Archive for the ‘True Crime’ Category

A Fire Detective — Latest Necessity Of City Life

From May 7, 1911

A FIRE DETECTIVE -- LATEST NECESSITY OF CITY LIFE

A FIRE DETECTIVE — LATEST NECESSITY OF CITY LIFE: His Strange Discoveries in Tracking Firebugs — His Studies in the Psychology of That Increasing Product of Present Conditions, the Pyromaniac. (PDF)

See also: Robert De Niro in Backdraft

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Written by David

May 5th, 2011 at 10:00 am

Was Peter The Painter A Russian Government Spy?

From May 7, 1911

WAS PETER THE PAINTER A RUSSIAN GOVERNMENT SPY?

WAS PETER THE PAINTER A RUSSIAN GOVERNMENT SPY? New Light on the Mystery of the Houndsditch Murders and the Siege of the Anarchist House in Mile End, London. (PDF)

Peter the Painter. His name wasn’t Peter, and he wasn’t a painter. Discuss.

(Okay, actually he might have been a painter. Historians are a bit unsure of his real identity.)

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Written by David

May 4th, 2011 at 11:00 am

Posted in True Crime

Classics Of Literature Censored By A Sing Sing Convict

From April 30, 1911

CLASSICS OF LITERATURE CENSORED BY A SING SING CONVICT

CLASSICS OF LITERATURE CENSORED BY A SING SING CONVICT: Discovery of a Unique Document, in Modern Slang, Intended to “Steer” Patrons of Prison Library. (PDF)

These reviews of classic literature by a Sing Sing convict are great.

One of the most unique documents ever written by a convict in Sing Sing has just come to light. It was intended for the yes of convicts only — for the readers of prison books — and is penned in a slang that every convict knows perhaps better than the more erudite language of the average author.

The document is a review of prison literature, a guide book which tells the convicts what to shun and what to seek in Sing Sing’s library; a criticism brief but to the point, and showing in a remarkable way the literary point of view of a criminal who has spent many years in the seclusion of his cell, absorbing the stories of fact and fancy which the prison library affords.

Here, for example, is his review of The Three Musketeers by Alexander Dumas:

Alec was no jollier; when he got to pushing the pen across the paper he got down to cases right away. This one breaks the bank. On your life, don’t scratch this entry. The d’Artagnan guy in this is there with the knockout.

And The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne gets this review:

This one is there with the gray matter. There’s a sky-pilot in this that was a welcher. He’ll make you feel like putting him on the bum. The main dame is game to the core and the whole outfit of phoney knockers can’t feaze her.

And Les Miserables by Victor Hugo:

Now we’re getting down to brass tacks. This is the richest thing that ever came down the pike. It’s a lalapaloosa. You want to read it three times. The first time you won’t catch on to all the fine points; you skip the descriptions to follow Jean Valjean. The second time you’ll fall for a little of the descriptive dope, and about the third time you’ll read the swellest line on the Battle of Waterloo that was ever handed out. That line on the sewers of Paris is some class, too. The main guy in this is a con that makes a smooth getaway, but he’s up against it for fair. The bull that is after him must be a little flighty in the bean. They don’t have bulls like that now-a-days.

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Written by David

April 27th, 2011 at 11:00 am

Burns, A Detective From Whom Lecoq Might Learn

From April 30, 1911

BURNS, A DETECTIVE FROM WHOM LECOQ MIGHT LEARN

BURNS, A DETECTIVE FROM WHOM LECOQ MIGHT LEARN: Astonishing Record of a Great Sleuth Who Has Been Employed on All of Uncle Sam’s Big Cases for a Generation, and Who Now Claims to Have Caught the Los Angeles Dynamiters. (PDF)

“Elementary, my dear Watson,” says Sherlock Holmes.

And, since it’s not elementary, but rather occult and exoteric, the reader is apt to feel annoyed and to think the expression pure ostentation on Sherlock’s part. However, it isn’t. Detectives all talk that way. Doyle is realistic, after all. Even William J. Burns, who has less in common with Sherlock Holmes than any detective ever born or invented since Lecocq and Dupin, looks surprised when you ask him how he did it, and says — well, he doesn’t say “elementary,” but he says:

“Just common sense.”

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Written by David

April 25th, 2011 at 2:00 pm

Posted in True Crime

More Horse Thievery In New York Than The Far West

From April 23, 1911

MORE HORSE THIEVERY IN NEW YORK THAN THE FAR WEST

MORE HORSE THIEVERY IN NEW YORK THAN THE FAR WEST: So Easy to Do and Hard to Detect That Detectives Are Puzzled What to Do — Looks Like an Organized Industry. (PDF)

Few people need to worry about their horses being stolen anymore, since we’re more likely to drive a car and have an alarm installed. But in 1911, the most you could do is get horse thievery insurance. And once your horse is stolen, it’s unlikely you’ll see it again because it quickly goes to a chop shop and you wouldn’t recognize it if you saw it. I don’t mean it gets chopped up. Just altered a bit. Here’s how Norman Moray of the Great Easter Casualty insurance company describes it:

“No man’s horse is safe. The horse of the big department store is as likely to disappear as the horse and wagon of the small grocer or butcher. Detectives say that the theft is easily covered up. Within six hours after the horse and wagon disappears, a transformation is made, which is so complete that few owners can identify their property. The horse is shorn of his mane and tail, white legs are dyed a color corresponding with the body of the horses, and cases have been known where a stolen horse was described as having a bobbed tail, where the horse when finally recovered was found to have had a very beautiful tail, attached to the former stub.”

Here’s how horse thievery worked. This is useful to know if you plan on making a period version of Gone in 60 Seconds:

Zito’s method was to work with two assistants. He would usually locate a likely looking horse and wagon, and then after watching the route and habits of the driver would find a quiet cross street. He would then have one of his men in the middle of the block, or at the place where the horse usually stopped, and a man at each avenue corner. When the driver left the wagon to deliver his goods the man in the middle of the block would get a signal from the man stationed at the corner that the coast was clear, jump on the wagon, drive it to the corner, where he would be relieved by the man there who would drive the horse rapidly away. The idea of making this change was that in case of an arrest the man found in possession of the rig would have the excuse that he had been hired to take the horse to some certain point if it so happened that the man who had actually stolen the horse from where the driver had left it had been seen by any one, the person who witnessed the theft being unable to identify the man in whose possession the rig was found.

A stolen horse was worth an average of $300 each. But you don’t need to worry about this kind of crime anymore. Unless you drive a Mustang.

Because a Mustang is a car made by Ford, and also a kind of horse.

Just a little joke there.

You can visit the National Insurance Crime Bureau to see what the most stolen vehicles are in your state.

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Written by David

April 21st, 2011 at 11:00 am

Posted in True Crime

How Gamblers Fleece Victims By Crooked Devices

From April 23, 1911

HOW GAMBLERS FLEECE VICTIMS BY CROOKED DEVICES

HOW GAMBLERS FLEECE VICTIMS BY CROOKED DEVICES: Clever Schemes to Prevent Big Winnings — Judge Rosalsky’s Parole Plan and Flynn’s Secret Methods Arouse Consternation in “the Fraternity.” (PDF)

As part of an effort to lesson gambling in the city, the Deputy Commissioner tried to educate the public on the fact that they are likely dealing with crooked dealers when they go gambling, and have even less of a chance to win than they realize.

Several kinds of devices are used to swindle the player at poker, but the marked cards are the simplest. These cards are marked, of course, so that the dealer can easily tell the king from the ace, or the deuce from the trey. Seldom, however, is the ce card marked. It is the one card on which even a greenhorn will look for a mark. The marks are made with needle pricks so fine that the ordinary fingers cannot feel them. The cheater, however, files the cuticle of his thumb to such a fine edge that he can feel the marks which others cannot.

I’m reminded of Damon Runyon, whose stories of New York City gamblers were turned into the musical Guys and Dolls. He had only been in New York for a year by this time, and his most famous stories wouldn’t be written for another twenty years, but this famous quote is what comes to mind:

One of these days in your travels, a guy is going to come up to you and show you a nice brand-new deck of cards on which the seal is not yet broken, and this guy is going to offer to bet you that he can make the Jack of Spades jump out of the deck and squirt cider in your ear. But, son, do not bet this man, for as sure as you are standing there, you are going to end up with an earful of cider.

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Written by David

April 20th, 2011 at 10:00 am

Posted in True Crime

Burglary Insurance Men Say Crime Is Decreasing

From April 9, 1911

BURGLARY INSURANCE MEN SAY CRIME IS DECREASING

BURGLARY INSURANCE MEN SAY CRIME IS DECREASING: They Are Paying Less Money for Losses by Robbery Than for Years Past — Flynn Has Reduced the Number of Burglaries Below That in Any Regine Since Inspector Byrnes’s. (PDF)

Insurance companies were noticing a trend. They were getting fewer claims for burglaries. Crime rates, it seemed, were going down. That’s interesting, but it’s some of the article’s peripheral details that interest me most, like this pictures showing tools of the criminals’ trade. One tool is a “jack to raise the safe to position to operate.” Another depicts a three-pegged doohickey suspended in front of a safe. The caption says it’s “the most successful safe-breaking appliance ever invented” but I can’t tell what it is or how it’s supposed to work. Anyone have any ideas?

The article also talks about people who try to scam the insurance companies by faking a break-in when none happened. One jeweler reported a break-in, and when cops arrived they became suspicious. So “the detectives took him to a near-by saloon. When he had had several drinks they took him into the back room of the police station. There he confessed.” Do cops still take suspects for drinks before interrogation?

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Written by David

April 5th, 2011 at 10:30 am

Posted in Politics,True Crime

Blood Tests In Criminal Cases No Longer Uncertain

From March 26, 1911

BLOOD TESTS IN CRIMINAL CASES NO LONGER UNCERTAIN

BLOOD TESTS IN CRIMINAL CASES NO LONGER UNCERTAIN: Murderers Can No Longer Be Shielded by Doubtful Analysis, for the Newest Biological Chemistry Can Now Tell Human Blood Stains from Others. (PDF)

Those fluent in biochemistry may enjoy the details, but the gist of the article is summed up in the second paragraph:

It has often happened in murder trials that the guilt or innocence of the prisoner depended entirely on the ability of expert witnesses to determine whether or not certain stains were caused by human blood. Formerly, this was a difficult question to decide. The revelations of biological chemistry, however, have made the tests comparatively easy. In fact, it is not too much to say that the tests used nowadays to settle the question whether certain stain, be they new or old, were made by human blood, constitute an exact science.

This reminds me to recommend The Alienist, Caleb Carr’s murder mystery set in 1896 New York City, to those of you who have never read it. The protagonist uses newly developed techniques (like fingerprint matching, for example) to solve the crime. It’s a very good read.

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Written by David

March 23rd, 2011 at 9:30 am

Secret Service Methods In New York’s Police System

From February 26, 1911

SECRET SERVICE METHODS IN NEW YORKS POLICE SYSTEM

SECRET SERVICE METHODS IN NEW YORK’S POLICE SYSTEM: What Deputy Commissioner Flynn Has Done and Is Doing in Reorganizing the Detective Force Along Lines Followed by the U. S. Government (PDF)

Mayor Gaynor found a new Deputy Commissioner named William J. Flynn, formerly of the federal Secret Service. Gaynor brought him in to apply Secret Service tactics to fighting crime in New York.

In a little more than three months, “Secret Service Flynn”… head of the city’s detective forces, has revolutionized the methods of detecting crime in New York. He is perfecting a secret service that is really secret. He is doing it in spite of the legal limitations that force all of his men into one physical mold. It is being done without precedents, except the Federal Secret Service. The results have been arrests of gamblers by hundreds and other offenders by scores, even while the reorganization was in progress.

“It’s a tough job, but I’m going to give it a wrestle,” remarked Flynn when he took the office last October. “I’ll stake my reputation and a lot of hard work on making good. I have in mind an entirely new plan of work — new to the Police Department. Haven’t got the details worked out yet.”

A year later, he returned to the US Secret Service as Chief, and eventually became head of the FBI.

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Written by David

February 25th, 2011 at 10:00 am

Posted in Politics,True Crime

The Passing Of The Once Popular Sideshow Freak

From February 26, 1911

THE PASSING OF THE ONCE POPULAR SIDESHOW FREAK

THE PASSING OF THE ONCE POPULAR SIDESHOW FREAK: No Longer an Attraction, These Once High-Salaried Exhibits Find It Hard to Earn a Living — What Has Become of Famous Favorites. (PDF)

The phenomenon of the sideshow freak is one of the most fascinating bits of popular culture history I can think of. On the one hand, forgetting for a moment that these are actual people with feelings to consider, there is just the natural curiosity about the different shapes and sizes people come in, and the interesting ways that maladies manifest themselves. But on the other hand, it’s sad to point and laugh at people’s misfortune and disfigurements. But then again, not all sideshow freaks were victims who didn’t know better. Many of them were intelligent people, making the best of the public’s fascination.

In this article, the Magazine explores how the public’s new fascination with music and movies affected the business prospects for the sideshow freak.

Mike the Midget notes, “I’m not blaming the public, only it’s hard on old-time freaks. It takes a top-notch freak now to be able to earn his living in the profession.” Here, the article describes the industry’s gradual decline:

One by one the freaks have been eliminated. The fat woman was the first to go. On every museum platform for years the fat woman sat; the smallest ones were first taken off, leaving only the big ones. Then the tattooed man and the tattooed lady had to seek other employment. In their wake followed the albinos, the living skeletons, and armless and legless wonders.

Those able to hold on longest were exceptional freaks such as two-headed boys, the woman with the horse’s mane growing between her shoulders, the elastic-skinned man, the three-legged boy, the elephant-footed man and the lion-faced boy.

[…]

Where once a good freak commanded $200 a week he can now scarcely get on at $30. It now takes a prodigy of more than passing novelty to draw more than $25 a week. The Tocci twins — boys with two heads, four arms, and two legs — drew $300 a week for years. A regular scale of prices now regulates the pay received by freaks. A living skeleton receives usually about $18 a week; a bearded lady, $12; a fat woman, $10; a fire-eater, $10; a tattooed woman, $8, and a Circassian beauty, $7.

In the cities they can no longer find profitable employment. Most of those who are still keeping up professional life are to be found under the show tent of the circus. The outer districts, where the picture show and the mechanical piano have not filled the entertainment wants of the public, are now the havens of refuge of the freaks.

The article does wonder whether the passing of the freak’s popularity might be a good thing:

Is it not a healthier sign of the public mind that it is no longer interested in the sad misfortunes of others? The plea of the museum proprietor that gazing at poor distorted souls was educative can not be defended. No good ever came of staring at the frog-boy, or of questioning the ossified man. In some countries public exhibition of freaks is prohibited. Nothing but morbid curiosity ever sent the public to the dime museum where on one platform could be seen human anomalies from all over the world. Much better is it that a clean moving picture hall where the entertainment is healthful and instructive should supplant the dime museum.

Of course, it wasn’t that much longer before freaks made their way to the movies. In 1932, director Tod Browning (who later directed Bela Lugosi in Dracula) cast several of the most popular sideshow performers of the day in his thriller Freaks, which is available to see in its entirety online at the Internet Archive.

There were still people making livings as sideshow freaks for several more decades, but as medical advances made these sorts of maladies less common, and people became more sensitive to their plights, the sideshow freaks retired. Many of them wound up in Gibsonton, Florida, which was a popular town for sideshow freaks to spend the off-season.

There’s a sad but interesting true crime story that takes place in Gibsonton. Grady “Lobster Boy” Styles, a second generation sideshow performer born with ectrodactyly (which makes the hands and feet look like lobster claws) was convicted of murder in 1978 for shooting his daughter’s fiancé. He eventually got out of jail, and remarried his former wife. But he was a heavy drinker who allegedly abused his family, and in 1992 his wife and son hired a hitman — another sideshow performer — to kill Grady Stiles.

Modern sideshows, like the Coney Island Sideshow by the Seashore are mainly tributes to the sideshows of yore. They feature performances in the tradition of the old sideshows — things like sword swallowing, contortionists, and the human blockhead — and fewer deformities or birth defects, if any.

There is at least one current performer out there I know of who does use his birth defect as a device for his performance art, and that is Mat Fraser, whose defect comes as a result of his mother taking thalidomide while she was pregnant. I first heard of Mat when I saw him at the Coney Island sideshow in the late 90s. He wasn’t there as a performer, but he was talking to some people there about a character he does called the Thalidomide Ninja, and I confess to eavesdropping. I later found out that he made a documentary for the BBC called Born Freak about his condition, and those like him who made their careers in the sideshow business. It doesn’t seem to be available online in is entirety, unfortunately.

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Written by David

February 24th, 2011 at 11:00 am

Grave Of Lincoln’s Assassin Disclosed At Last

From February 26, 1911

GRAVE OF LINCOLNS ASSASSIN DISCLOSED AT LAST

GRAVE OF LINCOLN’S ASSASSIN DISCLOSED AT LAST: After Nearly Fifty Years, the Spot Where J. Wilkes Booth’s Body Is Buried Is Located — Living Witnesses to Midnight Interment Tell the Story. (PDF)

In September of 1910, the Magazine ran an interesting article about the aftermath of the Lincoln assassination, telling surprisingly tragic stories of those who were in the booth with Abe and his wife. When I posted the article here, a reader named Deej left this note in the comments:

The Magazine article says at the end that Booth’s body was thrown overboard at night, location unknown. That’s not true. He was taken back to DC where a careful identification and autopsy were performed, several of his vertebrae were removed, and can be seen to this day in Washington. In 1869, after IDing the remains again, the govt released his body to the Booth family, and he was buried in the family plot in Baltimore.

I wrote back to that reader telling him to stay tuned because an upcoming article would address that. This is that article.

For fifty years after the assassination, Booth’s fate was kept a secret. In this article, the truth is finally revealed to the public.

Although there are 90,000,000 of people in the United States, not 500 could tell you what became of the body of the assassin of Abraham Lincoln. Some will tell you that the body of John Wilkes Booth was burned to ashes in the Virginia barn in which he was captured. Others will express the opinion that the remains of the misguided actor were cut to pieces and mysteriously dropped into the sea. Then, to add interest to the mystery, some one will claim to have positive information that Wilkes Booth is still alive, and is living under an assumed name in one of the Southern States. One strange story is to the effect that Booth assumed the name of J. W. Bickford of Pittsburg, and that he confided to his roommate in Lexington, Ky., during the months of January and February, 1869, that he was the assassin of Abraham Lincoln.

The body of John Wilkes Booth was not burned to ashes in the Virginia barn nor consigned to a watery grave in the Atlantic Ocean, but it was buried with great secrecy in the presence of at least a dozen witnesses, of whom two are still alive, in Greenmount Cemetery, Baltimore, Md.

The body rests within the same inclosure that contains the graves of his illustrious father and patient mother, as well as other members of the Booth family.

It was but natural that the burial could not take place with the great American public looking on at midday with tear-stained eyes. The body was not consigned to its final resting place until nearly four years after the greatest and saddest tragedy in the history of the Nation.

The article goes on to describe how the body was buried in secret, and how the cemetery helped with the deception.

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Written by David

February 22nd, 2011 at 10:30 am

Posted in Politics,True Crime

All “Sisters” Who Beg In Saloons Are Frauds

From February 19, 1911

ALL SISTERS WHO BEG IN SALOONS ARE FRAUDS

ALL “SISTERS” WHO BEG IN SALOONS ARE FRAUDS: And a Large Percentage of Pretended “Salvation Army” Girls and “Volunteers” Who Enter Barrooms Are Bogus — How the Graft Is Worked. (PDF)

If you know much about the inside of barrooms you can skip the first few paragraphs of this tale, for it will be an old story to you. If, however, the temples of the Demon Rum are to you strange territory you will have to be told at the outset just how the fake religious beggar works.

Sundry paragraphs in the week’s papers told how a group of baseball men were in the bar of the Hotel Breslin, resting from the labors of deliberation as to next season’s games, when in came a pair of gentle nuns. The manager pointed out to them in clear and vigorous terms that the quicker they left the place the better it would be for all concerned. Exit the gentle nuns and explosions of indignation from the baseball men.

The manager got the better of the argument after a while. He said they were fakers, maintaining the game in the face of his guests’ expostulations, and the Church and the Law have both backed him up. They were fake nuns, just as he said, and the money of the convivial gentlemen assembled at the bar would never got nearer the Church than the pocket of the woman who took it in.

Unfortunately some of the print in this copy of the article is illegible, but the point remains clear: If you’re uncertain of the validity of the random person asking you for money, don’t give them money.

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Written by David

February 17th, 2011 at 9:30 am

Posted in True Crime

The Doctor Who Killed His Patients With Germs

From February 19, 1911

THE DOCTOR WHO KILLED HIS PATIENTS WITH GERMS

THE DOCTOR WHO KILLED HIS PATIENTS WITH GERMS: For the First Time the Full Story Is Told of How the Russian Physician Panchenko Poisoned for Hire and How His Boasts of His Crimes Led to His Downfall. (PDF)

Well, this is pretty terrifying: a doctor who poisons his patients for the right price. It’s the kind of thing you’d expect to see on TV, not real life. Here’s the article’s preface describing the large cast of characters:

On Jan. 30 one of the most sensational cases in modern times came up for trial before the Supreme Court of St. Petersburg. It ended on Thursday night in the conviction and sentence of the criminals.

Aside from its psychological interest, this case is rare and unusual because of the peculiar make-up of the characters who have participated in this terrible drama. It is the case of Dr. Panchenko who poisoned his patient, Vasily Buturlin, with diphtheritic toxin for hire to clear the way for a large legacy for de Lassy, who engaged the doctor to execute the crime.

In this case, which attracted worldwide attention, representatives of the highest society; millionaires, past and present; a specialist of al kinds, the charlatan and quack, Panchenko; poor hangers-on, like the star witness Petropavlovsky, without whose evidence the crime would have remained a secret just like Panchenko’s former crimes; Mme. Murarvieva, who is supposed to have exerted a hypnotic influence over Panchenko; the widow of the murdered man, who was a music hall singer before she married him; all sorts of lackeys, chambermaids, butlers – all these are mixed here as in one of Dostoyevsky’s great crime novels. But of all the characters, small and large, implicated in this crime drama, the figure of the patriarchal looking Dr. Panchenko, who poisoned his patients under the guise of relieving their suffering, who performed criminal operations, and who helped people to commit suicide, stand out in boldest relief.

Panchenko was convicted on Thursday and sentenced to fifteen years’ imprisonment, which his advanced age will make a life sentence. De Lassy was sentenced for life. Mme. Muravieva was acquitted.

Here’s an idea: a Law & Order spin-off called Law & Order: 1911. Each season can increase the subtitle by one year. The show would take place in that year, and feature crimes ripped from that year’s headlines.

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Written by David

February 15th, 2011 at 10:00 am

Posted in True Crime

Shall The Plea Of Insanity Be Abolished?

From February 12, 1911

SHALL THE PLEA OF INSANITY BE ABOLISHED?

SHALL THE PLEA OF INSANITY BE ABOLISHED? How Far Expert Medical Testimony Should Figure in Court Proceedings and What Is Needed to Remedy Present Conditions Discussed by Prominent Authorities. (PDF)

In 1906, architect Stanford White was murdered by Harry Kendall Thaw, who was later found not guilty by reason of insanity. In another more recent case, a jury found a man sane, despite testimony by several psychologists who all agreed that he was insane. These high profile cases lead the Times Magazine to ponder the validity of the insanity plea as it was in 1911.

Two viewpoints are presented. In one corner is John Brooks Leavitt, prominent New York attorney. In the other corner, Carlos Frederick MacDonald, the psychiatrist who examined President McKinley’s assassin, Leon Czolgosz (you get bonus points if you were able to recall that name before you read it, and you get more bonus points if you can pronounce Czolgosz).

A few weeks ago, Jared Loughner tried to kill his Congresswoman in Tucson, taking out several bystanders in the process. There is speculation that his defense may try an insanity plea. So the Times has revisited the subject in an online debate featuring six experts. You can read the introduction to the debate here, or just jump right in to the discussion.

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Written by David

February 10th, 2011 at 9:30 am

Posted in True Crime

Why People Disappear — Some Famous Cases

From February 5, 1911

WHY PEOPLE DISAPPEAR -- SOME FAMOUS CASES

WHY PEOPLE DISAPPEAR — SOME FAMOUS CASES: Detectives Make Some Surprising Statements About the Causes — Kidnapping a Rarity, but There Are Some Notable Instances — The Vanishing of Adele Boas. (PDF)

With several cable networks trying to fill 24 hours of news, it sometimes feels like we hear about missing person cases all the time. We have missing kids on milk cartons, the evening news, and TV shows about unsolved crimes. There’s even a prime time drama called Without A Trace that follows a Missing Persons investigation unit. But 100 years ago, people thought disappearances were fairly rare, according to this article. Not so, the reporter learned.

Nothing more common is known to the police or the detective agencies. It is commoner than pocket-picking and not much more exceptional than intoxication. So common is it that at Police Headquarters there is a squad, working the usual number of hours per day, known as the “Disappearance Squad,” and headed by a Police Lieutenant. It consists of about eight men, who work daily on the cases of mysterious disappearance reported to Centre Street. They are headed by Lieut. Finn, an expert on disappearances.

So common is it that the Pinkerton Detective Agency keeps a collection of scraps on “Missing Persons.” Looking over its collection, one is forced to the conclusion that somebody disappears every day. It must be remembered, too, that this collection includes only cases where there is something sufficiently interesting about the disappearance to get it in the newspapers.

So common is it that whenever some dismembered body is found in a river or in a trunk, scores of people shoot up all over the country, identifying the body as that of their lost daughter or sister, who, up to that time, nobody knew had disappeared.

The article goes on to describe several famous cases of disappearances, and explores some of the reasons people go missing.

Update: I thought it might be prudent to add some links to resources about currently missing people. CNN’s Nancy Grace is running a series about 50 missing people profiled over 50 days. The FBI has a list of missing people they’d like you to be aware of. And the NYPD has a similar list broken down by borough.

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Written by David

February 3rd, 2011 at 11:51 am

Posted in True Crime

A County Where Selling Votes Is Universal

From January 15, 1911

A COUNTY WHERE SELLING VOTES IS UNIVERSAL

A COUNTY WHERE SELLING VOTES IS UNIVERSAL: Even the Women of Adams County, Ohio, Market the Ballots of Their Husbands, Sons and Sweethearts — A Minister Among the Guilty. (PDF)

This scandal is shocking enough that I’m surprised it doesn’t come up during election years. It’s a small but ugly anecdote in American history, and I can find very little mention of it online. For the most part it seems to have been swept under the rug.

For decades, the nice people of Adams County, Ohio openly sold their votes to the highest bidder.

The air in Adams County is clean and bracing. The stars shine larger there in the frosty Winter nights than they do in the cities. Men live close to the soil. It seems like a place set apart for the good things in life, but it is the rottenest borough in the civilized world.

The country folk there are simple. The men wear faded blue shirts, felt boots, and slouch hats. They drive little box buggies through the country. They look innocent. But they do like to boodle

Elections were clean in the county until thirty years ago when “Calico Charley” Foster ran for Governor. He sent agents through the county buying votes. The traffic was a secret one then, done in whispers and in the dark. Votes sold for $1.

Elections came and were bought. The citizens had a taste of boodle money and they liked it. In the 80s elections became more openly corrupt. Politicians still talk about the “good times” of the 1887 election. That year Ed P. Leedom and Ed Silcutt, two Federal office holders, came from Washington with a carpet bag full of bank notes. Thirty thousand dollars was spent to carry Adams County Democratic that year…

The stories of past campaigns are told, with names, by the actors in them. The stories, for pure civic turpitude, would make a burglar turn pale with envy, but the matter of fact way in which they are related is astounding. One of these citizens who unblushingly tells of his boodle experience is perhaps the wealthiest man in the county. he is certainly the most influential. He was willing to talk if his name were not used.

“Frequently I handle $16,000 in an election,” he said coolly. “It is the only way you can carry an election here. I back candidates as other men back racehorses. It’s fun to win. Wrong? It is the only way, I tell you. The voters demand money. They won’t vote unless they get it.”

In a town where that’s the norm, reaching voting age was like hitting the jackpot:

One of the leaders in the vote-buying movement [says], “Adams County people look upon the matter of buying and selling votes as a business proposition. The average boy waits patiently until he is 21. He knows that after he has become of age he will be able to get sufficient money every year from the party workers to buy his Fall suit. He does not lie, steal, gamble or drink to a greater extent than the boy of the city. His vices are few.

“He knows that he can sell his votes and still keep his position in society. But he also knows that if he breaks other laws he will be ostracized. He takes money from the election worker without a quiver of conscience and takes a prominent part in the next prayer meeting following election day.”

The man who finally blew the whistle was a federal judge named Blair. He had served as Chairman of the county’s Democratic and Republican committees, and he quietly watched this go on for a long time. He even bought votes himself. But at the end of 1910, he convened a Grand Jury to finally put an end to Adams County’s vote sale.

“I have seen the Mayor of West Union, the prosecuting attorney, and other officials watch a farmer’s vote auctioned. He stood on a soap box in the Public Square and the politicians bid against one another.

“When I was Chairman of the Democratic Committee frequently we made agreements to have clean elections. But, while we might have one clean election, the boodlers would kick over the traces the next year.

“These people down here, many of them, do not realize they are doing wrong when they sell their votes. It is a custom. They won’t go to the polls unless they are paid.

“When I was a young fellow, anxious to get ahead, I bought some votes. But I always felt mean when I did it, and I quit. I made up my mind I would break up the practice, and I’m going to if I have to disfranchise every voter in the county.”

Judge Blair put a notice in the newspaper encouraging people to confess voluntarily in order to avoid jail when they are eventually discovered anyway. People came by the hundreds, hoping that they might be able to just pay a small fine and keep their bribe money. As many as 180 indictments were brought in a single day, and the final number totaled more than 1,000.

That’s more than 1,000 people in a single county indicted for selling their votes. And yet today, with all the stories in the news every election cycle about voter fraud and disenfranchisement, I’ve never heard about this incident before.

Scandalous.

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Written by David

January 14th, 2011 at 9:00 am

Strangest Poison Mystery In Criminal Annals

From January 15, 1911

STRANGEST POISON MYSTERY IN CRIMINAL ANNALS

STRANGEST POISON MYSTERY IN CRIMINAL ANNALS: The Elosser Case in Cumberland, Md., Makes a Commonplace Little City Memorable Among the Records of Unsolved Murder Cases. (PDF)

It’s quite a whodunnit. See if you can figure it out. Charles Twigg and Grace Elosser were, by all accounts, in love. They were to be married on New Year’s Day. But the night before the wedding, they were both found dead.

“Charlie is the best man that ever lived,” she said to an intimate friend on the morning of the day of her death. “And I am the happiest girl in the world to get such a treasure.”

Such was Grace Elosser as she appeared to friends and acquaintances within two hours just preceding her mysterious death.

And a fitting complement to this attractive girl was the young man to whom she was so soon to be wedded, Charles E. Twigg. Losing his heart to her in the Indian Summer of the last Autumn, his impetuous wooing soon won her for himself.

So what happened? How, a day before the wedding, did they both end up dead? Let’s look at the sequence of events:

[Twigg] arrived in Cumberland shortly after noon that 31st day of December. And it is now that the mystery commences, a mystery so baffling that now, after the lapse of nearly a fortnight, the officials of Cumberland are compelled to admit they are as much in the dark as they were when they first grappled with the case.

When he reached Cumberland, he, with all the ardor of a young and eager lover, sought his sweetheart over the telephone. She laughingly told him that she was up to her eyes in the work of preparation for their marriage on the next day, and did not have a moment’s time for him that afternoon. Upon which Twigg, as any devoted lover might do, begged for a quarter hour’s interview. Of course the sweetheart could not resist such importunity — and Twigg hurried up to the Elosser home.

All the evidence goes to show that Miss Grace Elosser and Twigg acted on that meeting a short hour before their tragic deaths just as two fond lovers would act in meeting the day before their nuptials.

The family accorded them the parlor and left them to themselves. In half an hour Mrs. Elosser entered upon them, apologizing for her intrusion by explaining that the seamstress who was engaged on Grace’s wedding dress desired to speak with her over the telephone. Twigg, during Grace’s absence at the wire, engaged Mrs. Elosser in such airy and light talk as a young man would indulge in with his prospective mother-in-law when his mind was filled with thoughts of the important event of the next day. When Grace returned, Mrs. Elosser left, playfully shaking her finger at the couple as they sat cosily on the divan and warning them that time was too precious to spend in loverlike endearments when there was so much in the way of preparation for the wedding.

That was the last seen in life of Grace Elosser or Charles Twigg. Nearly an hour later Mrs. Elosser, desiring to know what definite arrangements the couple had determined on in the matter of their wedding tour, went to the door of the parlor and softly knocked.

“I knocked on the door with a smile on my face, said Mrs. Elosser to the representative of The Times, “for when I had been in the parlor before both Grace and Charlie Twigg seemed so supremely happy that I could not but smile at the recollection of it. I gave a short knock and entered without waiting a reply. The doorway though which I entered is on the same wall as that against which was the sofa whereon Grace and Charlie sat. I did not fully enter the room, but merely thrust in my head, saying as I did so, ‘Grace, dear, I want to ask you something. You won’t mind my coming in, will you?’

“And then I stopped. There was a silence in the room, a queer, strange silence. Looking towards the sofa I saw the odd, strange attitudes of my daughter and her betrothed. It looked as though they had fallen asleep, but in a most grotesque position.

“Mr. Twigg’s head had fallen over on Grace’s shoulder, while her head was thrown back against the wall with the face turned upward. Their hands were tightly clasped. Grace’s other hand hung down by the side of the sofa, listless and dead.”

Ghastly. So what happened? The options were a double-suicide, or a murder-suicide, or perhaps a double-murder. An autopsy showed poison in their systems. They both seemed so happy that suicide made little sense. So who could have done it? And how? Charlie had once fancied Grace’s younger sister, May. Could she have poisoned them, perhaps out of jealousy?

Was the poison in their wine? Charlie had been chewing gum. Perhaps it was poisoned, and he inadvertently spread the poison with his kiss.

A few weeks after this article was published, the culprit was discovered:

A doctor named Littlefield heard that there was a small gas stove in the parlor in which the bodies were found. He was studying carbon monoxide poisoning and suspected that this might have been the culprit. So to test his theory, a cat was locked in a box, and the box was put on the sofa. Everything in the room was set as it was when the couple died, and then the door to the room was closed.

Ninety minutes later — the same amount of time the couple was alone in the room — the door was reopened and the cat was found dead. The experiment was repeated, with the same conclusion.

In February, State’s Attorney Jack Robb announced that no particular person was believed to be responsible for their deaths.

Perhaps now would be a good time to check the battery on your carbon monoxide alarm.

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Written by David

January 13th, 2011 at 10:00 am

Posted in True Crime

The Woman, The Banana Peel And The Damage Suits

From November 27, 1910

THE WOMAN, THE BANANA PEEL AND THE DAMAGE SUITS

THE WOMAN, THE BANANA PEEL AND THE DAMAGE SUITS: Mrs. Anna H. Sturla, Who Has Mad a High Record for Accident Cases, Will Have to Prove to the Court She Hasn’t Been Faking. (PDF)

Here we have a detailed accounting of each instance in which Anna H. Sturla reached a monetary settlement after a slip-and-fall “accident.” There were so many instances, it looks like greed got the best of her as she pulled this scam over and over until she was eventually caught.

I love how the article pits Sturla against her mighty foe, banana peels:

She was in the ladies’ cabin [of a ferryboat], she said, when a banana peel, that old bête noir of hers, again tricked her and caused her to fall on the floor.

She maintained that her mishap was due to a small paper bag, from one corner of which protruded the fatal banana peel…

The company paid her $150.

Not six months went by after that before Mrs. Sturla was once more in trouble with these arch-foes of hers, banana peels. One of these slippery gentry, according to her, was soon all ready for her on a boat of the Union Ferry Company, proceeding to the foot of Futon Street, Brooklyn. As the boat was entering the slip the miserable peel saw its chance, got under one of Mrs. Sturla’s feet, and caused her to fall to the deck.

She got $200…

Fifteen days later — March 19, 1908 — she again came to the fore with a claim for injuries in an accident. This time the culprit, she averred, was the Lehigh Valley Railroad. According to her story, she was riding one of its trains, bound for Buffalo, when she slipped on something (she gave those lurking enemies of hers, bananas, the benefit of the doubt) and fell forward. After being helped to her feet by a male passenger she saw him, she said, pick up some — banana peels!

Yes, there they were, ever vigilant, ever on the alert to trip her…

It might be assumed that by this time those grim old foes of hers, banana peels — that Yellow Peril of her life! — would have decided to rest on their laurels and persecute her no more.

Far from it!

One of them, according to her, was in her path on May 19th, 1908 — only eight days after her Fort Lee Ferry mishap — while she was shopping in the store of R. H. Macy & Co. It threw her, as usual. She was taken to the Herald Square Hotel, close by, and stayed there a couple of days. The owners of the store settled with her for $150.

Banana peels, of course, are also the scourge of many cartoon characters and vaudeville performers.
Do kids today even know that banana peels are hilarious?

I always thought banana peels were used as props to slip on in old comedy routines because they were cheap and easily obtained. But it turns out that banana peels on the sidewalk were a real problem at the turn of the last century.

Today, slip and fall insurance scams are frequently caught on video, so don’t even think about it.

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Written by David

November 26th, 2010 at 9:30 am

Posted in Humor,True Crime

Girl Terrorist’s Escape From A Russian Prison

From November 13, 1910

GIRL TERRORISTS ESCAPE FROM A RUSSIAN PRISON

GIRL TERRORIST’S ESCAPE FROM A RUSSIAN PRISON: A Fellow-Prisoner Writes the Thrilling Story of Tolya Rogozinnikova’s Flight and Subsequent Execution (PDF)

This is an interesting story, and I can find almost no information about it online apart from this article and a couple of passing mentions in books about historic terrorism and Russian history. 21 year old Tolya Rogozinnikova was apparently a member of the Socialist Revolutionary Party. In 1907, she broke out of the prison where she was being held (I’m not sure for what), strapped 13 pounds of nitroglycerine to her body, and set out to assassinate the St. Petersburg Prison chief. She shot and killed him, but did not get a chance to detonate the explosives. She was eventually tried and executed herself.

This article tells how she initially escaped from prison, written by a woman in a neighboring cell. It’s like the plot of a Soviet thriller. She feigned insanity until she was eventually transferred to the mental asylum, where she talked a nurse into opening a door for her to escape.

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Written by David

November 12th, 2010 at 9:00 am

Posted in Politics,True Crime

From His Cell Jesse Pomeroy Pleads For Clemency

From October 30, 1910

FROM HIS CELL JESSE POMEROY PLEADS FOR CLEMENCY

FROM HIS CELL JESSE POMEROY PLEADS FOR CLEMENCY: Only “Solitary” in Massachusetts Tells the Story of His Thirty-four-year Confinement — The Unusual Punishment of an Extraordinary Crime. (PDF)

In 1874, a 14 year old boy named Jesse Pomeroy was arrested for murder, denied counsel at trial, convicted, and sentenced to death by hanging. But Massachusetts Governor William Gaston refused to sign the death warrant, and eventually the sentence was commuted to life in prison in solitary confinement.

At nearly 52 years old, Pomeroy describes for the New York Times Sunday Magazine what life is like in solitary confinement and pleads for better conditions:

Dear Sir:

Having received the paper to write, I will put down a few particulars of my case in the hope that, as I have been closely confined almost thirty-six years, since I was fourteen years old, I may, at this date, be allowed a few privileges…

[For years I was allowed privileges for good behavior.] Now this prisoner’s life is always the same, year in, year out. I have no prospect of privileges by good conduct, which has been good many years, as I told you.

Besides this, I am to-day worse off as to light, air, human society and opportunity to see officials, than I was in 1875-1895.

The sentence as to-day carried out is harsher, more oppressive than in those nineteen years; but it is the same sentence as in 1876.

My windows are opaque glass cutting off much light.

I ask clear glass, as I always did have.

No sunshine reaches into my cell. I always had a sunny room, the windows being 33 in. by 23 in.

My room to-day has the ventilation closed up, contrary to law, from no fault of mine.

There was no closed blank door on my cell to 1895, because my sentence was hardship enough, and there was no idea of denying me a chance to see a soul.

Since 1895 that closed door has been illegally shut on me, and Governor Douglas ordered it open for a little while in the daytime, so that I might have a little air.

It is shut eighteen hours a day and ought to be taken off, being contrary to my sentence.

Very seldom can I see any State House officials.

Very seldom can I obtain from them an answer to any letter that I write.

Except once or twice a year they do not come near me.

Exercise, as ordered by Governor Ames, is refused to me.

I respectfully suggest that this prisoner may have some encouragement in doing well. He is no worse than his neighbors. Kindness is never lost on anyone, and this prisoner has all his life shown himself responsive to kind treatment. Although I have made some errors here, I have never once been violent or dangerous.

No officer has ever accused me of it. The register shows the fact, as I say, yet the newspapers have been full of yarns about me, as, for instance, that I tried to kill the warden, and so was shut up in a cell (New York World, 1889).

I should be allowed to write sixteen letters a year, the rule. I can write but twelve.

Upon reflection, I think I have clearly and fully stated the case as I view it. I would do well if given an opportunity.

Actually, that wasn’t as bad as I expected it to be. For comparison, you should check out this 2006 series from NPR about life in solitary confinement.

In 1917, Pomeroy’s sentence was eventually commuted and, while he wasn’t pardoned, he was afforded the same privileges as other prisoners. In 1932, at the age of 72, he died in a hospital for the criminally insane.

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Written by David

October 29th, 2010 at 9:30 am

Posted in True Crime