The Feminine Touch

The Feminine Touch

Becky Cok (sic) was given a sentence of two years in the penitentiary by the federal judge at San Angelo for making her little daughter steal. Mrs. Cook had a box at the Brownwood post office. Next to her was the box of the bank. She would have the child go to the post office and rob the bank box by reaching around through hers. Checks and drafts for large amounts ware (sic) thus abstracted from the bank box.

El Paso Herald (El Paso, Texas), November 26, 1900

Robbing a post office was a crime committed often in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in the United States, but usually it was the purview of gun-toting men. Becky Cook, an Iowa-born seamstress and washerwoman, took an unusual approach when she used her young daughter to extract checks and drafts from the post office box of a Texas bank. Possibly the child was double jointed or had unusually nimble fingers. At any rate the little girl’s hand was small enough to reach in beyond Becky’s post office box, through the bars at the back and into the adjacent box—no weapons or threats of violence required!

Becky Cook news

Leavenworth Penitentiary file of Becky Cook. Collection of the National Archives, Kansas City, Missouri.

Post Office robbery, no matter how it was accomplished, was a federal crime and Becky’s conviction earned her more than a slap on the wrist. Though unable to cash the checks and drafts she stole “child-handed” so to speak, she was sentenced to two years at USP Leavenworth. Like other women sent to Leavenworth, she was transferred to the Kansas State Penitentiary to serve out her sentence.

Her penitentiary forms noted that Becky was just under 5’6” tall with a slender build, blue eyes and brown hair and her teeth were “full & good.” She was described as “very talkative.” She had several scars and moles on her face and both of her ear lobes were pierced. She was Catholic, could read and write, and left home when she was 12 years old. At the time of her incarceration she wasn’t married.

Becky Cook mugshot

Leavenworth Penitentiary photos of Becky Cook. Collection of the National Archives, Kansas City, Missouri.

The Texas sun was hard on fair skin, and prison officials at Leavenworth described Becky as looking 35 rather than the 25 years of age she claimed to be. Her weather-beaten skin does make her look older than her mid-twenties—did she lie about her age? Her shaky signature on a penitentiary form doesn’t really look like “Becky Cook.” Could it be that she used an alias when she was arrested, but was not skilled enough at writing to pull off the subterfuge?

Becky Cook's signature

She was released from prison by 1902. Who took care of her daughter while she was in prison? Was it even her child? Where did she go when she was released? Was her name really Becky Cook? After her brief moment of infamy, thanks to a clever and feminine method of robbing a post office, the lady vanished from newspaper and genealogical records.

 

 

Stray Bullets

Stray Bullets

At 11:15 a.m. the prisoner, William Collon of 406 East 142d Street, the Bronx, was being led up a staircase from the detention pen by Patrolman Michael Murphy. The staircase leads into the courtroom, about fifteen feet from the bench. The landing is flanked on all sides by iron-grated doors. As the prisoner reached the landing he pushed open a door, climbed a three-foot-high ledge, opened a window that was eighteen inches wide and leaped, landing on 161st Street, near Third Avenue.

The New York Times, July 2, 1952

After 23-year-old Collon jumped 20 feet to the street below, all hell broke loose at the Bronx Borough Courthouse in New York City. Detective Jeremiah O’Connor heroically jumped on the window ledge in an attempt to grab Collon, but was unable to catch him. He fired his revolver three times, including a warning shot in the air. Detective David Wahl arrived at the window and fired six times. Patrolman Robert E. Lee (no kidding) leaned between the two detectives and fired twice. An unidentified detective in the street fired four shots.

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Bronx Borough Court House in 2008. Courtesy of Jim Henderson via Wikimedia.

Passersby on the street below scattered in fear when the shots rang out and shopkeepers took cover under their store counters. Patrolman Irving Resnick was standing in the street below the window. He seized a man running by him that he thought was the prisoner, but another nearby patrolman, James Coyle, shouted that he had the wrong man—Coyle had spotted Collon crouched behind a parked car a block away.

Fifteen shots were fired in less than a minute on the morning of Tuesday, July 1, 1952. The escaping prisoner was hit three times: in the spine, the elbow and the back. He was carried back to the courthouse and taken to the hospital where he was listed in critical condition. When asked why he jumped, he said he didn’t know.

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Lancaster Eagle Gazette (Lancaster, Ohio), July 12, 1952.

Collon was awaiting arraignment at police court when he broke away from Murphy. The previous Sunday night, while still on probation for an earlier burglary, he was caught trying to burglarize an apartment at 202 St. Ann’s Avenue.

Two bystanders were shot during Collon’s escape attempt. Anna Marie Alers, a pregnant 19-year-old from Puerto Rico, was visiting friends who lived near the courthouse. After hearing the shots she leaned out a window and was hit in the thigh by a bullet. She was taken to Lincoln Hospital, where she was listed in fair condition.

Pauline Weidt, a 28-year-old bookkeeper for a dental laboratory on 161st Street, was working near an open window that morning, trying to catch the breeze on a hot summer day. One of the wayward bullets lodged her in breastbone. Pauline was also taken to Lincoln Hospital, where the bullet was removed and she was released.

The following day Magistrate Joseph Martinis ordered “each prisoner will be accompanied by a police officer from the pen to the bench.” Two weeks later Collon, whose condition had improved, was indicted on charges of third degree burglary and unlawful escape.

The police court operated at the courthouse until 1977 when the building was closed by the city. Currently on the U.S. Register of Historic Places, the building is under redevelopment by a private developer.

Resisting Arrest

Resisting Arrest

Herbert Cochran, found guilty of burglary yesterday at Fairmont, was sentenced yesterday evening by Judge Stubbs to nine years at hard labor in the state penitentiary. After hearing the sentence Cochran cursed the judge and the attorney in the case and resisted the sheriff but was thrown down and manacled.

 

When Sheriff Dinen went to the jail this morning to prepare his prisoners for the trip to the penitentiary he found that Herb Cochran had torn his clothing into shreds and would not put on any other clothes. The sheriff forced him into a shirt, overalls and a mackintosh and forced him into a hack and drove to the train.

The Nebraska State Journal (Lincoln, Nebraska), March 7, 1900

Herb Cochran, alias H.C. Smith, was not a happy camper when his mugshot was forcibly taken in Omaha, Nebraska. Five years earlier, in 1895, he went on the lam after boldly cutting through the roof of the jail in Geneva, Nebraska. After such a long period of freedom, it was a terrible thing to have to return to jail.

Sheriff Ogg got word from the Omaha Police on Friday, November 24, 1899, that they had arrested Herb. Ogg traveled to the big city and took charge of the prisoner. He brought him back to Geneva, 130 miles southwest of Omaha, to face the charge of breaking and entering a store in his hometown.

Fillmore County courthouse

Postcard from the Fillmore County NEGenWeb Site

A troubled youth, Herb ran away from his home in the small village of Fairmont, Nebraska, when he was just a young teen. Then came his arrest for breaking and entering a few years later. He didn’t hold back from displaying his anger towards authorities in the courtroom during his trial. That, along with the notoriety he’d received for breaking out of jail and avoiding recapture for years, attracted large crowds. Every day during his trial, the Fillmore County Court House was full to capacity.

His lawyer tried to sell the argument that Herb was in the town of Table Rock on the night of the crime, but the jury wasn’t buying it. He was found guilty and the judge sentenced him to the state penitentiary on March 6, 1900.

East cell block Nebraska State pen

East Cell Block of the Nebraska State Penitentiary. Nebraska State Government website.

Nine years is a long sentence, but Herb had not been a cooperative prisoner.

Featured photo: Herbert Cochran’s 1899 carte de visite mugshot. Collection of the Nebraska State Historical Society.

Mother Murder

Mother Murder

I was in the doorway and I saw my mother. I raised the gun and fired one shot. She fell back onto the bed. I opened the closet door in the bedroom and took the suitcase that was in there. Into the suitcase I put some bath towels and some other things, my personal effects. After the shooting I put the gun in the bathroom where I laid it on a trunk. I went into the drawer of my bedroom dresser and got about $45 there. I found the bankbook, which was in a box in a closet.

—Excerpt from Dorothy Ellingson’s confession, January 15, 1925

What began as another quarrel between 16-year-old Dorothy Ellingson and her mother ended in matricide on the morning of January 12, 1925, in San Francisco. The newspapers dubbed Dorothy “The Jazz Slayer” and called her a “jazzmaniac.” Stories were printed about her love of late night partying with older men at clubs and illegal speakeasies all over the city. Her mother’s objections to her lifestyle led to the argument that culminated in murder.

Dorothy’s parents, Joachim (Joseph in news reports) and Anna were Norwegians who immigrated to America in the late nineteenth century. Initially they settled in Minnesota and Dorothy was born there in 1908. By 1920 they relocated to San Francisco, California. Joseph owned a tailor shop and Anna didn’t work outside the home. Dorothy’s only sibling, an older brother named Earl, worked as a stock clerk in a drug store.

By the age of fourteen Dorothy finished primary school and had completed a year of “Business College.” Her education was probably better than average for a girl of that time.

Dorothy claimed her mother was good to her, did not hold her too tightly or prevent her from having a good time. She admitted enjoying the company of jazz musicians who played at the clubs around San Francisco, particularly in Chinatown. The main conflict, according to Dorothy, was that she got home in the wee hours of the morning after a night on the town, making it all but impossible for her to get up and go to her stenographer job the next day. Her musician friends didn’t start work until 10 or 11 at night, so how could she be expected to keep a normal schedule? (“I have worked, off and on,” she later told reporters). However Anna needed her daughter to work all the time because the family was not wealthy and she was separated from her husband at the time of the murder.

After shooting her mother with her brother’s .45 caliber automatic Colt, Dorothy calmly gathered up her packed suitcase, cash and bankbook, and traveled via streetcar to a boarding house at 1047 Franklin Street. There she rented a room under the name “Dorothy Danrio” (inspired, perhaps, by the glamorous silent film star Dolores del Rio). Optimistically, she paid two weeks rent up front. Meanwhile, back at home, her brother found their mother’s body and called the police.

Dorothy settled in to her new digs and headed to a party at the home of a boyfriend in the Castro District. The next evening she enjoyed a show at the Castro Theater. SFPD detectives arrested her the following day for murder—it was a busy week for a young girl!

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The Oakland Tribune, January 15, 1925.

Dorothy tried, unconvincingly, to place the blame for the murder elsewhere, but soon she confessed. “I killed her in a fit of temper,” she explained.

A strange complex is Dorothy Ellingson. Her face is one of a woman of 24 or 25. Her form, while developed, goes with the face. Occasionally there is a gesture of girlishness, a movement that would indicate that, despite her appearance, it is a little girl and not an adult lodged in this prison compartment.

The Oakland Tribune, January 15, 1925

Despite her confession, Dorothy pleaded not guilty. She fainted 12 times during her trial and her behavior ranged from hysterical to catatonic. The judge temporarily stopped the trial so she could be taken to an asylum for evaluation of her mental state. She was found to be sane, so the trial continued. In August 1925, Dorothy, now 17, was found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to one to 10 years in San Quentin prison.

dorothy ellingson_san quentin

Dorothy Ellingson’s San Quentin prison card, 1925. Collection of the California State Archives.

Paroled after six and a half years, it only took a year for Dorothy to spend another night in jail courtesy of the SFPD. On March 5, 1933, she was booked in as “Dorothy Jentoff,” and charged with larceny for appropriating the clothing and jewelry of her former roommate, Mary Ellis (Mary had no idea who she was). She told police that she needed something nice to wear to a Saturday evening party. Her actual name came out after the arrest and she tried to commit suicide by inhaling gas. Mary refused to prosecute so the charges were dropped.

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The Los Angeles Times, March 6, 1933.

Dorothy married a truck driver, Robert Stafford, in 1936, and lived a quiet life out of the spotlight for almost 20 years. The couple had two children but later they separated.

In 1955, 46-year-old Dorothy pleaded guilty to the theft of $2000 worth of jewelry, clothing and cash from a former employer. She’d been living in San Rafael under the name Diane Stafford, but her fingerprints exposed her true identity. Her reason for the theft—her daughter needed money.

Dorothy’s teenage son, who had a history of car theft and burglary, was incarcerated, coincidentally, in the Marin county jail in a cell across from his mother. He’d never heard the story of how she murdered her mother—his grandmother—in 1925, but she confessed it all to him while they sat in the slammer. “He took it like a little man. He didn’t cry. He said it made him understand why I stuck by him through his problems,” noted Dorothy.

Dorothy Ellingson Stafford died on September 16, 1967, aged 59.

Featured photo: Dorothy Ellingson’s SFPD mugshot, 1925. Collection of the Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley.

Prison for Boots

Prison for Boots

Note: This story is excerpted from my book, Captured and Exposed: The First Police Rogues’ Gallery in America.

On April 12, 1859, seven cases of kip (work) boots from Biggs, Staples & Co. were loaded onto the wagon of Andrew McCullough in Canton, Missouri, near the Mississippi River in the northeastern part of the state. McCullough was taking the load west to Edina, Missouri. Because the 38-mile trip would take him more than a day, he stopped overnight at the home of a friend named John Fisher. Before retiring for the night, McCullough went out to check his wagon and cover it with a sheet—at that time all was well.

The following morning, one of Fisher’s neighbors discovered a box of boots sitting by the road some distance from the wagon. Several pairs were missing from the box, including two sets, sizes eight and nine, in which one boot had been removed from each pair. Fisher headed to town to find the boots’ owner, James Biggs, and report the theft to him. On the way he noticed two men wearing new kip boots and immediately suspected them of having tampered with the box and removed the boots. A small posse was formed to hunt for the suspects, who were soon located not far from town.

Nineteen-year-old Richard Shannon was found wearing the incriminating mismatched boots. His companion, James Ford, an older, larger man, was also shod in new boots made by Biggs, Staples & Co. Shannon gave himself up, but Ford pulled out his revolver. One of the men in the posse fired shots in response. No one was injured, but Ford temporarily escaped. He was soon recaptured, and both he and Shannon were tried and convicted of grand larceny for the theft of the entire case of 12 pairs of boots, valued at $48—despite the fact that no witness saw either man remove the case from McCullough’s wagon. (The lesser charge of petty larceny might have applied if the men had been accused of stealing only the boots they were wearing.) Both men were sentenced to two years at the Missouri State Penitentiary, however, Ford escaped from jail while awaiting transfer to Jefferson City and was never recaptured.

Richard Shannon back

Reverse side of Shannon’s rogues’ gallery photo. Collection of the Missouri History Museum.

Shannon served his full sentence, beginning on September 22, 1859. The date on his St. Louis rogues’ gallery photo—August 9, 1858—may be incorrect because it’s nine months prior to the date of the crime. In his photo, the auburn-haired Shannon wears the wrinkled, lightweight jacket of a laborer. With his tousled hair; young face; and rosy, hand-tinted cheeks, he looks like the last person one would expect to see headed to a prison where 12-hour days of hard labor, crowded cells, poor food, and inmate whippings were the norm.

Born in 1839 in the town of Galena in northern Illinois, Richard Emmet Shannon was the third of ten children belonging to Irish immigrants Thomas and Mary Shannon. Prior to his arrest, Richard Shannon worked as a raftsman, bringing logs that were tied together as rafts down the Mississippi River to the sawmills. Of the identified individuals in the Rogues’ Gallery Collection about whom information was found, Shannon is one of only two people who didn’t commit their alleged crimes in St. Louis.

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“Raftsmen Playing Cards,” 1847 painting by George Caleb Bingham. Collection of the St. Louis Art Museum.

In October 1861, two weeks after his release from the Missouri State Penitentiary, Shannon enlisted in the 2nd Kansas Cavalry, serving as a private in Company I during the Civil War until his muster-out on May 25, 1862. He enlisted in the 3rd Cavalry, Company H in Vallejo, California, in July 1870. At the time of his enlistment, Shannon worked as a stonecutter (perhaps this occupation was inspired by his father, who worked as a stonemason). He deserted his company on January 11, 1872, and managed to avoid being captured. By the late 1870s he resided in San Francisco, where he worked at cutting and shaping stone.

Shannon was familiar not only with stone masonry but also with horses, a fact that led him to try his hand at entrepreneurship. In May 1882 the federal government issued him a patent for a rein holder—a mechanism he invented for securing the reins of a carriage’s horse to keep them from getting tangled with the horse’s feet. This was the second such device Shannon submitted for a patent, stating in his application: “My present invention is an improvement upon my former one.” It’s unknown whether either of Shannon’s rein-holder designs was ever manufactured.

In July 1885, Shannon visited Chicago and spoke at a strike of the Chicago West Division Railway Company, where newspapers covering the event intriguingly described him as a “labor agitator from the Pacific coast.”

Details about the later life and death of raftsman, Civil War veteran, stonemason, inventor, labor agitator, and ex-convict Richard Shannon are likely lost to history.

Featured photo: Richard E. Shannon, 1859 rogues’ gallery photo (ambrotype). Collection of the Missouri History Museum.

Angry in Omaha

Angry in Omaha

Minnie Bradley was arrested on the evening of December 11, 1902, and charged with “larceny from the person” or pickpocketing. Someone from the Midway Saloon, a well-known dance hall and whorehouse owned by several notorious Omaha crime bosses, offered to pay her $25 bond. Before she was released, W. H. Breiter showed up at the police station and identified Minnie as the person who had robbed him earlier that evening. Minnie offered Breiter $5 to drop the charge, but he refused, so she spent the night in jail.

Described in the newspaper as a “traveler,” Breiter had been “strolling about” near the Tenth street viaduct in Omaha, Nebraska. He told police that a woman appeared out of the darkness and demanded his money. He claimed he handed it over to her.

The next day Minnie appeared before Police Judge Louis Berka. The judge decided she could stand for trial for the Breiter hold up, but he offered her an alternative—if she left Omaha the charges against her would be dropped. She chose to leave rather than face a trial, but first the police took her mugshot to guarantee that all Omaha police officers would be familiar with her face, in case she was tempted to return.

judge-Berka

Judge Louis Berka. Find-A-Grave.

Minnie’s 1901 mugshot is unusual for the amount of emotion she displayed. She has her arms crossed and it’s obvious that she’s angry and unwilling to look at the camera, or maybe she looked away just before the shutter was released. Her occupation was listed as “prostitute” and her home, at 116 North Eleventh Street, was around the corner from the Midway.

Breiter’s story about Minnie robbing him doesn’t really add up. It’s unlikely that a lone woman would rob a man outdoors in a deserted spot at night. It’s possible that Breiter was a client who didn’t want it known that he visited a prostitute, particularly an African-American prostitute. He might have refused to pay, so she took what he owed her.

Minnie returned to Omaha in 1904 and made two more appearances in police court before Judge Berka. The first, in March 1904, was as witness against a man named William Warwick, who was accused of assaulting her. The two had gotten into a heated argument when he bragged to her that, due to his light complexion, he often passed as a white man during his travels out west. He also mentioned that he had been in the company of two white women the previous evening. Minnie said William should show more respect for his race and reminded him that his mother was a black woman. His response was to punch her. Judge Berka sentenced him to 30 days in jail.

Two months later, in May 1904, Minnie was the defendant in a case of assault and battery brought against her by an African-American woman named Annie Curtis. Annie was drunk and her behavior was violent—an argument broke out between the two women. Minnie claimed Annie was on the verge of throwing a phonograph at her when bystanders intervened. Annie claimed Minnie threw a brick at her, which Minnie denied. The outcome of the case was not reported.

Minnie slipped out of the news after 1904, but her mugshot leaves little doubt that she was a force to be reckoned with.

Featured photo: Minnie Bradley’s 1902 mugshot. Collection of the Nebraska State Historical Society.

No Place for Her

No Place for Her

It’s rare that someone becomes famous for going to prison, but that’s what happened to 14-year-old Lizzie Cardish in 1906. After pleading guilty to arson of a government building, the judge presiding over her case was required, under federal statute, to send her to prison for life. If the crime had occurred nine years earlier, the mandated punishment would have been death.

On the evening of January 17, 1906, Lizzie, a member of the Menominee Tribe of Wisconsin, set fire to the boys and girls building at the Menominee Indian Training School, a boarding school in Keshena, Wisconsin. Indian schools deprived the children sent to them of their culture with the goal of transforming them into “civilized” people. No one was injured in the fire, however the building was completely destroyed.

Lizzie Cardish is a comely Indian maid of about sixteen years and in court Tuesday afternoon she was neatly and becomingly attired in a white gown and waist and wore a pretty dark straw hat trimmed with blue ribbon. In appearance the girl is remarkably intelligent for one of her race, and her features are quite regular.

The Oshkosh Northwestern, June 13, 1906

Lizzie’s motives for starting the fire were reported to be either a wish not to attend school or a desire to go to a different school in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Whatever her reason, it was an act of defiance against decades of horrendous treatment meted out to Native Americans by the federal government.

On June 15, 1906, Lizzie was taken to USP Leavenworth to serve her sentence, however the penitentiary had no place to put her! Leavenworth, a federal prison in Kansas, was built to house male prisoners. Evidently lawmakers never considered the possibility that women might occasionally break federal laws.

CardishLizziephoto001

Eleven women had been sent to Leavenworth prior to Lizzie. Their presence caused major difficulties for the warden, R.W. McClaughry, who had to find a secure, guarded place for them away from the male prisoners. Lizzie, by far the youngest, was the last female prisoner ever sent to Leavenworth.

The warden was not willing to keep Lizzie at the penitentiary for more than a day. Her mugshot and fingerprints were taken and the following day she was transferred to the Kansas State Penitentiary in Lansing, Kansas, where there was a women’s department.

Lizzie Cardish_Kansas

Lizzie Cardish, Kansas Dept. of Corrections. Collection of the Kansas Historical Society.

The public was outraged, not only that a young girl had been sentenced to life in prison for a crime in which no one was injured, but also that she was sent to a prison for male offenders. Many people demanded that her sentence be commuted, including Judge Quarles, the man who by law had no option but to pass a life sentence on Lizzie.

President Theodore Roosevelt commuted Lizzie’s sentence, in September 1906, but she wasn’t released immediately. She was sent to the Illinois State Training School for Girls in Geneva, until she reached the age of 21. Government officials demanded that she to be brought to USP Leavenworth from the Kansas State Penitentiary before being transferred to Geneva. As far as officials were concerned, Lizzie was still “officially” incarcerated at Leavenworth.

Lizzie commutation

Lizzie Cardish’s commutation document, Leavenworth prisoner file. Collection of the National Archives, Kansas City, Missouri.

William Howard Taft succeeded Roosevelt as president in 1909. He commuted Lizzie’s sentence on April 20, 1910, and she was released. She was 18 years old.

Lizzie dropped out of the news after her release from the training school. She was married twice—both her husbands were Menominee—and had eight children. She never set another fire.

Featured photo: Lizzie Cardish, Leavenworth Penitentiary prisoner photograph. Collection of the National Archives, Kansas City, Missouri.