Kerr, whose house is close to the bank.

“The robbers literally ran through his backyard,” Hale says. “When they jump a fence, Barcons' pistol falls out his pocket and is lying in his backyard. He doesn't realize it, at first.”

Kerr and local pharmacist J.J. Doyle, who joined in the chase, knew the neighborhood terrain and raced to high ground, hemming in Barcons and Tush below.

“Here's Dr. Kerr popping away at them,” Hays says about the fugitives. “They realize they're in big trouble. Tush stops and yells to Sam Barcons, 'Shoot yourself!'”

He declined, but Tush put his gun to his head, pulled the trigger and died on the spot. Barcons retrieved the pistol, and he resumed running, to a heavily wooded area near Sleepy Hollow Road.

Kerr trailed him to the edge of the woods but, with the threat of an ambush, declined to enter.

About that time, Ernest Fischer, working at nearby Saxonwald Greenery, received a telephone call notifying him of the robbery and that some of the perpetrators were coming his way.

“Fischer says, 'Got it,' runs across the street to his house, gets his guns and heads up to the woods, where he knows that they would be going,” Hale relates.

New information

After giving a presentation a few months ago about the Castle Shannon bank robbery of 1917, Edd Hale received an email from a woman in attendance: Lois Langley, granddaughter of ringleader Mikhail Titov's sister.

“As kids, my mother told us about the bank robbery, and it was kind of a fascinating skeleton in the family closet. We weren't aware then that two people were killed. Here is what we know as true: Mikhail Titova returned to Russia. There was a rumor in the family he had fled to South America, but we were able to confirm that he returned to Russia when we visited with two of my mother's cousins in Russia in 2000. Apparently, when the family in Russia saw him, he had a wife. They did not stay in the local area and weren't seen again.

Here is what we don't know for certain: Mikhail apparently told my grandmother he was returning to Russia to fight in the Revolution, which occurred in November 1917. Was that his motive for the robbery? Or did he tell my grandmother that to explain his departure? Also, did he tell her that before or after the robbery?

My grandparents came into some money after 1917, which seems highly unusual because they had no family in this country, and my grandfather, who began working for the Renton Coal Mine in 1918, grew steadily ill from tuberculosis and worked sporadically. There was no pay for sick time back then. At any rate, in the '20s, they managed to buy a car and a motorcycle for their son, both confirmed by one of my aunts who remembers riding in the car for Sunday drives. Again, highly irregular for a coal miner who was making roughly $1 per day.

Did they knowingly or unknowingly accept stolen money from her brother, or did they earn the money from the boarders they housed? Did my grandmother become aware of her brother's involvement in the robbery directly from him (either before or after) or was she made aware of it by the law enforcement officials who visited her to ask about Nick Kemanos? How long was it after the robbery that law enforcement officials contacted her?”

Michael Zimecki, who also attended one of Hale's presentations, sent an email with further relevant information:

“After class, I found a short news article in the Canonsburg Daily Notes for June 23, 1920, about an explosion in an evidence locker at the Allegheny County Courthouse. The article said that the bomb had been confiscated from one of the suspects in the 1917 Castle Shannon bank robbery and spontaneously combusted some three years after the holdup. Bombs were, of course, the anarchist's weapon of choice in those days, and it struck me as curious that a holdup man was carrying one.

In his book 'Seeing Reds: Federal Surveillance of Radicals in the Pittsburgh Mill District, 1917-1921,' historian Charles H. McCormick describes a plot to rob a bank on the Pennsylvania-Ohio border in October 1920 hatched by a Russian immigrant, Konon Parchmenko. At the time, the Union of Russian Workers was training anarchists to return to Russian to bedevil the Bolsheviks.

Parchmenko, who disavowed any connection to the UORW and claimed to belong to a rival terrorist cell, told an undercover federal agent that many Russians in the Pittsburgh area did not support the Bolsheviks and wanted to return to Russian to overthrow the Bolshevik regime, but planned to steal money first.

Parchmenko's plot involved using an automobile to commit robbery in a rural area where law enforcement was weak. According to McCormick, he told the federal agent that he had been involved in a similar plot to rob a bank at Castle Shannon three years earlier, in which two of his confederates were killed.

My guess is that Parchmenko was poaching on the event to impress the agent. In any event, Parchmenko disappeared before the 1920 plot was converted into action.

I was unable to find any other record of a Konon Parchmenko. I did find a draft registration card on Ancestry for a Konon Porchomenko (different spelling from the character in McCormick's book) living in a boarding house in Manhattan in 1917. On the card, which was dated June 5, 1917, Porchomenko claimed an exemption from the draft on the grounds that he would 'rather join the Russian army.'”

Sure enough, a farmer told him he saw someone scuttling among the trees, and Fischer eventually spotted Barcons' feet between two logs. Hale continues the story:

“He comes up very, very quietly, gets right up to him, puts the barrel right down on his forehead, and says, 'If you move, I'll blow your head off.' At that very moment, here come the doctor, Doyle and two more townspeople, crashing down through the woods. And Fischer's yelling, 'I've got him! He's right here.'

“Doyle is furious. He's heard that Frank Erbe, his good friend, has been shot multiple times, and he's just beside himself. He sees the bank robber lying on the ground, reaches down, picks him up, and he beats the stuffing out of this guy.”

Then, according to Hale, they make an improbable discovery.

“Incredibly, Sam Barcons had taken Tush's pistol, put it in his mouth, pulled the trigger, and the bullet went perfectly between the two lobes of his brain,” he says. “Hit nothing at all. He was perfectly OK.”

Meanwhile, robbers Haraska Garason and ringleader Mikhail Titov were trying to make it to the getaway vehicle, parked along what today is Castle Shannon Boulevard. Waiting inside was owner and driver Nick Kemanos. As Hale explains:

“As they get to the car, they're yelling, 'Start the car! Start the car!' Kemanos starts the car and he says, 'What is going on?' They say, 'We got into a bar fight, and everyone in town is after us.' And Kemanos says, 'Oh, OK,' and off they go.”

Back in town, Justice of the Peace George Beltzhoover had organized a posse and commandeered a vehicle from the local undertaker.

“Eleven men jump into the hearse. In the meantime, someone else does arrive in a car. So now there are two cars, at least 11 men in one car and I don't know how many in the other, and the chase is on,” Hale says.

They soon caught up with Kemanos, who was making his way leisurely up Greentree Road. According to Hale:

“They come flying up, and they block him in. They jump out of their cars and they pull him out, and ask, 'Where are the other two?' And he says, 'They got out of the car a couple of miles back. They told me they didn't like the way I drive, so they didn't want to stay in the car. And they disappeared.'”

Kemanos promptly received a Barcons-like beating before being driven back to Castle Shannon.

“By this time, two Allegheny County detectives have arrived to try to take control of the situation, which is quickly spinning out of control because the women in town are screaming to lynch the men,” Hale reports. “Why? Because the two favorite men in the bank are either dead or dying.”

Teller Daniel H.A. McLean, who was shot in the forehead, expired at the scene shortly after the gunfire began.

“Frank Erbe,” Hale says about the co-teller, “who had taken his gun to work that day, put up one heck of a battle. He was shot in the head, the back, the chest, the right arm and the left shoulder. He lived an hour and a half. He died on the way to South Side Hospital.”

About the stolen cash, Hale reports:

“Of the $17,000 they walked out with – and that's a huge sum of money in this time period – $9,000 of it was recovered on Tush, on Barcons and found around town. The rest of the money disappeared.

The notes were easily identifiable, as they bore the imprint “Castle Shannon.” Today, such bills are much prized among local collectors.

As for the survivors of the robbery, two men ended up standing trial.

“Sam Barcons, who shot himself through the top of the head, recovered completely, was found guilty and was executed Jan. 13, 1919,” Hale says. “He's buried in the pauper's field at Rockview Penitentiary.”

Whether he knew of the plot or, as Hale and Stuart conjecture, did not, hired driver Kemanos was tried for the murder of Erbe and acquitted. With apparent disregard for the double-jeopardy clause of the Fifth Amendment, the judicial system decided to try him again for McLean's death. But before that occurred, he died in prison during the Spanish influenza epidemic of 1919.

About Titov and Garason, who got out of the getaway car:

“The best guess is that they probably hightailed it for New York City, jumped on a freighter and arrived back in Russia just in time for the October Revolution,” Hale conjectures. “Which tells me that they probably lost all this money when they got there, because it was probably confiscated by the Russian government.”

Hale concludes:

“It's a sad story at the end, but it's an amazing thing throughout, one that most people in our area have never heard. That's why I love telling the story, and I never get tired of telling it.”

Harry Funk has been a professional journalist in Western Pennsylvania for 30 years, working primarily for community-oriented newspapers. He holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism and master of business administration, both from Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

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