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The Kidnapping of Willie Whitla, 1909


Story by Thomas Duke, 1910
Celebrated Criminal Cases of America
Part III: Cases East of The Pacific Coast

At 9:20 on the morning of March 18, 1909, a man drove up in a buggy to the East Ward School in the little town of Sharon, Pa., and told the janitor, William Sloss, to notify Billie Whitla, the eight-year-old son of the prominent attorney, James Whitla, that his father wanted him at his office immediately.

The janitor notified Anna Lewis, the boy’s teacher, and the lad was permitted to accompany the stranger in the buggy. Shortly after the boy was driven away, a schoolmate of his, named Morris, saw him get out of the buggy and mail a letter at the corner of Hull and Sharpsville Streets, and then get back in the buggy with the man.

That afternoon Mrs. Whitla received a letter which read as follows:

We have your boy, and no harm will come to him if you comply with our instructions. If you give this letter to the newspapers or divulge any of its contents, you will never see your boy again. We demand $10,000 in $20, $10 and $5 bills. If you mark the money or attempt to place counterfeit money you will be sorry. Dead men tell no tales. Neither do dead boys. You may answer at the following addresses: Cleveland Press, Youngstown Vindicator, Indianapolis News and Pittsburg Dispatch in the personal columns.

Answer : A. A. —Will do as you requested. J. P. W.

As Mr. Whitla was quite wealthy and his brother-in-law, Frank H. Buhl, was one of the wealthiest men in that section of the country, they immediately expressed a willingness to follow the instructions.

The horse and buggy which was used by the kidnapers was rented from Thompson’s livery stable, in South Sharon, and was found at 5 p. m. the same evening on East Market Street, in Warren, Ohio, the horse being almost exhausted.

As Mr. Whitla feared that if the authorities got on the trail of the kidnapers his son might be killed, he rendered them no assistance and requested that no investigation be made until his boy was returned.

On March 20, Whitla received a letter which was directed in three hand writings. One was that of a woman, another of a man and the third by Billy Whitla.

This letter directed Whitla to proceed to the Flat Iron Park, in Ashtabula, Ohio, designating the route for him to take, and to deposit the money in a certain spot.

Whitla, proceeded to the park, but as he did not follow instructions as to the route, no one appeared for the money.

On March 22 Mr. Whitla received another letter, which read as follows:

A mistake was made at Ashtabula Saturday night. You come to Cleveland on the Erie train leaving Youngstown at 11:10 a. m. Leave the train at Wilson Avenue. Take a car to Wilson and St. Clair. At Dunbar’s drug store you will find a letter addressed to William Williams.

We will not write you again on this matter. If you attempt to catch us you will never see your boy again.

The letter at the drug store instructed Whitla to proceed to a confectionery store conducted by a Mrs. Hendricks at 1386 East Fifty-Third Street, and deliver the package of bills to the woman in charge and inform her it was for Mr. Hayes.

This woman would then give him a note instructing him as to his next move. Whitla did as directed. Mrs. Hendricks received the package of bills, but in complete ignorance of its contents. She then handed Whitla the note which “Hayes” had previously given her with instructions to hand it to the party who delivered the package.

This note instructed Whitla to proceed at once to the Hollenden Hotel and await his son, which he did.

At 8 o’clock that night two young men named Edward Mahoney and Thomas Rumsey saw a boy of Willie Whitla’s description on a Payne Avenue street car, who, upon being interrogated, stated that he was going to meet his father at the Hollenden Hotel.

The boy acted as though he was under the influence of some opiate, and although he stated that his name was Jones, he was turned over to Policeman Dewar, who took him to the hotel and delivered him to Mr. Whitla, who had become hysterical after three hours’ of nerve-racking waiting.

It was some moments before the boy recognized his father. After his mind cleared he stated that he had been in the custody of “Mr. and Mrs. Jones,” who informed him that he was in their charge because his father feared he would catch the smallpox if he was not taken away. He said it was “Mr. Jones” who called at the school for him.

In the house where the boy was detained he was told to hide under the sink whenever any one knocked at the door, as it might be the doctor, who would take him to the pesthouse if he saw him. The boy took great delight in “fooling the doctor.”

He furthermore stated that “Mr. and Mrs. Jones” escorted him to the car on the night he returned to his father.

When Billie returned to Sharon with his father, the town became the scene of a carnival. A military organization known as the “Buhl Rifles,” named after the lad’s millionaire uncle, paraded the streets, followed by a large portion of the population, and bands serenaded at the Buhl and Whitla homes.

Notwithstanding the fact that Chief Kohler, the “Golden Rule chief,” of the Cleveland police, whom ex-President Roosevelt regards as one of the leading police officials in America, had been ignored and misled by thcse who were in a position to assist him to recover the boy and apprehend the criminals, he proceeded with his investigation on the day following the recovery of Billie, and ascertained that the kidnapers had been holding him a prisoner at the Granger Apartment House, at 2022 Prospect Avenue, S. E., nearly all the time he was in their custody.

But the child had been so closely confined that Miss Mills and Mr. Mears, who conducted the house, believed that the man and woman, who gave the names of Mr. and Mrs. J. H. Walters, were alone in the apartments.

Pat O’Reilly, who conducted a saloon on Ontario Street, informed the police that shortly after the ransom was paid a young man and a very pretty dark-complexioned young woman were in his place and that they spent $30 in a very short time. But the most significant circumstance was that the man always produced five-dollar bills when paying for drinks, which he at times purchased for every one in the house.

On Wednesday, March 24, Captain Shattuck and Detective Woods, of the Cleveland police, arrested a man and woman who answered the descriptions given by O’Reilly, and when they arrived in front of the police station, the man broke away from the officers and attempted to escape.

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Captain Shattuck fired a shot at the fleeing man, who stumbled and fell and he was recaptured before he could rise to his feet. When the woman was searched $9,848 was found concealed on her person. The money was of the same denomination as that paid by Whitla and was in packages, just as he had delivered it.

The couple finally gave the names James H. Boyle and wife, and virtually admitted their guilt.

Billie Whitla was brought back to Cleveland, and he at once identified the couple as the Mr. and Mrs. Jones who had “protected” him from the doctor and gave him candy that made him “sleepy.”

Mrs. Hendricks identified Boyle as the man who left the note to be delivered to the man who left a package for “Hayes” and who subsequently returned for the package.

As it was feared that Boyle and his wife might be lynched if they were taken to Sharon, it was decided to detain them in the Pittsburg jail until their trial began at Mercer, Pa.

On May 6 Boyle’s trial took place in Mercer, Pa. The movements of the defendant and Mrs. Boyle were traced by different witnesses from the time Billie was kidnapped until their arrest.

The evidence produced by the prosecution was so overwhelming that the defense realized the folly of attempting to disprove it, and offered no testimony.

The lad testified that at the request of Boyle he wrote his mother’s name and address on the envelope which was mailed in Sharon immediately after the kidnapping. He also stated that Boyle “had whiskers here” (indicating the upper lip) when he called at the school. Abner Hancock, of Niles, Ohio, testified that he shaved Boyle shortly afterward.

After a brief argument the case was submitted to the jury and after a few moments’ deliberation the defendant was found guilty.

Mrs. Boyle’s case began the same day, and as she was leaving the court a mob of men and women threatened to lynch her, but she defied them and shouted that she would make them all “climb trees” if the officers would release her.

Her trial was resumed on the following day, the evidence against her being similar to that which convicted her husband, with the exception that Billie identified the nurse’s suit which Mrs. Boyle wore in the Granger Apartments for the purpose of adding weight to the tale she related to him, which was to the effect that he was being detained in a hospital.

Like her husband, Mrs. Boyle offered no defense, and was promptly found guilty of aiding and abetting in the kidnapping.

On May 11 Mrs. Boyle was sentenced to 25 years imprisonment, while Boyle was sentenced to penal servitude for life.

Boyle then stated that Harry Forker, Mrs. Whitla’s brother, originated and participated in the kidnapping conspiracy.

Boyle claimed that on the night of June 8, 1895, he and Dan Shay, a saloonkeeper, who died in 1907, discovered Forker removing letters from the dead body of Dan Reeble, Jr., which was lying on the sidewalk on Federal Street in Youngstown. As a price for his silence, Boyle claimed that he had since extorted various amounts of money from Forker, but when he demanded $5,000 in November, 1908, Forker claimed he could not pay the amount, but in a letter suggested that Billie Whitla be kidnapped and held for ransom.

Boyle claimed that he delivered this letter to Whitla after the kidnapping, but before his arrest, with the understanding that he would not be prosecuted.

Mr. Whitla and Mr. Forker branded Boyle’s statement as preposterous.

Policeman Michael Donnelly, of the Youngstown police, stated that he was talking to Reeble in front of the building where the latter lived on the early morning of his death. The two men parted, Reeble going upstairs, and when the officer had walked about 200 feet he heard a noise in the direction of the Mauser building, and on returning he found Reeble lying unconscious on the sidewalk. As the dying man made a practice of sitting on his window sill before retiring, he probably lost his balance and fell. According to Donnelly, neither Forker, Shay nor Boyle was present.