Over the past few months, we’ve compiled from the 1880 census a master list of every worker in the lumber industry. To start building a collection of stories about the common worker, we put their names into the newspaper database through the library. Not surprisingly, the common worker generally made the papers for either a workplace injury or an arrest. Injuries far outnumbered arrests, but one thing became clear: robberies filled, and perhaps sold, newspapers.
The newspapers featured daring train robberies, mail robberies, and jewel thefts from around the country and even the world. They featured serial pulp fiction detective stories. These stories included tales of thieves shimming down chimneys only to be caught by hardnosed hero cops.
While criminal tales of afar captured the pennies of the readers, one would imagine that just like today, 19th century readers never wanted to see their name in the obituaries and the police beat. While most sawmill workers were arrested for assault or drunkenness, professional thieves and opportunists were present night or day. What follows is not a Raymond Chandler novel, but I hope it shows what was of value in the 19th century.
In 1870, a member of the undead visited Clinton. A F.R. Monroe had the Clinton Age print posters. When he picked them up, Monroe assured the Age he would pay for them on Friday — if he was alive. When he didn’t show, the Age correctly assumed he had died.
Yet to the shock and horror of the Age, they saw Monroe walking around on Second Street. The Age let it be known that they don’t do business with dead men and considered the account settled.
In 1894, the home of Mrs. Eliza Leonard was robbed one early morning. As the thief was swinging his leg back through the window he entered, Mrs. Leonard’s nurse walked into the room and startled the thief. While the thief was balancing his body above the threshold, the nurse reached into the darkness of his armpit. From it, she plucked a jewelry case from his clutch causing the thief to drop the rest of the loot. He did escape with $50 in the safety of his pockets.
In the same issue, a man opened his dream saloon. Right away, he was robbed of a keg and cigars. The paper blamed the theft on “the work of some of the gang about town.” Not to be outdone, a thief robbed a chicken coop and stole 16 chickens. In righteous jest, the paper cursed the thief with a declaration that “the thief who doubtless had roast chicken and potpie served for his Sunday dinner…. (is) doubtless locating another coop.”
Special warning was given to farmers and salesman, as out in the country, there was not much protection. Farmers were routinely robbed of chicken and grain, while salesmen were robbed of money and goods. In 1874, a reaper agent was accosted by two highwaymen. The agent pummeled one robber as the robber shot him multiple times. One glanced off his breast pocket and one hit his hand.
In 1891, a thief burglarized a grocery store multiple times. The thief took small quantities of tobacco, pipes, baking powder, coffee and tea. The thief apparently would sneak in from a cellar. When the police were contacted, they immediately walked into a barn and arrested a man sleeping in the barn. The arresting officer pointed that the man’s shoeprint matched the impressions left at the scene. They said look at your flapping right toe, it could only be you.
Harder to explain away was in the next room was trunks full of the stolen goods. Even harder to explain away was in reality, the cops were watching him sell goods on the street for weeks. Like today, a small outcry was given that he was previously arrested for stealing and selling beer. Like drugs and electronics today, a majority of the thefts and selling of stolen goods seem to revolve around beer and items of value, like clothes.
In 1875, there was a “line thief.” The thief stole a child’s garments and sheets, even though “they (would) be tight at the neck, and the lower corners are rounded off too soon.” What the paper couldn’t understand was why they robbed from a pastor’s house. Not only did the papers not have to use the word allegedly, the paper could bestow justice onto the robber like “when the robber is found dead in bed, struck by lightning while in unholy slumber between the stolen articles, the coroner is authorized to use them as winding sheets for the blasted thief.”
While clothes and food seemed to be stolen for Clinton’s black market, Clinton was not immune to the rising curiosity of kleptomania. Kleptomania has a very illuminating history on class and gender, but in the late 19th century, kleptomania was often said to be the excuse for rich women to avoid punishment for theft. Clinton’s first case was in 1885. As such, no name was associated with the thief.
Rumors of course informed the prying public eye. When circuses came to town, residents braced for an increase in crime. After an 1870 robbery, the suspicions were placed on male attaches of a gun boat. A decade later, police arrested actual river thieves. They had a red skiff and would launch from Rock River. These river pirates stole tarps, clothing, food and geese.
In 1893, a thieving tag team was “counting stars” to time how long it took the cop to make his round. When the cop made his round, one thief turned his comrade in because he claimed she stole his watch. Ironically, afterwards, the watch was “found by the sidewalk.”
Finally, I can’t resist sharing my favorite poem found above an amazing article on the “significance of slang terms used by crooks.” In 1887, the first plot for the movie “Final Destination” was featured in the poem: Couldn’t Dodge His Fate. The protagonist avoided rail, bicycles, boats and more just to trip over the tracks, get hit by a bicycle, and have an earthquake topple his house on his head. Not understanding fate, the protagonist’s last declare is:
“’I’ll join no congregation, a great conflagration May burn down a church in a minute. And that night a dire, unquenchable fire, Burned down his own house and him in it.”
Hopefully this article didn’t put you in a big sleep, but weekly, Clinton and Lyons saw a grocery store, a farm, a household of an elderly resident, or an absent homeowner robbed of saleable goods. With the river, railroads, highways, and transient populace and with a growing economy, it adds “an intriguing” backdrop. Even if in reality, it’s a backdrop that for most went rather unnoticed.
Matt Parbs is the director of Clinton’s Sawmill Museum and writes a History in the Headlines column for the Clinton Herald.