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By Jim Potter
In my collection of REWARD postcards, I try to learn as much as possible about the crimes, the criminals, and the lawmen—usually the sheriff. As a bonus, I’m always looking for a photo of the wanted criminal, and the sheriff who sent the postcard.
In researching the 1909 Mapleton, Kansas, burglary, I discovered a great deal about William Richman Nichols. Today he’d be called a con-man, but in the early 20th century he was referred to as a yegg or yegg-man. The early-day definition was that of a hobo burglar or safe-breaker.
Nichols had only lived in Mapleton, Bourbon County, two weeks before he committed his crimes and skipped town. But in his brief stay he had created a favorable impression to many of the citizens, including the editor of the Mapleton Press, C. W. Hessong, who had hired him as a printer for the local newspaper.
Despite his young age of 21, Nichols was a career criminal. Born in Marshall, Minnesota, (3.29.1888) he was sent to the reformatory at age thirteen for incorrigibility and graduated to serve time in penitentiaries at Little Rock, Arkansas, and Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
The night Nichols committed his crimes in Mapleton, he stole money from his employer’s office; money and jewelry from the safe at S. E. Ball’s merchandise store; and a pony to take him to Fort Scott. Oddly, in Fort Scott, Nichols left a note pinned to the saddle of the horse identifying the owner and instructing the reader of the note to return the horse to Mapleton to receive a reward.
Peter “Pete” C. Hesser (1851-1928), born in Ohio, served as Fort Scott mayor at least three terms before being elected sheriff in 1906 and reelected in 1908. He investigated the nighttime crime spree in Mapleton, twenty-two miles northwest of Fort Scott.
A few weeks after the crimes, Sheriff Hesser was notified that Nichols, using an alias of Robert E. Lewis, had been captured in Minnesota for more serious crimes, including robbing a railroad depot and battering two employees. While preparing to pick up the prisoner, Sheriff Hesser was informed by the Brown County Sheriff, New Ulm, Minnesota, that they intended to hold on to Nichols for prosecution and incarceration in their own state penitentiary at Stillwater.
Nichols was found guilty of felony crimes in Minnesota and sentenced to seven years in the penitentiary. When I examined the 1910 U.S. Census, he was in the pen at Stillwater working as a printer. I lost track of Nichols beyond his prison term.
Meanwhile, the 1910 U.S. Census in Fort Scott showed Peter C. Hesser, 58, living with family members at the sheriff’s residence, attached to the county jail that held six prisoners.
The Census ledger listed Maranda Jane Felton, 57, (1852-1931), as the sheriff’s wife. She and Pete had married in Indiana in 1875. Most likely, while living at the jail residence, Maranda was the bastille’s matron and cook.
One of Pete and Maranda’s four adult children, Maude Elizabeth Hesser McClain, 31, lived in the sheriff’s residence with her two children: Weta Thelma McClain, 9; and Helen Ruth McClain, 7. After I wondered why Maude’s husband wasn’t part of the family household, I discovered John A. McClain, 27, had died in 1904 after a period of poor health.
I found an error in the 1910 Census. A four-month-old girl, Bessie M. Bruce (1909-1989), was listed as a daughter of Peter Hesser while he was identified as head of the household. After considerable research, I learned that Bess was the daughter of Daniel P. and Emma P. Bruce. It’s possible that since Bessie’s parents and family were preparing to move to Houston, Texas, they may have had Maude McClain or Miranda Hesser look after the baby girl at the sheriff’s residence.
As Peter Hesser neared completion of his second consecutive term as sheriff in January 1911, he was ineligible for reelection. He was looking for his next career. He surprised a lot of people when he purchased a moving picture show theater (Vaudette) in Fort Scott. However, he sold the business prior to becoming a United States deputy marshal on November 1. He served as a federal lawman until at least 1914. In 1915 and 1916, Hesser was again serving as mayor.
Peter and Maranda are buried in Highland Park Cemetery in Pittsburg, Crawford County, Kansas. Pete died in 1928 at age 77. Maranda died two-and-a-half years later in 1931 at age 78.
Until next time, happy writing,
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