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Bums, hoboes, and scam artists

Published March 05. 2011 09:00AM

By jim zbick

Bad economic times can bring out the worst in people and that was proved early in 1911. One Williamsport newspaper even went so far as to blame the coal regions for the city's influx of hoboes.

"While Williamsport is not particularly ridden with tramps and hoboes, it is a peculiar fact that the city seems to be a sort of dumping ground for the coal regions," the newspaper complained. "We get Weary Willies and Hopeless Hanks and all the other members of guild hoboes produced by all the coal towns in Pennsylvania."

He described some of the transients.

"Among them are many umbrella menders who would rather take a drink than mend an umbrella, travelling tinkers whose breath is thick enough to stop up the cracks in the pans they mend, panhandlers who live by scaring women into giving them food at back doors, and once in a while a genuine unfortunate who drifts anywhere, the sport of cruel fate and the plaything of the little god of hard luck."

The writer then named names.

"Mount Carmel, Shamokin, Pottsville, Mahanoy City, Tamaqua, Centralia and all the other towns in the coal section help to keep the supply from running low," he stated.

But Tamaqua itself was a target of a gang of wayfarers the next month when 20 "bums" hopped off a freight train during the night.

"The men were all in such a drunken condition that they could scarcely walk and could not give their names," a Tamaqua Courier reporter said. "One of them picked up a child on Centre Street and started off with it until the mother commenced to scream when he attempted to get away. He was quickly caught and confined to the lockup."

Several others were rounded up after starting a fight on Centre Street. Another was caught at the rail depot.

By noon the next day, some of the culprits had sobered up to the point where they were able to give their names. One man who said he was from Milton was of special interest to police since he fit the description of a tramp who robbed the post office at that place a few months earlier.

The other suspects spent two days in the lockup before they were given one-way walking papers out of town.

While the bums and hoboes coming through town could easily be detected, some of the better-groomed cheats that preyed on local residents were not so easy to spot. About a dozen Tamaquans found that out after falling prey to two psychic palm readers who came through town. In reporting on the scam, the Courier called them "two of the rankest fakers who ever fleeced the public."

Unfortunately, the writer said that local residents had an easy reputation when it came to being duped.

"Tamaqua has a reputation for having more easy victims within its borough limits than any town of its size in the state and as a result the town is never without some great palmist, medium or other such fake, and these fellows took advantage of this weakness," the writer stated on March 1, 1911.

Three weeks earlier, Edward Holden, the self-proclaimed "greatest of all psychic palmists," and J. R. Vance, his assistant, arrived in town, opened an office, and began solving "all the mysteries imaginable."

"People came in droves to have their future foretold, there frequently being 10 to 15 persons in waiting for a chance to part with their hard-earned money," the Courier reported.

The charge was 50 cents per visit but the final bill was determined by the number of things they told their clients. Hundreds of people eagerly put down $5 and $10 to learn about their futures from the smooth-talking soothsayers.

A Coaldale man lost $35 after seeking knowledge on whether a patent he was working on would succeed.

Another man gave $25 on the guarantee that his dream of a happy home would come true.

It was through the personal screening of their clients, however, that the two men selected their prime victims.

One woman, whose husband was injured in a mine accident, was told to gather her money together "to have her dream realized."

She returned with $305, which the men said they would use to file a claim against the company and bring the woman an award settlement of "several thousand." They even added $50 of their own money, and placed it in a "mystery package." They attached a seal and warned that it should not be tampered with before 10 days or the woman would "lose all luck."

There was even a letter attached - a kind of "certificate of authenticity - from the Psychic Association of Boston, which guaranteed the honesty of the two men and the promise that they would pay $50 if the promise of settlement did not come true.

A few days later, the usual line formed in front of the office where the men were dispensing their knowledge but the two charlatans were not to be seen or found. During the night, the duo had slipped out of town, carrying with them an estimated $1,000 which they had scammed from local victims.

Investigators also broke the seal on the woman's "mystery package."

Inside, they found two pieces of card board, and no sign of the promised "cash settlement."

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