HOPF: Woman peels back layers kept secret in trying to connect with long-lost aunt

Posted: Mar. 28, 2013 5:59 pm Updated: Sep. 19, 2014 10:15 am


Discovering a long-lost family connection can be a thrilling experience, but it can also be an emotional one.

While searching through some online criminal records made available by the Minnesota Historical Society, Patsy Smith came across a photo of her long-lost aunt, Alice Lanning.

Smith, who lives in Montrose, Iowa, was trying to find information on her aunt but found more information on Ursa native Robert Markwood, who robbed banks in the 1920s and 1930s along with Clair Gibson.

"They were in the business for almost 20 years, where other well-known people were in it for a lot less time," Smith said. "(Dillinger) was in it for one year. They were very good at what they did."

They might not have had the notoriety of some gangsters at the time, but Markwood and Gibson had criminal files that included letters signed by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover.

"They were well-known," Smith said. "But if (Hoover) had to choose who he was going to chase after, it wouldn't have been two quiet people. At any other time in history, I truly believe they would have been famous, but there were so many gangsters at the time, you had to do something big to make yourself well-known."

When Smith was young, her grandmother showed her a picture of the family when Smith's father was young. They lived on a farm near Mendon. The photo included someone whom Smith didn't know. Her grandmother told her that it was Alice, her father's sister.

"She said Alice ran off when she was about 15," Smith said. "When everybody in my grandma's family died, I was cleaning and I found this picture, so I decided to hunt for information, and that's when I found out about Robert Markwood."

Alice had run off with Markwood, but Smith said the family never talked about it.

"When my mom and dad got married, he said, ‘The only family I have is the relatives you see,' " she said. "They wouldn't talk about Alice."

However, Smith was told the FBI raided the Lanning farm several times hoping Markwood would be there.

"I do know he came back to Ursa quite often to visit his mother," she said.

Smith said that while she was going through Markwood's file, she came across her Aunt Alice's picture.

"It was upsetting at the time," she said.

A number of aliases were noted on the picture, including the name Betty, but she didn't discover any details on what happened to her aunt.

She compiled all her findings in her recently published book, "But What Happened to Alice."

Originally, she wasn't planning on publishing a book. Smith and her husband, Stephen, own Horse 'n' Around Farm in Montrose, where they have a wagon trail for visitors. Along the trail, they tell the story of Markwood, so she assembled a notebook for visitors with the information so they could find out more after their trail ride.

"They kept saying: ‘You need to write a book. Then we can look at this at home and take our time,'" Smith said.

While Smith doesn't know what happened to Alice, she hopes that her book might point her in the direction of some new information.

"They probably killed her because Clair Gibson killed Robert Markwood (in 1936)," she said, referring to the gangsters Markwood was associated with.

Gibson was later captured in Oregon.

"I'm not really interested in more information about Robert Markwood, although I'm sure there's a lot more to be had," she said. "I'm interested in what happened to my aunt."

Anyone interested in getting a copy of the book should send an email to Smith at




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