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The Old Vandenberg Diamond Case

This article appeared in the Dayton Daily News, May 27, 1934


The Old Vandenberg Diamond Case

By Howard Burba


One of the most colorful chapters ever written into the police records of Dayton was the spectacular battle staged some 42 years ago by the then head of the department, Chief Charles Freeman, and Detective John T. Norris, wily old man hunter from Springfield.

            No one ever seemed able to get at the bottom of the disaffection which existed between these two interesting characters.  That is to say, no one knew just how the fight started.  But start it did, and for several years Chief Freeman and Detective Norris were sworn enemies and neither had lost an opportunity to wreck the other’s standing in the eyes of the public.

            The bitter battle reached a point at one stage of its history where Freeman actually caused the arrest of Norris, and his incarceration in the Dayton station house.  His release was then accompanied by a standing order to the police force to “lock him up again if he even so much as sticks his head across the Dayton corporation line.”  All this time Norris was resorting to sensational charges and fostering bitterly-worded interviews in an attempt to dislodge Freeman from his seat of authority.  And he finally succeeded in doing it.

            The nearest close friends ever came to unraveling the mystery back of this personal warfare came through the confidential statements of the two men.  Freeman claimed, as chief of police, that Norris was a blackleg of the worst type and actually shielded the very gangs he was supposed to be attempting to eliminate.  Norris, a little broader in his comeback told not only his personal friends but the newspapers as well that Chief Freeman was sitting in with Dayton crooks when they split their booty, and that he would some day show beyond question that Freeman was getting a rake-off from diamond thieves, of which there were several of national reputation then residing in Dayton.

            For a couple of years following Freeman’s installation as chief this bad blood flowed between him and the Springfield detective.  Then occurred an event which served to bring the fight into the open with a fury that amazed-and delighted-the general public.

            On the 17th of June, 1891, Forepaugh’s circus exhibited at the fairground in Dayton.  As usual in those days, the arrival of a circus in town also meant the arrival of a horde of trained pickpockets, burglars and confidence men.  No circus was complete without a generous number of them, and the hold Forepaugh show, since it was among the foremost in the country as a crowd-drawing enterprise, quite naturally had more than its share of them.

            Along about 9 o’clock on the evening of circus day two burglars entered the home of Horace Justice, residing in Van Buren tp., and made away with jewelry estimated at approximately $800 in value.  Among the loot was a pair of diamond earrings.  The theft was immediately reported to the police, and within a remarkable short time Freeman and his men had under arrest two of the circus followers.  They gave their names as Lewis G. Vandenberg and George Jackson.

            Norris, still smarting from his arrest at Freeman’s hands some months before, and determined to “get even” at any cost, entered the case as an independent operator and with the declaration that the arrest was a frameup and made to shield the real culprits.  He adopted his usual tactics of giving out interviews, and while Freeman apparently paid little attention to Norris’ claim, the latter kept sniping at the police chief through the newspapers.

            The trial of Vandenberg and Jackson resulted in a sentence of five years in the penitentiary in each case.  Jackson was promptly hustled to Columbus, and the date set for the delivery of Vandenberg to the same institution.  On the eve of the latter date, however, there came from the county jail the amazing statement that Vandenberg had escaped.  It was explained that someone in authority had inadvertently left a cell door open and Vandenberg had taken advantage of it and slipped out of the bastile.  Quite naturally, the public added its own theories to the official stories, and within a few hours there was a well-grounded belief that the liberation of Vandenberg had been well-planned.

            Norris was quickly on the scene.  He had already openly charged that Freeman was concealing a part of the loot taken by Vandenberg and Jackson from the Justice home.  He contended Vandenberg’s escape was timed to the hour, since on the day following his liberation he was to have told his story of the division of the loot to the Dayton police commissioners.  It did look a little queer on the face of it but Freeman’s staunch friends stuck by him, and insisted that Norris himself had planned the jail delivery for the simple purpose of discrediting Freeman.

            That was at the close of the year 1891.  Early in 1892 Norris succeeded in winning first blood when Freeman was suspended by the police commissioners, and replaced by a Pinkerton detective, one Tom Farrell, who had been working on still another robbery occurring some months after the Justice affair.  With Freeman out of the way Norris, apparently friendly to Farrell, issued public statements to the effect that he would bend all of his energies in an attempt to corral Vandenberg, and that when he did bring him back it would be with a first-hand confession of what became of the Justice diamonds, and the part Freeman had played in their division. 

            Spring came and passed and the summer was dragging well along on its way before the climax in the Freeman-Norris feud was staged.  Then the public long since having ceased to continue its interest in the fight, perked up its ears with the announcement that Vandenberg had been captured by Norris, was coming back to enter upon his term in prison-and to tell the truth about the Justice robbery and who actually got the diamonds and planned his liberation from the Montgomery co. jail.  The startling new chapter, and one which quickly revived interest in the case, broke on the front page of The Dayton Evening Times of Aug. 17, 1892.  The wire dispatches of that date tell the story, and form a connected tale of the closing chapters in the feud.  Under a big, black heading bearing the one word “Vandenberg” we read:

            “Chicago, Aug. 17 - (Special) - Last night Lewis G. Vandenberg, the Dayton diamond robber, who escaped from jail there last December, left for Columbus, O., accompanied by Detective John T. Norris.  He is not under arrest, but goes voluntarily to serve a few years’ sentence and to cause trouble for a few alleged crooked officials.

            “He says the ex-Chief of Police Charles Freeman, of Dayton, agreed that if he was told where the diamonds were hid that he would see that he got but one year.  Vandenberg did so, but was sentenced to five years.

“Detective Norris then had Freeman arrested for receiving stolen goods, and he alleges that Freeman kept the diamonds.

            “Vandenberg was allowed to escape before he could testify, and Norris had followed him ever since.  It is to appear against Freeman that Norris is taking Vandenberg to Dayton.  The prisoner stated that he is tired of leading a criminal life, and intends to reform.”


                                                               “NORRIS TALKS’

“Chicago, Aug. 17. - Detective John T. Norris says that Freeman doesn’t dream that he is bringing Vandenberg back to Dayton and will be the worst surprised man in Ohio when he hears it.  There is only one way he can escape me,” said Norris, “and that is by getting clear off the earth.  As long as he is alive he cannot escape me.  I have the evidence and he must suffer the same as Vandenberg.

            “Norris met Vandenberg in Troy, N. Y., two months ago, and about four weeks ago had a conference with him in Chicago.  Norris arrived here Saturday and spent Sunday in Washington park with Vandenberg and his family.  At this meeting everything was arranged for the voluntary return of Vandenberg and his surrender to the warden of the Ohio state penitentiary.

            “Under the laws of Ohio he can be taken to Dayton at any time to testify in the case against the ex-chief.

            “Before leaving Vandenberg sent messengers to the warden of the penitentiary telling him that he would be there at 4 o’clock to enter into his term of imprisonment and to the sheriff at Dayton to meet him at Columbus with his commitment papers.  He says he will appear against Freeman and others concerned in the robbery.”


                                                                IN THE PEN

                        “Columbus, Aug. 17. - (Special) - Lewis G. Vandenberg, who received a five-year sentence for stealing the Justice diamonds last winter and who escaped from the Montgomery co. jail on the 27th day of December last, the day before he was wanted to testify in the investigation of Chief of Police Charles Freeman, voluntarily gave himself up to Warden James at the penitentiary this morning.

            “He was accompanied by Detective John T. Norris and came from Chicago, having paid his own railroad fare here.

            “Your correspondent interviewed Vandenberg at the pen this afternoon and asked him for the confession he was reported to have made.  He declined to talk in reference to the matter, however, saying that he had made a statement to Norris and had by him been advised to say nothing for publication.

            “After leaving Dayton at the time of his escape he headed for Mexico and got as far as Ft. Worth, Tex., where he met several parties returning from Mexico who told him they would rather be in the penitentiary than in Mexico.  He then concluded to return and give himself up.  He went to New York and from there to Chicago while he conferred with friends, and then sent for Detective Norris.

            “He says he was a wife and two children living near Chicago.

            “Vandenberg stoutly refused to make any statement in reference to the charges which Detective Norris makes against ex-Chief Freeman and when asked if he had any previous knowledge that the jail doors would be opened for his escape replied: ‘That is a rather ponted question.  I can’t say anything in reference to it now, although I may at some future time.’ “


                                                       NORRIS INTERVIEWED

            “Springfield, O., Aug. 17.-Regarding the surrender in Columbus today of Lewis G. Vandenberg, the convicted and sentenced burglar of Horace Justice’s residence in Dayton, Detective John T. Norris, of this city, who brought the same about, tells this story:

            “Now, in order to make the reader thoroughly and immediately understand that circumstances leading up to the surrender, I must go back to my arrest in Chicago several months ago at the instance of noted bunco men, which fact was widely chronicled at the time.  A rule prevails in the Chicago police department that no officer can furnish bail for any prisoner.  I was not aware o fthis fact on being arrested, and consequently appealed to Capt, Shea, chief of detectives, for bond.  He informed me of the rule, and at the same time said he could get a wealthy friend to furnish it.

            “The friend, whose name I will not make public because he became interested in the Vandenberg case only in behalf of a friend - a relative of the burglar- signed the papers and a friendship sprung up between us.  When Vandenberg was arrested I was appealed to to do do everything possible to secure his release.  As Vandenberg had at this time pleaded guilty this was impossible, but not a mitigation of the sentence not yet pronounced.  Then I went to work on the case.

            “ ‘What followed directly is well known in Dayton.  Justice would consent to a light sentence provided the diamond earrings were restored.  There was a failure to recover them, and Vandenberg got five years.

            “Then one day Vandenberg escaped.  It came about in this way.  He was informed by a prisoner that the door would be left open for him.  Sure enough it was, and Vandenberg escaped.  He slipped out to a nearby suburb where he worked a day or two stripping tobacco.  From there he went to Chicago where he was provided with funds and started to Mexico to bury the past and begin life anew.  He got as far as Ft. Worth, where he met some parties returning from the Aztec country and they told such discouraging stories that he resolved to go no further.

            “ ‘One of the party used an expression that struck right to Vandenberg’s heart, saying he might as well be in the penitentiary as to live there.  The burglar, who was already sick from remorse, then decided to come back, serve out his sentence, settle down to honest life and once more enjoy the happiness of domesticity.

            “ ‘I was kept informed about Vandenberg’s movements and when he returned to Chicago was apprised of Vandenberg’s wishes regarding the serving out of his sentence.

            “ ‘ By appointment Vandenberg, his family and some friends met me at Washington park, Chicago, on Sunday.  His case was discussed in every possible light, including the operation of the parole law, and he finally decided to return to Ohio and give himself up.  As has been published, we came dwon from Chicago last night, and Vandenberg is now within the penitentiary walls.  The prisoner for several weeks was at St. Charles, Ill., where he was selling spices on commission.’

            “Norris also claims to have traced the missing diamonds to that he knows where they went.  He continues:

            “ ‘Farrell, who is as true as steel to his duty, was trying to capture Vandenberg in Chicago when negotiations between the prisoner and myself were in progress.  Farrell had the Pinkerton forces posted and the house where Vandenberg’s family was stopping was constantly under espionage.  When Vandenberg drove up in a cab to this place yesterday afternoon he noticed two people make a break for a drug store.  They were Pinkerton spies.  He saw things were getting warm for him and left with little delay, joining me at the depot.’ “


                                                            THE LOCAL SIDE

            “Sheriff Charles J. Gerdes received the following telegram from Vandenberg dispatched from Chicago:

            “ ‘Meet me at the worden’s office of the Ohio penitentiary tomorrow (Wednesday) at 8 o’clock with my committment papers.  I will then and there surrender myself and serve out my sentence of five years.

            “ ‘Lewis G. Vandenberg.’

            “In reply to that telegram Sheriff Gerdes left yesterday for Columbus and as per request met Norris and Vandenberg.  Mr. Gerdes returned home last evening and was seen by a reporter.  Mr. Gerdes stated that Vandenberg had explained his escape from the county jail in detail.

            “He said that on the day of his escape Turnkey Peter Durst came into the cell room to get shaved; in doing so he left the door open and that Harry Kimball, a prisoner in the same cellroom, gave him a tip.  Vandenberg then walked out the open door, mounted the iron gate, which was locked passed down the stairs and walked out into the open air.  He went through Dayton View and from there to Castine, Darke co., where he worked for a few days for a farmer.  One day he saw a man drive up whom he mistook for Sheriff McBride and accordingly skipped out.  He then beat his way to Troy, N. Y., where he procured a job on a boat.  The remainder of his travels up to the time of his arrest are related above.

            “A reporter called on Charles T. Freeman at his place of business last evening, and found him in consultation with his attorneys, Messrs. Rowe and Sprigg.  When questioned as to whether he had anything to say in reference to the public statement of Detective Norris, he replied that he had nothing to say except that they were malicious statements and absolutely false.”


                                                         VANDENBERG’S HISTORY         

            “It will be remembered that Vandenberg and his pal, George Jackson, were followers of the Forepaugh circus which exhibited at the fairground on the 17th day of June last year and that on the evening of that day, about 9 o’clock, they entered the residence of Horace Justice, in Van Buren tp., and stole jewelry and valuables belonging to Mrs. Justice to the amount of $785,85 and that they were captured the next day, or at least soon afterwards, at Xenia.  Subsequently a part of the stolen property was recovered.

            “At the October term last year, they were indicted and pleaded guilty to having committed the crime.  On the 14th day of December they were each sentenced to five years in the penitentiary.  Jackson is now in the pen serving his time, but on the morning of December 27, Vandenberg in some way deceived the turnkey Peter Durst, and managed to slip out of the jail and escape.  Search was made in all directions, but he successfully covered his tracks and his escape was made good, although Sheriff Gerdes offered a reward for his capture.

            “In the forenoon of August 4 a dispatch from John T. Norris from some town in Indiana was received, stating that he would like to meet the prosecuting attorney and sheriff before the board of county commissioners that afternoon at 8 o’clock upon important business.  Norris came and the meeting was held, with closed doors, late in the afternoon.  The commissioners were informed by Norris that he could secure Vandenberg and place him in the penitentiary, but that it would cost him some money to do so and that the reward offered by the sheriff, $50, would not see him through.  It was finally agreed that the sheriff would pay $100 and the county $50 to Norris, for the return of Vandenberg alive.

            “Sheriff Gerdes, upon a dispatch from Norris, left for Columbus yesterday forenoon to meet him there.”


            With Freeman already dethroned, Norris found occasion for doing a little strutting in the center of the stage.  There was no price on his head now that his enemy had been shorn of power, and apparently it was his own skin and not Vandenberg’s he was trying to save, for he completely washed his hands of the case.  He lost no time in returning to Dayton, for wily, old game-legged John T. Norris loved publicity, and he enjoyed being pointed out as a man-hunter of national repute.  So he hurried down to Dayton from his home in Springfield, and in its issue of August 19, 1892, The Times wrote this final chapter in the case:

            “The graceful form and figure of Detective John T. Norris was conspicuous on the streets of Dayton yesterday.

            “He arrived in the city in the morning,,  Accompanied by his wife and child and spent the entire day in the city looking up friends and acquaintances.  He called on Sheriff Gerdes during the day and received $100 offered as reward by the Sheriff for Vandenberg’s return.

            “Mr. Norris does not seem at all displeased with the newspaper notoriety he has received during the past few days, but an attempt to secure an interview relative to his future plans proved fruitless.

            “Does the papers quote you correctly, Mr. Norris in stating that you said that you had performed your part of the work and was done with this case?’ was asked Mr. Norris by a reporter.

            “ ‘I say a great many things,’ replied Mr. Norris, ‘Yes, I am through with the case now.  However, should I happen to be called before a grand jury I will then tell all I know.’
            “At this juncture Mr. Norris saw an acquaintance in the distance and hobbled off to meet him.”