A Burning Cold Morning (Part 31)

Stanley Bittenhopper was born September 19th, 1890 in Bristol, Connecticut.  He had an average childhood in an average household of the day, growing up as the youngest of four children in a middle-class family.  His father was a goldsmith who also worked as a jack-of-all-trades repairman and his mother ran the household while taking in neighbor’s laundry for extra money.  When Stanley graduated from high school in 1907 he was five feet eleven and weighed about one hundred ninety pounds, a lanky young man with dirty blonde hair and green eyes. 

Sessions company clock

Sessions company clock

Through connections that his father Ben had in town, he picked up an apprenticeship at the Sessions Clock Company, something considered to be a valuable way into an established line of work.   He stayed there long enough to gain an interest in clockmaking that would stay with him throughout the rest of his life, and picked up enough skills to make money doing so even after he left Sessions in 1911.   In October of that year his mother passed away and his father, with an empty house he did not want to live in and a life-long yearning for the west coast, sold everything and headed out to California.  He offered to take his youngest son along and teach him to be a goldsmith, an offer that Stanley accepted as he figured he could make more money in that line of work.  When the two of them arrived in Bakersfield on October 27, 1911 Stanley had to wonder what his father had been thinking.

When the two Bittenhopper men departed Bristol they had left an established, growing and robust city of around thirteen thousand people.  Getting off the train in Bakersfield they entered a place with a similar population but a totally different culture and atmosphere.  Their hometown on the east coast had been part of the original settling of the United States and was steeped in the history and traditions of its people dating back to the late 1700’s.  It had a settled economy, a population of established  families and the general air of the place was reflected in houses like that occupied by Stanley’s former employer at the Sessions Clock Company. 

Sessions Home

Sessions Home

Bakersfield was much younger, less refined and had an air of wild uncertainty about it.  Much of the community had been developed as a result of gold and oil being found in the area, bringing with it the unattached men and women from all over the place that usually flock to those kinds of locations.  It was a rough place and not one where either of the Bittenhopper’s initially felt very comfortable.  

Union Oil Company at Bakersfield 1910

Union Oil Company at Bakersfield 1910

They decided to stick it out though and eventually, over the course of a few years, they became well established in the area.  One benefit of a constantly evolving and changing place such as Bakersfield was that if you stuck around for a few years you became an old-timer in the area, “respected and connected” as Stanley’s father would say.  They also both welcomed the warmer weather, and eventually grew to appreciate the tone of the area’s interesting, constantly changing population.  By fall of 1913 they had a successful company established making, selling and repairing gold and silver jewelry and doing other kinds of metalwork.  Stanley also ran a side business repairing clocks, a venture that his father would not allow in their joint business due to the fire-gilding involved.

This was a skill that his son had picked up while working for Sessions, although it was certainly something that Ben Bittenhopper also knew how to do.  He had stopping doing it; however, many years prior believing that the rumored side-effects were true, if not actually worse than already realized.  He used electroplating in his metalworking and had taught Stanley the skills for that much safer practice.  He had trouble understanding why his son insisted on using fire-gliding when working on clocks.   They argued about it often, with Stanley repeating a version of the same reason every time; “Bob Miller at Sessions taught me that this was the best way, the only way to do it, and the results look better than your way, it’s easy to see.”  Ben disagreed of course and so, to keep things sailing along smoothly, they both agreed to stop talking about it as long as Stanley kept it out of the shop.  This he was happy to do, renting a small shack about a mile away from their house for his side work in the clock repair business.  

Most of his work there did not involve fire-gilding at all, as it was usually just internal repair work or the replacement of gears and broken clock faces.  As stubborn as he was with his father, Stanley was aware of the suspected problems with the practice and only used it when necessary, or occasionally to impress an especially pretty female customer by turning an ordinary looking clock into a eye-catching piece of workmanship.   He did love the way the pieces would turn out and he always felt that the risk was worth the result.

Fire-gliding has been practiced for centuries and can most easily, without getting into arcane details, be described this way:  When gold or silver is added to room temperature mercury, these metals dissolve and form an amalgam, which is a spreadable liquid metal thicker than just the mercury would be by itself.  Once you have coated an item (ideally some kind of copper-based material such as brass or bronze as these allow for better adhesion), you then need to boil away the mercury.  That process, where the mercury is heated to six hundred and seventy five degrees, is where the dangerous part of the operation occurs.  Although this process does leave behind the gold or silver (although in a rough form that often needs to be burnished) it also releases elemental mercury into the air, and that is definitely not something you want to be breathing.  Prolonged and repeated exposure to this kind of mercury vapor leads to neurotoxin poisoning with symptoms such as high levels of anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts.  This has often, especially in the past, been referred to as Mad Hatter’s Disease, as that occupation as involves repeated exposure to mercury.  The symptoms can linger for quite a long time, especially if the periods of exposure are not too frequent or intense.  It would take quite awhile to become evident but Stanley Bittenhopper, known around Bakersfield simply as The Clockmaker, definitely was being poisoned.  

…to be continued

A Burning Cold Morning (Part 30)

Leo flipped it around and saw the name R. Lester in the top left-hand corner, although no address was included underneath.  He thanked her for keeping it, tucked it into the pocket of his suit coat, and then spent the remainder of the day with his family, eating a delicious roast dinner and even helping with the dishes.  He was very interested in the contents of that letter, but also did not want to have to share it around if asked to, or answer any questions about it at all.  Olivia commented to him on his reluctance to open it, wondering in a quiet aside to him if this was more of his secrets, but he kept his cool and refrained from replying or opening the letter.  As he said good night to his mother that evening he felt strongly that he might never see her again and he hugged her closely,  longer than he might have otherwise.  He felt he had made amends and that this was his goodbye to her.  

Later, he slipped his finger under the edge of the envelope and pulled out two sheets of paper.  The letter was dated June 17, 1925.

Leo –

I had figured to forget you and be the better for it but sitting around that prison just made me think about you all the more.  I noticed that you never had the courage to contact me, not that this is surprising given what you obviously are.  I decided to not let you go without calling you out for that, calling you exactly what you are, and that’s a rat!  You sold me out in Hawaii and that put me away for four years that could’ve been many more if not for getting out on good behavior.  You should’ve kept your mouth shut because now I got you on my list and I’ll be taking care of you the first chance I get.  I didn’t learn much in prison but one thing I did learn is that rats need to be taken care of.  I’ll be in Bakersfield if you have the nerve to face me like a man.  Otherwise, look for me to be finding you anytime, 

RFL 

Leo slammed his fist hard into the wall and crumpled up the letter.  He had never said a word to anyone about Lester and he surely was not a rat.  He had stayed silent about everything and was not even sure what had ever happened to his partner after his own arrest in Hawaii.  Leo had actually hoped more than once that Lester had in fact gotten away clean from that scheme.  He had even told Lester in that letter he wrote from McNeil that he had kept the code of silence.  Leo was furious, and became even more so as he thought about it, thought about Lester telling others about what a rat he was, how he had betrayed his partner in crime.  That could threaten to undo all of the progress Leo had made in making sure he was seen as a stand-up member of the criminal community.  After about fifteen minutes of  fuming away about it Leo did manage to realize that it was possible Lester had never received his letter, although that did not make things any better.  He still had to straighten matters out and make sure his reputation was repaired.  He had to get to Bakersfield right away and get to work on finding the man, which he knew would be a challenge as he had no address and doubted Lester would be very conspicuous.  He could find him though, he had to.

The next morning Leo called Olivia and told her that he was leaving immediately to take care of some business that had come up.  She was not sympathetic and scolded him for running away so soon.  She did agree to sell what little of value there was among his items in the trunk and to forward the money to him, and Leo told her he would send back an address as quickly as he could.  He then left on April 9th, his route and actions again unknown, and something must have happened along the way because he does not arrive in Bakersfield until May 3rd.  On that morning he checked into the just completed El Tejon hotel under the name Lee O’Dare, sending a brief note back to Olivia with the address that same day.

el tejon courtesy kern county library

El Tejon Hotel courtesy kern county library

For the next month of so he did what he had learned to do in any new town, which was to start to make inroads into the criminal community.  He felt that he had a little more credibility now, more time and experience under his belt, and that brought him a little more confidence as he started to make connections.  Leo passed on a few early opportunities, considering them to be beneath his level of skill, and spent most of his time looking in phone books and other public documents for Robert Lester.  He also made very discreet inquires, not wanting to give his former partner any warning that he was in town and looking for him, as he preferred the coming confrontation to be a surprise.  He figured that would give him the upper hand.  Although none of these early efforts led to Lester, Leo did meet one interesting character who would play a large part in future events.  That man was known simply as the Clockmaker. 

…to be continued

A Burning Cold Morning (Part 29)

“Yeah, sure, sure.  So what’s the answer?  Did Mom say she would let me come up to the house?”

“Hardly Leo, she won’t hear of it right now.  She’s still hurt you took off like that and a lot more hurt over all these years of silence and worry  you put her through.  Father you could talk to, but not at the house, he won’t cross Mom on that, so you’d have to catch him out in the fields someday.”

“Yeah, well, I’ll think about that I guess.” 

They sat in silence for a few minutes after that, placing an order and then starting to eat their sandwiches after they came to the table.  Eventually Olivia spoke again.

“Don’t worry about it though, she’ll let you come over eventually.  She’s got that letter.”

Leo’s eyes narrowed a little.  “What letter?”

“You know, that explains something else too.  We just thought it was a misspelling on that envelope, it said Leo Humbert you know, like someone who didn’t know you too well wrote it.  But I guess that was the name you were using, huh?”

Leo nodded silently and looked back at her.  She tapped her fingers agains the table a few times and then continued. 

“Anyway, it came in the mail a while back.  It was in bad shape when it arrived actually, looked like it had been awhile in the mail before it managed to reach us.  She’s been waiting to give it to you and she won’t fail at that.  Besides, your stuff is still there too.”

“My stuff?  You can’t mean all that rubbish I left behind in the house when I moved out?”

“That’s exactly what I mean brother.  All your useless stuff that you just left there for us to clean up and be a reminder of you leaving, that you weren’t around anymore.   Rather inconsiderate I always thought.  I told father to get rid of it straight away but Mom wouldn’t have it.  So it’s all there in some trunk we had, packed away for your inconsiderate self to pick up someday.”

“Harsh words Ollie, I never asked anyone to keep it.”

“You should have taken it or gotten rid of it yourself, not expected us to.”

“Fine then.  Who’s the letter from?  Do you know?”

“Oh yes, thats another thing I spend my time on, keeping track of your trash and your letters.”

Leo thought it best to stop talking then as his sister was winding herself up into another lecture mode, sure to continue on with her discussion of his name change, inconsiderate behavior and other faults.   As they both finished eating Olivia blew out a deep breath.

“Some Lester person, I can’t remember if that’s his first or last name.”

“Huh?”

“The letter silly, it’s from someone named Lester.”

Leo immediately knew it had to be from Robert, his old partner in crime from the Kilauea Mercantile Company scam in Hawaii.  Although he could not recall ever doing so, he must have told him at some point that he was from New Munich, and apparently Robert had used that information to send him a letter.  Maybe it was in response to the one he wrote from McNeil, or maybe it had been written for some other reason.  Either way, he knew that he had to get it from his mother as he felt it was likely to include information that he did not want his mother or the police to read. 

“She didn’t open it, did she?”

“Of course not Leo, opening other people’s mail is not something us Hombert’s do.”  She said that louder than necessary and then walked out of the diner, leaving Leo with the bill and a slightly red face.

It took another twelve days but then Leo’s mother agreed to allow him into the house and he went there, dressed in his best suit and carrying flowers.  He had never really felt bad about the way he left, and had also not thought much about his family since then, but hearing his mother was hurt by it did give him some remorse and he hoped to make things right.  She was aloof when he first entered, remaining in her seat as he handed her the flowers and only nodding in reply to his, “It’s so good to see you Mom.”  That did not last long though, and after a very profuse apology from Leo and an awkward attempt by him at a hug, she finally stood up, grabbed him and pulled her long absent son in for a heart-felt embrace. Olivia had not mentioned the name change to their mother, and she did not bring up the supposed misspelling of his last name as she handed him the piece of mail she pulled from a drawer in her desk. 

…to be continued

A Burning Cold Morning (Part 28)

ford ad 1926 sedan

Ford ad 1926 sedan

The two of them did manage to make it out of town safely, ditching the inspection car and running into a small wooded area where Leo had indeed stashed a getaway vehicle.  It was carefully hidden, parked in a small depression at the center of the woods and covered by a large, dark canvas that had branches and bushes arranged on top.  The car was as nondescript as it could be for the day, a black 1925 Ford Model T two door sedan, and they both climbed in quickly and started off south away from Olympia.  At Veronica’s request Leo took a turn and headed for Tenino, where she said she would catch a train to “somewhere far away from here.”   Before actually getting to the station Leo pulled off behind a tree and demanded that Veronica get the money belt out right then and there so they could split their money up properly and fairly.  After a few minutes spent lamenting the fact that Leo apparently did not trust her enough to count it out herself she complied and five minutes later they were back on their way to the depot.  As she got out of the car she asked Leo a question.

“How did you really know to hide those getaway cars?  Did someone tip you off?”

“No, nothing like that.  It was just good planning.”  He smiled back as he replied, obviously pleased with himself.

“You handled it pretty well Leo, you really did.  Stayed cool and got us out.  It’s more that I would have credited you with being capable of, you know.  You’ve always been a nervous fellow.”

“Well, I had to get better at this criminal stuff sooner or later I guess.  Especially as it seems the only life I’m going to be living.”

“Well, good luck to you.  Maybe we’ll cross paths again, we already have twice.”  She gave him a friendly smile, one of the more pleasant ones she had ever given anyone, and it made Leo just a little bit nervous.  “Where you off to Leo?”

He shook his head and replied.  “Don’t worry about that, and I won’t worry about where you’re going either.  Good luck to you Veronica.”

With that, he reached over and closed the door, taking a moment to wave at her before putting the car in gear and driving away.  He had no idea what he was going to do next, but he did know he needed to get very far away from Olympia as quickly as possible.  He drove to the point of exhaustion, finally pulling off the road outside Grant’s Pass in Oregon and falling asleep in the back of the car.  

The next day he felt comfortable enough to take some time to assess his options.   He had almost decided to head to California, somewhere in the northern part of the state, when the idea struck him to head back to Minnesota.  He was not quite sure why that suddenly sounded like a good idea, but he could not get it out of his head and eventually decided to heed the call and head back to his state of birth.  

Leo left Olympia in early March of 1926 and nothing is known about his route of travel, adventures or misadventures along the way back to Minnesota.  He also never mentioned when exactly he decided to return to New Munich, as his original plan was only to go back to Minnesota.  We do know that by March 27th of 1926 he was back near his family as an argument he had with his sister Olivia was overhead by some locals.  She was the only one from his family who would speak to him at this point and she had agreed to meet him for lunch at the local diner.  The argument started before the order was even taken.

“You know I did try to find you a few times.  I called around to your old friends, even that man you worked for is Sauk Center.  And the Army, I tried there too as you told me several times you were thinking about that as a way out of here.  I never found you though, but still, I didn’t forget.”

“It would have been hard to find me Ollie.”

“Why’s that?”

“Well, I changed my name when I left here.”

“You did what Leo?  How could you think of such a thing?”  Olivia had slapped her hand down on the table as she spoke and several of the patrons turned their heads to look at the two of them, although she did not seem to notice.  “What’s so bad about us that you can’t keep your real name?  How could you disrespect mother and father like that?”  She kept at him for several more sentences until Leo held up his hand to stop her.

“Listen, it wasn’t like that.  I just, well,” he paused and shrugged, “I just wanted a new start, that’s all.”

“Whatever would you need that for?”

“Nothing, no reason,” Leo replied, waving his hand, “can we talk about something else?”

“I won’t accept it Leo, I just won’t, that’s all.  You’ll be a Hombert to us forever so don’t try any other name out around here.  Don’t you dare, ok?”

…to be continued

A Burning Cold Morning (Part 27)

“Leo, we have to leave, right now!”

Closing the book he was reading Leo looked with slight confusion at Veronica.  “What’s wrong with you?  And what the hell are you talking about?”

“The police, you know Cromwell, that desk officer we’re paying off?  He just found me at Plumb’s and told me.  He said that the Seattle police nicked one of our driver’s and he gave the whole thing up.  Apparently he had some other trouble up there already, some old charges or something, and he gave us up to make it easier on himself.  They’re getting warrants for us now.  We have to go!”  She was a little out of breath as she finished and placed her hand on her chest as she attempted to recover.

Leo rubbed his head slowly then stood up.  Taking her arm and directing her toward a chair he replied.  “Settle down, will ya?  You’re looking like a scared rabbit right now.  Are you sure this information is good?  What if Cromwell is trying to spook us?  Maybe he’s working a plan for the police here to get us to make a hasty move.”

Veronica, who had her breathing under control, stood back up.  “I am not waiting around here to get picked up, no way that happens.  I’ve worked with Cromwell before, same deal as we have with him now. His info has been good and I know him enough, he’s not playing their side.  We need to leave!”

“I can’t go so fast, I have to get some things together.  At the least we have to get the money so we can split it up.  We’ll need it for traveling.  Plus, I’ve got a few things out there that need finishing.  If you’re in such a rush, go on and go then.  I’ll get out of here soon enough.”

Veronica stomped her foot down and put her hands on her hips.  “I’ve already got the damn cash,” she said as she patted the money belt under her dress.  “Don’t you think for a minute that I am trusting you to stay back here while I go.  You’re far too weak to face the police and not give me up, you’ll crumble like a cookie if they get you in cuffs.  You are going with me, and we are going now.”

“I would not!” Leo shouted back, angry now as his criminal toughness was being questioned.  “I’m no rat, I wouldn’t say anything about you.  Besides, I’m not going to get picked up.  They can’t just get a warrant and be here in a few hours, it takes longer than that.  I’ll be long gone by morning.  Give me my cut and then you can go if you want to.”

“Again the fool.”  Veronica reached out and grabbed Leo’s right  arm, squeezing hard and looking right into her eyes.  Speaking slowly and deliberately she said, “When I said they are getting warrants, I meant they are getting them signed right now.  And they are not going to wait.  Cromwell said they already have a couple of officers waiting to head over here on those fancy motorcycles.”

olympia pd

Leo shook his arm loose but now looked troubled.  He had to admit that he really did not know how long it would take the police to show up if they did, in fact, already have warrants waiting to be signed.  He blew out a deep breath.

“Damn then, let’s go.”

After ten minutes of quick but methodical packing by Leo the two of them exited the Angelus and then went around the back where Veronica had stashed her own suitcase and a small additional bag.  Once they had them in hand Veronica turned to Leo.

“Now what?  We never have come up with a plan to get out of here, we probably should have.  Here we are, two of us with our luggage in hand and out in the street.  How are we going to get out of here Leo?”

He seemed to have something else on his mind and appeared to be nowhere near as panicked as Veronica.  He did have a slight jittery feeling in his chest, a sense that danger was coming, but he was much more under control that his partner.  He paused, looking north with a furrowed brow.  He had just shook his head and turned to look south when Veronica spoke.

“What are you so damn calm for?  Can’t you tell we need to get going?  Let’s go!”

Leo picked up his bag and stepped off, saying, “Yes indeed, let’s get moving.”  Veronica did not know it but Leo was more prepared for this situation than she was, privy to information he had never shared with her.  It did not, however, include these exact circumstances and he had needed a few moments to evaluate what to do next.  He could tell that Veronica was not is a state of mind that was going to be of help in their situation and it would be up to him to get them out of Olympia safely.  He knew they could not be on the street looking like wanderers for long as someone was sure to take notice.  He did not want anyone to be able to say they saw the duo headed in any particular direction.  He also knew that once the police did not find them at the Angelus a full-scale effort would likely be made to look for them on the streets and in places they frequently visited in town.  Getting off the streets was the first priority.  Motioning with his head, Leo headed onto Columbia Way toward the rail line.  Veronica hurried to catch up.

1925 Ford Track Inspection Car courtesy owlshead

Three minutes after the two of them stepped off down Columbia two police motorcycles pulled up in front of the Angelus and the officers began the process of looking for them.  It took nine minutes for them to determine that neither Leo nor Veronica was present in their rooms or nearby, at which point the hunt was on, just as Leo had predicted.  By this time he was already in the process of stealing the track inspection car from the side rails by the Northern Pacific Railroad Depot down at Capitol Lake.  Veronica thought he was crazy to even try it, and she said, “Besides, how are we going to get away in that?  We’ll be trapped on the tracks!”  Leo, however, kept working and soon had the odd looking vehicle running, at which point he grabbed Veronica’s bags and tossed them onto the back seats.

“You wanted out, this is how we are getting out.  They are going to be looking on every street for us but no one will imagine that we would be rolling down the tracks.  We’ll look like workers out to inspect the line.”

“Seriously, you…” She stopped talking there though and reluctantly climbed in, at which point Leo handed her his hat.

“Put this on so you at least look sort of like a man.  I’m not so sure they have many women working for the railroad.”

“And what if they report this thing stolen Leo?  What then?”

“That’ll take awhile to get back to the police.  By then I plan to be far enough away that it won’t matter.”  Leo squinted into the sun as he got the vehicle moving down the tracks.  It was an odd thing to drive and it took him a minute to get the hang of it, but he did and was able to stop successfully as they came to the merge with the main line that ran through Olympia.  Jumping out, he pulled the lever that switched the track so he could travel onto it, and then he got back in and they continued on.  Veronica had covered her face with her hands but put them back in her lap once they were traveling south on the rails.

“How did you even think about this plan anyway?” she asked him.

Leo grinned before replying.  “All that reading, well, it just paid off.  Part of it was about railroads.”

She was silent for a few minutes but then had another question.  “And what happens when we get away?  We can’t stay in this thing for long. You know they are going to come after us as soon as it gets reported as stolen.”

Leo just grinned again but did not reply.

“Well?  What’s the next part of your plan Leo?”

“Don’t worry, I already have it set up.  I stashed a car, two actually, one north and one south, just in case we needed them someday.  Should be there in about fifteen minutes.   Then we can go wherever we want to.”

More silence followed until Veronica thought of a more pressing question.

“What if there’s a train coming?”

Leo, who was too happy about the fact that he was getting them out of town, that his plan was working, kept grinning as he replied.  “I guess we are just going to have to trust to luck.”

Veronica covered her face again and they continued on down the tracks.

…to be continued

A Burning Cold Morning (Part 26)

Leo blinked a few times before answering Jerry’s request to come into his room.  The man was acting courteous and polite but Leo knew this was not going to be some kind of delightful social call.  Salazar’s next words made that even more clear.

“How about you go and fetch Ronnie up here for us also, ok?”

“You want Veronica here too?”

Jerry just looked back at Leo in reply.

“You want me to leave you here, in my place?”

More silence followed and then Leo quietly shuffled past Salazar, who was partially blocking the doorway, and went to get his partner.   When they had both returned Jerry slowly closed the door and asked them both to sit down.  He remained standing as he began to speak to them in his slow drawl.

“Now, I’m goin’ta make this just as simple as possible for you two.  I don’t know what happened with our deal there bud,” he began, gesturing toward Leo as he spoke, “but apparently you decided not to go into business with me.  That I count against you.”  Salazar then turned his attention to Veronica and continued.  “Now you Ronnie, I know you came over to talk but like I said, quite frankly, I don’t want you runnin’ no business with me by yourself.”  Veronica started to protest but Jerry silenced her with a scowl.  “I respect you though, for showing up and for the business you’ve already done in this town.  You never crossed me yet, well not before the Scott’s robbery, and I’m putting you in the positive column in this little situation we have.  You two see where I’m at?  I’ve got this fella in the bad column, some unknown guy I sit down with for awhile to discuss business and then he turns his back on me.”  Jerry held his hands in front of him, right hand lower than the left.  “And then over here,” he continued while moving his left hand up, “I’ve got Ronnie, a respectable piece of our little criminal community here in Olympia.  So you see,” and at this point his hands were held evenly next to each other in the air, “we got a balance, just barely I tell you, but we’re at a balancing point so to speak.”

He stopped talking and looked back and forth between Leo, who was sweating a bit and tapping his fingers across his knee, and Ronnie, who still looked angry but was otherwise calm and collected.  Salazar let things linger like that for several long moments and then he spoke again.

“Now I gotta tell you, it ain’t goin’ta take even the littlest piece of a screw-up on your two’s side to seriously upset this delicate balance.  And if that happens, there ain’t goin’ta be anything you can put back on the other side to even things up.  You two understand me?”

Both Leo and Ronnie nodded in reply.

“So, what’s going to happen is that right now I’m goin’ta see thirty-four dollars and thirty-eight cents appear right here in my hand like fucking magic,” Jerry said while tapping his right palm with his left index finger, “and I better not have to wait very long for it.”

Leo looked at Veronica but she was already up and moving toward the door, whispering, “I’ll just be a quick minute,” as she passed Jerry.  As the two men waited not a word was spoken and Salazar’s right arm remained outstretched, palm up, waiting for the money.  Veronica returned about two minutes later and laid thirty-five dollars gently across his palm.

“It’s a little more, I didn’t want to waste time counting out change.  I’m sorry about all this Jerry,” Veronica said, “I really am.  I know the deal around here but you really got me mad when you wouldn’t go into business with me.  I’ve done my time, you know what I can do and,”

“That’s enough,” Salazar interrupted, “we ain’t goin’ back over that again.  We’re moving forward.  This money right here,” he said as he closed his fist around the cash, “represents exactly fifteen percent of what you stole yesterday from the grocery store and that’s goin’ta be the deal going forward.  Fifteen percent of everything, you understand me?”

“Yes, yes, I do,” Veronica replied although Leo only nodded in reply.

“I know this town and everything that happens, every crime, who committed it, what they took, even when the police don’t know a damn thing,” Jerry said, “so don’t try to cheat me.  Otherwise…”  He held his hands evenly up in front of him again, and then abruptly dropped his right hand.  “You’re both finished.”  Drawing a finger across his neck for emphasis, Salazar turned and walked out of Leo’s room.

They sat there in silence for about four minutes and then Veronica slowly walked toward the door.  She was just about to step out when Leo, who now had a face flushed red with anger, spoke.

“Do we really have to pay him?  I can’t imagine having to cut that fool into our profits, it ain’t right.”

“Leo, like I’ve said before, you’re the fool.  I might have been temporarily out of my mind but I’m all better now.  We can do this business we talked about and pay Jerry Salazar every damn penny we owe him, or you can get out of Olympia right now, tonight I mean, and never come back.  I’m mad as hell right now about this, mad as hell at Jerry, but I’m not looking to end up dead.  So either come get me in the morning and we go forward under his terms, or be gone forever.”

The next morning, after a night spent awake pacing his room and being angry about pretty much everything that was happening, Leo knocked loudly on Veronica’s door.   From that day, and for the next thirty-three days, the two of them lived as peaceful of an existence as the car stealing scheme they were running would allow.  When they were not busy with that, Veronica hung out at the speakeasy and ran a few side grifts that Salazar agreed to exempt from their agreement.  During the daytime down periods Leo sat in his room reading civil engineering books he picked up at the local library.  When Veronica asked him why such a mundane topic interested him Leo would make jokes about how he planned to get famous by building the nation’s best sewer system.  In reality, he took notes relating to information that he believed would help him in two main areas: bank robbery and prison escapes.  At night he took part in what had fast become his favorite activity, hanging out at the secret strip clubs in Olympia.  Although Veronica mocked him constantly for this vice Leo kept going and became quite friendly with several of the women who worked there.  Together they both made good money and spent it freely, and all seemed well.  Then, on Monday March eighth, Veronica burst into Leo’s room with very bad news.

…to be continued

A Burning Cold Morning (Part 23)

Elmer Plumb was an interesting man in his own right but had an even more interesting father, Elihu Plumb.  That man, along with his brother William, their father Alva and all the members of their various families had traveled from Wisconsin to Rocky Prairie, Washington in 1861.   They were part of the first pioneer group to travel via Mullen’s Military Road and one evening that wagon train ended up camped out with a large group of Bannock Indians during their journey west.  That night, with the Indians restless and threatening to take action against the pioneers, the Plumb family men had tried to borrow some ammunition to protect themselves but were refused.  Exactly how or why they had none of their own, especially given the norms of the time, is lost to history but they did manage to survive although it was a rather nervous night.  At some point after three a.m. the Bannock’s made off with some of the oxen and supplies from the wagon train but never attacked the group.  After a few more misadventures they all arrived safely in Washington and the  family set up a homestead and began to try to make a living.  Over time Elihu would become recognized and revered as one of founding fathers of the Olympia area.   Along the way Elmer Plumb was born in 1863 and although he worked the family land until he was twenty, he then headed out to Olympia to seek his own way in life.  Much later, after a wide variety of ventures in that city, some successful and some not, he opened up a cigar shop on East Fifth Avenue.  It was a respectable business and provided a good living for Elmer; however, his entrepreneurial nature was always on the lookout for opportunities.  The advent of Prohibition brought such a opening, and he quickly converted the storage area of his store into a speakeasy.  Those establishments, some of them abided by law enforcement and some not, provided the liquor that the public continued to crave despite the nationwide ban on its sale.  Elmer made sure that he was on the good side of the Olympia police and because of that enjoyed a bustling business in his former storage area.

Elmer Plumb at the register of his cigar shop in Olympia

Elmer Plumb at the register of his cigar shop in Olympia

The front, legal side of Plumb’s Cigar Shop was of a typical arrangement for the time.  The shelves were crammed full of boxes of cigars and the various accessories that went along with that habit.  The most prevalent item not related to smoking that he sold was candy, most of it being dispensed from penny gum ball machines.  It was a simple, quiet and legitimate business and, although there was a door which allowed Elmer to slip into the other side of his operation, everyone else entered the speakeasy via the alley.

Elmer Plumb at the counter of the other side of his business, the speakeasy in the old storage area. Note the keg in the far back corner.

Elmer Plumb at the counter of the other side of his business, the speakeasy in the old storage area. Note the keg in the far back corner.

Once you had given the appropriate password at that back door you would step into a narrow passageway that ran alongside a counter which Elmer had installed for his alcohol seeking clientele to step up to and order drinks.  The shades on the windows were always drawn down, although small slivers of light filtered in through the top and there were cans on the floor into which customers could toss cigarette butts and exhausted cigars.  He sold candy on that side also and still retained his cigar shop supplies on the shelves along the back wall.  This was not the kind of noisy speakeasy that was popular in other cities where prohibition was looked at mostly as an inconvenience.  In Olympia, although the police allowed them when the money was right, they still needed to be discreet and hidden.  At Plumb’s you got your drink and carried on quiet conversations with your fellow lawbreakers.  Parties were strictly reserved for private residences.  At five-thirty p.m on January 25, 1926, when Veronica and Leo stepped through the door, three other men and one woman were already enjoying an early evening libation.   Elmer Plumb stood behind the counter polishing a glass and looked up when they entered.

“Hey ho Mr. Plumb!” Veronica called out along with giving him a little wave.  “What’s new?”

Elmer pushed his glasses up further onto his nose and replied. “I can’t say too much, dear.  Things are the same as always.  Now, who’s this new fella?”

“An old friend so don’t worry.  Leo, say hello to the owner of this fine place, Mr. Elmer Plumb.”

Leo gave a curt nod but said nothing.  Veronica poked him in the ribs and said, “Now Leo, you’re not going to make yourself any friends acting like that, especially in a place like this.  You want to be social and friendly so say hello.”

“Hello then,” Leo replied and forced a slight smile onto his face.  He still was unsure about being in the speakeasy, not from any sense of morality but because he did not know anyone there except Veronica.

“Come on Leo,” Veronica said and then whispered into his ear, “if you want to do some business in this town you better get used to these kinds of places.”  With that she stepped further down the passageway eventually stopping next to a tall, thin man with a red complexion and a fat, twisted nose that had obviously been broken several times.  The man, Jerry Salazar, was the only mixed-blood gangster in Olympia who was allowed to operate without interference from the other criminal operations in town, all of which were run by white men.  It probably helped that he looked more like the boisterous Irish men that populated his mother’s side of the family.   It could also have been because Jerry was a ruthless killer who had eliminated sixteen family members of gangs that originally tried to run him out of Olympia.  He had everyone’s attention and respect.   Elmer slid a glass of champagne across the bar to Veronica as she turned to the tall man.

“How’s my favorite egg today?”

“Living large as you say Ronnie, living large.  What’s this quiet fella all about?”  Jerry had a slight accent to his speech, a small drawl from somewhere in the southeast.

“He’s alright Jerry, someone I met in the McNeil days.”

“That right?  Why ain’t he drinkin’?”

Veronica turned to Leo.  “You better get something or else everyone in here is gonna think you’re with the bureau.   Izzy and Moe might be gone but nobody trusts a person who’s not drinking.”

Izzy Einstein & Moe Smith in one of their famous disguises - they used them to catch unsuspecting violators of the Volstead Act during prohibition. They were both dismissed from the Bureau of Prohibition in 1925 even though they had racked up thousands of arrests with their methods.

Izzy Einstein & Moe Smith in one of their famous disguises – they used them to catch unsuspecting violators of the Volstead Act during prohibition. They were both dismissed from the Bureau of Prohibition in 1925 even though they had racked up thousands of arrests with their methods.

Leo turned to Elmer who was already sliding a whiskey across the counter.  He took it and then Veronica introduced him to Jerry.

…to be continued

A Burning Cold Morning (Part 22)

Leo sighed and leaned back in his chair.

“I always have known you were a sharp one Grace, sorry, Veronica.  You seemed it from the first time we spoke and I still see it now.”  He ran a hand through his thinning hair and then told her about his misadventure at Crombie’s.  When he was finished Veronica laughed and then stared at him for a few moments, blowing smoke into his face.

“Damn Leo, that story sure don’t say much about your level of talent, does it?”  Before he could reply she went on.  “You know, when I saw you out there, going past me on the sidewalk, well I had an inkling that you might be chasing me down.  I wasn’t too sure if that was a good thing or not but I followed you figuring we might at least get into business together, if you happened to be interested in such a thing.”  She paused again, blew more smoke and finished with, “But now I’m not so sure.”

Leo blushed deeply, pulled his glasses off and looked at the floor.  He was embarrassed, exposed again as a failure in the criminal world, and it quickly turned into anger.

“Damn it, don’t be thinking I’m some Dumb Dora!  I cased that place good and had a plan.  How was I to know,”

“You can’t know sometimes,” Veronica interrupted, “but that just was not a good plan.   Who makes a trial run to steal one box and check out what’s inside?  You figure out what’s in the boxes and then either pass or steal them all.  It’s that simple.  It was a dumb move, Leo, real dumb.”

“Damn it!”  Leo slammed his right fist into his left hand.  “I know what I’m doing Grace.  I can run some business with you.”  He returned his glasses to his face and looked up to see Veronica smiling at him.

“You are sensitive aren’t you Leo?  And you need to stop calling me Grace.”

“Sorry,” he replied, “just don’t, well, don’t go making me out like some kind of idiot.  We can do business, I can do this.”

She waited again, and as she did so Leo’s face retuned to its normal color and he composed himself, leaning back in the chair and closing his eyes for a few moments.  Veronica eyed him while continuing to smoke her cigar, her brow furrowed as she calculated what to do.  Finally she reached over and touched knee.

“Yes, well maybe we can at that.  I think you just might be useful despite all your tall tales about Kansas City.”  Leo started to blush again but she reassured him.  “It’s alright, we all do it, little exaggerations here and there to make ourselves look tougher or meaner or whatever.  You don’t seem to have had much success so far but maybe you’re just unlucky, or maybe you just need a good partner.  I’ll come by on Monday and pick you up around five.”  She then reached over and dropped her cigar into the glass of water which had remained untouched during their conversation.

“Where are we going?” Leo asked.

“Plumb’s.”

Leo stared back blankly but Veronica exited his room saying, “Just be ready on Monday.”

After she left he leaned back and closed his eyes again.  Even though he had composed himself fairly well, the entire conversation he had just had was still running through his mind.  There was anger inside of him both for the way Veronica had laughed at him and also at his own criminal failings.  He was even mad at himself for getting mad, knowing that his outburst only made him look weaker.  He should have laughed back at her and just told her what they were going to do.  That would be the way a real hard-boiled man would have handled it.  Thinking about it did not resolve much though and he kept going over it in his head until he fell asleep in the chair.

He awoke around midnight, neck stiff and back sore from sleeping in such an awkward position and stayed up until daylight, this time thinking about what kind of business might be good for him and Veronica.  He wanted to show her he was in charge and could come up with a plan.  After eating breakfast he asked the hotel manager where Plumb’s was and then walked over to check out the place, determined to know where he was going before Veronica picked him up.  Maybe that would even give him some ideas for developing a plan of action.  He was disappointed though when he got there as it was just a simple cigar shop, full of the usual supplies and accessories.  Could she really be picking him up to go buy cigars?  Surely this was not a place she planned on robbing?  Maybe he was the brains of their new venture after all.  Leo poked around a little in the store but did not buy anything, giving a curt “Just looking,” response to the old man behind the counter who offered to assist him.  He left and kept walking, trying to come up with ideas and although a few came to him none seemed good enough to present to Veronica.  After an hour of walking he returned to the Governor, toes cold and ears hurting a little from the biting wind outside that day.  As he passed the desk the manager he had spoken to in the morning called out to him.

“Enjoy yourself at Plumb’s?” the man asked, a slightly mischievous twinkle in his eye.

Leo, thinking the man was in on some joke against him, just glared back and returned to his room.  He stayed in that weekend, writing down plans and then crumpling each one up and throwing it into the fireplace.  Veronica’s laugh echoed in his head constantly and he could see her scoffing at each one as not good enough, or stupid, or silly, or any other reason she could come up with to put him down.  It was not a very good way to start a criminal venture and he began to regret ever coming to Olympia.  He needed money though and realized he could not come up with a good enough plan on his own.  Veronica was going to be necessary.  By the time she picked him up on Monday he was resigned to that fact, determined to make the best of it for awhile and then see what happened.  Veronica was all dressed up when she arrived, looking about as good as Leo could have imagined.

“A bit fancy for cigar shopping?” Leo inquired.

She laughed before replying.  “You’re quite the detective, huh?  But you missed the picture entirely my dear.  We’re going drinking Leo, not shopping.  It’s going to be quite a toot so I hope you’re ready for it.”

…to be continued

A Burning Cold Morning (Part 20)

Angelus Hotel Olympia Wa - courtesy olympiahistory.org

Angelus Hotel Olympia Wa – proprietor and staff of M.E. George Grocery – courtesy olympiahistory.org

The incredible coincidence of Veronica’s presence in the same town as Leo, not to mention her living less than a block away from where he was staying, would be unbelievable in any story.  It was, however, true in this one.  Veronica had lived at the Angelus Hotel, located at 204 West 4th, for almost six years in what was an unusual stretch of location stability in her life.  All of the rooms were on the upper floors, with the entire ground level dedicated to various retail establishments including the M.E. George grocery where she occasionally picked up part-time work.  The owner of that business, Michael Edward, was one of the few people in town who knew Veronica and did not consider her to be a complete scoundrel.  She was good with numbers and he would ask her to check his books and inventory from time to time, and she also filled in at the register when he needed some time off.  On this particular day, with Leo sitting in a park around the corner, Veronica was off to tend to one of her other schemes.

Capitol Way Olympia WA looking south - Crombie's is on the left

Capitol Way Olympia WA looking south (caption is incorrect) – Crombie’s is on the left

She walked out of her building and proceeded to pass directly in front of the Governor, walking past the park although neither her nor Leo glanced in each other’s direction.  Instead she walked on and Leo got up four minutes later and walked back toward Crombie’s Drugstore which bordered the park on the north side.  While out previously inquiring about jobs and scouting locations, he had been in the drugstore while a delivery was bring made.  The store had a back entry, which was open at the time and Leo could clearly see the truck, rear door open and piled up with various boxes.  The driver, a short man with a slight hunchback, was standing at the lunch counter eating a sandwich and having a loud conversation with the owner Jack Crombie about his disagreements with President Coolidge.  Leo had already been dismissed Mr. Crombie, told that they did not need any help at the moment, but he lingered, sipping on a soda he had purchased and counting the minutes.  Twenty of them passed with the truck wide open and the driver and owner oblivious to anything except their own conversation.  It was the driver’s final comment, “I’ll see ya in two days,” made after he finally went back and unloaded the boxes, which gave Leo the information he had used to develop his plan.

It had indeed been two days since that observation and he wanted to see if everything happened again in the same way.  Purchasing a soda, he waited but the truck did not arrive.  Not wanting to be looked at suspiciously for lingering too long, he walked out and across the street, leaning up against the cold brick of a mercantile business.  Forty minutes later Leo saw the truck come around the corner and a short time after could see the driver at the lunch counter.  Making notes in his pad he counted off twenty three minutes this time and then returned to his hotel room.  It took another four scouting sessions before he felt confident enough in the timing of the deliveries to decide to undertake the mission the next time the truck was scheduled to come to the drugstore.  That day was January 21st and he woke that morning eager to put his plan into motion.

United Suitcase ad 1911 - similar to the one purchased by Leo

United Suitcase ad 1911 – similar to the one purchased by Leo

This first robbery was planned to be a small one, just a snatch and grab from the collection of boxes in the rear of the truck.  Leo wanted to see both what exactly might be in those packages and also determine what kind of reaction occurred.  Would the one missing box be noticed?  Would it be assumed to have been stolen, or maybe just lost off the truck?  Would the police be called?  Once he had that information he would be able to develop a plan for a larger robbery or possibly a series of smaller ones.  He had dressed for the event in a light grey suit, a brown overcoat and a dark grey fedora. He wanted to be nondescript and the wider brimmed hat would also allow him to partially cover his face by pulling it low and bending the edge.  Leo’s plan was to grab the box, walk out onto the side street off Capitol Way and duck into an alley that was one block west.  There he could open the box, get a quick idea of its contents and transfer them to a rather bulky United brand suitcase he had picked up from a secondhand store.  Once that was accomplished, he planned to stroll back to the Governor, looking to anyone who noticed like a guest coming in for a stay.   That was the plan he had come up with anyway and after tucking the suitcase behind a pile of garbage in that alleyway he walked toward the drugstore. Leo then stepped into the driveway behind Crombie’s, truck already parked and the driver inside,  feeling confident that the day was going to be a success.

It was a few small but important details, changes to what Leo had observed as the usual pattern of these deliveries, which would lead to the downfall of his plot.  Leo had not been inside the drugstore when the truck arrived, observing instead from across the street.  He missed the driver’s comment to Mr. Crombie, made as he came through the back door, that his wife was sick and he needed to pick up some medicine for her.  He also had not noticed that there was a sign in the front window, “Cook Sick – No Food Today,” which meant of course that there would be no lunch for the driver.  Instead, Mr. Crombie offered to prepare the medicine while the driver unloaded the truck.  That had begun while Leo stashed the suitcase and he was just lifting a box out of the vehicle when the hunchbacked man emerged from the store.  There was a shout, the box fell to the ground, and the chase was on.

…to be continued

A Burning Cold Morning (Part 19)

Governor Hotel, later renamed the Mitchell Hotel, Olympia WA

Governor Hotel, later renamed the Mitchell Hotel, Olympia WA

Exactly how Leo traveled during his return to Washington, or how long it actually took, is unknown but by January 9th of 1926 he is listed as a guest of the Governor Hotel on Capitol Way.   The hotel, built in 1890 and well situated in the heart of the city, was a place you would probably not expect to find a man with a price on his head.   It was a clean, respectable establishment, definitely one of the more well-known lodging locations in town and a place to get yourself noticed.  It was this, the opportunity to be among the local and visiting bigwigs, that likely drew Leo to the Governor.  Along with his long burning desire to be more important socially he also had the rebuke from Pendergast, and the accompanying failure to succeed in Kansas City, hanging over his ego.  He had really thought he was going to end up being someone in that town.  So, even though he could barely afford it, Leo checked himself into a very nice double suite and started to think about ways to make some money.  He also was thinking about something else.

His initial interest in coming back to Olympia centered on finding Grace Melcher, his lone visitor from his McNeil Island days.  Although he never did disclose what they had discussed during that visit, Leo made little secret of the fact that he had found her to be a very interesting woman.  As he had once told Chaz Mayfield, she was, “A woman you could do business with and not have to worry about her getting soft on ya.”   How Leo knew that is another fact which is not known as only the one visit from her is recorded and no other records exist of their having communicated.  One thing he did not know then or when he arrived back in Olympia in 1926 was that she was well known in the area for her passing attachments to criminals, her many and varied small-time schemes and for her chain smoking of cigars.  Her name also was not Grace Melcher.

veronica stillman 1926

veronica stillman 1926

Veronica Stillman, who eventually went by a variety of names including the one Leo knew her under, had been born in Tuckerton, New Jersey in 1901 to a father named James Williamson who worked as a fisherman, and a mother named Anna.  Her parents were not married when she was born nor would they ever be, and James was in and out of their lives throughout Veronica’s childhood.  Her mother, a slim and attractive blonde with pale skin and light green eyes, made money by robbing men that she lured to their small apartment with promises of sex.  She always targeted men who were not locals, pulling a knife on them once their clothes were off. She would then relieve them of whatever money they had and threaten to report them to the local sheriff for trying to do improper things to her poor little girl if they made any kind of a fuss.  That was just one example of the kind of cons and scams Anna was running and she was never shy about invoking Veronica when it suited her purposes.  Being involved, even indirectly, in her mother’s schemes from a early age led to Veronica growing into a cynical and rather cold young woman.  She also picked up her mother’s penchant for petty crimes and minor felonies along the way,  running her own operations on the side by the time she had turned fourteen.  At sixteen, in a reenactment of her own mother’s life, she ran off with a local fisherman also named James, and was soon living in Gloucester, Massachusetts as Veronica Gibbs.  That marriage did not last long and when she was eighteen she is listed as Betty Cooper on an arrest report in Chicago.  She becomes lost after that, next turning up as a possible accomplice to Roy Gardner during his McNeil Island escape, and then, as we know, she met Leo Humbert.  By the time he started looking for her in 1926, Veronica was a severe looking twenty-five year old woman with short, dark brown hair and hard brown eyes that looked at the world with a calculated lack of passion.

Capitol Way by Governor Hotel

Capitol Way by Governor Hotel

Leo only knew that he was trying to find Grace, who had told him she was from Olympia, and he was determined to do so.  The day after checking into the Governor Hotel he started asking around while also surveying opportunities to make some money.  He thought about going to the hardware store where he had worked during his short stint in Olympia after his release from prison but then remembered how much he had hated the job and the man for whom he worked.  There was a drugstore, Crombie’s, and Harris’ Dry Goods near the hotel and he inquired at both but was politely turned away.  He received the same response at all the other places he went, always going in with a story of his experience in whatever job it was, and always being told they were not interested in hiring him.  It probably would have been discouraging to most people but not to Leo, who was really using the job inquires to case each place for whatever criminal opportunity it might present to him.  He also was making contacts along the way and making note of the police activity in the area.  After two days of this, and still with no luck finding Grace, Leo sat in Sylvester Park contemplating his next move.   As he sat there on a unseasonably warm fifty degree day and scribbled notes on a small pad of paper, Veronica Stillman stepped out of her apartment building, which was directly around the corner from the Governor Hotel.

…to be continued