Eyewitness 1818: No jail could hold this Pittsburgh thief

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Catching Pittsburgh bank robber Joseph Pluymart wasn't that hard. Authorities did it several times.

Keeping him in jail was.

Joseph Pluymart and Herman Emmons were identified as prime suspects soon after the Farmers & Mechanics Bank of Pittsburgh was burglarized on April 6, 1818.

The loot included about $100,000 in bank notes and $3,000 worth of gold and silver, according to an April 24 report in The Pittsburgh Gazette. The stolen items included coins and a gold medal presented in 1790 by Congress to Gen. Daniel Morgan, hero of the Battle of Cowpens during the American Revolution.

Morgan died in 1802, and the medal passed to his grandson, Morgan Neville, who was bank cashier.

The thieves who entered the bank during the night somehow had obtained copies of the vault keys, according to the April 10 edition of the newspaper.

"The persons suspected of having committed the robbery are two gamblers of the names of Pluymart and Emmons," the paper reported. "They are supposed to be Yankees."

"Pluymart goes by the title of Doctor, and is a professed gambler. Emmons is said to have formerly kept a store in New York."

The two men had told acquaintances they were leaving Pittsburgh for Virginia, but the newspaper reported they had instead traveled up the Monongahela River to Elizabeth. There "they purchased a skiff, in which they secured a false bottom to be made." At least one of the men was seen in Pittsburgh on the night the bank was broken into.

On April 17, the bank ran an ad offering a $1,000 reward for the capture of the robbers and return of its notes and precious metal. The amount of the reward was only $500 for the capture of the suspects alone. The Gazette reported April 24 that the bank had raised the reward amounts to $3,000 for the return of the stolen items and $1,000 for the capture of the robbers.

While word did not reach Pittsburgh until April 28, Pluymart and Emmons had been captured in Ohio two weeks earlier and been taken to the nearest jail in Cincinnati.

Their return to Pittsburgh for trial, however, was delayed for almost two months by an extradition battle between Pennsylvania and Ohio. Before the issue was resolved, both men broke out of jail. "Pluymart escaped, but Emmons was brought back, badly wounded," the Gazette reported on June 9.

After Emmons recovered from his injuries, he was returned to Pittsburgh.

"He was at first quite obstinate, but when he understood that public opinion and evidence was so powerful against him, he ... agreed to confess, on certain conditions," according to the newspaper. Those conditions appear to have included an agreement whereby he would not do jail time if he showed bank officers where he and Pluymart had hidden the loot. The bankers, "taking into view the importance of an confession and discovery, agreed to those conditions."

"Emmons was then placed into a boat at night, and accompanied by a number of our most respectable citizens, was taken 37 miles down the river, where he pointed out the place of concealment. ... Here the whole amount, except for about $2,700 was found. The notes were much injured by the damp."

Gen. Morgan's gold medal also remained missing.

After breaking jail in Ohio, Pluymart had remained on the loose for several weeks, but was recaptured near the Canadian border in Ogdensburg, N.Y. "About $5,000 in gold and bills were found with him, which are in the hands of the magistrates," the Gazette reported on June 19.

Two days after his latest arrest, "Pluymart, with two other prisoners, broke the jail and effected their escape," the newspaper said. "Immediately pursuit was made and an additional reward of 50 dollars was offered for [his] apprehension."

"He was re-taken about 15 miles from [Ogdensburg], and today has been lodged in jail, where we hope to retain him," according to a June 3 letter sent by three New York justices of the peace to the newspaper. The magistrates wrote of Pluymart, "He appears to be a consummate villain."

Brought back to Pennsylvania, Pluymart was convicted of the bank break-in and sentenced to three years in prison. It's unclear how long he served. Once again he escaped, according to "Allegheny County's Hundred Years," a community history by George H. Thurston published in 1888. While still a fugitive, Pluymart was pardoned by Gov. John Andrew Schulze.

Len Barcousky can be reached at lbarcousky@post-gazette.com or 724-772-0184. Past stories in the Eyewitness series can be read at www.post-gazette.com/pgh250


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