Wednesday, April 24, 2024

A Fugitive At Large in Schroon Lake

Trial of John I. Filkins, New York Sun, March 13, 1871

John I. Filkins and the Reward for His Capture

It was the evening of January 6, 1871, on what seemed to be just another night of work on the Albany train for 28-year-old express messenger Thomas A. Halpine. Though a veteran of four years in the Civil War, where he fought at Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, and Gettysburg with the Connecticut Heavy Artillery, it was likely that the furthest thing from his mind that night was violence and guns. As the train was leaving East Albany, Halpine heard someone step in the open door of the train car, and before he could even turn to greet them, a shot rang out and a bullet pierced the back of his skull. 

Though knocked down and nearly senseless, his assailant stepped in and shot him twice more in the face, the weapon so close that it left powder marks on his skin. Taking Halpine’s keys while he lay bleeding and helpless, the burglar then opened the safe, quickly pocketing two thousand dollars in small bills, and then fled unseen into the night. 

With the noise of the train and surrounding city, no one heard the shots, and it was only by luck that Halpine was found while still alive. His coworkers did what they could to slow the bleeding, and rushed him to a nearby doctor. Though gravely injured, Thomas Halpine was able to describe his assailant as a man about five feet nine in height, having a mustache and chin whiskers, wearing dark clothes, and without a hat. With only these vague details, the police quickly started their investigation. In hopes of bringing the perpetrator to justice, the American Merchants’ Union Express Company announced a five thousand dollar reward for his capture. 

The first break in the case occurred five days later when a store clerk reported that he had sold a pistol to Albany baker John I. Filkins only hours before the robbery. When Filkins was questioned by detectives, his answers were vague, but as he seemed to be an upstanding member of the community, nothing further was done. In many ways Filkins fit as a suspect, his appearance matched Halpine’s description, and before buying a bakery he worked both for the railroad and as an express messenger for the company that was robbed. When a pistol that matched the one sold to Filkins was found a few days later near the crime scene, enough evidence had been collected to make an arrest. 

Unfortunately, when the police arrived at Filkins’ bakery he had already fled, leaving in such haste that his dough for the day was abandoned while still rising. What ensued was possibly one of the slowest chases in local history, with Filkins traveling on foot and his pursuers following his path as tips came in reporting his movement northward. After leaving Albany he was seen first in Ballston and then Saratoga, and finally on Friday, January 17th, eleven days after the robbery, at the outskirts of Glens Falls. During the weekend, he continued walking northward, finally stopping at the farm of Otis Weathers on the outskirts of Warrensburg. 

That next morning Filkins made a decision that led to his arrest. Tired of traveling on foot, he hailed the Schroon Lake stage that went past the Weathers farm. As the stage driver immediately recognized him from a description in the newspaper, once they got to the Ondawa House in Schroon Lake, steps were taken to bring about his capture. At two am, ex-secret service agent William Arthur who had been following Filkins’s trail, knocked on the suspect’s door with the announcement that “it was four o’clock and the stage is ready,” then took him into custody as he stepped into the hallway. 

The wheels of justice moved quickly for Filkins, and on Tuesday, March 14, 1871, his trial was concluded. The next morning the jury returned a verdict of guilty to the charge of burglary in the first degree. The judge lost no time in sentencing him to 20 years in prison. 

In July of 1871, the American Merchants’ Union Express Company started the process of distributing reward money by requesting that the claimants work out amongst themselves each of their shares. Not surprisingly, the claimants were unable to agree, so the decision was passed to the judge who had presided over the trial. Ten months later Judge William L. Learned gave this ruling for distributing the reward:

The men who arrested Filkins at Schroon Lake: Sixty-five-year-old Joel Potter, a surveyor from Schroon Lake; Charles F. Leland proprietor of the Leland House on Schroon Lake; John D, Burwell, proprietor of the Ondawa House in Schroon Lake and William A. G. Arthur of Ticonderoga, each received $1,725; Thomas Braidwood, a cast metal moulder from Albany, who reported seeing him purchase a pistol from a pawn broker, $805; twenty-five-year-old Robert A. Scott, the Albany store clerk who sold Filkins the revolver used in the robbery, and who testified that was instrumental in securing the robber’s conviction $375; William H. Foos of Saratoga  $575 for furnishing the first information of the route Filkins took in his escape which led to his capture; Jeremiah Flood an Albany cab driver, who had seen Filkins around the express car the night of the robbery, $375; and William A. Whalen, another Albany moulder, who found the revolver used in the shooting $775. 

Thomas A. Halpine survived the attack by Filkins, and after six months of recovery was back at work as an express agent, having transferred to the North Adams, Massachusetts office. It was here that an irate customer pulled a pistol on him, though this time bystanders quickly stepped in. After this second incident of facing a gunman, Halpine lived another 40 years, passing away in Worcester, Massachusetts in 1915 at the age of 71. 

For John I. Filkins, facing twenty years of confinement seemed more than he could manage. In May of 1872, only fourteen months into his sentence, Filkins and three other convicts planned an escape from Clinton Prison in Dannemora, New York. Somehow obtaining a quantity of gunpowder, fuses, a sledgehammer, and a metal saw, over a number of days he cut through the hinges of his cell, then lighting the gunpowder to hide his movements, he used the sledgehammer to open up other cells, releasing four other men who planned to escape with him. By removing bars on a window, the convicts got into the yard and over an outer fence, with Filkins the first to be recaptured. 

Only three months later Filkins attempted another escape. Again obtaining gunpowder and tools, his plan was thwarted before it could be carried out and he was punished by being confined for a time in heavy chains. Three years later he made his final escape attempt. At the time of his disappearance, it was believed that he had somehow obtained civilian clothes and walked out the main gate with a group of departing visitors. Later that month workmen found a skeleton in the prison sewer, with the remains quickly identified as that of Filkins. We will end this story with the question asking if this really was Filkins. When robberies similar to the one in Albany years before started in Canada, the July 22, 1875, Potsdam Commercial Advertiser left the whole matter open with this statement: 

The idea that this skeleton was the mortal remains of the express robber is already disregarded, and the belief is current in some quarters he is still alive and well in the neighboring Dominion of Canada.

Sources for the article are the newspaper archives at nyshistoricnewpapers.org and fultonsearch.com.

Illustration at top: Trial of John I. Filkins, New York Sun, March 13, 1871. Photo provided by the author. 

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Dave Waite has had a lifelong interest in the Adirondacks and often spends time exploring the park and learning about its history. His stories about Adirondack and Upstate history have been published by several historical societies including those in St. Lawrence, Warren, and Saratoga counties. Dave recently published his first book, Thrilling Attractions and Weird Wonders, which brings together over thirty of his stories from Saratoga County and Upstate New York.




6 Responses

  1. Glenn L. Pearsall says:

    Nicely done.

  2. David H says:

    What an amazing story. Thank you for sharing this bit if local history!

  3. Bill Ott says:

    Reminds me of the escape from Dannemora in 2015, which was portrayed in a 2018 seven part TV series starring Patricia Arquette among others. Imagine Arquette gaining 40 pounds for the series, only to have to shed it for the last episode filmed. That’s almost as unbelievable as being shot in the head and face like Filkins and returning to a normal life.

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