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The exploits of Minnie Gilbert, ‘Queen of Thieves’

Wayne E. Reilly image | BDN
Wayne E. Reilly image | BDN
Source: Bangor Daily News, April 25, 1904
By Wayne E. Reilly, Special to the BDN

During the early years of the 20th century, a gang of yeggmen — contemporary slang for burglars who blew up safes — terrorized Maine’s small-town post offices, train stations, stores and other places where valuables were stored. The activities of what was originally called the Boston Shorty Gang first appeared in the Portland newspapers in 1901 after a series of burglaries including the dynamiting of train station safes at Woodfords Corner and Cumberland Mills. The involvement of a mysterious Bangor woman named Minnie Gilbert — labeled “Queen of Thieves” in the Bangor Daily News — provided a bit of extra excitement for readers in an era when women seldom got their names in the papers unless they were socialites or streetwalkers.

A group of hobos was rounded up after the train station breaks in 1901. They included James Arnold, known to the police as Shorty Murphy or Boston Shorty, according to the Eastern Argus, a Portland newspaper, on May 30. Four of the men were convicted of vagrancy and related crimes and sent to jail for a few months. Nobody was convicted of the station breaks because police didn’t have any evidence.

The next year the gang resurfaced when one of its members, William Thompson, alias Billy Riley, was shot to death in a drunken row over the distribution of money taken from a store at Coal Kiln Corner, in the Westbrook area. Thompson was well known to police as “the Hobo Burglar.” He had been a member of the Boston Shorty Gang, “a gang of toughs and hobo burglars” whose members were suspected in the killing, said the Portland Evening Express on Oct. 29, 1902.

One of the gang members, William Smith, proved an alibi with the help of testimony from one Mrs. John Murray, who ran a boardinghouse where he had been a resident at 51 Preble St. in Portland. Smith claimed he had spent the evening of the murder in a vaudeville house, leaving “when the bears came on” and returning to Mrs. Murray’s. Mrs. Murray, who later turned out to be Mrs. Minnie Gilbert O’Rourke, confirmed his story.

Another year passed, and the gang moved north for a time. Newspaper stories in August 1903 told of a post office safe job in Southwest Harbor, in which $800 was taken in stamps and money orders. This was the heist that proved to be the gang’s undoing.

That same month a gang blew open the safe at the Brewer Savings Bank, where between $200 and $300 was taken. After gang members crossed the river on the toll bridge, a dramatic shootout with Bangor police occurred along the Queen City’s waterfront. Nobody was shot or apprehended, however, and the gang seemed to disappear into thin air.

Almost another year passed before police scored a dramatic breakthrough in the crime wave that by now involved many burglaries, including 14 post office jobs. On April 19, 1904, the Portland Evening Express reported that the “gang of safe blowers”police had been tracking for years operated in many towns, but had its headquarters in Portland — first at the boardinghouse run by the Murrays on Preble Street (where Billy Smith proved his alibi) and later at another boardinghouse at Stetson Place.

William Huddle, a member of what had originally been called the Boston Shorty Gang, and Mrs. Minnie O’Rourke, the former Minnie Gilbert of Bangor, alias Mrs. Murray, were arrested as the gang’s ringleaders. David F. Murdock, a Portland businessman, was also arrested for receiving stolen goods, namely the stamps acquired by Huddle.

Michael O’Rourke, Minnie’s husband and another gang ringleader, had emptied his bank account and fled. At the boardinghouse on Preble Street, O’Rourke and Huddle had gotten into a fight over Minnie’s affections, and Minnie had stood up for Huddle.

One of the chief bits of evidence in Huddle’s trial for burglarizing the Southwest Harbor Post Office was a bit of mail — a necklace sent from a Boston store to a woman in Southwest Harbor that turned up in Minnie’s belongings.

The Bangor newspapers immediately jumped on the story, providing readers with salacious (for the era) descriptions of the infamous Minnie Gilbert and her life in Bangor. They were about how a girl living on the edge of the abyss — a fallen woman so to speak — suddenly could become one of the state’s most famous criminals. These sketchy pieces in Bangor’s two dailies agreed on very little, making it difficult today to find the real Minnie.

The Bangor Daily News on April 25, 1904, published a large sketch of Gilbert, “Queen of Thieves,” along with smaller images of several Boston Shorty Gang members including Minnie’s alleged lover, William Huddle. In fact, most of the Boston Shorty crowd were in jail by then, including Boston Shorty himself, or were not involved in the activities of what was now being called the O’Rourke or Huddle Gang in honor of its new leaders.

Minnie, 26, was “not pretty,” but “with big black eyes that fascinate,” wrote the fascinated reporter. “Her fascinating manners, wondrously beautiful eyes and stylish dressing won many admirers before she was out of her teens, and she was a leading figure in fast life and eventually figured in the courts.”

In Bangor, she had “led a life of dissipation and adventure, gradually descending from prosperity to the hard life of the slums,” said the newspaper. Her overfondness for drink robbed her of her good looks and she became the associate of “tramps and thieves.” This fallen woman once attempted suicide in a room at the St. James Hotel “after a prolonged debauch.”

The O’Rourke gang had burglarized the Brewer bank and then stayed at the home of Minnie’s mother on Buck Street in Bangor, claimed the newspaper. That explained why police had been unable to find them after the wild chase and gunplay along the Bangor waterfront that concluded that escapade. Minnie was alleged to have confessed to her involvement in the burglary, although no source was given.

In its own interpretation of Minnie Gilbert’s life, the Bangor Daily Commercial revealed that she had served time in jail for street walking. Contrary to the opinion of its rival newspaper, the Commercial declared, “It would take a very elastic imagination to decide that she is attractive. Her face is very plain, while her carriage is anything but graceful.” (Courtroom testimony in the Portland Evening Express on April 27 also indicated that Minnie was probably addicted to morphine.)

Huddle was sentenced to prison for robbing the post office at Southwest Harbor. Minnie Gilbert O’Rourke’s indictment for receiving stolen goods, however, was dismissed, said the Portland Evening Express on April 30, 1904. We can guess that she provided police with much pertinent information.

Since then, I have seen no references to Minnie O’Rourke or to Huddle or to Michael O’Rourke in the Bangor newspapers beyond the events outlined here up into 1912. The Brewer bank robbery remains officially unsolved to my knowledge.

Wayne E. Reilly’s column on Bangor a century ago appears every other Monday. An illustrated collection, “Remembering Bangor: The Queen City Before the Great Fire,” is available where books are sold. Comments can be sent to him at wreilly.bdn@gmail.com.

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