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.

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.



8 thoughts on “Her Clever Game

  1. Wow! That photograph is so detailed and sharp, it looks like it could have been taken yesterday. When I first saw the group photo of the inmate gardeners, I thought the location was at the Mexican border. And, thanks for mentioning the Hutchinson Reformatory. I worked there for three years (1977-1980), not as a prisoner or as a guard, but as a teacher in the Education Department. The inmates average reading & math level was at 5th grade. I always laughed when the inmates would tell me they weren’t going to get caught ever again because they knew how they got caught and wouldn’t make that mistake again. I’d tell them, “there’s a million other ways you can get caught!”

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Glass negatives captured a lot of detail! Apparently the woman at the prison raised some of their own food.

      You must have some interesting stories about the time you worked at Hutchinson, Jim (and I would not have supposed you were ever a prisoner)! I’ll be doing another post about a couple who worked together and were convicted in Kansas – she was sent to KSIF and he was sent to Hutchinson. I own two separate I.D. cards with photos of the woman, neither was taken in Kansas. She used many aliases and was very tough to research (I almost gave up). I’m waiting for the KHS to send me the man’s mugshots but the woman’s mugshot from Kansas is lost. Unfortunately both their criminal records are also missing.

      Liked by 3 people

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