Verne Miller and Vi Mathis
In November of 1920 the Huron SD newspaper, the Evening Huronite, promoted a young candidate for Beadle Co. sheriff saying
that with his election “crooks and licentious characters will have no protection and the safety of our wives and children and the
future well-being of our families will be fully guaranteed.”
Thirteen years later the US Justice Dept. announced a nationwide manhunt for a man they identified as the “the most dangerous
criminal in the country.”
Both observations were accurate and, incredibly, both referred to the same enigmatic man: Verne Miller.
He has been described as "easily the most contradictory and mysterious figure of the 1930's Public Enemy community." A
handsome blue-eyed redhead, he did not drink or gamble and abhorred swearing and yet he was the chief suspect in from five to
twelve murders and was rumored to have participated in many more.
His path from respected South Dakota lawman to reviled national outlaw is a puzzling one, with unanswered questions at every
turn. Even his early life is shrouded in mystery. Miller, at various times, listed his birth date as 1892, 1895, and 1896, and his
birthplace as South Dakota, Iowa, and Illinois.
What is known is that Miller's parents divorced when he was young, leaving him on his own at an early age. He dropped out of
school at the age of ten. In 1914 he moved to Huron to work as a mechanic. In 1916 he joined the Army and served on the
Mexican border. In the spring of 1917 he returned to Huron and married. A month later he was recalled to military service.
Right from the start Miller's law enforcemen
t career was marked by dedication and courage, sometimes to the point of foolhardiness. Less than three months on the force
Miller arrested WS Davis, a member of a prominent Huron family, for blocking traffic with his car. Davis argued vehemently but his
protests held little sway with the conscientious young patrolman and only earned him a night in jail.
On another occasion Miller's courage may have saved a life. MB Balsiger, manager of the local theater, engaged RE Beckwith, a
war veteran and popular speaker, to lecture on his war experiences. On the night of the lecture a disagreement arose regarding
the speaker's fee and Balsiger knocked the young man unconscious. The war was fresh in everyone's mind and patriotic fervor
was high. When news that Balsiger had beaten up a war hero reached the street an angry mob gathered outside the theater. The
building was doused with yellow paint and the mob demanded that the manager give himself up. A frightened Balsiger turned to
Officer Miller for help.
Miller first ordered the crowd to disperse. When they ignored him, Miller led Balsiger toward the protection of the police station.
Someone in the mob threw a brick, striking the manager in the head. Miller drew his pistol and advanced on the mob. Finally the
rioters dispersed and Balsiger's life was spared.
This sometimes reckless devotion to duty did not go over well with everyone in Huron. In May of 1920 Miller resigned from the
police force saying that he and Police Chief Johnson suffered fundamental disagreements over the conduct of police business.
But Miller had no intention of leaving law enforcement. By this time he had already been named the Republican candidate for
Beadle County Sheriff.
The 1920 sheriff's campaign was hotly contested with Miller the focus of numerous rumors and accusations, still he managed to
eke out a 41 vote victory.
Sheriff Miller was an active community leader. He was a founder of the Huron American Legion post and served as its delegate to
the state convention. He was an avid fisherman and amateur boxer.
He proved to be an active sheriff as well. Records note that he located and destroyed nine moonshine stills during his first six
months in office. So much bootlegged liquor was confiscated that Miller began using it as antifreeze in the radiators of the
Sheriff's department vehicles.
Miller gained a reputation for being quick to use his weapon. It was said that, while a city patrolman, he twice fired on tourists for
violating traffic ordinances. After the election the county commission warned Miller of the legal ramifications of an overeager
On at least one occasion this reputation proved useful. A prison escapee turned himself over to authorities when, while hiding in
a pasture, he heard what was apparently the backfire of a passing car. He told a reporter, "I thought Verne Miller was on my trail
and had started shooting at me. I sure wished that I was back in jail again."
In the spring of 1922 Sheriff Miller was well on his way to reelection and a second term. Then Miller's wife, Mildred, was admitted
to a Rochester MN hospital. Miller told his deputies that he was taking a short leave to visit his wife and from Rochester would go
to a Washington DC sanitarium to take treatments for his lungs.
After a couple of weeks with no contact from the sheriff his deputies became worried and then suspicious. They discovered that,
shortly before he left, Miller had withdrawn $4000 from various bank accounts, money that had apparently come from county
property tax collections. The career of Sheriff Verne Miller had come to an abrupt and startling end. The career of Verne Miller,
gangster, was just beginning.
The State Sheriff's office was called in and a search begun for Miller and the missing funds. For three months there was no sign
of the sheriff, then South Dakota officials received a call from a St. Paul MN hotel operator wondering if they were still looking for
In the 1920’s and 30’s there were several places where bandits and outlaws could go to “cool off”; communities where a tacit
agreement had been reached between local officials and the criminal element. The most popular of these havens was St. Paul.
As one criminal noted, “In those days if you hadn't seen a friend for a few months you looked two places--prison or St. Paul.” The
St. Paul police force of the 1920’s was the most corrupt in the country so it was inevitable that a renegade lawman like Miller
would find acceptance there.
Before the hotel owner notified South Dakota officials he had called the St. Paul chief of detectives and was assured that Miller
was no longer wanted. The SD State Sheriff's deputy who arrested Miller reported that Miller's first phone call while in custody
was to that same chief of detectives.
Back in the Beadle County jail where, just a few months before, he had been jailer rather than jailed, Miller displayed his resolute
self-reliance. He turned down offers from friends to raise the $10,000 bond. Miller pled guilty to the embezzlement of $2600 in
county funds and was sentenced to two years in the state penitentiary.
Verne Miller entered the South Dakota penitentiary on April 4, 1923. Armed with numerous character references, including one
from the states’ attorney who had prosecuted him, Miller soon landed the cushy position of warden's chauffeur. He passed his
prison term driving the warden about the city and corresponding with his many friends and supporters.
He served his time quietly and without trouble until his parole in September of 1924. He soon found work as a farm laborer
making $70 a month. Life as a farmhand lasted just until the terms of his parole were satisfied. Then Miller left in search of new
pursuits. Within a year he was indicted for bootlegging. He paid a $200 fine in Sioux Falls federal court in October, 1925 and left
South Dakota for good.
Around this time Miller began a relationship that would last the rest of his life.
Vivian Gibson was an attractive, willowy young farm girl from Leola, South Dakota. When she was sixteen Vivian, or Vi as her
friends called her, eloped with Stanley Mathis, an employee on her father's farm.
Just a few months later Stanley was charged with the murder of Clarence Berry, the Leola town constable. A noticeably pregnant
Vi did her best to help her husband, even testifying under oath that she, not Stanley, had killed Berry. Her testimony did no good.
Stanley was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.
Vi bounced from job to job for the next few years to support herself and her child. One day, while Vi was working in a carnival
booth in Minnesota, a customer started to hassle her. One man stepped from the crowd to defend the young woman against the
heckler. Vi’s protector introduced himself as Verne Miller and the two were soon inseparable.
From 1926 to 1929 Verne, with Vi’s help, established himself as a leading bootlegger in the Twin Cities area.
In 1929 they left for Canada where they were involved with several gambling concerns. By 1930 Verne was back in the Twin
Cities. He joined up with a loose knit gang of bank robbers that included Harvey Bailey, Tommy Holden, Jimmy Keating, Frank
Nash, Machine gun Kelly and others. Over the next couple of years the gang would be responsible for numerous bank holdups
from the Dakotas to Texas.
In the summer of 1932 Miller paid his last visit to his father's farm near White Lake. Friends and relatives remember that the
gangster's shiny new car and expensive clothes made quite an impression in that Depression-ravaged farm community.
In December of 1932 Miller drove the getaway car for the infamous Barker gang when they held up the 3rd Northwestern Bank of
Minneapolis. That robbery resulted in tragedy when two city patrolmen happened on the scene and were slain in a hail of
machine-gun fire. The Barker gang split up after the Minneapolis bank robbery. Miller moved to Kansas City to cool off.
A few months later Miller received a frantic call from the wife of his old friend, Frank Nash, saying that her husband had been
arrested by federal agents. That phone call touched off events that would culminate the next day in the bloody outrage that will
forever be known as the Kansas City Massacre.
On the morning of June 17, 1933 the parking lot of the Kansas City Union Railroad Station was crowded with arriving and
departing passengers, their family and friends. Few in the crowd paid any attention to the group of men moving warily among the
parked cars. If they had they would have seen seven nervous lawmen surrounding a handcuffed prisoner. The prisoner was
Frank Nash. The lawmen, FBI agents Vetterli, Caffrey, Smith, and Lackey, Kansas City detectives Grooms and Hermanson, and
Oklahoma police chief Otto Reed, had reason to be nervous. Nash was a well-known criminal with strong ties in the underworld.
They feared that some of his friends might attempt a rescue.
As they loaded Nash into a waiting patrol car their fears were realized. Three men jumped from a nearby car. One of them,
brandishing a Tommy gun, commanded the law officers to "Hold it!" Time froze as the two armed camps regarded each other.
Then one of the officers went for his pistol and all hell broke loose.
Within seconds it was over. Bodies were scattered about the parking lot. Grooms, Hermanson, Reed, and FBI agent Caffrey were
dead. Agents Vetterli and Lackey were seriously wounded. Nash, the object of the ill-fated delivery, was also among the dead.
One woman, surveying the bloody scene, moaned, "It's just like Chicago." The bandits escaped unscathed.
The late 1920’s and early ‘30’s marked a decade of lawlessness. Colorful outlaws such as Pretty Boy Floyd, John Dillinger,
Machine gun Kelly, and Ma Barker were as familiar to the public as politicians and movie celebrities. Even in that context the
Kansas City Massacre was a shocking and galvanizing event. The Attorney General declared the Massacre "a challenge to the
government. The army of crime has declared war against the United States."
It took the FBI two weeks to publicly name Miller as the leader of the Kansas City gang and their reaction was certain and
instantaneous. No stone would go unturned in their search for the gangster.
Controversy still surrounds the Kansas City Massacre. Historians disagree on the identity of Miller's accomplices. The FBI
identified Charley “Pretty Boy” Floyd and Adam Richetti as the other gunmen. Other names put forth include Harvey Bailey,
Maurice Denning, Solly Weissman, Wilbur Underhill, Bob Brady, and Jack Griffin. Even the motives behind the Massacre are in
dispute. Many say that Miller was trying to rescue Nash while others contend that Nash’s death was a gangland hit.
Regardless of motive it is doubtful that the intent was to murder the law officers. Even someone as impetuous as Verne Miller
would have foreseen the outrage that followed the unprovoked slaughter.
Miller left Kansas City immediately but the FBI, in their efforts to find the fugitive, put the heat on all of the underworld. Alvin Karpis,
a member of the Barker gang, was called before representatives of the old Capone Syndicate. “Where,” they demanded, “is
Miller?” Karpis asked what they wanted of his one-time partner. “Everybody's after that bastard,” he was told.
Miller fled to New York, seeking protection from his old friend, racketeer Lepke Buchalter, while Vi remained behind in Chicago.
In October of 1933 FBI agents located Vi’s apartment just a day before Verne appeared at her door. Agents quickly surrounded
the apartment, still Miller managed to escape in a flurry of bullets. Miller’s getaway, though, was an omen of the tightening
dragnet. With every lawman in the nation as well as the might of the criminal underworld after him, Miller's days were numbered.
On the evening of November 29, 1933, a motorist on the outskirts of Detroit discovered a naked mutilated body alongside the
road. Fingerprints taken by the FBI confirmed that the search for Verne Miller was over.
In one final twist in the tragedy of Verne Miller's life, the erstwhile lawman inadvertently provided a major contribution to the future
of law enforcement. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover used the outrage generated by the Kansas City Massacre to lobby Congress for
a true national crime-fighting force. Prior to the Massacre, FBI agents could not carry weapons and were not even empowered to
make arrests. Within months of the Kansas City killings Congress passed a comprehensive crime bill giving the FBI all the
powers they sought.
Perhaps it is this that provides some final sense and purpose to the otherwise squandered legacy of Verne Miller, a lawman
She said that "that party" had left Fort Smith, [Vi said in her statement]. She told me the time the train left and I made a note for
Verne on a piece of paper. I cannot now remember the time she furnished. Esther was the only person I talked to at the time of
this telephone call.
She had just gone to bed when Verne had came back home. He told her to get her daughter and put her in bed with them as he
was having two friends stay the night. She never heard him leave that next morning, but when returned he awoke her at 9 am and
told her to get dressed and take her daughter and get out of the house and go with Fritz Mulloy. She knew something was wrong.
On the way to Mulloy's house she heard the radio reports about people being shot at Union Station that morning.
On returning home [her statement continued], I found Verne and two men whom I had never seen before. Sometime during the
day Verne told me one of them was named Floyd. He did not tell me the name of the second man. I have been shown the
photographs of Charles Arthur Floyd alias "Pretty Boy" and Adam Richetti and recognize them as the pictures of the two men who
were at our home with Verne. Floyd was in Betty's bed because of a wound he had in his left shoulder. I do not know how serious
his wound was, but do know that no one was called to treat him. Verne had a small wound on his right little finger, but he did not
tell me how he had acquired it. Verne told me that they had been to the station to get Frank; that there had been some shooting
and that Frank had been killed. He also said Floyd had been wounded. I do not remember whether he said anything about any
officers having been shot. I knew that he felt badly about the matter from the way he looked and talked.
I went to the kitchen and prepared breakfast. Verne and Richetti drank some coffee and I took a cup in to Floyd. None of them
cared for anything to eat.
The four of us remained in the house during the entire day, which was June 17, 1933. Sometime during the day Verne remarked
that he Floyd, and Richetti had used his, Verne's, Chevrolet in making the trip to and from the Union Station. Floyd and Richetti
remained in the bedroom all day, with the exception that Richetti came to the dinette a second time for coffee. I believe I took
coffee to Floyd a second time. I did not have anything to say to either Floyd or Richetti about what had happened and they did not
say anything to me.
During the day when the daily newspaper was delivered to the house Verne read the account of the shooting at the Union Station
and remarked, after reading that five or six men had been involved, "That's what the newspapers can do." He stated at this time
that only the three of them had been at the station .
Sometime after dark Verne left the house by himself. He was away for about an hour. I do not know where he went. After he
returned we were talking in the living room when I heard someone walk onto the porch. Verne asked me to go into our bedroom,
which I did. I at no time saw the person who came onto the porch and have never known his identity. I remained in the bedroom
about twenty minutes. When I came out into the living room both Floyd and Richetti were gone.
|FROM LAWMAN TO
by Brad Smith
Verne Miller WWI
On April 17, 1918 Miller landed in France with the 164th Infantry. Color Sergeant
Verne Miller returned from the World War a genuine hero. A decorated
marksman and sniper, he was awarded the French Croix de Guerre for bravery.
He was wounded twice and suffered lung damage in a poison gas attack.
Soon after his return from Europe Miller joined the Huron city police force. The
local newspaper heralded his arrival. "Lawbreakers had better watch out," it
was announced, "if they want to keep their health."
News of Miller's death was greeted by his family and friends in South Dakota with a
mixture of regret and resignation. The Evening Huronite reported that most of the
citizens of Miller's hometown “refused to remember his reputation of a life of crime and
grieved the Verne Miller, fearless sheriff and valiant soldier, they knew.” His wife,
Mildred, though legally separated from Miller since 1929, stuck by him saying “I don't
believe all the things they say about Verne. Because he became involved in a few
scrapes nearly every major crime in the country was laid to him. He was wonderful to
me and I have nothing against him.”
His grief-stricken father made plans for the funeral; plans that, like most of Verne's life,
were plagued with controversy. Miller, as a veteran and American Legion member, was
entitled to full military rites. However the national American Legion commander forbade
the local post from participating, saying it would only bring embarrassment to the
organization. National proclamation notwithstanding, Miller's flag-draped casket was
escorted from White Lake to Huron by a contingent of uniformed ex-servicemen, Miller's
friends. There, following a simple ceremony before an overflow crowd, Verne Miller's
doomed journey came to an end.
|Vivian Mathias, Daughter Betty
In a statement coerced through intensive interrogation for 12 days and nights, Vivian Mathias
told the story that the Federal Bureau was looking for that occurred on 16 June 1933 through
17 June 1933 concerning Verne, Charles, and Adam. (also see the story of Johnny Lazia and
Jimmy "The Needle" LaCapra.)
Her statement to the Bureau on 30 September 1934 began as follows:
I Vivian Mathias make the following voluntary statement to R.C. Suran and S.K. McKee,
special agents of the division of investigation, United States Department of Justice, having
been told I need not say anything, but that anything I did say would be used against me.
She spoke about moving in the house on Edgevale where
Miller passed himself as a salesman and went by the name of
Vincent C. Moore. She talked about their friends and Frank
Nash. She finally talked about the massacre. It had all began
on the afternoon of June 16, 1933 when she had gotten a call
from Fritz Mulloy. Mulloy was eager for Verne to get in touch
with him, so she called the Milburne golf Club where Verne
was playing and asked them to have him call home. When
Verne called she relayed the message and he came home
about an hour later, talking about Frank Nash being picked up
by federal agents in Hot Springs. Verne had left the house
around 9pm that Friday night. A couple of hours later the phone
rang and it was Esther Farmer calling from Joplin. She wanted
to speak to Verne, but left a message. The message read in