Born on June 30, 1901, in Brooklyn, New York, Willie Sutton was the fourth of five children. He attended school through eighth grade, then left home to secure a job. Sutton's employment included jobs as a clerk, a driller and a gardener. His longest continuous employment lasted 18 months. Sutton was married in 1929, but his wife divorced him after he was incarcerated. He remarried in 1933. Before his death, Sutton co-authored "I, Willie Sutton" and "Where the Money Was."
Willie Sutton acquired two nicknames, "The Actor" and "Slick Willie," for his ingenuity in executing robberies in various disguises. Fond of expensive clothes, Sutton was described as being an immaculate dresser. Although he was a bank robber, Sutton had the reputation of a gentleman; in fact, people present at his robberies stated he was quite polite. One victim said witnessing one of Sutton's robberies was like being at the movies, except the usher had a gun. When asked why he robbed banks, Sutton simply replied, "Because that's where the money is."
On February 15, 1933, Sutton and a confederate attempted to rob the Corn Exchange Bank and Trust Company in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Sutton, disguised as a mailman, entered the bank early in the morning. The curiosity of a passerby caused the robbery attempt to be abandoned. However, on January 15, 1934 Sutton entered the same bank with two companions through a skylight. When the watchman arrived, they forced him to admit the employees as usual. Each employee was handcuffed and crowded into a small room.
Sutton also executed a Broadway jewelry store robbery in broad daylight, impersonating a postal telegraph messenger. Sutton's other disguises included a policeman, messenger and maintenance man. He usually arrived at the banks or stores slightly before they opened for the day.
Besides being known as an innovative robber, Sutton recommitted in June, 1931, on charges assault and robbery. Sentenced to 30 years, he escaped on December 11, 1932, by scaling the prison wall on two 9-foot sections of ladder that were joined together.
Sutton was apprehended on February 5, 1934, and was sentenced to serve 25 to 50 years in Eastern State Penitentiary, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, for the machine gun robbery of the Corn Exchange Bank. On April 3, 1945, Sutton was one of 12 convicts who escaped the institution through a tunnel. Sutton was recaptured the same day by Philadelphia police officers; this had been his fifth escape attempt at this prison.
Sentenced to life imprisonment as a fourth time offender, Sutton was transferred to the Philadelphia County Prison, Homesburg, Pennsylvania. On February 10, 1947, Sutton and other prisoners dressed as prison guards. The men carried two ladders across the prison yard to the wall after dark. When the prison's searchlights hit him, Sutton yelled, "It's okay," and no one stopped him.
On March 20, 1950, Willie "The Actor" Sutton was added to the FBI's list of Ten Most Wanted Fugitives. Because of his love for expensive clothes, Sutton's photograph was given to tailors as well as police departments. A 24-year-old tailor's son recognized Sutton on the New York subway on February 18, 1952, and follow him to a local gas station where Sutton purchased a battery for his car. The man reported the incident to the police who later arrested Sutton.
Sutton did not resist his arrest by New York City Police, but denied any robberies or other crimes since his 1947 escape from Philadelphia County Prison. At the time of his arrest, Sutton owed one life sentence plus 105 years. He was further sentenced to an additional 30 years to life in New York State Prison following a jury trial in Queens County Court.
Seventeen years later, the New York State penal authorities decided that Sutton did not have to serve two life sentences and 105 years. Sutton was ill; he had emphysema and was preparing for a major operation on arteries in his legs. On Christmas Eve, 1969, 68-year-old Sutton was released from Attica State Prison. Ironically, in 1970, Sutton did a television commercial to promote the New Britain, Connecticut, Bank and Trust Company's new photo credit card program.
On November 2, 1980, Willie Sutton died in Spring Hill, Florida, at the age of 79.