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Mountain Home Magazine

The Wellsboro Bank Robbers

May 27, 2016 04:05PM

At 6:30 a.m. on Sunday, September 20, 1874, John Wilson milked a cow on his family’s farm in Chemung, New York. Looking up, he saw a middle-aged stranger walking away from his father’s barn. A package stuck out from under the man’s arm, and items weighed heavily in the pockets of his dirty overalls. Wilson pegged the uninvited guest for a criminal. He knew that burglars had recently robbed First National Bank of Wellsboro, Pennsylvania, about fifty miles southwest. Police hadn’t yet made an arrest, but eyewitnesses had placed the robbers in the surrounding area on multiple occasions.

Wilson told his father about his suspicions. Then he took a horse and buggy to the local police station in Waverly, New York, where he spoke with Sheriff Brooks. By the time Brooks and a posse tracked the stranger to a local family’s house, they had a name for him—Mike Cosgrove. At the house, Mrs. Van Fleet told the sheriff that she knew of nobody fitting Cosgrove’s description; while she talked, a neighbor saw the man climb out of a second floor window, jump a fence, and hide in a neighbor’s outhouse.

When confronted, Cosgrove said, “The man you are after has made his escape!”

Sheriff Brooks hesitated to arrest him.

Six days before, two drivers and two teams of horses—one pulling a covered buggy and another a wagon—had left Danks stables in Elmira, New York. Around 1 a.m., they stopped at a hotel in Tioga, and, the next day, picked up four others who had traveled south by train. The group arrived in Wellsboro on Tuesday night and went directly to sheds behind the Episcopal Church, where they could tend the horses. At 11 p.m., a look-out stood under an elm tree across from John L. Robinson’s house on the west corner of Main and Charles Streets. Clouds covered any moonlight, and the air was dry. Next to the Robinson’s house, on the other side of a six-foot fence, was the First National Bank.

The Robinson family had operated the bank for ten years. With its frame storefront and wooden shutters and doors, the two-story building resembled a store, and in fact had been one in the 1830s. In May of 1864, John L. Robinson founded First National, and when he became its president in 1866, his son Eugene took his place as cashier.

Both John and Eugene Robinson slept at the family house that night, along with four others: Mrs. Robinson, John’s wife, Mrs. Smith, their widowed daughter, a female servant named Mary Reilly, and a hired man named Joe Murray. John and his wife slept on the first floor and the others on the second: on one side of the second floor, Mrs. Smith and Mary Reilly shared a room and Eugene had his own; on the other side, Joe Murray slept.

Shortly after midnight, the burglars entered through a kitchen window. They wore white overalls, shirts, and socks over their shoes. Cloth masks covered their faces.

Holding revolvers and lanterns, the robbers entered the rooms of Eugene, his sister, and his parents. Each awoke to the sound of strange voices.

“Don’t speak!” Mrs. Smith heard. A man told her to dress but she refused. He took a dress off her door, pulled it over her head and buttoned it.

Downstairs, John Robinson awoke to a man on either side and one at the foot of his bed. His wife screamed. She begged the men not to kill her husband, who tried to fight from a prostrate position. They hit him in the head and blindfolded and forced the couple upstairs into their daughter’s room. As the robbers started tying the family to chairs with ropes, Smith argued that her mother had a bad heart and had to lie down. So the men tore apart a sheet and used the strips to tie Mrs. Robinson to the bed. Then they handcuffed her feet together.

After securing the household—except for Joe Murray, who slept through the event—the burglars blindfolded Eugene and walked him barefoot from the back of his house through the fence and into a side door of the bank.

Banks operated in the center of small towns for reasons of access and security. Neighboring storefronts offered protection from break-ins during the day; at night, however, an absence of foot traffic in back alleys made banks vulnerable. Most used combination locks to secure safes and vaults, encouraging thieves to target and threaten cashiers until they turned the combinations to the right numbers. To combat this practice, many banks had an armed security guard (sometimes the cashier himself) sleep next to the vault. The Robinsons had once used this security method, but they hadn’t done so in years. On September 15, 1874, only combination locks secured the vault and the safe: it held approximately $30,000 in “cash and convertible securities.”

The man identified as “Cosgrove” to the Waverly police also went by the names of McMaster, Morton, Bullard, Thompson, and Howard, but his most popular alias was Isaac “Ike” Marsh. Less than a year before, he had aided in another bank robbery in Athens, Pennsylvania, four miles south of Waverly, New York. These central Pennsylvania burglaries, though, were much smaller operations than those that had earned “Isaac Marsh” national attention. Six years before, Toronto authorities had extradited him to the United States after he stole more than a million dollars from a Union Express messenger in White Plains, New York. Once in American custody, he escaped with the help of a colleague on the outside. The following year, Cosgrove surfaced in Boston, where he worked on a team that drilled into a Boylston vault and escaped with over $400,000. He fled to Europe with at least two of his accomplices and opened an American bar in Paris on Rue Scribe. 

Eugene Robinson stood in front of his vault’s combination lock with bare feet. He turned to incorrect codes until he felt a gun at the back of his head. After he opened the vault, and then the safe, the burglars loaded about $28,000 in currency and bonds into a tobacco container. Forty-five minutes after breaking into the bank, Eugene found himself back in his sister’s second floor room. Ropes, handcuffs, and strips of sheets bound him and his father together, back to back. The men bit down on gags made from broom handles and ropes. If the women—Mrs. Smith, her mother, or Mary Reilly—screamed, said the burglars, a lookout would signal them and the family would die.

As the men left, one kissed Mrs. Richardson. She fainted. The robbers then nailed the bedroom door shut and collected every lantern and lamp they could find. They locked the front door from the outside, tossed the key, and stashed the lights in the back woodshed.

The Robinsons remained silent for nearly an hour. With whispers, Mrs. Smith and Mary Reilly convinced Mrs. Robinson to try and free herself from the strips that held her. Ankles cuffed, she shuffled to her husband, found a knife he had managed to stash, and cut the ropes that held him and Eugene. Robinson then found a screwdriver and used it to remove nails from the bedroom door.

The men awoke Joseph Murray. About two hours after the thieves had left, Murray and Eugene ran to a nearby Judge’s house with an account of the robbery. There was no investigative precedent. For, as former Governor William A. Stone remembered of the era in his memoir The Tale of a Plain Man, “There were no police guards or watchman of any kind. A burglary or robbery was unknown.”

At 6 a.m., over five hours after the thieves had left town, a brigade began to follow the men’s tracks. “There was great excitement in the community,” wrote Stone, “and farmers and town people tramped the roads with guns, revolvers, pitchforks and axes, looking for [the burglars].”

Their first discovery came from a stable hand who remembered that one of the burglars’ horses had worn a circular shoe. The group followed its tracks through Tioga towards Elmira along Mutton Lane Road, not normally taken by large parties. Along the route, they found two pairs of white overalls and several eyewitnesses. They figured that the robbers had reached Danks Stables in Elmira between 8:00 and 9:00 in the morning, covering about forty-two miles in six and a half hours.

The Agitator called the robbery “one of the most boldly-planned and successfully-executed robberies in the State” and “certainly the most startling and sensational criminal occurrence in the history of Wellsboro.”

That afternoon, First National Bank of Wellsboro opened its doors late. A few customers came for their money, but most trusted reports of the bank’s solvency. No longer intimidated by the burglars’ threats, the Robinsons advertised a reward for their capture: $5,000 for a return of stolen property, and $1,000 for information leading to the conviction of each man. To ensure that the bank wouldn’t be targeted again in the same way, the Robinsons updated their combination locks to time locks, a brand new invention by James Sargent. This new lock coordinated two separate clock movements that tripped a lever, discouraging burglars from hijacking cashiers who couldn’t control time.

When Sheriff Brooks of Tioga County searched “Mike” Cosgrove, he found about $1,000 hidden in his overalls, his boots, and in one sleeve of his dark blue coat. A search of the Van Fleet residence produced two stashes, one in a dresser and another in a satchel, bringing the total found with Cosgrove to about $12,000 in bonds and cash, nearly half of the steal.

Cosgrove, a large, fit man with blue eyes and black eyebrows, looked at the angry group.

“If I had my revolvers and knife with me,” he said, “I would make it hot for this crowd.”

Cheers, jeers, and lynching calls greeted Cosgrove at the Wellsboro station. The seasoned burglar scoffed at the local authorities. Confident that he would not see a trial, he waived his right to an examination, choosing to stay in prison until released—or, more probably, until a criminal colleague could break him out. Police accused at least one man of trying to spring Cosgrove: a man named Mike Welsh whom, in mid-November, police detained. As Cosgrove waited inside a cell for two and a half months, he grew increasingly frustrated and abusive, telling his guard that if he went to trial, he would “kill” the judge and the attorneys.

By the time of the indictment on December 1, police had arrested another member of the gang, a twenty-something local named Orson Cook. Eyewitnesses identified him as one of the drivers.

The trial attracted so much attention that trains from the north added two additional passenger cars. Observers packed the courtroom, cramming into standing room areas. The Agitator reported that the overflow crowd waiting outside for news numbered in the “hundreds.”

On December 1, Waverly’s Sheriff Brooks escorted “Charles” Cosgrove (“Mike” was another alias) into the courtroom. The prisoner wore hand-cuffs. His lawyer, L. P. Williston, a former U.S. judge, barked at the sheriff for degrading his client.

Brooks said Cosgrove refused to have them removed.

The judge asked why.

Cosgrove said he had asked “no favors of any God-damned man.”

“Very well, this is a free country,” replied the judge. “A man may wear bracelets if he wishes.” He charged Cosgrove with breaking and entering, among other charges, and asked how he pleaded.

“Nixy weeden,” he answered.

Cosgrove used the phrase to answer any question about the burglary.

“Nixy weeden.”

“Nixy weeden.”

The district attorney said Cosgrove was acting.

“You lie,” the thief said. “Go to hell.” Cosgrove’s lawyer said he was mentally incapable of standing trial. Doctors examined him and said his behavior was due to the effects of sleeping pills.

The judge proceeded with jury selection, ignoring Cosgrove’s antics. At one point, the defendant lay down on the floor of the courtroom.

On December 3, twelve jurors—eleven farmers and a miner—found Cosgrove and Cook guilty. About a week later, Cosgrove received his sentencing: sixteen years and nine months at hard labor and in solitary confinement at Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia.

“That’s all?” Cosgrove smirked. He said that if given the opportunity, he would do it again. He was, however, disturbed over Cook’s fate. He had tried to lift the younger man’s spirits in jail, even sending a deputy sheriff to buy both men cigars when visitors brought cash. And during the trial, Cosgrove testified that Cook had acted only as a driver. Still, Cook received nine years and six months at Eastern State.

As Cosgrove left the courtroom, he sneered at the spectators. Seeing Mrs. Robinson, he lowered his voice.

“Madam, I beg your pardon, and you are the only one.”

That Saturday morning, Cosgrove and Cook sat with six other prisoners in the back of a wagon. Perhaps because they were considered flight risks, they were the only criminals wearing chains.

By piecing together eyewitness testimonies with those of the Robinson household, the police determined there were six or seven burglars involved in the First National robbery. Only three were caught.

After Cosgrove and Cook were sentenced, Mike Welsh, the man suspected of trying to free Cosgrove, received five years for a lesser charge. Years later, Welsh took credit for planning and executing the robbery. In 1912, after his release from another county jail for another crime, the Tioga County sheriff filed new charges against Welsh in Wellsboro. He wanted Welsh to answer for the remaining stolen money.

During the trial, Eugene Robinson said that the robbers had taken about $28,000 from the bank, and that they had stolen a gold watch and more cash from the Robinson home. Cosgrove’s arrest in 1874 led to the return of the watch and approximately $12,000. This left more than $16,000 unaccounted for, money that the Robinsons hired the Pinkerton Detective Agency to find. They never did. 

Thirty-eight years later, the Tioga County Sheri wanted Mike Welsh to reveal the hidden location. Welsh struck a deal, saying that he could return the bonds in exchange for release. He led the police to Bradford County, Pennsylvania, where he said a man named Dugan had harbored the thieves after the robbery.

Dugan had died, but police searched his house and found some of the bonds in a trunk...along with other securities from other robberies. Welsh told police that after the crime, the burglars had divvied up the cash and Cosgrove had taken the securities to 6th Street in Manhattan, where an Irish diamond broker known for fencing goods gave him cash for some of the securities. Those he couldn’t sell, Welsh said, had been stashed in the Bradford County trunk.

Charles Cosgrove and Orson Cook died as broken men. At Eastern State, consumption killed Cook before his term ended. Cosgrove, whose health also deteriorated in solitary confinement, converted to Christianity and earned an early release for good behavior. In 1891, seventeen years after his trial, he remembered the judge who had sentenced him in the Wellsboro case. By then, Judge Henry W. Williams had become a justice in the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and lived in Philadelphia. Cosgrove wrote to Williams and invited him to his baptism, which the judge attended. The former burglar moved to New York, where the papers would mention him again only as a poor and ill man that a modestly successful actor supported.

When asked to consider Cosgrove’s supposed spiritual transformation, Judge Williams said he believed the experience was real. The former criminal had convinced him that it was so.