Donald T Wells, “B and E, Safe Robbery” 31 May 1932

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Donald Wells was a brakeman for the Pittsburgh and Lake Erie railroad for nine years until he was furloughed when the steel factories shut down after the Wall street crash. He had done casual construction work since then, travelling as far as Tennessee for a structural iron job, and he’d served a little time in the workhouse for larceny and burglary. He had a wife, but had been sleeping in his car for the past while.

In May 1932, Donald and a man named William Thompson left Pittsburgh and headed west, taking with them a set of safe-cracking tools and a couple of guns. They ran out of gas in New Castle, with only 40 cents between them. Around one in the morning, they climbed onto a low-roofed building behind the Diamond and jemmied the window of a second-floor toilet at the rear of Haney’s furniture store. They found a safe in an office on the floor below.

A patrolman walking in the alley behind the store heard the sound of a hammer striking steel. More police came, and two of them climbed through the toilet window, which was still propped open.

Donald and William had broken off the safe’s combination dial but were still trying to open the door when they realised someone was inside with them. They hid their guns in the office and ran upstairs, where they wrapped their chisels and drills in a towel and stuffed them behind a toilet before finding a way into an upper floor of the neighboring building. A stairway led them down to the street, a few doors away from where two patrolmen were waiting outside the Haney store. The police chased them back and forth across the Diamond for a while. When they started shooting, Donald and William ran into the alleys behind the buildings. They ended up in the parking lot of the Leslie hotel, with police at every exit. Donald was discovered behind a box; William behind the garbage can at the hotel’s kitchen door.

Donald served two-and-a-half years in the Western penitentiary. He was arrested again within months of his release, trying to rob the safe of the Goodrich filling station in Mount Lebanon. He got another six years, which kept him inside until 1941. By 1944, he was part of a group of safe-crackers who worked across western Pennsylvania. The police called them the hammer-and-pin gang. They did a couple of jobs a month, taking around $70,000 a year, and spent the money in gambling joints in Pittsburgh.

At four o’clock on a spring morning in 1947, Donald and another member of the gang, John Romito, broke into the Ramsey garage in Zelienople and set about opening the safe. The noise woke the apprentice mechanic, who had a room upstairs. He telephoned the owner, Arthur Ramsey, who got his gun and drove over. Donald heard the car pull up outside. He shot at Ramsey when he entered, hitting him in the hip. Ramsey fired back. They shot at each other until they ran out of bullets, then Donald and John ran outside.

Donald had been shot in his mouth and chest. He stumbled into ditch a few yards outside the garage. The police found him there, choking as he struggled to breathe. He died without saying a word, still holding his gun.

John was picked up on route 68 a few hours later. After he was jailed—he got ten to twenty years—the police arrested the other gang members. He testified against them in court, saying that he wanted to tell the truth so he could square himself with his religion. He died of a brain tumor in 1961 at the age of seventy.

Sources: New Castle News (31 May 1932, “Police Foil Robbery”; 4 June 1932, “Pair Caught By Police After Chase In Streets Held For Court Trial”; 21 June 1932, “Trio Of Bandits Given Sentences To Penitentiary”; 2 April 1947, “Police Here Caught Wells Back In 1932”); Pittsburgh Press, 1 April 1947, “Zelienople Garageman Kills Safe Thief”; Kane Republican, 1 April 1947, “Gun Battle So Hot Vet Starts Praying; One Man Is Slain”; Connellsville Daily Courier, 20 February 1948, “Four Charged With Cracking Safes”; Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 20 April 1950, “Safe-Cracker Suspect Freed”).

Loyal Weller, “Conspiracy”, 10 March 1933

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loyall-wellerCora Cunningham’s father graduated from medical school as the civil war started. He spent four years as a battlefield surgeon. Both armies were using a new type of bullet—a conical thing that shattered bone rather than being deflected by it, as a musket ball would be—so his work mostly involved sawing off the arms and legs of young men after each engagement and stitching their stumps closed with squares of skin cut from the discarded limbs. If he hadn’t, they would have died from the poison in their rotting wounds. A lot of them died anyway.

Cora was born two months after the war ended. Her father set up a medical practice in Wurtemburg, a quiet township fifteen miles south of New Castle. He remained there for the rest of his life.

Loyal Weller was arrested when Cora was sixty-eight. By that time, she was living alone in the old family house, her parents and brothers all dead and her sisters living in Ellwood City. She had never married. She had taught at the local school for thirty-four years, and was so well liked that, in her retirement, former pupils would gather at her house with presents on her birthday.

Loyal was one of her former pupils, as were his friends Harry Dale and Charles Khoury. They had heard a story that Cora was secretly rich, with money stashed around her house in tin cans. They came up with a plan to rob the place, but needed help. Someone put them in touch with a bootlegger from out of town who offered to drive them to and from Cora’s house but refused to take part in the robbery itself. They wanted a third man to go into the house with them, so they told the bootlegger to drive them to Court street in New Castle, where they called out Clyde Burtch, an older man who was not long out of jail for stealing watches from a jewelry store. Burtch—who would go on to stab a man to death in 1941 and shoot a man dead in 1960—told them to drop the idea. He’d broken into the house a few months before and found no money. The old woman had nothing.

The bootlegger drove Dale and Khoury to Wurtemburg (Loyal had left them by this point) and stayed in the car as they looked the place over and tried to figure out how they might break in. The next day, at a meeting to discuss the plan, the bootlegger told the boys he was a state trooper working under cover. He arrested them all. Burtch was picked up later that day.

Loyal was released within a few days due to lack of evidence, but his friends got a year in the penitentiary for conspiracy. Burtch got two to four years for breaking and entering.

Loyal went to jail in 1938 for passing fraudulent checks. He joined the army a few months after Pearl harbor and spent four years as a mechanic. Near the end of the war, on the outskirts of a small town in northern Germany, his infantry division found a barn that contained the bodies of more than a thousand people who the Germans had just burned alive. One soldier said it looked like something from another time, or even another planet. The Americans made the men from the town dig graves for them all. It took three days.

Loyal returned home and got a job as a tool crib attendant at Babcock and Wilcox Tubular Products. He worked there until he died, at the age of sixty-one, in 1971. Cora died in 1950, at the age of eighty-four.

Sources: New Castle News: (13 June 1933, “Two On Trial In Conspiracy Case”; 14 June 1933, “Dale And Khoury Are Found Guilty”; 19 June 1933, “Clark And Wife Have No Excuse For Evil Deeds”; 23 April 1938, “Sentences Are Given By Court”; 29 June 1971, “Deaths Of The Day”); The Franklin News-Herald, 13 March 1933, “State Policeman Gets Chummy With Gang And Blocks Holdup Plans”; Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 2 March 1960, “Burtch Calm As He Sits Through Second Murder Inquest Here”.  Gardlegen massacre information from “A History of the Dora Camp” by Andre Sellier and “Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust” by Yaffa Eliach.

Loy Powell, “Drunk & Dis” 28 July 1951

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Loy Powell had been drinking in the Lincoln hotel for some time when he saw another customer, James Wise, arguing with Walter Tewell, an off-duty policeman. He watched as Tewell ended the argument by arresting Wise, who continued to struggle. When a patrol car arrived, Loy saw an officer beat Wise unconscious with a nightstick. Loy ended up becoming involved, one way or another, and the officer beat him, too. The hospital gave Wise eight stitches in his scalp. Loy got a bandage and surgical tape.

Loy was arrested several times over the years, mostly for disorderly conduct. In 1948, he was fined $10 for trying to entice a girl into his car on Lutton street at 2:30 in the morning. In 1953, he and two other men were arrested for fighting in a bar in East Long avenue. In 1969, he was arrested for assaulting a police lieutenant in the police station where his friend had been placed in a cell for assaulting a police officer earlier that evening. In 1970, his license was suspended for intoxicated driving. In 1973, he and Walter Criss were arrested for yelling and cursing in the Red Hot restaurant. In 1974, he and William Sankey were arrested for arguing and fighting in front of a West Washington street bar. Later that year, he crashed his car while driving without a license.

Loy painted houses and occasionally fell from great heights—40 feet in 1957, and 44 feet in 1960. He died in 2003, at the age of eighty-one.

Sources: New Castle News (23 August 1948, “Two Fined $10”; 6 February 1951, “Two Fined For Part In Altercation In South Side District”; 23 July 1953, “Arrest Trio”; 21 August 1957, “Four Injured By Falls Yesterday”; 14 June 1969, “Two Policemen Assaulted In Related Incidents”; 17 December 1970, “36 Drivers Have Licenses Suspended”; 25 June 1973, “City Police Charge 5 For Conduct”; 26 January 1974, “County Report”; 2 October 1974, “County Report”; 17 January 1978, Edge Chiropractic Life Center advert).



Zear Mack Hogan, “Burglary”, 28 July 1958

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Zear Mack Hogan got married while on parole from a prison farm in Ohio. A week later, he broke into the office of Castle Roofing and Sheet Metal, just west of New Castle. Sometime after midnight, the owner, Russell Delaney, saw someone moving around inside the place and went to investigate. When he opened the door, Zear hit him with a wrench and ran off. Delaney’s arm was broken. He called the police.

Zear broke into a garage across the road and hid there until the police came. When they called on him to come out, he started up a truck and sped past them, heading west. He made it to the home of his friend James Latess in Edinburg, about six miles outside town. He changed into one of James’s suits and set off on foot into the woods. If he stuck to the banks of the Mahoning river or followed the rail tracks, he’d cross the border into Ohio in a couple of hours.

The Civil Air Patrol sent up a plane, which spotted the abandoned truck in Edinburg. Zear would have heard it circling above him as flashlights moved through the trees, coming in from all sides. He walked out of the woods, hands raised.

Zear got two to five years in the Western penitentiary. He died in 1986, at the age of fifty-eight. Russell Delaney had a good year, installing the roofing on the modern annexe to the New Castle News building and the newly opened Wonder Boy drive-in restaurant—“Come as you are, Eat in your car”—and all the sheet metal work at the Shenango Bowl-A-Way, which survived until the derelict building was demolished in 2013.

Sources: Franklin News-Herald, 28 July 1958, “Plane Helps New Castle Posse Capture Fugitive”; New Castle News (30 September, advert; 10 October, advert; 13 October, advert; 10 December 1958, “Criminal Court Trials End; Two Cases Heard”; 15 December 1958, “Late City Bulletins”).

Chester Tomski, “Parole Vio & Auto Theft”, 15 January 1939

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Chester Tomski.jpg

Chester Tomski ran away from home at the age of thirteen. He hitchhiked around the Franklin and Oil City area, stealing what he could to get by—like the $2 in the pocketbook he took from ten-year-old Bernice Hazlett—and selling stolen bikes for $1.50 or so. He was caught after a week and sent home.

Four years later, when he was seventeen, Chester was arrested behind the wheel of a car he’d stolen from the parking lot of the Mathews conveyor company. He’d been practicing his driving all day, going up and down the back roads between New Castle and Ellwood City, and the car was in a bad way. He was given six months in Huntingdon reformatory. He went there the same day his father, Frank, started his own six-month sentence in the Alleghenny workhouse, for selling liquor without a license.

Chester started stealing cars again within weeks of his release. The police went to his parents’ house, where he’d been living since he got out, but he wasn’t there. He had left home as soon as he heard the police were looking for him, taking with him his father’s only suit, which he stole while Frank was out.

On the fourth of May, an off-duty policeman called Thomas Boyle was taking his wife for a drive in the country when he noticed a stolen Plymouth at a sandbank on the road beyond the Moffatt school. Chester was sitting behind the wheel. Chester saw officer Boyle recognise him and started his engine, taking off across Hickory Heights to the Harlansburg road.

Boyle went after Chester along the dirt roads towards East Brook. Chester ditched the Plymouth and ran into a swamp. Boyle found him hiding under some bushes. The next day, Chester pled guilty to larceny of an auto, hoping for a light sentence. Once all the auto thefts and parole violations were taken into account (as well as a bungled escape attempt while he was awaiting trial), he ended up with ten to twenty years.

Chester spent all of the forties and fifties in jail—he was given extra time when he was caught trying to saw his way out of the Western penitentiary in 1955. By 1966, he was out on parole, but he was sent back to jail when he was caught driving a stolen car in Shenango township, just outside New Castle. By the time he got out of jail again he was over fifty and he had seen about as much of life outside of an institution as most of the boys he was at school with had seen by their early twenties. From the day in 1937 when, at the age of seventeen, he had been sentenced for stealing the car from outside Mathews conveyor, he had been either in custody or on parole.

Chester went back inside for the last time in 1973, after he burgled a furniture store in Rimersburg. He died at the age of fifty-nine, not long after he was finally released.

Sources: Franklin News-Herald (2 March 1933, “Two Boys Arrested After Several Petty Thefts”; 20 March 1933, “Oil City Happenings In Brief”); New Castle News (17 July 1937,”Youth Held On Car Theft Charge”; 17 January 1939, “Pleads Guilty; Sent To Jail”; 24 January 1939, “Confesses To Having Stolen Several Cars”; 6 May 1940, “Tomski Caught”; 21 May 1940, “Youth Returns To County Jail”; 21 May 1940, “Four Prisoners Are Blamed For Trying General Jail Break”; 3 Jan 1966, “Man Jailed After Police Chase, Crash”); Oil City Derrick, 27 March 1973, “2 Held For Burglary In Rimersburg”.

“My Colorful Past”

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Matt Loughrey, an Irish photographer and digital artist has been doing good work colorising black-and-white photographs of criminals from 19th century, immigrants on Ellis island and heroes of the Irish rebellion and other famous and obscure historical figures. (You can see more of his work here.)

He recently got in touch to let me know he’d colorised some of the mug shots I’ve posted on Small Town Noir, and he sent a video showing the transitions from black-and-white to colour. I’ve taken screen captures of the individual photographs, which I’ve posted below.

I prefer the original photographs, but I admit that these versions look amazing. The skin tones, the scars and blemishes, the eyes — it’s fantastic work.

Alice Steel,“Dis Cond”, 24 Aug 1936Screen Shot 2017-03-19 at 13.10.14.png

Larry Day, “Drunk”, 6 July 1948 Screen Shot 2017-03-19 at 13.12.41.png

Frank Soda, “Adultery, Bastardy”, 5 March 1946Screen Shot 2017-03-19 at 13.10.55.png

Paul Bailey,“Dis Conduct”, 18 April 1948Screen Shot 2017-03-19 at 13.11.52.png

And here’s the video Matt sent:

Sophia Lyskooka, “Abduction”, 2 Feb 1946

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James Stone was a manager at Johnson Bronze. He and his wife lived in a large Victorian house on North Mercer street with a four-year-old girl named Helen who they had adopted the year before. About 5 o’clock one February in 1946, Mrs Stone answered a knock at her front door, Helen following just behind her. Two young women stood there. One of them knocked Mrs Stone down and the other grabbed the child. They ran to a car that was waiting in the street and drove off.

The woman who grabbed the child was Sophia Lyskooka, the little girl’s birth mother. She’d had the baby when she was 16 and given her up for adoption. In 1945, Mr and Mrs Stone applied to the county to adopt a child and were granted custody of Helen on probation. Sophia’s sister petitioned for custody of the girl, too. The case went to court and the judge ruled in favor of Mr and Mrs Stone. They received the final papers at the end of the year.

The police went to the Sophia’s parents’ home on South Jefferson street and arrested her and her friend Elizabeth Russo. Sophia fought them. Helen had to be taken from her by force before being returned to Mr and Mrs Stone.

In time, Sophia married and had another daughter. Mr and Mrs Stone moved out of state. Sophia never saw Helen again.

Sources: New Castle News (24 July 1942, “Hospital Notes”; 30 august 1963, “Deaths Of The Day”); Pittsburgh Press, 3 February 1946, “Baby Back At Foster Home After Kidnaping By Mother”; email correspondence with Sandy Sweet. Note: An earlier draft of this story, published when I knew nothing about Sophia, is here. The incorrect spelling of her name in that story is taken from her arrest card.




Robert Tipper “Susp”, 17 July 1943

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Robert Tipper married Josephine Mills in the summer of 1939. The week before their fourth anniversary, at one o’clock on a Sunday morning, Josephine hit Robert with a meat cleaver, splitting his forehead and his nose. They had been drinking.

The police found Robert in the street by the post office. They took him to the hospital, where he remained for two weeks. When he was discharged, he was arrested on an open charge of suspicion. He was released after being questioned and photographed. There is no further record of Robert, or of Josephine.

Sources: New Castle News (11 July 1939, “Marriage Applications”; 21 July 1939, “Shower For Bride”; 6 July 1943, “Seek Woman In Attack On Man”; 17 July 1943, “Around City Hall”; 19 July 1943, “Discharge Tipper”).

James Aeschbacher, “Larceny Auto”, 3 April 1945

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Late one Monday night in 1945, James Aeschbacher stole a car from a garage on Beckford street. The police found him in the car about a mile away a few hours later. The battered face in his mug shot suggests he resisted arrest.

The following year, James stole a car in Midland, near Pittsburgh. Two days later, he drove it to Butler, fifty miles away, to meet a friend. The friend suggested that they pick up a girl he knew who lived just outside town. As James parked the car in the driveway of the girl’s house, he heard someone yell, “Dad, that’s our car.” The girl’s father came out of the house. It was, indeed, his car. He had last seen it a couple of days earlier, outside the steel plant in Midland where he worked during the week. James had somehow contrived to deliver the car to the house of the man he had stolen it from. The odds against such a coincidence are too high to imagine; the luck involved is diabolical. James fled in the direction of New Castle, getting as far as Portersville before he was arrested. He got 18 months in the federal penitentiary.

James got married in 1949, just before his thirtieth birthday. Sometime later, he moved to California. He died in Sacramento in 1991, at the age of seventy-one.

Sources: New Castle News, 3 April 1945, “Held On Auto Charge”; Salem News (30 November 1946, “E Liverpool Man Gets Prison Term In Car Theft”; 13 December 1949, “Marriage Licenses”); East Liverpool Evening Review, 8 August 1977, “Deaths, Funerals”.

Richard Bartley, “Breaking and Entering”, 7 April 1938

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Although it was April, thick snow had fallen throughout the day, turning to slush by the time Richard Bartley was arrested, at two in the morning, on the roof of Book’s shoe store. He’d been seen by a man walking home, and police had surrounded the block. The officer who caught him also found some large empty blue bags and a screwdriver, wrench and pliers wrapped in a bundle of rags lying on the stairway up to the roof. Richard said he’d been drinking and had gone off to look for the entrance to a club that would serve non-members after hours. He’d realised he was lost when he ended up on the building’s roof. He’d taken in the view, and had thrown a few snowballs at a man in East Washington street. He knew nothing about the bags and tools, he said.

The police locked him up in a cell in the city building. When he was alone, Richard forced open an iron grill on the window and used an iron ladder to climb to the top of the building’s annex. He crossed the roof to Sycamore way and climbed down a telephone pole. His rooming house was just around the corner, so he went home. Police arrested him there just after dawn. A month later, he was given a two-year suspended sentence. There is no further record of his life.

Sources: New Castle News (7 April 1938, “Police Are Investigating Apparent ‘ Human Fly’ Performance of Man”; 7 May 1938, “After Big Fellows In Numbers Game Is Court Warning”).