This Week in History: Shipping clerk diverts products in theft

125 years ago, 1895

The Stitt and Schmidt wholesale dry goods company was the site of an intriguing scandal. Management had noticed a long trend of missing goods and decided to set up a trap to find out the source.

When a delivery wagon arrived one afternoon, shipping clerk William I. Johnson was overheard telling the driver to deliver some of the goods to a location on West Commerce Street owned by W. H. Dean. The packages sent to that location were full of luxurious wool blankets. The police followed the delivery wagon and caught Dean in the act of accepting the goods, and he was immediately arrested. Police then arrested Johnson and found $23.93 (around $750 in 2020) in his pockets.

Police found several packages in Dean’s rooms that were identified as only a small portion of the missing property. Johnson assured police that if he was allowed to join the detectives, after dark, he would lead them to the locations of the remaining packages. They traveled first to Ellsworth then to New Buffalo, ending their journey at several saloons and residences on the West Side. In total, more than $350 worth of stolen goods were recovered, nearly $10,750 today. Dean’s rooms were set up like a small store with gouged prices on all of the items. Police then turned their attention to recovering the property that was illegally sold by the pair.

The families of the pair were appalled by their actions. Dean “is the same man who has pretended to be so religious. Lately he has led prayer meetings at the mission rooms and repeatedly he had invited the police and firemen to come over and hear him talk religion.” Only 18 at the time, Johnson was full of regret for his part in the scheme and noted that he would miss his Sunday afternoon carriage rides with his sweetheart.

80 years ago, 1940

Tragedy struck an Austintown family twice in one week. The Willock family had recently lost its eldest son, Earl Jr., 14, when he was riding his bicycle on Canfield-Austintown Road. Following his death, the family decided to have a private picnic at Lake Milton in an effort to help ease the sorrow of their four daughters. A few hours into their gathering, someone suggested that they go for a swim. Donna, 8, and their youngest daughter, ran ahead of the rest and stepped into very deep water. The family heard her scream only once before she disappeared under the waves. She was rushed to the South Side unit of the Youngstown Hospital where she was pronounced dead.

45 years ago, 1975

Last week’s horrific train derailment prompted a few significant changes to local emergency response.

The accident at Youngstown’s Westlake’s Crossing resulted in the death of a North Side woman along with substantial damage to nearby vehicles and infrastructure. Communication links between police and fire departments during the incident were described as “shaky” by one officer on the scene. “The police mobile communications unit was dispatched to the scene, but direct radio contact between, for example, police Chief Donald G. Baker, on one side of the tracks, and fire Chief George Panno, on the other side, was not possible with the present radio system.”

The proposed system will offer a direct link between all emergency agencies in the area, including the police and fire departments, sheriff’s office, city hall administrators, the local Red Cross, and Youngstown REACT, a citizens band radio group. The system’s estimated cost was between $100,000 and $150,000 and required full-time staff to operate. The impact, though, would be well worth it to be emergency responders and the public. Radio receivers would be installed in every city official’s car, and everyone in the network would be supplied with a handheld radio.

The train derailment highlighted this need in several ways. Police “were often confused about how close to allow spectators and newsmen. Firemen sometimes countermanded police orders. Police reset barricades at least twice, after radio communications broke down, while officials were trying to determine how far back spectators should be held.”

Officials noted that the system would also be vital for other events and incidents. During a charity walk-a-thon, a young boy was injured but the responding police officer was unable to contact anyone with his walkie-talkie because there was no receiver site in the area. Ten minutes passed before a neighbor was reached to call into the police station for help. A similar lapse in communication happened after a tornado was spotted near Lordstown. It took nearly 30 minutes for all necessary officials to be notified given the challenges in radio communication. The proposal concluded: “It would be unfortunate if such an occurrence went totally unprepared for and resulted in mass confusion and the needless loss of life.”

• Compiled from the archives of the Youngstown Vindicator by Traci Manning, MVHS curator of education.


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