Historic Pelham

Presenting the rich history of Pelham, NY in Westchester County: current historical research, descriptions of how to research Pelham history online and genealogy discussions of Pelham families.

Thursday, March 31, 2005

William Hahn Will Forever Be Known as the Least Intelligent Criminal Ever To Attempt To Prey On Pelham

On a quiet Wednesday evening, April 12, 1893, wealthy Pelham lawyer James M. Townsend, Jr. wandered upstairs to bed at about 10:30. While nostalgic residents of those days might have reminisced about the "good old days" when no one ever locked their doors in Pelham, Mr. Townsend knew better. He typically followed a nightly ritual of examining the "locks and bolts of the doors and windows previous to retiring".

That night, however, lawyer Townsend did not follow his ritual. Unfortunately, the same night a burglar had chosen to advance his questionable career on the premises of Mr. Townsend's abode. Fortunately, it turned out, the burglar was particularly stupid.

Mr. Townsend slept soundly and heard nothing during the night except that between 4:00 and 5:00 a.m. he was awakened briefly by a strange cat that wandered into his bedroom. He supposed that the cat had gotten into the cellar during the evening when the house was open and had made its way upstairs during the night. He rolled over and went back to sleep, never suspecting that the little creature likely had walked into the house through a door left open downstairs by burglars.

He later told police that two different "nurses" who cared for his young children awoke to care for crying youngsters in the middle of the night but heard nothing. It was not until one of his servants wandered downstairs at about 7:00 a.m. that the burglary was discovered. Mr. Townsend told police:

"Immeditately on her notifying me, I made a thorough investigation of the house and found one of the dining-room windows open, and also the dining-room door leading to the porch. On the back lawn we found Mrs. Townsend's long cloak trimmed with fur. There were muddy footprints on the piazza and also on the window sill of the dining room. . . . The work of entrance must have been skillfully effected, for there was no indication that any of the doors or windows had been forced. Through the dining room, hall, and library were numerous spots of candle grease indicating a systematic and careful examination of these apartments. One of the dining room sideboards was fairly cleaned out of its silverware, while the desks and bureaus in all the apartments visited by the burglars had evidently all been thoroughly searched and ransacked. The men showed great discrimination, too, not burdening themselves with anything but solid silver, leaving a candelabra and other plated goods behind and taking the solid pieces standing right beside them. In all, they got about $2,000 worth of booty."

Two watchmen, including one for the Village of Pelham Manor who regularly patrolled the street on which Mr. Townsend lived and a second private watchman detailed to patrol the area around Mr. Townsend's home as well as the adjacent homes of Robert C. Black (a principal of the jewelry firm of Black, Starr Frost) and Assistant District Attorney Stapler said that they saw and heard nothing during the night. Perhaps most oddly, Mr. Townsend's little black French poodle which "as a rule, is on his legs and barking at the slightest sound" seems to have slept through the entire affair even while the burglars were exploring in the same room with him. Mr. Townsend even noted that he was so perplexed by the yappy little poodle's behavior that he examined the dog the next day for signs that it had been "ill used or drugged." He found nothing amiss.

The burglars had left behind plenty of evidence including muddy footprints and candlewax drippings. Police needed none of that, however. It seems that in their haste to depart with their ill-gotten gains, one of the intellectually-challenged burglars left something rather important behind -- HIS DIARY in which he had kept "a record of his doings". Mr. Townsend found the diary by the piazza of his home "evidently dropped in his haste by one of the thieves."

An account published in The New York Times documents what happened next:

"Inspector McLaughlin put the case, with the clue of the diary, into the hands of Detective Sergeants Thomas Mulvey and George A. Doran. A name mentioned in the little book put them on the track of a well-known professional thief they had been watching for some time, and on Saturday afternoon they burst into the apartment, at 125 Chrystie Street, of William Hahn, aged twenty-eight. Hahn was out of the back window and down the fire escape into the street in a twinkling, with the officers hot foot at his heels.

Through Chrystie Street Hahn scudded, doubling and twisting, to Grand Street, and from Grand Street to the Bowery. He darted out of the Bowery up Hester Street to Elizabeth Street the detectives were fast overhauling him. To throw them off he ran through a hallway into the back yard, scaling the fence and dropping into Hester Street again. There the chase ended.

In Hahn's room was found much property, afterward identified by Mr. Townsend as his, and a full set of burglar's tools. Hahn was remanded for examination yesterday morning in the Jefferson Market Police Court. Other arrests, it is expected, will soon follow."

Source: This Burglar Kept A Diary, N.Y. Times, Apr. 17, 1893, Pg. 1.

On May 16, 1893, The New York Times reported that "William Hahn, the burglar who entered James M. Townsend's residence at [Pelham] Manor a few weeks ago, was sentenced yesterday to nine years' imprisonment in Sing Sing Prison." See City And Suburban News, N.Y. Times, May 16, 1893, p. 6.

There seem to be no further reports to tell us what happened to William Hahn who may go down in history as the least intelligent criminal ever to attempt to prey on Pelham. . . . .

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