I'm always fascinated by the stories I encounter in my research, of scams and swindles. Not because I believe in those practices, but because people a century and more ago figured out such nefarious schemes to try to cheat someone.
An interesting variation came to light in September 1870. Joseph H. Beelman of Richmond Township (west of Willard) was a Huron County commissioner from 1868 to 1874, and therefore was a well-known citizen. Mr. Beelman was on a passenger train at Monroeville and, while attempting to move to a different car, he was stopped by a man asking questions. Some other men stood closely around him and when he could extricate himself he found that his trousers pocket was inside out and his wallet was gone.
In those days men often carried business documents in their wallet as well as cash, and it was found that certain documents as well as $96 cash was missing. Upon arriving in Norwalk, Beelman notified Constable Marsh, who sent telegrams ahead and caused three young men to be arrested in Bellefontaine. Constable Marsh and another officer brought them to Norwalk the next day to the county jail.
One of the prisoners asked that a telegram be sent to a man in Chicago to come to help him. The friend arrived and contacted Mr. Beelman with a deal. He'd ensure the return of Beelman's papers if Beelman would not prosecute further. Arrangements were made to meet a few days later in Plymouth for the exchange. What the Chicago friend didn't know was that Beelman had contacted the sheriff, who was conveniently in Plymouth to arrest the "third party".
The three alleged thieves plus their Chicago friend remained in jail awaiting trial and sentencing. On a Saturday evening two weeks later, the sheriff's family discovered that the eight prisoners total being held in the jail had all escaped. The usual method of sounding the alarm was ringing the courthouse bell -- but the rope was broken or untied, and no one had bothered to put it back in service.
Three of the prisoners were caught, but those involved with Commissioner Beelman were not caught right away and it was considered doubtful that they would be. My research indicates that they were never recaptured or tried, despite a reward offered.
The method of escape was a hole dug through the north wall of the jail area. This jail building was the second county jail, built in 1837 on the site of the present "old jail" behind the courthouse. This building was not considered to be overly secure, nor was it healthy to be confined in for a long period of time. For several years before it was finally torn down, grand jury after grand jury condemned it, but the county commissioners had to be almost forced to build the "old jail" in 1887 and thus provide a safe place for the confinement of prisoners.
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REMEMBER: My "Just Like Old Times" books are on sale at Colonial Flower and Gift Shoppe at 7 W. Main St. in Uptown Norwalk. These preserve my earlier columns in permanent book form.
Henry Timman, an authority on Firelands history, resides in rural Norwalk.