The Felonious Housewife

The Felonious Housewife

Ford stealing and check forging sent half a dozen prisoners to the state penitentiary at Lansing yesterday. Spring and a desire to own an automobile seem to go hand in hand The desire seems to be strongest at Hutchinson, for nearly all the prisoners convicted of stealing Fords came from Reno County.

 

Mr. and Mrs. Ralph Evans will each serve one to five years for their episode. Evans will work in the penitentiary proper and his wife will be in the industrial farm for women. They were arrested at Newton, where the automobile was found. The Ford was stolen from the J. W. Bailey residence in Hutchinson.

Leavenworth Times (Leavenworth, Kansas), April 20, 1918

In the summer of 1917 she was arrested for writing three “fictitious checks.” The San Francisco Police Department prepared a Bureau of Identification card with her photo and stats. Her name was recorded as “Emma Douglas” but she had two aliases: “Mrs. E. Evans” and “Mrs. K. Howard.” Her occupation was “housewife” and her birthplace was “Illinois.” The police forgot to make a note of her age, but obviously she was young. Her crime was too small for the newspapers to pick it up.

Check forgery is a habit that’s hard to break.

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1917 mug shots taken by the San Francisco police

Less than a year later and almost two thousand miles to the east she was arrested with a male partner in Newton, Kansas. She and her partner had stolen a Ford Model T touring car (likely a 1917 model that retailed at $360) during the night of Saturday, April 6, 1918. The following day a motorcycle cop spotted the stolen car, and watched as the couple replaced the Kansas license tag that had been on the car with a Colorado tag. The sharp-eyed officer arrested the pair.

1917-Ford-Touring-Car

1917 Ford Model T touring car

She claimed her name was May Evans and said the man was her husband, Charles Evans. They’d come from San Francisco, where he’d registered for the World War I draft under the name Charles Douglas. To finance their cross country travels they would steal a car, drive it for a while, then sell it and pocket the cash and repeat the process.

She’d also written a series of forged checks to cover their travel expenses, including one to the owner of a rooming house where they’d stayed before they were arrested. The newspaper noted that she had “good clothes” and a “quiet, undisturbed air about her.”

They both pleaded guilty to grand larceny — she for the bad checks and he for auto theft. He was sent to the Kansas State Penitentiary in Lansing and she went to the new facility for women, the State Industrial Farm in Topeka. Each served a year in their respective institutions.

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Charles “Chas” Evans, Kansas State Penitentiary mug shots, courtesy of the Kansas State Historical Society

On July 11, 1919, they were arrested about 700 miles east of Kansas in Columbus, Ohio, for attempted auto theft and for carrying concealed weapons. The weapons part of the charge means the pair was serious about their criminal endeavors. She told the Columbus police her name was Emma Evans. He claimed to be R. W. Pharis.

The Columbus police prepared a photo identification card for her and on it noted that, in addition to “Emma Evans” she also used the alias “Emma Douglas.” She claimed Des Moines, Iowa, as her birthplace and 22 years as her age. Her occupation, as on the San Francisco card, was “housewife.”

She claimed she didn’t have any previous criminal record, however the police figured out that she and her partner were recently paroled prisoners from Kansas, where they had been identified as May Howard and Charles “Chas” Evans. Their crime spree had taken them across the country, from the west coast to Ohio, the heart of Middle America.

May Howard 1919 back

Back side of criminal I.D. card of “May Howard”

In Columbus she got 30 days jail time, along with a fine of $150 and court costs.

In 1919 federal legislation called the Dyer Act was passed to combat vehicle theft, which was becoming a big problem, particularly in large cities. If May and Charles (or whatever their real names were) were again caught stealing, selling or transporting a vehicle across state lines, it would be federal crime under the act. If convicted they’d each get a sentence of ten years in a federal prison.

Because they used multiple aliases, the couple was untraceable after their arrests in Columbus. The question of whether they continued their life of crime or settled down into a more mundane and honest life can’t be answered.

Featured photo: police photos of “May Howard,” aka Emma Douglas, Emma Evans and May Evans, taken in Columbus, Ohio, on July 19, 1919. Collection of the author.

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.

Harry 1907 prison

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.

Harry L. Vining in stripes_marked

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.

Give Him Up

Give Him Up

A Montana-born woman, 34-year-old Mae Kavanaugh, was convicted of writing “fictitious checks” and sent to San Quentin State Prison, the infamous northern California prison, on March 25, 1918, to serve a two year term.

Eight years earlier, in 1910, Mae and a male accomplice, H. S. Farnsworth, lured a man to their rented Santa Cruz cottage. Suddenly the lights went out and the victim, John Hodges, found himself in the dark with Miss Mae. A man found alone with a single woman could only be after one thing, and if his wife found out, it would be highly embarrassing for him, perhaps even disastrous. Mae pulled a gun on Hodges and demanded $500. Not having the cash on him, Hodges wrote her a promissory note.

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H.S. Farnsworth, San Quentin Mug Book, July 2, 1910. California Prison and Correctional Records, 1851-1950.

Instead of paying up, Hodges reported the couple to the sheriff. Farnsworth, a man described as a “once wealthy contractor” was convicted of extortion and given the maximum sentence of 5 years in San Quentin. “I’m sorry I can’t make it more,” commented the judge when Farnsworth was sentenced.

I am down and out. I was once well to do but met with reverses, and this thing appealed to me as a chance to make a raise.

—H. S. Farnsworth, June 28, 1910, Santa Cruz, California

Mae was very lucky; she got probation and was ordered to “give Farnsworth up.” Apparently she gave up Farnsworth, but neglected to give up crime.

San Quentin is the oldest correctional institution in California. It housed women from the time it opened in 1852 until 1932, when a prison for women was built in Tehachapi.

Featured image: Mae Kavanaugh, San Quentin mug book photo. California Prison and Correctional Records, 1851-1950.