State News

Bank robber pulls 1922 heist for ailing wife

Posted September 11

— It's hard not to feel sorry for poor Grady Ferguson, a bank robber who was forced into crime by an unexpected tragedy.

By all accounts, the 27-year-old Ferguson came from a respectable family in Randleman, where he grew up. He wasn't wealthy, but he had earned what money he had, having worked off and on at a local cotton mill before opening up a cold-drink stand in town. And he must've been on top of the world in November 1920, when he married his sweetheart, young Cornelia Ivey, shortly after her 18th birthday.

Only a year later, though — on Dec. 10, 1921 — Ferguson's blissful world fell apart when Cornelia was severely burned in an accident at the couple's home. As she was washing clothes, she got too close to the fire beneath the washpot, and it ignited her dress. She was rushed to Guilford General Hospital in High Point with life-threatening burns over much of her body.

For several months, Cornelia lay in the hospital as doctors treated her burns and did their best to keep her alive. Ferguson dutifully visited his wife often and, according to hospital officials, paid his medical bills on time, without fail. Doctors said the young man visited Cornelia on May 23, 1922, and nothing seemed amiss about his demeanor.

The next day, though, Ferguson snapped, pulling off a daylight heist that one newspaper described as one of the boldest bank robberies in North Carolina history. Despite being well-known in Randleman, Ferguson didn't even try to disguise himself.

Shortly before noon, he strolled into the Peoples Bank of Randleman, where he apparently was a customer, and asked for a cancelled check. When the two tellers behind the counter turned their backs to look for the check, Ferguson quickly hopped on the counter and clambered over the lattice frame of the cage. As the tellers turned to see what was making so much racket, Ferguson pointed a revolver at their heads as he scooped up wads of cash.

"Don't say a word," he snarled. "I need this money for my sick wife, who is in a hospital in High Point."

With those words — and with nearly $500 in his pocket — Ferguson cautiously backed out of the bank, still aiming his gun at the tellers. Once out the door, he turned and fled on foot, and the tellers sounded the alarm. By the time police arrived, though, Ferguson was nowhere to be found.

"The young man's spectacular holdup hit the little town like a bolt of lightning from a clear sky," wrote the Western Sentinel, a Winston-Salem publication. "The citizens are stupefied; they cannot begin to explain the act of Ferguson, who has lived here all his life and has never before been guilty of any unlawful conduct."

Law enforcement in Randleman and surrounding municipalities set up a dragnet to nab the daring young bandit, but Ferguson proved too elusive for them. A few nights after the holdup, nurses at Guilford General called city police and reported seeing a man lurking on the grounds outside the hospital — they guessed it was Ferguson, trying to get in to see his wife — but he vanished before police got there.

A few days later, a man resembling Ferguson pulled off a similar heist at a bank in Summerfield, making off with about $1,500, and then the fugitive sightings ceased. The lack of reports caused family members to speculate Ferguson may have killed himself, distraught over his wife's deteriorating health and over his own rash actions.

They were wrong.

On June 4, Ferguson resurfaced — in New Orleans, of all places — a broke, and broken, man. He walked into a police station — with only two pennies to his name, according to one newspaper account — and identified himself as William Grady Ferguson of Randleman, North Carolina. He confessed to the bank robbery, explaining he needed the money to pay his wife's hospital bills.

"My wife is sick," he told New Orleans police. "I want to see her and am ready to face the music."

Ferguson vehemently denied any involvement in the Summerfield heist, claiming he'd been on the lam in Georgia when that holdup took place.

A week later, a Randolph County deputy who'd been dispatched to New Orleans returned with the fugitive, stopping in High Point before proceeding to the Randolph jail in Asheboro. Apparently, the deputy was so moved by Ferguson's heart-wrenching saga that he allowed the young man to visit his bedridden wife for an hour before taking him to jail. The reunion was "very affecting," according to one newspaper account. A couple of days later, after a number of relatives and friends paid his bond, Ferguson got out of jail and headed straight back to the hospital to see his wife again.

Within a month, Cornelia would die of her injuries, surely breaking her devoted husband's heart.

All that remained for poor Ferguson was his court appearance. Two months after Cornelia's death, he pleaded guilty to the holdup and was sentenced to three years in the state penitentiary — a relatively light sentence newspapers attributed to the number of Randleman citizens who testified to Ferguson's otherwise good character, and to a judge who was sympathetic to the young man's plight.

It's not clear what became of Ferguson after his prison term, but what is clear is the fact that his crime was, in one sense, a crime of passion. Yes, he stole money from the bank, but it was only because young Cornelia had stolen his heart.

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