The Feminine Touch

The Feminine Touch

Becky Cok (sic) was given a sentence of two years in the penitentiary by the federal judge at San Angelo for making her little daughter steal. Mrs. Cook had a box at the Brownwood post office. Next to her was the box of the bank. She would have the child go to the post office and rob the bank box by reaching around through hers. Checks and drafts for large amounts ware (sic) thus abstracted from the bank box.

El Paso Herald (El Paso, Texas), November 26, 1900

Robbing a post office was a crime committed often in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in the United States, but usually it was the purview of gun-toting men. Becky Cook, an Iowa-born seamstress and washerwoman, took an unusual approach when she used her young daughter to extract checks and drafts from the post office box of a Texas bank. Possibly the child was double jointed or had unusually nimble fingers. At any rate the little girl’s hand was small enough to reach in beyond Becky’s post office box, through the bars at the back and into the adjacent box—no weapons or threats of violence required!

Becky Cook news

Leavenworth Penitentiary file of Becky Cook. Collection of the National Archives, Kansas City, Missouri.

Post Office robbery, no matter how it was accomplished, was a federal crime and Becky’s conviction earned her more than a slap on the wrist. Though unable to cash the checks and drafts she stole “child-handed” so to speak, she was sentenced to two years at USP Leavenworth. Like other women sent to Leavenworth, she was transferred to the Kansas State Penitentiary to serve out her sentence.

Her penitentiary forms noted that Becky was just under 5’6” tall with a slender build, blue eyes and brown hair and her teeth were “full & good.” She was described as “very talkative.” She had several scars and moles on her face and both of her ear lobes were pierced. She was Catholic, could read and write, and left home when she was 12 years old. At the time of her incarceration she wasn’t married.

Becky Cook mugshot

Leavenworth Penitentiary photos of Becky Cook. Collection of the National Archives, Kansas City, Missouri.

The Texas sun was hard on fair skin, and prison officials at Leavenworth described Becky as looking 35 rather than the 25 years of age she claimed to be. Her weather-beaten skin does make her look older than her mid-twenties—did she lie about her age? Her shaky signature on a penitentiary form doesn’t really look like “Becky Cook.” Could it be that she used an alias when she was arrested, but was not skilled enough at writing to pull off the subterfuge?

Becky Cook's signature

She was released from prison by 1902. Who took care of her daughter while she was in prison? Was it even her child? Where did she go when she was released? Was her name really Becky Cook? After her brief moment of infamy, thanks to a clever and feminine method of robbing a post office, the lady vanished from newspaper and genealogical records.

 

 

Angry in Omaha

Angry in Omaha

Minnie Bradley was arrested on the evening of December 11, 1902, and charged with “larceny from the person” or pickpocketing. Someone from the Midway Saloon, a well-known dance hall and whorehouse owned by several notorious Omaha crime bosses, offered to pay her $25 bond. Before she was released, W. H. Breiter showed up at the police station and identified Minnie as the person who had robbed him earlier that evening. Minnie offered Breiter $5 to drop the charge, but he refused, so she spent the night in jail.

Described in the newspaper as a “traveler,” Breiter had been “strolling about” near the Tenth street viaduct in Omaha, Nebraska. He told police that a woman appeared out of the darkness and demanded his money. He claimed he handed it over to her.

The next day Minnie appeared before Police Judge Louis Berka. The judge decided she could stand for trial for the Breiter hold up, but he offered her an alternative—if she left Omaha the charges against her would be dropped. She chose to leave rather than face a trial, but first the police took her mugshot to guarantee that all Omaha police officers would be familiar with her face, in case she was tempted to return.

judge-Berka

Judge Louis Berka. Find-A-Grave.

Minnie’s 1901 mugshot is unusual for the amount of emotion she displayed. She has her arms crossed and it’s obvious that she’s angry and unwilling to look at the camera, or maybe she looked away just before the shutter was released. Her occupation was listed as “prostitute” and her home, at 116 North Eleventh Street, was around the corner from the Midway.

Breiter’s story about Minnie robbing him doesn’t really add up. It’s unlikely that a lone woman would rob a man outdoors in a deserted spot at night. It’s possible that Breiter was a client who didn’t want it known that he visited a prostitute, particularly an African-American prostitute. He might have refused to pay, so she took what he owed her.

Minnie returned to Omaha in 1904 and made two more appearances in police court before Judge Berka. The first, in March 1904, was as witness against a man named William Warwick, who was accused of assaulting her. The two had gotten into a heated argument when he bragged to her that, due to his light complexion, he often passed as a white man during his travels out west. He also mentioned that he had been in the company of two white women the previous evening. Minnie said William should show more respect for his race and reminded him that his mother was a black woman. His response was to punch her. Judge Berka sentenced him to 30 days in jail.

Two months later, in May 1904, Minnie was the defendant in a case of assault and battery brought against her by an African-American woman named Annie Curtis. Annie was drunk and her behavior was violent—an argument broke out between the two women. Minnie claimed Annie was on the verge of throwing a phonograph at her when bystanders intervened. Annie claimed Minnie threw a brick at her, which Minnie denied. The outcome of the case was not reported.

Minnie slipped out of the news after 1904, but her mugshot leaves little doubt that she was a force to be reckoned with.

Featured photo: Minnie Bradley’s 1902 mugshot. Collection of the Nebraska State Historical Society.

Dead Man Naming

Coleman_alive_dead

Front view mugshot and postmortem photo of Charles M. Coleman from Coleman’s Leavenworth Penitentiary inmate files. Collection of NARA-Kansas City, Missouri.

Sheriff James S. Scarborough and his posse of cowboys were out looking a burglar who had blown open the safe of a local store on the night of April 19, 1906, making off with $302.61. Unfortunately the crime wasn’t discovered until the following day, giving the culprit plenty of time to escape. The posse set out on horseback to search the scrubby grasslands in the vicinity of Dime Box, Texas, where the crime occurred.

The focus of the search was a stranger who’d been hanging around the town of Lexington the previous day, claiming he was an engineer for the Sante Fe Railroad. The last time the man was seen he was headed towards Dime Box late in the evening on the night of the safe cracking.

Scarborough, a well-respected lawman with a fierce crime-fighting reputation, was alone and it was getting dark when he encountered a man walking along the railroad tracks south of Lexington. He ordered the stranger to halt but rather than stopping, the man pulled out a gun and fired three times in rapid succession at the sheriff, missing him with all three shots. Scarborough fired back and he was the better shot. A bullet hit the stranger in the right side of his chest. He fell over and died several minutes later without uttering any last words.

lee-county-sheriff-james-scarborough

Sheriff James S. Scarborough, circa 1899. Collection of Turner Publishing/Historic Photos of Texas Lawmen by Mike Cox.

The dead man had more than $340 in cash on him—some of it was the stolen cash—however he carried no identification. He also had six drill bits, a punch, one brace, two large rolls of fuse, twenty-two short pieces of fuse cut ready for use, and a pint flask of powder on him. Clearly the man was a safe blower—a “yegg”—in the parlance of law enforcement.

The sheriff wrote up an exhaustive physical description of the man, along with details about the crime. The information was placed in the local newspapers. To cover all the bases, a local photographer was called to prop up the dead man and photograph him. Though the photo wasn’t published, if someone recognized the man’s description, a copy would be mailed to the person to get a positive I.D. The photographer made some cash too; he sold 24 copies of the photo to the locals at 25 cents a copy!

Scarborough letter

Letter (page 1 of 3) from Sheriff Scarborough to Warden McClaughry. Coleman’s Leavenworth Penitentiary Inmate files. Collection of NARA-Kansas City, Missouri.

Leavenworth Penitentiary guard Samuel D. Sample read an article in the Daily Times Herald, a Texas paper, about a professional bank robber who was killed the previous week by the sheriff of Lee County. He thought the description of the dead man matched that of a recently released Leavenworth prisoner, Charles Michael Coleman. Charles  completed a four-year sentence in Leavenworth for post office burglary the previous month. Upon his release he was given a train ticket to Houston, Texas, where his wife lived.

Samuel brought the article to the attention of the Robert McClaughry, Leavenworth’s warden, who got in touch with Sheriff Scarborough. The sheriff sent McClaughry his description of the man (“hair as fine as silk”) and a copy of the dead man’s photo. The warden confirmed the man was ex-Leavenworth inmate, Charles M. Coleman, and he wrote back to the sheriff: “Yourself and officers are congratulated on getting rid of this dangerous burglar without he having succeeded in killing any of you before he was killed himself. We had enough of him here and were glad to get rid of him. We also identify in your photograph the coat and shirt that were given to Coleman when he left here.”

Born about 1858 in New York to Irish immigrant parents, Charles left home when he was 17. His first prison sentence occurred in 1886—four years in San Quentin—for a burglary he committed in Calaveras County, California. More prison stints followed in the 1890s, when he was incarcerated in the state prisons of Illinois and Wisconsin for burglary and robbery.

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Chas. M. Coleman’s San Quentin Prison mugshot. Collection of California State Archives, Sacramento, California.

Ironically but perhaps not surprisingly, given his talent as a safe blower, Charles was a skilled machinist and mechanic. While he was incarcerated at Leavenworth he was in charge of work on the huge steel gates at both the east and west entrances to the prison. He also made the doors and gratings of the prison gates. Though he was an expert at both breaking safes and making prison gates, he died unidentified and was buried in an unmarked grave near where he fell in rural Texas.