News From Terre Haute, Indiana

July 7, 2013

Historical perspective: The most important criminal discovery of 1886

Mike McCormick
Special to the Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — There is an old but trite saying the “half the world doesn’t know how the other half lives.”

That is how a reporter for the Terre Haute Evening Gazette explained what was found at 1228 N. Seventh St., the modest home of Serena (Weck) Tillotson, on Friday, May 14, 1886.

Based upon a reliable tip, Superintendent of Police Michael Lawlor and Capt. Ed Vandever dropped by the Tillotson residence on Friday evening to inquire whether any stolen goods were concealed there.

Mrs. Tillotson, the ex-wife of Edwin H. Tillotson and mother of two children, seemed startled and emphatically denied the query. The officers did not have a search warrant but the homeowner did not object and accompanied them each step of the way.

The search was uneventful until the men opened a large trunk in one of the two bedrooms. The contents were enough to cause the observers to utter a collective gasp.

Wrapped in handkerchiefs, rags and various pieces of flannel were a variety of gold and silver watches, revolvers, watch chains, breast pins, necklaces, bracelets, opera glasses, cuff links and miscellaneous jewelry.

Acting surprised, Mrs. Tillotson said that the trunk belonged to Charles E. Mills, a boarder, and though she had seen the trunk, she presumed it was empty.

She described Mills as a man about 30 years old with a sandy mustache who told her he was a traveling salesman for a Cleveland nursery.

Mrs. Tillotson said she met Mills in December of 1885 when she operated a boarding house at 314 N. Fourth St. He encouraged her to acquire the house on N. Seventh St., promising to pay her monthly rent though he might be in Terre Haute only three or four days. He had kept his promise.

The officers carefully boxed the cache to take to police headquarters to inventory. The merchandise included 21 gold watches, 22 silver watches, 48 breast pins, 42 watch chains, 58 collar buttons and cuff links, 28 earrings, 15 necklaces, 18 bracelets, 24 rings, ten shirt studs, seven gold pen holders, six silver knives, five thimbles (some gold), four napkin rings, three revolvers (one loaded), three opera glasses, two pairs of gold eye glasses, a pair of field glasses, a microscope, a silver cake basket, a pocketbook and numerous trinkets, gold and sliver coins and paper money.

Described as “the most important criminal discovery of 1886,” the value of the treasure was estimated to exceed $2,500.

Each item was carefully inspected to ascertain the names of possible owners. The case for one opera glass was inscribed, “C. Duhamel, optician, New Orleans.” “Maria Woodfort” was marked on a gold thimble. A gold watch bore the name of “Alice Parks.”

Four railroad tickets were found in the pocketbook: St. Louis to Kansas City; St. Louis to Memphis; Pana, Ill. to Litchfield, Ill.; and Columbus, O. to Covington, Ky. Superintendent Lawlor directed his staff to prepare a circular describing each item.

Word traveled fast. On Saturday morning, May 15, a dozen or more people who had been recent burglary victims came to police headquarters to examine the merchandise. Peter J. Ryan, the undertaker, found his son’s stolen silver watch, which had been taken from the Ryan home at 1030 S. Sixth St. about a year earlier.

His daughter’s gold watch, also stolen, was not in the inventory.

Attorney William W. Rumsey thought one of the gold watches was his but a local jeweler who had worked on it said it was not. Others who inspected the jewelry were  Terre Haute Express publisher George M. Allen, miller H. H. Dale, travel agent Charles D. Griffith, shoe merchant Thomas J. Griffith and attorney William E. Hendrich.

Chief Lawlor, Capt. Vandever and Sgt. William W. Dwyer returned to the Tillotson residence in a patrol wagon but, after discussion, decided not to arrest Mrs. Tillotson, a seamstress by profession, who provided shelter for two children.

Lawlor and Vandever received all the early praise for discovering the loot. James Wagey, Serena’s cousin, was not mentioned but soon concluded he deserved credit, too. He notified the Evening Gazette that he suspected Mills upon learning the man had shown Serena 12 gold watches and gave one to her and one to her oldest daughter.

Wagey revealed his suspicion to patrolman William Lewis.

Wagey also told the newspaper reporter that Mrs. Tillotson had promised to allow Mills to marry her 13-year old daughter when the girl turned 14 years old.

The day after the Evening Gazette published the details of the Wagey interview, Serena Tillotson went to the newspaper office to vehemently deny Wagey’s story about the possible marriage of Mills to her daughter. Meanwhile, the search for Mills continued.

On June 6, the city marshal from Streator, Ill., picked up several items which had been stolen in a rash of burglaries in that city on Sept. 11, 1885.

Returned to Congressman Ralph Plumb were a lady’s opera watch chain, a gold watch key, a lady’s gold watch, a pearl and gold pencil, a topaz pin with dove ornament, a gold-tipped cross and a pair of cuff buttons.

Lt. Col. Plumb, nephew of Worthy Streator and a Civil War commander, completed two terms in Congress after serving as the mayor of Streator from 1882 to 1885.

Banker James G. Wilson of Streator claimed a baby’s ring, a topaz ring and a baby’s necklace. A gentleman’s gold-filled watch case was returned to Amen E. Lovejoy of Ottawa, Ill.

Marshal Smith informed Terre Haute police that, in April 1886, a suspect in the LaSalle County burglaries named Charles E. Harper was apprehended but released. Smith’s description of Harper matched the police description of Mills.  

By late June, inquiries in response to the circular were received from Attleboro, Mass., Newark, N.J., St. Louis, Amboy, Ill. and Centralia, Ill., but Mills remained at large.