Little Stories from a Small Town
by Mabel Hoyle Knipe
MR. STODDARD’S PIPE
On the evening of April 16, 1869, William C. Stoddard, a Fairhaven bank clerk, and his friend, James F. Tripp, were returning in the clumsy old horse-drawn omnibus from a jovial evening in New Bedford. Alighting at the corner of Main and Centre Streets at about 9P.M., they decided they would wind up the evening by visiting their club rooms on Middle Street, and so they proceeded westward in that direction.
Mr. Stoddard suddenly remembered that he had left his pipe on his desk in the bank when had had left for the day at 4 P.M. Revels in the Middle Street club rooms would be frustrated without the old black briarwood–so he decided he would stop and retrieve it from the bank offices.
Now, in those days, there was – on the corner of Main and Centre Streets – a big three-story building which provided facilities for a drug business run by Mr. R.W. Richmond. In later years this edifice was taken over by the National Bank as sole headquarters, but in 1869, both National and Savings Bank facilities were housed in the small brick building just west of Mr. Richmond’s place. This was a delightful little structure with a colonnaded porch spreading across the front, three shuttered windows above, and two separate doors. The National Bank occupied the first floor. Upstairs, the Savings Bank did business. Unhappily, the two banks shared one vault which was a flimsy affair located on the east side of the first floor just under the stairs which led to the savings department above.
The entire “wealth” of the town–corporate, municipal and individual–was in that safe. Everybody who had a dollar in those days had it invested in government bonds. On a shelf in the vault were stored private boxes full of these bonds – approximately half a million dollars worth! Moreover, in a steel chest in the vault and in other assorted strong boxes there lay the entire cash wealth of the town.
When, on that April night in 1869, Mr. Stoddard, using his personal key, unlocked the outer door of the bank and stepped into the vestibule, he heard inside a great scrambling about and could see, through the panes of the inner doors, forms moving in a closet situated beside the vault. Greatly apprehensive, he retreated and called to Mr. Tripp who was standing waiting outside in the street. Together, they pelted around to the rear of the building just as several fleeing forms shot past them and disappeared through a hole in a fence into a yard on Middle Street. It was clear that entrance had been gained through a violated back door.
Fairhaven was lucky to have at that time as constable – a stout law officer named Jim Davis. He had had much experience as a federal employee in New York state. Bank break-ins were not new to him. When called out by Stoddard and Tripp, he lost no time in assembling a group of volunteer deputies who were ordered to scour all Fairhaven streets.
The first tangible clue came from Isaac B. Dodge, who in his searching, came across a hatless stranger who seemed to be in a vast hurry. Mr. Dodge gave chase, and finally stopped the man near the Mill Pond, but lost him again as the fellow threw off restraining hands; and sped in the direction of the New Bedford bridge which he crossed with great speed. He was later remembered by the toll taker on the bridge because he didn’t stop to pay his toll!
In the meantime, another of the crooks was noticed in the crowd which had gathered outside the bank after the break-in. He had been in town for several days and was registered as a guest in the Union Hotel (now the Bryden Apartments), and he had given his name as James Hughes. He had told Constable Davis that he was looking for a modest house in town, and had been scouting about for several days on this errand. Mr. Davis became convinced that Hughes was one of the culprits and turned him over to New Bedford authorities who had arrived, having been alerted to the crime by Mr. Stoddard, who had driven furiously across the bridge after Constable Davis had taken control in town. Hughes was later identified by the druggist, Mr. Richmond, who remembered Hughes coming into his store, making a small purchase, and asking to use the toilet facilities which were adjacent to the wall abutting the bank!
Moreover, Captain Dayton of the New Bedford constabulary remembered Hughes from a previous police experience, and so Hughes was summarily thrown in jail.
In the meantime, the hatless runner was apprehended – still running through the streets of New Bedford. He gave his name as James Hope, but vowed he had not been in Fairhaven that evening. When confronted, the two captured men declared they did not know each other and were total strangers – though evidence was later gathered which proved that the two had been scouting around together among area bank facilities for several days. Indeed, they had been seen as companions on Fairhaven streets. It was surmised that there were at least three other members of the gang, but all efforts to find them were fruitless.
Hughes and Hope were brought before Judge Borden who ordered the prisoners bound over in the sum of $5,000 each for appearance at June term of the court. Their bail was obtained in a series of shady moves by disreputable characters – and ultimately, the prisoners were allowed freedom until the case was due for hearing in June. Before that date, however, the two men “jumped bail” and disappeared. They were not seen in these parts again!
The Fairhaven bank crooks, in after years, proved to be part of a remarkable aggregation of scoundrels. They were identified after much research and detective work – as James Hope, John Hughes, George Mason, Ned Lyons and Mose Vogle. James Hope, the “hatless runner,” was associated for a quarter of a century afterwards, with some of the worst bank robberies in the nation. He was one of the old time “safe breakers.” Having a superior knowledge of mechanics, he could force the most intricate of safe locks without explosives. He was leader of the daring band that robbed the Manhattan Bank of New York of nearly $3,000,000. He was also famous for remarkable success in escaping from jails and prisons.
John Hughes and Ned Lyons pursued their own nefarious careers of robbery throughout very busy lifetimes. Little is known about the undoubtedly unsavory activities of Messrs. Mason and Vogle.
Back in Fairhaven, the town bank authorities viewed the rueful wreck that the robbers had made of the bank vault. Plaster had been peeled from the walls of the adjoining closet, and a hole had been drilled in the wall of the safe. It would have taken but twenty more minutes for the ruffians to completely loot the sate and escape with the wealth of the entire town!
Although no monetary loss was suffered, the whole affair was a dreadful emotional trial for the citizenry. The bank was besieged by depositors who demanded their money, and one man–almost insane with worry–lugged a big tin box with all he owned in it up and down Centre Street for several days, fearful that it would be stolen from him.
Others buried their savings in cellars and gardens until sanity was restored, and until bank authorities by heroic effort re-enforced the violated vault.
Indeed, that frustrated burglary of the Fairhaven bank was one of the great crises in the little village’s career. If the plot had succeeded, the town would have been incredibly injured financially; and emotionally reduced to a state of desolation for years to come. Thus, Mr. Stoddard’s old black briarwood pipe became– after that traumatic night– an object of near veneration to every town citizen who might well have fallen victim to the great Fairhaven bank robbery of 1869– happily aborted.
Sketch by Clement Daley
Back to the “Little Stories” Index Page
Back to the Millicent Library Welcome Page
These pages and their contents are the property of the Millicent Library, Fairhaven, Massachusetts U. S.A.
Created by Carolyn Longworth, Library Director
Monday November 11, 1996