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Elgin: Days Gone By - Table of Contents

Chapter 15


Cupid's Corner

Retired business man, wealthy but lonesome, wishes to correspondent; view, matrimony; no objection to poor woman. Address Box 94, Elgin, Ill.

Middle-aged widow, good looking, wealthy, tired of single life, would correspond with gentlemen; object, matrimony. Address Box 104, Elgin, 111.

These and similar advertisements appeared in newspapers in various parts of the country during the summer of 1907. Responses from the lovelorn poured into the offices of the Searchlight Club at 164 DuPage Street. The proprietor of this matrimonial bureau was Miss Marion Grey, a slender, vivacious brunette in her early twenties. Although a newcomer, she had a wide acquaintance in the city, especially among young men.

Men and women who answered the ads were invited to join the club. Grey promised she would introduce them by mail to respectable persons of the opposite sex upon receipt of a $5 membership fee. She also provided testimonials from those who had discovered soul mates with the aid of Searchlight. One of these read: "Through you I found a woman that I could love and who had money enough to straighten things out. I am now the happiest man in the world."

Stenographers at the Searchlight Club were kept busy answering inquiries. Seventy-five to 100 arrived daily. In just three months, the Elgin post office cashed 328 money orders for $5 payable to the business and turned over 119 registered letters, each containing a like amount.

Grey's matchmaking enterprise was halted with her arrest by postal inspectors and a subsequent indictment for using the mails to defraud. The courtroom at her trial in February, 1908, was crowded with the curious. Grey was the center of attraction, her attire duly noted by the press. One day she wore a black hat

and skirt with a white shirt waist cut in a simple design. At another session, she appeared in a flashy silk skirt, gray waist, and an enormous hat with large plumes. Prosecutors were said to have preferred elderly jurors who presumably would be immune to her youthful charms.

The government's attorneys charged, that Searchlight dropped all contact with clients after receiving their fees, that the testimonials were spurious and that the defendant could not cite a single instance where her agency had been instrumental in developing a real romance. Her name, it was claimed, was not Marion Grey but Mrs. James Washburn, nee Iva Goodenough, who had an infant son and had been connected with a similar operation in Michigan.

Marion Grey, whoever she might be, was given a variety of epithets by reporters covering the case; heart broker, affinity finder, Elgin matrimonial agent, cupid's courier, heart hunter and Marryin' Marion. Grey fainted or wept at appropriate times. At one point during the trial, she threw herself across her attorney's table and sobbed, "Oh, I never did wrong. I just wanted to help people. Why has all this trouble come to me? It is more than I can bear."

The prosecution's witnesses - club members who had received no replies - and a secretarial assistant, were damaging. Although the jurors were evenly divided on the first ballot, after deliberating 24 hours, they found Grey guilty. She was sentenced to one year in the house of corrections and released on bail pending appeal.

The appeal was based on the grounds that the prosecution had presented improper testimony and that part of the charge of Judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis to the jury was prejudicial. Never one to mince words, his alleged intemperate language had described the whole affair as "sickening drivel." The U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the lower court's decision in April, 1909.

'Will the former Elgin girl ever really serve her sentence?" questioned the local Daily News. "For more than a year, she has persuaded the court to cut her cash bond in half that she might use the funds to support herself. And all times, regardless of her wrongdoing, she was more pitied then censured."

Grey's physician wrote to President William Howard Taft asking a pardon on the basis that she was too near a complete nervous breakdown to spend a year in prison. In July, 1909, Taft commuted her sentence from one year to 30 days. Grey expressed her appreciation in a letter to Taft. "I want to thank you, Mr. President, for the mercy you have shown me," she wrote. "I don't care for myself-it was (for) my little son. I didn't want him to bear the stigma of his mother being called a convict." She somewhat marred this noble sentiment by adding that she would raise the boy to be a Republican.

Preston Reduction

If, according to P. T. Barnum, there's a sucker born every minute, the birth rate was especially high in Elgin during the winter of 1888-89. The community was prospering and savings were accumulating, when F. L. Preston came to town looking for investors in an enterprise that could bring them untold wealth.

Silver mines in Colorado contained ore that could not be extracted by the processes then in use. Preston had an idea for machinery that supposedly was capable of crushing this refractory ore. Some mines could become valuable if his system was practical. The Preston Reduction Company of Elgin was incorporated to manufacture the machinery. It was capitalized at $4 million-200,000 shares at $20 par value. A model of the process was built and tried out with 200 pounds of ore shipped from Denver. On the strength of his demonstration, between $30 and $40,000 of stock was sold, most of it to Elgin residents. The Daily News forecast that "it is probable that in the near future the Preston Reduction Company will add to Elgin's fair name, already famous for fine watches and creamery butter."

The original stockholders were Preston and a half dozen Elgin merchants and professionals, who subscribed for a few shares apiece. Preston reserved a block for himself. His associates then were given the rest to sell to others at from $1 to $20 per share. They were said to have intercepted persons who called at the company's office to buy, and sold them their own shares instead at a price "just under the market."

By the summer of 1890, rumors were circulating that Preston's idea didn't work. And some of the stockholders began unloading their shares on the unsuspecting. L. A. Baker, an Elgin machinist who had made much of the machinery for the trial works here and in Colorado, had not received payment. Early in 189 1, he went to court, secured a judgement, and sought to recover from those who had bought the stock below the par value.

Shares in Preston Reduction proved worthless. An assessment of 48 shareholders was ordered by the Elgin City Court, the promoter was indicted for embezzlement by a Colorado grand jury, and the Daily News concluded that the whole business was a swindle. For a time, at least, Elginites discovered there was no easy money.

Shareholders of Preston Reduction hoped for big dividends but lost the money they had invested.

The First 100 Homicides

Murders have been increasing at a rapid rate in Elgin in recent years. A total of about 100 had occurred in the city's history through 1989. More that half of these had taken place since 1976.

In the following breakdown of these 100 cases, a murder is defined as killing with premeditated violence, and the count excludes actions in self-defense, reckless homicide, and patients killed by patients at the Elgin Mental Health Center. Since some murders may have remained undiscovered, the exact number never will be known. The unearthing of a skeleton on the west side in 1884, for example, brought to mind that foul play had been suspected in the disappearance of a woman who lived nearby. Another skeleton was found during the razing of an old hotel, occupied in its later years by a rough element.

Shot, stabbed, strangled, bludgeoned, and beaten, the victims have been as young as six and as old as 82, but those falling in the 20-30 age category are most likely to be murdered. The weapon used in most of the crimes was a firearm, particularly a handgun, but knifing has become more common. Most of the victims, 63 of the 100, were male, while blacks and Hispanics are murdered more frequently proportionate to their share of the city's population than members of other ethnic groups.

Most of the murders in which the circumstances were known were precipitated by an argument or brawl involving liquor of controlled substances. In 39 of the 100 cases where the assailant has been identified, victim and murderer were intimately related, such as current or former boyfriend or girlfriend, spouse or ex-spouse, or family member. Random killings by a total stranger are relatively rare. In not more than six instances out of the 100 reported was the slaying committed during the course of a felony, such as a robbery or burglary.

Because there is usually some connection between the victim and the slayer, a homicide remains the crime most likely to be cleared by the police. In about 90 percent of the Elgin murders, the assailant was known, if not always apprehended or indicted. In fact, in eight instances, the murder was followed by the assailant's suicide.

Among the unsolved mysteries in Elgin's past is the city's first reported murder. Collin Root, a young man just arrived in town from a farm near Ithaca, New York, was shot and killed on the dark and windy night of April 11, 1872.

It was about midnight when he and a companion got off a "high North Western" train and made their way to the Waverly House on the southwest corner of what is now the State Highland intersection. Root's body, with two revolver bullets in the temple, was found the next morning on the railroad tracks behind the hotel. His pants pockets were turned inside out, suggesting robbery as a motive. A nephew of a local farmer, Root had come to Elgin intending to invest money in an enterprise and had $3,000 in bank drafts sewed up in a pocket on the back of his undershirt. This money was found undisturbed.

The city of Elgin offered a reward of $600 for the apprehension of the murderer, but there were no takers. The chief suspect was reportedly present in New York when Root's trunk was packed to come west. Years later, the son or nephew of this suspect allegedly made allusions during an illness that implied a knowledge of the latter's involvement.

Although the accused in melodramas often is warned,"You'll hang for this!" only once have trials for an Elgin murder resulted in the death penalty. George Panton was found guilty of killing his landlord in 1883 and was scheduled to bang, but the sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. Panton, believed by some officials to be insane, divided his time between the penitentiary at Joliet and mental hospitals. He escaped from the Elgin asylum in 1891. He eventually was returned to prison and was discharged from Joliet in 1932, 49 years after the crime was committed.

The Rippberger Collapse

It's a Wonderful Life, a sentimental film widely viewed during the holiday season, is the story of how George Bailey, played by Jimmy Stewart, was an influence for good on many lives in Bedford Falls. Among his achievements was salvaging a family-run building and loan association and the savings of its depositors.
There was no George Bailey around when a similar business declared bankruptcy in Elgin two days before Christmas in 1925. Charles Rippberger Company, a partnership located on the northeast comer of Spring and Division streets, specialized in mortgage loans. Home buyers would sign a series of notes which were sold to hundreds of local investors.

The firm had advertised that it was "governed by a code of ethics dealing only with fairness to all concerned," but the collapse revealed that the partners, Sam T. Peterson, a former president of the Elgin Association of Commerce, and his brother-in-law, Walter C. Rippberger, had misappropriated funds entrusted to them. Payments had been made on the mortgages, but the money wasn't applied to their redemption. Trust deeds were never recorded.

Word of the closing was devastating: "Law offices today were a pitiful sight as elderly people grasped at hopes of regaining their life earnings," reported The Courier on Christmas Eve. "The situation, lawyers say, is appalling and goes on record as the greatest financial tragedy in the history of the city." Included among those bereft of their savings were relatives and friends of Peterson and Rippberger. Frenzied investors stormed attorneys' offices throughout the city. At an emergency meeting, members of Elgin's bar association pledged to cooperate to prevent duplication of effort and to keep down costs. The watch factory notified its employees that they could call upon the firm's attorneys without charge. More than 1,100 claims were filed, and losses totaled more than $1 million at a time when the dollar was worth far more than it is today. The two partners were indicted on a number of criminal charges.

"These men, Rippberger and Peterson," declared the state's attorney at the first of four trials in 1926 and 1927, "whose stock and trade it was to let these poor people come in their office, lay down their money and get a worthless receipt in return, are entitled to no consideration whatever."

Peterson was let off with a fine, but Rippberger, who accepted the responsibility, served six years and ten months at Joliet on charges and convictions stemming from the bankruptcy.

Guilty verdicts were of little avail to those who had trusted the ethics of the Charles Rippberger Company. Claimants received less than 10 cents on the dollar after the firm's assets were sold. The effects of the bankruptcy rippled through the community for years, leading to personal financial failures and some suicides. A homeowner on Russell Street, for example, had worked long hours to pay off the principle and interest on his mortgage only to discover be had no valid deed. Another homeowner on Hubbard Avenue had paid off notes that were never canceled. A clothing store proprietor had to close his business.

Today, savings in thrift institutions are insured up to $100,000, but the more than 650 savings and loan associations seized by the government in recent years drained the resources of the Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corporation. Although our individual losses are not as great as those suffered by many Elgin residents in 1925, we are disadvantaged by the necessary bailout from congressional appropriations. And there is no angel named Clarence to arrange a happy ending


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