Horse Thieves and Pickpockets

I very much doubt that Thomas Lovewell was ever a horse thief, but, after Lovewell's death in 1920, a pension investigator poking into his past in southern Iowa discovered that at least one of his former neighbors was  convinced that he had once "been in the horse stealing business on a very extensive scale.”

Fortunately, Thomas Lovewell's widow back in Kansas probably never heard about this affront to her husband’s memory.  By the time the slanderous rumor turned up, it  had been festering in someone’s brain in Clark County, Iowa, for well over half a century, and any opportunity to affirm or contradict it was long gone.  The story caused a few raised eyebrows among the boys at the Bureau of Pensions, who weighed it against a large stack of affidavits from Kansas attesting to the sterling character of the Lovewells.  The agents shook their heads, shrugged, and got back to real purpose of their inquiry, which was to decide whether Orel Jane Lovewell was entitled to the widow’s portion of her husband’s Civil War pension.  They concluded that she was not, and saved the government some money.

The horse-stealing business may have been nothing more than an insignificant sidenote, but I devote a small chapter of my book to the episode, since, while considering the idea absurd, I also found it amusingly familiar.  You see, there was apparently a longstanding rumor that my mother was a pickpocket, and news about it also surfaced during a federal investigation.

The story begins with a shopping trip to Salina on a Sunday afternoon one autumn when I was a teenager.  It was late in the day and turning cold, high time we headed for home, when my mother returned to the car where my dad and I had been waiting for her to snare her last couple of Christmas-shopping bargains.  She shut the car door behind her, then examined the front seat beside her as well as the floor mat beneath her feet before exclaiming, “Well, my God!  Where’s my purse?”  My mother seldom swore, reserving such mild oaths for major calamities such as misplacing her purse or her keys, which, come to think of it, happened more often than you’d think.

After revisiting the last few stores where she had shopped, she returned to the car grumbling, purse tucked tightly under her arm.  She complained about the way the clerks who were gathered around the service desk had looked at her when she stepped up to claim her property.  They seemed hesitant, as if expecting some reward, which she was not about to give them, especially after the sidelong glares they gave her.

The matter was forgotten until a few days later, when she opened the Salina Journal and read the small item about her losing her purse in a local five-and-dime store, and having it returned to her.  It was embarrassing enough, before a clerk at the store described the contents of her purse as a collection of several men’s wallets and coin purses, each containing a small amount of cash.  My mother looked as if she had just had a stroke.  “Well, my God!  People are going to think I’m a pickpocket.”  Dad guffawed and assured her that no one who knew her would ever think such a thing.

He was right.  It’s not just that she was incorrigibly honest.  Pickpockets have to be dexterous, while my mother was a total klutz.  Any morning she managed to cook breakfast without setting her housecoat on fire, my dad thought the day was off to a pretty good start.  It usually took her ten minutes and three tries to find the right wallet inside her own purse.  Why did she have so many wallets?  She did some of the Christmas shopping for her mother, a brother, and three sisters.  Each one gave her five or ten dollars, and she kept the amounts separated in a distinctive variety of wallets and purses she had bought at a summer sidewalk sale a few years earlier for ten cents apiece.

Fast-forward two decades.  My mother was being considered for a government job, a post with some responsibility, and there had to be an FBI background check.  Two agents dropped into town one day to conduct brief interviews with my mother, with her rival for the job, and a few of their neighbors.  A quick way to ferret out any unpleasant allegations was to ask the two contenders if each knew anything about the other that would disqualify him or her for the job.  My mother assured the men that her rival was a longtime neighbor and good citizen, a man above reproach.  When asked the same question, her rival pondered the matter for a moment.  There was a woman in town, an insatiable gossip, who had nothing good to say about anyone, particularly my mother.  He pointed out the woman’s house and said, “Go ask her.”    

When they asked her if she knew of any blot on my mother’s character, she replied, “Oh, yes.  She’s a notorious pickpocket.  Everyone knows it.  It was in all the papers.”  The agents waited to get back to my mother’s house before they burst out laughing.  “Is that woman crazy?” they asked.  “Possibly,” my mother admitted.  To their credit, they did not reveal that her rival had been the one who sent them to the woman’s house in the first place.  He revealed that fact himself in a tearful confession to my mother, following several sleepless nights.  He really was a good man, one who had suffered a moment of weakness and a mountain of regret.

My mother was able to have a good laugh about the incident when she finally told me the story.  She seldom laughed.  She did not get most jokes, and considered TV comedies stupid, but she found irony absolutely hilarious.  

© Dale Switzer 2023