The Great Silverware Caper of 1908

Exactly what put the events of September 17, 1908 into motion may never be known. What we do know is that two would-be, cracker-jack thieves by the names of Henry Williams and Charles Hoffman decided to take the train from Norwalk to Redding that Thursday with the intent of robbing the home of one of America’s most famous authors – Mark Twain.

The fact that they knew that Twain’s new home was in Redding was probably a testament to the fact that at least one of these two Mensa candidates could read. A July 4, 1908 article in Harper’s Weekly had been the first of many publications that identified the town where Samuel Clemens, AKA Mark Twain, had constructed his new Italian style villa.

Arriving at the West Redding Station during the early evening hours of the 17th, the pair suddenly realized that although they had made it to Redding, they had absolutely no idea where in town Twain’s house was located. No problem. They would stop at the first house they saw and simply ask. Nothing suspicious about two strangers on their way to visit their good friend Mark Twain who had somehow neglected to send a carriage to retrieve them at the station. At least one of them had thought to carry a valise. It contained no clothing, it was brought along to carry the booty the pair was hoping they would find in Redding.

Luckily for them, it was James Blackman’s son Lloyd who answered the door and then proceeded to tell the two wayward travelers the correct route to the estate then known as “Innocence at Home.”

The Blackman House on the corner of Station Road and Umpawaug where the burglar’s stopped to ask directions to Mark Twain’s Redding Estate. The house still stands at 313 Umpawaug.

Luck would prevail once the dynamic duo reached the estate. Twain favored cats over dogs and there wasn’t a canine in sight. Had there been a trusty mutt guarding the place, there would have likely been some explaining to do.

Although Williams had brought along a revolver, the pair decided to wait until everyone had retired for the night before seeking entry to the house. Finding a kitchen window still open, they managed to get inside sometime around midnight.

After walking several miles on foot, they must have come to the conclusion that whatever they were going to steal had to be small and light enough to carry and conceal.

Some expensive silver flatware seemed to fit that bill.

Finding the dining room wasn’t as hard as they might have imagined. It was located fairly close to the kitchen they had just entered, and they didn’t even need to wake one of the servants to ask its location. Evidently not accustomed to working in the darkness of night, they lit a pair of hand-held electric lanterns and began searching for Twain’s silverware. The sideboard contained some plated flatware, but it wasn’t sterling silver and one of the burglars noisily dropped one of the unwanted spoons onto the wooden floor. They then found a small English serving table with a locked drawer that likely contained what they were really after that evening. The pair created even more noise when Hoffman clumsily tripped over a brass bowl he had removed from atop the table and placed on the floor after they decided to take the entire piece of furniture out onto to the patio where they could relieve the locked drawer of its contents after popping its lock.

Luckily for our burglars, the dining room wasn’t so far from the kitchen that they would have required a map.
The English serving table can be seen to the left of the doorway to the main hall. Note the lock in the bottom drawer.

What the pair hadn’t counted on was the possibility that the noise they were making might arouse someone on the second level from their sleep.

That someone just happened to be Isabel Lyon, Mister Clemens personal secretary, whose sleeping quarters were just above the dining room where Williams and Hoffman were plying their skills as noisy burglars. Miss Lyon ran to the stairs across from her room where she heard the boys below rifling through the dining room and saw the wild flashes emanating from their lanterns as they worked.

Lyon then proceeded to the room of Claude Bluchotte, Mister Clemens’ trusty butler, and he then telephoned Harry Lounsbury, their nearest neighbor. Redding had no established police force in 1908 and the state police were not yet set up as a true law enforcement team, but rather they served as a liquor enforcement agency meant to keep illegal and untaxed liquor from being transported and sold in Connecticut. In lieu of a police presence, towns such as Redding had part-time sheriffs and deputies who served under the High Sheriff of Fairfield County. In Redding, that man was George Banks.

Sheriff George Banks

Harry Lounsbury called Sheriff Banks and he agreed to meet him at the estate as soon as he could get there.

With the assistance of Bluchotte the butler and another house guest of Mister Clemens, the men soon discovered a series of footprints outside the dining room that indicated a peculiar pattern. One man was wearing pointed shoes, while the other man’s boots had rubber heels that bore the maker’s trademark.

The dust on the roads of Redding was deep enough that the tracks of both men were easy to follow. The team proceeded until the train tracks of the New York, New Haven, & Hartford Railroad crossed the highway. It was there that the footprints left the main road and appeared to be headed towards Bethel. It was at that point where Sheriff Banks decided to return to the Redding Station in case the robbers were doubling back to escape by rail. Lounsbury and the others continued on, reaching the Bethel railway depot a few minutes before six on the morning of the 18th.

Lounsbury decided to chance it that the two burglars would attempt to head south on the next train and he and Bluchotte waited for the southbound train to Norwalk to arrive at 6:01. Once onboard, they found a pair of suspicious looking men taking their seats in the smoking car, one sitting in a seat directly behind the other.

Lounsbury engaged one of the men in conversation while Bluchotte kept an eye on the other man. Lounsbury soon discovered that the man he was talking to had heels that matched the ones they had tracked to Bethel. Convinced he had found the right pair, Lounsbury continued to talk to the man until they reached Redding where Sheriff Banks boarded the train.

Banks soon accosted the man, demanding that he show him his heels. As the train began to leave the station, the man bolted from his seat and ran to the doorway where he jumped off the train.

Banks immediately grabbed the other man and a fierce struggle ensued. The other passengers in the car – perhaps as many as eight according to the local papers of the day – looked on in awe until there was a flash and a report from the pistol that the man struggling with Banks had pulled from between the cushions of his seat. The other passengers then went to Banks’ aid, with one of them striking the attacker with a club, opening a gash on top of his head. During the struggle, a total of four shots were fired, with one hitting Banks in the leg and the final one wounding the burglar in his own hand.

Conductor John Dyas of Danbury, entered the car as the struggle for the weapon ensued and quickly pulled on the emergency cord, stopping the train a few yards south of where the tracks crossed the river below the Redding station. Banks yanked his prisoner from the train while Lounsbury retrieved a satchel containing Clemens’ missing silverware from beneath the seat.

Witnesses on the platform at Redding saw the other burglar jump from the train and run into Brookside Park. Sheriff Banks crossed the road and several men pointed to where the outlaw was hiding – under one of the bridges. He offered no resistance when Banks ordered him out.

Brookside Park in Redding where Charles Hoffman was found hiding under this bridge. Brookside’s entrance still exits between two stone pillars just east of the West Redding Post Office.

Bank’s wound was between his knee and his ankle. It made for a rather grotesque flesh wound, but the bullet had passed cleanly through, causing a fair amount of blood loss, but doing no permanent damage. It also appeared that Banks’ hand had suffered an injury similar to his captive when the revolver had discharged a final time and the single bullet struck both men in their hands.

The prisoners were hauled back to Lounsbury’s house on Diamond Hill, where a telephone call was put into Doctor Ernest H. Smith who resided at the corner of Cross Highway and Sanfordtown Road. Smith was soon on the scene where he treated both Sheriff Banks and the wounded man, soon to be identified as Henry Williams.

The home of Harry Lounsbury on Diamond Hill Road where Doctor Smith attended to Sheriff Banks and his prisoner’s wounds on September 18, 1908.

By 9:00 AM on the 18th, the Town Hall on the Green was bustling with people. Even in 1908 Redding with no social media to alert its citizenry of an event so daring and exciting as the Great Silverware Caper, news traveled fast. Justice John Nickerson and the town’s Grand Juror, Henry Duncan, were about to hold a hearing. Nickerson was the Town Clerk and an elected Justice of the Peace.

Redding Town Hall where the two burglars were arraigned on September 18, 1908.

The building was literally overflowing with spectators. Redding’s growing literary colony was well represented. After all, one of their own had been wronged on Thursday evening, what if had been one of them?

By then, forty year-old Henry Williams had given the Sheriff his name and age. However, he still refused to give anyone an address. Perhaps he didn’t want anyone to discover that he had previously done time in a New York penitentiary for assault. It would appear from New York penal records, that a Henry Williams, also born in 1867, had served nearly two full years for assaulting another man in 1897. Since finger prints weren’t in use as a police identifier until around 1910, we may never know for certain if  Mark Twain’s Henry Williams was the exact same man.

Williams sat at a small table that held the remnants of a sandwich and a half empty cup of coffee someone had kindly provided him while he waited to be arraigned. His head was wrapped in blood-stained bandages and witnesses to the occasion claim he appeared to be in pain.

Thirty year-old Charles Hoffman had freely given his name, age, and address as soon as he had been apprehended. He sat at the same table as Williams and looked at his partner with apparent unconcern.

As only the great showman Mark Twain could, he waited until court was about to convene before arriving in a small, open wagonette accompanied by eldest daughter Clara and his sometimes faithful secretary, Isabel Lyon. Twain was clad in his signature white flannel suit, while the ladies were attired in bright gowns that were more befitting of a formal luncheon outing than an arraignment hearing for the two scoundrels sitting in the Redding Townhouse that morning.

Hoffman was the first to be arraigned. He spoke with a heavy accent, perhaps German or Austrian, as witnesses said he looked the part. Young Lloyd Blackman quickly identified him as one of the men who had asked for directions to Twain’s estate the previous evening. Hoffman yelled that the young man was lying.

At first Hoffman refused to enter a plea, but at the insistence of Justice Nickerson, he reluctantly allowed Jonathon Bartlett Sanford to act as his counsel. Sanford wasn’t an attorney, but he was the judge of probate in Redding, so that must have sufficed. Hoffman then pled “Not Guilty.”

Williams was next. He sat and listened as Miss Lyon, Sheriff Banks, Harry Lounsbury, and Claude Bluchotte recounted the events of the prior evening. He too pled “Not Guilty.”

Bail was set at $1,000 for Hoffman and $2,000 for Williams who was facing more serious charges that included assault, carrying a concealed weapon, and resisting arrest in addition to the burglary charges levied against both men.

While the hearing was underway, Mister Clemens asked the court if he might be excused, and once Justice Nickerson granted his wish, Clemens proceeded outside where he walked across onto the Green and took up a conversation about the exciting events of the night before. Mark Twain was Mark Twain, and no one was ever going to stop him from performing before an adoring crowd.

Twain recreating the excitement of the Great Silverware Caper of 1908.

A newspaper reporter found the following note on the front door of Twain’s house that very day:

NOTICE.

To the next Burglar.

There is nothing but plated ware in this house, now and henceforth. You will find it in that brass thing in the dining-room over in the corner by the basket of kittens. If you want the basket, put the kittens in the brass thing. Do not make a noise — it disturbs the family. You will find rubbers in the front hall, by that thing which has the umbrellas in it, chiffonier, I think they call it, or pergola, or something like that.

Please close the door when you go away!

Very truly yours,

S.L. Clemens

Note hung on the front door to Twain’s Redding home informing future burglars how to proceed when robbing the house.

In November of 1908, the men who stole Mark Twain’s silverware were tried in Superior Court in Danbury. The outcome of that trial was reported in the New York Times:

The New York Times, November 12, 1908
TWAIN BURGLARS SENTENCED.

Men Who Broke Into Samuel L. Clemens’s Home Get Prison Terms.

DANBURY, Conn., Nov. 11 – When the trial of Henry Williams and Charles Hoffman, accused of breaking into the Italian villa of Samuel L. Clemens, (Mark Twain,) at Redding, several weeks ago, was resumed in the Superior Court this afternoon, both men changed their pleas of not guilty to guilty.

The court sentenced Hoffman to not less than three nor more than five years in State prison. On the charge of burglary Williams received not less than five nor more than six years in State prison, and on the charge of assault with intent to kill, to which he also pleaded guilty, not more than four years in State prison.

In the 1920’s, several years after serving all ten years of his sentence, a man calling himself Henry Williams wrote a book about the robbery. It was much embellished when you compare his accounting of the events of September 17 and 18 to the reports and court proceedings published in 1908, and several of the accounts appear to be complete fabrication. Whether or not this book was written by the real Henry Williams is still a matter of pure speculation.

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