Crime and Punishment

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Stadelheim_Wachturm.jpg
Image: Wikimedia Commons

German playwright Ernst Toller was arrested for socialist activities in 1919. His 1937 collection of letters from prison, Look Through the Bars, includes this memory:

Stadelheim 1919

Dear ——,

We are a hundred men here in prison, separated from our wives for months. Every conversation between any two men always ends in the same way — women.

The high walls prevent any view. Within the walls is a small hut. It was, we heard, some sort of wash-house, which was not used. One day one of us saw that the shutters of the hut were opened. He saw two women at work. One stayed in the wash-house, the other went away and locked the door. Soon we knew all. The two women were a wardress and a prisoner, who was to be released in a short time. She had been sentenced to eight years’ imprisonment for child-murder. She had already served five years; in a few weeks’ time she was to be pardoned.

It would be too complicated to tell you how we contrived to exchange notes with the girl. First playful and harmless ones, then feverish, passionate and confused ones. Everything which, in that closed-in existence, had come in dreams, wishes and fantasies went out to that woman. One morning she gave us a signal. We were to stand near the window at a certain hour.

Impossible to describe what happened. The woman opened her dress and stood naked at the window. She was surprised and taken away. We never saw her again. But we learned that the pardon had been annulled.

Never has a woman moved me so much as that little prisoner, who, in order to make men happy for a few seconds (in a very questionable way) suffered with unsophisticated wisdom three more years in prison.

Appeals

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Advertisements in the Sing Sing inmate newspaper Star of Hope, May 19, 1900:

WANTED — A home-like home. Present one, not what it is cracked up to be. Address Clinton 4,320.

WANTED — A good night’s rest. Gallery shouters and instrumentalists take note. Nemo, Star Office.

WANTED — An eraser, (must be mighty sharp) to blot out the past. A stock of experience, (fringed and threadbare) given in exchange. For particulars, Auburn 20,101.

WANTED — That rara avis, the con who does not think he is better able to manage the Star than the present Editor. Applications solicited by Sing Sing 51,094.

WANTED — A few blank pages in the Book of Life, wherein we desire to make some new entries — on the Cr. side. Address Summa Summarum, New York State Prisons.

WANTED — Immediately — an Opportunity. Price no object if goods are fair and in good working order. Anxious, Clinton 4,298.

WANTED — Anno Domini 1902. Will give in exchange one and a quarter yards of warranted genuine, homemade Spring po’ms — just too lovely for every day wear. Samantha, Auburn 595 (W. P.)

LOST — Five days’ ‘short time.’ Finder can have same by arranging with the Powers That Be. Address Nostalgic, Auburn 20,210.

(From Karel Weiss, The Prison Experience, 1976.)

Ground Rules

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Articles of the pirate ship Revenge, captain John Phillips, 1723:

  1. Every man shall obey a civil command. The captain shall have one share and a half of all prizes. The master, carpenter, boatswain and gunner shall have one share and [a] quarter.
  2. If any man shall offer to run away or keep any secret from the company, he shall be marooned with one bottle of powder, one bottle of water, one small arm and shot.
  3. If any man shall steal anything in the company or game to the value of a piece-of-eight, he shall be marooned or shot.
  4. If at any time we should meet another marooner [pirate], that man that shall sign his articles without the consent of our company shall suffer such punishment as the captain and company shall think fit.
  5. That man that shall strike another whilst these articles are in force shall receive Moses’s Law (that is, forty stripes lacking one) on the bare back.
  6. That man that shall snap his arms or smoke tobacco in the hold without a cap on his pipe, or carry a candle lighted without a lantern, shall suffer the same punishment as in the former article.
  7. That man that shall not keep his arms clean, fit for an engagement, or neglect his business, shall be cut off from his share and suffer such other punishment as the captain and the company shall think fit.
  8. If any man shall lose a joint in time of an engagement, he shall have 400 pieces-of-eight. If a limb, 800.
  9. If at any time we meet with a prudent woman, that man that offers to meddle with her without her consent, shall suffer present death.

That’s from Charles Johnson’s General History of the Pyrates, 1724. It’s one of only four surviving sets of articles from the golden age of piracy.

Phillips lasted less than eight months as a pirate captain but captured 34 ships in the West Indies.

Podcast Episode 104: The Harvey’s Casino Bombing

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In August 1980, an extortionist planted a thousand-pound bomb in Harvey’s Wagon Wheel Casino in western Nevada. Unless the owners paid him $3 million within 24 hours, he said, the bomb would go off and destroy the casino. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the tense drama that followed and the FBI’s efforts to catch the criminal behind it.

We’ll also consider some dubious lawn care shortcuts and puzzle over why a man would tear up a winning ticket.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 97: The Villisca Ax Murders

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Image: Flickr

Early one morning in 1912, the residents of Villisca, Iowa, discovered a horrible scene: An entire family had been brutally murdered in their sleep. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the gruesome crime, which has baffled investigators for a hundred years.

We’ll also follow the further adventures of German sea ace Felix von Luckner and puzzle over some fickle bodyguards.

See full show notes …

In a Word

instauration
n. the act of restoring or repairing

furacious
adj. given to thieving, thievish

In 1996, workers demolishing the old Apollo Theater on West 42nd Street in New York City discovered a hidden cache of discarded wallets. Apparently a thief had preyed on theatergoers there 40 years earlier, stealing wallets and pocketbooks, removing the cash and valuables, and dropping the rest into an airshaft.

“The farther back I crawled, the older they got, from the 1960s to the 1950s,” foreman Bill Barron told the New York Times.

The finds included a weekly paycheck stub for $226.30, a telephone bill for $7.24, faded photographs, and identification papers of the victims, few of whom were still living.

“The Times Square of the late 1950s and early 1960s was the capital of pickpocketing,” said social historian Luc Sante. “It was simply a more trusting era.”

Electrical Fault

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In 1969, California attorney Russell Tansie sued God for $100,000 on behalf of his legal secretary, who blamed Him for destroying her Phoenix home with a bolt of lightning in 1960:

Plaintiff is informed and believes that defendant (God) at all times mentioned herein is responsible for the maintenance and operation of the Universe, including the weather in and upon the State of Arizona, and that on or about August 17, 1960, defendant so maintained and controlled the weather, in, around and upon Phoenix, in such careless and negligent manner as to cause lightning to strike the plaintiff’s house, setting it on fire and startling, frightening and shocking the plaintiff.

Tansie added that God “did this with full knowledge and that the act was committed with malice and ill will.” He hoped to win a default judgment when the defendant failed to appear in court. I don’t know the outcome; maybe they reached a settlement.

Grist

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A few adventures of Dashiell Hammett, who worked for the Pinkerton Detective Agency before turning to fiction:

  • “I know a man who once stole a Ferris-wheel.”
  • “I was once engaged to discharge a woman’s housekeeper.”
  • “I was once falsely accused of perjury and had to perjure myself to escape arrest.”
  • “A man whom I was shadowing went out into the country for a walk one Sunday afternoon and lost his bearings completely. I had to direct him back to the city.”
  • “Three times I have been mistaken for a Prohibition agent, but never had any trouble clearing myself.”
  • “I know an operative who while looking for pickpockets at the Havre de Grace race track had his wallet stolen. He later became an official in an Eastern detective agency.”
  • “I know a detective who once attempted to disguise himself thoroughly. The first policeman he met took him into custody.”
  • “In 1917, in Washington, D.C., I met a young woman who did not remark that my work must be very interesting.”
  • “The chief of police of a Southern city once gave me a description of a man, complete even to a mole on his neck, but neglected to mention that he had only one arm.”

Interestingly, he notes that “the chief difference between the exceptionally knotty problem confronting the detective of fiction and that facing the real detective is that in the former there is usually a paucity of clues, and in the latter altogether too many.”

(“From the Memoirs of a Private Detective,” The Smart Set, March 1923.)

A Pitched Battle

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In The Book of the Harp (2005), John Marson mentions a musical oddity — in 1932, a committee devoted to equal temperament was so incensed at the Royal Schools of Music that it hauled them before London’s Central Criminal Court for obtaining money under false pretenses. From The Music Lover magazine, April 30, 1932:

There is a touch of knight errantry about the action of Lennox Atkins F.R.C.O., hon. sec. of the Equal Temperament Committee, in applying at Bow Street for process against the Associated Board of Examiners in Music on the grounds that they were not qualified to know whether the music was being played in tune or not, and that therefore their diplomas were valueless. It certainly savours of the ‘ingenious gentleman’ of La Mancha who tilted at windmills. The temperament question seems to have upon those who take it up an effect similar to that which temperament produces in a prima donna. They become, to say the least, unreasonable. Happily Mr Fry, the magistrate, decided that this was not a matter for a criminal court, so that Sir John B. McEwan and Sir Hugh Allen are not to be shot at dawn, as was at first feared.

McEwan headed the Royal Academy of Music and Allen the Royal College of Music at the time. I find a bit more in the Musical Times, June 1, 1932:

Candidates were allowed to pass off the tuner’s scale as their own, and to obtain certificates to which, the E.T.C. claimed, they were not in equity entitled. Every sound produced was the tuner’s and not the candidate’s. Famous examiners, such as the late Sir Frederick Bridge, had wrongly passed thousands of candidates in keyed instrument examinations. From the point of view of the E.T.C., the candidates were not really examined at all.

The magistrate added that if it was thought that the examiners’ knowledge was insufficient then civil proceedings might be undertaken.

“We have only once before heard of the Equal Temperament Committee — a long while ago — and we were, and are still, vague as to its aims,” noted the Musical Times. “We had imagined it to be a learned Society that met from time to time to exchange light and airy chat about ratios, partials, mesotonics, and other temperamental details. But it seems that it is a body with a Mission, though we are not clear what that Mission is. Judging from the Bow Street evidence, the Committee’s aim is to make ‘Every Musician His Own Tuner’ — which seems rather rough on real tuners.”

Short-Timer

http://blogs.sos.wa.gov/library/index.php/2013/10/the-one-minute-jail-sentence/

The shortest jail sentence ever served in Washington state is one minute. From the Seattle Daily Times, Jan. 20, 1906:

[Joe] Munch is a soldier, on leave of absence. On the thirteenth day of August he found garrison life dull and proceeded to get drunk. A policeman found him in this condition and he was hustled off to the police station. In Judge Gordon’s court he was sentenced to thirty days for being drunk and disorderly, but his case was taken to the higher court.

Judge Frater decided that while the soldier’s crime was not enough to merit punishment, for the looks of things he ought to be sent to jail, and have a lesson taught him. Consequently Munch was sentenced to an imprisonment of one minute, something which the clerk who makes out the sentence documents never heard of before and which caused much merriment in court house circles.

“Those who heard the decision were inclined to take it as a joke of the judge’s, until Munch was hustled off to jail and kept there until the second hand of the jailer’s watch had completed the circle of sixty seconds. Munch was so surprised that he hardly knew what was going on and when released decided that the best thing for him to do was to get away for fear the sight of him should cause the judge to inflict a heavier penalty.”

(From the Washington State Library blog.)