Friday, October 8, 2010

"A Daring Burglary", 1886

Perhaps the most notorious case of breaking and entering into a private residence in Middleborough history occurred over a century ago in 1886, a frightening incident marked by both its brutality and its "humanity".

The robbery occurred at the home of Hartley Wood (1811-89), the small Cape-style house which now stands on the corner of East Grove and Fairview Streets opposite the entrance to Middleborough High School, which the septuagenarian Wood shared in 1886 with his sister, Eleanor (1818-94), who was also of advanced years.

Smith & Wesson Model No. 3
Schofield Revolver, late 19th century
Photo courtesy of Bob Adams
The Plymouth Old Colony Memorial reported the details of the crime: Eleanor Wood, "a sister of Hartley, who keeps house for him, had gone to bed, and Hartley, who sat by the stove, was overpowered by two men who presented pistols at his head. The burglars tied him and his sister, whom they dragged from the bed, and then ransacked the house at their leisure. They secured $77, and then covering their prisoners up with bed clothes as they lay on the floor and placing a pan of milk at the head of each they withdrew." Near midnight, Wood was able to free a hand and extricate a pocket knife which he used first to liberate himself, then his sister.

The men were “masked ... and wore paper caps” to disguise their identities. (A month following the incident, enamel cloth masks were discovered near Grove Street and were presumed to be the masks worn by the criminals).

The community was so galvanized by the attack upon two of its elderly residents that it offered a $500 reward for the conviction of the perpetrators, and employed private detectives to solve case.

Though it appears that the burglars were never tried for the crime, their identity and the details of that frightful evening became known when one of the two robbers confessed some three years following the incident while serving time in the New Jersey state prison for a similar crime. The robber - Ino Baum - had originally come to Middleborough in 1885 as a laborer on the East Grove Street pumping station, then under construction. At that time, East Grove Street east of the Nemasket River was a lonely road passing through pine woods, marked only by the home of Hartley Wood perched upon the crest of what was still then known as Waterman's Hill.

Idle remarks among the construction crew focused upon the distant house on the hill. Wrote Baum, "I had heard casually that they [the Woods] were stingy and distrustful and would not even trust their money to a bank, although they were rich." From this loose talk, Baum formulated his plan to one day return, and rob, the Woods.

Late in January, 1886, Baum returned to Middleborough in the company of Louis Price, described only as "an Italian," to implement his plan. The two men reached the Wood house unnoticed about 7 in the evening after having stolen a length of clothesline along the way. It was shortly after 9 when the two entered the house, oilcloth masks concealing their faces, with Baum leading the way. "We both had pistols in our hands when we entered the kitchen and I walked straight up towards Mr. Wood. He seemed thunderstruck with fear, and so was the dog, who never moved during the time we were in the house, but lay behind the stove as if dead."

Baum pushed Mr. Wood to his knees, at which point Price attempted to tie him. "When Mr. Wood saw our purpose was to bind him, he commenced to struggle violently and to call out 'What do you want? Do you mean to kill me?'

The ensuing struggle apparently roused Wood's sister who "seemed very much inclined to take a hand in the struggle, calling at the same time with all her might." Baum readily caught Miss Wood, though she continued to struggle, "trying to pull off my mask and to tear my clothes. I was reluctant to use force against her but she kept fighting till I was forced to trip her up and in falling she must have struck her face," sustaining a black eye.

Eventually, both Woods were bound and gagged, but not before Miss Wood could affirm "Oh! you, you'll meet your Judge; you'll meet your Judge."

The house was searched for the considerable sums the Woods were rumored to have kept there, but in this task the burglars were sorely disappointed. Though $200 was discovered, much of it had to be left behind as easily identified "marked or peculiar pieces of money." Also discovered were "a number of bank books and other valuable papers and a notice from the cashier of the local bank, notifying Mr. Wood that the deposits to his credit exceeded ... the amount the rules of the bank permitted to stand to the same name." Not only had the Woods deposited their money in the Middleboro Savings Bank, but to such an extent that the bank was obliged to refuse any additional deposits. In this, the Woods may have been motivated by an earlier 1875 robbery at their house in which $10 was removed from an upstairs room.

The chatter among workmen upon the Middleborough pumping station in 1885 which had provided the rationale for Baum's plan had been untrue.

"When I thought there was nothing more to be found I carried bedding to the kitchen and covered them and placed milk near them where they could reach it .... Before leaving I saw to it that the ropes were so that they might free themselves, after some time, if they made any exertions." Additionally, household goods were deliberately strewn about the front of the house and the front door left wide open in order to attract the attention of passersby in the morning should the Woods not be able to free themselves during the night.

The two men made their escape to Boston and, later, separately to New York where they lost contact with one another. Though Baum avowed that his accomplice Price "was no criminal," Baum, himself, continued to pursue his dubious life of crime which eventually caught up with him in New Jersey.

One wonders whether at the time of his New Jersey conviction Baum recalled the warnings of Miss Wood many months earlier that he would "meet his Judge"? And, so he did.


Anonymous said...

Great story!

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