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.

 

 

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.

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.

Faces of McNeil Island

Faces of McNeil Island

Located on McNeil Island in Puget Sound, the Washington Territorial Penitentiary opened on May 28, 1875. It had a stone cell house with 48 small double cells but no kitchen, bathrooms, offices, or guard accommodations. There was no heat or running water. A wooden guardhouse was added that enclosed the only exterior door of the cell house. In 1898 the wooden structure was replaced with a brick guardhouse.

McNeil

McNeil Island Penitentiary main building, 1909. University of Washington Libraries, Asahel Curtis, photographer.

The admission procedure was for the guard on duty to write the names of new prisoners in a daily journal. Each prisoner was handed his black and white prison “stripes” and immediately put to work doing chores. Prisoners supplemented their prison rations by growing their own food.

Life at the prison was grim — inmates worked all day, every day except Sunday and had to earn money for “extras” like soap and tobacco by making cedar shingles. Life was almost as bad for the guards, who lived at the penitentiary and were on duty 24 hours a day, seven days a week with two and a half days off duty each month to visit family on the mainland.

Transportation to and from the prison was accomplished by rowboat for many years. Sewage was dumped into the shoreline and water had to be hand pumped by prisoners into a reservoir on top of the cell block. When water supplies ran low prisoners bathed in the cold, salty water of Puget Sound.

The name changed to McNeil Island Federal Penitentiary in 1891 when it became one of the first three federal prisons in the United States. Of the three, McNeil Island was the most distant from Washington D.C. and it was neglected. A prison hospital wasn’t built until 1906 and an additional cell house and electrical power plant were not added until 1911. A telephone didn’t arrive until 1923.

After it became a federal prison, McNeil Island housed prisoners who had either broken federal laws or committed a crime on federal lands. Common reasons for being imprisoned at USP McNeil Island in the early days included selling liquor to Indians, robbing a post office and, after 1910, breach of White-Slave Traffic Act, (Mann Act) that made it illegal to take a woman across state lines for “immoral purposes.”

Sometime around 1900 (no date was kept), officials at the prison photographed all the inmates of the penitentiary. Most were photographed in groups rather than individually. Initially the prisoners were told to come outside and line up along a brick wall where there was enough light to expose the glass plate negatives they used. Later a sheet was tacked up to hide the bricks. The photographer was unsure of how to operate the camera, leading to many plates being out of focus and underexposed. In one odd case a mugshot was pinned to the wall and photographed rather than the man himself being photographed. The notes shown to the right of each photo are all that was written about who is pictured. One man, identified only as “Kishtoo” was photographed twice.

The result of the photographic confusion is that the first set of prisoner photos taken at McNeil Island is extraordinary. In some of the photos, the prisoners, many of whom were Alaska Natives or Chinese, stood together in groups that were apparently of their own choosing and posed however they felt like posing. Some had probably never seen a camera before and look suspicious. Others appear angry, perhaps at being interrupted in their work. The looks on the men’s faces range from defiant to ashamed and from bored to perplexed.

On April 1, 2011, the penitentiary closed its doors permanently.

The faces of McNeil Island Penitentiary offer testimony to a distant time and a vanished place.

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All photos from the collection of the National Archives, McNeil Island Penitentiary Identification Photos of Prisoners.

 

An Experienced Woman

An Experienced Woman

When Judge Smith sentenced Aimee Meloling to serve three years in San Quentin Prison for burglary, she commented, “May your honor’s heart soon be as soft as your head.” Aimee might have rejoiced at getting a lighter sentence than her husband, Albert Webb Meloling, known as “A.W.” He was ordered to serve five years in Folsom Prison for the same crime. However Aimee was under the impression she was going to get off with a slap on the wrist, not hard time in San Quentin.

The Melolings, a young, middle class couple from New York, had broken into the room of a fellow guest at the upscale Granada Hotel, a residential hotel in Los Angeles, in 1905. They stole what was described as a set of “handsome hand-painted chinaware” along with some “valuable steins” (beer anyone?). The crime was burglary, so planning was involved.

Gra400

The Granada Hotel in Los Angeles, circa 1900.

Was the theft just a moment of weakness for the Melolings or was it an ongoing practice? Did they have an irresistible eye for attractive china they couldn’t afford or were they temporarily short on cash and in need of something to pawn? Both got long sentences for a crime that seems relatively minor, so possibly the police suspected they had dabbled with burglary before. Or maybe the judge just didn’t care for Aimee’s attitude.

The prison sentences came as a shock—the couple was under the impression they were going to get probation. At a court hearing a month earlier they met a man who had just been sentenced to five years in San Quentin. After being introduced by the deputy sheriff, they had a nice chat with the soon-to-be prisoner. The deputy apparently suspected what the Melolings didn’t yet realize—they would soon be headed to prison themselves and would need all the friends they could find there.

Aimee three

San Quentin Prison mugshots of Aimee Meloling. Collection of the California State Archives.

Albert three

Folsom Prison mugshots of Albert W. Meloling. Collection of the California State Archives.

Aimee served two years and four months in San Quentin. Before she was released, in October 1907, an appeal was made to the governor of California to commute A.W.’s sentence so his wife didn’t have to “survive on her own.” The governor agreed and commuted the sentence but for unknown reasons it was later restored. A.W. wasn’t released until January 1909, after serving three and a half years.

Out of prison, the couple reunited and lived in a variety of locations in California. A.W. tried his hand at an array of careers, ranging from hotel proprietor in San Francisco (lock your room!) to running an auto livery in Santa Barbara and working as a commerical artist in Oakland. The couple had a son in 1916 but they later divorced.

By 1933 Aimee was the matron of the Alameda County jail in northern California. She looks happy, in a 1933 newspaper photo, escorting a new prisoner to San Quentin, but of course her role was as the jailer, not the jailed.

It isn’t a total surprise that a woman who didn’t expect to go to prison but ended up there anyway chose a career in the corrections field. After all, she had a lot of experience.

Mrs__Meloling_jail_matron_crop

Alameda Jail Matron Aimee Meloling, lower left. The Oakland Tribune, January 24, 1933.

Francis Schlatter & Hankie Panky

Francis Schlatter & Hankie Panky

Televangelists and their “healing” product scams have a history stretching far back in time. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, driven by news of events described as miracles, thousands of people lost money to clever con men (and occasionally women) posing as “divine healers.” One phony man of the cloth, going by the name Reverend Francis Schlatter, claimed to be able to cure the sick using handkerchiefs that he’d blessed. Send him your hard-earned cash, along with a handkerchief, and he’d bless it and return to you a “divine handkerchief” capable of healing whatever ailed you.

His name was as bogus as his handkerchiefs—he was born in 1838 in Switzerland and his real name was reported to be either Jacob Kunze or James Dowie. The original Francis Schlatter was an Alsatian cobbler and immigrant to the United States who, in 1894, felt the call of God in Denver, Colorado. Francis traveled around the west for two years, drawing huge crowds and supposedly healing the sick by clasping his hands together. He took no money for his services. He vanished mysteriously in Mexico and was presumed dead in 1896, though his body was never found.

real Frsncis Schlatter

Francis Schlatter, the healer, c. 1895. Collection of the Library of Congress.

The absence of Francis’s body created an irresistible opportunity for con men and imposters began popping up immediately after he disappeared. Since it wasn’t illegal in most places in the United States to use a different name from the one you were given at birth, the copycat Francis Schlatters simply started using that name, claiming they were the “real” healer who hadn’t actually died.

Kunze/Dowie partnered with a younger man named August Schrader around 1908. Styling themselves as “King” Francis and “Prince” August, the pair traveled around America and Canada organizing churches—they weren’t picky about the denomination—and officiating at weddings and funerals. They also offered prayer for a fee and the blessed cure-all hankies, sent through the mail.

Schrader and Schlatter

August Shrader (left) and his partner, “Francis Schlatter” (right). The Oakland Tribune, Oakland, California, February 6, 1917, page 18.

They set up shop in Oakland, California, by 1910, but were asked to leave when people complained that their morals were “not conducive to the best interests of the neighborhoods where they carried on their practice.” Next they landed in Los Angeles (city of all things fake) and established their “Baptist Church, Inc.”—described as a cult—at a property they purchased in Hollywood. Garbed in long black robes, with flowing hair, thick beards and high silk hats, they attracted attention wherever they went.

It was the handkerchief scam that finally brought the pair down. Many of the people who sent money for handkerchiefs complained that they didn’t work. No one was cured of being blind or deaf (and certainly not of being dumb). In June 1916, postal inspectors arrested the men in New York and returned them to Los Angeles for indictment. The charge: conspiracy to use the mails to defraud.

Francis Schlatter handkechiefs

News photograph dated July 18, 1918. Collection of the author.

They signed over their Hollywood property to the lawyer who represented them at trial. August, aged 49, died of pneumonia before the trial finished and was given a pauper’s burial. “Francis” declined the offer to officiate at the funeral of his friend and business partner.

He was convicted of the mail fraud charge and sent to McNeil Island Federal Penitentiary in Washington State, arriving on March 18, 1917, where he was booked into the prison as “Francis Schlatter.” It was unusual but he was allowed to wear his silk top hat in both his mugshots. (Normally the side view would be hatless.) His booking card notes that he had lost almost all his teeth and was less than five feet tall. He was released from prison on June 1, 1918.

On October 16, 1922, a man going by the name “Francis Schlatter” was discovered dead in a cheap rooming house in St. Louis, Missouri. Many newspapers reported that this was the man who’d been imprisoned at McNeil Island for mail fraud. But was it?

Francis Schlatter obit

The Topeka Daily Capital, Topeka, Kansas, October 25, 1922, page 15.

The informant on the man’s death certificate was Luverna Schlatter, who’d been contacted because she was thought to be the ex-wife of the dead man. Luverna was divorced from a different “divine healer” going by the name Francis Schlatter. However the body of the man who died in St. Louis in 1922 was not buried in Miamisburg, Ohio, as stated on the death certificate. In a bizarre twist, the body went unburied. On May 7, 1945, it was discovered in the basement of a St. Louis funeral home.

One possible scenario is that Luverna, who lived in Chicago, went to St. Louis and discovered that the corpse was not that of her ex-husband, but belonged to the man who’d been incarcerated at McNeil Island, so she left without it. However we’ll never know for sure, and the death of the fake Francis Schlatter is as much a mystery as the death of the man he spent years impersonating.

Featured photos: Francis Schlatter, McNeil Island Federal Penitentiary. Collection of the National Archives at Seattle, Washington, record group 129.