Murder in White Pine

Murder in White Pine

Wong Fong knew he would never see his Chinese homeland again — he was going to die in prison. When his mugshot photos were taken, in 1908, he’d been incarcerated in the Nevada State Prison for more than 13 years for murder. In his front view photo he looks stoic but in the side view he looks downcast, sad and ashamed.

The murder occurred on October 4, 1894, in White Pine County in eastern Nevada. Wong (called “George Fong” in his court case) was charged with shooting another Chinese man, Hing Lee, with a pistol and killing him “without authority of law and with malice aforethought” according to the judgment of the Nevada Supreme Court.

Wong pleaded not guilty but the jury found him guilty. Since it was decided that the crime was carried out with malice aforethought and that Wong was sane at the time of the shooting, he was convicted of 1st degree murder in December 1894. He was sentenced to death.

His attorneys appealed the conviction and a new trial was ordered for Wong on procedural grounds. But on May 28, 1895, he withdrew his plea of not guilty and entered a guilty plea. He said he was changing his plea because he was in constant fear of his countrymen, fellow prisoners who were held with him in the jail in Ely, Nevada. He claimed they were not friendly towards him, wanted to do him bodily harm and he thought it would be safer in the state prison.

Newspapers described the victim as a “highbinder tong man,” an enforcer or assassin, literally a “hatchet man,” for a “Tong”— Chinese secret societies associated with underworld activity, similar to the Italian Mafia in the twentieth century. A highbinder, it was said, preferred a sword, knife, dagger or club to a gun.

Wars between various Tongs broke out frequently on the West Coast in the late nineteenth century, primarily in San Francisco. However it seems unlikely that members of two warring Tongs would have lived in sparsely populated White Pine County. It’s possible that the murdered man was a Tong member who, while passing through White Pine, got into a disagreement that led to the shooting. However it was not reported that Wong was part of a Tong, so why would an elderly man who worked as a cook pick a fight with a gangster?

With his guilty plea at the second trial, Wong received a new sentence — life imprisonment, rather than death. He was transferred to the Nevada State Prison in Carson City. He was reported to be 75 years old at the start of his incarceration in 1895, however his prison card lists his age as 75 in 1908.

Wong Fong_full front_marked

Wong Fong, Bertillon prison card (front). Collection of the author.

He achieved a peculiar sort of fame in the state and it was reported in the Nevada newspapers when Wong became sick and was on the verge of death. It may be that people suspected he wasn’t guilty or there was sympathy for an old man who had spent the last 20 years of his life a prisoner.

Wong lived until October 26, 1915, when he died, reportedly at the age of 96. He was buried in the cemetery on the prison grounds.

Wong Fong death cert

Death certificate of Wong Fong, Nevada Department of Health, Carson City, Nevada.

Female Firebug

Female Firebug

On the night of December 10, 1907, an unoccupied apartment in a multi-family building at 114 Wyckoff Street was on fire. Wyckoff Street is in the heart of one of the most populous tenement districts in one America’s largest cities — Brooklyn, New York.

Heat from fire melted the water pipes, causing water to drip through the ceiling of the apartment below. The sound of dripping water awakened the children sleeping in the apartment and an alarm went out. The fire department put out the blaze before anyone was injured.

An examination by the new assistant fire marshal, Tom Brophy, revealed that someone had set the apartment on fire. Oil soaked newspapers, wood and furniture were strewn around the apartment, along with “seven-hour candles” that had been placed in strategic locations and lit. The windows had been covered with blankets to obscure the blaze and cracks in doors and windows were stuffed with cotton to keep smoke from escaping.

Ackerly home after fire

News photographs of damage to the Ackerly apartment. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, January 24, 1908.

Brophy recognized the name of the renter of the apartment that had burned — Annie Ackerly. He recalled that Annie had collected insurance money from an earlier Brooklyn apartment fire in another building. He also remembered that Mrs. Ackerly had a boarder who lived in her former apartment, an old veteran with a wooden leg. Her insurance claim included the man’s wooden leg, valued at $60, even though she had booted him (and his leg) out of her apartment before the fire occurred, so obviously the leg hadn’t burned.

The previous fire was also judged to have been arson. Annie accused a man named Thompson of “burning her out.” Thompson was arrested but never charged with anything.

With two apartment fires and a false insurance claim to her name, Brophy’s suspicions of Annie were aroused.

The young fire marshal traced Annie and her two young sons to her mother’s home in nearby Port Jefferson. Port Jefferson is in Suffolk county and he knew he needed to get her back to Kings County, where Brooklyn is located, in order to investigate and possibly arrest her.

“Has Thompson set my house on fire again?” she asked, after being informed that her apartment had burned. Brophy told her that he suspected the fire was arson and he wanted her help in locating Thompson. He asked her to accompany him back to Brooklyn, which she did.

Back in Brooklyn a $2000 insurance policy for the Ackerly residence was discovered hidden in the shirt of one of Annie’s sons, along with a damning written inventory of her losses from the Wyckoff Street fire. She was arrested and charged with arson.

Mrs. Anna Ackerley (sic) was convicted of arson yesterday in the County Court. She is the first woman to be convicted in Brooklyn of such a crime in more than a quarter of a century. Mrs. Ackerley, who is a handsome woman, had been separated from her husband for several years. She has two sons. As a penalty for the crime of which she has been convicted she may be sentenced to the state prison for fifteen years.

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, January 24, 1908

Annie Ackerly_front_marked

Annie Ackerly, Bertillon card (front), Auburn State Prison. Collection of the author.

Known locally as the “Woman with Iron Nerve,” Annie was believed to be one of the most desperate firebugs ever captured by the Brooklyn Fire Department. She was convicted of 3rd degree arson and, due to her callous disregard for the lives of her neighbors, sentenced to a minimum of 14 years in Auburn State Prison.

Interesting note: The Wyckoff Street apartment building in Brooklyn where Annie set her fire is still standing and has a 2017 value of over $3,500,000.

Other Men’s Wives

Other Men’s Wives

Joseph Evans was a matrimonially challenged man. His first wife, Mary Jane, died of blood poisoning in 1899, leaving him with three sons under the age of nine. Joseph needed to find a woman to care for him and his children.

Three years later Joseph married 35-year-old Rebecca Kane and the family moved into a house in Cambridge, Massachusetts. All seemed to be well, except for the fact that Rebecca Kane was actually Rebecca Burnham, wife of William Burnham of Reading, Massachusetts, and mother of two sons with William.

Due to disability and age — he was 73 — William had not worked for years, so the townspeople of Reading provided financial support to the family. Rebecca saved $1200 of this money and handed the cash over to Joseph Evans, who briefly boarded at the Burnham home. Joseph used the money to set himself up in the furniture moving business, buying horses, wagons and “other accoutrements.”

Using their new horses and wagons, Joseph and Rebecca moved most of the Burnham furniture and belongings, including William’s overcoat, to their Cambridge home. The large expenditures for the moving business brought Joseph, who was not a wealthy man, to the attention of the police. On February 20, 1904, the couple were arrested and charged with bigamy.

Joseph claimed he didn’t realize Rebecca was already married. Rebecca claimed William had a first wife still living, so her marriage to him wasn’t valid. Local sympathy was with William and the Burnham sons.

The bigamy charges were eventually dropped. Presumably Rebecca returned to William, along with their furniture and his overcoat. Joseph needed to find another wife.

Wouldn’t you think Joseph would carefully vet the marital status of the next woman with whom he lived? Unfortunately he didn’t, and a year and a half later he found himself in police custody again. This time the charge was murder.

On the evening of Tuesday, August 1, 1905, Joseph fatally shot a private detective named George Frazer in the hallway of his Cambridge home. A Rhode Island man, Allan J. Barber, hired Frazer to locate his wife, Gertrude. And locate her he did — in the home of Joseph Evans. The story was that she was the Evans family’s “housekeeper.” Allan and the local police wisely remained outside while Detective Frazer entered the Evans home alone.

I bought the pistol to protect myself. I had no idea who the visitors were. I had my children and property to protect, and feared that burglars were attempting to break into my home.”

— Joseph Evans, quoted in the Fitchburg Sentinel, August 3, 1905

Joseph was tried for murder and acquitted on the grounds that he was defending his home against unwanted intrusion.

Allan Barber sued his wife for divorce in November 1905, alleging adultery, though no one was named in his petition. Gertrude sued her husband for non-support and sought $5000 in alimony.

On February 9, 1907 Joseph Evans and Gertrude Hemenway Barber were married in Arlington, Massachusetts. Hopefully they lived homicide-free and happily ever after and Joseph never needed to find another wife.

Featured photo: Joseph Evans, carte de visite mugshot (front and back of card). Collection of the author.

Escape Tunnel

Escape Tunnel

Despite growing up in a law-abiding family, Hiram Lepper was a small-time crook that spent most of his life in prison. His story would be relegated to the scrap heap of crime history if it weren’t for the fact that he made two daring escapes from the Federal Penitentiary in Atlanta, Georgia.

Born in 1866 in Ionia, Michigan, Hiram had one honest occupation — in 1888 he worked as a clerk for a hardware company in Grand Rapids. His first arrest came in 1893 in Kalamazoo, Michigan, for selling stolen silk handkerchiefs while also carrying a razor and a revolver in his pockets.

More arrests and imprisonments followed, mostly for a type of counterfeiting called “raising” in which bills of a lower denomination were altered to look as if they had a higher value. He also carried out robberies, including one of a priest, to obtain the cash for counterfeiting. Between 1897 and 1913 he was rarely out of prison, earning sentences in Michigan State Prison, Joliet Prison in Illinois, and the federal penitentiaries in Atlanta, Georgia and Leavenworth, Kansas. He tended to be an uncooperative prisoner — talking back, refusing to obey orders, breaking things and making escape attempts — so he generally served his full time.

Hiram Lepper_Leavenworth

Inmate prison photos (intake) of Hiram Lepper, June 10, 1911, Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary. Collection of NARA-Kansas City.

In May 1914 Hiram was incarcerated for a third stretch in the federal prison in Atlanta. He and another prisoner escaped from the tuberculosis camp, in late December 1914, by scaling the prison wall with an improvised ladder. He was recaptured in Milwaukee, Wisconsin the following May after stealing $14 from his landlady’s daughter and raising the bills from $1 to $20. He was returned to the penitentiary.

His next escape attempt was a risky scheme that took time to implement. It also required planning and hard work.

In December 1923, four prisoners, including Hiram, escaped through a tunnel barely wide enough for one man. The tunnel led from a tubercular tent on the prison grounds that had housed him and another escapee, Frank Haynes, to a point fifty feet beyond the stone wall surrounding the prison.

Prison officials believed that Lepper and Haynes dug the tunnel using only a small shovel and a miner’s lantern. It had taken them at least two months to excavate it. The men clandestinely carried the loose gravel and dirt they removed to a point 75 feet away from their tent. The entrance was through a trap door in the wooden floor of the tent. Below the trap door was a drop of eight feet into the tunnel. Three of the escapees, including Hiram, were traced to Indiana, but there the trail went cold.

Lepper news clip

News clipping from the Altoona Tribune, Altoona, Pennsylvania, Sat., Feb. 2, 1924.

Hiram Lepper was recaptured in Baltimore after five weeks on the lam. Though he requested parole in 1930, it wasn’t granted. He died of a heart attack in the federal penitentiary in Atlanta on February 5, 1938, having spent more than half his life in prison. His family brought his body home to Michigan for burial.

Featured photo: 1897 carte de visite mugshot, front and back, of Hiram Lepper. Collection of the author.

First Lady of San Quentin

First Lady of San Quentin

She was prone to episodes of violence. Very little is known of her early life, including her birth name. Born in Ireland in the 1840s when the potato famine reached its deadly pinnacle, she immigrated to America and ended up in California. The name she became infamous by was “Mary Von.”

Mary was first mentioned in the news in December 1884 when she shot a man named Captain L. Haight in San Francisco. At the time she lived at 4 Eddy place and worked as a dress cutter. She and her victim quarreled after he tried to enter her rooms uninvited. Captain Haight recovered from the wound and Mary pleaded guilty to assault with a deadly weapon. She was sentenced to a year in San Quentin Prison.

Mary claimed to have been married to a German nobleman by the name of Von Hammerschimdt and at the time of her first incarceration she was using the surname Hammerschmidt or Hammersmith. After her release from prison, in February 1886, she dropped Hammerschmidt and began going by the name Dr. Mary Von.

At this point Mary’s story takes a peculiar turn. She took out a string of advertisements in the Oakland Tribune, starting in late September 1886, offering her services as a natural or “faith” healer. She claimed to be able to cure numerous illnesses using her mind, with a special talent for women’s diseases. It’s impossible to know if Mary truly believed she had mental healing powers or if she was just another of the quacks and con artists roaming around the Bay Area in search of suckers to swindle.

Mary Von ad

Mary Von’s advertisement in the Oakland Tribune, Oakland, California, Wed., Nov. 3, 1886.

Evidently she soon lost interest in the faith-healing field and began to explore other career options. Through advertisements taken out in a “matrimonial” newspaper in the spring of 1887, she met a New Zealand man named George Wesley Bishop. Bishop had just arrived in San Francisco for business and was reputed to be wealthy. He planned to stay awhile.

Bishop was looking for steady female companionship, despite being a married man, so he and Mary set up housekeeping together, with Bishop footing the bill. He rented a house on Powell Street and the couple moved in. He bought expensive gifts for Mary and a lot of nice furniture for the house. Mary claimed that she and Bishop were married, however Bishop was under no such illusion.

It only took a month for things to turn sour — Bishop decided Mary was only in the arrangement for his money — something he was rapidly running out of. He moved out of the house and demanded the furniture be returned. A lawsuit ensued in which Mary said her heart had been broken and, as consolation, she should get to keep the furniture. Bishop won the lawsuit. Recognizing that Mary was unstable, he decided he needed to return to New Zealand — the sooner the better.

Hearing Bishop was leaving town before she’d had time to appeal the court’s decision, Mary took matters into her own hands. Early on the morning of July 1, 1887, a woman described by witnesses as tall, portly and overdressed, waited near the gangplank of the R.M.S. Alameda at the Oceanic Dock in San Francisco — it was Mary Von and she had a gun hidden in her shawl.

Bishop arrived at the dock in the early afternoon and headed up the gangplank. Mary followed him onboard and without discussion she shot him in the back. A nearby passenger knocked the gun from her hand before she was able to fire a second time. Initially it was thought that Bishop would recover, but on July 3rd he died. Mary claimed she only meant to threaten him, not to murder him.

Mary was tried and convicted of first-degree murder and given a life sentence at San Quentin. She arrived at the prison on October 18, 1887. The following year she assaulted the matron of the female department with an iron stove lifter. Luckily for all, the matron survived.

Mary Von was the first woman photographed at San Quentin when prison officials began taking mugshots of prisoners in the late 1890s. Incarcerated there for 26 years, she was finally paroled in June 1911. Because the world had changed so much in the intervening years and because she had no friends or family left on the outside, Mary voluntarily returned to San Quentin the following year and died in the prison on February 16, 1913. She was buried in a San Rafael potter’s field, precise location unknown.

Featured photo: Mary Von, San Quentin Prison Registers, Inmate Photographs and Mug Books. California State Archives, Sacramento, California.

Cupid Pleaded

Cupid Pleaded

Joseph Kanefsky_back_markedPauline Wernovsky had been waiting a long time to marry her sweetheart. In fact she’d been waiting two and a half years for her fiancée, Joseph Kanefsky, to get out of Holmesburg Prison in Philadelphia and he’d finally been released after serving time for burglary. But on January 20, 1937, he and two prisoners and their girlfriends were charged with smuggling narcotics into the prison. Instead of marrying Pauline it looked like Kanefsky was headed back to the slammer.

Judge Parry, however, was sympathetic to Pauline plight. The persuasive young woman told him she would personally make sure her fiancée stayed straight, so he allowed Kanefsky to sign a $2000 bond, gave him two years probation and the couple were married before a magistrate then and there. As one newspaper put it, “Cupid pleaded successfully in Philadelphia Quarter Sessions Court for Joseph Kanefsky.”

The other four people arrested for dope smuggling were convicted of the charge.

Kanefsky, alias Joe Neff, has a self-assured look in his mugshot. His stylish hat is tipped at a rakish angle and his yellow-blue eyes have an intense gaze. He has just a hint of a smile playing on his lips. It’s as though he already knows that his pretty, dark-haired girlfriend is going to play the judge for a chump — his freedom to follow.

Two and a half years later, in September 1939, Pauline and Joe were in front of a different judge, charged with illegal possession and use of narcotics. They were arrested while sitting in an automobile parked on a Philadelphia street and detectives testified they found a hypodermic needle and morphine in the car. Having previously played Joe’s “get out of jail free” card, both were sentenced to the Philadelphia House of Correction.

In May 1944 Kanefsky was in trouble again when he was caught trying to use prescription blanks stolen from a South Philadelphia physician’s office to obtain narcotics. He was charged with forgery and drug addiction.

Joe’s final reported arrest came on September 21, 1951 in New York City.

The detectives said they had spent some time watching him stroll along Broadway looking for customers. They said that when he was arrested a man who was walking along with him escaped.

The Philadelphia Inquirer, September 22, 1951

Detectives found $329, a capsule of opium and 15 envelopes of heroin in Joseph Kanefsky’s pockets. He was charged him with possession and suspicion of selling illegal drugs.

Featured photo: Philadelphia Bureau of Police mugshot of Joseph Kanefsky taken on January 20, 1937. Collection of the author.

Bury Freddie There

Bury Freddie There

Justice was sometimes meted out in an arbitrary and indiscriminate fashion, or so it seemed in October 1899 when Fred Mason was given a five-year sentence to Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary. Jewelry and “trinkets” belonging to a white man, J. M. Golledge, were apparently found in Fred’s possession. He claimed the actual thief was a man named George Carpenter however he pleaded guilty to burglary. He was probably hoping that, given his youth, Judge Townsend of Chickasha, Indian Territory, would be lenient. Clearly Fred misjudged the judge.

Fred arrived at Leavenworth on October 9, 1899. He was 16-years-old, 5 foot 6 inches tall and weighed 130 pounds. Born in Texas, Fred had no education and left home at the age of 12. Prior to prison he worked as a hotel waiter and a bootblack.

During his year and a half stay at Leavenworth he was put into solitary confinement 11 times for talking (which was never allowed), laughing, using foul language, marching out of step and loafing when he was supposed to be working. Given that Leavenworth housed some of the hardest criminals in America, it’s impossible not to wonder if Fred’s tendency to break the rules wasn’t actually a desperate attempt to get himself removed from the rest of the inmate population and, consequently, out of harm’s way.

Fred’s last stay in solitary lasted almost a month, from December 19, 1900, to January 17, 1901. It’s likely that shortly after he got out of solitary he was moved to the hospital because Fred had a serious case of tuberculosis. In fact it’s almost certain that at times when the guards claimed he was avoiding his tasks he was actually too weak to work.

On April 6, 1901, Fred Mason died at the Leavenworth Prison Hospital. His cause of death was listed as “tabes mesenterica,” which, in layman’s terms, means he literally wasted away. An autopsy found that tuberculosis lesions were spread throughout his abdomen — he had probably been unable to eat for weeks, maybe months. His heart was described as “small and flabby” and his aortic valve was narrowed, probably also a result of his tuberculosis.

The Leavenworth warden, Robert W. McClaughry, told Fred’s mother that her son suffered shortness of breath and had gone deaf before he died. Perhaps trying to ease a mother’s grief over the loss of her only son, he also noted that Fred “did not suffer much pain.” McClaughry had arrived at Leavenworth just three months before Fred Mason became an inmate. A reformer in the field of penal correction, the 60-year-old McClaughry believed that prisons could work to improve their inmate’s lives, not simply punish them. He also introduced Bertillon’s system of cataloging suspects and criminals into the United States and it’s likely that McClaughry initiated the process of taking inmate photos at Leavenworth.

McClaughry was writing to Fred’s mother, in part, because he needed to know what the family wanted done with the body. Rutha Mason wrote back, thanking McClaughry for letting her know right away that her only son had died and for his “kindness to Fred.” She wanted to know if Fred had left any final words for his family. McClaughry wrote back to say that he had been unconscious for three days prior to his death and had been unable to speak.

Mason telegram

Telegram from Ruth Mason to Warden McClaughry, from Fred Mason’s Leavenworth file. Collection of NARA-Kansas City.

The Mason family was too poor to afford to have their son’s body returned to Texas, so his mother requested that prison officials “bury Freddie there.” She mentioned that she had made every effort possible to get him a pardon but had been unsuccessful. The warden reassured her that her son’s grave would be marked with a “neat headstone, so that if any time his friends desire to remove his remains, they can be identified and obtained.”

Currently Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary maintains a cemetery for prisoners but it is not accessible to the public nor does it contain any headstones.

Featured photo: Fred Mason, Leavenworth Penitentiary Inmate Photograph, 1899. Collection of NARA-Kansas city.