The burglaries started in November 1931. Witnesses described the culprit as a well-built man with thick blond hair. He was in his early twenties and about 5 feet 10 inches tall. The homes he robbed were all in St. Louis, Missouri.
The bizarre thing was that he removed his clothing before breaking in. Stripped down to his underwear and athletic shoes, he stole cash and whatever valuable items he could carry. On the occasions when he was interrupted, the agile burglar was able to get away by leaping through a window, down a staircase or over a fence.
But there was more to the story than just his nearly nude burglaries. In several cases a woman had awakened during the night and discovered him in her bedroom. And in one case the woman found him sitting on her bed. It was creepy. She screamed and he ran.
The newspapers in St. Louis dubbed him the “Shorts Burglar.”
The St. Louis Star and Times reported that a homeowner had discovered the Shorts Burglar in his daughter’s room, lying on a rug on the floor next to the girl’s bed while she slept. “You must be in the wrong house,” the homeowner said to him. “Yes, I must be,” he replied as he bounded to his feet, leapt across the room, raced down the hall and stairway. He ran into the street and disappeared into the night.
By the spring of 1932 he was a suspect in almost 100 burglaries. Efforts to catch him intensified after he broke into the apartment building where the chief of police lived but he managed to escape. The whole situation had become an embarrassment for law enforcement.
Two women spotted a man who matched his description lurking around their neighborhood and immediately phoned the police. The message went out to radio cars and more than 50 officers arrived in the vicinity of where the man had been spotted. Clad only in his underwear, he was arrested inside the garage of a former city detective on April 22, 1932.
The Shorts Burglar’s name was John Raymond Eaves. Born in St. Louis in 1911, his father left the family when he was two years old. His mother, Anna, soon remarried and had another child; a daughter named Madeline.
“I went around in my underwear because I thought that if I were surprised in a house the people would think I was a member of the household,” was Eaves’ explanation for why he’d removed his clothes before committing the burglaries. “I really entered the places to rob them. I did not molest anyone,” he told police. He also admitted that when he noticed an attractive woman on the street he sometimes followed her home and returned later to break in and rob the woman. He said he’d also robbed some of the homes where he’d worked as an odd job man. He was also accused of committing several armed robberies during which he’d been fully clothed.
His criminal record extended back to 1926. He and three teenage companions had forced a young couple that had been driving through a city park to stop and get out of their car. Then the boys held them up at gunpoint. Fortunately for the victims, two police detectives saw the robbery in process and arrested the four teens. They were booked for attempted highway robbery.
More than a hundred witnesses showed up to police headquarters to try to identify Eaves after his arrest in 1932. He confessed to 24 burglaries and several armed robberies. Some of the jewelry he’d stolen, including a Veiled Prophet Maid’s tiara, had been pawned as far away as Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Shortly after Eaves was arrested it was reported that a copycat burglar, dressed only in underwear, had been surprised in the process of ransacking a woman’s trunk while she slept nearby. The woman awoke, saw the robber and screamed, scaring him off. The copycat got away.
Eaves pleaded guilty to two charges of armed robbery and five charges of first-degree burglary, in June 1932. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison. In July 1938 he was released on parole and he returned to St. Louis. He was convicted of burglary again on January 6, 1939, but he was granted a new trial. At the second trial he was found not guilty by reason of insanity and sent to the State Hospital for the Insane in Fulton, Missouri. After a year in the mental hospital he was sent back to the penitentiary to complete more of his first sentence.
He was paroled on December 14, 1940. He stayed out of the clutches of the police until August 1942, when he was arrested, fully clothed, and charged with burglary. Eaves wasn’t convicted of that charge. He got married and had twin sons in 1944.
In 1947 his wife, Mildred, was charged with witness tampering. Eaves had been arrested for burglary again that year and Mildred tried to get the state’s star witness, a woman named Billy Jean Davis, to write a letter renouncing her identification of Eaves as the culprit. Davis wrote the letter and accepted a $500 bribe from Mildred Eaves to leave the state.
While he was free on bail the following year — 1948 — Eaves broke in to a St. Louis residence during a party. He forced nine people into the kitchen at gunpoint and stole all the money he could find in the home. He was arrested and charged with armed robbery. He’d made no effort to hide his face and one of the victims identified him at his trial. Mildred testified that her husband suffered from crying spells, depression and periods of being socially withdrawn. She said she believed he was mentally ill.
He was found guilty of robbery with a deadly weapon and of being a habitual criminal, which earned him a mandatory life sentence in prison. However his lawyer claimed that Eaves was insane due to an untreated venereal disease he’d had when he was younger. The lawyer argued that his client deserved a new trial. After some discussion between the defense and prosecution attorneys regarding Eaves’ mental state, the judge granted him a new trial.
Eaves was sent to the Malcolm Bliss Psychopathic Institute in St. Louis so that psychiatrists could study him and try to determine whether he was sane or suffering from some kind of mental illness. After four months the doctors decided he was sane and released him.
While he was out on bail awaiting his second trial (his bail was supposedly paid by a wealthy, unidentified female admirer) he tried to commit another burglary. He broke into the basement apartment of a sleeping husband and wife. The couple woke up while the burglary was in process. The man, a well-muscled laborer, slugged Eaves while his wife, who was described in the newspaper as a former circus elephant rider, grabbed Eaves’ flashlight and pounded him on the head with it. Eaves, who was dressed in pants and shoes but no shirt, was able to get out of the apartment, but he ran into a police officer in the alley outside the building. No longer young and fleet of foot, the officer chased, captured and arrested him. Eaves was taken to the hospital with a head injury, from which he recovered.
The bribery charge against Mildred Eaves was dropped in 1950 on a technicality.
At his court hearing in 1952, the doctors from Malcolm Bliss announced their decision that Eaves was sane. They said he’d “simulated mental illness” at his earlier trial. Eaves pleaded guilty to the 1948 burglary and to six other burglaries he’d committed while he was out on bail. The “habitual criminal” charge was dropped and the life sentence was set aside. His new sentence was ten years in the penitentiary.
While he was in prison his wife divorced him and both his mother and stepfather died. He was released from prison in April 1958. A week later he was arrested after neighbors called the police and reported him for behaving suspiciously outside the St. Louis home of his ex-wife and children. He told the officers who arrested him that he was only hanging around because he wanted to see his kids.
Two months later he was arrested for suspected child molestation after he talked to three little girls playing in a vacant lot. The children told the police that Eaves stopped his car, got out and he said, “I like blondes.” They claimed he picked one of the girls up and held her. The other girls screamed and he put the child down, got back in his car and drove off.
In September he was arrested again for child molestation. This time it was alleged that he invited two eight-year-old girls into his house. They claimed he abused them after they went inside.
He was tried for the “strongest” of the five cases of child molestation against him in October 1958. His time card was submitted as proof that he was at work when the incident was supposed to have occurred. The trial resulted in a hung jury. A plea bargain was struck with Eaves’ attorney for the other four charges against him to be dropped if he agreed to plead guilty to one charge of child molestation. According to comments the judge made to the press, the agreement saved his court-appointed lawyer, who’d already spent several days on the case, from being “tied up by it” any longer. The plea deal resulted in a four-year sentence in the penitentiary for Eaves.
There were no reports that he committed any more crimes after he was released from prison in the early 1960s. John Raymond Eaves died in St. Louis in 1987.
It’s unlikely that the original glass plate negative of Eaves’ mugshot photo still exists. Luckily it was later rephotographed as a glass lantern slide (a precursor to 35mm slides, which have now given way to digital images), possibly for lecture use by the St. Louis police. It was almost certainly selected because the “Shorts Burglar” had such a long, strange and sad history in St. Louis.
Featured Photo: John Eaves standing for photographs in his underwear for his police record, taken on April 22, 1932. Police lantern slide from the collection of the Missouri History Society.