Four men roamed the Midwest in the late 1890s, thieving in Stanwood and Cedar Rapids, changing their names as often as they changed their hats, being arrested and repeatedly trying to break out of jail.
The story begins in the Cedar County town of Stanwood where townspeople noticed two strangers hanging around for a couple of days in April 1898. When the safe at the Stanwood post office was blown up early in the morning of April 26, robbers got away with $400 in stamps, money orders and cash. When the two strangers returned a few weeks later, they were recognized.
After a long chase led by Deputy U.S. Marshal Mark Healy of Cedar Rapids, two men — who gave their names as William Bigelow and James Collins — were arrested and taken to the Linn County Jail in Marion.
Bigelow said he was 43. He had muttonchop whiskers and scars on each side of his face. Collins, a printer, had sandy hair and a bad complexion and gave his age as 27. Both had on new clothes when they were arrested.
When the marshal visited the pair in the Marion jail June 21, Bigelow and Collins asked him if they could go free if they could provide an alibi for the night the post office was robbed. Healy agreed to listen. The pair told him they were escaping from the jail in Davenport when the Stanwood robbery occurred.
Healy contacted Davenport Police Chief Henry Martens, who confirmed that a George Markey and Fred Johnson — aliases for Bigelow and Collins, respectively — had indeed escaped from the workhouse, but it was on April 21, in plenty of time for the criminal pair to make it to Stanwood.
Martens also sent photos of the two.
On the back of the photo of Bigelow was printed “George Markey, alias Charles Woodruff, Kid Woodruff, ex-convict. Age 40, weight 128, height 5 feet 9 inches, complexion dark, eyes brown. … Safe blower and all around crook.”
The picture of Collins identified him as Fred Carbine, alias Fred Johnson and William Elwood, “burglar and safe blower.”
Two other men — George Sherman and William Smith — were arrested on a pickpocket charge May 23, 1898, accused of stealing an older woman’s purse as she got off the train in Cedar Rapids.
At their arraignment, Sherman said he would act as lawyer for the pair, claiming he had studied law. Observers felt his expertise could very well have come from spending a lot of time in courtrooms.
That suspicion proved correct. Investigators discovered George Sherman, also known as George Graham, was really Charles Dilley. He was 21, 5 feet 6 and weighed 135 pounds. He had been arrested as a pickpocket in St. Louis in April 1898.
William Smith, whose real name was Lewis Padden, also had aliases — Harry McMahan and Lloyd Landers, He, too, had been arrested in St. Louis for picking pockets. He was 21, just under 5 feet 4, 120 pounds. He was known as “a professional thief” and had been released from the penitentiary at Anamosa in February 1898.
Records showed the two also had been arrested in Milwaukee and Chicago and were wanted for stealing horses in Minnesota.
At their first trial, Padden and Dilley did a good enough job to gain a hung jury, with four of the 12 jurors voting to acquit. They were returned to jail to await a second trial.
Jail break tries
The nefarious quartet, in jail at the same time, schemed how to escape.
One night, fellow inmate Frank Diehl, serving a sentence for gambling, was awakened by strange noises in an adjoining cell. Pretending to sleep, he saw Markey and Carbine saw their way out of their cell, come into his cell, put a chair under a window and begin sawing again. Later, they gave up their project for the night, replaced the pieces they had sawed out, returned to their cell and got into their bunks.
When Diehl related the escape plan to Sheriff John Cone, Diehl said he thought Markey and Carbine had a deal to escape with pickpockets Dilley and Padden.
Cone could find no evidence of sawed bars, but enough people had heard the strange noises that he placed armed guards at the jail every night.
A few weeks later, after Cone had transferred the four men to the strongest steel cage at the jail, Cone found a hole in the wall big enough for a man to escape through.
The four men had made a drill out of a dismantled office stool, a broken steel wrench and wire from a broom. They also made a saw from a portion of an old case knife.
Sheriff Cone kept close watch on the prisoners for the next two weeks and found another escape attempt in progress on Aug. 1. In searching the cell, he found a homemade file and knife-blade saw — along with marks on the bars about a quarter of an inch deep. The men were transferred to yet another cell with an round-the-clock guard.
In November, Markey and Carbine were sentenced to nine months of hard labor at the Anamosa Penitentiary.
Back in Marion, Padden was turned over to Minneapolis authorities where he was wanted for stealing a horse and buggy. He was acquitted in December 1898 when the principal witness failed to show.
Dilley escaped the Marion jail on Sept. 2, 1898, by sawing the bars out of a jail window. He took four other prisoners with him. Two were recaptured, but Dilley disappeared. He was arrested in Chicago in December 1902, and Linn County Sheriff Martin Evans headed there to pick up his prisoner.
The Linn County purse-snatching case against Padden and Dilley, though, was ultimately dismissed in 1903 after one witness for the state died, another disappeared and it was determined the woman who had been robbed was too aged and crippled to appear in court.
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