In 1896 New York papers reported that Edward Sheeran had been found dead, suffocated by gas. Sheeran, a wealthy bachelor, owned a house in Brooklyn, which he shared with his sister, Sarah, and her husband, Michael Sheehan. Late on the morning of October 4th, Sheeran’s sister went to his bedroom to rouse him. She found the door locked and noticed a distinctive smell of gas. Another relative was summoned to force Sheeran’s bedroom window:
“On the floor was the body of Edward, while the gas was pouring from the burner, which was turned on. The body was lying face downward, and in the dead man’s hand was his trousers.”
The coroner arrived to inspect the scene and speak to witnesses. Believing he may have turned the gas on intentionally, the coroner ordered Sheeran’s brother-in-law taken into custody. There is no record of Michael Sheehan ever being charged or tried, however, so it seems that Ed Sheeran’s sad demise – gassed to death while clutching his trousers – was a tragic accident.
In August 1861, a Ballarat man, who shared his name with a future Australian prime minister, was charged and remanded in custody for voter fraud. During a general election for the Victorian parliament, witnesses saw Paul Keating attempt to cast two votes using false names – including another famous name from the future:
Problems with identification and record-keeping made personation (the criminal act of voting illegally under someone else’s name) an occasional problem in 19th-century elections. When discovered it was dealt with harshly by the courts. After a lengthy investigation by the police and the Victorian colonial government, Keating was convicted in April 1862 and sentenced to six months’ imprisonment. On release from prison, he went into gold mining in Ballarat. His subsequent fate is unknown. The 20th century Paul Keating was elected to the Australian parliament in 1969, later serving as treasurer (1983-91) and prime minister (1991-96).
Bill Gates, popularly known as ‘Swiftwater Bill’, was an Idaho-born pioneer and miner. Around 1896 Gates left his job as a dishwasher and joined the Klondike gold rush in remote western Canada. Gates purchased a claim along the Yukon River and chanced upon one of the richest deposits in the Klondike. For a while Gates was reportedly cashing in more than $10,000 of gold each week, making him one of the Yukon’s most successful prospectors. But Gates also spent money as fast as he made it: he was a notorious spendthrift, fond of fancy clothes, high living and gambling. He was also a ladies’ man – in the goldfields, something that could prove quite an expensive hobby:
“As a matrimonial market Dawson City [in the Yukon] has no equal on earth. Ladies are as scarce as gold dust… Any maiden, innocent or full of guile, can become a bride with a wedding present of thousands of dollars of gold dust within 30 minutes after arriving at Dawson City, if she will but whisper her consent.”
Bill Gates was particularly infatuated with the teenage girls employed as dancers and waitresses in Dawson. According to legend one of Gates’ favourite dancers was fond of eggs – a scarce commodity in the Yukon – so he bought up every egg in Dawson at a dollar apiece. The main object of Gates’ affection was 19-year-old Gussie Lamore. In 1897 he tried securing her hand in marriage by giving Gussie her own weight in gold:
“…Bill was so smitten with her charms that he called on Miss LaMore the day of her arrival and wooed her with $50,000 of gold dust in a coal oil can.”
Bill and Gussie never married (some reports suggest she already had a husband). Gates continued to chase teenage girls, including Gussie’s younger sister Grace, Bera Beebe (whom he eventually married) and 17-year-old Kitty Brandon. His antics later led to a bigamy charge, though Gates managed to avoid trial, possibly with bribes. In his lifetime Bill Gate dug up and squandered at least four different fortunes. He was mining a large silver deposit in Peru when he died in 1935.
John F. Kennedy (c.1870-1922) was an American outlaw of the late 19th century. Like his more famous namesake, Kennedy was known to his friends as Jack. He started adulthood as a locomotive engineer but soon decided a much grander fortune could be made by robbing the railways rather than working on them. With a gang of accomplices, Kennedy carried out a string of train robberies in the 1890s, robbing at least seven mail or goods trains. His experience as an engineer gave Kennedy considerable inside knowledge. He also carried out each robbery with his face covered.
Despite this, the identity of the “Quail Hunter” (as the serial bandit became known) was an open secret. Lawmen were well aware of Kennedy’s identity and did their utmost to put him behind bars – but to no avail. He was sent to trial three times between 1896 and 1898 but escaped conviction each time, thanks to tricky lawyers, false alibis and bribed jury members. In 1899, Kennedy and Jesse E. James, son of THE Jesse James, were charged with a botched hold up near Leeds, Missouri. Their trial generated a wave of press attention but public sympathy was with James, so both men were acquitted. An interesting side story concerns a claim on the $500 reward for Kennedy’s arrest, made by:
“Tom Hanks, the barber, who was shaving the ‘Quail Hunter’ when Officer James O’Malley took him into custody… Hanks claimed that when Kennedy learned of the reward for his arrest, he surrendered himself [to Hanks] and that it was Hanks’ intention to take his prisoner to the county jail as soon as he had finished his tonsorial work.”
Kennedy himself supported Hanks’ claim, though probably only to deprive the arresting officer of the $500. After his acquittal in the James trial, Kennedy was arrested for a yet another robbery. This time the evidence stuck and Kennedy found himself serving a 17-year stretch in prison. The ‘Quail Hunter’ carried out his last robbery near Wittenberg, Missouri in 1922. After holding up a mail train, Kennedy and his accomplice attempted to make their getaway but were ambushed by several deputies. A gunfight ensued and both men were shot dead.