WHITTLE: Cat cuts out on heist

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AUBURNTOWN - This tom cat decided if it was going to live out its nine lives, it would have to change occupations.

In the early 1960s, it was obvious to neighbors that (the late) banker Tom Bell had four huge loves of life, including his church, his wife, Gwen McKnight Bell, a pet cat and the Bank of Auburn.

How important was the cat named "Tom" to banker Bell?

"So important, that when we decided to merge the banks in the 1960s with the Bank of Commerce, we made two important decisions in the merging agreement," retired Woodbury banking legend William "Bill" Smith shared on a recent crisp winter day in the front foyer of his family's Smith Funeral Home.

"Before we closed the deal, we had to agree to build a small building near the bank, and put air conditioning in it, for the cat to stay comfortable," Mr. Smith deposited back in time. "And we were glad to include that Mr. Bell would always draw a salary, whether he was able to come to the bank or not, and that he would always have a desk and telephone at the Bank of Auburn."

We're probably talking about the coolest cat in Auburntown history here.

"You see, Tom Bell's cat had taken up residence at the bank," Mr. Smith shared. "It had the freedom to roam the bank premises, front to back, but in closing the bank-merger agreement, we knew we couldn't continue letting the cat walk all over the deposit windows and teller stalls while customers were conducting banking business.

"So, that's when we agreed to pay for installing air conditioning in the cats' new abode behind the bank," Mr. Smith noted with a wry grin. So, what made "Tom Cat" decide to change location.

"Two Cannon County men, from good families really, had gone earlier in the week, and rented a vehicle in Nashville," the retired banker traced back across the centuries. "This was leading up to attempting to rob the bank.

"Just about dawn, a local gentleman in Auburntown was employed to go to the bank before it was opened for business, and get the heaters going to have the building warm for Mr. Bell and bank customers that day," Mr. Smith added. "As the gentleman opened the bank's door, the two men grabbed him, and tied him up, advising they would not harm him, but that they were waiting for Mr. Bell to come into the bank in order to rob the bank. The assailants had blackened their faces with soot, to avoid being recognized."

What followed could qualify today for TV's "Dumbest Criminals" programming.

"When banker Bell came to open the bank that day, he had no clue robbers were waiting inside the bank," Mr. Smith added. "But when he started to step inside the front door, the masked robbers reached out and grabbed him before he actually got inside the door, therefore, banker Bell was able to resist the clutches of the robbers, and he ran away from the bank, down the street toward other businesses that were already bustling with people there in downtown Auburntown."

With Mr. Bell's escape, the robbers decided it was time to make their personal bodily withdrawals from the bank.

"They had stashed their getaway car across the creek located behind the bank," Mr. Smith reconstructed Auburntown's most infamous attempted bank robbery in history. "But in their haste of crossing the creek, they lost their car keys so they couldn't crank their getaway rental car."

There was more frustration for the would-be robbers.

"When they couldn't start their own getaway car, the robbers encountered an Auburntown merchant, Mr. Kennedy, who was driving his vehicle to open the large Kennedy Brothers mercantile store on Main Street," Mr. Smith noted. "By this time, Cannon County Sheriff Wilburn 'Daddy Rabbit' Ashford was en route from Woodbury to Auburntown. If I recall clearly, I think Sheriff Daddy Rabbit came from Woodbury the 10 miles north to Auburntown in a taxi cab.

"Upon commandeering Mr. Kennedy's vehicle, the robbers took off north out of town," Mr. Smith detailed. "What they didn't know, they turned up a dead-end road where Mr. Kennedy's vehicle was left abandoned.

"Well, Daddy Rabbit was one of the best sheriff's we ever had, and he generally got his man," Mr. Smith added. "The men were located in some nearby woods, arrested, and ended up doing prison time."

By now, you may be asking loudly: "WHAT HAPPENED TO THE BANK'S CAT!!??"

"In the melee, with the robbers toting guns, the cat must have escaped out the front door when banker Bell made his escape," Mr. Smith noted.

And the cat was never seen at the bank again…

Fortunately, the gentleman tied up in the failed robbery attempt, was unharmed, as was Mr. Bell. Both would-be robbers did prison time, and reportedly lived reputable lives after their failed bank heist.


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