The man who beat the Black Hand

Before America saw headlines about the Capone Mob, the Purple Gang and Murder Inc., the specter of the Black Hand terrorized nearly every major city. Fears that the Mafia had reached our shores and infiltrated every Italian immigrant community kept police alert and citizens on edge. It was only a matter of time before these professed Robin Hoods formed a band. And when they did, the eyes of the world turned to Ohio, particularly when the local Black Hand outfit known as the Society of the Banana went on trial.

Regular readers know well our obsession with the capers of America’s criminals, from our amazing rogue’s galleries to our in-depth profiles of cases past. But take us at our word—there is one thing we love more than a good crook, one thing only, and we’re privileged to bring one to you this week: a good cop.

And Detective Giuseppe Petrosino wasn’t just a good cop. He was a great one.

Born in Padua, the Italian native immigrated to New York at the same time as many of his Italian compatriots, in the years after Italy’s reunification. As authors David Meyers and Elise Meyers Walker explain in Ohio’s Black Hand Syndicate: The Birth of Organized Crime in America, the increasing influx of Italians to the United States in the late 1800s created tightly-knit ethnic and linguistic enclaves, enclaves that yielded both the good and the bad.

Gangs of America

As Italian gangs in Ohio, Chicago, and New York began to rise in prominence, law enforcement agencies in major cities were often stymied by lack of access to their communities. To remedy this, police realized they needed to work within those communities, not against them.

A typical back alley scene at a tenement house in New York’s Italian quarter. Author’s collection.

Enter Petrosino. As a native of the home country, he was not only fluent, he was simpatico, and through his careful cultivation of informants was able to build unprecedented trust with members of the Italian community.

In the early 1900s, kidnapping and extortion ravaged everyday Italian merchants and their families, with murders and bombings often following for those who wouldn’t play along. Petrosino’s old-fashioned shoe-leathering allowed him to identify suspects and secure convictions previously unattainable.

“Although just five feet, three inches tall (Police Superintendent Theodore Roosevelt had waived the height requirement), he possessed courage in abundance,” Meyers and Walker explain. “And he was motivated by a desire to eradicate the Italian underworld because of the shame that it brought upon law-abiding Italian Americans.”

Famously, Petrosino formed an all-Italian detective unit of the NYPD, one of the first of its kind in the country. (So novel was it, the idea even inspired the famous Pinkerton Agency to follow suit, and gave rise as well to a White Hand anti-mafia effort.)

Not only was Petrosino able to catch Black Hand mafiosi operating across New York and the northeast, but he also pushed the United States and Italian governments to coordinate the restitutions of known criminals. Based on tips he received from informants, he was even able to arrest Neapolitan criminal godfather Enrico Alfano on one of Alfano’s visits to New York.

Most Black Hand gangs were strictly local like this one in Fairmount, West Virginia. Library of Congress.

Petrosino knew the risks of his work; sadly, his success would prove to be his undoing. Convinced he needed to return to Italy to see the problem firsthand, Petrosino traveled to Palermo, Sicily in 1909.But with his reputation preceding him, he was already a marked man, and an accidental slip by his commissioner revealing his travel plans allowed members of the Sicilian mafia to lay a trap.

According to Meyers and Walker, a group of assassins ambushed him in Palermo’s Piazza Marina, where he was waiting on a local informant—a murder that would later be immortalized in film.

In Black Hand, Hollywood depicted the murder of New York Police lieutenant Petrosino. Author’s collection.”

Petrosino’s murder—an international incident—led to a crackdown on Mafia activity back in the States, but despite an intensive investigation, his killers were never found. Even so, his funeral in New York in April 1909 drew thousands of marchers in its parade, and over a quarter of a million mourners paying their respects. We’re privileged here at Crime Capsule to honor this exceptional leader in American law enforcement, who pioneered new methods of policing and who gave his life in the interest of public safety.

But the final word should be his: “If the Italian coming to this country,” he once said, “only knew that the American had secured his independence by as great a struggle [as they had in their own country], there would be an immediate bond of sentiment of the purest kind between him and his new brother-citizen.

Detective Joe, to you we raise our hats. Grazie—grazie per tutto.

Missouri’s Majestic Jails

Missouri Outlaws: Bandits, Rebels & Rogues

We recently sat down to read a book on Missouri true crime and were struck by the curious stories behind the jails that its most notorious outlaws landed in. So, today, we present to you a dose of history all about those curious, creepy lockups as described by Paul Kirkman in Missouri Outlaws: Bandits, Rebels, and Rogues.


Jesse James. Wild Bill Hickock. Buffalo Bill Cody. The list goes on and on—as we’ve looked at before, Missouri has long been proud of its outlaw heritage, giving rise to some of the most celebrated criminals in American history. But what happens when the law finally catches up to those who have shunned it, and offers them its warmest hospitality on a cold steel bunk?

“Shackles attached to cell floor in 1859 Jackson County Jail. Author’s collection

The history of Missouri’s prisons is as much a history of the state’s growth and development on the frontier as it is a tour of classic American architecture over time, writes author Paul Kirkman in his book Missouri Outlaws: Bandits, Rebels, & Rogues. Kirkman, a longtime historian in the state, takes his readers on a tour of some of Missouri’s most renowned—and unusual—‘temporary housing.’

Blockhouses at Fort Osage National Historic Landmark. Author’s collection.

Befitting its position on the far western edge of the new American nation, early prisons in Missouri were little more than log forts, built quickly and cheaply out of whatever local timber authorities could find. As logs could be sawn through, chiseled away at, or burned, they weren’t always the safest structures, but they had to beat one contraption found in early Johnson County: an overturned wagon bed. Kirkman: 

“The first prisoners were placed inside the improvised prison under the supervision of a couple of guards. The prisoners supposedly convinced the guards to leave by offering them money to buy a gallon of whiskey for the group to share. When the sheriff came to check on the prisoners the next day, the guards were found passed out under the wagon. The prisoners were long gone.”

Frequently, he writes, the jail and the courthouse occupied the same structure, leading to raucous confrontations during and after sentencing. Over time, as new building materials began to work their way west, these crude jails gave way to more secure enclosures made of stone and brick. Resistant to fire, suitable for mounting iron chains or bars, these newer structures—often called ‘calabooses’—resisted escape much more effectively. They could also house a drunk tank, Kirkman writes, or separate facilities for women and younger offenders—or, if they were two stories high, a gallows. 

Stone Calaboose, 1873, a popular site at the National Historic Landmark Village of Arrow Rock, Missouri. Author’s collection.

But with new architecture came new innovations. As cities grew, and greater numbers began to enter the prison system at one time, law enforcement began to adopt creative means of housing their ‘guests.’ Most famous were the squirrel cages, such as the one in Gallatin which Kirkman describes: 

“The entire cell block is made up of eight pie-shaped cells that sit on a single axis that could be turned using a crank. With only one cell door facing the entrance door and the rest facing solid walls, only the prisoners in one cell could enter or leave at a time. There was also a grub hole to pass food through, so even the one cell facing the entrance didn’t have to be opened. Each section has steel bunk beds and a bathroom at the narrow end of the cell. Just eighteen rotating jails were built, and only three remain.”

“Squirrel Cage Jail and Marshal’s Home Museum, Gallatin, Missouri. The original uploader was Americasroof at English Wikipedia (Transferred from to Wikipedia Commons.) [CC BYSA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons.”

But the crème de la crème? The Missouri State Penitentiary, originally built in 1838 and expanded in 1868, which looks more like a medieval chateau than a reformatory institution. Allegedly one of the bloodiest, most violent, and uncontrollable institutions in American correctional history, the MSP closed in 2004—only to reopen as a tourist destination shortly thereafter. With former guests such as Pretty Boy Floyd and James Earl Ray, it’s no wonder that visitors flock to the site. But be careful not to take home any souvenirs you didn’t purchase—lest you become a guest yourself!

Missouri State Penitentiary. By CosmiCataclysm (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons.”
Missouri Outlaws: Bandits, Rebels & Rogues

Read more about Missouri true crime and criminal adventures in Missouri Outlaws, available in our online store at Arcadia.

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The Haunted “Black Agnes” Statue in Vermont


As one of the older states in the union, Vermont has a long, proud history of patriots, statesmen, and public benefactors. To honor its finest citizens, the Green Mountain State has enjoyed a wide range of statuary over the years, from the soaring Ethan Allen monument to the grave of renowned gourmand (and one-time President) Chester A. Arthur. But there’s one grave you should probably avoid: the haunted statue known as Black Agnes, which sits atop the grave of John Hubbard.

According to legend, anyone who lays in her stony arms at midnight under a full moon will die within seven days, taking seven friends with them.

The Greed ofJohn Hubbard

According to author Thea Lewis, the grave of John Hubbard contains far more than meets the eye. In her book Wicked Vermont, she describes how Hubbard, a young man who preferred easy money to honest money, pulled a fast one with his aunt’s inheritance, swindling the rightful recipients out of hundreds of thousands of dollars in the late 1800s.

Fanny Hubbard Kellogg, who had died both childless and a widow, had originally planned to leave her $300,000 estate to the city of Montpelier. But sniffing out an opportunity, the ne’er-do-well Hubbard decided that such an amount rightfully belonged to whoever wanted it most—namely, himself. After staging an invalid reading of probate documents using his own duped relatives, he claimed the inheritance as his own, enraging the Montpelier city leaders and setting off a battle in court.

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Before a ruling could be handed down, however, the city decided to strike a compromise, allowing Hubbard to keep the lion’s share of the cash if he would pay for the new Montpelier town library. The swindler agreed, paying around $30,000 and arrogantly ensuring that his own name appeared above its doors as the Kellogg-Hubbard Library. As Lewis describes, that he died a few years thereafter of liver cancer felt like divine retribution for his sins, but the story didn’t end there.

The Kellogg-Hubbard Library, via Library of Congress

Black Agnes: Death, Personified

Hubbard’s funeral monument at Green Mount Cemetery took the form of one of Greek mythology’s most famous figures: Thanatos, or death personified, here depicted as a lady wearing a black shroud. Black Agnes, or ‘Black Aggie’, designed by the sculptor Karl Bitter, has become a popular destination for visitors in the area, but it’s possible that she—like the man she commemorates—may exact a price. Lewis:

“There’s a decades-old story of three teenagers who sat on Black Agnes during a full moon, trying to show one another how brave they were. When nothing happened, they laughed about it on the way home, sure that they’d put one over on old Aggie. One week later, one boy fell and shattered his leg. Another died in a tragic car crash. The third drowned.”

If that wasn’t enough, similar statues of Thanatos or Black Agnes can be found across the country, from Chicago to Maryland to West Virginia—each with their own legends and tales, and every last one of them dire. So—we here at Crime Capsule encourage you to travel responsibly, and avoid upsetting any local ghosts. Next time you’re in Montpelier, maybe go visit the grave of our twenty-first president? At least he came by his own death from liver failure honestly!

For more on Black Agnes—and on Chester Arthur’s incredible daily diet, featuring Rhode Island eels—check out Wicked Vermont, available now.

“Most of us can appreciate just how beautiful Vermont is with its rolling hills, Mountains, farms and covered bridges. But, There is a dark side to the Green Mountains too, and Thea Lewis highlights the more sinister side of the state in her new book, Wicked Vermont.” –  WCAX

Wicked Vermont

About the Book: Vermont is a picturesque landscape, but the idyllic setting hides a sometimes dark and desperate past. H.H. Holmes, America’s first serial killer, may have been the University of Vermont’s deadliest student. A Burlington resident made an empire partly by carrying contraband goods to and from Canada. The first United States president subject to a birther movement wasn’t 44, but a much lower number. A Burlington schoolboy ran away with the circus and became an international sensation under the big top. Author Thea Lewis takes a revealing ride through the unique and colorful history of the Green Mountain State.

The Famous Faces of Leavenworth Prison

Striking images of the murderers, robbers, and swindlers who orchestrated a complex prison break from the infamous Leavenworth Prison in 1931

More mug shots, you say? Another serving of ravishing rascals, you ask? Our friends from Sacramento and from Alabama just weren’t enough to satisfy your appetite? Well, friends, hunger no more. Crime Capsule has another round of eye-catching criminals just for you!

Hailing this time from the great state of Kansas, home to the Leavenworth Federal Prison, these tasty murder morsels can all be found in Kenneth M. Lamaster’s book Leavenworth Seven: The Deadly 1931 Prison Break. In his account, Lamaster tells the full story of one of the most violent jailbreaks in American history, complete with arms smuggling, bribery, hostages, dynamite, gangsters, and getaway cars—the works. Lamaster would know: before he became an author, he was a correctional officer there.

leavenworth prison
Aerial view of USP Leavenworth taken a few days after the escape. Courtesy of the Kenneth M. LaMaster, author of Leavenworth Seven: The Deadly 1931 Prison Break

So: on to some of Leavenworth’s most hardened inhabitants. Feast your eyes!

Ricardo Flores Magón

Ricardo Flores Magón. Courtesy National Archives and Records Administration. Magón, Lamaster writes, was in Leavenworth for (among other things) ‘obstruction of military service, violation of the Trading with the Enemy Act, mailing non- mailable matter, and conspiracy.

Bank Robber Frank Nash (1887-1933)

Frank Nash
Oklahoma outlaw Frank Nash’s USP Leavenworth mug shot. Courtesy National Archives and Records Administration.

By some accounts, Frank Nash is the most successful bank robber in American history–but he’s most remembered for his dramatic, violent death in the Kansas City Massacre.

Railroad-Robbing Holden-Keating Gang

Thomas James Holden (1896–1953) & Jimmy Keating (1899–1978)

Thomas James Holden and Jimmy Keating were sentenced on April 17, 1928, for the 1926 robbery of the Grand Trunk Railroad mail car in Evergreen Park, Illinois. After securing trusty passes, both men escaped on September 28, 1930. Courtesy National Archives and Records Administration.

“A great story told by a meticulous historian with real-life prison experience.”

– Reader Review of Leavenworth Seven: The Deadly 1931 Prison Break by Kenneth M. LaMaster

Carl Panzram, Serial Killer (1891-1930)

Serial killer Carl Panzram’s only regret in life: “That the human race have but one neck and I can’t get my hands around it.” Courtesy National Archives and Records Administration.

Born in East Grand Forks, Minnesota by the age of six Carl Panzram was already a thief and known liar. At the age of 8, he was in Juvenile Court facing drunk and disorderly charges. Panzram ended up in Leavenworth in 1928 to serve 25 years for burglary, sodomy, and murder. By the end of his life, he confessed to 22 murders and 1,000 instances of sodomy of young boys and men. After multiple imprisonments and escapes, Panzram was put to death in 1930 for the murder of Leavenworth employee Robert Warnke.

Tom Underwood & Stanley Brown

Tom Underwood (left), Stanley Brown (right) and Charlie Berta laying in a ravine shortly after capture. All were returned to the institution. Upon being placed in solitary confinement, Underwood pulled a stick of dynamite from his coat, saying, “I won’t have any use for this anymore.” Courtesy of Kenneth M. LaMaster

Boxcar, Whitey & Durrill

The official death records signed by Ted Sexton indicate Will “Boxcar” Green, George “Whitey” Curtis and Grover C. Durrill all died from self-inflicted gunshots to the head. During the investigation, it was uncovered that at least six of the seven escapees had made a suicide pact to avoid being returned to Leavenworth Penitentiary. Courtesy of Kenneth M. LaMaster.

Machine Gun Kelly

The infamous 1930’s gangster George Kelly Barnes, aka George “Machine Gun” Kelly met his end at Leavenworth Prison. Barnes was an associate of Nash, Holden and Keating and thought to be the unidentified suspect involved in the escape conspiracy. Courtesy National Archives and Records Administration.

Monk Fontaine

Harold “Monk” Fontaine (left) being escorted by an unidentified U.S. Marshal back to the jail in Kansas City, Kansas. Tired of his constant talking, Frank Nash made arrangements with the Boston mob to have Fontaine silenced. Courtesy of the author.

For more, be sure to check out Kenneth Lamaster’s Leavenworth Seven. Did we mention the dynamite?

The Brutal Bunnyman of Fairfax County

We here at love a good urban legend, especially when it’s tied to something nice and nefarious. Time and distance have a way of twisting and distorting facts that to our minds is just irresistible: both for the process, so we can watch how it happens over time, and for the outcome. (Devil babies! Who could forget devil babies?)

So imagine: you’ve taken a trip to sleepy Fairfax County, Virginia, visiting friends in the little village of Clifton. You’re out for a walk on Colchester Road, when you come across a small railroad bridge. It’s dark outside, but an eerie glow is coming from the tunnel under the bridge. You see a figure backlit by the light. It’s carrying something—what appears to be a weapon, an axe or a hatchet. You panic, and start to run—but the figure is just too fast. The last thing you see as the curtain drops is—wait—can it be?—bunny ears?

You know what they say about truth being stranger than fiction? Well, Fairfax County has its own special legend, one that author Cindy L. Bennett in her book Wicked Fairfax County calls essential to any history of the area. The boogeyman—excuse us, Bunnyman—of Fairfax County ranks right up there in local prestige with the Jersey Devil or the Mothman, but with a bit more blood and gore. And the locals couldn’t be prouder.

Bunnyman Lager, released in 2017. Image sourced from Wicked Fairfax County, copyrighted image courtesy of the BadWolf Brewing Company, Manassas, Virginia.

As Bennett records, the origins of the Bunnyman are shrouded in myth, from renegade prison escapees to deranged mental institution patients, but they all have one thing in common: a man in a bunny suit (or wearing rabbit skins), wielding an axe or a hatchet, and lurking near the Colchester Bridge. The Bunnyman’s victims date back decades, but he appears to have an especial fondness for teenagers, whom according to legend he strangles and often hangs from the railing of the bridge. Unsurprisingly, near Halloween his activity is at its peak, so much so that local police now cordon the area off, knowing those pesky teens are hot on his tail—er, trail!

Bunnyman Bridge. Image sourced from Wicked Fairfax County, courtesy of the author.

Devoted to their legend, locals have apparently devoted “countless late-night stories, Youtube videos, songs, a rock opera, books, films, a brand of beer, and even a quilt” to their furry fiend. Of course, uncovering the fact beneath the fiction is half the fun, and thanks to some intrepid sniffing around, Bennett has been able to unearth what appears to be the true origin of the story.

Without spoiling it here—for that, you’ll have to read her book—in the early 1970s there were in fact multiple documented sightings of an axe-wielding Bunnyman, not just in Virginia but in Maryland and Washington, DC, as well. Don’t believe us? Then you might want to tread extra carefully next time you visit Fairfax County: as Bennett details, the culprit was never found, their identity was never discovered, and the case was never solved.

Donnie Darko, eat your heart out. Inland Empire, take a back seat. There’s a new rabbit in town, and there just ain’t room for all a’ yall.

Buy ad for Wicked Fairfax County.

Murder on the Menu: Missouri’s Worst Female Killers

Missouri is known for many culinary delights—the famous gooey butter cake of St Louis, the refreshing beers of the Budweiser brewery, the list goes on and on. For aficionados of the Show-Me State’s hearty, filling cuisine, influenced equally by its northern European immigrant communities and the soul food of the American South, few things are more satisfying than a homemade meal.

Unless, however, that meal turns out to be your last.

As authors Victoria Cosner and Lorelei Shannon have discovered in their book Missouri’s Murderous Matrons: Emma Hepperman and Bertha Gifford, certain meals in Missouri can be as deadly as they are delicious. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, two murderers (murderesses?) left a trail of dead bodies throughout the state, thanks to their sumptuous recipes.

Take, for instance, Emma Hepperman, born Emma Stinnett in 1891 in the small town of Steelville. While little is known about her early life, she began her career of marrying-and-burying as early as age nineteen, when she married her first husband, Charles Augustus Schwack. Married for fifteen years, Charles apparently died of dysentery in 1925, giving way to Emma’s next husband, Frank Lee, of whom (according to Cosner and Shannon) there is curiously no record.

An image of the grave of Louis E. Schwack.
Grave of Emma’s brother-in-law by her first marriage. He died four years after his brother Charles did, of paralysis from syphilis. The informant seems to be the same. Was Emma still around in 1929? Image sourced from Missouri’s Murderous Matrons: Emma Heppermann and Bertha Gifford, courtesy of the author’s collection.

Husband number three, Frank Joseph Bremser, didn’t last very long, only a few months before he allegedly died of complications resulting from a fall. Interestingly, however, the only person to testify to the coroner to his injuries was Emma herself, who swiftly had the body cremated. Similarly, husband number four, Bert Lee Roberts, invoked the ‘till death do us part’ clause only three months after the marriage as well. For Roberts, a tainted tin of sardines would seem to be his undoing.

Husband number five? Luckily, William Vaughn divorced Emma within about a year of their nuptials and broke off contact with her, which Cosner and Shannon call nothing less than a lucky break. Vaughn had refused to transfer his life insurance policy to her, which, they write, “would have signed his own death warrant.” Not so husband number six, Aloysious Schneider, who unfortunately trusted her enough to sign the fatal papers. Schneider, too, succumbed to tainted food—or so Emma would claim.

Gravesite of Aloysious Schneider in St. Peters, Missouri. After Emma was arrested, the disinterred him to perform an autopsy. He had arsenic in his system still. Image sourced from Missouri’s Murderous Matrons: Emma Heppermann and Bertha Gifford, courtesy of the author’s collection.

Sadly, her final husband, Tony Hepperman, would fall ill in similar circumstances, dying no more than six weeks after the wedding. It was Hepperman’s death that would prove Emma’s undoing: medical investigation revealed “staggering” levels of arsenic in his body, revealing a pattern both of poisoning and cover-ups that, as investigators unearthed, matched nearly every single one of her previous victims. The gastic distress experienced by Schneider and Roberts, the ‘dysentery’ suffered by Schwack, and the hemorrhaging that Bremsner had before his passing: across each one, the symptomology and morbidity all lined up. Only Vaughn, the divorcé, and Lee, the mystery spouse (if he even existed), escaped her deadly ladle.

A mugshot of Emma Heppermann's.
Emma Heppermann’s mug shot at Missouri State Prison, May 10, 1941. Image sourced from Missouri’s Murderous Matrons: Emma Heppermann and Bertha Gifford, courtesy of the Missouri State Archives.

Her motives? Clear enough, as life insurance money could offer hefty payouts. Her method? None other than a delicious potato soup, loaded with butter, cream, cheese, and her secret ingredient. Given the body count, you may wonder how she was able to kill so many people before she was finally caught, but as Cosner and Shannon make clear, there’s no denying Emma was a wizard in the kitchen. So, too, Bertha Gifford, whose famous arsenic-laced biscuits led many a man to his doom.

Luckily, these intrepid researchers have dug up recipes from the era, so you can try them yourself—be sure to check out Missouri’s Murderous Matrons for the full story of Emma, of Bertha, and more. Just be careful which jar in the spice rack you reach for!

Banner ad for Missouri's Murderous Matrons: Emma Heppermann and Bertha Gifford.

The fire that killed Alvira Johnson: Depression-era murder, or tragic accident?

The following story was inspired by Murder in Chisago County: The Unsolved Johnson Family Mystery by Brian Johnson, who chronicles the investigation of his great-uncle Albin Johnson and the still-unsolved, suspicious death of Albin’s wife Alvira and their seven children in 1933.

Pinkerton’s Persistent PI’s

What, might you ask, does a murder in rural Minnesota have to do with the assassination of Abraham Lincoln? 

Here at Crime Capsule, we spend a lot of time looking at the criminals involved in heinous deeds (rather, misdeeds). Occasionally, we’re able to highlight the contributions of specific law enforcement personnel, such as the sergeant who cracked a case based on a single bottle of beer, or the feds who after years of investigation finally rounded up public enemy number one, Alvin Karpis.

We’re proud to honor those men and women. After all, justice work is, at best, teamwork. Sometimes, however, a case needs a little more manpower than the public sector can provide. Such was the situation in Minnesota in April 1933, when a woman and her seven children were found dead on a Chisago County farm, burned to death and nearly cremated in an overnight fire.

In Murder in Chisago County: The Unsolved Johnson Family Mystery, author Brian Johnson describes how almost immediately the case began to baffle investigators. The lead victim, Alvira Lundeen Johnson—the author’s own great-aunt—and her children seemed from the forensic evidence not to have been disturbed from their sleep by the flames, suggesting that they had died prior to the blaze. 

Alvira Lundeen Johnson in front of the house. Author’s collection.

Foul play, residents in the close-knit Swedish immigrant community cried. Most worrying of all was the fact that Albin Johnson, Alvira’s husband, was nowhere to be found. Suspicion doubled when forensics couldn’t identify Albin among any of the deceased, with one theory holding that the farmer—ill-tempered, a known drinker, down on his luck and soon to be evicted from the property by his own grandfather—had sooner killed his own family rather than drag them into a life of even more hardship in days to come.  

With Albin suspected of having fled to Canada, a massive manhunt began, with newspapers as far as Texas carrying the story: but early leads turned up only red herrings and false identifications. At this point, the family called in the cavalry. Alvira’s mother, Christine Lundeen, hired the Pinkerton Detective Agency to help locate Albin. The Pinkerton National Detective Agency—none other than the folks who had uncovered the plot to assassinate Abraham Lincoln in 1861 (one conspirator from which already appearing on Crime Capsule)—sent its agents to join the hunt.

Unfortunately, even the group that took on Jesse James and Butch Cassidy may have met their match. Author Brian Johnson: “But the Pinkertons, for all their guile and experience, were no match for Albin Johnson. ‘Grandma wanted to find him … She contacted them [the Pinkertons]. But they never found him. That was just money lost, paying them for nothing,’ said Jeanette Johnson, Alvira’s niece.”

It’s possible that the number of theories surrounding Albin’s disappearance may have hindered the Pinkerton search, Johnson writes. Apparently the agency was concerned that multiple reports of his movements might influence the Canadian authorities’ interest in the case, or the lengths to which they would go to track the suspect down—even if he had fled across the border. 

The Kaffe Stuga is a popular hangout in Harris. Albin Johnson’s wanted poster is on display. Bill Klotz.

It’s not clear either way. And indeed, ultimately, Albin was never found. It’s a remarkable story, but as Brian Johnson notes, the methods and tools that law enforcement had at the time to trace suspects’ movements or coordinate searches paled in comparison to what they have today. Even so, we can salute the combined efforts of all those searching for the suspect, public and private alike.

And if you happen to find yourself in Harris, Minnesota, make sure to stop into the Kaffe Stuga for a cup of coffee. You can still see the Agency’s wanted poster on the wall!

Read the full details and get insider perspective to the fascinating Johnson Family Mystery in Murder in Chisago County

Murder in Chisago County: The Unsolved Johnson Family Mystery

“In rich detail, he lays out clue after clue…”

More on the Johnson family case:

True Crime Tuesday Podcast – interview with Brian Johnson

“If you pay attention, you can tell when someone’s lying.” – Interview with Brian Johnson – Tom Barnard Show

Speakeasies and Secret Lairs: Milwaukee Prohibition

Oh, those nice, industrious Midwesterners. So friendly and hard-working. Always building cities, raising barns, and—wait—smuggling booze?

You betcha! Don’t tell us you’re surprised. It’s no secret that the upper Midwest was one of the hotbeds for anti-Prohibtionism in the United States. After all, the German-speaking population of the region gave us some of America’s most famous adult beverages of all time, from Schlitz to Budweiser to Pabst. States across the region resisted the Volstead Act in different ways, but Wisconsin got especially creative.

Advertisement for the William Bergenthal Company. Image sourced from Wicked Milwaukee, courtesy of the author’s collection.

You know that expertise in the building trades? Sure comes in handy when you’re trying to hide the good stuff. As author Yanci Marti describes in his book Wicked Milwaukee, the resourcefulness of a city full of tradesmen who enjoy a beer after work took on a new dimension after 1919. Following the public outcries, the protests and the public funerals for John Barleycorn, the reality began to sink in, and the city’s devoted drinkers got to work.

The first thing people did was simply ignore it, and drink as usual until federal agents began to enforce the new law, cracking down on warehouses, hotels, and saloons. To avoid raids, many suppliers simply shifted the goods, with Yance discovering that in 1921, at the Erz warehouse on Third Street, thieves snuck in via a second-story window and trucked away ten barrels of whiskey, fifty cases of bourbon, and nearly ten barrels of wine. $75,000 worth of hooch—not bad for an afternoon’s work!

Dance halls were seen by prohibitionists as dens of vice where alcohol and women mixed to create bigger problems. Image sourced from Wicked Milwaukee, courtesy of the Milwaukee Free Press, May 27, 1906.

But when the fed got serious, so did the Wisconsinites. Speakeasies and secret lairs to hide distillation and fermentation began to appear—or not appear—all over Milwaukee. Fake walls, zero entrances, false corridors—anything to hide the copper and the tubes needed to produce the liquid gold. Suspicious of the American Arcade, Yance writes, federal agents followed a nearby steam tunnel to a ladder to a hatch, revealing equipment for fermenting beer as well as three finished cases. No one was present at the time, so no one was arrested, but one only wonders what happened to the contraband.

One saloon on Winnebago Street was an even slicker operation. Yance describes the setup beautifully. First, you had to access the saloon from a wooden stairway from the sidewalk. Then:

Inside the saloon there was no evidence to be obtained of anything illegal. It was soon discovered that the stairway was hinged and could be lifted up at a landing near the doorway if a few bolts were removed. However, when this was done, there was only a brick wall to be seen on all sides. Looking more closely at the walls, it was found that the back wall was actually a wooden door plastered over and painted to resemble worn brick, like the other brick walls of the stairwell. A secret catch was then discovered that opened into a secret nine-foot by fifteen-foot moonshine distillery with a fifteen-gallon still.

In this case, unlike the other, the artisans of one of Milwaukee’s finest creations—and we’re not even talking about the booze—were arrested and fined $250 each. We can only hope that the authorities took a moment to admire their construction before carting them off to the local precinct. Sadly, history doesn’t tell us, but we here at proudly tip our glass in their direction, and we invite you to do the same. Cheers!

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The Curse of Corpsewood, and the Corpsewood Murders


The Strange Shadows Murder Casts

As we here at Crime Capsule have explored before, it’s no secret that crime scenes quickly become destinations for more than just law enforcement and investigators. Tourists, snoops, and enthusiasts flock to sites of great tragedy and trauma, carrying with them motives that can range from the genuinely curious to the downright malicious. Many just want to check it out, but others, for whatever reason, want a piece of the action.

You would think that a place with a name like Corpsewood Manor might dissuade them—but apparently not.

A picture of the Corpsewood Manor.
Corpsewood, with the drawbridge down to connect the independent gazebo tower to the house. Image sourced from The Corpsewood Manor Murders in North Georgia, courtesy of Ralph Van Pelt.

As author Amy Petulla describes in her book The Corpsewood Manor Murders in North Georgia, a residence near the little town of Trion in Chattooga County—not Chattanooga, Tennessee, but close to it across the border—has achieved near-mythic status among locals for the horrific crimes that were committed there.

Petulla’s book describes the 1982 double murder of one Dr. Charles Scudder, an avid user of psychedelics and card-carrying Satanist, and his friend, companion, and occasional lover Joey Odom, a younger man from the area. Petulla charts the tempestuous life the duo lived in a brick castle deep in the woods of Chattooga County, complete with the famously lurid ‘Pink Room’ and copious amounts of alcohol, drugs, and esoteric paraphernalia.

The infamous Chicken House. The Pink Room, used for entertainment and sexual diversions, was on the third floor. Image sourced from The Corpsewood Manor Murders in North Georgia, courtesy of Bobby Gilliland.

Despite certain practices that led their Trion neighbors to whisper (and shudder in turn), Scudder and Odom were, by most accounts, genuinely hospitable folks. Unfortunately, the two met their end when their hospitality extended to Kenneth Brock and Tony West, two local troublemakers who, believing the castle housed items of great value, plotted to rob them blind. Scudder and Odom invited the two in, not knowing their intentions, and expecting the evening to go the usual enjoyable way. The robbery didn’t go quite as planned, however, and by the evening of December 12, 1982, both Scudder and Odom lay dead on the floor, killed execution-style with Scudder’s own rifle. In an act of particular cruelty, West and Brock even killed the couple’s dogs, huddled around the stove for warmth.  

Fast-forward a bit, past the manhunt and the trial. The brick castle is now devoid of inspectors and forensics teams, and the Chicken House itself is no more than ash, torched by unknown arsonists in January 1983, a month after the slayings. Yet visitors keep coming to the site, trekking deep into the woods to take souvenirs: as Petulla notes, bricks from the crumbling building “became the new status symbol among those hungry for a remnant of the infamous castle.” But curiously, she writes, “the looters begin reporting ‘accidents,’ injuries and tragedies occurring close in time to their taking of a brick, and yet again, the bits of masonry were restored, with mumbled apologies ‘just in case,’ before the takers rapidly fled.”

The remains of Corpsewood are gradually being swallowed up as nature reclaims its own. Image sourced from The Corpsewood Manor Murders in North Georgia, courtesy of Amy Petulla.

Petulla goes on to describe the strange effects that other items from the castle seemed to bring once they made their way into the homes of area residents—statues of devils, esoteric paintings, stained glass—giving the full story in her book. As we’ve seen before at Franklin Park in New Jersey, in the aftermath of a crime unscrupulous individuals are more than happy to take artifacts from the event and display them, market them, and sell them for a pretty penny. But you have to ask yourself—if you lived in Trion, would you really want a piece of this cursed castle in your house? Would you be willing to risk some kind of otherworldly shadow cast over your life, as so many other folks have?

Lord, lead us not into temptation!

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Ohio’s Last Great Train Robbery: How They Got Away

You gotta hand it to him. Like a Danny Ocean of his day, Alvin Karpis—public enemy number one in the mid-1930s—didn’t rob the train because he had to. He robbed the train because he wanted to.

According to author Julie A. Thompson in The Hunt for the Last Public Enemy in Northeastern Ohio, Karpis, who had risen to fame through an extensive career in bootlegging, illegal gambling, gunrunning, and organized crime as part of the Karpis-Barker gang, was known nationwide. His exploits had drawn the attention of no less than J. Edgar Hoover and the “G-men” of the FBI, who had tracked him across state after state, with Karpis often slipping through their grasp.

Ambitious, cocky, and greedy, in 1935 Karpis decided that a train job was next on his list. Picking out a mail train that carried payments from the Federal Reserve Bank in Cleveland to other towns in the area, his team of five other criminals set their plan in motion that autumn. Aiming to hijack the train at Garrettsville, they memorized its route, mapped out the local roads, scouted nearby safehouses, adopted false identities with their local contacts, and picked out an airport for a quick getaway by plane.

Extensive discussions regarding each man’s role took place: who would subdue the engineer, who would enter the mail car, who would guard the platform, who would drive the getaway vehicle. On the afternoon of November 7, after spending the night in a farmhouse close by, they swept in, loaded down with tommy guns, pistols, and dynamite. Taking control of the small platform, they held the staff and passengers hostage while seizing what assets they could and waiting for the train to arrive.

An image of the Garrettsville Train Depot.
Garrettsville Train Depot and the site of the November 7, 1935 train caper pulled off by Karpis. Image sourced from The Hunt for the Last Public Enemy in Northeastern Ohio: Alvin “Creepy” Karpis and his Road to Alcat, courtesy of the James A. Garfield Historical Society (photo dated November 9, 1935, by the Cleveland Press).

Soon enough, around two o’clock the whistle blew, and up it pulled to the line. Throwing dynamite through the mail car window, Karpis led the charge by threatening to detonate the stick should the clerks not open the doors. According to Thompson, Karpis began to count down from five, but he “only had to reach four before the doors swung back open.” Despite a fierce argument between the clerks and the criminal (and a little extra persuasion from those tommy guns), Karpis prevailed, and his team secured the mail bags on board the car.

Unfortunately for them, the main haul of payroll funds they were expecting had been delivered the previous day, but the gang still escaped with $34,000 in cash and $11,650 in bonds, which Thompson equates to nearly $715,000 in modern dollars. Driving off in their Plymouth sedan, the team left Erie train no. 626 to its fate—thankfully without any lives lost in the process.

So how did they get away? Having mapped out the local roads, they disappeared into the backroads of Portage County. Meeting a local contact at Port Clinton, they stole into a nondescript garage in the quaint little seaside town. After dividing up their haul (part of which paid for the car, the plane, and their co-conspirators), they burned the remaining evidence and spent the night at one of their accomplice’s homes. “They all slept in the front bedroom,” Thompson records. “No dummies, they had the guns with them in their handbags.” The next morning, they boarded a Stinson airplane piloted by John Zetzer, who flew them step by step down to Hot Springs, Arkansas. From there, nearly $5000 richer each, they went their separate ways.

An image of pilot John Zetzer.
1930s pilot John Zetzer of Port Clinton, Ohio (undated). Image sourced from The Hunt for the Last Public Enemy in Northeastern Ohio: Alvin “Creepy” Karpis and his Road to Alcat, courtesy of Ottawa County Historical Society & Museum (Ohio).

Master sneak that he was, Karpis managed to elude capture for another six months, but because he had robbed bonds belonging to the postal service, federal postal inspectors were able to lend their expertise to Hoover and the G-men. Apprehending several of the men involved in the heist gave the feds information they needed to track Karpis himself, and in May 1936, the feds finally nabbed him down in New Orleans, swarming his car with nearly two dozen agents on busy Canal Street.

The greatest public enemy of the decade had finally been caught. Thompson notes one last detail of his capture: because he had boasted he would never be taken alive, none of the feds had brought handcuffs. Instead, when they finally led him into custody, Karpis’ hands were bound with an agent’s necktie.

Danny Ocean would be proud.

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