Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The End of Adirondack Horse Thief Alonzo Clark

B1LonClarkHdlineAfter release from prison, Alonzo Clark returned to New York and married a young girl in Brandon, south of Malone, where he worked as a farmhand. It wasn’t long before he returned to crime, stealing horses prior to engaging in a high-profile scam at Helena, a hamlet in northern St. Lawrence County. In early 1885, posing as a salesman and tinware repairman, Clark ingratiated himself to Adam Knapp, 69, and his wife, Susan, 50, claiming to be a cousin of Luella, their adopted 16-year-old daughter.

After several nights of reading from the Bible with the family and turning on the charm, Alonzo won them over, particularly Luella. He courted her for several days, using Adam Knapp’s own horse and cutter to woo her on country rides. Within about two weeks’ time, they married.

Less than a week later, clad in Mr. Knapp’s overcoat, sealskin hat, muffler, and mittens, and loading the cutter with various paraphernalia, Lon set out on his usual sales trip in the Helena area. About ten miles down the road at Brasher Falls, he sold the equipment and disappeared. Although he was not seen for some time after, graphic evidence of his visit remained – in December, Luella gave birth to a daughter.

But Clark was long gone, having headed west to Michigan. In November, before the baby was born, he used the alias Mr. Reed while stealing horses in Calhoun County and selling them in nearby towns.

In May 1886, while en route to Detroit, he was spotted driving a stolen rig through Jackson, Michigan. Before reaching his destination, Clark was placed under arrest.

In short order, he beat the rap by adopting a modified appearance (altered beard, mustache, and hair growth were favorites of his), preventing witnesses from making positive identification. Once freed, Lon engaged in more thievery until he was caught in Wisconsin and sentenced to prison.

After release in 1889, he returned once again to upstate New York. In December, in the St. Lawrence County town of Nicholville, he pulled a ruse that had worked well in the past, using an alias (A. E. Smith in this case) to hire a horse and buggy, but failing to return. The intent was to sell the harness, robes, blankets, and rig, and then vanish.

But the wagon was damaged in a collision, forcing him to abandon it, and the horse was recovered shortly after at Nicholville. Lawmen began a relentless pursuit of Lon through Brandon, Duane, Meacham, Brighton, Santa Clara, back to Brighton, and through part of Essex County, finally capturing him near Bloomingdale in Franklin County. The chase lasted six days and covered nearly 300 miles.

While he sat in jail awaiting trial, Alonzo engaged the media despite their portrayal of him as a bigamist and horse thief. The Franklin Gazette reported one of his more entertaining exploits: “At one time he stole a rig and drove to Brasher Falls, put up at a hotel, and went upstairs to enjoy a dance with the young people. While there, he learned that the sheriff was outside looking for him. Clark went down the back stairs, stole the sheriff’s double team, and made good his escape.”

At the trial in early February 1890, no witnesses testified for the defense except Clark himself, admitting on the stand that he had often escaped punishment for crimes he committed—usually horse theft. Not surprisingly, the jury deliberated for only ten minutes before returning a guilty verdict. The sentence was four and a half years in Dannemora.

In June 1893 he was released, but Lon was soon at it again, stealing horses in Hogansburg, Bangor, and Malone. Things turned sour again when a scam went awry in mid-October. Under the alias Harry Nash, he stole a rig in Canton, but complications forced him to flee. On the lam for several months, he was finally captured in March 1894.

B2LonClarkHdlineIncarceration again offered the opportunity for self-serving publicity. Clark, described as 60 (he was actually 53), claimed a great number of years behind bars as the champion horse thief of the United States, having recently taken his 100th mount. He also said there were warrants for his arrest in several regional towns (certainly true) and throughout New England (also true), but he was, of course, innocent of the latest charges (not true).

Despite strong evidence against him, the case was eventually discharged due to a ploy that had worked in the past. Clark, the consummate con man, had changed the style of his beard since being arrested, leaving witnesses unable to identify him as the guilty party.

This time, however, Alonzo pushed his luck too far. Leaving the jail a free man, he wore a coat and vest borrowed earlier from another prisoner to appear more presentable in court. The sheriff was notified, and Clark was arrested a few days later for larceny, earning him four months in jail.

While the theft seemed trivial compared to Lon’s past crimes, the scope if his error was realized in September. Waiting at the jail to arrest him upon release was the sheriff of St. Lawrence County, where he was wanted for stealing a horse in Canton a year earlier. Clark pleaded not guilty to the charge in January 1895, but reversed the plea a month later, resulting in a five-year term at Dannemora.

After serving just under four years, Lon returned to Malone in late 1898 and announced he was a changed man, forever quitting illegal activities and planning a book on his amazing life of crime. Typical of the self-promotion he had previously indulged in, Clark gave the media plenty of material. Embellishing earlier claims of having passed the hundred mark in stolen horses, he now said the number 350 wouldn’t cover his activities “from the Atlantic to the Pacific coast.”

A year after announcing his reformation, Alonzo was arrested locally on a Minnesota warrant offering $500 for his capture. But with insufficient proof, he was released. Six months later, a police circular offered a reward for the arrest of “John” Clark for stealing a rig in Fairfax, New York. The Malone Farmer reported that “the picture on the circular is declared to be that of Lon Clark, famous in that line of business.” The subject was described as “60 years old and had served six terms at Auburn Prison.”

But again, there was no definitive proof, and Clark remained a free man. Now in his sixties, he was getting old for a young man’s game, although it was often noted since his early twenties that Lon looked much younger than his years.

The “reform” he announced in 1898 may have been nothing more than age taking its toll. And then, in 1906, near the end of June, it was reported that Alonzo, 65, had recently died and was buried in his native town of Dickinson. Just like that, it was all over.

In a 40-year span (1858–1898), he was sentenced to at least 8 prison terms totaling 28 years. More than 20 years were actually served, plus time in many county jails of at least five states. The reason for it all, he said, was a great admiration for horseflesh and an irresistible urge to steal such fine-looking animals.

For all the attention he craved and received through the years, Clark’s ending was one of anonymity. Newspapers reported his passing a week after he was already buried, and coverage was minimal, although it was noted that he had been an extraordinarily prolific thief.

But that was old news, heard many times straight from the horse’s mouth.

Photos: Headlines, 1894

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Lawrence Gooley, of Clinton County, is an award-winning author who has hiked, bushwhacked, climbed, bicycled, explored, and canoed in the Adirondack Mountains for 45 years. With a lifetime love of research, writing, and history, he has authored 22 books and more than 200 articles on the region's past, and in 2009 organized the North Country Authors in the Plattsburgh area.

His book Oliver’s War: An Adirondack Rebel Battles the Rockefeller Fortune won the Adirondack Literary Award for Best Book of Nonfiction in 2008. Another title, Terror in the Adirondacks: The True Story of Serial Killer Robert F. Garrow, was a regional best-seller for four years running.

With his partner, Jill Jones, Gooley founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004, which has published 83 titles to date. They also offer editing/proofreading services, web design, and a range of PowerPoint presentations based on Gooley's books.

Bloated Toe’s unusual business model was featured in Publishers Weekly in April 2011. The company also operates an online store to support the work of other regional folks. The North Country Store features more than 100 book titles and 60 CDs and DVDs, along with a variety of other area products.

2 Responses

  1. Bob Kibbey says:

    A great story, Mr. Gooley. But, What ever became of
    Luella’s daughter?


  2. Larry says:

    Thanks Bob. I can’t say for sure what happened to Luella and her daughter. Lack of an 1890 Census sure didn’t help, for that’s when she would have moved out on her own. I identified some possibilities, but none that I can be sure are correct.

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