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Chicken Thief Flew the Coop
By Jim Potter
One-cent postcard sent to Sheriff at Wellington, KS, postmarked April 1, 1908, from Winfield, KS.
My WANTED postcard offers a reward of $25 for the arrest of John Hawkins. He escaped from the Cowley County, Kansas, jail in Winfield the night of March 31, 1908.
Hawkins, who had many aliases, was one of three men who had been convicted of stealing chickens in Winfield. All three men attempted to escape from the jail near the courthouse.
During the jail break, two of the chicken thieves, Johnson and Russell, attacked the jailer, Earl Day, who was a son of the sheriff, James S. Day. This occurred around 10 p.m. when Jailer Day was locking up a new prisoner. Johnson and Russell might have escaped if another inmate, a murderer, had not come to the aid of Day. Hawkins succeeded in getting away when he went upstairs and jumped out a second-story window and escaped from the jail courtyard.
Newspaper articles explain that the prisoners had somehow gotten out of their cells and gained access to the jail’s corridor, where they attacked Earl Day. The age of the jail wasn’t mentioned, but the bastille was built in 1873 and replaced in 1909, so there were likely severe security problems, including the condition of the jail doors and their locking mechanism.
Hawkins wasn’t free for long. He was captured on April 11th in Garnett, Kansas, returned to the Cowley County jail in Winfield, and sentenced on April 16th for stealing chickens. Judge Swarts gave Hawkins an indeterminate sentence from one to five years for grand larceny. When released from the penitentiary, he was to be brought back to Winfield to be tried for breaking jail.
In today’s world, being sent to the penitentiary for theft of chickens sounds extreme, but we live in different times. Yesteryear, families relied heavily on chickens for fresh eggs and meat, plus the income from selling both commodities. Back in the day, there was also a stigma attached to those arrested as chicken thieves. They were seen as the worst kind of crook.
Besides the crime being a felony, owners of the chickens were quick to protect their property by grabbing a shotgun to shoot any trespassing varmints, whether they were four-legged or two. Shootings, using rock salt or lead, were common and were considered justified.
In some communities across the country, there were stiffer sentences for repeat offenders, including life in prison upon the fourth conviction of chicken theft.
In 1910, Wyandotte County, Kansas, bands of organized chicken thieves stole thousands of birds by using chloroform to quiet the feathered flocks. This nighttime technique often allowed the criminals to go undetected until morning. As a response to the thefts, farmers and suburban homeowners organized the Anti-Chicken Thief Society.
James “Jim” Samuel Day (1856-1939), born in Indiana, came to Cowley County, Kansas, in 1877. He took a claim near Dexter and resided there for many years farming and stock raising, then went into the mercantile business in 1896 as a dry goods dealer. He also served as a city councilman and later as mayor. Day was elected sheriff and served 1903-1905, but in 1904 he was narrowly defeated for re-election. The voters returned him to office for the term 1907-1909.
A prominent Democrat, Day, was a state representative in the Kansas legislature in 1915, undersheriff for the Cowley County Sheriff’s Office in 1916, and served many years as chief of police at Winfield.
James Samuel Day, 20, married Catherine Elizabeth Mead, 18, in 1877 in Indiana. Since newspaper articles of that era rarely credited women as working outside the home, it’s unknown how much time she had to help run the dry goods store while raising six children.
Unfortunately for the Day family, they missed out living in a brand-new jail with a sheriff’s residence. Sheriff’s Day’s last term of office ended in January 1909. Newly elected Sheriff Link Branson moved into the completed jail and residence six months later.
Records from the Lansing Penitentiary reveal that Hawkins was held under the name J. B. Wright. Under the section for notes in the prison ledger there are three aliases listed: J. R. Walker, J. B. Ryan, and Jno. Hawkins.
I haven’t located any records of Wright (a/k/a Hawkins) after his incarceration at Lansing.
However, James Samuel Day (1856-1939) and Catherine Elizabeth Mead Day (1859-1934) are buried at Dexter Cemetery in Cowley County, Kansas.
Two additional men with the surname of Day served as Cowley County sheriff. Benjamin Rhodes Day (1872-1938) was elected and served two terms from 1917-1921. (He was a son of George Nicolas Day (1841-1909) who was a brother to James Samuel.) Cecil Wallace Day, Sr. (1905-1962) served one term from 1937-1939. (He was a grandson of William Nathaniel Day (1848-1924), another brother to James Samuel.)
Until next time, happy writing,
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