By JIM ZBICK
"Crime Here on Increase," a headline in the Tamaqua Courier blared a century ago.
The article reported that nearly every town in Schuylkill County was experiencing an increase in crime. Leading the way was Shenandoah with 80 criminal cases bound for court, followed by Mahoning City (39), New Philadelphia, Pottsville (16) McAdoo (12) and then Tamaqua (10).
This was not the kind of news local citizens wanted to hear heading into the holiday season in 1909. Most disconcerting was much of the crime was perpetrated by teenagers.
One of the most brazen crimes in the area that fall involved two young men from Mauch Chunk – Albert Nattress, 18, and William Knouse, 19. One reporter described Knouse as "a cigarette fiend, very delicate and hardly 19 years of age."
After targeting Samuel Costenbader's butcher shop in Mauch Chunk, the two teens did some preliminary casing of the business. The young robbers knew that every Wednesday Costenbader made a tour of the area, buying produce to sell in his store.
In staking out their prey, they noticed that while making his rounds Costenbader hid his money in the rear of his wagon. The young bandits made their move on a Wednesday evening.
When they saw the rig approach on a country road, Knouse jumped out, demanding he stop. The plan was for Nattress to enter the wagon from the rear and get the money while Knouse kept the driver occupied.
Instead, Costenbader spoiled the plan by whipping his horse and racing away. Knouse, who had his older brother's revolver, fired a shot. The bullet struck Costenbader in the shoulder but despite the pain, he drove to Mauch Chunk and notified police. The two boys, meanwhile, hopped a train to Allentown.
They returned the next morning on a New Jersey Central train called the Oyster. After leaving the train at Mauch Chunk, they split up. Since "Billy" Knouse had a sister living in Tamaqua – Mrs. John Isleib – police in town were notified. It didn't take long for that hunch to pay off.
Tamaqua police officer Reichelderfer found Knouse playing a slot machine in a cigar store. As Knouse was being searched, a loaded revolver dropped out of his pants.
Knouse was locked up in the Tamaqua jail and Mauch Chunk authorities were alerted. While in the lockup, Knouse did not deny the shooting, but did complain about the jail accommodations.
"This is a fine place to keep a fellow – they nearly starve you," he said sarcastically. "Only had three cakes since yesterday. I want a square meal when I get back to Chunk."
Mauch Chunk authorities accompanied him on his return by trolley car. His accomplice, Natress, got as far as White Haven before his capture. While still suffering from the painful shoulder wound, Costenbader identified both suspects as the pair who tried to rob and then kill him.
This was the most serious crime committed by Knouse, who had a reputation for petty crime, such as robbing chicken coops.
The Tamaqua Courier, in an opinion on Oct. 5, 1909, wondered what the clergy and the people of Tamaqua were doing to guide the young men and women of town.
"Have they done or are they doing all in their power to turn their thoughts toward higher things and to steer them clear of the pitfalls, or are they doing nothing at all?" the writer asked.
He pointed out that one local clergyman used his pulpit to fault the youth, "roundly denouncing the young men and young women of his town, declaring that they led lives that should shame them."
The writer felt that the "young blood" is the same all over the world.
"You can't expect the young man or the young woman to go to bed before the curfew rings," he said. "The elements of youth are calling for pleasure and recreation. If all the avenues leading to the harmless forms of pleasure are closed, is it not natural that the young man or young woman shall turn into the other paths?"
The writer said that "the morality of the young people is high" in towns which had a library, a YMCA or YWCA, or a theatre – "all things that educate by giving insights into life."
The writer felt that his observations about the youth were on target.
"This may be preaching but it's good preaching ... common sense preaching," he maintained. "You don't like to hear it because it is very true and because you are hugging your dollars so closely, because you discourage these things with the thought in mind of saving the money you would have to give to them to keep up appearances, if for no other cause."
He said a family's priorities can change quickly when a young member of the clan stumbles, getting "caught in the vortex of dissipation and immorality that runs wild through the town."
Then, he said, the parents may very well "turn preacher" themselves.