I Rob Banks Because That’s Where the Money Is

Willie Sutton? Robert M. Yoder? Fred Curran? Apocryphal?

sutton02Dear Quote Investigator: The famous criminal Willie Sutton was once asked why he robbed banks, and his response was simple, eloquent, and humorous:

Because that’s where the money is.

Now I have been told that Sutton never really said this. Instead, it was created by a journalist who was willing to bend the truth to write a more interesting story. Could you explore the genesis of this quotation?

Quote Investigator: The earliest citation QI has located attributing a version of the saying to Willie Sutton was published in The Saturday Evening Post in January 1951: 1

Someone once asked Slick Willie Sutton, the bank robber, why he robbed banks. The question might have uncovered a tale of injustice and lifelong revenge. Maybe a banker foreclosed on the old homestead, maybe a banker’s daughter spurned Sutton for another.

Sutton looked a little surprised, as if he had been asked “Why does a smoker light a cigarette?”

“I rob banks because that’s where the money is,” he said, obviously meaning “in the most compact form.” That eye for the simple essential may be the secret of a singular success.

The reporter Robert M. Yoder did not state how he learned about this quotation and no details were given for its provenance. But see further below for an interview with another reporter published March 30, 1952 during which Sutton spoke the well-known phrase, “That’s where the money is”, when discussing banks. This quotation is controversial today primarily because Sutton himself denied that he ever spoke it. His denial was printed in his 1976 autobiography, and the specifics are given further below in this article.

Sutton was captured in February 1952. On March 1, 1952 The New Yorker magazine printed the same quotation that appeared in The Saturday Evening Post: 2

We liked Willie Sutton’s explanation of his chosen career. When asked why he robbed banks, Willie replied, “I rob banks because that’s where the money is.” Now, that is clean, simple prose—the sort of prose that can arise only from clear thinking.

On March 9, 1952 a Nevada newspaper assigned a version of the saying to thieves in general and not to Sutton in particular: 3

There seems to be a standing philosophy among thieves that the best target for larceny is “the place where the money is.” That’s why Willie Sutton, recently arrested as one of the country’s number one crooks, chose banks.

On March 15 a Californian newspaper ascribed the saying to Sutton. No details were given, and this citation might be based directly or indirectly on the information in The Saturday Evening Post: 4 5

An age-old question is cleared up satisfactorily by Willie (the Actor) Sutton. Asked why he robbed banks, he said, “That’s where the money is.”

On March 30, 1952 an interview with Sutton by the journalist Fred Curran was published in The American Weekly magazine which was a Sunday newspaper supplement. Curran noted that the bank thief also stole jewels from residences by pretending to work for a message-delivery service. However, jewels were not easily convertible into cash. In this context, Sutton deployed his famous phrase: 6

For a while after that Willie overworked his messenger-boy role. He brought a box of roses to Mrs. S. Stanwood Menken, a New York society leader, and left with $150,000 worth of her jewels. The same trick took a total of $375,000 from four other society women.

But jewels were getting hard to dispose of, so Willie went back to banks. “That’s where the money is,” he explained to me simply. “Other people’s money.”

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

The injunction that one should go where money is located to obtain money has a long history. The Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs lists a saying related to matrimony: Never marry for money, but marry where money is.  An example from the prominent poet Alfred Tennyson in the poem “The Northern Farmer, New Style” published by 1870 is referenced: 7 8

Doänt thou marry for munny, but goä wheer munny is!

In 1900 a bank president delivered an address to fellow bankers about taxes. He noted that tax assessors always consider obtaining money from banks, and he illustrated his point with an old adage: 9

Of course, banks are always a shining mark when the arrows of assessment are flying. The assessors take the famous advice which the father gave his son: “If you want money, go where money is.”

In January 1951 The Saturday Evening Post printed an article about Willie Sutton who had escaped prison and was at that time still uncaptured. The author, Robert M. Yoder, included a version of the quotation as mentioned at the beginning of this article:

“I rob banks because that’s where the money is,” he said, obviously meaning “in the most compact form.” That eye for the simple essential may be the secret of a singular success.

In March 1952 several additional relevant citations were published including one that presented an interview with Sutton.. The details were given previously. In 1963 an article in the New York Times described “Sutton’s Law” in the domain of medical diagnosis: 10

If the symptoms point to the thyroid gland as the most likely source of mischief, obviously one would first order some tests of thyroid function. (This is the medical equivalent of Sutton’s Law, named in honor of the bank robber who was guided in his searches by a simple maxim: “Go where the money is.”)

In 1976 Sutton released an autobiography titled “Where the Money Was” with a chapter called “Sutton’s Law” that discussed the principle of medical diagnosis that emphasizes exploring the most probably diagnoses with high priority. The naming of “Sutton’s Law” was inspired by the well-known quotation attributed to Willie Sutton. But in the chapter Sutton disclaimed credit for the saying: 11

The irony of using a bank robber’s maxim as an instrument for teaching medicine is compounded, I will now confess, by the fact that I never said it. The credit belongs to some enterprising reporter who apparently felt a need to fill out his copy. I can’t even remember when I first read it. It just seemed to appear one day, and then it was everywhere.

If anybody had asked me, I’d have probably said it. That’s what almost anybody would say. Like Dr. Dock said, it couldn’t be more obvious.

Or could it?

Why did I rob banks? Because I enjoyed it. I loved it. I was more alive when I was inside a bank, robbing it, than at any other time in my life. I enjoyed everything about it so much that one or two weeks later I’d be out looking for the next job.

In 2000 the quote was reassigned to another person named Willie in a city-based magazine: 12

Yet roughly 8,000 banks are robbed each year nationally. Why? Well, as gangster Willie Horton said when he was asked why he robbed banks, “That’s where the money is.”

In conclusion, based on the March 30, 1952 interview QI thinks that Sutton probably did say “That’s where the money is”. During the interview Sutton was explaining why he preferred to rob banks, but the precise prompting question from the interviewer was not recorded. It is also possible that Sutton made the remark on more than one occasion because a version of the quotation was already ascribed to him and in circulation by January 1951.

Sutton did deny making the remark, but he was writing more than twenty years after the words were reportedly spoken. Also, note that he was a life-long confidence artist. Admittedly, the direct denial does mean that some uncertainty about the provenance of the quotation remains.

(Thanks to Jason Zweig of the Wall Street Journal whose inquiry about this saying provided the impetus for QI to construct this question and perform this investigation.)

Notes:

  1. 1951 January 20, The Saturday Evening Post, Volume 223, Issue 30, Someday They’ll Get Slick Willie Sutton by Robert M. Yoder, Start Page 17, Quote Page 17, Saturday Evening Post Society, Indianapolis, Indiana. (Academic Search Premier)
  2. 1952 March 1, The New Yorker, Section: The Talk of The Town: Notes and Comment, Quote Page 17, New Yorker Magazine, Inc., New York. (Verified on paper)
  3. 1952 March 9, Nevada State Journal, “Scuttling of Carson City’s Mint in 1890’s Set Off One of Nevada’s Greatest Scandals” by Peggy Trego, Quote Page 3, Column 1, Reno, Nevada. (NewspaperArchive. Thanks to Barry Popik for locating this cite)
  4. 1952 March 15, Redlands Daily Facts, The Newsreel by H. V. Wade, (Freestanding short item), Quote Page 8, Column 1, Redlands, California. (NewspaperArchive. Thanks to Barry Popik for locating this cite)
  5. 2006, The Yale Book of Quotations by Fred R. Shapiro, Section: Willie Sutton, Page 739, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper)
  6. 1952 March 30, Oregonian, Section: The American Weekly (Magazine Supplement), Willie Sutton talks by Fred Curran, (Subtitle: The First Reporter to Interview the Nation’s Most Wanted Bandit), Start Page 4, Quote Page 4, Column 3, (GNBank Page 123), Portland, Oregon. (GenealogyBank)
  7. 2009, The Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs (Fifth Edition), Edited by John Simpson and Jennifer Speake, Entry: “Never marry for money, but marry where money is”, Oxford Reference Online, Oxford University Press. (Accessed February 8, 2013)
  8. 1870, The Poetical Works of Alfred Tennyson, Section: Miscellaneous, “The Northern Farmer, New Style”, Quote Page 225, Harper & Brothers, New York. (Google Books full view) link
  9. 1900, Proceedings of the Twenty-Sixth Annual Convention of the American Bankers’ Association, Held at Richmond, Virginia, On October 2nd, 3rd, and 4th, 1900, (“The Internal Revenue Law”, Address delivered by Alfred C. Barnes, President Astor Place Bank, New York City), Start Page 148, Quote Page 149, Published by American Bankers’ Association, New York. (Google Books full view) link
  10. 1963 June 16, New York Times, Now Dr. Robot Enters the Scene by Louis Lasagna, Start Page 15, Quote Page 44, (ProQuest Page 185), New York. (ProQuest)
  11. 1976, Where the Money Was by Willie Sutton and Edward Linn, Quote Page  120, Viking Press, New York. (Verified with scans)
  12. 2000 October, Cincinnati Magazine, Take a Number by Skip Tate, Start Page 160, Quote Page 212, Column 2, Published by Emmis Communications, Indianapolis, Indiana. (Google Books full view)