Category Archives: Willie Sutton

You Can Get Much Further with a Kind Word and a Gun than with a Kind Word Alone

Al Capone? Irwin Corey? Ted Bessell? Robert De Niro? Willie Sutton? Apocryphal?

alcapone05Dear Quote Investigator: The notorious gangster Al Capone reportedly had an odd sense of humor and joked about using coercion. Here are three versions of a saying that is attributed to him:

You get a lot more from a kind word and a gun than from a kind word alone.

You can go further with a smile and a gun, than with a smile alone.

You can get more with a kind word and a gun than with just a kind word.

I am very skeptical. Capone died in 1947, and I haven’t been able to find any expressions like this credited to him when he was alive. The famous actor Robert De Niro did utter the saying in a movie when he was playing the role of Al Capone. Would you explore the origin of this saying?

Quote Investigator: QI has found no substantive evidence that Al Capone made a remark of this type. The earliest citations suggest that the line was created by a comedian named Professor Irwin Corey who performed as an eccentric academic spouting parodic erudition.

In 1953 the trade journal “Variety” published a transcript of an NBC radio broadcast presenting a “survey of humor, down through the ages”. Corey appeared as a comical Hamlet-like character. Emphasis added by QI: 1

I have a simple philosophy which is poignant. Shoot a point, point blank, unsubtle, simple, poignant. My philosophy is you can get more with a kind word and a gun than with just a kind word.

Corey’s linkage of the quip to Hamlet was odd because within Shakespeare’s play Hamlet wields a sword and not a gun. However, by 1969 Corey had heightened the humor of the line by attaching the words to Al Capone.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order including the 1969 citation.

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Notes:

  1. 1953 July 29, Variety, Survey of Humor: Double-Talk Hamlet, Start Page 36, Quote Page 51, Column 2, Published by Variety Inc., New York. (ProQuest Variety Archive)

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.

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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)