Soldier Boy

Soldier Boy

MARYSVILLE, Nov. 9. — Barney McQuaid was to-day sentenced to five years, and Thomas Mays to ten years, in San Quentin for highway robbery committed near Sicard Flat on October 27. McQuaid and Mays are deserters from the Presidio and were attired in infantry uniform at the time of their apprehension.

The San Francisco Call, November 10, 1900

Tom Mays_marked

Two young soldiers, Hugh Bernard “Barney” McQuaid, age 19, and Tom Mays, age 22, carried out a robbery near a desolate area in Yuba County, California. The men were deserters from a military base in San Francisco, and it’s likely that they were training for service in the Spanish-American War when they left their army posts and headed north.

Barney and Tom in stripes

San Quentin mugbook, California State Archives.

Prior to joining the army, Barney had a few skirmishes with law enforcement back in his hometown of Minneapolis, mostly for being drunk and disorderly and resisting arrest. Barney had a tendency to use foul language and become violent when crossed. On one occasion he fought a policeman who was trying to arrest him with such intensity that several officers had to be called to assist. It’s likely his family figured that a stint in the army would straighten out the troubled young man.

During his incarceration at San Quentin, Barney suffered from mental illness so severe that the guards at one of the harshest prisons in America were unable to control him, so he was transferred to a California asylum, the Mendocino State Hospital. His condition was described as “improved” when he was released from the hospital.

Though his prison record stated he was discharged on June 10, 1904, Barney was actually sent home to his family in Minneapolis in September 1903. It may have seemed like a blessing to his parents, who had already put five of their eleven children into an early grave. Barney’s father, John, was a policeman and officials trusted him to keep his son away from the temptations of crime. It was hoped that the comforts family life would help Barney regain his sanity.

It didn’t take long for Barney’s parents and sisters to realize they weren’t equipped to deal with his illness. In early December he was admitted to the St. Peter Hospital for the Insane in St. Peter, Minnesota. His condition was described as “Demented and Vicious.” His medical record lists the “alleged cause” of his insanity as “degeneracy” (possibly he had a history of homosexuality, then considered a mental illness) but there’s no doubt he experienced violent outbursts and was a danger to others. According to the hospital notes, he’d been ill since the age of 17, so he was mentally unstable when he enlisted in the army in 1900.

He is strong and robust. He is quiet and sullen, pugnacious at times. Says he is a soldier boy and must not be kept in the hospital.

— St. Peter Hospital patient notes for Barney McQuaid

Measuring just over 5’, 9” tall and weighing 195 lbs., 22-year-old Barney was a powerfully built man. Three weeks after he was admitted to the hospital, he escaped. Two months later he was captured and returned to the institution.

Barney never left St. Peter’s again. Eleven years later he suffered a stroke and died on September 23, 1914. He was 33 years old.

Featured photo: Barney McQuaid’s mugshot, from a glass negative, taken on the day of his arrest in Marysville, California. Collection of the author.

Quick Quack Cure for Crime

Quick Quack Cure for Crime

BERKELEY. March 27. — The surgeon’s knife will be used in an attempt to reform Mrs. Jean Thurnherr, the notorious girl burglar. Specialists have declared that the girl, who was injured while disguised as a cowpuncher in Arizona, has never recovered from a blow on her head received while breaking a horse, and that this injury causes her to steal.

The San Francisco Call, Mar 28, 1911

It all began in 1903, when 14-year-old Bessie Barclay, later known as Jean Thurnherr, ran away from her Los Angeles home. She went to San Pedro, a community south of Los Angeles, where, disguised as a male, she found work in a bowling alley and then got hired as a cabin boy on a lumber schooner headed for the Puget Sound.

Her family, distressed at her absence, hired a female private detective to search for her. The detective located her in San Pedro before the boat left. She was returned to her father, Henry A. Barclay, an attorney and judge, and her mother, Lily Ward Barclay, an artist.

Jean_Thurnherr_as_Bessie_Barclay_adventures_and_picsIn 1904 Bessie ran away a second time. Again she dressed as a boy and found work as an elevator operator, a newsboy and a cowboy in Arizona. (The Arizona part of her adventures would, in later news reports, be expanded to include tales of tangling with Mexican outlaws and a head injury due to a fall from a horse.) She was located by authorities and returned to her parents but she didn’t stay home long. The next time she ran she went farther — all the way to San Francisco.

Disguised as a boy she worked as a bellhop at a hotel on Kearny Street. There met a miner from Alaska and robbed him of a purse containing $340 worth of cash and gold nuggets. This time she was arrested and convicted of grand larceny. However with her family’s legal connections, she got off with probation. During her court hearing she claimed that she was adopted and left home because she didn’t get along with her adoptive parents. While she was in jail in San Francisco, her mother, Lily, died in Los Angeles.

If only the law would let me fulfill those duties instead of trying to curb my venturesome spirit in a reform school. There’s no use pretending otherwise — it’s a boy’s life and a boy’s opportunities and above all the wide free life of the mountain ranger that appeals to me most.

— Jean Thurnherr, quoted in the San Francisco Call, June 15, 1909

Bessie’s father was fed up with her exploits and broke off contact with her. During her arrest in 1909, it was rumored that she was the biological child of her mother, Lily Barclay, but that Judge Barclay was not her father.

Instead of returning home after her release from jail, she remained in the San Francisco Bay Area, under the supervision of a probation officer and of women who worked for various charitable aid societies.

There is no doubt that Mrs. Thurnher (sic) is a natural and more than usually clever criminal. Possessed of a charming personality she makes friends readily and exercises an almost uncanny influence over men with whom she comes in contact. She never seemed to care for their attentions. She was always interested in stories of bold crimes and frequently expressed her admiration of clever thieves whom she read about.

— Mrs. F. Smith of Associated Charities, quoted in The Oakland Tribune, June 18, 1909

On October 1, 1908, Bessie, using the alias Jean M. Gordon, married Albert B. Thurnherr, a young dry goods store clerk, in Alameda. The couple moved to Berkeley and settled into an apartment near the University of California. On Christmas Day, 1908, Bessie pulled her first burglary at an apartment house close to her new home.

The Thurnherrs moved around Berkeley during their first year of marriage and everywhere they went, burglaries followed. At one point a homeowner returned while Bessie was in the process of robbing the woman’s bedroom. She leaped out the window to the ground, a drop of about 20 feet, and escaped unharmed. The homeowner got a glimpse of her fleeing form (surprisingly she dressed in women’s clothing) and reported to the police that it was a woman they should seek for the burglaries. The newspapers dubbed the burglar “the female Raffles,” inspired by the E. W. Hornung’s fictional gentleman thief, Arthur J. Raffles.

Jean_Thurnherr_under_arrest_for_may_crimes__picsShe was arrested several times during the winter of 1909, but the police lacked evidence and she wasn’t charged. By May they were convinced of her guilt and had her followed by detectives. She was arrested on June 11, 1909, at her Berkeley home. The police found numerous items in her home that she had stolen over the previous eight months. She pleaded guilty to 1st degree burglary and was sentenced to one year at San Quentin Prison. Her husband, Albert, stood by her and was reported to be heartbroken by her prison sentence.

Jean/Bessie spent 10 months at San Quentin before being released early for good behavior. She returned to life with Albert in Berkeley, but she didn’t stay out of trouble for long. She was caught shoplifting at a jewelry store in March 1911 — it was the third time she had robbed the same store.

At this point a clever doctor named H. N. Rowell came up with the idea that Jean/Bessie might be cured of her burglary habit by having surgery on her skull. She claimed that she hit her head during a fall while breaking horses in Arizona in 1904. Dr. Rowel believed that her head injury was what caused her seemingly endless lust for crime.

With difficulty Albert found two bondsmen who agreed to pay his wife’s bond so she could be released from jail for the operation. She went to the Fabiola Hospital in Oakland, where a trio of doctors removed a three square inch chunk of her skull. They said it was thickened so much that it pressed on her brain and this was, no doubt, the cause of her problems. Just for good measure Dr. Rowell also put her under hypnosis — he was supposedly an expert — to aid her recovery.

The operation was proclaimed a success. The patient lost little blood and her brain was described as “not injured at all.” The docs sewed up “the tissues” over the wound and then sewed up her scalp and sent Bessie on her way — cured of crime by surgery! “Hers was a case of disease rather than crime,” proclaimed her doctors.

Except that she wasn’t cured. Despite insisting that her urge to steal was gone, in September 1911, she was caught stealing from an office building in Oakland. Given probation, she was arrested again in 1913. Rather than jail she was sent to the Patton State Hospital, an asylum for the criminally insane, in San Bernardino, California. The judge in her case believed she might be suffering from a “dual identity.”

Doctors at Patton decided she was not insane and returned her to her husband, Albert, who had moved to San Francisco. In October 1913 she reoffended but the judge decided to release her from jail because she was ill and he hoped going home would save her life.

Albert was married to someone else by 1918. It’s possible Bessie died of whatever she was suffering from in 1913, though no death record was located for her. (Having a piece of your skull removed and living without it would be no picnic, especially in the days before antibiotics). She may have moved on to commit more crimes under an alias or possibly she assumed a male identity. Whatever she did, she left her mark on the history quick quack cures for crime.

Featured image: Bessie Barclay (Jean Thurnherr) mugshots, California State Archives; Sacramento, California; Duplicate Photograph Album Dept of Corrections San Quentin Prison Inmate Photographs 23374-23778

 

Fainting Bertha

Fainting Bertha

She was an expert pickpocket who would steal a man’s diamond stickpin, using her well-known fainting trick, without batting an eye. But she was also mentally ill, suffering periodic bouts of insanity so intense that it was impossible for doctors or hospital attendants to control her. In the grip of one of these attacks, which sometimes occurred at night, she had been known to break every window she could reach while screaming profanities at the top of her lungs. Her mood swings were intense — she was calm one moment and crying hysterically the next. By July 1911, officials in Nebraska were faced with the vexing question of what to do with “Fainting Bertha” Liebbeke.

Bertha was born in Council Bluffs, Iowa, in March 1880 to William and Mary Liebbeke. William was a cobbler and an immigrant to the United States from Germany. Mary was born in Switzerland. Bertha’s parents met and married in Pottawattamie, Iowa in 1870. The Liebbekes had nine children and seven of them, including Bertha, lived to adulthood. William died in 1896.

Soon after her father’s death Bertha was diagnosed with Saint Vitus Dance (now called Sydenham’s chorea), an infectious disease that results in uncontrollable twitching and jerking movements of the victim’s face, hands and feet. Her diagnosis was likely what caused her to be sent to the Iowa Institution for Feeble-Minded Children in Glenwood. Possibly due to age restrictions she was transferred to the Iowa State Hospital for the Insane in Clarinda, where she remained for less than a year.

Iowa State Hospital for the Insane in Clarinda

Iowa State Hospital for the Insane, Clarinda, Iowa.

Between hospitalizations Bertha claimed she was seduced by a man named Gunther who schooled her in the art of “larceny from the person.” Despite her psychiatric problems, she was an excellent student. Not only was she good at getting the goods, she developed a unique approach to her profession, taking full advantage of her blond-haired, blue-eyed good looks and stylish appearance. Bertha would get into a crowd of people and swoon. The gallant gentleman who came to her rescue by catching her got a reward he wasn’t expecting — his pockets were picked. It was done so adeptly that most didn’t realize their loss until Bertha was long gone.

Bertha became notorious. She took trains to all the big midwestern cities, robbing train conductors and passengers along the way. She not only robbed individuals, she used her nimble fingers to steal from large department stores, such as Marshall Field & Co., in Chicago. Her photo was said to be in every rogues’ gallery in the Midwest by the early 1900s. It was reported that three times she had plans to marry, but the engagements were broken when she couldn’t stop thieving. Despite all that, she looked pleased as punch to be photographed by the Nebraska State Penitentiary, as inmate #5693, for her undated mugshot.

bertha-liebbeke-notorious-pickpocket-in-il-ks-ia-mo-and-ne-fainting-bertha-stumbled-into-men-fainted-and-robbed-them2

Bertha Liebbeke, undated mugshot. Collection of the Nebraska State Histrical Society.

Unfortunately for hospital and prison officials, Bertha was not only good at stealing cash, watches, furs and jewelry, she had a talent for lifting keys and picking locks. By 1907, she’d been housed in seven separate Midwest penitentiaries and asylums and she’d escaped a dozen times from those institutions. She’d attempted suicide at least once. Back and forth between hospital and penitentiary she went. No one wanted her, but the question of what to do with her remained.

She was sent to the Asylum for the Chronic Insane in Hastings, Nebraska. At Hastings, three physicians from the Nebraska State Insanity Board examined her as part of a report to the governor, Chester Aldrich, in 1911. The following description of Bertha was part of their report.

The evidence (is) that she has delusions or hallucinations as shown by her talking to imaginary persons and having the sensation of insects creeping under the skin. Immediately after physicians left her she became violent, which is a daily occurrence, running up and down the hall, bewailing her condition and position, running from one room to another to evade the physicians and berating them because of her belief that they would not look after her welfare.

The doctors weren’t sure of whether or not Bertha was insane, but they were unanimous in their opinion that she needed to be in a hospital, not a prison. The governor disagreed and sent her back to the Nebraska State Penitentiary to finish her latest sentence, specifying that “special quarters” be provided for her.

After her release from the penitentiary, in 1913, Reverend Charles W. Savidge of the People’s Church in Omaha offered her a home in the church. A safe room was prepared for her and someone from the congregation was available to be with her at all times. The congregation prayed for her and she renounced her bad ways. With the help of religion, Bertha’s “modern devils” might be cast out! The experiment didn’t work and the congregation gave up on her. By 1914 she was in custody in Milwaukee on a charge of vagrancy.

She was sent to the Lincoln State Hospital For Insane in Yankee Hill, Nebraska. She fell out of the news until 1919, when she attacked a nurse, throwing formaldehyde at the woman’s face and partially blinding her. We can only guess at what treatments Bertha endured in an effort to control her violent outbursts. She lived in the asylum for over 20 years and died there on May 5, 1939.

Her obituary in the Lincoln Evening Journal noted, “When arrested she would readily admit what she had done, and would gloat over men being easy marks. At the hospital it was reported that she had been a very difficult patient, and had caused the authorities much trouble.”

Featured photo: Bertha Liebbeke, carte de visite mugshot. Collection of the Nebraska State Historical Society.