The Thomson Murder Case

The Toughest Game of All and Death Was the Only Out

The Thomson jewelry store murder case in 1913 was like a bomb going off in Campau Square. It aroused ordinary folk in Grand Rapids to near-lynching pitch, made and ruined careers and for nine months kept the city at boiling point.

There are no Baker Street Irregulars here to tell this Greek tragedy of the annals of crime--and Tad Shaw wishes there was--but Tad, and a lawyer who dug out the fact and sidelights to write the story, have furnished the following account for the Peninsular Club Magazine.

Tad Shaw was within a few blocks of the Thompson store when it happened. He and Chet Shafer (now the Sage of Three Rivers) were sitting in the office of the old Grand Rapids News at Lyon and Ottawa. That was in September of 1913 when A.P. Johnson published the News and Chet was a reporter.

* * *

It was late in a Saturday afternoon, just before store closing time, when police headquarters telephoned the news: a shooting at Thomsonís place on lower Monroe.

Chet rushed out to call his paper to found a crowd beginning to gather in front where a clerk lay dead in the street. They followed detectives inside where two more bodies were on the floor of a back office room, and Tad recalls it "looked like 200 bodies to me."

Chet rushed out to call his paper to get ready for an extra, and Tad followed detectives who ran to a rooming house where witness said two men with guns had gone up the stairs.

The detectives and Tad drew a blank in the first one, and by then there were eye-witness reports that the murders had gone toward Lyon street, cutting through the middle of the block from Monroe.

The detectives began combing the rooming houses on Lyon, and asked Tad to stand at the foot of stairways to see who came out while they went up to search. He said. "Iíll watch from across the street if you donít mind." And he did.

The search was fruitless, and was abandoned. Meantime, it was discovered that one of the victims was still alive but unable to talk because a bullet had pierced his throat. He died next day in a hospital.

The other two store employees -- proprietor Thomson was at an Elks picnic when the shooting happened -- were dead. It was believed they were killed by the bandits because one of them made a show of resistance as 40 diamonds and some other jewelry were taken.

Thatís the way it started -- as a plain robbery -- but because a clerk made a false move a chain of dramatic events were touched off, events which almost overshadowed the first, stark fact of triple murder.

The Story, Step by Step

The rest of the story is from Gerald M. Henry, who as a young lawyer a few years back dug up every piece of information he could find and wrote a story which was bought by a detective magazine.

For a long time there was complete mystery as to how the two men -- seen by many witnesses -- got away so quickly.

This is what they did! They walked swiftly from the store on the west side on Monroe, went up the stairs to a rooming house and down the back stairs. They went to what is now Bond Avenue and then began a wide circle south past the Kent County Jail, thence to Fulton Street bridge, turned north on Front Avenue, walked out Leonard and got the old Muskegon interurban. In Muskegon took the night boat to Chicago.

The descriptions given by witnesses were not of the best, but agreed more or less: one well-set man, and one rather thin and seedy.

Their fast but circuitous walk to the interurban station must have taken no little time, and if police had had radio cruisers capture might have been easy.

But the deed was done and there was little prospect of vengeance when the sun went down that Saturday, and Grand Rapids was raging mad. Next week, big rewards were offered and there were editorials about "reigns of terror", and citizens were rightfully worried.

* * *

Then came the red herring.

A lady about the town known as "Lousy Lou" went quietly to the sheriff and took with her a picture of a Chicago diamond dealer -- one Ray Blackburn. She said she had seen him in town the day before the murders, and he was without question one of the two gunmen. (Two guns and a billy club had been found discarded in a coal yard near Fulton Bridge.)

Authorities jumped onto this lead and soon had Blackburn in Cook County Jail. Blackburn fought extradition successfully, so officers from here went to Illinois and there were allowed to spirit Blackburn out of the jail.

Ed Nowak, a Grand Rapids Press reporter, went there too, and when he saw Blackburn forced into a waiting open touring car he jumped on the spare tire rack and clung there as far as Gary where the party transferred to a train.

Nowak was half-frozen (it was November) but managed to get to a phone and scooped the world when he warned the Press the suspect was on the way to Grand Rapids.

When the party arrived Blackburn was hustled into a cell and a mob formed outside. There was talk of lynching and a lot of muttering, but fortunately the project didnít come to a head.

The Curse Begins

The curse which touched almost everyone involved in the case began to work at Blackburnís trail. A teamster named Ernest Rose who had seen the murders leave the jewelry store got on the stand and said "Heís not the man," and was the object of the communityís vituperation.

Blackburnís Grand Rapids attorney also was scorned.

Several witnesses were just as positive that Blackburn was one of the two gunmen.

A detective working on the case didnít think Blackburn was guilty, and was hooted off the force and died a few months later, some say of a broken heart.

Finally the jury gave up. It was hung 11 to one for acquittal.

Frustrated and baffled, the police jumped at the second lead in the case which came many weeks after the shootings. A small-time promoter and pool-room hanger-on went to detective John Halloran and said Toledo fences had made overtures to him to barter with Grand Rapids police for the 40 diamonds.

Halloran urged him to set a rendevous and a place -- the Normandy Hotel in Detroit. Halloran went there and waited four days but no one contacted him.

He went to Toledo and there assumed a seedy costume and a beard, and haunted the nether world which was tolerated in those days, as long as its denizens didnít pull their jobs in Toledo. It was a sanctuary for hoods and thieves wanted in every other city of the nation.

* * *

Then the first crack appeared in the wall of mystery. Some of the stolen diamonds turned up in a shady Toledo pawn shop. Halloran brought them back for positive identification, and when it was made authorities upped the reward to $7,000. Word of the lucre was spread where it would do the most good -- in Toledo.

Somebody talked, and spilled the identity of the men who had shot the three clerks: Lawrence "Chippy" Robinson and a wispy cha4acter known as "Vopper" Lawrence.

Vopper was tubercular or consumptive, or something, never had much money and looked like a tramp.Chippy, however, was a smooth young fellow and an incipient Raffles. He specialized in thefts of gems, and had been known to build special chamois skin pockets to hold them in his expensive suits. Hence the nickname. He studied the tango to get along better in good hotels. Also he had left a wife to die slowly of disease in the south.

* * *

Where they were nobody knew, but after leaflets and circulars were spread over the country Vopper was arrested in Covington, Kentucky, for being drunk and disorderly. He was brought to Grand Rapids.

Vopper didnít talk, and actually didnít know Chippyís whereabouts after they split up in Chicago.

By now it was early summer of 1914, and Grand Rapids was hungrier than ever for the culprit. It didnít look as though weak-willed Vopper had shot three men, and police wanted "Chippy."

Then the curtain went up on the last act. Boston police were tipped off the "Chippy" was in town -- in fact at the moment of the report was eating a dinner in the fashionable Boylston rathskeller.

Detective Inspector Norton and three of his men hurried to the rathskeller, and down the stairs in the dining room found "Chippy" and another man at a table.

Norton made the mistake of approaching "Chippy" from the front and announcing, "I arrest you for the murder of three men in Grand Rapids, Michigan." "hippy rose and said "Iíll go -- " but even as he got to his feet he whipped out a Colt automatic and fired a shot into Nortonís stomach.

His finger slipped as he fired the shot and it hit the magazine lock, causing the cartridge clip to fall from the gun. As Norton fell, the other three officers began firing at :"Chippy" in the crowed dining room, and "Chippy" clawed his way out and up the basement stairway through the screaming, running crowd. He was hit three times.

He ran around a corner and into an alley, where he fell to the ground and was ridden down by a Boston mounted policeman, He still clicking  the hammer on an empty chamber as they grabbed his arms to handcuff him.

Fought to the End   

"Chippy" was tried in Boston for the murder of Norton, but the trail lasted only a day. The night after it opened "Chippy" took apart one of his old fashioned high shoes and with the steel stiffener of the last slashed a wrist.

He wrapped himself in blankets on his bunk so no blood would run outthe door, and died quietly and alone.

* * *

In Grand Rapids, they told Vopper "Chippy" had named him as the triggerman, and Vopper then told all the details of the crime, laying the killings to "Chippy." The police believed him, and Vopper later was sentenced to a term in Marquette Prison, a long term but one shorter than life.

Those who studied the tale afterward were mystified as to why so many witnesses identified Blackburn as either one of the two actual robbers. Blackburn was a big man, and unlike smooth, young "Chippy" or the wissful Vopper. He only conclusion they found satisfactory was this: Vopper had two fingers of his right hand missing and sso did Blackburn. Therefore the onlookers must have recognized something familiar in Blackburn although not one of them mentioned the fingers on the witness stand.

The case had its effect even on the Colt arms company. The designers corrected the faulty positioning of the magazine lock so nobody would again find himself in "Chippyís" position of trying to fire an empty gun.

"Chippy" himself summed it up fairly well. Before he slashed his wrist in his cell, he wrote two notes. One was contrite and expressed sorrow over his wifeís fate, but the other said:

"Itís a tough game when you have to die to beat it."


Local Force Outwitted by Murderers
Country Around Grand Rapids Being Scoured for Slayers
Pinkertons Declare Men Professionals
Rewards Aggregating $2,000 Offer for Capture of the Robbers.
Many Suspects Taken, But Are Released

$2,000 Reward For The Capture Of These Men - The City of Grand Rapids will pay $1,000 reward and the Jewelers' Security alliance of Chicago and New York will pay an additional $1,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of those concerned in the killing of John A. Thomson and Edward Smith, and the wounding of Paul Townsend, September 18, 1913, in the jewelry store of J. J. Thomson.
Descript of Murderers - No. 1 - Between 25 and 30 years old, 5 feet 10 inches to 6 feet tall, straight build, smooth face, wore black coat and light colored trousers and black slough hat, weight about 160 to 180 pounds. No. 2 - Between 21 and 25 years old, 5 feet 8 inches to 5 feet 10 inches tall, slender build, smooth, thin face; wore dark blue suit and ---ll cap.

With Detective from the Chicago bureau of the Pinkerton's National agency in the city assisting the police in their effort to capture the two murderers of John A. Thomson and Edward Smith, who were shot dead in the J. J. Thomson jewelry store Thursday night, arrests which will clear up the identity of the robbers are being hourly expected.
Charles E. Vaeth, assistant superintendent of the Chicago Bureau of the Pinkertons, arrived in Grand Rapids last night, and after a long consultation with Superintendent of Police Carr and Chief of Detective, J. U. Smith, communicated details of the shooting to the Chicago officer, and ordered more detectives here at once. They will arrive this morning.
More than 25 suspects have been taken in custody since the shooting but all were given their freedom last night. Four young men from Champaign, Ill., were detained in Kalamazoo the greater part of the day, while the two men taken in custody at Lake Odessa early yesterday morning by Detectives McDonald and Doyle, and an armed posse of that village were kept in cells at headquarters until late last night. Many other suspicious characters were rounded up during the day, but all succeeded in satisfying the police of their innocence and were freed.
Not Local Talent
Confident that the robbery and murder was not the work of local talent the Chicago police were communicated with, and they are now on the lookout for two men suspected of the job. The identity of the two suspects has not been made known by the police other than that they have a record for jewelry store robberies such as was enacted here and it is highly possible that they knew something about the local job if they did not participate in it themselves.
"We are working on a dozen different clues" said Chief of Detectives Smith last night, "and with the aid of the Pinkerton men I believe we can land our men. We are dealing with some of the cleverest criminals in the country, men who do not hesitate to kill if necessary, and nothing will beleft undone in an effort to take them into custody".
$2,00o Reward Offered
A reward of $2,000 has been offered for the capture of the two murderers. The Jewelers' Security Alliance of Chicago and New York, which carried the insurance on the Thomson scok, yesterday afternoon offered a reward of $1,000 for the capture of the two men. Early yesterday morning Mayor Ellis, lacting on behalf of the city, placed a similar amount on the heads of the two robbers.
With so large a reward already offered, and the possibility of an increase if the murder is not solved within the next few days, many private detective agencies have taken up the trail. The police departments in every city within 100 miles of Grand Rapids have been asked to co-operate.
Townsend Holding Own
The condition of Paul Townsend, the sole survivor of the three men in the store at the time the robbers entered, is holding his own at Butterworth hospital, but the seriousness of the wound in his neck makes the chances for his recovery but slight. The attending physicians, however, say he has a chance to recover.
Until an inventory of the stock in the Thomson store is taken today, the amount taken by the robbers will not be known. Yesterday it was determined that 12 one-fourth karet diamonds ----, in addition to several larger ---- were missing, ----------Mr. Thomson is unable to state what the loss will be. It may not exceed $2,000, while it may reach $5,000 and possibly higher.
Descriptions Differ
The Pinkerton operatives are anxious to get a description of the stolen property before the robbers have an opportunity of disposing of it, although they think there is little chance of recovering it unless the thieves are captured. Mr. Vaeth of the Pinkerton agency stated last night that the recoveries from robberies of a nature similar to that here do not average more than 1 percent for silverware and that diamonds do not average much higher.
One of the greatest handicaps under which the police are working is the inability to get two descriptions of the robbers which correspond. Nearly everyone who claims to have seen them describe them in a different manner.
The police are depending greatly upon the descriptions furnished by Julius Lafonza, night foreman and Frank Akers, employes of the Albee livery barn. The two men were standing in front of the livery barn on Crescent avenue when the robbers ran out of Kent alley and turned east on Crescent and ran to Bond avenue where they turned south.
Drayman Saw Auto
Jack Miller, a drayman, told a story yesterday which strengthens the belief of the police that the robbers had a waiting automobile. Millers say the two men ran past him on Bond avenue, went up t o a machine which stood by the curb just off Lyon street and jumping in, yelled to the driver to "get away in a hurry". Miller says the door to the rear of the auto was standing open, and as the two men jumped in, the machine jumped foreward and was soon lost to sight.
Suspect at Carp Lake
Trainmen at Petoskey last night reported a suspicious man, whose description tallies with one of the two robbers, passed through Petoskey on a north bound G. R. & I. train, No. 3 arriving there early yesterday morning. The man occupied the dining car all the way from this city, but was plainly nervous and could not eat the food he had ordered. At Carp , 28miles north of Petoskey, he leaped from the train as soon as it stopped and ran into the woods, looking behind him in a frightened manner. He appeared to be headed for the Michigan Central road. Carp Lake is one of the smallest villages in Emmet county, and the authorities there are investigating.
An effort was made yesterday to trace the sale of the revolver found in the store, but because of its cheap variety, this was impossible. The police believe the gun belonged to one of the thieves, who lost it in a struggle after shooting Thomson.
Thieves Overlook Money
The fact that the robbers, after murdering two of the men and mortally wounding the third, stopped long enough to secure a tray of diamonds and pick others out of the showcases, convinces the police and the Pinkertons that the robbers are not novices at the game. About $60 in money was lying on the showcase, where it had been left by Smith when interrupted by the thieves while in the act of making up his report for the day, but this was not taken by the robbers.
Every available man on the police department is being pressed into service in an attempt to arrest the murderers. Men are being worked 16 hours to day in some instances while others have been on duty continuously since the murder. Chief of Detectives Smith was at his office until 11 o'clock last night when he went home to get his first sleep since Wednesday night. Superintendent Carr was also at headquarters last night until a late hour.
To Hold Inquest
Coroner LeRoy yesterday impaneled a jury, and after viewing the bodies of Thomson and Smith and inspecting the scene of the shooting adjournment was taken pending the developments in the police investigation. The jury is composed of Frank E. Pulte, Henry A. Rosenberry, Loren L. Henry, Jerred S. Spring, Denis Mulvihill and Attorney William J. Gillet.
Funeral of Victims
The funeral of Edward Smith will be held at his home in Walton Junction, Mich. The body will be taken to that place this morning.
The funeral of J. n. Thomson will be held at 2 o'clock Monday afternoon at the residence, 414 Clancy avenue. Burial in Oak Hill cemetery.

What Is Said By Other Papers on Thomson Case
(Grand Rapids Herald - September 20, 1913, Pg. 1-2)

The Evening Press - "What is the matter with the Grand Rapids detective force? This is a question that is being asked on every hand today. It was asked two years ago when the chisel man was raiding the residence section at his own sweet will. It seemed even more pertinent and serious the past summer when it proved a safe proposition to back a wages or an automobile alongside a store in the downtown section and lost the place at leisure. within a week three men have been shot to death, while attempting to protect property from robbers and a fourth citizen lies dangerously wounded in a hospital.
There is a grave feeling of insecurity and even terror among merchants now as there was among house owners during the long epidemic of burglary. The city detectives are efficient in trailin small boys who break back windows and steal candy, but when it comes to coping with professional crooks who move with certainty and skill they seem as helpless as children.
What is the matter with the department? Burglary is admittedly one of the most difficult of crimes to trace and neither The Press nor any citizen of Grand Rapids expects miracles. But the long list of burglaries that have been committed here in safety, coming to a climax in brutal murder, has become simply an invitation to other crooks and gunmen to work an easy town. so easy, indeed, that burglary unrestrained has developed naturally into daring holdups of business places in the heart of the city in true bandit fashion.
A few years ago when it seemed that the situation was serious it was proposed, and heartily indorsed by the newspapers, that the burden of handling the detective force be taken from Harvey Carr, superintendent of police for a score of years, and a separate department be created, in charge of a chief of detectives. For this important post Joseph Smith, who had been dismissed from the detective force and afterward conducted a private agency, was appointed upon the recommendation of Supt. Carr.
The new plan has not yielded the results hoped for. There has been on improvement in thief taking - no lessening in serious crime. Mr. Smith, whose great value in the old days lay in his wonderful memory for faces, making him essentially a street man, has not proved a successful executive.
The police department in Grand Rapids has happily been kept out of politics; it has never been charged with conniving with vice. It stands clean in all the things that have made for scandal in many cities. Its units are probably as efficient as in any like force. But the department is in a rut. The success of any business depends upon the efficiency of the men at the head. It is not a pleasant or agreeable thing to say, but the time has about arrived for a shakeup in the police department, and the shakeup should come from the top downward.

The Daily News

The tragedy of yesterday - the worst in the history of Grand Rapids - must be the end of the long-continued reign of terror in this city.
Two men shot to death, another seriously wounded, in the heart of the business district, at the busiest hour of the day, reads like a page from the history of a wild west town.
Why is it possible for such a tragedy to be enacted in a peaceful, well-established city like Grand Rapids?
Is it because the word has gone out to the crooks and criminals of the country that Grand Rapids is "easy"?
The history of murder and robbery and burglary during the past two years has been enough to attract here the worst elements. As The News has pointed out, there has been a succession of crimes here, with never an arrest, with never a conviction, with never a recovery of stolen goods.
The system of policing the city is utterly wrong. The cry that we have not enough officers to do the work will not do. A lonely town marshal should have been able to apprehend some one of the crooks who have been ransacking stores and houses, shooting down citizens and terrorizing entire neighborhoods.
We have a board of police and fire commissioners. This board has ample power. Has it been exercising these powers in such a manner that the people are given proper police protection, or has it been spending its time worrying over petty favors to a few men who sell goods to the city?
In our humble opinion the trouble starts at the fountain head. One man domination has proved disastrous. There can be no good service when every city employe must play politics, when he must be more careful not to offend the man higher up than he must be to do his plain duty.
What are we to expect when our mayor continues fomenting strife between the various classes of the community?
And what are we to do when a criminal brought to trial escapes conviction on account of a faulty prosecution, or on account of a rotten jury system?
It is about time for the civic conscience to be awakened. Too long the residents of this city have been content to sit at home while incompetent, self-seeking adventurers gobbled up the offices. We have allowed the wind to blow, until it developed from a gentle zephyr into a devastating whirlwind.
But that is getting back to the source of the trouble. What the city asks now is action. It wants the crooks cleaned out. It wants life made safe, property secure. It wants the police department to ignore politics and make no compromise with crime of any sort.
As The New has said, the polce should know where to find the desperate men who committ such crimes as that which laid low two brave men at the Thomson jewelry store. These men do no live on Robinson road or on "Piety Hill".
Let them be hunted out of the real resorts for criminals.
Let the word go out that Grand Rapids is not "easy", that crooks will be given swift justice, that the gates of the city are closed against them.
The Thomson tragedy must be the end of the reign of terror.


Transcriber: Barb Jones & Evelyn Sawyer
Created: 26 June 2009