In the final installment of Mugshot March, we’ll examine a few long-forgotten characters who deserve to be remembered – not just for their luck, but for their personalities. Some of these stories are courtesy of OnlyInYourState.com.

 

Allow me to introduce Thomas Whitney, aka the Professor. Whitney was Omaha’s premier fortune teller, palm reader, clairvoyant, and astrologer. Despite his local fame, a customer complained about a reading. When Whitney shrugged it off, the customer decided to file a complaint with Omaha police. You really can’t blame Thomas Whitney for being annoyed. Someone didn’t like their reading so they went to the police?

1897. Thomas Whitney. Photo NE State Historical Society

 

The Professor was arrested for obtaining money under false pretenses. I don’t think I’d want to cross someone who could summon spirits to avenge him, but some fearless soul did. Whitney returned the money and served no time.

 

John Shead pleaded guilty to first-degree murder in 1914 in Bates County, Missouri. In June, he was sentenced to prison for the rest of his natural life.

Once imprisoned, John really did not like his new digs. In October 1917, he escaped over a wall, and appeared to be gone for good. Eventually he was picked up in San Francisco in March 1918 and returned to the Missouri State Penitentiary.

Even with a little break, Shead really wanted out. He escaped through the powerhouse gate by releasing coal cart in June of 1920. He was immediately caught and brought back.

For his next disappearing trick, Shead escaped in a box car from a warehouse December 5, 1928. This holiday lasted only 3 days before he was returned.

John Shead escaped once more, but the date wasn’t recorded. And he was returned to prison once again on November 6, 1949.

He was discharged in February, 1952 by the Cole County Circuit Court, 38 years after his conviction.

Shead was excellent at jailbreaking and you have to think he really enjoyed it. However, he was always caught and brought back. I like to think he spent the rest of his life plotting how to sneak back in to the prison.

 

Look into the wicked face of F.P. Robinson and prepare yourself for something shocking.

F.P. Robinson Photo NE State Historical Society

 

Robinson appeared in an Omaha saloon one afternoon and ordered a beer for 5¢. Robinson paid his tab with a Mexican dollar, which at the time, looked very similar to an American dollar. But the exchange rate of a Mexican dollar was only about 45¢. He should have received back 40¢ in change, but the saloonkeeper did not look closely and–assuming it was an American dollar–gave him back 95¢. Let’s hope Robinson enjoyed his beer and temporary illicit possession of 55¢ because his career as a criminal mastermind was destined to be short-lived: Omaha authorities arrested him for fraud.

(For reference, 55¢ in 1900 would be worth $17.22 today.)

 

Alv Lytle was indignant when he was charged with robbing a bank. He protested his innocence and he stuck to his story… as many other guilty criminals do. The judge didn’t buy it and he was convicted.

Alv Lytle. Photo NE State Historical Society

 

But! After Lytle served two years in the Nebraska Penitentiary, another man confessed to the robbery. Lytle was set free and given $2500 for false imprisonment.

 

Last, but not least, we have Albert Johnson who was sent up for Grand Larceny. I’ve written before about how the Victorians would often photograph prisoners in hats, which makes sense. A hat can alter a person’s appearance and in earlier times, it was the usual for men and women to wear hats in public. If a prisoner ever managed to escape, it made sense that they would be photographed in a way that would help them be recognized.

Men were also photographed with hair (including mustaches and beards) and after they were shaved, for the same reason. But, I learned something new today! The reason men were shaved and photographed again was not just for identification purposes. Apparently, there was a practical reason as well: lice was a problem in these facilities, and shaved heads and faces greatly diminished the risk of an outbreak.

Albert Johnson. (1885) Photo NE State Historical Society

 

Albert Johnson looks pretty different without hair doesn’t he? Seems like a wise policy! Hopefully, he thanked Nebraska law enforcement for relieving him of that dreadful mustache.

Mugshot March continues with an ugly, mysterious case. There isn’t a lot of detail available.

In 1916, 21-year-old Van Wilson had murder on his mind. His target was Frank Snedigar, a farmer living near Madisonville in Pike County, about 10 miles north of Vandalia.

Wilson shot and killed Mr. Snedigar immediately, but he also spotted his wife, and decided to kill her too. Mrs. Snedigar ran into her home and managed to hide her two small children, ages 8 and 4, behind a bookcase before Wilson entered the house and shot her.

Before the tragedy, Frank Snedigar had sensed trouble, and had even asked a friend to help smooth the trouble between him and Hiram Wilson, Van’s father.

Van Wilson

 

The trial was held in Pike County, and Wilson’s attorneys defended him on grounds of insanity. The jury didn’t buy it. They convicted Van Wilson of first degree murder, and the judge sentenced the defendant to natural life. A curious note in the Ralls County Record reads: “Wilson is related to some of the best people in Ralls County. His parents are among the most highly respected people of the vicinity in which the murder was committed. They have the sympathy of all in their affliction.”

His sentence officially began December 8, 1916, and was punctuated by long stays at Fulton Asylum for the Insane.

July 6, 1918: Transfered to Fulton Hospital for the Insane

January 10, 1922: Returned to the Missouri penitentiary

February 7, 1924: Transfer to Fulton Hospital for the Insane

September 4, 1924: Returned to the Missouri penitentiary

March 30, 1925: Transfer to Fulton Hospital for the Insane

November 30, 1926: Returned to the Missouri penitentiary

In December 1942, Van Wilson, now 47, was discharged from the Missouri penitentiary by Governor Stark

Fulton Asylum, Missouri

A tip o’ the glass to Old Spirituals’ friend, and the editor of The Poisoned Glass, Beth Crosby, for pointing out that today is National Absinthe Day!

Absinthe was a central element to my first book, The Poisoned Glass, which is the true and tragic story of 17-year-old Jennie Bosschieter’s murder in 1900. And in honor of National Absinthe Day, here is the first cover of The Poisoned Glass, a lovely original drawing by acclaimed artist Alexandra Balestrieri! If you would like to see more of Alexandra’s artwork, I highly recommend visiting her Instagram and her page on Etsy!

Alexandra Balestrieri original artwork for The Poisoned Glass

 

If you aren’t familiar with absinthe, it’s a legendary type of spirit that tastes like licorice. In the US, it ranges between 90-148 proof. It’s a plant-based alcohol made from fennel, wormwood, anise, and other herbs.

 

The Absinthe Drinkers (1881) by Jean Francois Raffaelli.

 

It’s noted primarily for being a controversial drink, which is said to bring on hallucinations, which made it a favorite with turn-of-the-century artists. Its nickname la fée verte, or the green fairy, comes from its distinctive green color. In advertisements it’s often depicted with a green woman, luring the viewer to drink a glass.

Absinthe originates in Switzerland, though many associate it with France. Its reputation as a dangerous drink resulted in its being banned in 1915 in the United States.

There’s good news for those who are interested in trying absinthe: it’s back on the market today! Have you tried absinthe? I’d love to hear from you in the comments!

Old Absinthe House, New Orleans, circa 1900