Show Them No Mercy (1935) was kept from depicting an actual kidnapping by the Production Code Administration. Instead, the movie opens with the victim’s family agreeing to pay the ransom demanded by the kidnappers. They ask the “G Men” to keep their distance until their family member is returned, but the Federal agents are able to place bills with known serial numbers into the ransom packet.
The four kidnappers hide out until eventually surfacing to pass a few bills. The money trail helps the FBI narrow down their location and leads to an unhappy ending for all of the criminals.
The basis of the film was a real-life kidnapping that took place in May 1935.
Nine-year old George Weyerhaeuser was kidnapped on May 24, 1935. His family was among the first of the Northwest’s “timber barons,” and had only recently suffered the loss of George’s grandfather, John Philip Weyerhaeuser, who had died the previous week. Later on the day of George’s kidnapping his family received the following ransom note:
“To whom it may concern.
1. 200,000 dollars in cash.
2. 100,000 dollars in $20 bills.
3. 50,000 dollars in $10 bills.
4. 50,000 dollars in $5 bills.
5. All of this money must be in Federal Reserve notes and unmarked.
6. You are not to take the numbers of these bills. If they are taken and the bills are marked it will be all off.
7. You are not to notify the police, Department of Justice or any private detective agency.
8. If you do it will be all off.
9. Keep it out of the papers.
10. This is business, be businesslike.
11. You have got five (5) days to raise the money, better have it.
12. In five days or as soon as you have the money, advertise in the Seattle P-I personal column. Say ‘We are ready.’ And sign it, ‘Percy Minnie.’
13. Remember the money will be gone over before the release, so don’t mark it.
14. The police can’t catch us, so be very, very careful to follow the rules.
15. These bills must have been in circulation. Be careful.
16. Remember and don’t try to slip any gold certified notes on us.
17. You will be notified where to go when the time comes. Be sure there is no one following you, as you will be watched from the time you leave.
18. We won’t be sitting behind any mail boxes either.
19. Just follow the rules, we will get along fine. Don’t follow them and it will be sorrowful. For you, not for us.
20. Any questions ask them in personal column signed same as above.
21. Remember to follow the rules all of them. A slip on your part will be just too bad for some one else.
We know what we are doing. We have it all planned.
It has been planned for three years. In the meantime we have looked for places where we might slip and have found none. We are educated and pride says we are fairly intelligent. So if you just stop and reason for a minute you’ll see that it is best to follow our rules.
We don’t want to hurt any one if we can get out of it. So if you just follow the rules as they are lain down by us you will have the one you love back home in a week’s time if you care about them $200,000 worth.
So just remember a slip on your part is a slit by us. Don’t do it.
The family exchanged information with the kidnappers as outlined in the ransom note, through a series of classified ads signed “Percy Minnie” in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. George’s father, J.P. Weyerhaeuser received a letter with instructions from the kidnappers on May 29. The following night Weyerhaeuser drove to an appointed place with the $200,000 in ransom money, abandoned his car, and watched as one of the kidnappers drove it away.
Young George was released and recovered safely the following morning.
The hunt was on.
Federal, State, and local officials at first suspected as many as six participants in the kidnapping and there was strong suspicion that gangster Alvin “Creepy” Karpis was involved in the crime.
Despite instructions of the criminals the FBI had taken down serial numbers on the ransom bills and distributed lists to all Bureau field offices. Upon George’s release those lists were then distributed to commercial enterprises with hopes of catching the kidnappers.
The first $20 ransom bill surfaced in Huntington, Oregon when it was passed by a “nervous man” who purchased a railway ticket to Salt Lake City. The scene is reproduced in Show Them No Mercy.
More bills were distributed over the next few days with one ransom bill passed at a Woolworth’s in Salt Lake City leading to the arrest of 19-year-old Margaret E. Waley. Later that day Waley’s husband, Harmon Metz Waley, 24, was arrested at their home. Harmon Waley identified a third accomplice, William Dainard, aka William Mahan, 33, who was considered the brains of their operation.
$15,000 of the ransom money was recovered on June 9 in Butte, Montana where a man abandoned his automobile and fled police. Dainard eluded capture until the following May, when he submitted to arrest peaceably after being discovered in San Francisco.
Justice was swift. Harmon Waley was sentenced to 45 years in prison on June 21, 1935. His only plea was on behalf of his wife, who he claimed had no knowledge of the kidnapping until after they’d already possessed their victim for three days. Margaret Waley pled guilty and before the month was out had been sentenced to 20 years in prison. While Dainard/Mahan, evaded capture until May 1936, he pled guilty and two days after his arrest was sentenced to 60 years in prison. A fourth party was arrested later that year after the FBI discovered Edward Fliss had assisted Dainard in passing the ransom money. Fliss was sentenced to 10 years in prison and fined $5,000.
They made out better than any of the criminals in Show Them No Mercy.
“We haven’t had a major kidnapping since the Weyerhaeuser case last Spring,” said FBI director J. Edgar Hoover in February 1936. “Every one of the sixty-two kidnappings perpetrated since the Lindbergh Law was passed in 1932 has been solved, and, in each case, we’ve made it unhealthy and unprofitable for the kidnappers.”
While Hoover made his statement a few months before the arrest of Dainard, the wave of major kidnappings begun with Lindbergh baby had come to an end. Days ahead of Dainard’s arrest, Alvin Karpis was captured on May 1, 1936, signaling the end the age of romanticized outlaws and Public Enemies #1.