What drives a man to a life of crime? Is it in their nature or how they were raised? Or does it stem from something fundamentally broken in a man’s soul? Psychologists, criminal profilers, and law enforcement officials have tried to answer that question for generations. Frank “Jelly” Nash, a one-time Arkansas resident, came from an otherwise respectable family and became one of America’s most notorious bank robbers in the early twentieth century. He blew up safes, organized gangs, murdered accomplices, and had running gunfights with police. Though much of his adult life was one of violence and notoriety, there are still many mysteries surrounding his life, even decades after his death.
Frank Nash was born in Birdseye, a small town in southern Indiana, in 1887. He grew up in a home with two sisters and two step-brothers. His father, John “Pappy” Nash, was a hotel en-trepreneur, starting hotels in several different towns. By 1893, the family had made it to Para-gould in Northeast Arkansas. After three years, the family moved to nearby Jonesboro and started another hotel. In 1900, the family moved once again to Hobart, in Southwest Oklahoma. Along the way, Nash worked for his father in his hotels. In 1904, at the age of 17, he enlisted in the army and served for three years.
When and why Nash became a criminal is not certain. His home life was relatively stable and financially secure. His father was an honest businessman by all known reports. Nash was an or-dinary soldier in the army, and there are no indications that indicated any criminal tendencies. Shortly after he left the army in 1907, his criminal career began.
How he got the nickname “Jelly” has also been a source of speculation. Some biographers speculated it came from childhood, a shortened form of “jellybean.” However, “Jelly” was also a slang term often used by gangsters at the time for nitroglycerin. Nitroglycerin, a gelatinous, and, at the time, fairly easily obtained explosive, was often used by Nash to blow safes open.
Nash was responsible for 200 bank robberies. His first conviction stemmed from a 1913 robbery in Oklahoma. The two had stolen nearly $1,000 (or $25,000 in 2017 dollars). After the robbery, he had a falling out with his partner. He shot him in the back, tried to run with the money on his own before being caught by police later that day. He was sentenced to life in prison.
As he was throughout much of his life, he was charming and steadily built up a relationship of trust with the warden in spite of the blood on his hands. In 1918, with the country fighting World War I, he convinced the warden that he wanted to rejoin the army to fight for the nation. Con-vinced, the warden had his sentence commuted, and Nash re-enlisted, seeing combat in the last months of the war.
After his discharge, Nash resumed robbing banks. In 1920, he was again convicted of bank rob-bery in Oklahoma. Sentenced to 25 years, he again charmed the jail staff and had his sentenced reduced for good behavior. Released in 1922, he soon teamed up with a gang of bank robbers and went on a crime spree across the region. In 1923, they robbed a train in Oklahoma, and the gang split up at that point. Nash fled to Mexico, married a local woman, and attempted to forge the wedding date on the marriage license in order to establish an alibi.
When he crossed the border a few months later, he was arrested and sentenced to another 25 years. As always, Nash managed to convince the warden that he was a model inmate and posed no threat to anyone. Given special privileges, he left the prison with special permission from the warden in 1930, promising to return, left, and never looked back.
He next showed up in Chicago, where he started a string of robberies that took him across the Midwest for the next year and a half. By 1932, he was in Hot Springs. In those days, Hot Springs had a seedy reputation for attracting gangland figures. While it was attractive to or-ganized crime, it had also become an embarrassment for many in Arkansas. Nash stayed on the lam for over a year in the area before marrying again. The two lived under the assumed name of “Moore.” But he was arrested in June 1933.
Police, along with FBI agents, drove Nash to Ft. Smith where they boarded a train for Kansas City. But he would never see the inside of a prison again. Somehow, word got out about the arrest, and gang members met Nash and the officers. The notorious “Pretty Boy” Floyd sent three gunmen to meet them, apparently determined not to allow Nash to talk. A shootout ensued. In the frenzy of bullets, Nash was killed along with one officer. The three gunmen were killed in what newspapers called the “Kansas City Massacre.” Floyd himself was killed in a shootout the next year.
The FBI was given special new police powers in 1934 because of the murders. The crime spree of Nash was at an end, leaving many victims and many questions in his wake.