Sheriff James S. Scarborough and his posse of cowboys were out looking a burglar who had blown open the safe of a local store on the night of April 19, 1906, making off with $302.61. Unfortunately, the crime wasn’t discovered until the following day, giving the culprit plenty of time to escape. The posse set out on horseback to search the scrubby grasslands in the vicinity of Dime Box, Texas, where the crime occurred.
The focus of the search was a stranger who’d been hanging around the town of Lexington the previous day, claiming he was an engineer for the Sante Fe Railroad. The last time the man was seen he was headed towards Dime Box late in the evening on the night of the safe cracking.
Scarborough, a well-respected lawman with a fierce crime-fighting reputation, was alone and it was getting dark when he encountered a man walking along the railroad tracks south of Lexington. He ordered the stranger to halt but rather than stopping, the man pulled out a gun and fired three times in rapid succession at the sheriff, missing him with all three shots. Scarborough fired back and he was the better shot. A bullet hit the stranger in the right side of his chest. He fell over and died several minutes later without uttering any last words.
The dead man had more than $340 in cash on him — some of it was the stolen cash — however he carried no identification. He also had six drill bits, a punch, one brace, two large rolls of fuse, twenty-two short pieces of fuse cut ready for use, and a pint flask of powder on him. Clearly the man was a safe blower — a “yegg” — in the parlance of law enforcement.
The sheriff wrote up an exhaustive physical description of the man, along with details about the crime. The information was placed in the local newspapers. To cover all the bases, a local photographer was called to prop up the dead man and photograph him. Though the photo wasn’t published, if someone recognized the man’s description, a copy would be mailed to the person to get a positive I.D. The photographer made some cash too; he sold 24 copies of the photo to the locals at 25 cents a copy.
Leavenworth Penitentiary guard Samuel D. Sample read an article in the Daily Times Herald, a Texas paper, about a professional bank robber who was killed the previous week by the sheriff of Lee County. He thought the description of the dead man matched that of a recently released Leavenworth prisoner, Charles Michael Coleman. Charles had completed a four-year sentence in Leavenworth for post office burglary the previous month. Upon his release he was given a train ticket to Houston, Texas, where his wife lived.
Samuel brought the article to the attention of the Robert McClaughry, Leavenworth’s warden, who got in touch with Sheriff Scarborough. The sheriff sent McClaughry his description of the man (“hair as fine as silk”) and a copy of the dead man’s photo.
The warden wrote back and confirmed the man was ex-Leavenworth inmate, Charles M. Coleman. “Yourself and officers are congratulated on getting rid of this dangerous burglar without he having succeeded in killing any of you before he was killed himself. We had enough of him here and were glad to get rid of him. We also identify in your photograph the coat and shirt that were given to Coleman when he left here.”
Born about 1858 in New York to Irish immigrant parents, Charles left home when he was 17. His first prison sentence —four years in San Quentin—began in 1886 for a burglary he committed in Calaveras County, California. More prison stints followed in the 1890s, when he was incarcerated in the state prisons of Illinois and Wisconsin for burglary and robbery.
Ironically but perhaps not surprisingly, given his talent as a safe blower, Charles was a skilled machinist and mechanic. While he was incarcerated at Leavenworth, he was in charge of work on the huge steel gates at both the east and west entrances to the prison. He also made the doors and gratings of the prison gates. Though he was an expert at both breaking safes and making prison gates, he died unidentified and was buried in an unmarked grave near where he fell in rural Texas.
Featured photos: mugshot and postmortem photo of Charles M. Coleman from Coleman’s Leavenworth Penitentiary inmate files. Collection of NARA-Kansas City, Missouri.