Thursday, December 16, 2010
The Middleborough branch factory of Hathaway, Soule & Harrington achieved an unexpected local notoriety when during the early morning of October 25, 1895, its safe was robbed. Fortunately, a clipping from the Middleboro Gazette recounting the incident survives to recount the tale nearly in full.
For the first time for many years safe robbers visited our town, Thursday afternoon and night. Shortly after 1 o'clock, as watchman Charles Crandall of Hathaway, Soule & Harrington's shoe factory on Cambridge street was descending to the main entry of the factory in making his usual round, he was seized by four men, who immediately blindfolded him and proceeded to blow open and rob the safe.
The burglars evidently watched Mr. Crandall as he went to various points about the building, and when he was on the upper floor forced open the front door. Seating themselves where they were not seen by the night watchman until he stepped off the last stair they had him completely by surprise and at their mercy in an instant.
Mr. Crandall at first thought it a joke of some of the shop hands. He carries a cane to assist him in going up and down stairs, and when they first seized him with the remark, "We've got you," he lifted this stick above his head, saying, "You have, have you." Mr. Crandall still thought it a joke, and had no idea of striking with his stick, but one of the fellows said afterward that he was about to deal him a stunning blow, when thoughts of his own father caused him to change his mind, and Mr. Crandall escaped personal injury.
"You are a cranky little fellow, but it is of no use. We won't hurt you if you keep quiet." Realizing that one against four was an unequal contest, he submitted to being blindfolded. The robbers sat him upon the stairs, and one on either side stood by him while the other two proceeded to the office, where they blew open the safe, as the watchman thinks, by the use of powder, judging from the smell.
Judging from the cool manner in which they proceed, Mr. Crandall thinks confederates were outside. He remarked to them that he at first thought that they were some of the employees, and that the thought of burglars had not entered his mind. "How do you know we are not employees of the factory," asked one of them. "There are only four of you," said Mr. Crandall. "You don't know but there are twenty of us, but you have the number inside right," was the reply.
Mr. Crandall asked them if they had not been at work near by on another break a short time before, but they said "no," and he thinks that a slight noise he heard a little while before was caused by forcing the door.
The safe was blown open probably at 2.25 a. m., as the clock over the safe stopped at that time. Two of the fellows were masked and above average height. The other two Mr. Crandall cannot describe, as he did not see them. The report made by the explosion was quite loud, and was heard by several residents in the neighborhood, but nothing was thought about it as the trains make so much noise all night. The door was blown completely off and several chairs demolished and a window broken.
The robbers were sadly disappointed when they rifled the safe. They secured only a very small sum.
That a former employee was a leader in the break seems to be indicated by several things said. When they found so little money this man remarked, "When I used to work here the pay roll was kept in the safe." They seemed very much chagrined when they realized how little they secured.
The watchman asked if they found much, and one of them answered, "Not enough to pay for our trouble." Mr. Crandall told them that the firm's methods had changed of late relative to money matters.
William H. Wilde, the book-keeper at the factory, is away on his wedding tour, so that the exact amount they secured could not be learned. The weekly pay roll frequently amounts to $2,000, and today is pay-day. It was this sum that the gang undoubtedly hoped to secure. Mr. Hathaway of the firm was in town, yesterday, but the money for today's pay-roll was not put into the safe.
Failing to secure any amount of cash they turned their attention to tools. They inquired where the machine room was, but Mr. Crandall told them he knew very little about the particular places where tools were kept, as he never visited the factory in the day time.
"How do you get down cellar," asked the apparent leader. "That's a pretty question for one to ask who has worked here as long as you have," retorted one of his mates.
The gang appeared in no hurry to leave. They treated Mr. Crandall with the utmost consideration. Before they left they carried him to the workroom and tied him into a chair, so that he could no get away.
When engineer W. H. F. Pettee arrived, early in the morning, he was greatly surprised to find the door open, but he was speechless when he beheld the watchman bound and blindfolded. He quickly released him and learned the night's events.
It is stated tat one of the men dropped a 'kerchief and came near leaving it. When he discovered it, he exclaimed, "I musn't leave that; Emma always puts my name on them."
Their whole conduct seems to indicate that they were not experts at the business.
The same gang probably visited Mount Carmel railroad station, Thursday afternoon, during the absence of the station agent, and secured about $10 from the money drawer. It was a poor job all round.
The shoe factory break was the most sensational since the memorable "town safe" robbery, nearly 25 years ago, when the robbers secured a large amount in valuable bonds and cash.
Mr. Crandall is none worse for the night's excitement, except that it was quite a shock to his nerves; but he showed no white feather. He is glad however, that the company are not heavy losers by the robbery.
The greatest loss to the corporation will probably be the damage to the safe. So far as can be learned, no tools of value were taken.
Little else has been left on record of the crime, although it remained in the memory of the Alden family which managed he factory at the time, and was later passed down through the Barden family. In 1989, George M. Barden, Jr., recalled the incident in the pages of the Middleborough Antiquarian and told a slightly different version in which Crandall, while not implicated in the robbery itself, was culpable for permitting unfettered access to the factory by the perpetrators.
Hathaway, Soule & Harrington employed a Civil War veteran to serve as night watchman at the factory. He would come to work in the evening and spend the night all alone in the five-storied building, making the rounds periodically to make sure everything was secure. When two congenial young strangers made his acquaintance and offered to keep him company through his lonely hours he was only too glad to accept. For a week or more they spent almost every night with him at the factory, whiling away the time at checkers and listening to his tales of Civil War adventures. They also took note of his inspection routine. Finally, one fateful night, after the three had finished the midnight lunch, one of the strangers said:
"Old man, we are going to tie you in your chair to keep you out of trouble and then you will hear an explosion louder than anything you ever heard in the Civil War!"
Within minuted the watchman was securely tied to his chair and the promised explosion, when the strangers blew the door off the safe in the office, was indeed impressive. Their carefully planned getaway involved the use of a railroad handcar, the old-fashioned kind that was powered by hand pumping, previously placed by the yeggs on the tracks that ran just behind the factory. Taking their bag of loot, they raced to the handcar and began pumping feverishly to put Middleboro behind them as fast as possible - a scene right out of the Keystone Cops. Family tradition has told this writer that they made it to Bridgewater before they were apprehended and the loot recovered.
Despite the impression left by Barden's account, the perpetrators appear to have gone undiscovered for at least a short period of time as indicated by the Middleboro Gazette which reported that "the recent Hathaway, Soule & Harrington burglary case is in the hands of two of the most skillful detectives in this section." While there was much initial uncertainty regarding the amount of money taken from the safe, the newspaper report confirmed that "the amount taken by he cracksmen is now definitely determined to have been less than $50." Though the burglars had hoped to discover the firm's large payroll in the safe, a number of developments had conspired against them including a recent state law which required employees of corporations to be paid weekly and with which the firm had been in compliance with since the summer. Most crucially and for reasons now unknown, the payroll was not placed in the factory safe on Thursday, October 24.
Barden, George M., Jr. Middleborough Antiquarian, "A Shoe Business, A Robbery and a Fire", 27: 3, December, 1989, 5+.
Middleboro Gazette, "Bold Burglars", October 25, 1895:4; "Middleboro", November 1, 1895:4; "Twenty-Five Years Ago", August 6, 1920:2.