Convicting the Innocent: Errors of Criminal Justice (1932)
by Edwin M. Borchard
Case #11

Floyd Flood


About twelve miles southeast of East St. Louis, Illinois, there lies in St. Clair County the snug little town of Freeburg. At 2.15 on August 23, 1924, the drowsy afternoon peace of Freeburg was violently broken by the daring holdup of its First National Bank. A Flint car carrying six men drove up before the bank; four men entered, armed with revolvers. They ordered the president (Russell E. Hamill) to enter the vault, covered the cashier (Miss Susie Wolf) and the bookkeepers (Miss Minnie Holst and Miss Emma Wolf), and escaped with over ten thousand dollars in cash and currency. They left town in the Flint car, speeding toward Fayetteville.

Police officers took up the trail immediately and traced the car to the Mississippi River, where it was found abandoned. Some of the stolen currency consisted of new $5.00 and $10.00 national bank notes of the looted bank which had not yet been placed in public circulation. It was therefore possible to broadcast a definite description of these notes through banking channels in the nearby states. Shortly afterward, some of the currency was spotted at the bank of Jonesboro, Arkansas, and led to the arrest of two men there who gave the names James Breene and Ralph Southard. Much of the loot taken from the Freeburg bank was found on this pair, and they were promptly returned to the St. Clair County Jail at Belleville, Illinois.

At about this same time the police authorities in St. Louis, Missouri, notified the Illinois authorities that Floyd Flood, a painter and chauffeur, was under arrest, and that he fitted the description of one of the bandits. It is not clear just why Flood was apprehended. The arresting officers told one of Flood's attorneys that he had been taken up because he was a "bad egg," although he had no criminal record. Flood claimed that the arresting officer had a grudge against him because his girl friend had refused the officer a date, after which the officer threatened to "make it tough on her sweet­heart." No charge appears to have been entered against Flood in St. Louis as a ground for his arrest. The police authorities merely noticed that Flood seemed to fit the description of one of the Freeburg bandits, and they so notified the Illinois authorities.

In view of the information furnished by the St. Louis police, Misses Susie and Emma Wolf went to St. Louis to identify the suspect. They were told that one of the robbers had been captured. At police headquarters, Flood was placed in the "show-up cage," a contrivance about ten feet square which enables identifying witnesses to examine suspects un­der flood lights, although the suspects are unable to see the witnesses. The police forced Flood to turn his coat collar up, put on a cap not his own and pull it down over his eyes, stretch his hand forward and say, "Stick 'em up." The police had been informed that one of the bandits, so attired, had thus acted. Under these conditions the two women identified Flood as the bandit who had covered them during the robbery.

Flood was indicted, jointly with Breene and Southard, for the robbery, and they were tried before Justice George A. Crow in the St. Clair County Circuit Court on December 2-5, 1924. The case was prosecuted for the state by Hilmar C. Lindauer. Flood was defended by Attorney Joseph B. McGlynn of East St. Louis. Indisputable testimony was adduced connecting Breene and Southard with the robbery. According to the testimony of the witnesses, including the bank president, Breene was the bandit who forced the president into the vault. Southard was definitely identified as the driver of the Flint car. President Hamill was unable to identify Flood. The Misses Wolf and Miss Hoist, however, did positively identify him. Among the numerous other witnesses who identified Breene and Southard as having been among a group of men who had been seen camping near Freeburg on the night prior to the robbery, only two, August and Clem Wesnusky, youthful Freeburg coal miners, asserted that Flood was in the group.

In view of Flood's contention that he had not been in Illinois for over a year, his defense, naturally, was an alibi. It was to the effect that on the morning of the robbery, he arose late, had breakfast at 9.30, after which he went into the garage at the rear of his house and worked on his machine until 12.30, when his family had dinner. After that, he returned to the garage and worked there until about 2.30 o'clock. Between 2.00 and 2.15 he called up the Yellow Cab Company, for which he drove a taxi, to request leave (he was supposed to report for duty at four o'clock). His request was denied. He reported at the Cab Company office for work at 3.30 and checked out with his cab at four o'clock. The defendant took the stand in his own defense, and his testimony was corroborated by his father, mother, a visiting aunt and cousin, several neighbors, and several employees of the Cab Company.

The jury apparently gave little credence to the alibi testimony, for it returned a verdict of guilty against Flood, as well as against Breene and Southard. On December 18, 1924, a motion for a new trial having been denied, Flood was sentenced to serve from ten years to life in the Southern Illinois State Penitentiary. Breene and Southard received like sentences.


While Mr. McGlynn was preparing a writ of error, Breene sent a message to him from the penitentiary requesting an interview. Mr. McGlynn granted the request. Breene and Southard thereupon confessed their part in the robbery and said that four other men, whom they refused to name, had assisted, but that they did not even know Floyd Flood. A little later, two more of the gang were caught in Ohio, and they named the six participants as Breene, Southard, John Lyons, Benjamin Ingram, Arthur Richardson, and Brice McConnell. They made an affidavit that they had never heard of Flood, and that such a person had had no part in the affair. They said that after the robbery, the gang took the loot out into the woods, divided it, and then scattered. When Susie and Emma Wolf were informed of these developments, they admitted the possibility of a mistake in their identifications. An application for a pardon was filed, but Mr. McGlynn had an uphill fight of over a year, against the opposition of the Bankers Association, before a pardon could be obtained. It was necessary to account for every one of the six robbers and to obtain their convictions or confessions before final action freeing the innocent man was taken. Finally, all six were caught and convicted, whereupon the Bankers Association helped Mr. McGlynn to secure the long overdue pardon for Flood. On January 21, 1926, Gov. Len Small commuted Flood's sentence to expire at once, on the ground of his innocence.


This mistake in identity was largely induced by the power of suggestion exerted by the St. Louis police upon the Misses Wolf. To pick up Flood on the merest suspicion, to state to these ladies that one of the bandits had been captured, to dress him up to fit the known description and compel him to act the part, was too persuasive to resist. Notwithstanding the consistent testimony of numerous alibi witnesses that Flood was in St. Louis at the very moment the robbery occurred, the jury preferred to believe the affirmative evidence of the Misses Wolf and Hoist against the overwhelming contradictory evidence. Again it is observed that an identification by the victim of a violent crime is given preponderant weight. Flood was ultimately saved by the fact that the crime was a joint enterprise, and that all the culprits were accounted for, so that by elimination, an innocent man, as in the New Jersey case of Sweeney, could be weeded out and his innocence established.


1. Record in the case of People v. James Breene, alias George W. Mason, alias Whitey and Ralph Southard, alias Rudolph Southard, alias Elgin Custer and Floyd Flood. Office of the Clerk of the Circuit Court of St. Clair County (September Term, 1924), Belleville, Ill.

2. Summary of testimony given at the trial prepared by O. A. Krebs, Court Reporter, Belleville, Ill.

3. Certified copy of Floyd Flood's commutation of sentence dated January 21, 1926, granted by Gov. Len Small.

4. Acknowledgment: Mr. Joseph B. McGlynn, East St. Louis, Ill.