January 14, 2015

Ex-MIT professor is inspired by Rimbaud to start robbing banks


Unlike Al Pacino's character in Dog Day Afternoon, Gibbons' first bank robbery didn't make the news. So, he tried again.

Unlike Al Pacino’s character in Dog Day Afternoon, Gibbons’ first bank robbery didn’t make the news. So, he tried again.

”Life is the farce which everyone has to perform.” – Arthur Rimbaud

“I just worried if I had enough problems within me that I could exploit. So when I ran [out] of my own—I started creating them—I made one or two films based on drug addiction.” – Joseph Gibbons

It was a love for Rimbaud—not a love of money and definitely not a love of attention—that inspired 61 year old ex-MIT professor Joseph Gibbons to rob two banks in Providence, RI and New York. On January 10, the New York Post reported that Gibbons had been arrested and charged with robbery after making off with $1,000 from a Capitol One branch in Chinatown. 

Claiming that the robbery was “artwork” and “cinema verite,” Gibbons carried a camcorder (a camcorder?) and filmed the entire thing. He was nonetheless arraigned and charged, though not before impressing his cellmates.

“He was doing research for a film,” said his dazzled cell-mate Kaylan Sherrard, 27.

“It’s not a crime; it’s artwork… He’s an intellectual,” Sherrard gushed.

The Chinatown robbery was a sequel to his first robbery, in Providence, which was a success in bank robbery terms (he got the money) but failed to get him the attention he desired. Gibbons claimed that he tried to write a “funny note, something to get it on the news,” but the teller was, weirdly, terrified by the man robbing the bank, and gave him $3,000.

The heist didn’t garner many headlines, however, and he decided to give it another go in New York on New Year’s Eve at a Capital One at Bowery and Grand Street. He found that tellers in New York are a little tougher.

“This teller, in Chinatown, he was unflappable … I thought for sure he was pressing the silent alarm button. He didn’t even flinch,” he said.

“The note itself said ‘Yes … this is a bank robbery.’ In the note I asked for large denominations and no dye packs and unfortunately he gave me small denominations and an exploding dye pack,” he groaned.

In a follow-up story, the Post expanded on Gibbons’ high-minded inspirations.

“I read the works of Arthur Rimbaud, who essentially believed a poet had to descend into the depths of all that was bad and report back,” he said. “This whole thing has been one long project about discovering the disenfranchised portions of society.”

Whatever Gibbons thinks he’s discovered, it’s obviously not the reality of being truly disenfranchised, as he isn’t too worried about the consequences of robbing two banks.

The former visual arts and film professor, whose contract was not renewed by MIT in 2011, said he had no regrets and wasn’t afraid he would do hard time. “This latest project is akin to ‘bank robbing for dummies,’ ” he said, noting that he expects to get probation.


Julia Fleischaker is a former director of marketing and publicity at Melville House.