The Coughlin Kidnapping

A few weeks ago, HSMC member James Brazel was in the headquarters doing some research in our microfilm collection, when he came across one of Montgomery County’s most notorious crimes: the kidnapping of baby Blakely Coughlin from his family’s home in Plymouth Township.

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With a quick Google search, I found a summary of the case in a 1997 article from the Philadelphia Inquirer.  Thirteen month old Blakely was kidnapped from his nursery at 2 am on June 2, 1920. The kidnapper was an Italian immigrant named Augustus Pasquale (spelled Pascal in the early reports) who got the idea one night when he saw the family through their window while he was walking to the train.  Pasquale took a ladder from a nearby house, climbed through the window and took the baby from his crib.  He buttoned the baby up in his coat as he went from the house, and after a little while he discovered that he had smothered the child.  He then went to the Schuylkill, tied the small body to a piece of iron, and put both in the river.

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Then he sent several demands for ransom to the Coughlin family signing them, “The Crank.”  Though the family was not very wealthy, the boy’s father, George H. Coughlin, managed to raise $12000.  He left the money at a trolley station in Swedeland.  When the baby was not returned the state police, under Lynn Adams, stepped in.  It was by agreeing to pay another $10000 ransom, that the police managed to trap Pasquale.  This time, Coughlin was instructed to throw the money from an Atlantic City bound train when he saw a white flag waving along the tracks.  Adams had lined the tracks with state police, and when Pasquale appeared to retrieve the bag, he was arrested.  He later confessed and plead guilty to second degree murder, kidnapping, and extortion.  Since Blakely Coughlin’s body was never recovered, first degree murder charges could not be brought, and Pasquale escaped the death penalty.arrest

And that’s certainly an interesting story.  But I wanted to know more, so I went to our microfilms of the Times-Herald to follow the case in “real time.”  Day after day through the month of June and into July, the Times-Herald covered the story.  Theories about the case abounded in the early days, with the newspaper reporters asserting that the kidnappers must be a man and a woman based on some footprints.  The county commissioners offered a reward for the return of the baby.

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Various suspects were brought in, questioned, and released. There were at least a half dozen sightings of babies, in Pittsburgh, New York, and as far away as Arkansas.  The Herald blamed police for not doing enough and conducted it’s own investigation.  In the 1940’s and 1950’s, Pasquale repeatedly applied for parole, citing his age and poor health.  He also changed his story, often in ways that matched the early reports.  He claimed to have had accomplices, one a former servant of the family.  Later he said he kidnapped the baby with a woman who was desperate for her own baby.  Other times he claimed to be completely innocent.

In 1957, Pasquale, nearly blind and suffering from cancer, was released, but he soon violated his parole by leaving the state.  He said he had gone in search of the other people involved in the kidnapping.  After he was arrested, but before he confessed, Pasquale had also claimed to have accomplices.

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Reading through the day to day details of the case, helps me to experience the events, the way someone in 1920 experienced them.  All the details and the false leads because part of the story, too.  The sweetest and saddest parts, of course, were the quotes from Blakely’s parents.  His father was asked to describe him in the very first article: “He was a husky boy of thirteen months.  He had blue eyes and a fat round face and light hair.”

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“To the Scholars at Willow Street School…”

This morning in our collection, I found a very fragile letter from 1868.  It was written by Dr. John Francis Bourns the founder of the National Homestead for Orphans of Soldiers and Sailors to the children attending Willow Street School in Norristown.  According to the letter, the children raised $114.87 for the Gettysburg orphanage which housed the orphans of men killed in the Civil War.  In the letter, Bourns tells the children that other fairs have been held to support the orphanage, but none had been so successful.

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The first page of the letter

I couldn’t find anything else in the collection from the Willow Street School, but a search through the scrapbooks turned up an article by Edward Hocker (or “Norris”) about forgotten schools of Norristown.  He had come across a reference to the school in the Herald describing the very fair referred to in the letter.  The article appeared on October 8, 1868 and described the room at the school as being “tastefully decorated.”  The children were selling items that they had made themselves.  There was also a collection of pictures included a series of the monuments of Greece by T. A. Low, though the writer in the Herald declared the image created by the school’s principal Miss Emma P. Garrigus called “Departed Spirits” to be the best of the exhibit.

However, Hocker knew nothing else about the school.  He writes that there’s never been a public school in Norristown with that name, so it must have a small, private academy.  He turned to another local historian, Charles Major, who found that the school was in a brick building on the southeast corner of Willow and Spruce Streets.

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The final page of the four page letter.

In our card catalog, I found a card referencing the application for a charter for the Willow Street School Association.  The document was filed on April 9, 1868.  The card was created in 1954 and says that the document is in private hands.

So that’s all I could find about the Willow Street School.  The National Homestead in Gettysburg was much easier to research. After the Battle of Gettysburg, Dr. Bourns saw a photograph of three children hanging on the wall in a tavern.  The photograph had been found by the tavern keeper’s daughter on the battlefield.  Dr. Bourns undertook to discover the original owner, and sent out a description of the photograph.  Eventually, a woman in upstate New York recognized the photograph to the newspapers.  Dr. Bourns eventually delivered the photograph to Philinda Humison personally.  The search for the family in the photograph led Dr. Bourns to establish the National Homestead orphanage in 1866 (the Humiston’s would live there for three years).

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The picture of the Humison children.

Unfortunately, the orphanage later came under the control of a woman named Rosa Carmichael who abused the children by locking them in the basement among other things, and it was shut down in 1877.  The building now houses the National the Soldier’s Museum.

I was taken prisoner at the Battle of Chancellersville

In going through our collection of personal letters on Wednesday afternoon, I came across an interesting letter from Adam Wonsitler of Skippack, Pa.

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It is datelined “Camp Parole.”  This was a camp in Annapolis, Maryland, where the Union Army kept their own soldiers who had be captured by the Confederate Army and paroled.  A little background might be necessary here on what happened to prisoners of war during the Civil War.  The men were often exchanged in equal numbers.  This saved both armies the trouble of maintaining and guarding prisoner of war camps.  The exchanged prisoners were allowed to return to their units.  When one side had more prisoners than the other, the extras were paroled.  They were not permitted to rejoin the fighting until they had been formally exchanged.  In the Confederacy, prisoners were sent home and trusted not to return to their regiment.  In the North, they went to Camp Parole.

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“Annapolis-Maryland-Parole-Camp” by E. Sachse & Co., Baltimore, 1864

Adam’s letter is to his brother Jonathan who is back home in Skippack.  He says only that he was captured at Chancellorsville on May 3rd, and held at Libby Prison in Richmond, Virginia. Luckily for us, another man in his company (Company K of the 148th Pennsylvania Volunteers), was also captured at Chancellorsville, and he wrote a description of his experience for the regimental history.

One of my company, a man by the name of Melcher Wasser, looked back and discovered a rebel officer behind a tree and Wasser hollered, “Shoot him; he’s a rebel,” but we didn’t get time to shoot, for they came down upon us like thousands of demons, called us all kinds of names, and if any were slow in dropping their things they got plenty of help from the rebels.

James F. McNoldy, “The Prisoner’s Story,” The Story of Our Regiment, a History of the 148th Pennsylvania Volunteers (1904).

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McNoldy also went to Libby Prison, or “Hotel Libby” as he calls it. Wonsitler described his time in the prison very briefly, “lived on very small rations,  one quarter of a loave [sic] of Bread, and those loaves are much smaller as yours at home.”

As for Camp Parole, he writes, “I am tired of this place.  I would rather go to our Regiment, But think the war will come to an end before long.  The rebels have lost Vicksburg, Porthudson [sic] and other places.  And so I think that awful rebeldom will have played out before long.”

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The war of course, was not almost over when Adam wrote this letter in August of 1863.  He probably was never exchanged because in 1863 prisoner exchanges stopped when the Confederacy refused to exchange black Union soldiers.  Adam did however return to his regiment.  He was killed on May 10, 1864, at the Po River, part of the larger Battle of Spotsylvania, Virginia. Both the regimental history and Bates’ History of the Pennsylvania Volunteers spell his name differently than he does in the letter.

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His name is also on the Civil War monument in Public Square in Norristown.  His place of burial is not recorded.

Depression Era Norristown

A few months ago, a collection of Depression era photographs of Norristown came to the Historical Society. Dates on the backs of the photographs tell us that they were all taken in 1931 or 1932.

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But no one is sure of the exact location.  Here’s the same houses from a different angle.

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Also, we don’t know why the pictures were taken.  Was it a study for the railroad or borough?

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Here’s a rear view of some of the houses:

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Do you recognize any of the locations in these pictures?  We’d love to know more about them.