A local crime of the 19th century


The sun dawned on Gloversville on the morning of July 11, 1891 as it does today, but shortly after, an employee of A.D. Norton’s Jewelry Store, about to open for the day’s business, passed the store’s front window and immediately noticed something very wrong.

Not only were gold and silver watches missing, but jewelry items such as gold chains, necklaces, rings, and some diamonds on display the night before were now gone. He discovered in the back room that the safe was broken open and emptied. Thus began the saga of what was in all likelihood the richest heist in 19th-Century Fulton County, the total ‘take’ being estimated by Mr. Norton as between $25 and $29,000.

The Norton burglars were indeed highly efficient, but their real success depended on making a clean getaway with the loot, and in this important task they would be found inexplicably wanting. Police, surmising the burglars were from out of town, asked citizens to report anyone or anything that seemed suspicious. Citizens did see both things and people who appeared suspicious, or at least thought they had, and were happy to report it.

The biggest break came almost immediately in the unexpectedly rapid recovery of Norton’s jewelry, as the June 23 Republican reported, “On the early evening following robbery of the A.D. Norton Jewelry Store, two men were seen by several schoolboys entering a woods in the Town of Perth, Fulton County, known a Tyler’s Woods. Their actions seemed suspicious to the boys who watched them unseen from a distance. A third man remained on the outskirts of the woods with a white horse and gray buggy.”

The Perth boys knew a reward had been offered by the Jewelry Alliance Company the day before, but it was getting dark before the men left the woods, so the boys decided to return and search it for themselves the following day.

To continue the narration, “They ran away from school the next afternoon and in about an hour were richly rewarded by finding package number one which was buried, but not very deep. The boys making the discovery were Harvey and Edgar Hathaway and Duncan McIntyre, ages 14, 16 and 12, respectively. The news spread like wildfire around Perth, and soon Tyler’s woods was filed with searchers.

Duncan’s father, John D. McIntyre, found the second sack, but again just when darkness closed the second search. Searching was renewed promptly the next morning when Wilbur Hathaway made the third find. By now these woods have been looked over, almost felt over, and it’s thought there are no more hidden treasures. Mr. Norton believes about all the goods are recovered, save for a few diamonds too small to ever find.”

Meanwhile, although the jewelry was recovered, there was still the matter of capturing the burglars.

Enter the famed Pinkerton Detective Agency, hired by that aforementioned Jewelry Alliance, which Mr. Norton fortunately belonged to. This agency also posted a substantial reward for conviction of the perpetrators. Pinkerton Detective A. A. Estin rapidly appeared on the scene and begin doing what Pinkertons did best, detecting. droves of witnesses in both Gloversville and Perth had observed the same three strangers with their gray buckboard and white horse the morning after the Norton robbery, and were more than glad to tell Estin all about it, particularly about the tall man wearing a worn silk hat with a scar on his face.

Indeed, during the subsequent trial of James Donovan, identified as being the mastermind’ of the robbery, the Fulton County Republican complimented Pinkerton man Estin, observing, “The credit for assembling all this network of incriminating evidence, is due mainly to Detective Estin.”

When Pinkertons soon corralled Donovan in New York, he of course disclaimed any knowledge of the crime, but the scar on his cheek, plus the tall, battered silk hat he still wore, suggested a different story. The jury deliberated less than an hour at our county courthouse before convicting Donovan, who on Feb. 27, 1891 was sentenced by Judge Keck to six and one-half years at hard labor at Dannamora.

In a confusing aftermath of the case, both James Donovan and a second man also accused of being one of the three burglars, Thomas McAveney, were exonerated in court on Oct. 19, 1891 at the conclusion of the trial and conviction of two other men, Thomas Featherstone and John Jennings, when Featherstone dramatically stepped to the bar and presented Judge Keck with a brief letter stating, “There were only three men concerned in what is known as the Norton safe burglary. These three men are George White, alias Thomas Jones, plus John Jennings and myself, Thomas Featherstone. Mr. Thomas McAveney and Mr. James Donovan could not have been engaged in the said Norton safe burglary without my knowledge. This statement I give trusting that in the truthfulness of the same, it may lead to the discharge and exoneration of those two innocent men, Mr. Thomas McAveney and James Donovan.”

McAveney walked, and the governor soon pardoned Donovan, but many, including the Daily Leader, thought it a political fix. The Editor observed, “Were these men Featherstone and Jennings simply carrying out details of a grand underworld scheme to liberate the real criminals in the Norton job by testifying in their behalf, for a consideration worth serving a few years in prison?”

Well, were they?

By Patricia Older

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