“With Long Criminal Records”

“With Long Criminal Records”

Warrants charging larceny were issued yesterday by the Circuit Attorney’s office against three women arrested last week in their room in Hotel Statler for shop-lifting. Police reported finding the wallet of a victim in the room. The women, all of whom said they are from Milwaukee, Wis., are: Ruth Stehling, 34 years old; Louise R. Smith, 32, and Jean Miller, 34. In the room police found a wallet containing $14, some checks and personal papers belonging to Mrs. Katherine Rueckert, 3435 Halliday avenue. Mrs. Rueckert had reported that the wallet was snatched from her in a downtown department store.

— St. Louis Post-Dispatch (St. Louis, Missouri), March 27, 1934

The Kusch family crime poster has the look of a kid’s school project, with the awkward placement of text, some of which was hand-drawn, and the amateurish attempt at a symmetrical layout. It was made by a St. Louis police officer in 1934 and photographed as a magic lantern slide, possibly for use as a lecture aid.

I suspect the point of the poster was to demonstrate how suspects might avoid being identified as repeat offenders by using aliases. The real names of the three ladies in stand-up mugshot were (left to right) Helen, Anna and Julia Kusch.

Another aim of the poster was to demonstrate that crime was a career choice that occasionally ran in families.

The mother of two of the three women in the photo was Mary Meka Kusch. Mary was a German immigrant to the United States who tutored her young daughters in how to steal ladies’ purses and forced them to become pickpockets. Mary’s husband, Michael, who was also born in Germany, was not involved in the “family business.”

In 1909 Anna Kusch was the youngest child ever arrested by the detective bureau in Buffalo, New York, after she was caught stealing shoppers’ purses in department stores. At the ripe old age of eight Anna was a suspect in many purse thefts.

Anna and her older sister, Helen, were serial pickpockets while they were still in grade school. The girls strolled the streets, stealing ladies’ purses as the opportunity arose, and hiding their loot in a baby carriage. Imagine the surprise of the beat officer who leaned over to give the “baby” a tickle on the chin!

In 1910 the Kusch sisters were taken into police custody for pickpocketing. Mama Kusch got three months probation for teaching her children to be thieves.

The following year Helen was arrested again for stealing cash from the purses of women shopping on the main drag of Buffalo. She told the police that her mother sent her out every day after school to steal money and if she didn’t do it she got a whipping. Mary was charged with receiving stolen property. Helen was sent to a detention home for juveniles.

Meanwhile the sisters’ older brothers, John and Albert Kusch, were engaged in robbing the poor box at a local Catholic church. They drank enough whiskey to put Albert and a friend in the hospital in critical condition with alcohol poisoning. Albert subsequently recovered. John went on to be convicted of burglary and sent to New York’s Elmira Reformatory at the age of 19.

As Helen and Anna blossomed into their teen years they continued to shoplift and pickpocket. Both were caught and earned themselves another stay in a Buffalo detention home.

The Kusch family moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, by 1920. The change of state may have been motivated by their notoriety in Buffalo because their crime careers continued in “America’s Dairyland.” When Helen was 28, in 1926, she was arrested for pickpocketing in Milwaukee. She jumped bail and forfeited her $1000 bond.

John was arrested for passing bad checks in 1931 when he was 38 years old. Over the previous 20 years he’d accumulated 16 arrests, including one for contributing to the delinquency of a minor after he’d picked up an underage girl and had sex with her. He was sentenced to five to seven years in a Wisconsin state prison on the bad check charge. John joined Albert, who was already in state prison, serving a three-year sentence for the attempted robbery of a pharmacy.

When the Kusch ladies were arrested for pickpocketing in St. Louis, Helen and Anna had 25 years of experience under their belts. They knew it would be a smart move to give the police false names to fool them into believing it was their first offense. Julia Kusch was not their sister but she may have been their sister-in-law because Albert was married for a while to a woman named Julia.

Helen was picked up in Green Bay, Wisconsin, for shoplifting an item worth $1.50 in 1935. Police there claimed she’d been arrested many times in the past. She was given a six month suspended sentence and a $100 fine. Anna was also arrested and later released without charge.

The 1935 arrests of Helen and Anna were last time any Kusch family members appeared in the police news. It’s impossible to know if the poster put an end to their criminal activities, however there’s an old saying, “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.” That little proverb may have run through the mind of the police officer when he got out his glue and pen to make the Kusch Family crime poster.

Featured photo: St. Louis Police Lantern Slides, collection of the Missouri History Museum.

All in the Family

All in the Family

In the arrest of nine residents of Sample alley during the last two days, and the recovery of about $10,000 worth of merchandise stolen from Pittsburgh stores, Commissioner of Police Peter P. Walsh of the North Side, believes that the greatest system of shoplifting ever conducted in this city has been exposed.

— Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania), May 14, 1914

Although she was only 17 years old, Gertrude Busch doesn’t look too upset about being arrested as a member of the “biggest shoplifting gang” ever to hit the city of Pittsburgh. Gertrude had a pretty good poker face.

She was born in Germany and immigrated to America with her parents and eight siblings in 1909. The Busch family settled in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Shoplifter skirt illus. - Newspapers.com

In May 1914 the owner of a Pittsburgh dry goods store, Maurice Kiwowitz, realized he was missing a large amount of his merchandise. Maurice figured about $100 worth of stuff ($2,500 in 2018 dollars) had gone rogue every week during the previous few months. He suspected a group of German women were responsible for the thefts when he noticed a pattern of things vanishing after their daily visits to his shop. He instructed one of his shop clerks to closely watch the women the next time they dropped by.

The clerk followed his instructions and caught one of the ladies in the act of secreting something in the “copious pockets of a specially designed skirt.” The clerk alerted Maurice, who promptly called the police.

The police arrested Gertrude, her mother, Annie Busch, and four of her sisters: Angeline, Theresa, Sophia and Margaret.

Mama_Angeline Busch

Anna (left) and Angeline Busch

Theresa_Sophia Busch

Theresa (left) and Sophia Busch

More arrests followed over the next two days, including Gertrude’s father, “Christ” (Christian), her brother, William, and three of her brothers-in-law. The final count of those in custody was eight members of the Busch family and three of their sons-in-law. Only three of Christ and Annie’s nine children weren’t implicated in the crime: Mary, age 33, Henry, age 21, and Annie, age 13.

The Busch gang’s modus operandi was for mama Annie to go into a store with several of her daughters. She’d strike up a conversation with the clerk while the daughters surreptitiously slipped items into the hidden pockets in their skirts. As soon as the ladies finished filling up, Mrs. Busch purchased an inexpensive item to keep the clerk from suspecting foul play and they made a rapid exit.

The police found over $10,000 worth of merchandise ($252,000 in 2018 dollars) stolen from shops around the city and packed into 18 trunks that were stored in the cellars of the family’s three homes. Most of it was inexpensive clothing and household goods. Many of the items had been soaked in water to make them look wrinkled, old and worn out in case someone questioned the item’s provenance.

Christ_William Busch

Christ (left) and William Busch

Fred_Jacob

Fred Volscoat (left, Theresa’s husband) and Jacob Bachmann (Angeline’s husband)

Angeline, Theresa, Sophia and Margaret Busch all confessed to shoplifting and were charged with larceny. However Annie, Christ, Gertrude and William Busch and the three of brothers-in-law claimed they “knew nothing of any robberies and did not know that the stuff in their trunks was stolen.” Convinced they were lying, the police charged them with receiving stolen goods. In addition to the adults, eight children ranging in age from two weeks to 14 years were taken to jail with their parents because there was no one left to care for them.

The four confessing sisters told police that the family planned to ship the trunks back to Germany, where they would use the stolen loot to stock a dry goods store they planned to open. It sounds like a half-baked scheme but these weren’t the cleverest of crooks, given that they went back to the same store to shoplift day after day.

In June 1914 a grand jury brought back bills charging the entire family, including the brothers-in-law, with larceny and receiving stolen property. The following February they were all put on trial.

Newspapers were silent on the outcome of the trial, but given the evidence it’s hard to imagine they weren’t found guilty. However Gertrude was very young, her parents were elderly and the rest of the family members had small children, so it’s likely none of them got much, if any, prison time.

By 1919 the Busch family had moved from Sample Alley, in the heart of Pittsburgh, to other towns in Pennsylvania where they found honest, gainful employment. There’s no evidence any of them ever broke the law again, but the shopkeepers of Pittsburgh must have rejoiced to see them go.

Christ, age 61, died of pneumonia in North Braddock, Pennsylvania, in April 1919. His wife Annie died two days before Christmas in 1946 at the ripe old age of 89. And, while many of the couple’s children lived only to middle age, poker-faced Gertrude beat the odds and made it to 76.

Featured photo: mugshot of Gertrude Busch, taken May 12, 1914, by the Pittsburgh Police. Collection of the author.

Note: I purchased the nine mugshots shown here from an eBay seller. The mugshots of Margaret Busch and Sophia Busch’s husband, Melchior Gebhart, were not available from the seller.