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Sinners and saints in Christmas of 1910

Published December 18. 2010 09:00AM

Internet theft was a full century away, but Christmas in 1910 saw its share of hucksters and vagabonds who were out to scam the public.

Just days before Christmas the Tamaqua Courier warned residents and local merchants to be alert to salesmen traveling in the area who were trying to pass bogus pelts off as costly furs. A Tamaqua Courier reporter stated the bad furs "were only dyed rabbit, cat and skunk skins or at best, importations of cheap and spurious Russian furs" and that the hucksters "sell their goods by making their victims believe that they were smugglers and were getting rid of valuable furs to make quick money."

John Henley, who was reportedly from Lancaster, was another wayfarer who underestimated the determination of local residents and law enforcement officials whom he was able to trick once but not a second time. Henley was first seen posing as a drunkard around the Columbia House. He was able to convince law enforcement officials that since nothing had been disturbed at the hotel establishment, he should not be arrested. After all, it was Christmas.

Instead of leaving, however, Henley sneaked back upstairs to the room of Charles Moyer and stole a new overcoat hanging in the closet. Moyer notified authorities, and special officer Mike Marketelli found the culprit enjoying lunch at Wenzel's restaurant using money he received from selling the overcoat for $2 to Peter Futtchi on Hunter Street.

When he learned it had been stolen, Futtchi returned the coat. Henley, meanwhile, appeared before Squire Beard where he was held for court in default of $300, He was taken to jail just four days after Christmas.

Thankfully, there were some positive news stories that countered the few bad actors who tried to spread misery a century ago. After hearing the story of one family's pre-Christmas plight, the Courier appealed to readers to alert the newspaper office about "families in destitute circumstances."

"If you know of any such just make it known for we know there are enough good people in this community who will see that they will not pass a hungry or cheerless Christmas," the paper stated.

People responded generously after learning of the death of Mrs. Elizabeth Kline, 69, who had suffered with tuberculosis for several years. She was survived by five children and there was no money.

"The family is in destitute circumstances as there is not a cent to bury the dead woman," the Courier reported.

She had been preceded in death by her husband, who had died the previous year. He also lacked the funds for a proper burial in the Odd Fellows Cemetery so a "public subscription" was then raised to defray costs. The newspaper reporter hoped that the people would once again respond to cover Mrs. Kline's burial costs.

It did, and the woman received a proper burial.

One of the best stories that emerged from the 1910 Christmas season concerned Mrs. Mary Stossel, an aged widow from Wilkes-Barre, who inherited a nice rewarded after showing kindness to a wayfarer. When a stranger came to her door and asked for shelter, the woman at first hesitated but then apparently felt sorry for the shabbily dressed man standing before her in hip boots. She offered him inside for a cup of tea. While having his hot drink, he became very ill. Mrs. Stossel led him to a couch and, although she could hardly afford it, summoned a physician.

The man's deteriorated rapidly and he asked Mrs. Stossel for scissors which he used to feebly cut a purse from the inside of his coat. In his final breaths, he told the woman that while others despised him, she was the one who took him in and therefore she should have the purse.

He died only a few minutes later and when Mrs. Stossel opened the purse, she found over $7,000. Attempts to locate relatives of the dead man proved fruitless.

They did discover his identity. The man, simply known as Rivets, was an itinerant mender of sewing machines. In fact, many Tamaqua residents remembered him as an eccentric fellow who felt the government was trying to take away his rights as a mendicant (one who relies on charitable donations).

He wore the strange clothing for more practical purposes.

"He often talked to friends of his peculiarity but in explaining his reason for wearing hip boots and a coat filled with rivets, he said that it was done for protection against dogs that always yelped at his heels and often snapped at him when he went from house to house," the Courier reported.

As for Mrs. Stossel, the Courier writer stated that, like many people, she first made the common mistake of judging "a man by the clothes he wears." However, her change in attitude toward the destitute-looking man "had a profitable ending for her."

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