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

Con Heir

In 1879 Thérèse Humbert was traveling by railway through France when she met an ailing American millionaire named Robert Crawford. She sought medical care for him, and he showed his gratitude with a handsome bequest, which she kept in a sealed safe.

Or so she said. Humbert and her husband lived luxuriously in Paris for two decades, borrowing money against Crawford’s unseen gift. When suspicious creditors finally sued her, they discovered that Crawford didn’t exist and the safe contained a handful of worthless papers. She was sentenced to five years in prison.

In 1897 Ohio con artist Cassie Chadwick “confessed” to a Cleveland lawyer that she was the illegitimate daughter of Andrew Carnegie and stood to inherit $10 million on his death. She parlayed his sympathy into a series of bank loans and lived lavishly until 1904, when she was unable to repay a Massachusetts banker. Carnegie, who denied her story, attended the trial and saw her sentenced to 10 years in prison. She died two years later in the Ohio State Penitentiary.

Malice Aforethought

On May 31, 1964, Cyril Church beat Sylvia Nott into unconsciousness. Thinking he’d killed her, he dumped her body in a river, where she drowned.

Is this murder? The deliberate act wasn’t fatal, and the fatal act wasn’t deliberate. “His case is that he genuinely and honestly believed that she was dead,” Justice Glyn Jones told the jury. “I direct you that, if that was his genuine and honest belief, then when he threw what he believed to be a dead body into the river, he obviously was not actuated by any intention to cause death or grievous bodily harm; you cannot cause death or serious bodily harm to a corpse.”

They convicted Church of manslaughter.

A Guilty Face

One morning in 1727, York pubkeeper Hannah Williams found that her writing desk had been opened and a sum of money stolen. As waiter Thomas Geddely disappeared at the same time, there was little doubt as to the robber.

Twelve months later, a man calling himself James Crow arrived in York and took a job as a porter. The townspeople immediately accosted him as Geddely, but he insisted that he didn’t know them, that his name was James Crow, and that he was new to York.

Williams was called for, instantly identified him as Geddely, and accused him of robbing her. The man protested his innocence before a justice of the peace but had no alibi and admitted to a history as a vagabond and a petty rogue. At the trial a servant testified that she had seen him at the robbery scene with a poker in his hand. He swore again that his name was James Crow but was convicted and executed.

Some time later Thomas Geddely was arrested in Dublin on a robbery charge. While in custody he confessed to the robbery at York. A York resident who was visiting Ireland at the time declared that the resemblance between the two men was so great “that it was next to impossible for the nicest eye to have distinguished their persons asunder.”

See Mistaken Identity.

Frontier Justice

In 1881 a federal trial judge in the Territory of New Mexico, presiding at Taos in an adobe stable used as a temporary courtroom, passed sentence on murderer José Gonzales. We don’t know the details of Gonzales’ crime, but it must have been extraordinary — here’s the sentence:

José Manuel Miguel Xavier Gonzales, in a few short weeks it will be spring. The snows of winter will flee away, the ice will vanish, and the air will become soft and balmy. In short, José Manuel Miguel Xavier Gonzales, the annual miracle of the years will awaken and come to pass, but you won’t be here.

The rivulet will run its purring course to the sea, the timid desert flowers will put forth their tender shoots, the glorious valleys of this imperial domain will blossom as the rose. Still, you won’t be here to see.

From every tree top some wild woods songster will carol his mating song, butterflies will sport in the sunshine, the busy bee will hum happy as it pursues its accustomed vocation, the gentle breeze will tease the tassels of the wild grasses, and all nature, José Manuel Miguel Xavier Gonzales, will be glad but you. You won’t be here to enjoy it because I command the sheriff or some other officer of the country to lead you out to some remote spot, swing you by the neck from a nodding bough of some sturdy oak, and let you hang until you are dead.

And then, José Manuel Miguel Xavier Gonzales, I further command that such officer or officers retire quickly from your dangling corpse, that vultures may descend from the heavens upon your filthy body until nothing shall remain but bare, bleached bones of a cold-blooded, copper-colored, blood-thirsty, throat-cutting, chili-eating, sheep-herding, murdering son of a bitch.

Cleopatra Mathis discovered the transcript in the records of the U.S. District Court, New Mexico Territory Sessions. She published it in Antaeus in autumn 1976.

Bad Country

Yellowstone National Park doesn’t quite fit in Wyoming — small portions extend into Montana and Idaho. But Congress has placed the legal jurisdiction for the entire park in the District of Wyoming. At the same time, the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution requires that a jury be “of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed.”

Suppose you lure me into the 50 square miles of Yellowstone that lie within Idaho, and suppose you kill me there. The Sixth Amendment requires that the jury be drawn from the state (Idaho) and the district (Wyoming) in which the crime occurred. But the only way to fulfill both those requirements is to draw the jury from the tiny part of Yellowstone that lies in Idaho — and its census population is zero. Without a jury, you can’t be tried. “Assuming that you do not feel like consenting to trial in Cheyenne,” writes Michigan State law professor Brian Kalt, “you should go free.”

“It bears emphasis that the flaw here is really with the District of Wyoming statute, not with the Sixth Amendment,” advises Kalt, whose full paper is here. “The solution is to fix the statute, not eviscerate the Constitution. If we do it quickly enough, no one will get hurt.”

Please don’t actually kill me. (Thanks, Ty.)

Second-Story Man

The world’s greatest jewel thief rarely carried a weapon and never indulged in violence, yet in the 1920s he managed to steal between $5 and $10 million from wealthy victims, whom he called “clients.”

Born in Massachusetts in 1896, Arthur Barry committed his first burglary at 15, creeping in through the window of a merchant’s home to plan the job and then returning to steal his receipts. The value of preparation struck him, and after a stint in the Army he went to New York and began his career in earnest. He would scan the society columns for a wedding party on Long Island, crash it wearing formal wear, then enter the house, wander upstairs, memorize the floor plan, and unlock windows. He’d return later to commit the robbery.

Working in this meticulous way he managed to steal half a million dollars a year in the mid-1920s, including $750,000 in jewels in broad daylight from the suite of F.W. Woolworth’s daughter. “Whoever took those pearls really knew what he was doing,” marveled a police captain at the time. “There were five ropes in the drawer, four imitations and the real one. The imitations were good enough to fool an oyster.”

Ironically, by the time Barry was finally caught and sent to prison in 1927, he had discovered that some of his victims were criminals themselves. “On the day after a job I’d read stories which listed all kinds of things I hadn’t stolen at all,” he told Life in 1956. “The clients would hide them and get the money from the insurance company. Sure, I was a thief and I’m sorry now, but you’ll find a lot of people in the Social Register who are also thieves and aren’t one bit sorry.”


LONDON — Mrs. Kathleen Cameron, 19, was amazed at how hard and fast carpenters worked to tear down the pre-fab house next door at 10 Jardin Street.

‘I didn’t become suspicious of the four men until they skipped their tea break to continue working,’ she said.

Sure enough, the carpenters were thieves who stole the five-room house in its entirety. By the time police arrived, they were gone.

Lubbock Avalanche-Journal, Sept. 12, 1971