History 301: High-profile kidnapping landed in Indianapolis

By CONNIE ZEIGLER, Contributing editor

In May 1932, The Indianapolis Star published an Extra edition when the kidnapped child of Ann and Charles Lindbergh was found dead less than five miles from their New Jersey home. The kidnapper remained at large, and the country’s wealthy feared for their families’ safety.

Over the ensuing years, those fears became reality for some – including one woman who was kidnapped and held for ransom in an Indianapolis apartment.

Between May 1932 and September 1934, when Bruno Hauptmann, the primary suspect in the Lindbergh case, was arrested, the Federal Bureau of Investigation investigated 29 abduction cases. In 1932 Congress passed the Lindbergh Act, which made threats of kidnapping a federal crime punishable by up to 20 years in prison and, according to an article in The Indianapolis Star on Sept. 21, 1934, Congress in 1933 made kidnapping punishable by death and gave the FBI power to track kidnappers across state lines.

Still, ironically a month after Hauptmann’s capture and arrest, Alice Stoll – a “young society beauty” and wife of Berry V. Stoll, an oil company vice president – was clubbed on the head with an iron pipe and abducted from her sick bed at her home in Louisville, Ky. Alice was the daughter of industrialist William S. Speed and daughter-in-law of multi-millionaire, C. C. Stoll. According to the report in The Indianapolis News on Oct. 11, 1934, the family feared that she might have already died from her head injuries.

The Indianapolis Star front page on Oct. 17, 1934, with reports of the kidnapping of Alice Stoll.

A ransom note left at the Stoll home stated that “we are fully aware that kidnapping is punishable by death in Kentucky.” It said, “It could not be wrong to rid the country of capitalists or make him share his fortune with less fortunate brothers.” It also threatened to kill “him”, burn “his” body and dissolve the ashes in water if the demand for $50,000 were not met. The use of the male pronouns and the name C. C. Stoll written on the note, as transcribed in the Indianapolis Times on Oct. 17, revealed that Berry Stoll’s father, not his wife, had been the intended victim. But the deed was done and the missus was gone.

The kidnapper named an intermediary for communication, Thomas H. Robinson Sr. of Nashville, Tenn. Robinson, as it turned out, was the father of a man with a police record who had been recently housed in the Tennessee Insane Asylum, who was a former attorney, and who was missing. Thomas H. Robinson Jr. was now Suspect Number One.

Federal agents were on the ground and Kentucky and Indiana State Police were on high alert. Roads leading into Indiana were barricaded, but the kidnapper managed to transport his $50,000 paycheck, Alice Stoll, into the state despite them. He drove north to Indianapolis. After a day or two, he revised the ransom plan, stating that it should be paid to Mrs. Thomas H. Robinson Jr., rather than to Mr. Thomas H. Robinson Sr.

Speed and Stoll paid, leaving the money as directed in a diner in Terre Haute. Mrs. Robinson Jr. took a train to Terre Haute, picked up the ransom money and got on another train to Indianapolis. The feds followed. She delivered the ransom to her husband at an ivy-covered apartment building at 3735 N. Meridian St. where he was holding Alice Stoll.

Robinson Jr. left the women and fled with the money. 

Melvin Purvis, who had trailed and killed John Dillinger just a few months earlier, chased the car that they thought Robinson Jr. was driving with three women inside. According to his account in The Indianapolis Star two years later, Mrs. Robinson Jr. took Alice Stoll to Mr. Stoll’s cousin in Indianapolis, Mrs. Irene Clegg, as the FBI agents followed. Mrs. Clegg was the wife of well-known pastor, E. Arnold Clegg, of the Capitol Avenue Methodist Church. She and her husband decided to take Alice home immediately upon hearing her story. So it was Pastor Clegg behind the wheel of the car when Purvis and the feds pulled it over, not Thomas Robinson Jr.

Alice was fine, but tired. She had been kept in isolation in the apartment building for six days. She returned to her now-heavily guarded home in the Louisville suburbs on Oct. 17. Mrs. Robinson Jr. and Mr. Robinson Sr. were arrested (both later released and cleared), but Junior was a ghost.

Thomas H. Robinson Jr. managed to outrun or evade Melvin Purvis and his gaggle of G-men for 19 months. He became the subject of an increasingly frustrating, for the FBI, nationwide manhunt.

Law enforcement finally caught up with him in May 1936 when a “stylishly dressed young woman” with a man’s voice ordered orange juice at a soda fountain in Glendale, Calif. The “soda jerker” knew from newspaper reports that Robinson Jr. was somewhere in the vicinity, and he telephoned the police to report that the man in drag might be him. Police called the FBI, who caught up with Robinson Jr. the next night at a Glendale motel, according to The Indianapolis Times report on May 12, 1936.

J. Edgar Hoover, head of the FBI, called for the death penalty, but at the conclusion of Robinson Jr’s trial, he was sentenced to life in prison. On April 27, 1937, he was sent to Alcatraz. The story was only a small insert in The Indianapolis News.

Robinson Jr. appealed. He appealed seven times until finally, in 1943, one appeal made it to the U. S. Supreme Court, which remanded it back to Louisville for a retrial. The book, The Society of Former Special Agents of the FBI, recounts the rest of Thomas Robinson Jr’s story. In the appeal trial, the jury found him guilty – again. The judge sentenced him to death in March 1944.

Then, just 33 hours before his execution was scheduled, on June 6, 1945, President Harry S. Truman commuted his sentence to life in prison.

Then, in 1962, Robinson Jr. walked away from the minimum-security prison he had been transferred to in Jacksonville, Fla. He was arrested a week later in Chicago.

Then, in July 1965, he walked away again during a prison softball game in Texas. He was quickly captured in Nashville.

Then, in 1970, he was released from prison. He was 63. He moved back to Nashville where the former death row inmate lived to be 87. He died in 1994.

Connie Zeigler holds a master’s degree in history. She enjoys digging up a surprising, forgotten story and sharing her pirate’s booty with Urban Times readers.