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Rhonda's View Rendezvous: Gang of boys punished for arson, burglaries

3:49 PM, Oct. 18, 2013  |  Comments
Rhonda Whetstone
Rhonda Whetstone
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Author's note: The Long Island Gang terrorizes Grand Rapids, Part 2 of 2

In October 1908, after an autumn of arson and burglaries, four boys, Earle Hein, Henry Podawiltz, Leo Caine and Francis Sell, ranging in age from 11 to 15, and calling themselves the Long Island Gang, were arrested by Sheriff Welch and jailed.

For weeks, the boys wreaked havoc on Grand Rapids, causing considerable damage and concern. Upon their arrest, the boys came clean, and that is when the sheriff realized their actions were much more far-reaching than the three known fires and burglary, and there were many more boys involved. He had arrested only the core boys.

The gang also included Leslie and Delbert Bliss, young sons of Professor Bliss from the Stevens Point university. Two other lads, Henry Rehman and Henry Meyers, eventually were released without charges, as their actions were thought slight.

As the truth revealed itself, 13 boys were implicated, and a shocking system of theft emerged. A surprising amount of cash and goods had been stolen from all sorts of business places. Some of that accounted for was $50 from Gaulke's store, cash from the Western Union office, besides the revolvers, ammunition and knives stolen from Huntington's hardware store on the night of the Pioneer Wood and Pulp Mill arson. Harry Mann, another of the gang, stole a pocketbook and cash from Skinner's Restaurant.

Also recovered from prior robberies were a rifle, three handguns, two pairs of skates, baseball mitt and bat, fishing pole and reel, stockings, cartridges for the firearms, thread, scissors, pencils, etc. It seemed whatever the boys needed, they simply helped themselves to it.

When the boys appeared before Judge Conway, he was anxious to sentence them all to reform school, and then the unexpected happened. Guardians and friends of the boys started working to keep them from that fate in an outcry of what the Grand Rapids Wisconsin Valley Leader called "sickly sentimentality." These people felt that soft words and kind actions toward the boys would reform them.

The Leader was blunt in stating, "Some of our citizens are paying dearly for this mistake (mollycoddling the boys) today. Don't make another mistake by letting a part of the guilty ones escape. The only show for their ever becoming even halfway decent men is the reform school, which is built especially for those children whose parents and guardians either do not or cannot control them."

Arguments were made that the merchants themselves needed to do boys like this a moral favor and not allow them to hang around their stores on flimsy pretexts, giving them chances to shoplift. The underlying theory was that each successful theft strengthened a dangerous habit and eventually led to worse. In this case, that may have been true.

After all was said and done, the case against the boys came to a sensational close when the charges against Francis Sell were dismissed, even though he was at the Pulp Mill fire. The district attorney stated he would file charges against Sell for arson and try him later in circuit court.

By the time Judge Conway was finished, even the parents and guardians of the boys realized they were beyond their control. The Bliss brothers, Earle Hein, Henry Podawiltz, Leo Caine and Harry Mann all were sentenced to the Industrial School for Boys at Waukesha until they were 21.

Citing "the fault of the parents to discipline or control their children, and even care for them as they should be," Conway was lauded for his patient and judicious efforts to ascertain the whole truth and reconcile the parents with the proper disposition of the cases.

While this is the end of this case as such, there is perhaps a bit more to be added.

Remember in part one of this story, Sheriff Welsh was given a letter that Vinnie Podawiltz, living in Milwaukee, had written her brother Henry. Well, I have no idea what was in that letter, but the name Vinnie rang a bell, and I went back to some research I did long ago and found the following. In January 1908, Henry and Vinnie's father died and the farm went to their sister. In summer, 1908, just before the Long Island Gang arsons started, the barn on that Podawiltz farm was destroyed by fire. No, Henry did not burn it down.

From the Grand Rapids Tribune, Dec. 30, 1908: "Vinnie Podawiltz appeared before Judge Webb on Tuesday and pled guilty to the charge of arson and was given a sentence of one year in Waupun. Miss Podawiltz burned a barn belonging to her sister out of spite."

Unless I am mistaken, that last item should give us all something to ponder.

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