Gangster Undressed

Gangster Undressed

We still didn’t think we had anything but a crazy drunk and both of us took him out to the car. He was dressed in his underwear and shoes only, with an expensive fur coat over them. I made the crack about being a drugstore cowboy when we were taking him out.

 

Kast went in to call headquarters and I stayed with DeVol. I figured I would have no trouble in handling him. But just as Kast stepped out, DeVol dove for me in the back seat and got both hands around my throat. I grappled with him and he sank his teeth into my left wrist and hand. I kicked the door open and dragged him out onto the pavement.

 

We rolled there for a second and then DeVol broke away and started to run across the street. I caught up to him and hit him over the head with the butt of my gun. Kast had heard the commotion and came running out and also hit DeVol.

 

He didn’t attempt to escape again and in a few minutes several other squads arrived and they found the bank loot and guns in the apartment. It was not until then we realized what sort of criminal we had been fighting with.

— Patrolman George Hammergren, The Minneapolis Star, December 19, 1932

St. Paul Policeman George Hammergren and his partner, Officer Kast, had arrested one of the most wanted criminals of their day. Lawrence DeVol was the look out man during a holdup of the Third Northwestern National Bank in Minneapolis by the Barker-Karpis gang on December 16, 1932. The gang escaped with $22,00 in cash and $92,00 in bonds. Lawrence shot and killed two police officers during the getaway.

Holed up in a rented St. Paul apartment with a bandit pal after the heist, Lawrence went out on the evening of December 18, 1932, dressed only in underpants and a coat. (In search of cigs, booze, drugs or all three?) When he returned he got confused and banged on the wrong apartment door, demanding to be let in. The man who lived in the apartment had no idea who he was and told him to “get going.” Lawrence wandered down the hall and returned to the apartment, waving his revolver. Peeking through the safety chain and seeing the gun, the man became alarmed, slammed the door and called police. Meanwhile Lawrence wandered off, found the correct apartment and entered, leaving the door ajar.

Officers Hammergren and Kast arrived at the apartment building for what they thought would be a straightforward nuisance call. They located the open apartment door, went in and found a man getting dressed. They asked him where the man with the “rod” was. He pointed to the bedroom, stating, “He’s been drinking and got a little boisterous, but he hasn’t got a rod of any kind.” Hammergren went into the bedroom and found Lawrence, clad only in his underpants, pointing a gun at him. Hammergren grabbed both Lawrence’s hands but was unable to get the gun from him. He yelled for Kast and the three scuffled, eventually extracting the gun from Lawrence. Figuring him to be “just a crazy drunk” they didn’t bother to handcuff him before taking him outside and putting him in the squad car. Meanwhile the other man escaped.

Born on November 17, 1903 in Belpre, Ohio, Lawrence was the middle of three sons of Helem and Emma (Shanks) DeVol. On his father’s side the family traced their ancestry back to Plymouth Colony and the Mayflower. Helem moved his family moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma when Lawrence was six. He found work in the oil fields and he died there in 1917.

Criminal history file: Barton, Leonard.

Mugshot, age 24

Lawrence got his start in crime at a tender age and by the time he turned 11, he was labeled “incorrigible” and was sent to reform school in Oklahoma. His brothers, Albert and Clarence, also joined  the criminal ranks, but it was Lawrence who evolved into a big-time gangster and garnered most of the headlines. By the time he reached his late twenties, Lawrence had a rap sheet that included numerous convictions for grand larceny and burglary. He’d served multiple prison terms, accumulated 17 aliases and was wanted by police in ten states.

He became acquainted with gangster Alvin “Creepy” Karpis at the State Industrial Reformatory in Hutchinson, Kansas, in 1928. Together the pair escaped in 1929 and pulled off several robberies. They were later arrested in Kansas City, where Lawrence was able to post bail and skip town, leaving Creepy behind. He carried out another string of heists that culminated in the fatal shooting a police officer in Kirksville, Missouri. He also managed to escape custody there, but in addition to robbery he was now wanted for murder, and not just any murder, but the murder of a cop.

Lawrence headed to St. Paul, Minnesota, where he hooked up with his old pal, Creepy (who apparently had forgiven him for the earlier ditch), and Creepy’s friends Fred and Arthur “Doc” Barker, along with members of their gang. The men pulled off bank robberies in Minnesota, Kansas and North Dakota before going to Minneapolis for the December 16th robbery.

Hammergen and his partner, Kast, were lucky that, when they captured Lawrence that cold night in December, he was out of his head with drink. In full control of his senses there’s no doubt he wouldn’t have hesitated to shoot them.

DeVol_ducks_photoBleary-eyed, with his face scuffed and still wearing only his fur coat and (presumably) underpants and shoes, his mugshots were taken that night at the St. Paul police station. Two days later the Minneapolis police photographed a cleaned up and far-from-contrite-looking Lawrence after he’d been charged with bank robbery and murder. He’s still wearing his beloved fur coat, but this time he’s also sporting a suit, tie and hat. On his way into Minneapolis city hall, a news photographer got a double exposure photo of DeVol, who was apparently still edgy after his capture in St. Paul, causing him to jump when the photographer’s flashbulb went off.

Criminal history file: Barton, Leonard.

Mugshots taken on December 20, 1932 in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

He pleaded guilty to the murder of policemen Ira Evans and Leo Gorsky and was given a life sentence. First sent to the Stillwater penitentiary, he was moved to the St. Peter Hospital for the Criminally Insane on December 27, 1935 — it turned out to be a late Christmas gift of sorts for Lawrence.

Psychiatrists St. Peter’s described him as suffering from a mania called “Dementia Praecox Catatonia.” The condition was characterized, they claimed, by “unbalanced judgment, delusions, hallucinations, alternating apathy and indifference, and tremendous and often violent excitement. The victim’s memory remains good, however, and he does not lose the capacity to understand situations an act.” The second sentence should have been a warning to anyone familiar with Lawrence and his criminal history.

Unlike his psychiatrists, Lawrence understood perfectly the opportunity that was presented to him and he wasted no time in taking advantage of it. He organized a successful escape from the hospital, along with fifteen other dangerous criminals, the following July.

Criminal history file: Barton, Leonard.

A nationwide search wound up in Enid, Oklahoma, when police officers located him in a tavern on July 7, 1936. Asked to accompany them back to the station for questioning, he said, “Let me finish drinking my beer.” While draining the mug with one hand, he pulled out his gun with the other and opened fire, wounding one officer and killing the other. Though he fled the scene, this time there would be no getaway. With more Enid officers in hot pursuit, Lawrence James DeVol was shot nine times and killed a few blocks from the tavern where he enjoyed his final beer.

Featured photo: mugshots of Lawrence DeVol taken December 18, 1932. Collection of the author.

Additional mugshots and news photo of St. Peter’s Hospital escaped men from the collection of the Minnesota Historical Society.

Crooks’ Books

Crooks’ Books

The engagement of an internationally known woman criminal to marry the internationally noted criminologist, whose inspiration she was in the preparation of a book on the famous women criminals of all time, was announced today.

 

May Vivienne Churchill, known to the police of three continents as “Chicago May” Churchill, assisted and inspired Netley Lucas, English Criminologist, in the preparation of his book, “Ladies of the Underworld.”

The Baltimore Sun, January 4, 1928

During the early 20th century it was all the rage for reformed crooks (or those who claimed to be “ex”) to publish books about their felonious exploits. The notorious “Chicago May” was supposedly the inspiration for Netley Lucas’ 1927 book “Ladies of the Underworld: The Beautiful, the Damned and Those Who Get Away with It.” May’s own memoir, written with professional help, titled “Chicago May: Her Story by the Queen of Crooks” rolled out in 1928.

It’s not surprising that Netley and Chicago May cooked up a scheme to shock polite society while simultaneously promoting their books. As champagne corks popped in celebration of the New Year, 25-year-old Netley, and May, the queen blackmailer old enough to be his mother, announced their intention to wed. They hoped a photograph showing the two of them cozying up on a loveseat would convince readers that their wedding plans were legit. In reality it was a publicity stunt.

Netley Lucas mugNetley was not, in fact, a “noted criminologist.” He was an English con man who began his life of crime at the tender age of 14 when he adopted the persona of a wounded serviceman, claiming to have fought in a World War I battle. Gaining the sympathy of London society, he was able to open credit accounts with various businesses until the deception was uncovered and he was sent to reform school. He quickly escaped and was on the make again, posing as a gentleman. Arrested for false pretenses and check fraud, back to the Borstal went young Netley. There “he had associated with every form of crook and confidence trickster imaginable.” It was perfect schooling for a boy with his predilections and talents.

In 1924, at the tender age of 21, Netley, who claimed to have turned over a new leaf, found his “true calling” as a writer. His memoir, “The Autobiography of a Crook,” was published in 1925. It became a bestseller and over the next few years he wrote biographies of members of various European royal family members and well-known public figures.

Netley’s biographies were fabricated. Even his own memoir turned out to have been ghost written. The book about the exploits of lady criminals was likely also a pack of lies.

Chicago May mugChicago May was born Mary Anne Duignan in 1871 in Ireland. She stole her family’s life savings, in 1890, and used it to immigrate to England, then America. May worked as a prostitute in New York City. Next she moved to Chicago during the World’s Fair, in 1893, where she teamed up with another prostitute to rob clients — one did the robbing while the gent was “distracted” by the other. She also became adept at the “badger game,” a con in which married men were lured into sexually compromising situations, then blackmailed.

May and CharlieMay became romantically involved with the noted criminal Eddie Guerin and they traveled to Europe. (Not one to be outshone, Eddie published his autobiography in 1928). She and Eddie planned the robbery of an American Express office in Paris, but plans went awry and they ended up in prison. The pair reunited in London (May was released, Eddie escaped) where their relationship turned ugly and May took up with another crook named Robert Considine, alias Charlie Smith. An argument between the three, involving Eddie’s threats to slash May’s face, led to Eddie being shot in the foot. May and Charlie were convicted of attempted murder and sent to English prisons in 1907.

Her criminal heyday in the past, May returned to the United States after her 1917 prison release. She landed in Detroit, where, desperate for money, she worked as a common prostitute. May hoped her memoir would help her get back on her feet financially.

Though the engagement to Netley was bogus, May did plan to get married — to her old love and fellow crook, Robert. However she was taken ill before the nuptials could occur and she died in a Philadelphia hospital on May 30, 1929. At least 15 of her 57 years on earth had been spent in a prison cell.

Netley fared even worse than May. In 1931 he was convicted of trying to sell a fake biography of Queen Alexandra and sentenced to 18 months hard labor. The notoriety brought an end to his writing career and he spiraled into alcoholism. He was found dead in 1940, aged 37, in the partly burnt out living room of a house in Surry, England. No one mourned his passing.

They say what goes around comes around, so it seems fitting that crook books are back in style. Biographies of both Netley Lucas and Chicago May have been published in recent years.

Featured photo: news photo of Netley Lucas and Chicago May, announcing their engagement to be married on January 4, 1928. Collection of the author.

Other photos: Netley’s mugshot, Police Gazette, July 18, 1924; May’s mugshot, date and location unknown; May and Robert, The Evening Journal, Wilmington, Delaware, May 30, 1929.

 

 

 

 

 

Girl Bandits

Girl Bandits

Edna McCarthy and Leona Bell, alleged to have participated in several holdups, were held to the grand jury yesterday by Judge Richardson of the West Chicago avenue court. Bonds of each were fixed at $30,000. Both girls were companions of John Getzen, who was shot while he was attempting to rob Segt. Frank Cunningham of the North Avenue station on July 16.

Chicago Tribune, August 29, 1925

The 1920s was well into its roaring phase when newspaper articles began to appear about young female offenders, often described as “girl bandits,” “bandit queens” or “flapper bandits.” For some members of the fair sex, getting the vote, shortening their skirts and bobbing their hair also unleashed law-breaking urges, resulting in a feminine crime wave.

Edna McCarthy, aged 26, and Leona Bell, 21, were two of the “girl bandits” wreaking havoc on the citizens of Chicago in 1925. After a number of successful robberies, the girls, along with Edna’s brother-in-law, John Getzen, made the fatal mistake of trying to “stickup” a plain-clothes police officer, Frank Cunningham. Leona stopped Cunningham and asked for street directions. After he got out of his car to help her, Getzen emerged from a hiding place and held a gun to his ear. Rather than cooperating, Cunningham grabbed Getzen’s gun and shot him four times. The fourth bullet was fatal. Getzen was “full of hop” at the time of his death.

Edna and Leona escaped in their stolen car and made a two-week jaunt through Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio. The ladies were captured in Toledo and returned to Chicago, where they were charged with robbery, attempted robbery, concealing a felony and forgery. Apparently the girls got lucky and didn’t get prison time for the Chicago crimes. However Leona was convicted on an earlier forgery charge and was sentenced to two years in the Wisconsin State Reformatory for Women. But the ever-clever Leona soon escaped, along with another inmate, by sliding down a drain pipe and stealing a getaway car.

Crime among women is increasing. Cheap movies have glorified the girl bandit. There is many a girl today whose one ambition is to be queen of the underworld. Sometimes dope’s to blame. Sometimes it’s something more insidious than dope — the lure of silk stockings and finery.

— Policewoman Mrs. Mary Hamilton, New Castle Herald, January 26, 1924

Elizabeth_Sullivan_bandit_queen_girl_bandit

Arizona Republic, January 14, 1923

Another bandit queen, Elizabeth Sullivan, 21, robbed Chicagoans at gunpoint with her pearl-handled automatic. She pulled the robberies to build a nest egg so she could marry her “sheik,” a man named Glen, who was also a bandit. “He was the cat’s ankles,” she exclaimed. The crime spree ended when Elizabeth and some of her gang were arrested in January 1923.

Alice_and_Caroline_Peterson_girl_bandits

Weekly Town Talk, May 17, 1924

Two young sisters, Alice and Caroline Peterson, of Red Wing, Minnesota, read about girl bandits in the news and decided that crime life sounded exciting, so they formed a gang with two young men. Their victim was a taxi cab driver, who they bound and robbed, taking his money and his vehicle. The four were found the next day, asleep under a haystack, and arrested. Alice and Caroline got one to ten years each in the state prison. However young women were still, in certain ways, not equal to young men — the guys got five to forty years each in the pen.

“Why are there so Many Girl Bandits?” was the headline of an April 1924 article in the Baltimore Sun. The reporter tried to answer the question with explanations ranging from lack of moral training to indifferent “flapper” parents. Or perhaps, the author suggested, young women simply had too much economic independence or were oversophisticated for their age. Not to mention that age-old problem of young people choosing pleasure over discipline!

She’s more afraid of failing her sweetheart than she is of handling a gun. The fear may be born of his threats, but I believe that it is usually born of her affection for him; psychopathic love, perhaps, an infatuation, but a consuming one while it lasts. In short, the gungirl becomes a gungirl in order to win the approval of a man.

— Helen P. McCormick, Assistant District Attorney of Brooklyn, New York, 1924

So you see, guys, when it comes to crime, it’s all your fault!

Featured photo: Edna McCarthy, 1925 press photo. Collection of the author.

One Knife and Two Diamond Rings

One Knife and Two Diamond Rings

After escaping from the Ingleside branch of the County Jail by leaping through an open window last night Mrs. Grace Rogers and Miss Marie Allison were captured several hours later by deputy Sheriffs at Ellis and Mason Streets. The women were still wearing prison clothes when apprehended.

San Francisco Chronicle, August 5, 1920

Grace Rogers and Marie Allison didn’t know each other prior to their 1920 arrests in San Francisco. But the two women were well acquainted by the time they escaped together from the Ingleside Jail.

Ingleside-womensjail-2

Ingleside Women’s Jail, 1925. Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley.

Twenty-year-old Grace was arrested on July 15th and charged with shoplifting several thousand dollars worth of goods from multiple downtown San Francisco jewelry stores. She and her husband had arrived in the city via steamer from Los Angeles three weeks earlier. At some point the couple had an argument and he abandoned her. Authorities were unable to locate the gentleman.

After fainting in the courtroom during her arraignment, a revived Grace commented, “I was lonesome and didn’t care what I did,” to explain why she stole two diamond rings, a wedding ring, two watches and a necklace. The stylishly dressed Grace, her beauty a distraction for the male store clerks, coolly palmed the valuables and made a hasty exit, disappearing into the Union Square crowds.

Grace Rogers_marked

Grace Rogers, jail mug book entry. Collection of the author.

Following her confession to shoplifting, Grace said she wasn’t going to worry anymore and that she “felt like a million dollars.” Her primary concern was to clear Donald Birdsall, a young man she met on the steamer, from being implicated in the crimes. “He is as innocent as a baby,” she claimed. “I was lonesome and this boy was nice so I invited him to come and see me.” Donald had been stopping by Grace’s lodgings regularly to escort her around town. She was dispatched back to jail and he was charged with vagrancy.

A much different kettle of criminal fish, Marie Allison, aged 19, was charged with assault to commit murder after she chased Percy Keneally, a taxi driver, through the downtown streets with a butcher knife. Marie and Percy had been romantically involved until she got word that he had a wife and child. On the morning of July 22nd, an incensed Marie located Percy at Sutter and Mason streets. She tried to confront him with the facts, but he refused to talk to her so she ran to a neighboring fruit stand and procured a large knife. She chased him for three blocks before she was arrested.

“If you let me go I will kill him the first chance I get,” she told the Court. “I thought he was a real man, but I made a mistake.” The judge raised her bail to $10,000 and sent her off to jail, where she met Grace.

Marie Allison_marked

Marie Allison, jail mug book entry. Collection of the author.

On the evening of August 4th, the cool shoplifter and the hot-headed, would-be murderer put into motion their daring escape plan. The women hid behind some boxes in the jail laundry and, while the other inmates were marched into their cells, the pair threw open a window and leaped to the ground. Next they scaled the high board fence around the jail. Their escape went unnoticed for some time, but eventually they were missed and a search posse was formed.

The ladies were picked up the following morning as they stepped from a taxicab near Union Square. The officers who arrested them insisted that the reason they were caught was because neither was wearing a hat! With bonnets on board, they wouldn’t have been recognized and probably would have gotten away.

Grace and Marie completed their jail time without further incident and neither was sentenced to prison. Grace apparently learned her lesson about shoplifting. Marie cooled down and didn’t kill Percy.

Featured images: Mugshots of Grace Rogers (left) and Maries Allison (right). Collection of the author.

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 Dorothy’s mother Anna needed her to work all the time because the family was not wealthy and Anna 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 into 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!

Oakland_Tribune_Thu__Jan_15__1925_

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.

The_Los_Angeles_Times_Mon__Mar_6__1933_

The Los Angeles Times, March 6, 1933

Paroled after six and a half years, it only took a year before Dorothy spent 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 clue about Dorothy’s past.) 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.

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 explanation for why she stole the goods — 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.

Escape Tunnel

Escape Tunnel

Despite growing up in a law-abiding family, Hiram Lepper was a small-time crook that spent most of his life in prison. His story would be relegated to the scrap heap of crime history if it weren’t for the fact that he made two daring escapes from the Federal Penitentiary in Atlanta, Georgia.

Born in 1866 in Ionia, Michigan, Hiram had one honest occupation — in 1888 he worked as a clerk for a hardware company in Grand Rapids. His first arrest came in 1893 in Kalamazoo, Michigan, for selling stolen silk handkerchiefs while also carrying a razor and a revolver in his pockets.

More arrests and imprisonments followed, mostly for a type of counterfeiting called “raising” in which bills of a lower denomination were altered to look as if they had a higher value. He also carried out robberies, including one of a priest, to obtain the cash for counterfeiting. Between 1897 and 1913 he was rarely out of prison, earning sentences in Michigan State Prison, Joliet Prison in Illinois, and the federal penitentiaries in Atlanta, Georgia and Leavenworth, Kansas. He tended to be an uncooperative prisoner — talking back, refusing to obey orders, breaking things and making escape attempts — so he generally served his full time.

Hiram Lepper_Leavenworth

Inmate prison photos (intake) of Hiram Lepper, June 10, 1911, Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary. Collection of NARA-Kansas City.

In May 1914 Hiram was incarcerated for a third stretch in the federal prison in Atlanta. He and another prisoner escaped from the tuberculosis camp, in late December 1914, by scaling the prison wall with an improvised ladder. He was recaptured in Milwaukee, Wisconsin the following May after stealing $14 from his landlady’s daughter and raising the bills from $1 to $20. He was returned to the penitentiary.

His next escape attempt was a risky scheme that took time to implement. It also required planning and hard work.

In December 1923, four prisoners, including Hiram, escaped through a tunnel barely wide enough for one man. The tunnel led from a tubercular tent on the prison grounds that had housed him and another escapee, Frank Haynes, to a point fifty feet beyond the stone wall surrounding the prison.

Prison officials believed that Lepper and Haynes dug the tunnel using only a small shovel and a miner’s lantern. It had taken them at least two months to excavate it. The men clandestinely carried the loose gravel and dirt they removed to a point 75 feet away from their tent. The entrance was through a trap door in the wooden floor of the tent. Below the trap door was a drop of eight feet into the tunnel. Three of the escapees, including Hiram, were traced to Indiana, but there the trail went cold.

Lepper news clip

News clipping from the Altoona Tribune, Altoona, Pennsylvania, Sat., Feb. 2, 1924.

Hiram Lepper was recaptured in Baltimore after five weeks on the lam. Though he requested parole in 1930, it wasn’t granted. He died of a heart attack in the federal penitentiary in Atlanta on February 5, 1938, having spent more than half his life in prison. His family brought his body home to Michigan for burial.

Featured photo: 1897 carte de visite mugshot, front and back, of Hiram Lepper. Collection of the author.

Her Skull Speaks

Her Skull Speaks

When skeletal human remains were discovered on April 13, 1922, in a rural part of New York State near New York City, Mary E. Hamilton was assigned to the case. Hamilton, head of the short-lived New York City “Women’s Precinct,” was the first policewoman to serve in New York City. Medical experts declared that the victim was a young woman but her identity was unknown.

Mary E. Hamilton front_marked

Mary E. Hamilton, circa 1922. Collection of the author.

Hamilton used a novel and untested technique, facial reconstruction on the skull, to try to identify the victim. Grant Williams, a retired police captain, was brought in by Hamilton to create the reconstruction. Williams gradually added Plaster of Paris and wax to the skull to build up the victim’s face. The plaster face was painted with a flesh-toned paint. Finally glass eyes and a wig were added to complete the head.

The reconstructed head was shown to the Lillian White’s sister who agreed that it bore a strong resemblance to her sister. White had run away the previous fall from Letchworth Village, an institution for mentally and physically disabled individuals in Rockland County, New York.

A New York court ruled that the bones were those of the missing girl, Lillian White. There was no doubt that her death was murder; she died after being hit on the head multiple times with a hammer. Her body had then been wrapped in old newspapers and left to decompose.

lillian-white-marked

Artist’s rendition of Lillian White, victim of Harry Kirby

James Crawford, alias Harry A. Kirby, a former attendant at Letchworth Village, was a “supposed sweetheart of White’s.” He was a suspect in Lillian White’s murder and police collected his fingerprints from his home, but in the meantime he escaped. He was arrested three years later, in Augusta, Maine, for the abduction and strangulation of another woman, Aida Hayward, and attempted murder of Hayward’s aunt.

While being held in jail for the Hayward murder, Kirby committed suicide in jail by slashing his wrists with a razor blade.

Hamilton retired from the police force in 1926 but she remained a strong advocate of fingerprinting for use in identification of criminal suspects. Forensic facial reconstruction continues to be used to help identify victims of crimes as well as to visualize the faces of famous historical figures. Mary E. Hamilton was the first American police officer to use the technique to identify a murder victim.

Featured image: News photo (jail mugshot) of Harry A. Kirby, 1925. Collection of the author.