Tony Muscarelli, 13, and Willie Madden, 12, were walking down Depot Street, Ashtabula, on the evening of March 20, 1909, when a 30-year-old man accosted them from across the street.
“Hey guys — come here a minute,” the man yelled, briefly stepping out of a dark alley and onto the dim edge of a street lamp’s glow.
Tony and Willie looked at each, shrugged their shoulders and crossed the street.
“What ya want?” Tony said, putting on a tough front as they followed the man into the alley. Suspicious, the boys scanned and memorized the man’s features: 5-feet, 6-inches or so, clean shaven and dressed in a dark suit with blue stripes.
“I got a little job for you do, kid. I got this letter I need you to deliver for me to the Smith House, right over there,” the man whispered, pointing to the hotel across the street. “I got a buddy by the name of C.A. White who’s arriving on the 8:45, and he’s going to be looking for this letter as soon as he gets in. Make sure they hold it for him at the desk, OK, kid?”
“Yeah, well what’s in it for me?” Tony asked.
“Here’s a dime. Go buy yourselves some candy after you deliver the letter. And remember, I’m watching you, so don’t goof up,” the man warned.
The boys were about halfway across the street, heading toward the hotel, when the man yelled at them again.
“Hey, you guys know where I can find a telephone?” he said.
“Sure, the depot has one,” Willie said.
“No good, kid. I had fight a there, and I dare not go back, unless I want my face smashed in,” the man said, disappearing into the alley again.
The boys continued on to the hotel, where they handed the letter to Clerk Temple. The clerk, paying no attention to the “C.A. White” inscription, opened the letter and read the contents. He scanned the words, then gasped as his mind processed the implications: Ashtabula would be, for a few hours, the epicenter of an investigation into one of the most high-profile kidnapping cases of the early 20th century.
Two days earlier, March 18, 1909, in Sharon, Pa., 8-year-old Willie Whitla, the son of prominent lawyer James Whitla, had just settled into his day of lessons at the EastWard School when he was called from class by the school’s janitor, William Sloss.
Outside the school, James H. Boyle and his wife Helen McDermott Boyle were waiting in a horse-drawn buggy. James Boyle had told Sloss that Willie’s father sent him to pick up the boy from school. Willie’s teacher, Anna Lewis, complied with the couple’s request, put Willie’s coat on him and led him to the buggy.
“I hope that man doesn’t kidnap Willie,” Lewis said to Sloss as they watched the buggy disappear into the spring morning.
Inside the buggy, Willie began asking questions.
“When am I going to see my daddy?” Willie said.
“Pretty soon, kid,” said James Boyle, unwrapping a cheese sandwich and handing it to him. “You see, we came here to keep you safe. This whole town is about to be quarantined because of small pox; it’s all over the place. Now your dad loves you so much, he asked us to take you to another town, where you’ll be safe.
“But first, we got a little business to take care of. I’m going to stop up here by the postal box, and we want you to get out and mail this little letter to your mom and dad, so they will know you are safe.”
That night, the ransom note arrived at the Whitla home.
“We have your boy and no harm will come to him if you comply with our instructions. If you give this letter to the newspapers or divulge any of its contents, you will never see your boy again. We demand $10,000 in $20, $10 and $5 bills. If you mark the money or attempt to place counterfeit money you will be sorry. Dead men tell no tales. Neither do dead boys. You may answer at the following address: Cleveland Press, Youngstown Vindicator, Indianapolis News, and Pittsburgh Dispatch in the personal columns. Answer: “A.A. will do as you requested.”
Botched in ’Bula
The following day, James Whitla’s answer appeared in the newspapers as instructed, and he received another note from the kidnappers. He was instructed, in a letter written partly in Willie’s handwriting, to travel to Ashtabula and call upon the desk clerk at the Smith Hotel upon arriving. He was to identify himself as C.A. White and collect the letter that would be waiting for him.
But Temple botched the kidnappers’ plan when he opened the letter and read the instructions. Whitla was to deposit the ransom under a cannon in Flat-Iron Park, which stood where the intersection of Center Street and Route 20 is today.
When Temple saw the instructions, he notified Ashtabula’s police chief. When James Whitla secretly arrived in town with the money later that evening, the plan was no longer a furtive deal.
Nevertheless, Whitla insisted on going through with it, and placed the money under the butt of the cannon. Meanwhile, a squad of detectives under the command of G.C. Perkins, head of the Perkins Detective Agency of Pittsburgh, waited in the Hollendon Hotel, Cleveland, for any word of the boy’s return. The detectives had a special train prepared and waiting to take them to Ashtabula upon notification.
The city itself was swarming with law enforcement officers certain that the kidnappers and Willie were either in the city or nearby. At the state line, a squad of 20 mounted members of the Pennsylvania State Constabulary waited for the signal to move in and apprehend the kidnappers.
Come the morning of March 21, the $10,000 was still under the cannon. It was obvious that the kidnappers had received a tip-off that the police were wise to them. They moved on, and Ashtabula faded from the spotlight as quickly as it had fallen into it (the New York Times ran a long story about the Ashtabula incident on March 22, 1909).
Found in Cleveland
“A mistake was made in Ashtabula Saturday night,” stated the next note that James Whitla received. This time, he was instructed to go to Dunbar’s Drugstore in Cleveland, where a note of instruction would await him.
Th drugstore note directed him to a candy store, operated by Mrs. Hendricks, who would take charge of the money. It would be marked for the attention of “Hayes.”
Whitla followed the instructions, and the candy store operator slipped him a note from “Hayes” in a sealed envelope. He was instructed to go to the Hollenden Hotel, where his boy would be delivered in a short time.
Several hours passed, and there was still no sign of Willie. Meanwhile, on the Payne Avenue streetcar, two young riders, Edward Mahoney and Thomas Rumsey, noticed a familiar face among the riders — the boy whose picture was on the front page of all the newspapers.
Mahoney and Rumsey struck up a conversation with the boy, who seemed to be in a drugged state. The boy said his surname was Jones and he was going to the Hollenden Hotel, where he would meet his father. Mahoney and Rumsey spotted a policeman and told him what the boy had shared. The patrolman transported Willie to the hotel, where the much-relieved father was reunited with his son that evening.
Willie told his father that Mr. and Mrs. Jones had taken him out of the city to protect him from the raging but phony smallpox epidemic. They kept him in a house, where he was forced to hide under a sink whenever there was a knock at the door because “it might be a doctor to take me to the pest house.”
“It was fun fooling the doctor,” Willie said as he laughed about the whole adventure with his father. Willie called Mrs. Boyle his “nurse” who took care of him throughout the ordeal, and when he learned that she would be locked up in the city jail, told his mother “That’s funny.”
The family boarded a train to Sharon, where thousands greeted them at the depot. Bands played and throngs pressed toward the family just to get a glimpse of the famous 8-year-old. One of the street urchins, seeing the fanfare that the boy received, sadly remarked, “Gee, it must be great to be kidnapped.”
“When a crowd began cheering and waving hats at Youngstown tonight, Willie sat back in his seat and accepted the applause as big as a man,” reported The New York Times on March 25, 1909. “Occasionally he would bow to the crowd or wave his hand. At length a newsboy shoved an ‘extra’ into Willie’s face and said, ‘Here’s a paper. Read all about your kidnapping, Willie.’”
“ ‘I’d rather read a funny paper,’ said Willie.”
A search of all boarding houses in Cleveland was ordered by Cleveland Police Chief Kohler. The search eventually led them to a saloon where a wasted couple were blabbing about how they had pulled off the perfect crime. Despite spending money lavishly at the bar, $9,848 of the ransom money remained hidden inside the woman’s dress.
“I planned the whole thing,” boasted Helen Boyle in her typical loud-mouth fashion as police led her away.
“Yeah, lady, and you did a lousy job of it,” said one of the officers. “You left a trail a mile wide.”
“I’m not stupid. We did it and got away, didn’t we? So you caught us. Everybody gets caught, don’t they? So what?” Then Helen, pointing her finger to her head, said, “I got brains, I do.”
The trial was held in Mercer, Pa., less than 50 days after the kidnapping. James Boyle got a life sentence; his wife got 25 years. He tried to convince the press that the kidnapping idea was not his, but that of Harry Forker, Mrs. Whitla’s brother.
According to Boyle, on the night of June 8, 1895, Boyle found Forker removing papers from the body of Dan Reeble, Jr., on the Federal Street sidewalk in Youngstown. Boyle began blackmailing Forker, mostly small amounts, until November 1908, when he demanded $5,000. Forker allegedly told Boyle he didn’t have that kind of money, and he ought to consider kidnapping his nephew.
The police blew a hole in the story, however, when they produced a cop who had talked to Reeble just a few minutes before he died. Reeble fell from an upstairs window and the cop was only 200 feet from the building when the incident happened. He insisted that no one, including Harry Forker, was near the body when he found Reeble dead.
Jimmy Boyle died of pneumonia at the Riverside Penitentiary in January 1920. Mrs. Boyle served her time, remarried and moved to Chicago. As for Willie, he went to become a successful attorney in Sharon. But, like his kidnapper, Willie succumbed to pneumonia, at the age of 31.