1930-1939: DECADE OF BANKRUPTCY & BUREAUCRACY
Fort Wayne's brush with the gangster era
A bulletproof vest saved an officer's life in a shootout.
Fort Wayne wasn't exactly a hotbed of criminal activity during the gangster era of the 1930s, but if you knew where to look, you could get an eyeful.
Like the old baseball park on North Calhoun Street. It's said that when he was in town hiding out from the law, John Dillinger frequently played in pickup games there.
Or the streets of Hungry Hill in the Bloomingdale neighborhood. There you might have caught a glimpse of Fort Wayne native Homer Van Meter, one of Dillinger's top lieutenants, as he stepped off the running board of a snazzy new Packard.
Just five months before the 1930s dawned, the "City of Firsts" recorded one that would offer a hint of what the next few years might bring.
Late on the afternoon of May 16, 1929, Cecil Baker, described in newspaper accounts of the incident as a "deranged ex-serviceman," entered the waiting room of the Community Chest offices in the 800 block of Calhoun Street and began waving a gun at workers. Three police officers Phil Steigerwald, Clyde Burton Sr. and William Vachon were sent to the scene and donned bulletproof vests before entering the building.
That turned out to be a wise decision, as Baker started firing as the trio stepped off an elevator. One shot hit Steigerwald in the chest, but the thick metal plates of the vest stopped the bullet before it could do any harm. Now the incident is regarded as the first in which a bulletproof vest saved the life of a police officer.
Homer Van Meter, "ladies' man" to some but "sleepy-eyed machine gunner" to others, first crossed Dillinger's path in the 1920s when they were serving time at the Pendleton Reformatory. The two linked up again in 1934 after Dillinger made his famous escape from the Crown Point jail using a wooden gun.
Van Meter was cold-blooded but clever. When the gang held up a bank in Sioux Falls, S.D., thousands of onlookers gathered outside, convinced the holdup was part of a Hollywood movie being made in their town but the man who'd spread that word several days before was Van Meter.
Another time, he cased a police station the gang planned to raid. The bandits knew exactly where to find the guns and bulletproof vests they wanted; the officers had gladly shared that information with a writer for a detective magazine Van Meter.
He met his end a month after Dillinger was felled outside a Chicago theater in July 1934. Van Meter, walking down a street in St. Paul, Minn., was cut down in a flurry of police bullets on Aug. 24, victim of a stool pigeon who'd tipped police to his whereabouts.
His body was returned to Fort Wayne for burial, but mystery shrouded him even in death. His family buried an empty casket at Lindenwood Cemetery as part of a ruse to thwart any attempts by Dillinger gang members to steal Van Meter's body.
Fort Wayne's most famous gangster was buried a few days later with no onlookers.