hen three men robbed the Needham Trust Co. on Feb. 2, 1934, the aftermath was chilling: two beloved police officers killed in the first machine-gun murders in the state, and two other men injured.
The community hadn’t had a murder in years, said Gloria Polizzotti Greis, the Needham Historical Society’s executive director, and the loss hit it hard. “That was a big chunk of the police force. It was a small town, and with these guys being on the street all the time, they were very familiar to everybody.”
The robbers escaped with more than $14,000 and two hostages, one who escaped almost immediately, and the bank treasurer, who was freed after being forced to cling to the running board of a stolen black sedan during the getaway. The governor offered a $20,000 reward for information leading to their arrest and conviction.
Although the crime lingers in the memory of longtime Needham residents, less is known about the three men — Abraham Faber, and brothers Murton and Irving Millen — arrested for the crime, and who would eventually go to the electric chair for murder.
Derick Risner, who lives in Needham and volunteers at the Needham
Channel, the town’s community cable-television station, became so captivated by the story that he made a documentary.
Risner, 24, originally planned to make a short piece, 10 or 15 minutes, at the suggestion of the cable channel’s executive director. But after Risner started his research in February 2011, his documentary expanded into an 87-minute film. “The Millen-Faber Gang’’ has been shown regularly on the Needham Channel since its Feb. 16 premiere in Town Hall.
Risner decided the story of the three men who committed the robbery was as interesting as their final crime. The three were unlikely friends. They had all grown up in Roxbury, but Faber went to MIT and graduated with a degree in aeronautical engineering, while the Millen brothers drove trucks for rum runners during Prohibition.
But the men reunited in the early 1930s, when Faber was bitter about his inability to find work during the Great Depression. He was quiet and cerebral, Risner said. Murton Millen was a bully.
“I have no idea how they formed this friendship, but it just sort of happened,” he said.
The three men became small-time gangsters whose crimes grew more deadly. In January 1934, they held up the Paramount Theatre in Lynn, killing a man. Just a month later, they came to Needham.
“They were timing it with the train that was coming into town,” Risner said. “The train would block Great Plain Avenue, so the police couldn’t get over.”
The men also hoped the noise of the train would mask the sound of the bank alarm. They knew a Brinks truck would be coming to pick up money, and expected $70,000 or $80,000 to be outside the vault.
But they did not count on the weather.
“How New England,” said Risner, whose DVD of the film went on sale last week. “There was a snowstorm the day before.”
This meant that a lot of people, anticipating the storm, had made their deposits a day earlier, and that money had already been taken away.
As the men gathered up what money they could find, after shooting a bank employee in the hand, someone pulled the alarm.
A police officer, Forbes McLeod, heard the alarm and started toward the bank. He was hit by machine gun fire from inside the bank, and later died. The three robbers left the bank and started driving out of town.
When they saw another police officer, Francis Haddock, talking to a firefighter in Needham Heights, they opened fire again, hitting both men.
Haddock was fatally wounded, but the firefighter survived.
McLeod and Haddock remain the only Needham police officers ever killed in the line of duty.
“It was so brutal,” Greis said. “It was so gratuitous. They weren’t even on the scene. One was approaching the scene. The other was barely aware anything had happened, much less in pursuit.”
Faber and the Millen brothers were arrested three weeks later — one in Boston and two in New York — and were eventually convicted of murder. The jury rejected
their insanity plea. Murton Millen’s wife, Norma, was convicted as an accessory. The trial, held in Dedham, was heavily covered by the news media.
“Murton Millen, I think, really was a sociopath, in the sense that it was all about him,” Greis said. “Irving — these days, he’d plead diminished capacity. And Norma seems to have been caught up in it like it was an adventure. The cameras loved her. She was gorgeous. She seems to have been posing as if for modeling shots.”
The Millen brothers and Faber were executed in the electric chair at Charlestown State Prison on June 7, 1935.
“No crime in recent years had so aroused the state,” The Boston Globe wrote on the day they died. “Crowds gathered about them whenever they appeared in custody of detectives to boo, hiss, and deride them.”Kathleen Burge can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Follow her on Twitter @kathleenburge.