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Douglas Nelson, the Confused Robber


On today’s date in 1958, Douglas Armond Nelson staged a hold-up at the Wahpeton National Bank, and those who witnessed the event will never forget how it unfolded – not because of any excitement or gunplay, but rather because poor Douglas didn’t have much experience at bank robbing. In fact, it took him about ten minutes just to convince the staff to take him seriously, and that was after a confused bank teller asked him the clarifying question: “are you kidding?”

Douglas Nelson woke up on August 5th, 1958 in a car he had stolen from a dealership in Minneapolis the day before. He had been on a demonstration ride when he pulled out a pistol and claimed the 1955 Chevrolet for himself. The dealer reportedly said “you can have the car, but I don’t want to walk back.” So, Douglas brought the salesman back to the dealership and then drove away. That night, he went to a drive-in movie and slept in his new car. But when he woke the next morning, he was broke.

So, he walked into the Wahpeton National Bank at around twelve thirty with a pistol and a large, empty cardboard box. He approached Miss Lorraine Steffens, the teller behind the counter, and pleasantly informed her that this was a holdup. “He never scowled once,” she said later, so she had a hard time judging his intentions. It was then that she asked him if he was kidding. “No,” he answered, “I mean it.” But he kept smiling, as if wishing she would be kind enough to take him seriously. Instead of continuing their conversation, she turned away and pretended to be busy. “Once in a while I glanced up,” she said, “and he just stood there.”

A few others noticed the small commotion, but even when they saw the gun they thought perhaps he was an employee’s friend, playing a joke. When he demanded money from them too, however, they thought it was worth a call to the sheriff. He finally told them they had “five minutes,” so they walked around and pretended to put money in his box until the sheriff arrived and easily overpowered the young man. Although his gun went off twice in the struggle, nobody was hurt. It was just a sad chapter in the life of Douglas Nelson, and a strange story for witnesses to tell.

Dakota Datebook written by Leewana Thomas

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