The Sheriff and the Bank

Jan 29, 2020

In this week’s Northwoods Moment in History, Gary Entz tells the story of William Clawson, once a forest ranger, a county sheriff and finally, a bank robber.

When voters go to the polls to choose a sheriff or other official, they do so with the belief that the person they elect will serve faithfully and uphold the law. Occasionally, however, the voters make a mistake as the person chosen proves himself to be unethical and untrustworthy. Then there are the extreme cases where a criminal is elected to serve in office.

In 1926, voters in Forest County elected William P. Clawson to serve as Sheriff. Clawson previously had served as a forest ranger and game warden. He seemed like a decent choice. However, by 1928 Clawson was brought up on charges of malfeasance and misconduct in office. He was prosecuted by Senator Herman Severson and ultimately removed from office by Governor Fred Zimmerman. It seems that Clawson was involved with the bootlegging trade. He was accepting bribes, drinking on the job, and helping prisoners escape.

But this wasn’t the end of Clawson. After his removal from office, he returned to work as a forest ranger but ultimately took up residence in Minocqua where he gained a reputation for hard drinking. Clawson kept a rather low profile until a November afternoon in 1937 when he appeared at the lobby of the Woodruff State Bank and pushed a shotgun in the face of bank teller Earl Cronkite. Cronkite was understandably confused as he knew Clawson and initially thought he was the victim of a practical joke. Clawson made it clear that this was no joke and demanded all the money Clawson had. With a double-barrel shotgun pushed hard under his chin, Cronkite complied and filled a bag with what he had at his window, which amounted to $920.

Clawson fled the bank, got into a borrowed 1930 Chevrolet, and drove off in the direction of Minocqua. Cronkite grabbed a pistol from inside the bank and ran out after Clawson but never got off a shot. Earlier that day, John Ray, the owner of the Chevrolet, had asked Vilas County Deputy Sheriff Pete Goode to locate his car as he thought Clawson was acting irresponsibly. Goode was outside the bank when the robbery happened and observed the entire incident. He was unarmed and rushed to get a weapon, but by the time he found one Clawson had fled. Goode picked up Lawrence Bradley, an Oneida County deputy, and the two followed Clawson right back to his home. Clawson was still in the car when they arrested him. The shotgun was in the car, but the cash had already been ditched.

Clawson was arrested and held over for trial in the Oneida County jail. From the time of his arrest and throughout his trial, Clawson proclaimed his innocence and that he had no memory of committing any robbery. His defense was heavy drinking that caused memory blackouts. This even though seven witnesses identified him as the robber. At his trial in March, the jury agreed. Clawson was found innocent due to insanity and committed to the state hospital at Waupun for treatment and observation.