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