The Berkshires of Western Massachusetts are known for their picturesque beauty, but this history offers a fascinating look at the region’s dark side. This chronicle includes true tales of greed, betrayal and violence in The Bay State.
In the summer of 1893, a tall and well-dressed burglar plundered the massive summer mansions of the upper crust . . .
A visit from President Teddy Roosevelt in 1902 ended in tragedy when a trolley car smashed into the presidential carriage, killing a Secret Service agent . . .
A psychotic millworker opened fire on a packed streetcar, leaving three dead and five wounded, shocking the nation . . .
These and many more stories—from axe murders to botched bank jobs—paint a stark portrait of the inequities that shadowed the extravagance of the Gilded Age.
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THE GENTLEMAN BURGLAR
Charles Southmayd was awakened from a sound sleep by shouts of "the house is on fire!" Running to his bedroom door, he threw it open. There before him stood a man wearing a black mask around the lower part of his face and towels wrapped around his shoes to muffle his footfalls. He was the one who had sounded the false alarm.
The seventy-year-old Southmayd put up a pretty good fight, but the burglar, younger and stronger, threw the old lawyer to the ground, ransacked the bedroom and made off with $200 cash (about $4,800 in today's terms) and quickly made his escape.
He may have not behaved like a gentleman in this instance, but in other crimes in the fall of 1892 and summer of 1893, the burglar's soothing voice and civility showed when he confronted several female homeowners. They reported that his voice and manners put them at ease as the six-foot-tall masked man pointed his gun at them and went through their rooms looking for loot. One of his female victims, who awoke to find a man in a derby hat with a kerchief covering the lower part of his face, was so charmed by his manners she was quoted in the New York Times as saying she would "dislike to know he was taken up." The woman was a servant in one of the grand "cottages" of the wealthy New Yorkers who summered in Stockbridge.
Another of the robber's female victims described the man's hands as being "small, delicately shaped and unused to hard work." A third victim, Kate Stetson, mentioned his fashionable attire. His three-button cutaway coat "fit him to a nicety," the woman later remarked. She said his eyes were "dark, and mild and soft of expression." His ears — yes, she noticed his ears — were "small and shapely."
Stetson was a guest of Lillian Swan, who was from a prominent New York family, that night in June 1893 when the gentleman burglar came a-calling at the Parke Cottage, located on Main Street in Stockbridge. Swan had taken out a large sum of cash from the bank that day to be used for a shopping spree in New York City. When Stetson arrived at about 9:00 p.m., her escort handed her a pistol, urging her to take it for protection.
"You may have need of it before morning," he said, handing the weapon to her. The two friends were the only occupants of the residence that night. Stetson stepped into the cottage and handed the pistol to Swan. "This is safer with you," she told the other woman.
"Don't mind it if you hear any noise. I'm going to pack my trunk and propose to read before retiring," Lillian told her guest as Kate headed to bed. The women's rooms were just across the main hall from each other. A few hours later, Stetson woke to a grating noise that sounded like drawers were being roughly pulled open and closed. She rubbed the sleep from her eyes and continued listening, sweat beginning to cover her body. The noise continued and seemed to be coming from the hall. "Lillian!" she called out. The noise continued. "Lillian, is that you?" she called out again. She yelled her friend's name a third time. It wasn't her friend who now stood in her doorway, a derby hat perched on his head and a mask covering the lower part of his face. The lamp he held in his hand threw eerie shadows around the room. In the stranger's other hand was a pistol, which was aimed in her direction. He stood there for what seemed like ages. Stetson could neither speak nor move for the terror she felt. She later recalled that the man seemed to take pleasure in the fear he inspired. Finally, he spoke.
"Be quiet! I won't hurt you," he told her in a slow, deliberate cadence. "If you make a noise, I will shoot you." His low voice — soothing, almost musical, mesmerizing — snapped Kate out of her paralysis, and the tension vanished. There was a 180-degree change in the room like "a passing summer breeze" as the stifling silent presence now become a speaking human.
Stetson's third shout of Swan's name had roused the woman from sleep. Just then, Lillian called out from her room. "Kate, what is it?" Stetson said nothing as she stared at the intruder and the barrel of his pistol, which was still aimed at her.
"Kate, Kate! What is it? What is it?"
"It is the man," Stetson finally replied to her friend.
"I want your money," he told her as he began digging around the dresser, adding there was no point in resisting because he had six men downstairs.
"I have none," she replied coolly. "I only came to spend the night with my friend because she is afraid of you. No one in Stockbridge keeps money in their homes nowadays because they are afraid of you."
The stranger didn't reply but arched his eyebrows in response — a movement he made often, according to his victims. He collected a few pennies from her dresser and left the room without another word. He then slipped into Swan's room and was greeted by Lillian, who was sitting up in bed with the pistol Kate had given her earlier that night clenched in her hand.
"I have a pistol," she told the man.
"So have I," he retorted, stepping closer.
"But I'll shoot," she responded.
He continued to move toward her, telling her he didn't believe she would shoot.
"You'd better give me that pistol," he told her. "You might hurt yourself with it."
She answered she couldn't give it to him because the gun was borrowed. He promised to leave the weapon downstairs. When she asked if he could leave it in the hall, he refused.
He was so close now, she could have reached out and touched him. She could have slipped the mask from his face. Instead, she handed him the weapon.
As the burglar rifled through her possessions, Lillian asked him why he didn't find another line of work. He didn't answer and only gave her an icy stare.
After some more repartee between the two, the thief left with an emerald ring, the woman's watch and some cash and then returned to Kate's room. Stetson had hidden her watch under her pillow but had transferred it to her person after the stranger with the cool, dark eyes had left to visit her friend's room.
Reentering Kate's room, he asked her where she had hidden her watch. She lied and said she had left it at home in the fear that he might come. As he turned to leave, Stetson, hoping to glean more identifying characteristics from the burglar, called out to him.
"Oh, are you going?" she asked him. "What are you going to do now?" He turned, walked back toward her bed and looked at her intently before quickly turning and leaving the room.
Both women jumped out of bed and followed the burglar down the stairs and onto the first floor. They watched him walk out of the back door, the same way he had gained entrance into the house. The burglar hopped onto a buggy driven by several fast horses and made his escape. But the gentleman burglar had more business in town that night. The women waited an hour, fearing his return, and then sounded the alarm. They opened the window and screamed for help. None came that night.
Mrs. Field's Watch
Most of the New York society women on vacation in Stockbridge whom the burglar targeted demurred to his requests — this was the Victorian era after all — but Laura Field, the daughter-in-law of the eminent law reformer David Dudley Field, put up one hell of a struggle to try to keep a watch worth $1,500 (close to $40,000 in today's terms).
It was the bandit's second housebreak on the night of June 16, 1893, the first was the break-in and robbery at the Parke Cottage. He slipped unseen into the Fields' Laurel Cottage, also on Main Street, through a window and made his way around the home and into Laura's bedroom. She awoke with a start; there was a hand over her mouth and hot breath on her face. The robber was on his knees, groping around the bed looking for any hidden loot. When his hand found the watch she had hidden under her pillow, any fear Laura had was replaced by anger.
"You shan't have my watch," she screeched, throwing her arms around his neck.
"Be quiet," he told her, putting the barrel of his gun against her forehead, "or I shall shoot you."
He straightened up to his full height, but Laura held on, clinging to him, her feet no longer touching the ground.
He argued with her, pleaded and told her she would be hurt, but she continued to fight him. The fracas woke a valet who ran into the hall where the robber was trying to make his escape, Laura still hanging from his neck.
"Shoot," she shouted. "Don't mind me! Shoot!"
The valet stood paralyzed, pistol in hand, before turning around and heading back into his room, mumbling something about getting his robe. The robber finally heaved Laura off, throwing her into a wall, and made his escape out the back door. The valet, now wearing his robe, rushed down the stairs and wildly fired a bullet through the closed front door.
Stockbridge was soon in a state of high anxiety. The citizenry barred their doors and locked their windows, and the menfolk stayed up half the night, guns in their hands, waiting for the gentleman burglar to try to break into their homes. The wealthiest in town hired private security. A New York Times reporter who went there that September said that, after dark, the town became an "armed band of resistance." Even "strong-nerved" women had abandoned their nighttime prayer meetings unless accompanied by a male escort, and men did not go out past 8:00 p.m. unless armed.
By this time, a $1,200 reward (more than $30,000 in today's terms) had been placed on the rogue's head, but still he eluded capture.
In November, the gentleman burglar and three cohorts were involved in a break-in of the rectory of the Episcopal church in Lenox, where four gold watches were stolen, as well as an attempted robbery of a store. This was the last of the gentleman burglar's escapades in the Berkshires. The men stole a carriage and boarded a train bound for New York City at Chatham, a town just across the border from Berkshire County.
This smooth-talking, gun-toting thief next turned up in Long Island City, Queens, in November 1893. The burglars were soon terrorizing the citizens of Queens and Long Island after moving south from their spree in Stockbridge, mostly preying on the same caliber of very wealthy victims as those in Massachusetts. And like their New England brethren, the folks in New York had begun carrying guns, patrolling the streets and sleeping with their weapons by their sides — with similar results. The gentleman burglar and his cronies were too slick to be caught by amateurs.
It wasn't until nearly two months after the last of the Berkshires break-ins that the man police believed was responsible for the crimes was captured. Michael Sherlock and two members of his gang were cornered by police at gunpoint at the Thirty-fourth Street ferry house in Queens, New York, as they tried to make their escape to Manhattan on New Year's Eve. They had just robbed a courier from a nearby packinghouse.
It was an earlier burglary in Maspeth, Long Island, that helped bring down the master criminal and his partners. A few days before Christmas, Sherlock and one of his cohorts, Michael Mahoney, broke into the house of Christopher Meyer and his two unwed sisters while the women were alone in the house following an outing in Brooklyn. One of the sisters, Elizabeth Meyer, woke up to a man's hand under her pillow. She screamed, waking her sister, Annie, who begged the men not to kill them. The tall stranger told the women in a soothing tone that they would not be hurt and that he and his friend were only there for their valuables. The two men made off with cash and jewelry amounting to more than $100,000 in today's terms.
The burglary was big news since the women were the sisters of Cord Meyer, a rich property developer and a chairman of the New York State Democratic Committee who had recently run for New York secretary of state. He was instrumental in developing the Long Island towns of Elmhurst and Forest Hills. His grandson, also named Cord Meyer, was a CIA agent and writer allegedly involved in a plot to assassinate President John F. Kennedy.
Preying on the super wealthy and well connected probably helped in the gentleman burglar's downfall, as the police seemed to be working overtime to nab him. They developed information, based in part on the victims' descriptions of the culprits, and began surveilling Sherlock's movements. A reporter for the Evening World, a New York newspaper, called the police's task keeping tabs on Sherlock "a long and trying job" since the criminal was "an ingenious rascal of the type who sleeps with one eye open and is always alert to avoid contact with the police." Nevertheless, the rascal apparently let his greed overtake his common sense and set up another job just days after the Meyer break-in.
Police tailed Sherlock for days and took note of the people the thirty-fouryear-old Astoria, Queens resident and streetcar driver spent time with. The detectives learned from an informant that Sherlock and his cohorts were planning to knock over the Astoria Packing Company. Police staked out the building, but to no avail since Sherlock and his men had decided it was too risky. On the night they had decided to do the job, there were too many people in the area because of a wake and a ball near the building. Instead, they waited a few days and then robbed one of the employees after he left the business at night carrying a change box with about $76 ($2,000 today) in cash inside. Sherlock waited for the man to exit the building and then clubbed him and made off with the strongbox.
The man quickly recovered and sounded the alarm. Two other employees who were sleeping at the warehouse came running out in their slippers carrying large knives and a pistol. Seven shots rang out, but all missed the fleeing robbers. One of the employees who chased after the robbers turned a corner and ran into Sherlock. The burglar struck the man with a blackjack, knocking him out cold.
A few hours later Sherlock, Mahoney and Edward Fitzgerald — a former police constable who had become a criminal — were taken into custody when two detectives recognized Sherlock and walked up to the men at the ferry terminal. They thrust their guns in the men's faces and ordered them to put their hands up. It wasn't quite the end of the line for Sherlock though. He and his friends were released for a lack of evidence, and the two detectives were busted down the ranks, apparently due to the political pull of Sherlock and his cohorts.
Not long after Sherlock's arrest, several other burglars were picked up in Bridgeport, Connecticut, and there was some talk that perhaps the gang's leader — Thomas "Big Tom" Kinsella Jr., a Stockbridge native who served time for accidentally shooting and killing his mother-in-law in 1887 — was the "real" gentleman burglar. The newspapers debated the subject; the consensus was that Sherlock most deserved the infamous appellation. It was believed that Kinsella was the leader of the gang, of which Sherlock was a member, terrorizing Stockbridge. When Kinsella and his men were arrested in Connecticut, Fitzgerald, the ex-police constable, was shot and later died from his wounds. Police believed Sherlock, a month after escaping justice in Long Island City, had been involved in the Bridgeport break-ins but had eluded capture when the other men were taken into custody.
The Tightening Net
In April, it really was the end of the line for the gentleman burglar. New York City police were keeping a close watch on Sherlock and believed there was enough evidence to tie him to the Berkshire home invasions as well as the break-in of the Meyer residence on Long Island. They contacted authorities in Massachusetts, who sent a warrant, and then nabbed Sherlock and yet another cohort, Christopher Madden, a ruffian described as "hideous in appearance" due to his lower lip having been torn off in an earlier bar brawl with a reporter. Madden was held while police tried to hunt up enough evidence to charge him. Sherlock was shipped back to Massachusetts.
Back in the Berkshires, police — and the famed Pinkerton's National Detective Agency — recovered much of the loot taken in the Stockbridge burglaries, including Laura Field's watch, which was described as small and of Swiss make with a blue enamel case encrusted with diamonds. It was the handiwork of the Pinkerton detective George S. Dougherty that led to the recovery of the items. It was never revealed how Dougherty, the man credited with making fingerprinting suspects a standard police procedure, was able to recover the goods. The Pinkerton Agency was the first, biggest and best detective and private security firm in the nation and was so well regarded that the U.S. government used it against the Confederacy during the Civil War. The agency's logo, which featured a human eye and the tag line "We Never Sleep," was where the term "private eye" originated.
Although Sherlock and Kinsella escaped justice in the New York break-ins thanks to the untimely death of Kinsella's estranged wife, who planned to testify against them, both men wound up in prison. Kinsella served fifteen years in Connecticut for the series of Bridgeport burglaries, and Sherlock went down for the Lenox and Stockbridge crimes. At trial, Sherlock said he had once been a special police officer whose job was to "preserve order at picnics" and swore he had never been in Berkshire County until being hauled there for trial. He admitted he knew the other men accused of the crimes. The jury apparently didn't fall for the story. He was sentenced to fifteen years in prison with one day in solitary — a bonus for attempting to saw through the bars of his jail cell in Pittsfield while he awaited trial.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Gilded Age Murder & Mayhem in the Berkshires"
Copyright © 2015 Andrew K. Amelinckx.
Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Part I: Love Gone Bad and Just Plain Greed,
1. The Gentleman Burglar,
2. The Cuckold Killer,
3. The Murder That Never Was,
4. The Railroad Men Axe Murder,
Part II: Lessons in Temperance,
5. The Thanksgiving Day Double Murder,
6. The Card Game Killing,
7. The Bloodstained Badge,
Part III: Accidents and Incidents,
8. The Train Station Tragedy,
9. Teddy's Wild Ride,
Part IV: The Ones Who Got Away,
10. The Failed Great Barrington Bank Robbery,
11. The Moneylender Double Murder,
PART V: Axes and Barkers,
12. The Otis Axe Murder,
13. The Rogue Romeo,
14. The Trolley Car Killings,
About the Author,