Why General Otho Hinton began robbing the mails in 1849 is a mystery. Perhaps he blamed the post office for his company’s failure after the great flood of a few years earlier. A newspaper later claimed he was a big gambler (doubtful) and another suggested he wanted the money to become a political kingmaker by backing the 1850 Whig candidate for Ohio governor, William “Booby” Johnston (yes, that really was a politician’s nickname – see Wikipedia).
Then on August 29, 1850, the Plain Dealer ran a story that began:
|Yesterday our town was thrown into great commotion by the announcement that General O. Hinton, a gentleman who has represented himself in these parts as the Ohio Stage Company, but who, in fact, was merely a pensioned agent of said company, was arrested on a charge of robbing the mail of some seventeen thousand dollars.|
Read that sentence again and break it down: This man known as General O. Hinton was arrested. He was charged with stealing a great deal of money. But even before those important newsy details, the paper wanted readers to know Hinton was just an employee of the Ohio Stage Company – apparently he had been posing as an owner or similar. And that was Otho Hinton’s story in a nutshell: He was a sometimes crook but a fulltime fraud. He was that way before his thievery and remained so afterwards, making it hard to believe he was a better man once he moved to Santa Rosa in his final years. (The first part of this series, “CALL ME THE GENERAL,” explores more about his background.)
Even while readers of the Cleveland Plain Dealer were reeling from discovering the guy they thought was a bigshot was actually a petty thief, the same article continued:
|The following handbill in glaring capitals met our gaze this morning: Five Hundred Dollars Reward will he paid for the arrest and confinement, in any jail of the United States, of General O. Hinton…He is a man about fifty five or sixty years of age; weight one hundred and eighty or ninety pounds; has dark hair, almost black, very fleshy, stout built, florid complexion, and looks as though he was a hard drinker, but is strictly temperate.|
Amazingly, the General escaped only a few hours after his arrest, despite being watched by two marshals. That’s a rather remarkable turn of events, but even more remarkable was that he was recaptured only to escape again. And then he was jailed a third time and slipped away once more. There was always a bit of luck in his getaways, but mostly he relied upon his guile and easy charm.
In 1850 America there were only a few railroads connecting a few places on the East Coast, so usually the only travel options were bumping along awful roads by stagecoach. The stage lines also carried mail which not infrequently included cash. To make the stage transport as secure as possible, a postmaster would put all mail for a route in a heavy leather bag fastened at the top by a brass padlock. Postmasters along the way had a special key to open the locks and fish out mail for their own post offices. The major drawback to the system was the inability to detect when and where a piece of mail went missing along the way. It also might take weeks for postal authorities to discover there was a problem – even urgent followup correspondence between the sender and receiver also went by mail because telegraph lines were also rare because they were usually installed along with the railroad tracks which didn’t yet exist because it was 1850 which was why the post office was using stagecoaches, see above.
Cleveland postmaster Daniel M. Haskell knew someone had been stealing parcels with cash and redeemable notes for some time, but there was no pattern he could see; it was vanishing on routes going all directions, which ruled out the possibility of theft at a particular post office or by any single stagecoach driver. He discussed the matter with Thomas McKinstry, the deputy U.S. marshal for the area and it was McKinstry who settled on Hinton as the only possible suspect. Haskell resisted the idea; he knew the General and the two were apparently friends. But Haskell came to agree. As general manager for the stage company, Hinton could be found on any route at any time and as he was usually on the road, probably no other person in the state of Ohio had a mail bag so often within easy reach.
Once Haskell learned Hinton was about to travel south he set up a trap. Knowing Hinton would visit the Commercial Bank before leaving, he asked the teller to have $1,000 stacked next to an envelope addressed to a fictitious person in the village of Mt. Vernon, Ohio, a way station on that route. Hinton indeed came to the teller while the bait was in full view. In their small talk, Hinton mentioned he was leaving later than he had planned – the following day, in fact. Of course, if the teller was making up a package of cash at that moment it would have been reasonable to expect it to go out on the next day’s stage. Later it came out in court that Hinton had booked four seats on the earlier stage where he had been expected to escort two ladies and a gentleman on their passage, so his change of plans were not made impulsively.
Postmaster Haskell sent a man named John A. Wheeler ahead so he could board the stagecoach several miles down the road and covertly watch Hinton. Around 3 o’clock in the morning, the stagecoach stopped to change horses about a dozen miles outside of Mt. Vernon. Hinton got out to help unhitch the horses. All passengers in the coach were asleep except Wheeler.
While the driver was away (presumably working with the horses in a stable) Wheeler felt the coach shake. He saw Hinton walking towards an outbuilding carrying a mailbag. Wheeler later testified he heard sounds of papers rustling coming from there. Hinton returned with the mailbag, got back in the coach, and in a few minutes they were again on their way. Hinton woke up another passenger who had been using his carpetbag for a pillow and said he needed to put some papers in it.
When the stage reached Mt. Vernon around dawn the mail was delivered , then the stage continued on with Hinton aboard. John Wheeler remained behind to see if the General took the bait. He had not.
Wheeler’s eyewitness testimony of Hinton walking off with a mailbag caused him to be charged with a separate felony for tampering with the mails, so it wasn’t a complete waste of time. Why he didn’t steal the fake package we can only guess, but the newspaper account of the court hearing states “no particular amount was put up” in the envelope, which suggests it contained just strips of paper. If so, perhaps Hinton was able to tell by weight or feel there was no real money inside. Or maybe he simply ran out of time before he could find it, as he was groping around inside a mailbag in the dark.
Now certain the General was the culprit, Haskell and McKinstry were alert for reports of any mail missing which had been on a stagecoach he was aboard. And just a few days later Otho Hinton left a trail of evidence so clumsy that he might have been caught anyway.
It was mid-August and Hinton was on a stage heading east, from Columbus to Wheeling, Virginia (West Virginia didn’t come into existence until 1861). As this was a major route, there were more mailbags than would fit in the stagecoach “boot” at the driver’s feet; the bags were stacked on the top of the coach and tied down with a canvas sheet.
This time Hinton was riding outside with the driver. Around 10:30 that night on a stretch of road where there were no stops he told the driver he was going to lie down and climbed on top. The driver later testified he couldn’t be sure if Hinton had crawled under the canvas or not, as his seat was about two feet lower. All he could see were the soles of Hinton’s boots.
Hinton’s stage arrived in Wheeling the next day and he took a hotel room. The manager there remembered him well because he asked for the fireplace to be lit despite the weather being “quite warm,” and the innkeeper observed Hinton was nevertheless sleeping with the windows open.
To the General’s misfortune, this theft was quickly discovered. Someone was able to visit the Wheeling hotel room before the fireplace was cleaned and there found ashes from other mail he had burned. Cleveland Postmaster Haskell tracked down where Hinton had exchanged “eastern money” for “Ohio money” on his return, and some of the stolen money was still in the office.* But worst for Hinton, one of the packages he snatched contained bills from a bank that recorded the “letter number and date” of all currency it sent through the mails. This would become the main evidence against him.
It was time to make an arrest. Hinton was staying at Weddell House, the best hotel in Cleveland. Haskell invited him to come by his home for cards and “dance a little with a few of his particular friends” (make of that what you will). While he was there, McKinstry searched his hotel room. The Deputy Marshal tried to pick the lock on Hinton’s trunk but was unsuccessful.
With a warrant issued by a United States Commissioner, McKinstry arrested Hinton two days later, on August 28. The General showed no signs of guilt and welcomed the deputy to search his person and luggage. Hinton seemed saddened they thought a warrant was necessary, when all they would have needed to do was ask. He was that kind of guy.
In his trunk were found “fifteen to thirty keys,” which presumably opened the brass locks on the mailbags. No mention was made whether it was legal or proper for a stagecoach company employee to have such keys. Hinton had several hundred dollars in his pockets and McKinstry determined six bills – five ones and a $5 – were from the bank that kept such careful records.
He was brought before the same U.S. Commissioner for a preliminary hearing, where bail was set at $10,000. Apparently a crowd gathered as news spread General Otho Hinton was under arrest. The Plain Dealer reported the next day the town was “thrown into great commotion” and also that Hinton “applied to several of our citizens without effect.”
Until witnesses could be assembled in Cleveland for his hearing, Hinton was led off to jail – or not. McKinstry later testified Hinton made “many urgent appeals” that he should be allowed to stay at his hotel under guard. Haskell objected strongly; if McKinstry permitted that, the postmaster would take no responsibility for what might happen.
Amazingly, McKinstry went along with it. Hinton was taken back to his room at the Weddell House where he would be watched by the deputy marshal and another officer. (The other guard was not identified in any paper that can be found, but a later source said he was Cleveland city marshal Colonel Seth Abbey.) In truth, the two men were probably looking forward to their guard duty; the hotel was luxurious with fine food and the General was the nicest fellow to spend time with.
The first evening was passing uneventfully. The door to the room was cracked open, probably for ventilation; the weather had been sultry. Hinton stayed up late, pacing. McKinstry was on duty at 12:30 in the morning when Hinton suddenly moved to the door and made his escape. The deputy rushed to the closed door and found it locked – for whatever reason, the key had been left in the front of the door. Hinton’s guards were now Hinton’s prisoners and as they hammered on the door for someone to let them out, Otho Hinton walked away to his freedom.
As you can imagine, the newspapers had a field day with this misadventure. From the Plain Dealer:
|It appears the General in “The wee’ sma’ hours of night” committed a ‘breach of generous confidence,’ as he had often done before. He took his guard, while off their guard, and vamosed [sic] through the door which was left ajar, quickly turning the key upon them, locking them in. Here was a pickle and such a rumpus followed as made night hideous. Stamping, hallooing, and kicking against the door, brought up the sleepers of the Weddell from pit to dome, and in dishabille, such as ghosts are said to wear.|
The Cleveland Herald:
|The General, being a gentleman instead of being sent to jail was indulged in his request to be under keepers at his own room at the Weddell House. About midnight he dodged out of the room, shut and locked the door after him; thus caging his three keepers and setting himself free… Had he been a common rogue, arrested for stealing a sheep, instead of fingering the mail bags, he would have been safely lodged inside the prison walls.|
Otho Hinton was now a fugitive but odds were he would be soon captured. He was a well-known man in Ohio thanks to his endless self-promotion. His arrest and escape was VERY big news, as was the sizable bounty of $500. He was a stout man of 48 used to an easy life, not hiding in shadows. On the plus side, McKinstry had only confiscated $10 in stolen bills and let him keep the rest of his money, which was several hundred dollars. He still looked like a gentleman. And he was still the wily Otho Hinton.
Later, several Ohio papers described his route with local anecdotes. He spent his first night on the lam in bushes on the outskirts of Cleveland; near Bedford he stole a pan of milk and a dried fish from a farmer’s larder. When he reached Akron he bought a horse and saddle, having walked thirty miles in three days. He was recognized as he passed through the village of Mogadore where a lawyer made a citizen’s arrest – and then let Hinton go free after he sighed, “What will my poor daughters think of this?” The lawyer taking pity because he had once met the family. After six days on the run Hinton sent Haskell a telegram saying he wished to surrender and gave himself up in Wellsville, just seven miles from the Pennsylvania border. He was famished and a newspaper snarked, “The General complains of the poor accommodations the country affords to one who is in a hurry to ‘get along.'”
Hinton was hauled back to Cleveland, where a four day hearing was held. (Firsthand reporting of that hearing is the source of all information here about his crimes, except as indicated.) At the conclusion his bail was set at $15,000 – $5 thousand for mail tampering and $10 thousand for theft. He then asked to address the court, making a speech “ill-timed in spirit and manner, and regretted by his friends.”
The sneaky Otho Hinton might have continued his thieving if not for Post Office Special Agent Thomas P. Shallcross who first suspected his guilt by noticing him wince, chased him down after he escaped the Cleveland hotel, and eventually pursued the fugitive all the way to Cuba where they even met and had a conversation while Shallcross was in disguise. The story appears in several books and articles but was first told in a popular 1876 history of famous mail robberies, “Guarding the Mails.” You should read the chapter on Hinton; it’s a ripping yarn and a little of it is sort of true.
Shallcross was indeed a special agent during that time but absolutely no original sources can be found linking him to the Hinton case in any way. Mail robbery was always a newsworthy topic and this story was particularly big news because of its sensational nature; regional papers all over the Midwest were offering readers everything available about Hinton, including reprints of the complete coverage of his court hearing. Yet there was not a peep about Shallcross or there being a special agent on the case; the only sighting of him in a newspaper during those weeks placed him hundreds of miles away, arresting a man in North Carolina just as the sting operation was starting.
Some of the mistakes in the chapter are forgivable; dates and places don’t match, names are wrong and there is florid and melodramatic (and racist) dialogue which was clearly made up. More serious is the error that the General died in Australia, along with the lengthy account of Hinton’s flight and capture being entirely fictional.
While the book larded praise on Shallcross it was dismissive of the real hero of the day: Cleveland postmaster Daniel Haskell, portraying him as a bumbling wanna-be cop. Yes, the focus of the book was the derring-do of the post office special agents (author Patrick Henry Woodward was himself a special agent years after the Hinton affair) but promoting the service by brazenly stealing credit to this degree must have sparked outrage among those who participated in the events a quarter-century earlier.
At the final day of the hearing his lawyer wanted it noted that Hinton had telegramed Haskell, which he insisted showed he always meant to return, and only left custody to gather witnesses. A few days later when he was on his way to the jail in Columbus, a local history reported “he was permitted to harangue the crowd which gathered to see him, asserted his innocence, and declared that his reason for attempting to escape was the excessive bail exacted.”
He pled not guilty at his October arraignment and again asked to address the court. According to the Ohio Statesman, “for half an hour he spoke with the voice of a Stentor [loud, trumpet-like].” Either because of this eloquent speechifying or some pull with the judge, his bail was reduced to $10 thousand a few days later. This set off a new round of indignant commentary about Hinton getting special treatment. The Cleveland Herald wailed in outrage:
|If a petty crime is committed by a friendless heaven-forsaken scamp, he is sure to expiate it in the jail or penitentiary; but if a great robbery takes place, and one who has previously occupied a good position in society, is implicated, through the meshes of reduced bail or some quibble, he slips through the legal net…This farce of reducing bail to suit the pockets and convenience of large depredators, has been so often played, that no man expects a criminal with wealthy friends, partners, or employers to become the tenant of a prison…Ohio is peculiarly the paradise of criminals in this respect.|
Hinton was a prisoner for three months before his next court date in January 1851, where he made bail. (“The General looks nothing the worse of his long confinement,” quipped one newspaper.) The money came from an old friend in the stagecoach business, his brother-in-law and himself – which is to say it was secured by some of the property he owned with his wife, Rebecca.
The case was granted a continuance for another three months until April but by then he was far away. Sometime after his release he fled again, and this time not supposedly to find witnesses. Left behind in Delaware, Ohio, was Rebecca, who had to forfeit property pledged for his bail. The couple never saw each other again which was probably a good thing for the General – a few years earlier when he was attempting to divorce her, Rebecca filed an affidavit darkly hinting she might be inclined to shoot him over his adultery. One can only imagine her feelings towards him now that he had left her this mess.
* Key to Hinton’s scheme was the ease of laundering money in that day. That was the wild ‘n crazy “Free Banking” era when any bank chartered by a state could print its own currency. The dollar in your purse could have been issued by the state, county, city, or just the bank itself. It would not be out of order for someone like Hinton who regularly traveled long distances to be visiting banks and money changers to convert currencies, just as he dropped by a Cleveland insurance office shortly before his arrest to exchange “Chester county [Ohio] notes” for “Eastern” bills.