Bicycle History: The International Crime & Punishment Episode

It seems bicycles and crime go together, all around the world. I found lots of fascinating stories from back in the day, so, court’s in session …

Smuggling on the French-Belgian border, 1897

The duty on pepper was crazy high back then. So darn high that “poor people have almost ceased to know what pepper is, and even the moderately well-to-do Frenchman is to a great extent compelled to strike it from his list of condiments,” according to an October 3, 1897 article in the Los Angeles Herald.

“How will we live without boeuf au poivre noir?” cried thousands of French gourmands.

Because of this, “the smuggler of the Belgium border has come to regard smuggling pepper as an art of no less importance than smuggling diamonds.” The Belgian border-patrol guards knew this all too well, and searched everyone – including wheelmen and their wheels – quite thoroughly.

“Where oh where can we hide the pepper?” cried thousands of Belgian poivre smugglers.

Since this is a bike blog, you may have already guessed what the clever smugglers came up with. Genius!

[A] watchful official recently recognized a well-known suspect. He made him dismount [his bike] and put him through a rigid examination, with the result that not an ounce of incriminating goods could be found upon him. The supposed smuggler smiled good naturedly during the examination … when something happened that changed the expression of both men’s faces.

It seems the “lively lads who reside along the border” liked practical jokes. One of them poked the suspected smuggler’s bike tire with something sharp and …

… the tire exploded with a loud report – and lo! instantly the air was filled with a choking blinding pungent dust which the revenue officers had no difficulty in recognizing as pepper of the strongest kind. The smuggler tried to escape while they were clearing their eyes of pepper, but was seized.

Handcuffs? No problem

This story, from the June 19, 1895 edition of The Courier-News, Bridgewater, New Jersey is all about Cookey Clancy, “a well know character here.” I mean come on, Cookie Clancy – what a great hoodlum name. The coppers rounded up Cookie in Lambertville, New Jersey, handcuffed him and …

… while on his way to jail at Flemington today, [Cookey] knocked down Constable Scrope with his handcuffed hands and started to run. Then he seized a bicycle and rode as hard as he could, depending more on his feet than his hands. Several men on bicycles gave chase, and he was overtaken at the first bad hill. He fought desperately, but was brought to the railroad station, followed by a crowd of excited citizens. He is now in the county jail.

Caging a Five-Year-Old Boy?

This sad story ran in several papers, including the January 15, 1898 edition of The Cook County Herald, Grand Marais, Minnesota. It seems little Elmer Davis, just five years old …

… is the youngest criminal ever dealt with in the state of Iowa. Within a few days he stole a horse and buggy, a bicycle, a tricycle and a quantity of household goods. At the request of his parents he was sent to the State Reform School at Eldora.

Wow, his parents sent their 5-year-old son to reform school. I guess parenting was a bit different back then: That will teach him a lesson! The reporter in me just had to find out what happened to Elmer. There have been a lot of Elmer Smiths in Iowa, and the only story I could find that I’m sure was “Desperado” Elmer was in the December 17, 1906 edition of The Gazette of Cedar Rapids. It seems Elmer and two other boys “who were pardoned from the reform school at Eldora a short time ago, were all taken back Friday.” The poor kid never had a chance.

Here’s one more …

Please sir, I want some more … of your money!

London: Oh, the hooligans of the streets of London – they are so clever. According to a story in the November 28, 1888 edition of The Oswego Daily Bee, Kansas it seems that …

London street rowdies put up small boys to throw themselves in the way of bicycles, and on being struck by the machines to set up a howl and pretend to have been badly hurt. Then the rowdies crowd around in the role of indignant and sympathizing citizens, and the bicyclist is glad to pay the gamin roundly and get off with a whole skin. Afterward the rowdies and the gamin divide the proceeds.

I wonder if, 15 years later, the rowdies and gamin were running the same con on unsuspecting automobile drivers. Perhaps, but it sure seems a lot more dangerous.

Here’s the link to another of my on-going series of fascinating, old bicycle-history stories Women on Wheels). Sign up for email alerts so you won’t miss any. And remember: Never volunteer to help catch a lion!

Here’s the link to my five Biking France books (Bordeaux, the Loire, Provence, the Loire and Normandy) and Numbskull, my cycling-centric novel. No crime in any of them. Thankfully.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s