ST. JOSEPH "RINGS THE POTLE-BELL"
St. Joseph county has added little to criminology. True detective stories are scarce. Through the early years two or three murders, captured counterfeiters, and captured horse thieves summarizes the crime recorded. But in the seventies there was a robbery of more than county wide interest.
Among the many landmarks in the vicinity of Three Rivers which have an historical interest, the hillside on the property of Joseph DeMore, south of the intersection of US-131 with the Centerville road, M7, played an important part in a true story of the early seventies. It is the site which was chosen by robbers for the burial of the county records stolen from the court house at Centerville in June 1872 and held three months for $25, 000 reward.
An old newspaper account gives all the thrills of a modern detective story.
"Bold Robbery and Daring Outrage!
"Five Hundred Dollars Reward! ! !
"Stolen from the Register's office, Centerville, St. Joseph county, Michigan, 20 volumes of deeds, 20 volumes of deeds, 20 volumes of mortgages and a thousand or more recorded papers and unrecorded deeds, etc., on the night of June 28, 1872. Five Hundred Dollars will be paid for the Restoration of the Property and the Apprehension of the Thief, or $2,500 for the Property. Elvah F. Pierce, Sheriff."
So ran the text of hand bills conspicuously posted along the highways and featured in the newspapers.
The News Reporter tells the following story in the July 6 issue:--
"One of the most daring robberies ever perpetrated in Michigan -- one involving loss and confusion of land titles to a large amount of real estate, occured at Centreville last Friday night. A robbery which brings property owners to a realizing sense of the importance of adequate protection of records. It is not known what is the object of the theft unless it be for a large reward for their recovery. The record of deeds are volumes one to twenty-two and fifty-one. Mortgages -- volumes one to ten, ten others taken in a haphazard way, army records, soldiers discharges, insurance policies, a thousand or more recorded papers.
"About five o'clock on Saturday morning of last week the discovery was made and the team which carried the records away was traced toward Three Rivers, across the St. Joseph river bridge, near the J. W. French Mfg. Co. mills,
ST. JOSEPH "RINGS THE POTLE-BELL"
into Fabius on the Cassopolis road and there the trace was lost.
"On Monday the supervisors held a meeting. They had received a tip that the team used was hired from a Centreville livery by a Three Rivers man for a stranger claiming residence in Chicago. The covered buggy in which the stranger came was exchanged with the Three Rivers man for a butcher's three spring wagon. The team was traced thus far by a peculiar shoe upon one of the horses hired at Centreville."
In the issues which follow there is an occasional warning about burglars, but the subject was crowded out of the newspapers by the "patent insides" and not until September do we find the conclusion of the story which centers on a shivery experience often related by the late Winn H. Hatch.
"The discovery of the records by Officer Hatch of this place has suddenly closed the anxiety, if not the indignation of our people. We have no comment to make about the necessity of the cost to secure them or about what every man in the county would like at once and without parley.
"The manner in which the books were discovered by W. H. Hatch is a story to contemplate and coil the imaginaton around the hat band. A messenger at midnight on a dark night, a lantern moving away through the distance beyond Lockport; the journey following the guide up the railroad track to the Centreville crossing, then the turn off into Arnold's forest towards the river, Hatch with a revolver in hand preparing the suspicious looking pilot for quick and sudden death, -- providing he was fooling. Then a sight of the books and counting those that the thieves had dug from the hillside. The dim lantern light, the wierd effect of voices from different parts of the wood -- deep, hoarse undertones -- and then the demand: "Now we have shown you. Now you go about your part of the business.' After further parley with the guide again the voices: 'We have finished, go about your part of the business.' Mr. Hatch demanded: 'Will the books be saft! Will they be here when I return?' and the grim voice replied: 'Of course! This is straight. I agreed to turn up these books for $5,000 and expenses.' Hatch left quickly for town and the money and for the sheriff and for a team to take the records to Centerville.
"Prior to this, the supervisors had received a letter from Chicago offering to tell where the records were for $25,000.
"Sheriff Pierce, under direction of the supervisors finally negotiated the information for $5,000."
ST. JOSEPH IN HOMESPUN
Evidently it was a kind of a Scottish settlement when each side, with fingers hooked, admonished the other: "Ring the potle-bell, gin ye brack the bargain an' ye'll gang to 'serious trouble.'" The guide who conducted Mr. Hatch was sent by the Chicago firm. The books were found to be in a very bad condition. They had been thrown into a hole in the ground. The writing was blurred by moisture and many of the volumes were badly eaten by grubs. Two men were arrested as the thieves and one of them acquitted: the other, Richard Lane, was sent to Jackson for five years. To the amount of the reward was added the expense of a lawsuit over the condition of the records. A suit that was lost by St. Joseph county. To this was added the additional expense of having the records recopied, which was done by L. A. DesVoignes of Mendon.
[top of page]