Saturday, August 19, 2017

"Boy Burglars" in Grinnell

People living in eastern and central Iowa may have heard of the recent robbery of a Grinnell Casey's, allegedly the work of a seventeen-year-old. As it happens, I had been working on a story about "boy burglars," a term that appeared with some frequency in early twentieth-century Iowa. A search of for this expression in Iowa newspapers between the years 1910 and 1919 got more than thirty hits, which surprised me; the term did not seem familiar, and I could not recall when—or if—I had encountered it in contemporary reporting. But there they were: a ten-year-old "boy burglar" in Des Moines (1912); two eleven-year-olds in Newton (1910); two eleven-year-olds in Davenport (1918); a twelve- and fourteen-year-old in Logan (1910); a thirteen-year-old in Sioux City (1912); and so on. Just as surprising, other news reports affixed the same label to young men in their late 'teens, or even to twenty-year-olds—like Curtis Kile, who was 20 when arrested in Davenport in 1919 with his accomplice, Ed Burke, aged 18.

Breaking into hardware stores and barber shops, grocery stores and ticket offices, the youthful villains often got away with pathetically small sums. For example, a 1913 Davenport robbery believed to be the work of "boy burglars" netted a box of cigars "and a small amount of money in pennies" (Quad-City Times, November 9, 1913). When Louis Arnold and Frederic Engler, whom the newspaper called "chronic store breakers," were arrested in Keokuk in 1918 for robbing a grocery store, the boys had made off with "some cigars, candy, cookies and chewing gum" (Daily Gate City and Constitution-Democrat, November 11, 1918). Yet, by combining their work in a series of thefts, junior criminals sometimes accumulated serious cash: when police descended upon a trio of boy burglars in 1919 Davenport, they "found merchandise valued at several hundred dollars," the result of a string of robberies of Rock Island merchants (Daily Times, June 5, 1919).

Occasionally, a young burglar was found attempting a very adult burglary, as happened in July, 1912 Des Moines when police captured ten-year-old Nash Allinkov "in the act of tapping the safe of the Siegel Bottling works." According to the newspaper, the boy "had in his possession a kit of tools of the kind usually carried by a professional safe-cracker" (Quad-City Times, July 18, 1912). Similarly, when 16-year-old Tony Nikalaski was captured in Fairfax in 1917, "he was in the act of burglarizing the office safe" of the Northwestern Railroad ticket agent.

Grinnell was not exempt from boy burglars, including, it seems, even the safe-cracking type. This Grinnell story looks at two "boy burglars" from Grinnell, and how their early criminality affected their later lives.
Undated Photograph of Alvin H. Case (1897-1945)
Grinnell's safe-cracking "boy burglar" was named Alvin Case, the second son of George and Louella Case who in 1900 lived at 538 Spring Street. George was a day laborer and his wife worked as a "washer woman." Before the 1910 census came to Grinnell, the Case family had moved to 207 Second Avenue. The census identified George as a "factory laborer," but by this time Ella had no job outside the home where she cared for Alvin (then 12 years old) and a younger brother, Virgil, who had not yet observed his first birthday. Harry Case, twelve years older than Alvin, had married in 1908 and moved out of his parents' home.

Soon after this census was taken young Alvin Case became the subject of newspaper reports. In its September 12, 1911 edition the Des Moines Register announced that Grinnell police had arrested 14-year-old Alvin (the Register misspelled his name: "Aluni") Case, whom they accused of having robbed safes and cash drawers in Grinnell. Upon being captured, Case reportedly confessed "that he knew the combination to every safe in town." The story "had legs," as reporters like to say, and newspapers across the state published news of this safe-cracking wunderkind. The Davenport Daily Times (September 12, 1911), for instance, noted that Case, despite being "born of respectable parents," admitted being responsible for as many as ten other thefts, whose total take exceeded $200. Newspapers as far away as Boyden (near Sioux Falls) and Humeston (due south of Des Moines) also carried the story.
Grinnell Herald, September 12, 1911, p.1
Local reporting, however, provided the most detail (although it made no mention of the young man's memory of safe combinations). Apparently Grinnell police had long suspected Alvin of robbery, and therefore had hidden a policeman and one of the affected merchants in businesses that had been robbed. The planned ambush did not materialize, however, because when yet another merchant—A. J. Hockett—reported a theft from his cash drawer, police hastened to arrest Alvin. When taken into custody, the boy was found to be in possession of several one-dollar bills in his pockets, and a silver dollar in his socks. Cash on his person added up to $9.40, almost the precise sum that Hockett had reported missing. Since he was not caught in the act and police had no witnesses to the theft, Alvin might well have escaped this accusation. But for whatever reason, young Alvin then confessed to numerous robberies whose take, the Herald announced primly, the lad had spent "in gay and riotous living." What did this phrase mean in 1911 Grinnell?
He would go to Des Moines [the newspaper asserted] and spend two or three dollars [at] a time for rides on the roller coaster at Ingersoll Park, and at the Malcom and Grinnell fairs he was a liberal spender (Grinnell Herald, September 12, 1911).
After his arrest, however, Alvin would ride no more roller coasters or blow money at local fairs, since authorities immediately dispatched the boy to the Iowa State Training Institute for Boys in Eldora. Curiously, on-line records of Iowa convictions do not mention Alvin Case. How his name escaped entry into the records is not known, but there can be little doubt that Alvin spent two or three years in the care of state officials, as indirect evidence confirms.

The 1915 Iowa census—taken more than three years after the 1911 arrest—notes that Alvin, at age 17, was back home and "at school" in Chester (where his parents had moved), and therefore no longer a resident of the Eldora reformatory. However, the census also reported that in 1915 Alvin had completed only "7 years" of school, putting him at least three years behind his coevals, most of whom would have been in eleventh grade if they remained in school. It seems likely, therefore, that his 1911 exile to Eldora cost him two or three years in the school sequence.
Iowa Training School for Boys, Eldora, Iowa (undated postcard)
Perhaps this single encounter with law enforcement was enough to change his life, because Alvin evidently had no future encounters with law enforcement. Sometime after his 1918 registration for military service, Alvin entered the army, where he prospered, reaching the rank of Sergeant in Iowa's 109th Infantry. By the time federal census officials arrived in Grinnell in January, 1920, and inventoried the Case household, then residing at 705 Fourth Avenue, Alvin was back home, driving a taxicab.

By all outward signs, therefore, Alvin seems to have turned his life around. Indeed, the boy burglar seems to have transformed himself into a law-abiding worker and family man. We know that in February 1920 before an Indianola Justice of the Peace, Alvin married Irene Rogers, a Newton girl. How they met the record does not say, but their first child, Norman, was born in 1917, several years before they married and before Alvin left army duties behind. Presumably, therefore, Irene managed to care for the child without Alvin's help until their marriage. After the wedding Alvin and family set up house in Jasper county, where the 1930 census found them, Alvin working as an electrician wiring houses. The household grew rapidly, as Irene gave birth to four more sons: Keith; Kenneth; Victor, and Richard. When census officials next visited the Cases in 1940, they were still living in the same place, although by this time Alvin was said to be farming. Apparently, however, he was not well (his father's 1929 obituary had observed that Alvin was unable to attend the funeral, since he was then hospitalized in Arizona). What his illness was I did not learn, but records confirm that by 1945 Alvin Case died from cancer and was buried in the Colfax cemetery. Except for that brief period in his early teens, Alvin Case's life followed a fairly routine course that centered on family and work.
The situation was different for Lester Lamb, who was one of a small gang of boy burglars arrested in October, 1917. A notice in the October 26, 1917 issue of the Des Moines Register announced that two teenagers had been arrested in Grinnell for burglary and had been sentenced to the state reformatory at Eldora. George Lewis, 16, and Lester Lamb, 14, reportedly confessed to numerous break-ins over the previous four months, most recently at Hockett and Elliott hardware store in Grinnell where, the paper alleged, they had stolen "a large sum of money." In their confession, the boys took credit for a string of robberies: a lumber yard in Vinton; two garages and a filling station in Iowa City;  three garages and the American Express company at Grinnell; and two other garages in Rock Island. "We stole for the love of it," the boys reportedly told detectives.
Des Moines Register, October 26, 1917
Lester Lamb was the third of four sons born to Ralph (1874-1952) and Maggie Lamb (1878-1961) who in 1905 were residing in Bear Creek, near Malcom. By 1910 the Lambs had moved to Grinnell, the oldest boys having begun school there. In his turn, Lester followed them to school; he had completed fourth grade when George Murray filled out Lester's card for the 1915 Iowa census. Consequently, when authorities arrested him and George Lewis in October, 1917, Lester was probably only a sixth-grader.

As news stories reported, the "boy burglars" were sent off to the reformatory at Eldora where the 1920 census found Lester, then reported to be 15 years of age and occupied as a "butter maker." Soon thereafter Lester obtained his release and returned to Grinnell where the 1921 high school yearbook complimented him and his two older brothers—Gar and Raymond—for their football skills. Lester was then a ninth-grader, who, the yearbook explained, "On account of his weight and speed...was a tackle that instilled fear into the hearts of his opponents" (1921 Grinnellian, p. 65).
1920 Grinnell High School Football Team; Lester Lamb, front row, 2nd from right (1921 Grinnellian)
No Grinnell high school yearbook includes him among the graduating class, so Lester must have quit school sometime after 1921. He next appears in the public record in August, 1922, when a Marshalltown newspaper reported that Lester had broken his arm when trying to crank his father's car. In October, 1923 Lester married Minnie York, a 21-year old woman from Clarinda. According to the marriage certificate, Minnie had been married once before, but what happened to her previous husband the record does not say. Whatever its merits, marriage did nothing to settle Lester's life and get him on the right side of the law, because in July, 1924 his name surfaced again; newspapers reported that he was arrested in Arnold's Park, accused of attempted rape. In the absence of the $1000 bond, he was jailed (Emmetsburg Democrat, August 6, 1924).
Mark Blair (aka Lester Lamb) (California Prison and Correctional Records, 1851-1950)
I failed to find the outcome of this charge, but future developments indicate that the young man continued his wayward path. At some point, Lester abandoned the midwest, and settled in Los Angeles, California. Using the alias Mark Blair and giving his occupation as "musician," Lamb was arrested in 1932 in Los Angeles on a charge of forgery, and was sentenced to one to fourteen years in San Quentin. He was paroled in March, 1935, but was returned to prison in 1941 for a parole violation. In June, 1942 he received another parole, and was finally discharged September, 1943.
Mark Blair (1922 Grinnellian)
How did this "boy burglar," first arrested at age 14, become habituated to a life of crime that saw him graduate to one of California's most infamous prisons? Since Lamb died in 1969 in Oakland, California, we can learn nothing more from him. How then might we explain his life path?

One key to Lamb's criminal hankerings comes from the alias he used in California. Originally I had assumed that Lamb had simply invented the alias, but, when reading an Iowa City newspaper report of a 1922 basketball game with Grinnell, I noticed a short note that reported that one of the Grinnell players—Mark Blair—could not play because of a diphtheria quarantine.
Iowa City Press-Citizen, January 30, 1922
Of course, the two young men knew one another from their high school athletics (both played football, for instance), and Iowa was a long ways from Los Angeles, making the choice of the name seem safe. But why use Blair rather than some other name—any other name? We will never receive a definitive answer to that question, but it bears observing that Blair was a very successful high schooler: president of the high school athletic club and vice-president of his class, he played varsity basketball and football; he'd been treasurer of the YMCA, and had taken part in the class play.
Garland Lamb (1922 Grinnellian)
Lester Lamb's own biography, which included his sojourn at the Eldora Reformatory, could not match Blair's, but the high school resumes of his two older brothers—whom the Iowa City news article described as "stars"—bear a distinct resemblance to Blair's. Garland Lamb—who went on to a career as school teacher and coach—had also been president of the Honor G club, had taken part in the class play, had played football all four years of high school and been named captain of the football squad in 1921; he also had played varsity basketball for four years, and was named basketball team captain in 1921. Raymond Lamb, who went on to a successful medical career in Des Moines, had played varsity football for three years, and varsity basketball for four years, and was made basketball captain in 1922. He, too, had had a part in the class play, and had participated in YMCA.
Raymond Lamb (1922 Grinnellian)
Since Lester never graduated from high school, the yearbook capsule of his high school activities was never publishedbut his brushes with the law make it difficult to believe that his record could have stood comparison with these men's. And in that difference we may understand some of the vectors that pushed Lester Lamb deeper into a life of crime from that original 1917 encounter with the police. Standing adjacent to two brothers who had blazed paths through school, just like their teammate, Mark Blair, Lester Lamb might easily have felt that too little light shone on his own head, and that the world was unfairly organized. Barely into his teens when he joined his fate to some young men who stole "for the love of it," Lester soon carved out a biography that sharply contrasted him with his brothers.

Indeed, when the boys' father, Ralph Lamb, died in April, 1952 in Des Moines at the home of his doctor-son (who took him in for his final illness), Ralph's obituary noted that he was very proud of his "fine sons": "Dr. Raymond Lamb of Des Moines, Garland Lamb, superintendent of Urbana High School, [and] Lester E. Lamb of Oakland, California." The fact that no profession or accomplishment attached to Lester's name is telling: unlike his older brothers who had succeeded in their professions without crossing swords with the law, Lester had achieved very little. And although his parents might well have told him that they were no less proud of him than they were of his brothers, the pledge must have sounded hollow to the young man who, even as a boy, lived for the thrill of breaking the law.
Summarizing these two lives, one wonders what distinguished them, one from the other. How did Alvin Case manage to straighten out his life trajectory while Lester Lamb seemed to sink deeper into criminality?

Perhaps, as I've argued above, Lester never escaped the shadow of his all-star brothers, and set off determinedly on a different path. Of course, Alvin Case had siblings, too, although they seem not to have led lives quite so sterling as the two older Lamb boys. Harry Case, for instance, was twelve years older than Alvin, and, in effect, belonged to an entirely different generation. He married the former Ethel Bailey in February, 1908, and the couple soon welcomed several children to their home in Grinnell where they seem to have lived quietly.  According to the 1920 city directory, Harry operated a taxi service from 810 Park Street, while living at 207 Main.

Alvin's younger brother, Virgil, also seems to have passed into adulthood without having attracted much attention, and went on to a series of jobs in Grinnell and volunteered for the Grinnell Fire Department for 50 years. Closer to Alvin's age than was Harry, Virgil might have had a closer relationship as well, although nothing survives to confirm the connection. Neither of Alvin's brothers, however, lit up the grandstand quite so brightly as did Lester Lamb's brothers.

Such a hypothetical explanation can only raise questions that available evidence simply cannot answer. Other would-be explanations are no easier to trace: Did Alvin's parents, for example, do a better job of including all their children in their affections and in helping them scale the problems of childhood? Or did Alvin, on returning home from Eldora, develop friendships that kept him away from the sort of trouble that had sent him to Eldora in the first place? Perhaps Lester was not so fortunate, falling back into the same circles that had so stoked his enthusiasm as a fourteen-year-old boy burglar.

No document can be expected to answer these questions, leaving us to wonder at Grinnell's "boy burglars" and how their lives played out after they, while still children, first collided with the law.

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