MANCHESTER — Courant reporters 95 years ago figured prominently in the investigation of a bungled heist, playing a role that would be highly improbable today.
In the case of The Great Silk Robbery, the "Courant Men," as they were called in their own newspaper, had a personal stake.
The incident was an attempted robbery that went wrong from the start and ended in murder. The story's central figure was William Madden, a former Manchester cop who left that job for a more lucrative position protecting assets of the Cheney Brothers' sprawling silk manufactory in South Manchester.
Madden was on watch on Jan. 29, 1919, at 11 p.m. Railroad detectives had sent a warning earlier that day about a planned silk theft that was to happen that night. In the years before synthetic fabric, raw silk shipped from Asia was worth its weight in gold and a constant target of thieves.
Checking a report of a strange car parked on Elm Terrace, Madden and his assistant, Clifton Macomber, approached the vehicle. The guards determined that the five fellows in the car were definitely suspicious.
Retired Manchester firefighter Walter Scadden begins his book, "Murder in Manchester: The Great Cheney Brothers Silk Robbery," with the right-out-of-Hollywood scenes that followed.
Madden, a Spanish-American War veteran who stood 6 feet 2 and weighed about 200 pounds, told the men he was taking them to a storehouse, where the Cheney security guards had an office. His pistol drawn, he mounted the passenger side running board of the touring car. With Macomber on the opposite board, Madden ordered the driver to head south on Pine Street toward the nearby storehouse.
But the driver started swerving, trying to throw the guards off. When that didn't work, a handgun blazed from the back seat. The first shot missed, but the second went straight into Madden's torso. Macomber jumped from the car and Madden fell to the road. Although mortally wounded, he managed to fire several shots at the fleeing car. At about the same time, Macomber heard the roar of a truck engine starting up on Walnut Street.
Alerted to the shooting, Hartford police were watching for a westbound touring car with New Jersey plates. Officer Daniel "Big Dan" Ahern had just learned of the bulletin when he saw the car shoot past him on Wethersfield Avenue. He stopped the next passing car, which happened to be what Scadden calls "the Corvette of its day," a Winton Speedster, driven by a gearhead of the day, Jay B. McKiernan of Hartford.
Comandeering car and driver, Ahern told McKiernan to step on it. After a short chase, they ran the touring car off the road on Franklin Avenue. Four men jumped from the vehicle and escaped. Only the driver, Fred Klein, 25, of Hoboken, N.J., was caught, but that was enough to launch the investigation.
Enter the "Courant Men." Scadden describes them as investigative reporters who targeted political and business corruption. Several knew Madden well through various sports teams and as fellow alumni of Trinity College, where Madden had been a four-letter athlete.
Scouring the scene of the shootout in Manchester on the morning of Jan. 30, the reporters found Fred Klein's driver's license, which Macomber had dropped when he jumped from the getaway car. Near the area in Hartford where the suspects had leaped from the car, the reporters found a .32-caliber pistol with the serial number filed off and a cap with the label, "Jack's Hat Shop" of Hoboken, N.J. They turned all these items over to police.
A defense attorney would later realize, Scadden wrote, "that much of the damaging evidence against his client had been turned up by the diligent efforts of the Courant Men."
Why police never found the items is an open question. But the facts of the story seem almost surreal today, when police protect crime scenes so closely and reporters are typically held behind yellow-taped perimeters with the rest of the gawking public.
But back to 1919. The Hoboken connection was key. Working with their counterparts in New Jersey, Manchester and Connecticut state police learned of a dive in the city called The Hell Hole Bar, a place owned and patronized by known silk thieves.
Police also rounded up a New Haven railroad worker named William Miller, who quickly spilled details of the plan to steal a $25,000 shipment of silk that had arrived by rail in Manchester that night. In today's dollars, that would be about $250,000 worth, Scadden said.
It turned out that the thieves had driven a car and a truck to Manchester after scoping out the scene earlier. They had broken a government seal and locks on one rail car when the guards approached. Miller and the proprietor of the Hell Hole, William Bessler, escaped in the truck. Two brothers, James and Henry Moore, also were involved in the attempted heist. Police and prosecutors named James Moore as the suspect who killed Madden, but the brothers boarded a ship for South America under assumed names and were never seen again.
Bessler, Klein and Miller, along with Michael "Lefty" McDonnell and John Nuess all went to trial for the killing of Madden. Prosecutors hoped for a first-degree murder conviction and the death penalty.
Just as police crime scene investigations were much looser in those days, Courant reporters had a mile of slack in writing about such cases. The accused were labeled "murderers" and "thugs" long before the trial started. One subheadline on a Feb. 5 story about the attempted silk robbery read, "Crooks To Fight Case."
Since there was no proof that any of the defendants had actually pulled the trigger, however, the jury convicted the five men of second-degree murder and they were sent to prison. Klein died in the Wethersfield pen, while Bessler, Miller and Nuess were paroled after 18 years. McDonnell escaped, was returned to jail, escaped again, was shot in New York City, and finally returned to prison again.
Almina Madden, wife of the slain security chief and mother of his two children, "never got over the ordeal," Scadden wrote, and died within a year of his killing.
Scadden, 70, grew up on Pine Street. His grandfather was a Cheney mills foreman and Scadden remembers sitting wide-eyed on the front porch, hearing amazing stories about New Jersey hoods.
"Your eyes are like jar lids," he recalled.
The crime, he wrote, changed the entire town.
"The minor problems of the past seemed inconsequential," Scadden wrote. "This was a town where many folks had never locked their doors; bad things happened in the big cities, not here in friendly Manchester. The feeling of great security, never really appreciated before, was gone."