Crimes & Technicalities

I hope someday to get out to Ford County and  look for a transcript of the trial of Adaline Lovewell’s husband on a charge of embezzling funds from his employers at Dodge City in 1895.  Judging from contemporary newspaper accounts, this should have been an open-and-shut case of an employee hustling out of town with nearly a thousand dollars of the boss’s money and indulging in what tut-tutting reporters gleefully characterized as a licentious spree in Kansas City.  And yet, not only did T. C. Smith fight the case to the bitter end and beyond, appealing the verdict all the way to the Kansas Supreme Court, and after losing there, imploring the Governor for a pardon - he seems to have wriggled out of half of the charges that may have been filed against him.

According to the one source that’s readily available on the Internet, the Kansas Supreme Court’s finding in “The State of Kansas v. Thomas C. Smith,” the defendant was shipped to Lansing for failing to hand over $203.24 in a timely fashion to the United States Express Company.  After being arrested in Kansas City and returned to Dodge in November 1895, Thomas Smith claimed that most of the money missing from the railway depot and freight office would be offset by commissions his employers owed him.  The Rock Island Railway seems to have been satisfied by Smith’s repayment of any difference between the amount he had squandered during his fling in Kansas City, and the commissions still due him.  On the other hand, the United States Express Company wanted their $203.24 plus a pound of flesh.

To find out exactly what went on at the Dodge City depot in 1895, it’s still necessary to see the full trial transcript.  However, the high court’s ruling does inform us that Thomas Lovewell’s son-in-law was being well paid for his duties.  Besides his salary as the Rock Island agent, Smith was entitled to 10% of the net profit from United States Express freight shipments, while also lawfully pocketing a hefty one-third of the proceeds of all money-order transactions.  It was good to be an agent, even if, through his legal team, Smith denied being one. 

The contention by counsel for the appellant is, that he was a clerk or servant of the Express Company, rather than an agent, and this question was raised by a motion to quash the information, by objections to testimony, and by exceptions to the instructions given.

In other words, the basis of Smith’s entire appeal was a linguistic technicality.  Flawed testimony had been heard, and flawed instructions had been given to the jury, based on a rigid definition of the word “agent.”

It’s not clear if, by objecting to being called an agent, Smith felt that he should have been held to a lower standard of trust, or if his attorneys were simply engaging in some desperate legalistic nitpicking.  As I’ve discovered recently, a legal strategem had worked before in a classic case from express company files.

Founded in 1852, the United States Express Company was one of the express mail companies put out of business in 1914, when Congress enacted the Parcel Post Law, authorizing the U. S. Postal Service to deliver small packages.  Until then, the job of carrying parcels around the country was in the hands of at least fifteen companies, some with roots dating back to the opening of the West.  The most famous of these still doing business, although not necessarily the same business these days, is American Express, a company created by Henry Wells, William Fargo, and John Butterfield, men whose names were once synonymous with stagecoach travel.

Express companies employed a small army of wily detectives to unravel stagecoach robberies, train holdups, and cases of embezzlement by employees, whether they were full-fledged agents or not.  One legendary Wells Fargo sleuth was Fred Dodge, who helped to solve the “$35,000 Brown Paper Case,” in which a pair of Texas banks opened supposed shipments of cash in 1892 that turned out to be stacks of brown paper by the time they arrived in Galveston.

The parcels had left New York via Wells Fargo, which passed them off to the Adams Express Company in Cincinnati, which delivered them in turn to the Southern Express Company in Nashville.  Southern Express in New Orleans put them back in the care of Wells Fargo for the final leg of the journey.  If the culprits were counting on a tangled trail of custody to cover their tracks, they underestimated the bloodhounds at Wells Fargo.  Fred Dodge and his partner, Jim Hume, soon fingered a messenger from Adams Express for the foul deed.  C. A. Hardin and his accomplices stood trial for their thievery, while Fred Dodge received a gold watch from Wells Fargo for his brilliant detective work.  

To find out how he solved that case and others, pick up a copy of Dodge’s memoir, Under Cover for Wells Fargo: The Unvarnished Recollections of Fred Dodge.  Despite the title, the first part of the book regarding Wyatt Earp and Tombstone probably underwent extensive refinishing and polishing courtesy of Earp’s biographer, Stuart Lake.  Dodge’s Wells Fargo case files dating from 1890 on, however, are the real treat here.

By the way, C. A. Hardin was never sentenced for his role in the “$35,000 Brown Paper Case."  He hired  a clever lawyer and got off on a technicality.  Sometimes, that works.

© Dale Switzer 2023