12 December 2007

"Old Bill"

"Please - let my son go with me! I'm all he has - he needs me - don't separate us!" The cries of a mother soon to be parted from her infant child? No. These were the pleas of "Old Bill" Conover asking a judge in Somerville to let him take his fourteen-year-old son to the state prison with him!

20 July 1900 Brooklyn Citizen

It is said that Mr. Conover came from a respectable family - but alcohol was his downfall. Sometime around 1890, with two young daughters, a four-year-old son, a wife, and a liquor habit to support, he took up thievery. Horses mostly, as they were easy to steal and easy to dispose of.

It was in 1890 that his wife left him, taking his two daughters, leaving him with his little son Elyah. The two grew attached to one another - it was the two of them against the world. Elyah was described as "half-witted", but whether this was truly the case is unclear - although we can be pretty certain that he did not attend school.

20 July 1900 Brooklyn Citizen

Bill and Elyah lived for many years in a cave in the Sourland Mountains. The cave was furnished like a typical home, with a bed and other odd pieces of furniture, kitchenware, and oil lamps. Most of these were acquired by begging - and stealing. The cave home was Bill's base for his raids on neighboring farms across the countryside of Somerset and Hunterdon Counties.

20 July 1900 New Brunswick Daily Times

One night in the summer of 1900, "Old Bill" went down to Hillsborough Township for a raid on the farm of Richard Carter near Frankfort. He got away with a horse and a carriage - but he was spotted.

Old Courthouse, Somerville, circa 1905

He was arrested on July 20. Elyah begged to be allowed to go with his father to the County Jail. The scene was so pitiable that it was allowed. When Bill was sentenced a week later to three years in the state prison, Elyah was ready once again to accompany his father. Instead, he was sent to an institution - and neither was ever heard from again.

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