The Trouble with Harry

The Trouble with Harry

Harry Vining, alias Edward Brooks, 19 years old, of 1 Harvard ct., Brookline, was arrested last evening by Inspectors Pierce and McGarr last evening on the charge of uttering forged checks. He was held on a warrant issued by the lower court, but the police have also an indictment warrant containing two similar counts. It is said he is also wanted in Brookline.

— The Boston Daily Globe, December 26, 1905

It didn’t make for happy family holidays when Harry Lewis Vining was charged with three counts of check fraud the day after Christmas in 1905. Despite his youth, Harry had managed to pull off “numerous forgeries” of checks for almost a year, until he was finally caught in mid-December. He forged the signatures of a variety of real people on the checks and each check was made out to one of his aliases. Oddly, all the checks were for the same dollar amount — $29.

Harry was the younger of two children born to a Civil War veteran from Maine, John Q. A. Vining, and his wife, Julia Merrey Vining. John Vining worked as a carpenter and moved his family from Maine to Massachusetts by 1886, the year Harry was born. John and Julia were in their late forties when their only son entered the world. Bernice Snow, Harry’s sister, was almost 20 years older than her brother and had been a widow for seven years when her brother’s legal woes began.

Harry’s mother and sister showed up in court at his sentencing and turned on the water works — big time. Their show of emotion, along with the family’s “character and respectability” and the defendant’s boyish charm, softened the judge’s resolve. “Vining, my first intention was to send you to state prison, but I do not think you fully realize what you have done,” said Judge DeCourcy. Instead he sent Harry to the Concord Reformatory with a warning: if he got arrested again he would cool his heels in a Massachusetts state prison for a very long time. This explains why, when Harry got up to his little tricks again, he was in California — about as far from Massachusetts as someone could go in the United States.

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Bimini Bath House, circa 1920. William H. Hannon Library.

On November 29, 1907 Harry strolled into the Bimini Baths, just west of downtown Los Angeles. He claimed to be an officer of the law and wore a deputy sheriff’s star to prove it. He removed his clothing, put on a bathing suit and headed off for a pleasant soak in the warm waters of the natural hot springs that supplied the popular bathing resort.

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Folsom Prison Inmate photographs, California State Archives.

When Harry left the baths — clean, refreshed and relaxed — he couldn’t find his clothes anywhere. That was because J. N. Gunnett, the bathhouse watchman, recognized Harry when he came in. After Harry went into the baths Gunnett collected his clothes, locked them up and called the police.

Not only was Harry’s deputy’s star fake, he’d passed a bad check at the Bimini several weeks earlier, so Gunnett was ordered to keep a sharp eye out for him.

The officers arrested him and gave him his clothes back so he could get dressed, then they took him to jail. The Los Angeles Police knew him as “William Howard” and wanted him for passing 15-20 forged checks, some of which he’d tendered as payment at local saloons.

This time when Harry showed up in court, his female relatives were not in attendance sobbing their eyes out. He received a three-year prison sentence to Folsom State Prison, northeast of Sacramento. Officials did not know Harry’s real name at this point so he was sent to prison as “William Howard.” He claimed to work as a set painter for the theater — his occupation in the prison register was “scenic artist.”

After Harry was released from Folsom, on April 19, 1910, he wisely left Los Angeles and headed north to San Francisco. In September he “kited” a bogus check there to pay for groceries and he wasn’t caught until the following February. When he pleaded guilty to that crime he falsely claimed to be the son of Edward Payson Vining, the former Freight Traffic Manager for the Union Pacific Railway Company. Vining was also from Massachusetts and he was a well-known author. Though they shared a surname, his family was no relation to Harry’s family. If Harry thought this would cause the judge to give him a lighter sentence, he was mistaken.

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Harry Vining in Folsom stripes. Collection of the author.

At this point officials knew his true name and that he had a previous record. His sentence was harsh — Harry got another five years at Folsom. Four aliases were also listed in the prison register for him — William Crawford, William Howland, William Howard and William Madison. Prison officials wanted to make sure they’d know him if he were arrested again under one of his aliases. He served three years and seven months and was discharged on September 25, 1914.

After Harry was freed from Folsom he moved to Eureka, California, where he married a woman named Beulah and worked as mechanic and “car operator” according to the 1917 city directory.

The film business, which got established in California around 1919, with its glamour and “get rich quick” mentality, might have drawn Harry back to the southern end of the state, perhaps to try his hand as a scenic artist for films.

It’s likely Harry died in Los Angeles in 1933 and was buried in the Hollywood Forever Cemetery — it sounds like a place he’d want to be buried. However absolute proof that it’s “my” Harry in that grave eludes me.

Note: I am indebted to my vintage photography collector friends, Ron and Fawn, for connecting me with three of the mugshots of Harry L. Vining that appear in this post. The photos inspired me to find out more about Harry’s life and crimes, and they’re a bit of a mystery themselves. Fawn discovered them in a Michigan antique mall, where they were displayed together in a frame. (Strange — why frame mugshots?) It appears that they were cut from an official Folsom prisoner photo album and repasted into another photo album, then later cut out of the album and framed.

Featured photos: Harry L. Vining’s mugshots from his 1911 incarceration at Folsom State Prison. Collection of the author.

In and Out of the Colony

In and Out of the Colony

The police have been asked to be on the lookout for George A. Lewis, 27 years old, who escaped from the Gardner Insane Colony, Sunday. He is of slight build and has dark hair. He was dressed in a gray suit.

Fitchburg Sentinel (Fitchburg, Massachusetts), October 19, 1908

His name was recorded by the Worcester police as “Arthur or George Lewis” when he was arrested on October 4, 1913 for carrying a gun, B & E and larceny. His police identification card carries the following information:

Age: 28 years

Height: 5’11”

Weight: 170 pounds

Descent: African

Skin color: Coffee

Occupation: Hotel Waiter

His right hand had been broken at some point and he had scars on both sides of his head. (The scar on the right side is visible above his temple in his profile photo).

He was held for a grand jury hearing, but no newspaper articles about a charge or conviction were found. In his mug shot photos his eyes don’t quite focus and he looks like he’s unconcerned about his predicament.

George Allen Lewis was born on June 15, 1883 in Littleton, Massachusetts, the youngest of three children born to George and Abby (Smith) Lewis. Abby died of gastroenteritis in 1897. By 1900 George and his father moved to Boston, where his father worked as a day laborer and George attended school.

An article appeared in the Boston Post on November 25, 1901, about the attempted murder of a young, recently married, black man named George Lewis. George’s wife, Mary, hit her husband on the head with a hatchet after a quarrel stemming from visits she received from another man. “My only wish is,” she is reported to have said to Lieutenant Garland, “that the axe was not sharper. I wanted to kill him.” Mary Lewis had a violent past and had been involved in an earlier assault case in which someone threw a lighted lamp at her.

George survived the attack and told police that he loved his wife and simply had asked her to give up her male friend. Police were convinced “he had come pretty near being a model husband.”

Possibly the head injury George suffered, described as deep gash three inches long that bled profusely, caused a traumatic brain injury that eventually made him mentally unstable. By 1908, George was a patient in an asylum called the Gardner State Colony in Worcester County, Massachusetts.

A history of Gardner describes it as a “colony for mentally disturbed patients who were able bodied and sufficiently cooperative to engage in construction work for the institution.” The Colony had both an agricultural and a livestock farm and was self-supporting. Escapes were common, and after George escaped, in October 1908, the police were asked to be on the lookout for him. He was back as a patient in the Colony by 1910, when the federal census listed his occupation there as “housework.”

Gardner Insane Colony

Map of the Gardner State Colony from the 1907 annual report of the institution

His arrest in 1913 may have occurred after another escape, but it’s also possible he had an improvement in his mental health. The goal of the physicians who ran the Colony, according to annual reports published between 1903-1911, was to rehabilitate patients and release them back into the community. The Worcester city directory for 1915 lists a “George Lewis” who worked as a waiter and boarded at 23 Washington Street. The city of Worcester was less than 30 miles south of the Colony.

George was back at the Colony by 1918. In September of that year, a Gardner official filed a World War I draft registration card for him. His father, a resident of Roxbury, Massachusetts, was listed as his next of kin. George was no longer able to write his name, so someone at the institution signed for him with an “X.” The box where his occupation should have been written was instead stamped “INSANE.”

George was still a patient of the Colony when he was counted on the federal census in January 1920. Ominously he was one of the few inmates who had no occupation — apparently his mental condition had deteriorated to the point that he could no longer carry out even simple tasks. George was not listed on the 1930 federal census at the Colony or anywhere else.

In 1935 the Colony’s name was changed to the Gardner State Hospital. The hospital closed in 1976 and in 1981, a prison opened on the site. There’s a cemetery from the Colony years and a list of 132 people who are buried there appears on FindAGrave, but George’s name isn’t on the list. However the description of the cemetery notes that there could be as many as 600 more unidentified souls buried there and it’s likely that George is one of them.

Featured photo: Worcester Police Department Criminal identification card photos taken on October 4, 1913. Collection of the author.

Stealing Butter

Stealing Butter

James Gaffney was arrested yesterday for the larceny of a tub of butter valued at $10, the property of Mr. George Plummer.

Boston Post, June 4, 1875

The alleged butter heist was part of a list of “Criminal Matters” reported by the Boston newspaper. The crimes, all thefts of various kinds, ranged from Frenchman Henry Mauthe’s forgery of a $650 note that he sold to another man for $519, with the second man then selling it to a third man for $620, to James’s comparatively modest theft of Mr. Plummer’s butter.

James must have been desperate to steal butter, or perhaps it was a crime of opportunity. Given its value — $10 — it would have been quite a large quantity of butter. It’s likely he intended to sell it and pocket the cash.

James Gaffney_backThree years later a man named James Gaffney was arrested for a brass knuckle assault on Richard Dailey in Lynn, Massachusetts. The assault occurred while James was out on bail for breaking and entering a Sagamore Street saloon. The assault charges were dropped after Richard refused to testify and told the court he had no memory of the attack.

These crimes all occurred in or near Boston, but it’s impossible to know whether the same James Gaffney was responsible for all of them.

The mugshot photo of James is a tintype — a photo made on a thin metal plate. That’s surprising because most police departments had switched to carte de visite — albumen prints on paper — for their rogues’ galleries by the 1870s, if not earlier. The tintype is in a paper sleeve with James’s name and information about his crime — “larceny of money from a dwelling house” — faintly written in pencil on the back. He’s a thin young man, about 20 years old, with blue eyes, large hands and a steely stare.

Gorman_markedThe tintype of James was paired by an eBay seller with a tintype of a man named Gorman, identified as a “Salem thief” on the front of the photo sleeve. Salem is a city north of Boston that was made famous by its 17th century witch trials. Nothing is written on the back of the photo sleeve and no information about the single-named Gorman was located. Both Gorman (assuming it was his last name) and Gaffney are Irish surnames and there were plenty of poor Irish immigrants in living in Massachusetts in the nineteenth century.

A small pair of rogues’ gallery tintypes is what remains — evidence of past misdeeds and misfortunes.

Featured photo: rogues’ gallery tintype of James Gaffney, circa 1870s. Collection of the author.

Female Fraud

Female Fraud

Fairhaven, Mass., Feb. 19 (Special) — An attractive “girl” of 17, who had been a perfect lady’s maid for a New York family and a hootchy-kootchy dancer with a carnival, was unmasked today as a young man who had fooled associates with his female impersonation for more than a year.

 

The young man, Albert H. Cook, son of a Fairhaven laborer, also was identified as a thief. Exposure of his hoax came with his arrest for the theft of $25,800 worth of jewelry from the home where he worked as a girl domestic.

Chicago Tribune, February 20, 1947

Albert Cook went to a party dressed as a young lady on Halloween in 1945, and the disguise was so good that no one, not even his closest friends, recognized him. It gave the 15-year-old resident of Fairhaven, Massachusetts an idea — why not dress as a girl and see if he could get a job in a big city? There wasn’t much keeping him in Fairhaven — his mother died when he was small. Life in a small New England town wasn’t exciting and it didn’t hold much interest for young Albert. An only child, Albert and his father lived with his grandparents. His father had been a fisherman, but by 1940 Charles Cook worked in a dull, backbreaking job, on a road construction crew for the W.P.A.

Blessed with a creamy complexion, black hair and dark blue eyes, Albert put on his blonde wig, padded himself with “falsies” and dressed in his Halloween costume in March 1946. He headed to Manhattan, where, using his friend, Ruth Hathaway’s name as an alias, he went to an employment agency and was quickly hired as a servant for a Khedouri Zilkha, a wealthy Iraqi-Jewish banker. Dainty in a lacy French uniform, “Ruth” was acknowledged by the Zilkha family to be the “perfect maid.”

A few complications cropped up. Every so often his voice cracked unexpectedly. He had to shave his beard daily, but he had a private bathroom in the Zilkha home. With the help of his wig and padding, along with an electric razor, powder and rouge, he was able to keep up the ruse for six weeks.

Then in May 1946 Mr. Zilkha accused “Ruth” of stealing two silver platters. Albert claimed he was innocent of the crime, but it got him to thinking. If he was going to be labeled a thief and lose his job, he might as well be one! He absconded with $25,800 worth of the Zilkha’s jewelry, including a $6000 diamond studded platinum clasp, and headed to Boston. There he pawned some of the loot to finance a six-month long tour of the country.

Albert_Cook_arrested__PhotoHe moved on to Chicago where he donned his female disguise and paid a private detective $30 to guard him and the jewelry for an evening on the town. After pawning more of the jewelry he left for Tennessee. Still in disguise, he joined a carnival as a “hoochie coochie (i.e. belly) dancer” and traveled with the show to Lake City, Florida. Eventually he ran out of money and, putting his “boy’s clothes” back on, he returned home to Fairhaven, where he was arrested for grand larceny and extradited to New York. Albert admitted to the theft and signed a confession. None of the Zilkha’s jewelry was recovered.

In a photo taken of the manacled Albert after his arrest, he appears to be considering what kind of bracelet the handcuff he’s wearing might make.

“Oh that Albert,” the real Ruth Hathaway giggled to police, “he was always a great one for dressing up in my clothes.”

Featured photo: news photo of Albert Cook, Feb. 26, 1947. Collection of the author.

Nemo Takes his Poison

Nemo Takes his Poison

A few days before Christmas 1898 a young man wandered into the Greenville Police Station in Jersey City, New Jersey. Though he was sober and appeared to be in his right mind, he told the officers that he could not remember his name or anything about his past. For the time being he was kept at the jail and his description was placed in local newspapers, including those in New York City, in the expectation that someone would read about him and come forward to identify him. Until his name could be established he was dubbed “Mr. Nemo.”

The chief of the Jersey City police made efforts to assist the young fellow by dictating letters for him to write in hopes that he would recall his name when he got to the end and signed the letter. Mr. Nemo came up with a few names but, upon investigation, none of them turned out to be him.

Meanwhile, the roommate of a man named Harold Carpenter had gone missing. Quite a lot of Harold’s clothing was missing too, including several overcoats that he really couldn’t be without since the weather was getting chilly. Harold, the steward of a yacht owned by a wealthy lawyer, lived at Mills House No. 1, an inexpensive residential hotel for working men in New York City’s Greenwich Village. Mills House No. 1 opened in 1897 and was the brainchild of architect Ernest Flagg and philanthropist Darius Ogden Mills. The aim was to empower the residents and discourage them from getting involved in “undesirable” (i.e. criminal) activity.

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“Evening in one of the courts in the Mills House, no. 1.” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1902.

Harold read the description of Mr. Nemo in the paper. It sounded quite a lot like his missing roommate, Harry Litchfield. In fact he sounded so much like Harry that Harold went to Jersey City to inquire about Mr. Nemo, who had been moved from the police station to the hospital.

When confronted with Harold, Mr. Nemo claimed he had never seen him before, but Harold recognized him — he was his missing roommate, Harry Litchfield. The police chief had accompanied Harold to the hospital and he used a new-fangled device called a telephone to speak to someone at Mills House and get a description of Harold’s roommate. Harry’s description matched Mr. Nemo ‘to a T!’

The jig was up. Harry fell to the floor, writhed around as if in an epileptic seizure. Once the writhing stopped he looked up and said “Why hello Harold! What are you doing here?” Harry’s memory had miraculously returned! Harold replied that he was there to get his clothing back.

The mystery of why Harry, after stealing his roommate’s clothing, had appeared at a New Jersey police station claiming to have lost his memory was never solved. It’s possible he wanted to try out his skills as a con man.

An investigation of Harry revealed that the clothing theft was not his first foray crime. He’d stolen a watch in Boston a month earlier, but his lawyer had taken an interest in him and managed to get him a suspended sentence. However that was not all Harry had done.

The previous year he had worked as the bookkeeper and temporary treasurer for a Boston auction company. One of his duties was to attend auctions and handle the cash paid in when the auction was over. In September 1897 one of the auctions Harry worked made $1000. He took put the money in a bag, took it to the office, place the bag in the vault and then told his employers he needed to go out for a breath of fresh air. However the money was not in the bag—it was hidden in his coat and he walked out with it.

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Hotel Touraine main dining room in Boston, Massachusetts. The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1899.

He proceeded to the luxurious Hotel Touraine, booked a room and began entertaining friends. He entertained many, many friends, including a number of stylishly dressed young ladies. One evening Harry and his friends ran up a bill of over $100 in the hotel’s dining room. Harry tried to pay with a check which the manager, who had become suspicious, refused to accept. The police were called and Harry was arrested, identified, and then tried and convicted of embezzlement. He served nine months in the Concord Reformatory in Massachusetts.

Harry was philosophical about life and crime. Regarding his embezzlement arrest, he commented: “A man’s an idiot to work for $12 for a week and be held responsible for thousands. The man who employs such a man is a bigger idiot. I took the stuff, took my chances, was caught red-handed, and here I am. I have had my fun, and I will take my dose of poison without a murmur.”

Featured photo: Harry A. Litchfield, carte de visite mugshot taken Sept. 27, 1897 in Boston, Massachusetts. Collection of the author.