A few days before Christmas 1898 a young man wandered into the Greenville Police Station in Jersey City, New Jersey. Though he was sober and appeared to be in his right mind, he told the officers that he could not remember his name or anything about his past. For the time being he was kept at the jail and his description was placed in local newspapers, including those in New York City, in the expectation that someone would read about him and come forward to identify him. Until his name could be established he was dubbed “Mr. Nemo.”
The chief of the Jersey City police made efforts to assist the young fellow by dictating letters for him to write in hopes that he would recall his name when he got to the end and signed the letter. Mr. Nemo came up with a few names but, upon investigation, none of them turned out to be him.
Meanwhile, the roommate of a man named Harold Carpenter had gone missing. Quite a lot of Harold’s clothing was missing too, including several overcoats that he really couldn’t be without since the weather was getting chilly. Harold, the steward of a yacht owned by a wealthy lawyer, lived at Mills House No. 1, an inexpensive residential hotel for working men in New York City’s Greenwich Village. Mills House No. 1 opened in 1897 and was the brainchild of architect Ernest Flagg and philanthropist Darius Ogden Mills. The aim was to empower the residents and discourage them from getting involved in “undesirable” (i.e. criminal) activity.
Harold read the description of Mr. Nemo in the paper. It sounded quite a lot like his missing roommate, Harry Litchfield. In fact he sounded so much like Harry that Harold went to Jersey City to inquire about Mr. Nemo, who had been moved from the police station to the hospital.
When confronted with Harold, Mr. Nemo claimed he had never seen him before, but Harold recognized him — he was his missing roommate, Harry Litchfield. The police chief had accompanied Harold to the hospital and he used a new-fangled device called a telephone to speak to someone at Mills House and get a description of Harold’s roommate. Harry’s description matched Mr. Nemo ‘to a T!’
The jig was up. Harry fell to the floor, writhed around as if in an epileptic seizure. Once the writhing stopped he looked up and said “Why hello Harold! What are you doing here?” Harry’s memory had miraculously returned! Harold replied that he was there to get his clothing back.
The mystery of why Harry, after stealing his roommate’s clothing, had appeared at a New Jersey police station claiming to have lost his memory was never solved. It’s possible he wanted to try out his skills as a con man.
An investigation of Harry revealed that the clothing theft was not his first foray crime. He’d stolen a watch in Boston a month earlier, but his lawyer had taken an interest in him and managed to get him a suspended sentence. However that was not all Harry had done.
The previous year he had worked as the bookkeeper and temporary treasurer for a Boston auction company. One of his duties was to attend auctions and handle the cash paid in when the auction was over. In September 1897 one of the auctions Harry worked made $1000. He took put the money in a bag, took it to the office, place the bag in the vault and then told his employers he needed to go out for a breath of fresh air. However the money was not in the bag—it was hidden in his coat and he walked out with it.
He proceeded to the luxurious Hotel Touraine, booked a room and began entertaining friends. He entertained many, many friends, including a number of stylishly dressed young ladies. One evening Harry and his friends ran up a bill of over $100 in the hotel’s dining room. Harry tried to pay with a check which the manager, who had become suspicious, refused to accept. The police were called and Harry was arrested, identified, and then tried and convicted of embezzlement. He served nine months in the Concord Reformatory in Massachusetts.
Harry was philosophical about life and crime. Regarding his embezzlement arrest, he commented: “A man’s an idiot to work for $12 for a week and be held responsible for thousands. The man who employs such a man is a bigger idiot. I took the stuff, took my chances, was caught red-handed, and here I am. I have had my fun, and I will take my dose of poison without a murmur.”
Featured photo: Harry A. Litchfield, carte de visite mugshot taken Sept. 27, 1897 in Boston, Massachusetts. Collection of the author.