History of the United States Patent Office
The Patent Office Pony
A History of the Early Patent Office
Chapter 21 -- The Great Patent Office Jewel Robbery

[Pg 125]

Actually, there were at least three robberies of jewels from the Patent Office, but perhaps only one great robbery. The National Gallery in the Model Rooms was used to display a number of treasures of the United States government, including the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and numerous beribboned treaties with foreign governments. Also included were gifts given to government officials by foreign governments and thus held to belong to the nation. These included jewels and other valuable objects.

On December 20, 1841, not very long after the National Gallery was first opened, a robber using false keys entered a small room containing these treasures at about 1 p.m. He stole an elegant and costly gold snuff box set with diamonds on the lid which had been presented by Emperor Nicholas of Russia to the American ambassador to the court at St. Petersburg, a pearl necklace consisting of 148 pearls, two large separate pearls sent to the President by the Imam of Muscat, and a gold scabbard for a sword. The sword had a diamond studded hilt and was presented by the Spanish Viceroy of Peru to Commodore James Biddle while he was cruising on the Pacific coast during 1830. The sword for the scabbard was left behind to make it possible for the robber to fold up the scabbard for concealment. The total value of the articles stolen was estimated to be $14,000 to $15,000. The room had been opened and the jewels shown only a few minutes before the robbery, and it was liable to be visited at any moment when the robber was doing the deed. [footnote 1] Commissioner Ellsworth issued an immediate advertisement offering a reward of $1,000 for recovery of the articles and detection of the robber. [footnote 2] A correspondent for the Baltimore Sun said that authorities supposed that the robber was an Englishman, as one such was seen in the building just before the robbery. The correspondent humorously supposed that the robber was a Scotsman, as one was seen just after the robbery sneezing enough to break his neck, supposedly being unwilling to waste the snuff he found in the snuff box. [footnote 3]

The account given in the newspapers of the day stated that the stolen articles were recovered on January 10, 1842. [footnote 4] Supposedly, police officers Simeon Hays, John Zell and Archibald Ridgely of Baltimore received information which led them to believe that they might find the articles by visiting the cabin of a schooner or brig Mary Bright lying at the head of Smith's dock. Justice of the Peace Henry Snyder issued them a search warrant and accompanied them to the vessel. They found the cabin locked, but it was immediately unlocked by the captain of the vessel. There was a large black trunk in the cabin, which had arrived during the morning in the absence of the captain, [Pg 126] and which was received and receipted for by a black deck hand. They had to force the trunk open and found that it contained only the whole of the stolen articles from the Patent Office and a large floor mat in which they were wrapped. The trunk was labeled and directed to the care of James Anson in Richmond, Virginia. The deck hand was able to give a complete and detailed description of the man who left the trunk, and the police thought they should be able to catch him. They did not catch him.

The second occasion when the Patent Office jewels were stolen was the "great" robbery, probably because of the attention the robbery received. During the afternoon of November 8, 1848, according to one theory, one or more robbers entered with the visitors to the National Gallery, then secreted themselves in the attic until everyone had left but the guards. The guards apparently had their minds on other things than guarding that night, because this was the evening after the Presidential election between Zachary Taylor and Lewis Cass, and the guards were following the election results. Despite this being a night with strong moonlight, the choice of time for the robbery showed forethought and good judgment.

According to another theory, the robbers entered the front door by the simple expedient of grasping the key, already in the lock of the front door, with nippers and turning it from the outside. They then proceeded up the stairs and used a skeleton key to open the door of the great hall on the second landing, which they secured behind them with a length of cord.

Whichever way they began, they rifled a large glass double case in the repository. When concealed alarm bells attached to the gold snuff box, the scabbard and the string of pearls began to ring unexpectedly when the items were removed, they contented themselves with less than the total available loot, and they hurriedly left the great hall by a knotted rope which they had let down to the outside from the window. Apparently, no one but the robbers heard the alarm bells, although they must have rung. The robbers were so successful that the robbery was not discovered until the next morning.

In addition to the items stolen the first time, various gold, silver, and copper medals and coins were stolen, together with a pint bottle of attar of roses. This time, the stolen items were appraised at $20,000. The government offered a $1,500 reward for recovery of the items and conviction of the responsible parties. [footnote 5]

George Wilkes (1820-1885), editor of the National Police Gazette of New York City, had access to information which the government had earlier hidden from the public, and he also was very knowledgeable about the activities of the criminal class in the country. In his weekly edition for November 18, he announced his confidence that the criminals were Tom Hand, alias Jacob [Pg 127] Shuster, and Jim Webb, acting under instructions from Jim Young, ex-high constable of Philadelphia, a policeman turned bad. The purpose of the robbery was not monetary gain but was to obtain something that they could use to bargain with the government to secure either the release of Ned McGowan from his peril in Philadelphia or a pardon for Charles Webb from the New York state prison. [footnote 6]

[Page 127 illustration: Portrait of George Wilkes]

Mr. Wilkes announced that the Patent Office had been robbed once before of the same jewels, which would have been the 1841 robbery, by Tom Hand, to secure the release from custody on criminal charges of Tom Walker, a former companion in crime of the Webbs. When the government offered a $1,000 reward, Tom Walker announced to certain unnamed officers that if the reward were increased to $1,500 and if he were allowed to slip through his present dangers with the law, he thought he could turn up the swag. When this was done, the authorities were told where to look, and the jewels turned up in the trunk on board a vessel in Baltimore harbor. Tom Walker was then released from custody.

Having succeeded once, Tom Hand and Jim Webb felt they could use the same scheme again to secure another release. But for this to work, it must be possible for the government to hide its complicity in the scheme. George Wilkes announced their intentions in the public press and also announced that he was totally opposed to such compromise. Rather than allowing the thieves to buy a single day from a ten-year sentence, the jewels should be thrown into the sea. However, he predicted that no harm would come to the jewels even if compromise were refused.

The National Police Gazette had published a long multi-part article on Charles and James Webb in 1845 in its "Lives of the Felons" series. [footnote 7] The Webbs were born and trained in London, and after Charles was detected robbing the Post Office in Birmingham, both brothers left hurriedly for New York in 1828. There they became the center of a group of thieves who diligently studied such useful arts as lock-picking, key-making, forgery and counterfeiting. They were thoroughly proficient thieves. One of their associates in this country was Jack Reed. While engaged in a scheme with the Webbs to pass forged bank notes, Jack Reed was captured in Philadelphia by Titian Peale, then a clerk in the United States Bank. He was turned over to [Pg 128] Jim Young, from whose custody he "escaped." This was in the early 1840s. Tom Hand, alias Jacob Shuster, was not mentioned in the 1845 article

The robbers, angry because Wilkes had thwarted their scheme by publishing their hidden plans to the world, wrote an anonymous letter to the President on December 15, 1848, berating Wilkes and his co-workers, and even Ned Buntline, who was not associated with them, then promising to return the jewels if the President would take from their paper the government advertisements of the army deserter list. [footnote 8] This letter persuaded Edmund Burke to first investigate and then contact Mr. Wilkes. [footnote 9] They agreed to transfer the advertisements to another paper to see what would happen. Then the robber wrote a second anonymous letter to the President, asking if the transfer of the advertisements had been done in good faith. Jim Webb was arrested and turned state's evidence for immunity from prosecution. He told where to find the jewels. The jewels were found buried in the cellar of Henry B. Jones in New York City, and the attar of roses in his attic. Jones claimed to have taken them as security on a loan to Tom Hand.

The trial of Tom Hand in the U.S. Criminal Court for the District of Columbia began in mid-April 1849 with District Attorney Philip Barton Key (1818-1859), son of Francis Scott Key, prosecuting. Handwriting experts testified that Tom Hand wrote the letters to the President, and other handwriting experts testified that he did not. After several days, the jury agreed that it could not reach a verdict. Seven were for acquittal and five for conviction. A second trial was held in late April, resulting in conviction of Tom Hand and a sentence to three years in the penitentiary.

District Attorney Key was later involved in an extramarital affair with the wife of Congressman Daniel Sickles, who shot and killed Key when he found this out. Sickles was the first defendant found not guilty in the United States for reasons of temporary insanity. He punished his wife by forgiving her and taking her back. Sickles was later a successful Civil War general.

In 1868, Congressman Charles O'Neill attempted to get the snuff box returned to the nieces of the minister to whom it had been originally presented. [footnote 10] He was informed that the recovered items were some loose diamonds and pearls, some melted gold, and a bottle of attar of roses. These were placed in a sealed box and deposited in the United States Treasury, where they then remained. [footnote 11] In 1873, the Secretary of the Treasury wrote to the Secretary of the Interior, indicating that these items had been deposited by the Commissioner of Patents on May 10, 1849, and that the space they were occupying was needed.

In 1868, the sword with the jeweled hilt was stolen but was recovered five days later. [footnote 12]

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