Sneak thieves and burglars were on the lookout for anything of value they could get their hands on in 19th century Boise City, as frequent stories in the Idaho Tri-weekly Statesman remind us.
The earliest such robberies were of gold dust, when much of the city’s commerce was carried on with that preferred medium of exchange. Even though without an assay the true value of the gold in the dust had to be taken on faith, as nearly all gold dust contained some percentage of much less valuable silver. Businesses had to have gold scales on hand to weigh the dust offered as payment for their merchandise or services.
The Statesman reported on Aug. 6, 1864, that a saloon keeper named Brady had been robbed of some gold dust, and that a suspect had been arrested.
“A man calling himself Kane Kirby, whose business it has been to punish much whisky, and who has religiously adhered to the practice of having no money until last Tuesday, was arrested on suspicion and held for examination. Upon his arrest and when being conveyed to the Justice’s office, Kirby dropped a sack of gold dust containing between three and four ounces and tried to cover it with his foot. His examination coming on he gave two or three accounts of how he came by it. He offered one man half of the dust if he would swear that he saw him (Kirby) borrow it at Bannock (the earlier name of Idaho City). The next day after the robbery Kirby was seen with dust to the amount of three or four hundred dollars, which being so unusual for him led to his arrest.”
Just three days later the paper reported: “Daring Robbery. Mr. Philip L. Brady, one of the proprietors of the Idaho Saloon, received a very unwelcome visit from some person of the ‘road agent’ family. The considerate customer relieved Mr. B. of nearly twenty-three ounces of dust, and a brass mounted six-shooter. The robbery was committed about ten o’clock on Sunday evening while Mr. B. was asleep in a room in the rear of the saloon. No clue to the rascal is yet found, although some parties are suspected.”
More than $2,000 worth of gold dust was stolen from Davis & Richey’s livery stable in September 1865. The locked drawer holding the dust was broken open at a time when both proprietors happened to be away. “The scamp was considerate enough not to take some coin that lay in plain sight, fearing no doubt that it might lead to his detection.” No doubt the victims of the robbery had a number of much harsher names for the robber than “scamp.”
In the 1880s and ’90s, a rash of burglaries of the homes of prominent Boiseans made the news. In September, 1882 burglars entered the residence of Frank R. Coffin and collected about $30 in cash. “They were not disturbed in their investigations, and it appears that they made a complete examination of the entire house. They were searching for money, and did not take valuable jewelry which was in plain sight.”
The very next night burglars visited the home of dentist M. Pefferle. “They raised the window of Mr. Pefferle’s sleeping apartment and hooked out a purse and a pair of pantaloons, securing about $10. The purse and pants were thrust back into the room. Here, as at Coffin’s, money alone was the object of the search.”
In October 1893, the home of John M. Haines, later mayor of Boise and governor of Idaho, was robbed, and in December that year Chief Justice Joseph W. Huston of the Idaho Supreme Court was the victim. “The thief went through the chief justice’s pockets, securing three pieces of gold amounting to $35. Two of those pieces were picked from among five silver dollars which the wily night visitor returned to the pocket.”
The Statesman summarized the situation in November 1893: “The city is infested with a despicable gang of sneak thieves,” and on Jan. 5, 1899: “SWARM OF THIEVES AND HOBOES INFESTING THE CITY. Last evening the Golden Rule store was broken into, a window in the rear being smashed into. Mr. Anderson (C.C.) could not find that he had suffered beyond the tapping of the cash register for about $4. … There are several special officers on duty, but they cannot watch everything, and citizens are urged to be careful.”
Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.