Inside Job

I hope this is true — Charles Whitehead’s Lives and Exploits of English Highwaymen, Pirates, and Robbers (1883) recounts a notable heist by one Arthur Chambers. Chambers rented a room from a wealthy landlord, and after winning his confidence, approached him one day with the sad news that he had just witnessed the death of his brother, who had enjoined him to convey his remains to Westminster Abbey. The landlord, moved by Chambers’ story, agreed to safeguard the coffin overnight in his own house, and Chambers arranged to have it delivered there.

That artful rogue was, however, confined in the coffin, in which air holes had been made, the screw-nails left unfixed, his clothes all on, with a winding-sheet wrapped over them, and his face blanched with flour. All the family were now gone to bed, except the maid-servant. Chambers arose from his confinement, went down stairs to the kitchen wrapped in his winding-sheet, sat down, and stared the maid in the face, who, overwhelmed with fear, cried out, ‘A ghost! a ghost!’ and ran up-stairs to her master’s room, who chid her unreasonable fears, and requested her to return to bed and compose herself. She, however, obstinately refused, and remained in the room.

In a short time, however, in stalked the stately ghost, took his seat, and conferred a complete sweat and a mortal fright upon all three who were present. Retiring from his station when he deemed it convenient, he continued, by the moving of the doors, and the noise raised through the house, to conceal his design: in the mean time, he went down stairs, opened the doors to his accomplices, who assisted him in carrying off the plate, and every thing which could be removed, not even sparing the kitchen utensils.

“The maid was the first to venture from her room in the morning, and to inform her master and mistress of what had happened, who, more than the night before, chid her credulity in believing that a ghost could rob a house, or carry away any article out of it,” Whitehead writes. “In a little time, however, the landlord was induced to rise from his bed, and to move down stairs, and found, to his astonishment and chagrin, that the whole of his plate, and almost the whole of his moveables, were gone, for which he had only received in return an empty coffin.”

Will and Deed

In 1968 British police constable David Morris was directing Vincent Fagan to a parking space when Fagan’s car ran onto his foot. Morris shouted at him to move the car, but Fagan refused and turned off the ignition. Eventually he started it again and moved off, but he was convicted of assault for the incident.

This raises a curious legal point. Normally Western law recognizes a crime only if a guilty action and a guilty intent occur at the same time. Here it seems that Fagan’s guilty action (rolling onto Morris’ foot) was a simple accident, and his guilty intent (his resolution not to move) occurred only later. Does that mean that he had committed no crime?

No, it doesn’t, ruled the English court of appeal. Fagan’s guilty action extended continuously while the constable’s foot was pinned under his tire, and he became guilty of assault a soon as he formed the resolution not to move the car. His appeal was dismissed.

(Fagan v Metropolitan Police Commissioner [1969] 1 QB 439)


Here’s a philosophical question. Some pinball machines reward high scores with free replays. And in states with anti-gambling statutes, some prosecutors crack down on this feature, saying that it constitutes gambling.

Is this a coherent argument? If pinball is legal, then can more pinball be illegal?

“The prosecutors … believe that ‘more of the same’ can be too much of a good thing, and rather than multiply legal acts, actually cross the line of legality,” writes Peter Suber in The Paradox of Self-Amendment.

“A quantitative change becomes at some point a qualitative change, just as lowering the temperature of water by degrees gives us nothing but cold water for a while, and then suddenly gives us ice.”

Bitter Justice

An 1873 arrest report by Arizona sheriff George Tyng, quoted in Case and Comment, 1934:

Received the within process Arizona City, Jan. 1873 and served same by arresting defendant at Ehrenberg, A.T., Jan. 31, 1873, but as defendant had no money and I was broke myself and the county dont pay cash in advance, and no steamboat around and no calaboose here and defendant wouldn’t walk down to Yuma all alone by himself and I wouldn’t walk down with him and as he wouldn’t stay arrested unless I boarded him which I had no money for to do, and as he gave up the coat (value .45 cents currency — estimated) and said he never stole it but Bryson gave it to him in presence of witnesses and that Bryson was a damned liar anyhow, and not knowing what to do with him, I did nothing more to him up to date beyond giving him excellent moral advice which he assured me was entirely unnecessary in his case, his life having been blameless and his reputation spotless as he could prove by the best men in Nevada and Idaho but have allowed him to run at large until a more favorable season when a steamboat happens to be here, and will take scrip for his passage to Yuma and present the bill to Supervisors themselves, which is nearly all I have done toward serving within process, though I would make return of the Balance were this process bigger on the back.

Fees — Balance of what coat sells for after paying Justice fees.

George Tyng,
Sheriff of Yuma County,

Valise Police

Briefcase security, then and now:

In 1925, August Eimer invented the case above, which emits smoke when torn from its owner’s hand “in the form of a continually issuing cloud that will envelop the container and serve to unmistakably identify its purloiner, necessitating discard of the container by the thief if he would make his escape.”

In 1989, Isaac Soleimani offered the model below: As the thief is running off, you activate a radio signal that releases a latch, “with the result that the briefcase falls on the ground, leaving the thief only with the handle.”

It seems there’s always an element of slapstick. “The handle could also be spring-loaded so that upon remote triggering it could clamp down hard onto the thief’s hand, clamping the fingers between the handle and the top of the briefcase, thereby inflicting pain to the thief, causing him to drop the briefcase.”

Scent of Evil

Louis J. Marcone came up with a novel way to catch bank robbers in 1989: The teller might step on a trigger and surreptitiously spray the robber with “a non-toxic, clear, odorless and harmless liquid spray material which can be readily detected by trained police dogs.”

He envisioned a second application for the device: The spray unit could be attached to a fire alarm, so that anyone who pulled the alarm would be marked with the scent. “If the alarm was determined to be a false alarm, the fire department can alert police to bring trained police dogs to the scene, whereupon the dog can track the scent from the alarm location to the person activating the false alarm.”

Cold Case

In 1629, Joan Norkot of Hertfordshire died in a singularly impossible way:

  1. “She lay in a composed manner in her bed, the bed cloaths nothing at all disturbed, and her child by her in the bed.”
  2. “Her throat was cut from ear to ear and her neck broken, and if she first cut her throat she could not break her neck in the bed, nor e contra.”
  3. “There was no blood in the bed saving that there was a tincture of blood upon the bolster whereupon her head lay, but no other substance of blood at all.”
  4. “From the bed’s head there was a stream of blood on the floor, till it ponded on the bending of the floor to a very great quantity, and there was also another stream of blood on the floor at the bed’s feet, which ponded also on the floor to another great quantity, but no continuance or communication of blood of either of these two places, the one from the other, neither upon the bed, so that she bled in two places severally, and it was deposed that turning up the matte of the bed there were clotts of congealed blood in the straw of the matte underneath.”
  5. “The bloody knife in the morning was found sticking in the floor a good distance from the bed, but the point of the knife as it stuck in the floor was towards the bed and the haft towards the door.”
  6. “Lastly, there was the print of a thumb and four fingers of a left hand on the dead person’s left hand.”

No one had entered the house since she had gone to bed, and Joan’s sister Agnes and her husband, John Okeman, had lain in the outer room together with John’s mother, Mary. John was acquitted and his pregnant wife permitted to live, but Joan’s husband Arthur and her mother-in-law, each protesting their innocence, were hanged.

This account was found among the papers of Sir John Maynard, who died in 1690. When it was published in The Gentleman’s Magazine in July 1851, it made a sensation chiefly because it reported that Joan’s month-old corpse had been exhumed and itself accused the killers. “The appellers did touch the dead body, whereupon the brow of the dead, which was of a livid or carrion colour (that was the verbal expression in the terms of the witness) began to have a dew or gentle sweat [which] ran down in drops on the face, and the brow turned and changed to a lively and fresh colour, and the dead opened one of her eyes and shut it again, and this opening the eye was done three several times. She likewise thrust out the ring or marriage finger three times and pulled it in again, and the finger dropt blood from it on the grass.” But setting that aside, it’s hard to understand what happened to Joan. No motive was adduced in the murder, and no one has explained how it was accomplished. Who killed her, and how?

To Catch a Thief

Early inventions to catch car thieves were positively quaint: Thomas Burghart’s 1921 “thief trap” would simply clutch the intruder’s leg and sound an alarm to alert the owner. “The person is thereby held to the seat and cannot get away.”

Yair Tanami’s solution, patented 68 years later, is less forgiving: It mounts a high-voltage discharge electrode under the seat. “In the arrangement illustrated in Figs. 2-5, bursts of high voltages of up to 60,000 volts peak have been produced which were found sufficient to temporarily immobilize the threatening person without permanently injuring him.”

Kaspar Hauser Redux

On Sept. 18, 1989, a frightened teenage girl walked into William B. Jack Elementary School in Portland, Maine. “She just stopped at the counter,” teacher’s aide Judi Fox told the Houston Chronicle. “She walked in and signed a little bit.” Realizing that the girl was seeking help, Fox summoned a teacher who knew sign language and the two took her to a nearby school for the deaf.

Communicating in gestures and drawings, the deaf girl explained that she had been abducted about three years earlier, possibly from a foster home in California, and then moved several times. She believed she was 15 years old, and had been given the name Toby Cole by her captors, though authorities could find no missing-persons report that matched her case.

FBI agent Paul Cavanagh added, “From some of the drawings she was able to provide, it is believed that some of the people she was with since her abduction may have been tied to the occult.”

Unfortunately, no further clues to the girl’s identity were ever found, and she was able to provide no information leading to arrests. She was placed in a foster home, and the case remains unsolved.

On the same theme: In 2009 former Gallaudet University student Joseph Mesa Jr. was convicted of murdering two classmates. The jury rejected his claim that a pair of black hands had urged him on in sign language. Prosecutor Jeb Boasberg said, “An insanity defense doesn’t work if you’re not insane.”

UPDATE: There were further developments in the Toby Cole story, though they make the whole tale even stranger. Police and FBI investigators identified the woman as 27-year-old Margaret Louise Herget of Sandy, Ore. She had moved to Louisiana in August and then to Maine just a few days before turning up at the school. Police lieutenant Michael Bouchard told the Associated Press in October that Herget was hearing-impaired but not deaf and that authorities no longer believed that she had been abducted. But why she had concocted the story, so far as I can tell, is still a mystery. Thanks to everyone who wrote in about this.

Trompe L’Oeil

This is not a photograph, it’s an oil painting. Irish-American painter William Harnett (1848–1892) produced works of such startling verisimilitude that his paintings of American currency, like the one below, nearly got him arrested for counterfeiting. In 1886 the Secret Service visited him at his studio:

While one of them was asking my name, the other as suspiciously poking his cane into the corners of my room. ‘Have you got any more of them here?’ he asked, after he had finished a hasty search. ‘More of what?’ I replied. ‘Those counterfeits!’ he answered. Then the other detective, for both were Special Treasury officers, explained their mission. I was suspected of turning out counterfeit bank notes and they had come to arrest me and seize whatever illegal property they could find. They were very polite but extremely firm and I went down-town with them to Chief Drummond’s office. I explained to the chief how I happened to do the work and I showed him the harmless nature of it. Harmless though it was, it was clearly against the law, and I was let go with a warning not to paint any more life-like representations of the national currency — a warning it is almost needless to say that it was conscientiously heeded.

To be fair, Harnett was not representing his work as currency — but the Secret Service was on the trail of an even more ambitious artist.

harnett five-dollar bill