Lake Mills residents were very excited on October 10, 1896, when word spread around town that a desperate and dangerous bank robber had been captured. Everybody believed he was one of two bandits who had robbed a bank in Sherburn, Minnesota, a few days before. Two innocent bystanders had been killed as the robbers sped out of town on Elgin Model A bicycles they had stolen from the hardware store.
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Just outside of town, the pair split up. One of the robbers made his way to Estherville, Iowa, and then on to Armstrong, where he hid at a farmhouse north of town. The next day law enforcement officials from Minnesota and Iowa caught up with him. As they pursued on horseback and in buggies, the fugitive peppered them with bullets. One hit Bancroft, Iowa, City Marshal William Gallion. It was fatal. As the other officers closed in, the bandit turned his gun on himself. His body was taken to Sherburn, where witnesses identified him as one of the bank robbers. They found over $1,000 on the body.
The second robber was still on the loose. It was believed he was in the Lake Mills vicinity. And it was the Lake Mills city marshal who finally put an end to his escapade.
There were at least two versions of how the suspect was taken into custody at Lake Mills. According to one account, City Marshal Gus Ruby spotted a fellow pushing a bicycle along the railroad tracks and stopped to question the stranger. The marshal was suspicious and ordered the man to raise his hands. He offered no resistance as Marshal Ruby took him into custody after finding two revolvers and a couple of knives on him.
Another account was more thrilling. It described the fugitive running into the woods near Lake Mills, as a posse surrounded him. When he was caught, he was taken into town under heavy guard and was awaiting authorities from Minnesota.
Although news reports varied about the actual facts, word quickly spread about the stranger being held in Lake Mills. As details of the robbery unfolded, Lake Mills residents became convinced their city marshal had indeed captured a dangerous bandit. Eventually, the man in custody, Lewis Kellihan, confessed and provided an account of the events surrounding the crime spree.
He said his brother, Hans, and he committed the robbery, but that Hans had planned the crime and had killed the two victims in Sherburn.
“I went to the money drawer and took out the money. I thought there was about $700 in the bunch that I had. I put it in a sack that we had for that purpose. Then we cut the screen to the back window and left town on our bicycles.”
Lewis was tried for his role in the robbery and murders. Lawyers cited “weak mindedness” and “temporary insanity” as a defense for his actions.
At the trial, Lewis said, “I am not guilty of the killing of anybody. What I done I done through the fear of my brother.” However, the jury convicted him; and he was sentenced “to be hanged by the neck until dead.” His sentence was later commuted to life imprisonment.
People in Rock Rapids, Iowa, where the Kellihans had grown up, said Lewis was a good fellow, who had worked in his dad’s billiards hall. It was said he didn’t drink, smoke or chew. People believed he had been influenced by his brother to commit the crime.
The state of Minnesota had offered a reward for the capture of Lewis Kellihan. In June 1897 it was announced that Lake Mills Marshal Ruby was given the $250 reward.
Lewis died in Stillwater prison, in Minnesota, in 1902. Services were held in the prison chapel. Prison officials said he suffered from a brain tumor.