Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Wordless Wednesday: Charles Ricklefs

From the Monday, March 14, 1938 New York Post: Charles Ricklefs in the newspaper following his capture for the Mattituck National Bank robbery. He was 41. For anyone who used to watch Big Love on HBO - don't you think Matt Ross, who played Alby Grant, could play Charles in the movie version of his life?? And that will be all my words for this Wordless Wednesday :)

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

A rose by any other name: Harry Young, true name John Ricklefs

So since the adventures of the Ricklefs boys begins with John, that's where we'll start.

I think I wrote in a previous post that when I was trying to find his 1907 Sing Sing admission form, the New York State Archives said they couldn't find anyone under the name of John Ricklefs around that date - did he perhaps go by an alias?

Indeed, he did.

I don't know whether it's better to write this chronologically according to when I discovered the information as to when the events occurred but I think I'm going to try to go with an events-based chronology and explain as I go along where (and if I can remember when) I found my information.

John was the older brother, born Feb. 7, 1887 by some accounts "at sea" (his World War I draft registration card) and by other accounts in Germany and even others in New York, to John Ricklefs and Meta Tiedemann, both German immigrants.

(And by the way, quick aside, I've seen Ricklefs also spelled Rickleff, Rickleffs, Recklif, Ricklif, Rickless, Richlef, etc. and so on, but unless it's spelled a certain way in a certain document, I'm going to stick with "Ricklefs.")

According to Cousin Claudia, John went by the nickname Jack, at least later in life and so called by his family and that he was "charming" but a "follower who fell in with the wrong crowd."

In 1900, the family was living at 118 Utica Avenue in Brooklyn, at the cross section of the Crown Heights, Bedford-Stuyvesant, and Brownsville neighborhoods. If you read newspaper articles about that section of Brooklyn in that time period, there seems to be a lot of crime of the robbery/burglary variety being committed by young men in their teens and early 20s. I am currently conducting further research into what that area, and John's later home of East New York, were like back then.

Ok, so the earliest crime I could find according to the newspapers on was from 1907, but we'll jump to that in a minute. That fact got me an admission slip from the NYS Archives just this week for "Harry Young, true name John Ricklefs" that talks a little about his criminal history.

So, in 1903, at the age of 16, "John Rickles" was sent to the House of Refuge for 2-6 months for burglary in the third degree. The New York House of Refuge was the first correctional facility in the United States for youthful offenders.

By the 1905 New York census, the Ricklefs family is in their house at 456 Glenmore Avenue in East New York (according to a newspaper real estate listing, John Ricklefs Sr. bought the house in 1904). Maybe they were trying to get their boys out of a rough neighborhood? If so, they didn't move far enough...

Because on July 16, 1907, "John Rickless," age 20, was admitted to Elmira Correctional Facility in upstate New York. This is the first crime of his I had known about, but I never had any details, until now what his 1908 admission paper says. He was sentenced to five years, convicted of second degree grand larceny by Judge Dike. (Judge Norman Dike, btw, became the father of Norman Staunton Dike Jr. in 1918 - Junior was an officer with Easy Company, 2nd Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, during WW II. This was the group chronicled in both the Stephen Ambrose book and HBO miniseries, Band of Brothers.) End of historical segue...

Jack was paroled in November 1908 and violated that parole. Which brings us to how I assume he violated that parole. In the Dec. 21, 1908 issue of The Brooklyn Eagle, the headline reads: "Sing Sing for Hughes, Former Policeman Sentenced for Crimes Against Girl," with the smaller but more important (at least to us) subheadline, "Three House Looters, Known as the Bedford Gang, Also Go Up the River:"

"Another sentence by Judge Dike this morning, by which three young men are removed from the scene of their peculiar activities was received with signs of approval by the spectators in the criminal branch of the County Court. There will also be considerable relief in certain sections of Brooklyn when the news is broken to the public. The young men are John Ricklefs, alias Harry Young, 20, of 456 Glenmore Avenue; Henry Metzger, alias Henry Myers, 20 years of age, of 110A Hull street; and Edward Doyle, 21 years of age, of 615 Linden street. Ricklefs got 10 years and the other two four years each, all in Sing Sing. To this trio of worthies, known as the Bedford gang, the police give credit for at least sixteen robberies in that section of the borough, following the release of Ricklefs from Elmira some time ago. Thousands of dollars were secured by the young burglars and when they were arrested at least six indictments were obtained against them. They offered pleas of grand larceny, burglary in the third degree, and of receiving stolen goods. Judge Dike placed a large part of the blame upon the shoulders of Ricklefs as the arch villain of the combination."

My notes: Interesting how before the age of 30 John would be known as both a "desperado" and an "archvillain." What was he, a comic book character? But if he was in fact the archvillain, Dike would know, as he had put John away in Elmira just a year and a half before.

The story continues with a list of some of the residences the trio robbed: Julia Coblens, $1,000 in silverware; Maltby K. Pelletreau, $250 camel's hair shawl, $200 fur-lined coat, $100 worth of jewelry and some cash; Thomas A. Ennis, $300 worth of clothing, $300 worth of silverware, and $125 worth of jewelry; Magdaline Hulst, hundreds of dollars in clothing, silverware, a satchel, field and opera glasses; Charles Fox, jewelry, watches, and clothes; and so on and so forth.

And it is for these crimes that I have John's Sing Sing admission paper. It was received Dec. 22, 1908; he is listed as "white" and given a grade of "C." (According to Wikipedia, arguably not the most reliable source but the easiest one right now, inmates were given one of three grades, with a usual probationary admission grade of "B" for six months. Depending on their behavior, their grade either went up or down. I'm guessing that violating his parole so actively in such a short time might have been what earned him a "C".)

The reason the Archives couldn't find this at first: under name it says "Harry Young." Under alias it says "True Name John Ricklefs." Hilarious. Sentenced by Judge Dike, County Court in Brooklyn. Sentenced Dec. 21, 1908 to a term of 10 years, convicted of third degree burglary, first degree grand larceny, and receiving stolen goods (hey, the newspaper article actually got that right! Good job, Brooklyn Eagle!)...Arresting officers were Detectives Donnelly and Walsh of the Brooklyn headquarters. Born? Germany. Age? 20. Occupation? Brick layer. Light complexion, Blue eyes, and what looks like light chesnut hair (although that seems a little poetic for a prison admission record.)

John was 5 foot 8 inches, 155 lbs, and he could read and write (so he wasn't exactly stupid). He had "moderate habits" (other choices being temperate and intemperate), used tobacco, and was a Protestant. Both his parents were alive and he had no children (see, even these records are genealogically useful...)

He lived at 335 West 15th Street in New York (this address is new to me...), and his mother, "Neta Ricklefs," lived at 456 Glenmore Avenue in Brooklyn. Hat size, 7; shoe size, 8 1/2; broad, round forehead, medium sized ears, nose and mouth, thick lips, thin, arched eyebrows, and missing six teeth. Awesome. Also, two small scars on his brow, with a long face and slong, slim hands and fingers. He signs this form as Harry Young.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Chasing Charlie: the criminal adventures of the brothers Ricklefs Part I

Ever since I discovered that my grandmother's grandmother, Meta Ricklefs Haase, had two brothers, Charles Ricklefs and John Ricklefs, who were both criminals of the robbing and burgling variety, I've been fascinated by them, my "great uncles." Using old newspaper articles, I learned a bit about their early 20th century criminal exploits, but boy, did I only scratch the surface.

I wrote recently that after finding further evidence that their activity was less of a one-time lapse of judgment and more of a lifelong habit, I sent away to the New York State Archives to see what kind of prison records they had available.

Today, I heard back. (So for all of you considering using the archives for this kind of research, the NYS Archives were fairly quick - I made my request about 1-2 weeks ago and since I only got three pages back, they didn't even charge me for the copying/postage fees.)

I've been trying to find everything I can on the Ricklefs boys, just trying to understand who they were and why they did what they did. Charles, the younger brother, in particular has become my "reason for researching" right now - it was John, 10 years older, who began his criminal career first, but it was Charles who followed John's lead and, when John seemed to have finally learned his lesson and had his fill, it was Charles who ended up wreaking the most havoc.

But let's recap: In March of last year, I first spoke about John and Charles, when I had discovered newspaper articles detailing how John had been shot in the chin while committing a home burglary in 1916. He was found not guilty of that burglary because of an error made by one of the prosecution's witnesses, and was acquitted of a home robbery committed just days before the one in which he was shot because his 19 year old brother, Charles, took the fall and was sent to prison in his stead.

In a second entry a month later, I uncovered the fact that John was first arrested in 1907, at which time he went by the alias Harry Young, and that in 1938, Charles, now 41 years old, was arrested for robbing the Mattituck National Bank on the east end of Long Island and sentenced to 15-30 years in Sing Sing. Again.

I think, though, a year later, that I am finally starting to scratch the surface of who these guys really were and I can't stop - these two brothers who grew up in a neighborhood that's tough today and was tough 100 years ago, these two brothers that fell in with a bad crowd, these two brothers that grew up in the golden age of organized crime, who grew up during Prohibition and the Great Depression, and Charlie Ricklefs, who loved his brother so much or was at least so loyal to him that he took the fall for a crime he didn't commit in order to save John from a life sentence, and came out of that prison stint apparently changed, for the worst, forever.

So, that's all I'll write for now, except to say that this is a perfect example of how important getting ALL the information about a person is, and how important CONTEXT is, to piecing together the puzzle. It doesn't matter how you do it or what you use, but chances are you're going to have to look in more than one spot and occasionally think outside the box!

Did I build it up enough for ya? Don't worry - I'll get to the good stuff soon enough :)

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

A field trip back in time: The cousins visit Ellis Island

Statue of Liberty
So last Friday, Cousin April, Cousin Andrew, and I made the trek into New York City to go visit Ellis Island. Even though I don't have family who came through there, it's still one of those places that is so steeped in history, so integrated into the very fabric of modern American culture and the personal family histories of millions upon millions living here today, that for anyone with an interest in history or genealogy who has the time and means, the trip is worth it. Even though it wasn't quite the day we thought it would be...

For anyone who has never been, you have to take a ferry to Ellis Island - there's one that leaves from New Jersey but we took the one that leaves from Battery Park. The ferry, unfortunately for anyone just heading to Ellis, servies Liberty Island as well. Since the Statue of Liberty is such a popular tourist attraction (and especially this year, when it turns 125 - boy, she looks good for her age!), that means waiting on an extremely long line just to get on the ferry. I was naive in thinking we'd get down to Battery Park and just hop on board. Oh, how nice that would have been! I think we got into the city at about 10:45 a.m. - we made it onto the 12 noon ferry.

Welcome to Ellis Island!

The trip itself is not that long (thank God for people like April, who have no love of the water), although more time gets chewed up docking at Liberty Island before heading on to Ellis. We got there about 12:30. So already we'd spent almost three hours traveling (from only 30 miles away no less!) and had only just arrived. But Ellis Island is beautiful. The building is gorgeous, both inside and out, the grounds very pleasantly park-like. The people who spent years restoring the place in the late 1980s did a wonderful job.

Ellis is basically a museum, albeit inside the actual building where actual history occurred. There are displays of photos of immigrants, passports that have been donated, old clothing and trunks and other knick-knacks that these immigrants brought with them, along with the stories behind them, as told by the immigrants themselves or their descendants, which is pretty fascinating. Unfortunately, a lot of the display cases were empty as Ellis seems to be in the middle of a big conservation project. My favorite part is walking through the big hall where people lined up and were questioned by immigration agents, dormitories off to the sides, staircases leading to either the ferry that would finally usher them into New York or to detention rooms if they were sick or needed to be held further.

Family possessions on display at Ellis Island.

The Great Hall at Ellis Island.

Now, apparently every site within the National Park Service has a library pertaining to the history and subjects about that site, and April had been corresponding with the head librarian there about their oral history project - interviewing immigrants as well as former employees - and he was out but invited her to stop by the libary to ask one of his techinicians for a tour of the oral history recording room and listening room, and to ask any other questions she might have. I won't name any names, but what should have been a 20 minute stop turned into an hour long visit as the library technician basically showed us the entire library, repeated himself a million times, and didn't pick up on any of the clues April was dropping that we were politely trying to leave. The reading room there is beautiful, I'll admit - I would definitely feel inspired to do research in that room. However, I would have liked to have seen more of the displays and exhibits than just the reading room and the library stacks. (April, it's not your fault!)

The Bob Hope Memorial Library reading room at Ellis Island.
The one other pretty neat thing is that for anyone who doesn't have or access to passenger lists, Ellis Island has a specific research area where, if you have an ancestor who came through Ellis Island between 1892 and 1924, you can look them up on Ellis' database and print out the passenger list. I don't know how much it costs, but especially for that later period of immigration, finding an ancestor on a passenger list can be pretty exciting, not only to see their name, but to see what other information it reveals to you (later passenger lists will often list specific towns a person came from, the name of relatives back home, and all sorts of other information.)

Mentally and physically drained from our hour-long library sojourn, we decided to tour the grounds of Ellis Island. We stepped outside, and it started to pour. When we heard thunder and saw lightning in the not-too-far distance and dark, ominous clouds, we decided it was probably best to just get back on the ferry and head home.

Not all field trips will turn out the way you expect. Did I learn anything new, personally? Not family history related - I did learn to not be quite so polite in trying to extricate myself from a conversation with a person who doesn't pick up on cues you're sending him that you've had enough. But I was reminded that we can do so much research on the computer, just sitting at home, but besides the fact that sometimes you have to go into the field to really get the answers you're seeking, there's something just so inspiring about actually stepping foot into a place where history actually happened.

(All photos courtesy of April Earle)

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Working with the New York State Archives for the very first time.

So, I tried out a new resource today - the New York State Archives. I've been doing genealogy for so long - can you believe I've never used the state archives before?? I guess it's because most of what I've found I've used more local facilities for - more often than not, I find local to be better than the bigger state and national resources. If a state has to cover millions of people but a village only has to keep the records on thousands, you have a better chance of finding your vital record or other record (and more quickly!) on the local level.

But sometimes you have to go large or go home. I have been spending the past week and a half really delving into the stories, the history, and the character of my two bank-robbing uncles, John Ricklefs and Charles Ricklefs. What I have been finding has been fascinating. I wrote about them before, but I have found out so much more since then that I feel the need to write yet another blog entry about them, hopefully sometime over the weekend or next week, but the point is that they both did so many multiple stints in multiple prisons for multiple home and bank robberies that I finally decided to see what I could find out about their actual criminal records.

I can't speak for everywhere, but in New York, criminal records for the state prisons are in the department of corrections section of the state archives. Like the hospital/psychiatric records I was trying to find on my great great grandmother Nora Cronin, most of these crimal records are restricted. Unlike her records, though, that restriction, for the most part, is for only 75 years (thank God so much of genealogy takes place at least that long ago! :)). It was tough navigating through the archive website, because I wasn't sure what pages I needed to read and what information was pertinent to what I was looking for. It's a bit like wandering around a maze, but you do it enough and you start to get the hang of it. What I found is that there are records available - admission records, case files, etc. - and so today I finally bit the bullet and shot them an email asking how I would go about getting ahold of something anywhere useful. Research assistance got back to me within a couple of hours saying that you can make the trip to Albany if you want, or they have staff that will do a search for you. You need the full name, the admission date (or conviction date), the inmate number if you have it, and what prison facility they were sent to. I'm not sure yet how long a search will take or how much it will cost but they do make photocopies and if they can't make photocopies, they do allow you to bring a digital camera and take your own photo, which I think is just brilliant. So far I am very pleased with my experience and since I just shot them another email asking them to do a search on the Ricklefs boys, I'm bursting with excitement to see just what exactly I'll be able to find out! I'll keep you posted!

On a quick note, tomorrow I have off so Cousin April and I are taking a field trip to Ellis Island - while I don't have any ancestors who came through Ellis Island as immigrants, I do have at least two who came through there as travelers, and I haven't been there since I was on a Girl Scouts trip in junior high (waaay too long ago!) so if the weather's nice, it should be fun - look for a post on that as well!

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Tombstone Tuesday - Rockville Cemetery, Lynbrook, New York

I don't know any of these people, but I was wandering around Rockville Cemetery last Friday on my day off, as I am wont to do unlike normal people who go to the mall or to the beach, and these headstones all caught my eye. I spend so much time in Catholic cemeteries - wait, that makes it sound like I'm always hanging out in cemeteries. I'm not, I swear. But whenever I go to a cemetery for genealogy research, it's always either a Catholic cemetery or a nonsectarian cemetery dominated by Christian markers. So these headstones stood out, so I thought I'd share them with you.

If you're anywhere near Long Island and our mega-heat today, try to stay cool!