By William Plunkett
Alice Speed Stoll’s kidnapping wasn’t as famous as that of the Lindbergh baby, but in its own peculiar way, it was just as riveting. It featured a beautiful socialite, a troubled perpetrator tormented by his own inadequacies, a cross-country chase, prison escapes (including one from death row), an interminable (and plucky) jailhouse defense, and the efforts by America’s fledgling crime-fighting organization seeking to establish itself. Like the Lindbergh case, it, too, made The New York Times. (The Times labeled Robinson “insane,” which ultimately proved too easy a designation for someone so torturously complex.) Louisville Magazine, as recently as 2016, called the Alice Stoll case Louisville’s “crime of the century.”
It began unexpectedly in the upscale Louisville neighborhood of Harrods Creek in the autumn of 1934 when the socialite Alice Stoll was taken for ransom. The kidnapper, who’d spent time in an insane asylum, was a small-time grifter with delusions of grandeur who gained entrance to the house by masquerading as a telephone repairman.
Making off with what amounted to a million dollars in today’s terms, he was called “Johnny Spendthrift” by the press. Buying an ostentatious Packard, he and his mistress drove coast-to-coast, staying in the best hotels and remaining miraculously invisible to a cadre of J. Edgar Hoover’s best agents.Eventually labeled “Public Enemy No. 1,” he was brought to bay not by Hoover’s men but by his mistress’s betrayal.
This, however, marked only the first part of Thomas Robinson’s eccentric life, for what followed was two trials, a death sentence, a tour of America’s legendary hardcore prisons—from Atlanta to Alcatraz—and two escapes. And all of it set against the backdrop of the desperate 1930s when the country was trying to reinvent itself.
Ex-agent William E. Plunkett’s The G-Men and the Heiress is the strange story of the kidnapper, the kidnapped—and the tireless G-Men who worked against odds to create the country’s foremost investigative agency.