The Ballad of Ben and Stella Mae

Great Plains Outlaws Who Became FBI Public Enemies Nos. 1 and 2

Matthew Cecil

On August 25, 1938, twenty-five-year-old Ben Dickson and his fifteen-year-old wife Stella Mae robbed the Corn Exchange Bank in Elkton, South Dakota, making off with $2,187.64. Two months later they hit a bank in nearby Brookings for $17,593—after waiting two hours for the vault’s time-lock to open while the bank's manager went on processing loans for customers. Unfortunately for these two small-time outlaws, the FBI was in short supply of public enemies at the time, and a newly minted Bonnie and Clyde was exactly what J. Edgar Hoover needed to stoke the agency's public relations machine.

Retrieving the Dicksons from the fog of history and the hype of the FBI’s “Most Wanted” narrative, The Ballad of Ben and Stella Mae tells the story of a damaged small-town girl and her petty criminal husband whose low-key crime spree became, as True magazine proclaimed, “The Crimson Trail of Public Enemies One and Two.” The book follows Stella Mae and Ben from their troubled beginnings in Topeka through the desperate adventure that the FBI recast as a dangerous rampage, stirring a media frenzy and a nationwide manhunt that ended in betrayal and bloodshed: Ben dead, shot in the back outside of a hamburger joint in Forest Park, Missouri, and Stella Mae, a juvenile, put away for ten years.

“A fascinating and tragic tale of the hapless, young Topeka, Kansas couple who found themselves on the FBI’s ‘Public Enemies’ list in 1938-1939, more because of that agency’s culture than because of the crimes they had admittedly committed.Cecil’s well-told account, bolstered by his deep knowledge of the FBI, should be of real interest to Kansas and regional readers.”

—Virgil Dean, editor of John Brown to Bob Dole; Movers and Shakers in Kansas History

“In an engaging writing style, Cecil has deftly, expertly, and convincingly recast the story of Ben and Stella Dickenson, moving the traditional narrative away from its FBI-inspired plot about ruthless, bloodthirsty gangsters to a more nuanced, and even, sympathetic narrative that better explains Ben and Stella and what they did. He also highlights how J. Edgar Hoover’s selfish PR interests and influence only amplified the tragedy that was the Dickson’s lives. . . . The definitive narrative about Ben and Stella Mae and an invaluable history of a little-examined aspect of the FBI’s 1930s anti-crime publicity effort.”

—Douglas M. Charles, author of Hoover’s War on Gays and The FBIs Obscene File

The Dicksons first captured Matthew Cecil's imagination as a teenager in his hometown of Brookings, where their bank robbery remains the stuff of legend. When, many years later, their file turned up in his research into the FBI, the tale of their exploits—and exploitation at the hands of J. Edgar Hoover—proved irresistible. Readers of this Depression-era story, retold here in all its grit and tarnished glory, will find it no less compelling.

About the Author

Matthew Cecil is Dean of the College of Arts and Humanities, Minnesota State University, Mankato. He is the author of Hoover’s FBI and the Fourth Estate: The Campaign to Control the Press and the Bureau's Image, also from Kansas.