18 February 2015

Hillsborough Highwayman - 1911

Highwaymen - glamorized as "gentlemen of the road", immortalized as Robin Hood-types - but in reality the bane of the British traveler for more than two centuries.  By 1831, when the last robbery by the brutal outlaws was recorded, these "road agents" had been essentially banished from the English byways.

Goya's "Robbery of the Coach"
Not so in America, where the arrival of the first automobiles, slower and more dependent on the road than the typical coach of the day, presented the dastardly scoundrels with a new opportunity.  The problem was so great that by 1911 the Automobile Club of America was advertising a $1,000 reward payable "to any person causing the apprehension and conviction of any robber who held up and robbed a motorist on a public highway."  It wasn't long before a holdup caused them to made good on that offer - and it happened right here in Hillsborough.

Charles Dumas, the well known, and well-off, candy manufacturer and ice cream store proprietor of Somerville was taking Mrs. Dumas for a tour of the countryside around Hillsborough on the late afternoon of August 24,1911.  Around 8 pm, as they slowly made their way back towards Somerville, they passed through the beautifully landscaped Duke's Park, the home of tobacco and water power magnate James B. Duke.

Duke's Parkway circa 1906

At the end of Dukes Parkway, Dumas activated the headlights of his open roadster, and made a left turn onto South Somerville Road.  Today, this section is part of Route 206, but before the highway was built, this was just a narrow two-lane road which continued north, crossed Dukes Parkway East, and became South Bridge Street.

As they approached the small wooden bridge crossing Duke's Brook, the headlights shone on a long plank stretched across the road, propped on a barrel at one end.  Dumas brought the auto to an abrupt halt.  He stepped from the car with the intention of removing the obstruction - obviously left from some earlier road work - and then continuing cautiously home.  But just as he stepped onto the roadster's running board, a shot rang out from the hedge and stone wall along the Duke estate.


1898 map showing Somerville and Hillsborough.
The spot on South Somerville Rd. where Charles Dumas and his wife
were held up is now seven lanes of Route 206!

As the highwayman burst forth from the hedge, Dumas realized that he had been shot clean through the forearm near the elbow.  Mrs. Dumas screamed and pleaded with her husband to give up his money, but Charles Dumas was having none of it.  He replied in anger, "I won't.  He shan't have it!"

"You're an obstinate cuss, Charley," said the robber as he shoved the revolver right in the face of the businessman.  "I want your money, and your watch."  Dumas was reluctant, especially since the watch had been a gift from his father, but the screaming and pleading of Mrs. Dumas made sense.

"Oh, give it to him Charley. For heaven's sake, let him have it.  He'll kill you otherwise!"
Dumas emptied his pockets of about $3 in change, smartly not making any indication he still had $50 in a wallet in his breast pocket, and reluctantly snapped the chain of his watch, handing that over as well.  He took a good look at the robber, who wore a red handkerchief over his nose and mouth, and had mud spread over the uncovered parts of his face in an attempt to make it seem that he was black.

The highwayman, still waving the revolver in the direction of Dumas, went around to the passenger side of the car, jumped up on the running board, roughly grabbed the arm of Mrs. Dumas and demanded her rings and jewelry.

New York Time Headline August 25, 1911


Another scream from his wife, and Dumas had had enough.  He sprang around the front of the vehicle, ignoring the gun, and lashed out with his good right arm while at the same time landing a fierce kick to the miscreant's midsection.  As the highwayman tumbled backwards off the running board, Dumas jumped into the driver's seat, gunned the engine of the still running roadster, and released the clutch crashing right through the plank and barrel and speeding north to Somerville.

The bandit fired twice more, both shots hitting the auto, one taking out a headlight, but Mr. and Mrs. Dumas escaped.  Despite losing a considerable amount of blood, Mr. Dumas was able to navigate to the home of Dr. Halstead on Grove St., where Somerset County Detective George Totten and Somerville policeman Julius Sauter were notified and motored south to begin a search.

###

It was Philadelphia pawn shop proprietor Reuben Cohen, Jr. who ended up claiming the Auto Club reward.  Police and pawn shops up and down the east coast were notified to look out for a gold watch bearing the initials C.M.D, and large placards announcing the reward were placed around Somerville and along the major roads leading north and south.  Less than 24 hours after the holdup, William Diamond walked into Cohen's Philadelphia shop with a desire to pawn the watch.  On the pretense of making a closer examination of the timepiece, whose initialed engraving could be seen to have been partially scratched out, Cohen headed to the back of his shop to call police.

New York Time Headline August 26, 1911


Diamond scuffled with police as they arrived, firing three shots from his revolver, but surrendered soon enough.  Charles Dumas came down from Somerville and positively identified Diamond as the man who robbed him.  Diamond, who was an African-American, had rubbed dirt on his face pretending to be a white man disguised as a black man!  In the end, it was his voice - and possession of the watch, revolver, and a sneaker imprint left at the scene - that eventually got him sentenced to fifteen years in the New Jersey State Prison in Trenton.

In their January 6, 1912 Club Journal, the Automobile Club of America reported that, since this incident, "there have been few, if any, highway robberies reported of late."

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