• Marie Hickman

An East Texas Crime Wave? By Anne Adams

Had big time crime come to East Texas?  Well, at first it seemed that way in the 1920s when there seemed to have been an outbreak of petty thefts and break-ins in one area of Henderson County. However, instead of bulky thugs kidnapping or gunning down their opponents and taking over businesses it was actually carried off by – as the reporter put it – bob-haired bandits and knob knockers. It started in January, 1925 in Opelika when a lovely young bob-haired woman dressed in the latest fashion drove up to the general store of Mayor John Hatton; then she went inside the store as her companion remained in the car with the engine running.  Se definitely stood out because of her stylish appearance and as the Athens Weekly Review put it “her beauty attracted the attention of the male population present.”However, her attention grabbing appearance may have been part of her ultimate purpose as she stepped up to the counter and asked for five cents worth of candy.  And she did indeed attract attention since in the rural environs of East Texas a woman dressed in the latest fashions was certainly unusual, but her hairstyle even more so. Bobbed hair on women in big cities might be common, but in most of East Texas the fashion hadn’t arrived and most women kept their hair long, pinned up in various arrangements.   So why would a stylishly dressed woman come into a country store and ask for five cents worth of candy? To use current law enforcement parlance LDLR – “Just doesn’t look right.”  After all, though five cents is a pittance today but back then it was a much more substantial sum, but the ten dollar bill she offered was even rarer. Her arrival and her behavior wasn’t exactly common at the time- it was all so inconsistent   The merchant, probably because he admired feminine pulchritude and charm, took extra pains to fill the order. “Mr. Hatton in his affable manner busied himself to exert a little more speed in waiting on the customer,” as the reporter for the Review put it. Then once the candy was wrapped the customer presented the merchant with that ten dollar bill, and Mr. Hatton then “carefully counted out nine-cartwheels [probably silver dollars] and ninety five cents in change.” At that point the proprietor had probably put the change on the counter – and the customer was still searching in the bottom of her handbag. Then suddenly she extracted a previously undiscovered nickel!  So sorry! Obviously she didn’t need the change Mr. Hatton had offered. Then it happened. ”Mr. Hatton graciously gave back the ten dollar bill to accept the smaller coin and as he did so she picked up an additional five and made for the door.”  So said the reporter but it seems that she grabbed some of the change he’d put on the counter and was out the door!  Hatton was close behind, but before he could catch her, the young woman had climbed into the waiting car, then waved goodbye as her partner gunned the vehicle out of town.  “Thus marks the history of Henderson County’s first bobbed hair bandit,” observed the reporter. So that takes care of the bob-haired bandits but what about the knob knockers?  These seemed to be safe crackers of a sort and they had invaded three stores in Chandler and got away with about $300 in cash and $200 in merchandise.  So what’s a knob knocker? As the reporter explained, at one particular store that suffered the heaviest losses, “the robbers knocked the knob from the safe after carefully wrapping it to prevent noise and then turned the tumblers of the safe with an improvised key made from a fork.”  However, the thieves left some clues –fingerprints on a piece of paper and a lady’s cloak, which seemed to indicate one of them was a woman.  At this location, the store operated by Blake, Cade and Smith, the robbers got away with $200 in cash and maybe $100 worth of merchandise. Elsewhere at a nearby hardware store the robbers took about $100 cash from a faulty safe, and then broke into a drug store and stole some jewelry. “The feminine hand was again in evidence here,” reported the article, “showing that the robbers had feasted on chocolate candy.”  Since the break-ins occurred overnight the crimes were not discovered until the stores opened.  So how did the offenders gain entry?  Easy – they just stole a crowbar out of a section house of the nearby Cotton Belt railroad. However, there was one exception – the store operated by Mrs. W.F. Pinckard who actually lived “above the shop.”  She heard nothing, but it didn’t matter because they couldn’t break the door open. Law enforcement officers were investigating all these break-ins, but at press time apparently had no leads. The fingerprints would be sent off to an expert in Dallas, as officers compiled lists of the stolen articles.  However, there was speculation as to how the culprits were not only professionals but also were out of towners.  After all, said the reporter, “knob knocking seems to be strictly a city trick and for that reason it is evidently the work of outsiders.” 

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