The Divine Miss Devine

The Divine Miss Devine

She gazes off in the distance with a look of calm confidence on her face. With her hair pulled tightly back from her forehead, a small curl nestling near her ear and delicate lace gloves on her hands, she appears to be the epitome of a beautiful and alluring antebellum woman.

It was in the late summer of 1859, when she sat weeping at the Philadelphia train depot. Her distress attracted the attention of a gentleman. He went over and asked if he could be of assistance. She told him her name was Carrie Bradford and she was the daughter of Captain Bradford of Washington. Her distress, she claimed, was due to the fact that she had no place to spend the night.

Her youth and attractive features did not go unnoticed by the gentleman. He was sympathetic to her situation — a woman of her class could not be left on her own in a big city like Philadelphia. Unscrupulous people might take advantage of her.

He took her to a nearby hotel and explained the situation to the proprietor, convincing him to let her stay. The next day she wrote a letter to her father in Washington and asked the proprietor to mail the letter for her. Then she went to see a dressmaker, Mary Ann Kent, at her shop on Lombard Street, a few blocks from the Delaware River.

At the shop she told Miss Kent that her brother had recently died in Montevideo, Uruguay. She explained that his funeral would be held in Philadelphia and she needed a beautiful black mourning dress. Miss Kent was also young — about the same age as her client. Although she did not know where Uruguay was, she was convinced by the story of the refined young woman. She took her measurements and began to work on the dress.

When the dress was ready the young woman returned to the shop and tried it on. It was stunning. She was very pleased with it — so pleased, in fact, that she decided to wear it out of the shop. She told Miss Kent to donate her old dress to “some poor person.”

This was odd, but Miss Kent didn’t question the decision of such a gracious woman. She also hoped the young lady would come back to the shop and order more expensive dresses.

The new dress cost the astonishing sum of $21.71 (about $625 nowadays). Of course she did not carry this amount of money in her purse. She asked for the bill to be sent to an address in West Philadelphia, where, she said, her father was staying temporarily.

Miss Kent let her walk out of the shop wearing the dress. She lived to regret it.

The young woman went next to the shop of an undertaker and told him the story of her dead brother in South America. She asked him to make a coffin for her brother’s funeral. The undertaker heard lots of sad stories in his line of work. He took the order, but checked the address she gave him before he started the work on the coffin. He discovered that no one knew “Miss Bradford” there. Naturally he did not make the coffin. Instead he reported her to the police.

“Carrie Bradford” was an alias, one of several that she used while staying without paying at various hotels around the City of Brotherly Love. As it turned out, Miss Kent was not the only business owner she had swindled.

The Philadelphia press covered the story of the sly woman con artist. The story was also carried in the papers in Baltimore and Brooklyn to serve as a warning to those in other cities.

In early September 1859 she appeared in court before Alderman Ogle, charged with obtaining goods under false pretenses.

2005.100.551.1Her real name was Mary Ann Devine, but it’s hard to say more precisely who she was. It’s likely she was a poor immigrant from Ireland who came to the Philadelphia when she was about ten years old, fleeing the terrible famines in her native land. She probably worked as a servant from dawn to dusk, six days and half days a week, for which she was paid a pittance. One day she realized that by making use of her good looks, imagination and acting abilities, she was a few easy lies away from eating meals in a nice hotel, sleeping in a soft bed and wearing a beautiful gown — unthinkable luxuries for someone like her!

Whether she ended her crime spree in 1859 is impossible to say.

Her photo is a police mugshot, one of the earliest taken in America. To explore more of the faces of people arrested between 1857 and 1861, check out “Rogues, a Study of Characters.” The collection is online at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The Jailbreakers’ Will

The Jailbreakers’ Will

It happened in the early hours of the morning on December 4, 1891. Two police officers were standing outside the Broadway Jail in San Francisco when they noticed two men walk into Hinckley alley, a narrow pathway that ran next to the jail building. Wondering what the men were doing there so late at night, the officers followed them. But by the time they got to the alley, the men had disappeared. As the policemen turned back towards the street, a sound caught their attention. It was an odd scraping noise that seemed to be coming from the wall above their heads.

BroadwayJail

The Broadway Jail in April 1906. Courtesy of the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department

“I think someone is cutting through the jail wall,” Officer Reynolds said to his companion. Reynolds ran inside the jail and sent up an escape alarm while the other officer stood guard in the alley.

The cellThe jail was immediately searched. All the cells on the first floor — the ones that held the male prisoners — were in order. On the second floor, where the women prisoners were housed, the jailers discovered two cellmates who were awake and playing cards at a table next to the wall. Their beds had not been slept in. They told the jailers that they were restless and couldn’t sleep.

An officer searched the cell and found that the box one of the women had been sitting on was quite heavy. He turned it over and discovered it was full of bricks and mortar. Next to where the women had been sitting, a cloth had been pasted on the wall with a piece of soap. Behind the cloth there was a large hole in the wall.

Using the handle of a spoon and a kitchen knife, Jennie Hastings and Hazel Corbett had come within one layer of bricks of escaping from the jail. The fourteen-foot drop to the street did not deter them in the least. It would have been “like stepping off a streetcar,” commented Jennie.

Hazel and Jennie

Drawings from The San Francisco Examiner newspaper.

It was an obvious question, but why had they done it? Jennie and Hazel said they had $1.30 between them and wanted to “spend it on a good old drunk.” They knew the walls were weak and it hadn’t been hard to cut through the inner layer of bricks.

When told about the men who’d been seen outside the jail, they insisted they’d planned the escape alone. Bad luck, though, that the men had gone into the alley at just the wrong time, leading to their plan being exposed.

According to The San Francisco Examiner, Hazel had been photographed “more than once for the San Francisco Rogues’ Gallery.” In October she’d been sentenced to 125 days to jail for petty larceny. Jennie, who worked as a prostitute, stood accused of robbing a client. She had been held in the Broadway Jail under $2000 bond since September on a charge of grand larceny.

One of the items that turned up when their cell was searched was a will. It read:

Last will and testament of Hazel Corbett and Jennie Hastings. This, 2nd day of December, 1891, A. D., in the city and county of San Francisco. We, the undersigned, give and bequeath all our personal effects as follows: The checkerboard and deck of cards to Major Barnett in cell 34; nightcap to Sofia Jackson, 60; all of our groceries to Annie Williams, in cell 63; can of molasses to Jennie Seymour, alias ‘Brick,’ also the salt, cell 64; twelve napkins and novels to cell 34; sateen dress and black mother hubbard cloak to Annie Kelly, cell unknown; lamp to Jessie Covens, and to the matron our best wishes and good will. Signed

“JENNIE HASTINGS”

“HAZEL CORBETT”

Thanks to Jennie and Hazel’s attempted jailbreak, the authorities decreed that women would no longer held in the Broadway Jail. A separate facility was established for them on the outskirts of the city at the Ingleside Jail. In January 1892, Jennie was convicted of grand larceny and sentenced to spend a year at the new women’s jail.

In 1895 a client tried to slash Jennie’s throat during a drunken argument. She survived the attack. She made her last appearance in the news in 1897, when a gold pin was stolen from her “crib.” Anxious to get it back, she reported the theft to the police. As for Hazel, she finished her sentence for petty larceny and was not heard from again in San Francisco.

Featured photo: Jennie Hastings–Photo Number 13278–“An old time San Francisco pickpocket; also a grand and petty larceny thief of the old school.” Jesse Brown Cook Scrapbooks Documenting San Francisco History and Law Enforcement, ca 1895-1936; UC Berkeley Bancroft Library

How Mabel Got Away With Murder

How Mabel Got Away With Murder

Shots rang out at the Milwaukee Hotel in Seattle’s Chinatown around noon on Thursday, April 22, 1915. The police arrived and found George Grasty lying on the floor in a third floor washroom. He was severely injured, with a bullet wound to his abdomen and another in his right hip. The police located the shooter — a young woman — in a guest room on the fourth floor. Her gun was sitting on a nearby dresser. When she was told that Grasty was seriously injured and might die, she cried, “I am sorry.”

The woman was taken to jail. Grasty was taken to the hospital, where he died of his injuries the following day.

Three months earlier, Grasty had been released from McNeil Island Penitentiary, a federal prison off the coast of Washington State, after serving a 9 month sentence. He’d been convicted of violating the Mann Act, also known as the White Slave Traffic Act. The law was passed in 1910 out of concerns that men, particularly immigrants and African-Americans, were luring young white women and girls into prostitution. But it was also often used in cases in which an unmarried man and woman crossed state lines together.

george grasty record

Unfortunately the press didn’t cover Grasty’s case.

George Grasty was born in 1886 in Culpeper County, Virginia. His father, Enoch Homer Grasty, was a mixed race man who was born into slavery in 1846. Enoch may have been the son of his slaveholder, William Clark Grasty. An early graduate of Howard University, Enoch Grasty raised a large family in Culpeper, where he worked as a farmer, teacher and pastor. George was the fourth of seven children born to Enoch and his first wife, Fannie Bickers.

In 1913 Grasty worked as a barber in Billings, Montana. His penitentiary record indicates that in 1914, before he was imprisoned on McNeil Island, he worked as a waiter and a barber in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He also had a wife in Minneapolis.

When he got out of prison in January 1915, Grasty made his way to Seattle.

Martha Kawata to plead insanity - Newspapers.com

According to the story the shooter later told the court, her husband, Sueki Kawata, was armed with a gun and out looking for her when she happened to meet George Grasty, an old acquaintance from Montana. He offered to hide her overnight and she accepted. She and Grasty spent the next eight days drinking and smoking opium together. She claimed that due to his light complexion and pale eyes, she thought Grasty was white.

The party came to an abrupt end when she found out that Grasty had stolen a diamond necklace from her. An argument ensued and she shot him. However she also claimed Grasty had forced her to take the drugs and gloated over her while she was helpless from their effects. She claimed he told her that she had no choice but to go with him and live in a house “below the line” where she would have to work as a prostitute.

The big question on everyone’s mind was not why she shot and killed a man, but why had she married a Japanese man? The shooting of Grasty evidently seemed like a minor faux pas by comparison. Literally no one in Seattle spent any time crying over “the white slaver’s” fate.

“I married Kawata because he was good to me. He has been kind. He has cared a great deal for me and has stuck with me through this trouble, too,” she explained. But it is strange that someone so kind and caring had gone looking for her armed with a gun. Perhaps he heard she was with Grasty and took the gun in case things got ugly.

She came off as well spoken and educated when reporters visited her in jail. She was described as wearing conservative clothing that she kept neat and clean and never wearing makeup. Her husband visited her daily in jail, where he sat outside her cell.

At her trial for murder, the public was thrilled by the details of the time she and Grasty spent in opium dens prior to the murder. Because of all the opium she’d smoked, she was found not guilty by reason of insanity. She was sent to the Medical Lake Insane Asylum in eastern Washington for an evaluation of her mental state.

Six months later she was found to be sane and released from custody. There’s no doubt about it — she played her cards right and got away with murder.

She probably did have a rough childhood. She claimed that before she met Sueki, all men had been cruel to her. “If I cared for them they cared nothing for me. Once I loved a man who beat me,” she said. But she also lied about her name and her past. After she was arrested, she told the police her name was Martha Kawata. She claimed that she was born in Tennessee, but various genealogical records also list her as having been born in South Dakota and Missouri.

There’s no record of her existence prior to her marriage in October 1913 to Sueki Kawata under the name “Mabel Worthington.” It could be that she was orphaned when she was a child or that she ran away from home. It’s also possible that she had a criminal record and the name she used on the marriage record was an alias.

Sueki Kawata sued Mabel for divorce on the grounds of cruelty and desertion in 1919. Both remarried, but by 1940, both were again divorced. Sueki and his son from his second marriage, Harry, were interned at the Minidoka Concentration Camp in Idaho during World War II. Sueki died in Seattle in 1952. Mabel’s death date is unknown.

As for George Grasty, did his family back east mourn his death? Did they ever even find out what happened to him?

Featured Images: George Grasty’s mugshots from McNeil Island Penitentiary (National Archives) and a photo of Mabel Kawata published in the The Seattle Star on May 3, 1915.

The Counterfeiting Couple

The Counterfeiting Couple

Counterfeiting is a serious crime in America, but it’s nowhere near the problem it was in the nineteenth century. According to the National Archives, in the years after the Civil War, between one-third and one-half of all currency that changed hands in the United States was counterfeit. That’s an astonishing statistic! Imagine how you’d feel if there were a 50% chance you’d be given fake money in your change when you went shopping.

The United States Secret Service was born out of the need for a federal law enforcement agency to combat this rampant counterfeiting. Andrew L. Drummond was an early Secret Service detective who later became an author. One of the stories in his 1909 book, “True Detective Stories,” was about his arrest of a counterfeiter named Cooper Wiltsey:

A big powerful man, he had about as wicked eyes as I ever saw in any human being. Men generally hated him. Such women as he met invariably liked him. He was about fifty years old, but the sprinkling of gray in his hair did not handicap him. Always there was some woman to be found who would swear that Cooper Wiltsey was all right.

Drummond sounds a little envious of Wiltsey’s success with the ladies, doesn’t he?

At any rate, in 1878 Drummond got word that Wiltsey was running a counterfeiting operation out of a house in Philadelphia. He worked with the local police to investigate and they located the house where they believed Wiltsey was making counterfeit coins in a room on the second floor. He gave a dramatic description in his book of the scene that unfolded the night the couple was arrested:

As I burst into the room my eye quickly caught two figures—that of a woman standing as if she were cast in bronze and that of Wiltsey leaping at me with a fifteen inch stiletto-like carving knife clasped in his hand. I leveled my revolver at his head and told him to stop or I would kill him. He stopped. As I called, Wiltsey’s eyes shifted from me to the head of the stairs.

Wiltsey book

Thinking he had the situation under control, Drummond foolishly put his gun in his pocket and grabbed Wiltsey’s wrist. But Wiltsey refused to give up the knife and tried to cut Drummond’s fingers with it. Fortunately for the detective, his police back up appeared at that moment with their guns drawn. Wiltsey dropped the knife.

Wiltsey and his partner, Sarah Page, were in the process of melting a mixture of tin and antimony and pouring it into molds when they were arrrested. After the metal cooled and was removed from the molds, they planned to use an electric battery to add a thin layer of silver-plating to the fake coins. One silver dollar had enough silver in it to plate five hundred of the coins. Each “dollar” would be sold for between 25 and 35 cents.

Wiltsey was convicted of counterfeiting. Page was acquitted.

The Times of Philadelphia claimed that Sarah Page was Wiltsey’s mistress. But based on genealogical records, it seems more likely that she was his wife.

Cooper Wiltsey was born in New Jersey in 1833. In 1853 he and his wife Sarah had their first child, Benjamin. By 1864 they’d added another five children to their family. Wiltsey served in the 24th New Jersey Infantry during Civil War, achieving the rank of 2nd lieutenant.

The big surprise is that Wiltsey, the future counterfeiter, was employed as a constable in Gloucester City in 1870.

In 1882 Sarah listed herself as “widow of Cooper” in the Camden City Directory, but this was a little face-saving fib. Her husband was still alive and serving his sentence at the New Jersey State Prison in Trenton. By 1885 Wiltsey was back at home with Sarah and the kids, according to the New Jersey State Census. By 1891 he had his own restaurant in Gloucester City.

Sarah Wiltsey died in 1902. Cooper passed away “after a lingering illness” in May 1904. Both are buried in Gloucester City’s Cedar Grove Cemetery.

The perplexing question is why the Wiltseys, who appeared to be upstanding citizens, decided to become counterfeiters. Possibly enforcing the law somehow enticed Wiltsey into breaking it. As to his great success with the ladies, it seems that Drummond took some artistic license with his story, because Wiltsey seems to have been more of a family man than a Casanova.

Featured photos: Sarah Page, CDV mugshot from the National Archives Collection and Cooper Wiltsey, photo from the Vancouver Daily World, December 26, 1908

The Crazed Mother

The Crazed Mother

Leo Harp, passing the home of Mrs. Johanna Healey Bacher in 138 Railroad Avenue, Greenwich, Conn., late Sunday night on his way home, found an insurance policy and a sheet of paper on the sidewalk in front of the house. The policy was covered with blood stains and on the back of it had been written with a lead pencil: “I am going to kill myself and the children.” On the sheet of paper was written: “Give this to one of the cops or to Mr. Talbot.”

— New York Herald, March 28, 1922

Johanna Healey was born in Ireland in 1891 and came to America when she was seven years old. Her family settled in New York City, where her father, James, found work as a longshoreman. By 1910 the Healey family — James, his wife, Margaret, and their six surviving children out of eight — lived in a crowded tenement at 39 Bedford Street in the West Village. Johanna and her older sister, Nettie, worked in a factory to supplement that family’s income. The family also took in a female boarder to help pay the bills.

Johanna moved Greenwich, Connecticut, after she was hired to work as a maid for a family there. She met a house carpenter in Greenwich, Henry Jacob Bacher, who was born in 1889 in New York to German immigrant parents. Henry occasionally boxed under the moniker “Kid Onion” and he was fond of playing craps.

Henry was married when he met Johanna, but in November 1915 he got a divorce from his wife so that he and Johanna could get married. Their marriage occurred on December 3, 1915, in Westchester, New York.

The couple moved into an apartment owned by Henry’s mother in Greenwich. Their first child, Margaret, was born in 1917. The following year another daughter, Johanna, was born. Henry Jr. came along in 1921.

Johanna healey bacher photos - Newspapers.com

The Bachers had marital problems. By the time their son was born, Henry was involved with an 18-year-old girl and she was pregnant with his child. Henry told Johanna he wanted a divorce on the grounds of cruelty. (Apparently she was the cruel one.)

To get her to agree to the divorce Henry threatened to take the children from Johanna and she couldn’t bear the thought of that. She went out and bought rat poison with the intention of killing the children and possibly herself.

Greenwich wasn’t a big city like New York. Word of people’s problems got around. Andrew Talbot, the chief of the Greenwich police, got wind of the fact that Johanna was distraught over her husband’s divorce suit. He’d also heard rumors that she might try something desperate. He brought her and the children into the station where she admitted she’d bought rat poison to use on the kids rather than letting Henry take them from her. Andrew made her hand over the poison and promise she wouldn’t do anything crazy. He vowed to give her any assistance she needed and asked her to check back with him in a few days. He gave each child a box of candy before they left the station.

On the night of March 27, 1922, Johanna was overcome with grief. She wrote a suicide note on Henry’s life insurance policy and took a butcher knife into the bedroom where the children were sleeping. She cut each child’s throat and stabbed each one a few times to make sure they were dead. She staggered to the window and threw the policy out. Then she went into the kitchen, tore her rosary apart and fatally cut her own throat.

Later that night Leo Harp found the bloody insurance policy on the sidewalk and took it to the police. The police went to the Bacher home where they discovered the bodies of the mother and her children.

Henry J. Bacher may be insane - Newspapers.comHenry was out gambling in Stamford when his children were murdered. Upon being told what had happened he “went violently insane.” He was taken into police custody while the murders were investigated and later he was released. Physicians expressed concern that his insanity might be permanent.

Five months after the murders Police Chief Talbot felt ill at work and went home. He died of a stoke a few hours later. He’d been on the police force for 15 years.

Henry recovered his sanity and married his girlfriend Dorothy. They had five children by the time the federal census was taken in 1940.

Some authors have described Johanna as a serial killer, but she doesn’t fit the definition. She was an unstable, desperate woman who was driven to a heinous act after being abandoned by her husband. She had to live in a society that expected women to stay home with children but gave them no support to do so without a partner.

Featured photo: Johanna Healey Bacher, Daily News (New York) photo, March 28, 1922.

Her Clever Game

Her Clever Game

Emma Johnson was sentenced to the penitentiary this week in the Shawnee county district court, and her pal, E. Johnson, who claimed to be her husband, was sentenced to the Hutchinson Reformatory, the charge against both being forgery of a large number of small checks in Topeka recently. The checks were passed at Topeka stores. The woman is believed to have been the real leader in the enterprise. She is about twice as old as the man claiming to be her husband.

— The Merchants Journal, Topeka, Kansas, January 26, 1918

Part of the reason the game worked so well was its simplicity. Emma’s “husband” and “daughter” had real checks — the pay was honestly earned. But it was a simple proposition to forge the checks, making four or five checks from one, and presto: a week’s work became the wages of a month or more.

Emma went to stores in Topeka and asked the owners if they would mind cashing the checks for her. She looked honest and was well dressed and polite so most were happy to oblige. If they bothered to call at the hotel, where her “daughter” worked, or motor car company, where her “husband” was employed, to make sure everything was on the up and up, they were informed “yes, certainly” Mr. or Miss Johnson worked at the business.

They pulled the scam all over Topeka during the fall of 1917. Towards Christmas they thought they might be pushing their luck and headed out of town.

Hugh Latimer

Hugh Larimer, Kansas Historical Society

The merchants of Topeka weren’t happy about being scammed. It wasn’t right or fair and it made them look like dupes. They refused to sit by and do nothing, so they banded together and hired a private investigator from the Burns Detective Agency to try to track the criminals down. And track them he did, all the way to Oklahoma City, where Emma and the man who claimed to be her husband were arrested. The girl who posed as their daughter got away.

Hugh Larimer, the Shawnee County sheriff, took the couple into custody and charged them with forgery. The Burns detective informed Hugh that Emma and her young partner were also wanted for pulling the same check duplication scam in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The couple pleaded guilty to 3rd degree forgery.

Emma Johnson, alias Kaparis, was sentenced to between one and ten years at a new facility for women, the Kansas State Industrial Farm in Lansing, Kansas. E. Johnson, alias L.S. Burgess, got a similar sentence to the state prison for men.

00464867

Women gardeners in front of the vegetable storage cave at the Women’s Industrial Farm in 1936. Collection of the Kansas Historical Society.

Emma became the farm’s 36th prisoner on February 8, 1918. Her date of release is unknown because many of the records of the farm no longer exist.

Featured photo: glass plate negative of Emma Johnson, prisoner 36, of the Women’s Industrial Farm in Lansing, Kansas. Collection of the Kansas Historical Society.

 

 

“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.

Living La Belle Vie

Living La Belle Vie

At Paris on Wednesday M. Bordeaux, the examining magistrate, committed the defaulting bank clerk Gallay, the woman Merelli, and the man Lerendu for trial before the Assize Court. Gallay will be indicted for forgery and embezzlement and the woman Merelli for complicity in the two forgeries alleged to have been committed by Gallay, which enabled him to embezzle the sum of 350,000 francs. Merelli is also accused of receiving stolen property. The man Lerendu will be indicted for having received 15,000 francs, remitted by Gallay on the promise that he would assist in committing the forgeries.

The Guardian (London, England), December 1, 1905

With her high starched collar and prim lace shawl over a plain gingham dress she looks every bit like a sweet country girl. Her apparent lack of makeup and nascent unibrow complete the wholesome picture.

[Album of Paris Crime Scenes]

He looks like a dapper professor or businessman, with his pince-nez, dark suit coat and staid plaid vest. Only his handlebar mustache hints at a wilder side to his personality.

Don’t believe your eyes because Jean Gallay, the man in the photo, was a brazen thief who stole an enormous sum of money from the bank where he worked. The woman, Valentine Merelli, was his mistress who aided him in concealing the thefts and fled with him to Brazil. Both were married to other people when they met and fell in love (at least he fell for her). The pair sailed off into the sunset aboard a luxurious yacht, guzzling champagne all the way.

Jean was a well-educated man who spoke German and English in addition to his native French. He’d worked for the Paris police prior to taking a job as a bank clerk at the Comptoir d’escompte de Paris, where he realized the record keeping system at the bank had some loopholes ripe for exploitation.

In 1904 he began to transfer small sums of money belonging to the bank’s clients to the bank’s branch offices. Next he withdrew the money using documents he’d forged. When he wasn’t caught he increased the amounts he stole.

He moved his family to the country and adopted a false persona — he became the Baron de Gravald, a wealthy, unmarried man about town. Wearing an old straw hat and tired coat to his clerk’s job during the day, he transformed himself in the evenings with a fashionable dinner coat, tailored shirt and diamond-studded platinum cuff links. A silk top hat and monocle completed the Baron’s aristocratic look.

On one evening out on the town the Baron met Valentine Merelli and fell head over heels for her.

Valentine Darbour was a convent-educated girl from the countryside. She got married young to a printer named Sohet but soon tired of her monotonous, middle-class life, so she left her husband, took some of her dowry cash and moved to Paris. She adopted the stage name “Valentine Merelli” and tried to develop a stage career but she had no talent for acting or singing. Soon her money ran out and she was forced to search for a man to support her — ideally a rich one.

Jean seemed to be the answer to Valentine’s prayers. He set her up in an apartment in the Rue Gustave Flaubert. To finance their stays in expensive hotels, meals in the best restaurants and trips to the opera he embezzled ever-larger sums of money from the bank. He knew that the thefts would be discovered eventually, so he asked a fellow employee, Lerendu, to help him cover up the losses in the books.

As the summer of 1905 unfolded, Jean knew that the day of reckoning, when the bank uncovered his fraud, was drawing near. He and his ladylove needed to get out of Paris and run as far away from Europe as it was possible to go. Knowing they would likely be caught if they went by rail they hatched a plan to travel by boat to Brazil.

With the $200,000 (over $5,500,000 in today’s dollars) that remained of the stolen loot, they traveled to Le Havre, a port city in northwestern France. There Jean chartered a British steam yacht, Catarina, for three months and hired a crew of 20 men, along with a physician and a maid, Marie Audot, for Valentine.

[Album of Paris Crime Scenes]

The couple outfitted themselves for the voyage with 28 hats, 37 evening dresses, 40 suits, 50 pairs of knickers, 40 pairs of shoes, 22 corsets and many boxes of champagne and liquors. It took 86 bags and trunks to hold it all. Valentine directed the loading of the booty onto the yacht. For three days before Catarina set sail the crew was not allowed to go on shore and an aura of mystery surrounded the plans for the voyage.

On August 3rd the couple’s luxuriously appointed dreamboat left for the coastal city of Bahia in Brazil.

Meanwhile back in Paris the bank finally looked over its books, discovered the missing funds and tied the theft to their absent employee. They notified the police and provided them with a photograph of the unassuming clerk.

The detective in charge of the case figured the couple would try to escape by boat. He tracked Jean and his mistress to Le Havre, where he showed Jean’s photo to the yacht rental companies in town. He soon discovered which yacht Jean hired, but the boat had already left port. He got the yacht’s itinerary and alerted the Bahia police to keep a watch for her at the port. To guarantee that there was no confusion he provided the police in Brazil with a photo of Jean.

When Catarina made port in Bahia, the police went aboard and arrested Jean, Valentine and Marie. They were extradited, under guard, back to France. The boat’s crew was reportedly quite unhappy because, with champagne flowing every evening and the baron handing out cigars to all and sundry, they’d never enjoyed a trip more.

Jean was convicted and served part of his seven-year sentence at Devil’s Island, an infamous French penal colony in Guiana that was, ironically, located just north of Brazil. “They are taking me away from France but the hope of returning again will sustain me,” he commented before he left. He got his wish when he was transferred to Melun Prison in France. He was released in 1912 after serving five years.

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Since Jean had started embezzling money before he met Valentine, the jury gave her the benefit of the doubt and decided that she was unaware of how he’d obtained his wealth. They acquitted her of the charges but her husband divorced her.

After her trial ended she had a brief fling with the kind of fame she’d previously longed for when she was photographed for a series of postcards. When people realized that she was no great beauty and that she still couldn’t sing, her star plummeted and she faded from the limelight.

The maid, Marie, wasn’t charged with any crime. She sold her story to the press.

Jean and Valentine’s mugshots, along with those of the maid and Jean’s co-worker, Lerendu, were collected by the father of the modern mugshot, Alphonse Bertillon, in an album of Paris Crime Scenes compiled during the early 20th century. The album, which includes some gruesome photos of Parisian murder victims, was donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City in 2001. “Made as part of an archive rather than as art, these postmortem portraits, recorded in the deadpan style of a police report, nonetheless retain an unsettling potency,” notes the Met’s catalog.

Featured photo: “La Merelli,” mugshot taken October 9, 1905. Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The Badger Game

The Badger Game

Old-fashioned terms for crime can be confusing. When Lillie Bates was arrested in New York City on June 17, 1909, the officers listed her crime as simply “Badger.” Did that mean she was caught mistreating a short-legged, furry, mammal that hunts at night? Probably not. More than likely it meant she was involved in a criminal enterprise called “the badger game.”

The badger game involved a woman and her male accomplice, and it was actually the accomplice who was the “badger.” The game was often a venomous combintion of crimes, including prostitution, robbery, con game and extortion.

The female in the partnership posed as a reputable woman who was down on her luck and therefore willing to have a sexual encounter with an “old married man with the appearance of honor and wealth.” She got him into her bedroom, which had a secret panel cut in one of the walls. Here’s a description of what often happened next:

She fastens the door and will permit nothing until the lamp is extinguished. The very respectable gentleman lays his clothes carelessly upon a chair, together with his watch and well-filled purse, and the hour of pleasure begins. But the woman’s accomplice is outside the partition and at a signal from her he knows that the time for him to take action has arrived. Silently he opens the secret door. Light as a cat the “badger” passes through it, with his usual dexterity begins to examine carefully all the clothes of the victim as they lie on the chair, far from the bed. The darkness of the room facilitates his work. Very soon he has got possession of all that is of any value and he creeps back through the opening. The door shuts as noiselessly as it was opened. The object of the two is attained and now it only remains to set free the plucked bird without any disturbance. As soon as the “respectable gentleman” begins to dress someone knocks at the door. The “respectable gentleman” gets alarmed. His companion does the same; she urges him to dress as quickly as possible, and go out by the back door, for it is quite certain that her husband, or father, or brother, as the case may be, has returned and wants to come in.

— The Dark Side of New York Life and Its Criminal Classes, Gustav Lening, 1873

Hopefully the victim left the house so quickly that he didn’t check to see if all his valuables were where he kept them.

Variations on the badger game were plentiful. All of them required acting talent along with a boatload of nerve. Sometimes there was no secret panel and the male accomplice simply stormed into the room, claiming to be the woman’s outraged husband, fists cocked and ready for a fight unless he was financially compensated. Sometimes the couple threatened to reveal the victim’s transgression to his family unless he paid up.

NPG.James Alba Bostwick.undated

Sophie Lyons, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Pinkerton’s, Inc.

Sophie Lyons, the “queen” of nineteenth century crime, was an adept practitioner of the badger game. She was so good at it that she sometimes pulled it off without a “badger.” In 1878 she finally got caught after she lured a well-respected, elderly lawyer to her Boston hotel room with the promise of sex, got him to undress, then locked his clothes in her trunk.

She forced him to write her a check for $1000 ($24,215 in 2018), and told him he’d get his clothes back after she returned from the bank with the money. She locked the door on her way out so he couldn’t call the police.

Officials at the bank were suspicious of such a large check and called the police, who escorted Sophie back to the hotel. There they found her naked victim. She claimed she was his long-standing mistress. He refused to prosecute due to the shame it would have brought him. “She was so bewitching and fascinating that I could not help it,” he sheepishly remarked.

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I found no record of a Lillie or Lillian Bates’ arrest or conviction. Was “Fred,” whose name was tattooed on her arm, the badger? Was her victim a well-known man who was too embarrassed to press charges? We’ll never know the details of how she played the badger game. Ten months after her arrest, when the 1910 census was taken in New York City, there was no one named Lillie Bates living in the city.

Featured photo: Bertillon card photos of Lillie Bates, June 17, 1909, New York Municipal Archives.