Title: Hands Up! In the World of Crime or 12 Years a Detective by Clifton Rodman Wooldridge
Location: Google Books Date: 1901
Clifton Rodman Wooldridge was, in his own words, “Chicago’s famous detective” and served on the Chicago Police force from 1888 to July of 1901. Much of his career was spent cleaning up the notorious Custom House Levee, now known as Printer’s Row and the former home of the city’s most famous publishing houses. Hands Up! is a fascinating look back at a time and place where getting “booked” on Printer’s Row had an entirely different meaning.
DESCRIPTION OF THOSE NOTORIOUS RESORTS OF VICE WHICH WERE BROKEN UP BY DETECTIVE WOOLDRIDGE.
So much has been said in the public press about “panel houses” that it is deemed expedient to devote a few pages in this work to a detailed description of them. With the accompanying illustration it is believed a very clear conception can be had of them by the reader.
A panel house is the invention of thieves of both sexes, and in them hundreds of thousands of dollars have been stolen from the unsuspecting victims of vicious women. They thrived a long time in the levee district of Chicago, which is that portion of the city bounded by the river on the north, Twenty-second street on the south, Lake Michigan on the east, and the Chicago river on the west.
The police gave these places the name of panel houses, the proprietors calling them simply houses of ill-repute or sporting houses. A panel house may contain two or more rooms, a whole flat, or an entire building, and is adapted to the accommodation of a few or a large number of visitors or victims according to the designs of the owner.
The rooms for guests are usually small in dimension, and contain but one bed. If there is only one door, holes are bored in this, in order that every move of the visitor may be seen by some one on the outside, to whom a signal is given at the proper time to enter and secure the visitor’s money.
This signal is usually given by a movement of the hand or foot of the companion of the intended victim.
The victim is always told to lock the door himself, which he does and is satisfied that it is safe and securely fastened against intruders. He is sadly in error, however, because the bolt of the lock can be worked from the outside. This is done by the use of a small nail or any piece of metal or wood which will fit into the slot in the woodwork of the door where the lock is. This slot is about an inch and a half long and one sixteenth of an inch wide. A small hole has been made in the bolt of the lock, and the tumbler or spring in the lock, which is operated by turning the key, has been partly filed away to permit the bolt to be worked back and forth by the use of the nail without causing the key to turn or to make any noise.
This slot in the door is so small that it can never be discovered except by accident or close inspection.
The hinges of the door have been well oiled, and it is opened without attracting the attention of the victim, who is occupying the bed at the opposite side of the room. If perchance any noise is made by the thief, the lights are instantly extinguished by a confederate, and the intended victim is held fast until the thief makes his or her escape.
If no noise is made the thief gets all the money and valuables to be found and goes out quietly, and the victim upon dressing discovers that he has been robbed. He finds the door securely locked and knows that his companion did not go near his clothes, and therefore could not have taken his money.
Sometimes he is induced to believe that he was robbed before he entered the place, or that he had lost his money, and goes away without complaining to the police. A three-room flat with doors opening into each other on the side is the best adapted to working the above described panel game. Although no panels are used in this case, it is included in what is known as panel house robberies.
Another method used by panel house keepers is to have secret closets built in their rooms in which the thief conceals herself until the proper opportunity presents itself to rob the victim.
Another method, and the one which gave these houses their name, is a moving or sliding panel. These are placed ingeniously in the walls or doors and are operated by secret and invisible springs.
These panels are usually concealed by pictures or curtains. In the room containing these panels, there is only one chair or sofa, which is placed against the wall or door beneath the panel. This is done for the purpose of forcing the victim to place his clothes, when he has undressed, near the panel, he being compelled to use the sofa or chair for a clothes rack.
The thief keeps informed of everything that occurs in the room by peering through the holes in the wall or door, and at the proper time quietly slides or removes the panel, reaches in for the victim’s clothes, rifles them of money and jewelry, puts them back in their place, and when the poor dupe discovers his loss, he is confronted by a mystery which he is unable to solve.
In some cases long poles are used to get the victim’s clothes. If they are by accident or intention laid off beyond reach of the thief’s crafty hand, this pole with a hook frequently accomplishes the designs of the robber. Of course, in every case the plunder is divided with the companion of the victim.
The lock used on the doors of these rooms is the enterprise and ingenuity of a well-known saloon keeper who at one time owned several panel houses. He sold a number of these locks to the keepers of other panel houses, for which he received several hundred dollars each.
In cases of robbery keepers of panel houses try in many ways to prevent their victim from complaining to the police. One of these plans is to have a man or boy stationed in front of the houses, who is called a trailer. When the victim of robbery leaves the house this trailer is informed by signs made from a window, how much money has been taken. The trailer then follows the victim, and if it is ascertained that he is going to the police station he is intercepted and taken back to the scene of the robbery, it having been suggested that he may be able to get some of his money back or to get some assistance. If it is found that the victim is a stranger in the city, she will offer to procure his transportation to his home, declaring that he was robbed by an outsider and protesting that she could not possibly afford to allow such a thing to occur in her house. Sometimes this stops a complaint at the police station, and the victim leaves the city a poorer but wiser man.
To show the vast extent to which this panel house thieving is carried, it is only necessary to state that $1,500,000 were stolen annually in 1892, 1893 and 1894.
Ten thousand dollars have been taken this way in the levee district in one night, and from fifty to one hundred cases of larceny have been reported to the police in twenty-four hours.
Ten thousand dollars have been offered by these panel house keepers and those who shared their ill-gotten gains for the removal of Detective Wooldridge from the secret service work of the city. These thieves often had the protection of a certain class of politicians, and it is said of some officials also, who participated in the profits of their highway robbery.
It is but giving credit to whom it belongs, however, to say that Mayor Carter H. Harrison, during his several terms as the city’s chief executive, gave support and encouragement to all efforts to wipe out these panel houses. He, like other good citizens, looked upon them as a burning disgrace and a low form of lawlessness that should be exterminated.
Detective Wooldridge, in his vigilance and determination, closed fifty-two of these panel houses in 1896. He closed and broke up forty-five of these places in the latter part of 1898, and in 1899 he secured the indictment and conviction of twenty-eight panel house keepers at one time. Following this, he secured the indictment of the property owners who rented houses to these thieves, and this last stroke put an end to the panel house business in Chicago.
Through the excellent work of Detective Wooldridge, seven of the toughest strong-arm footpad women in the world were sent to the penitentiary. Their thefts, according to the police records, are said to have amounted to $425,000. The names of the women follow: Emma Ford, Pearl Smith, Flossie Moore, Minnie Shouse, Mary White, Alice Kelly, and Mattie Smith.