Her Clever Game

Her Clever Game

Emma Johnson was sentenced to the penitentiary this week in the Shawnee county district court, and her pal, E. Johnson, who claimed to be her husband, was sentenced to the Hutchinson Reformatory, the charge against both being forgery of a large number of small checks in Topeka recently. The checks were passed at Topeka stores. The woman is believed to have been the real leader in the enterprise. She is about twice as old as the man claiming to be her husband.

— The Merchants Journal, Topeka, Kansas, January 26, 1918

Part of the reason the game worked so well was its simplicity. Emma’s “husband” and “daughter” had real checks — the pay was honestly earned. But it was a simple proposition to forge the checks, making four or five checks from one, and presto: a week’s work became the wages of a month or more.

Emma went to stores in Topeka and asked the owners if they would mind cashing the checks for her. She looked honest and was well dressed and polite so most were happy to oblige. If they bothered to call at the hotel, where her “daughter” worked, or motor car company, where her “husband” was employed, to make sure everything was on the up and up, they were informed “yes, certainly” Mr. or Miss Johnson worked at the business.

They pulled the scam all over Topeka during the fall of 1917. Towards Christmas they thought they might be pushing their luck and headed out of town.

Hugh Latimer

Hugh Larimer, Kansas Historical Society

The merchants of Topeka weren’t happy about being scammed. It wasn’t right or fair and it made them look like dupes. They refused to sit by and do nothing, so they banded together and hired a private investigator from the Burns Detective Agency to try to track the criminals down. And track them he did, all the way to Oklahoma City, where Emma and the man who claimed to be her husband were arrested. The girl who posed as their daughter got away.

Hugh Larimer, the Shawnee County sheriff, took the couple into custody and charged them with forgery. The Burns detective informed Hugh that Emma and her young partner were also wanted for pulling the same check duplication scam in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The couple pleaded guilty to 3rd degree forgery.

Emma Johnson, alias Kaparis, was sentenced to between one and ten years at a new facility for women, the Kansas State Industrial Farm in Lansing, Kansas. E. Johnson, alias L.S. Burgess, got a similar sentence to the state prison for men.

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Women gardeners in front of the vegetable storage cave at the Women’s Industrial Farm in 1936. Collection of the Kansas Historical Society.

Emma became the farm’s 36th prisoner on February 8, 1918. Her date of release is unknown because many of the records of the farm no longer exist.

Featured photo: glass plate negative of Emma Johnson, prisoner 36, of the Women’s Industrial Farm in Lansing, Kansas. Collection of the Kansas Historical Society.

 

 

Nearly Lynched

Nearly Lynched

With the crowd yelling “lynch him; lynch him,” a squad of patrolmen in Scranton last night used their night sticks with telling effect, rescuing Jasper Johnson, a young negro, from a frenzied mob of several thousand men and boys at the carnival grounds on Providence road, in that city, after Johnson had fired five shots, probably fatally wounding one man.

Wilkes-Barre Times Leader, The Evening News (Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania), July 19, 1916

Jasper Johnson worked in the African Dodger booth at the B. H. Patrick Show Carnival in Scranton, Pennsylvania. Jasper’s job was to put his head through a hole in a canvas curtain and dodge baseballs thrown at him by patrons, who paid a nickel for three balls and the chance to hit Jasper’s head and win a prize.

The African Dodger game was very popular with white carnival-goers across America, beginning in the late nineteenth century and continuing well into the twentieth century. The baseballs were hard and the risk of injury was high. Sometimes people also brought bricks and other objects to throw at the dodger. Dunk tanks featuring African Americans eventually replaced the African Dodger game.

Jasper didn’t wear a pad to protect his head, but the 21-year-old was adept at avoiding the balls. Of course sometimes he got hit, but he tried hard to never to show how painful the blows to his head and face were.

Carnival hammer machine

On the evening of July 18, 1916, Joseph Alesko was at the hammer machine booth next to the African Dodger booth. The goal of the hammer machine, sometimes called a high striker or strength tester, was to ring a bell at the top of a tower by hitting a puck at the bottom with a hammer or mallet. Joseph, a powerfully built man, was very successful at ringing the bell that evening. Every time he rang it he demanded a cigar from the man who ran the machine. The attendant finally told him it was time for him to let someone else have a try, but Joseph refused to move. A quarrel ensued between the two men that led to blows.

Jasper heard the commotion and left his booth to assist the man who ran the hammer machine. He asked Joseph to move along. At just under 5’10” and 171 lbs., Jasper was a sturdy man but Joseph was a larger and stronger. He threw Jasper to the ground and began to beat him. Jasper pulled a .38 caliber revolver from his pocket and fired at Joseph. The shot went wide and hit a bystander, Dominick Puhofsky, in his side. The bullet arced up and forward, coming to rest near Dominick’s eighth rib.

Then all hell broke loose.

A crowd gathered around Jasper, punching and kicking him. He broke free and fired four more warning shots into the crowd. No one was hit by those shots.

He ran towards a nearby car barn with the mob chasing him and screaming for blood. He was brought to the ground with a flying tackle by one of the men and another man grabbed his gun from him. Some of the mob continued to beat Jasper. Soon the crowd began to chant, “lynch him.”

Two policeman arrived and tried to intervene but mob beat them too. Finally a large contingent of officers showed up. They managed to put down the riot without further injuries and the crowd dispersed.

Joseph was arrested and taken to jail. Dominick was taken to the state hospital for surgical treatment to remove the bullet. Jasper was also taken to the hospital for treatment of injuries from the beating he suffered at the hands of the mob. Despite wounds that can be clearly seen in his mugshots, doctors at the hospital claimed he had faked his injuries. 

Joseph was charged with fighting, fined $10 and released from custody. Jasper was taken from the hospital to jail. He charged with assault with intent to murder, but if Dominick died, he would be charged with murder. Fortunately Dominick eventually recovered from his injuries and Jasper was released from jail.

Camp Dix, West Jersey History Project

America entered World War I eight months later, on April 2, 1917. Jasper joined the 15th New York Infantry (renamed the 369thInfantry). The military was still segregated and the 15th Infantry was an all black regiment. Jasper began his training at Camp Whitman in New York on July 24, 1917.

In September 1917 Jasper was shot and killed by a fellow soldier named George Westerfield during an argument over a blanket at Camp Dix in New Jersey. Jasper was described in a news article about the killing as “very popular among the colored soldiers. He was of a jolly disposition and had made many friends since coming to Camp Dix thru his fun-making during baseball games, he having been a member of the regiment’s team.”

Jasper’s WWI Service Card, Ancestry.com

Private Westerfield was tried by court-martial for killing Jasper. Because America was at war, a guilty verdict (which seems likely, though no proof of that was found) was punishable with execution by firing squad.

In January 1921, Dominick Puhofsky, the man Jasper shot by accident, died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound “while temporarily deranged.”

Featured photo: Mugshots of Jasper Johnson made by the Detective Service of the Scranton Police Department on July 18, 1916. Collection of the author.

“With Long Criminal Records”

“With Long Criminal Records”

Warrants charging larceny were issued yesterday by the Circuit Attorney’s office against three women arrested last week in their room in Hotel Statler for shop-lifting. Police reported finding the wallet of a victim in the room. The women, all of whom said they are from Milwaukee, Wis., are: Ruth Stehling, 34 years old; Louise R. Smith, 32, and Jean Miller, 34. In the room police found a wallet containing $14, some checks and personal papers belonging to Mrs. Katherine Rueckert, 3435 Halliday avenue. Mrs. Rueckert had reported that the wallet was snatched from her in a downtown department store.

— St. Louis Post-Dispatch (St. Louis, Missouri), March 27, 1934

The Kusch family crime poster has the look of a kid’s school project, with the awkward placement of text, some of which was hand-drawn, and the amateurish attempt at a symmetrical layout. It was made by a St. Louis police officer in 1934 and photographed as a magic lantern slide, possibly for use as a lecture aid.

I suspect the point of the poster was to demonstrate how suspects might avoid being identified as repeat offenders by using aliases. The real names of the three ladies in stand-up mugshot were (left to right) Helen, Anna and Julia Kusch.

Another aim of the poster was to demonstrate that crime was a career choice that occasionally ran in families.

The mother of two of the three women in the photo was Mary Meka Kusch. Mary was a German immigrant to the United States who tutored her young daughters in how to steal ladies’ purses and forced them to become pickpockets. Mary’s husband, Michael, who was also born in Germany, was not involved in the “family business.”

In 1909 Anna Kusch was the youngest child ever arrested by the detective bureau in Buffalo, New York, after she was caught stealing shoppers’ purses in department stores. At the ripe old age of eight Anna was a suspect in many purse thefts.

Anna and her older sister, Helen, were serial pickpockets while they were still in grade school. The girls strolled the streets, stealing ladies’ purses as the opportunity arose, and hiding their loot in a baby carriage. Imagine the surprise of the beat officer who leaned over to give the “baby” a tickle on the chin!

In 1910 the Kusch sisters were taken into police custody for pickpocketing. Mama Kusch got three months probation for teaching her children to be thieves.

The following year Helen was arrested again for stealing cash from the purses of women shopping on the main drag of Buffalo. She told the police that her mother sent her out every day after school to steal money and if she didn’t do it she got a whipping. Mary was charged with receiving stolen property. Helen was sent to a detention home for juveniles.

Meanwhile the sisters’ older brothers, John and Albert Kusch, were engaged in robbing the poor box at a local Catholic church. They drank enough whiskey to put Albert and a friend in the hospital in critical condition with alcohol poisoning. Albert subsequently recovered. John went on to be convicted of burglary and sent to New York’s Elmira Reformatory at the age of 19.

As Helen and Anna blossomed into their teen years they continued to shoplift and pickpocket. Both were caught and earned themselves another stay in a Buffalo detention home.

The Kusch family moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, by 1920. The change of state may have been motivated by their notoriety in Buffalo because their crime careers continued in “America’s Dairyland.” When Helen was 28, in 1926, she was arrested for pickpocketing in Milwaukee. She jumped bail and forfeited her $1000 bond.

John was arrested for passing bad checks in 1931 when he was 38 years old. Over the previous 20 years he’d accumulated 16 arrests, including one for contributing to the delinquency of a minor after he’d picked up an underage girl and had sex with her. He was sentenced to five to seven years in a Wisconsin state prison on the bad check charge. John joined Albert, who was already in state prison, serving a three-year sentence for the attempted robbery of a pharmacy.

When the Kusch ladies were arrested for pickpocketing in St. Louis, Helen and Anna had 25 years of experience under their belts. They knew it would be a smart move to give the police false names to fool them into believing it was their first offense. Julia Kusch was not their sister but she may have been their sister-in-law because Albert was married for a while to a woman named Julia.

Helen was picked up in Green Bay, Wisconsin, for shoplifting an item worth $1.50 in 1935. Police there claimed she’d been arrested many times in the past. She was given a six month suspended sentence and a $100 fine. Anna was also arrested and later released without charge.

The 1935 arrests of Helen and Anna were last time any Kusch family members appeared in the police news. It’s impossible to know if the poster put an end to their criminal activities, however there’s an old saying, “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.” That little proverb may have run through the mind of the police officer when he got out his glue and pen to make the Kusch Family crime poster.

Featured photo: St. Louis Police Lantern Slides, collection of the Missouri History Museum.