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.

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.

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

 

Dead Man Naming

Dead Man Naming

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.”

Coleman_SanQuentin

San Quentin Prison mugshot. California State Archives.

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.

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.

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

Bury Freddie There

Bury Freddie There

Justice was sometimes meted out in an arbitrary and indiscriminate fashion, or so it seemed in October 1899 when Fred Mason was given a five-year sentence to Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary. Jewelry and “trinkets” belonging to a white man, J. M. Golledge, were apparently found in Fred’s possession. He claimed the actual thief was a man named George Carpenter however he pleaded guilty to burglary. He was probably hoping that, given his youth, Judge Townsend of Chickasha, Indian Territory, would be lenient. Clearly Fred misjudged the judge.

Fred arrived at Leavenworth on October 9, 1899. He was 16-years-old, 5 foot 6 inches tall and weighed 130 pounds. Born in Texas, Fred had no education and left home at the age of 12. Prior to prison he worked as a hotel waiter and a bootblack.

During his year and a half stay at Leavenworth he was put into solitary confinement 11 times for talking (which was never allowed), laughing, using foul language, marching out of step and loafing when he was supposed to be working. Given that Leavenworth housed some of the hardest criminals in America, it’s impossible not to wonder if Fred’s tendency to break the rules wasn’t actually a desperate attempt to get himself removed from the rest of the inmate population and, consequently, out of harm’s way.

Fred’s last stay in solitary lasted almost a month, from December 19, 1900, to January 17, 1901. It’s likely that shortly after he got out of solitary he was moved to the hospital because Fred had a serious case of tuberculosis. In fact it’s almost certain that at times when the guards claimed he was avoiding his tasks he was actually too weak to work.

On April 6, 1901, Fred Mason died at the Leavenworth Prison Hospital. His cause of death was listed as “tabes mesenterica,” which, in layman’s terms, means he literally wasted away. An autopsy found that tuberculosis lesions were spread throughout his abdomen — he had probably been unable to eat for weeks, maybe months. His heart was described as “small and flabby” and his aortic valve was narrowed, probably also a result of his tuberculosis.

The Leavenworth warden, Robert W. McClaughry, told Fred’s mother that her son suffered shortness of breath and had gone deaf before he died. Perhaps trying to ease a mother’s grief over the loss of her only son, he also noted that Fred “did not suffer much pain.” McClaughry had arrived at Leavenworth just three months before Fred Mason became an inmate. A reformer in the field of penal correction, the 60-year-old McClaughry believed that prisons could work to improve their inmate’s lives, not simply punish them. He also introduced Bertillon’s system of cataloging suspects and criminals into the United States and it’s likely that McClaughry initiated the process of taking inmate photos at Leavenworth.

McClaughry was writing to Fred’s mother, in part, because he needed to know what the family wanted done with the body. Rutha Mason wrote back, thanking McClaughry for letting her know right away that her only son had died and for his “kindness to Fred.” She wanted to know if Fred had left any final words for his family. McClaughry wrote back to say that he had been unconscious for three days prior to his death and had been unable to speak.

Mason telegram

Telegram from Ruth Mason to Warden McClaughry, from Fred Mason’s Leavenworth file. Collection of NARA-Kansas City.

The Mason family was too poor to afford to have their son’s body returned to Texas, so his mother requested that prison officials “bury Freddie there.” She mentioned that she had made every effort possible to get him a pardon but had been unsuccessful. The warden reassured her that her son’s grave would be marked with a “neat headstone, so that if any time his friends desire to remove his remains, they can be identified and obtained.”

Currently Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary maintains a cemetery for prisoners but it is not accessible to the public nor does it contain any headstones.

Featured photo: Fred Mason, Leavenworth Penitentiary Inmate Photograph, 1899. Collection of NARA-Kansas city.