Augustus Cronkhite: Proof of the saying, “Locks keep honest folks out.”

Augustus Cronkhite: Proof of the saying, “Locks keep honest folks out.”

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Augustus Cronkhite, born in February 1842 and died in 1923, was the son of Elijah and Martha Cronkhite.

He lived his entire life in Indiana and through hard work, diligence and consideration for his neighbors, became a well respected and valued man in the community.

Cronkhite, Augustus - Tombstone 1

During his childhood years, his family lived in Station Township and Steuben, of Warren County, Indiana.

Augustus married his first wife, Samantha (originally from Iowa) sometime before 1866 and the 1870 US Census for Steuben, Warren County, Indiana shows that he was a farmer living with Samantha and their two daughters Mary and Martha.

Presumably, Samantha must have died sometime between 1870 and 18 January, 1883, when he married his second wife, Sarah “Belle” Jones.

Sarah was one of six children born to Robinson Coke “Boby” Jones and Emily S. “Emma” Shelby, 4th great grandparents to our children, Erin and Stuart on my husband Mark’s side.

Emily Shelby is our family’s connection into the lineage of Evan “Dhu” Isaac Shelby, of Tregaron, Wales, of which one noted member is Isaac Shelby, Governor of Kentucky – veteran of the War of Independence and the War of 1812.

Sometime prior to 1888, Augustus was made Trustee of the Township.

Warren County, Indiana courthouse.
Warren County, Indiana courthouse.

On the basis of trust in him and his reputation, Augustus was elected Warren County Treasurer in 1888, and re-elected in 1890, continuing to serve in this capacity until unfortunate circumstances of his own making arose in January, 1893.

He had also gone into the lumber business with one Philip Gemmer and, being one of Gemmer’s bondsmen had been financially hit. An arrangement was made that settled things for the moment.

However, it was discovered that Gemmer had transferred some lots to a Mrs. Personette to avoid settling some of his debts. Mrs. Personette supported his story and claimed that she had “paid certain sums of money for the real estate.”

According to a newspaper article of January 3, 1893, it was a shock to discover that Augustus was a “heavy defaulter and a fugitive from justice,” having allegedly stolen over $64,000 from the treasury. There was not even one dollar left.

Augustus claimed that “great sums of taxes were deliquent” when they had indeed been paid.

He had absconded and left a letter stating that he didn’t have the courage to face his bondsmen.

Perhaps he slid into this regrettable situation in an attempt to work his way financially through the negative situation he found himself in with Philip Gemmer?

It was a mystery as to what he did with the money as he was not a gambler or “given to dissipation.”

According to various estimates, the losses ranged from $63,000 to $150,000 – millions at today’s dollar value. It soon became apparent, however, that he had a penchant for investing in stocks on the Chicago Board of Trade.

In a letter to the County Auditor, he offered to turn over his assets, which included an 850 acre farm encompassing some of the best land in the county, and worth approximately $32,000 – but with a $12,000 mortgage against it.

Cronkhite claimed the public funds were “temporarily borrowed,” and it is known that he had paid $44,000 toward old debts, bought new land and farms, and made considerable improvements.

According to a January 23, 1893 article in the Indianapolis News:

“The general opinion is that he was not intentionally dishonest, but that his business was too big for his financial ability. There was little or no demand for the money held by the county, and he continued to use it expecting to be able to sell off his holdings at an advance whenever it might be necessary to make a showing of his trust. His friends profess to know where he is in hiding, and they say that he will return and aid in clearing up the wreck.”

The Indianapolis News of 24 January 1893 reported:

“His method of securing the money was simple, but it had a limit. When he received a payment of taxes from the heavier tax-payers of the county he receipted to them for the amount, but did not enter the amount on his books, which necessarily exhibited a large delinquency. Last week it became necessary by law to publish the delinquency list, and this publication precipitated the exposure of Cronkhite’s crime. Tax-payers were shown to be delinquent who had receipts from the treasurer that their taxes had been paid.”

The commissioners took charge of the treasurer’s office and put the Sheriff in charge.

Augustus Cronkhite made his escape when the bondsmen met up with him on the train platform, one saying “Halloo, Gus. We want to talk with you.”

“All right,” replied Augustus cheerily, when he suddently darted around the side of the already moving train and jumped on board before any of the bondsmen could react.

It became widely believed that he had escaped to Canada.

In all, there were thirty bondsmen affected by the fraud, fifteen of which were set to bear the majority of the financial burden as the remainder did not have any funds available. It was also known there were two grain commission firms and some banks in Chicago that would be adversely affected by the fraud.

It appeared that Augustus developed “an unfathomable mania for making investments,” as stated January 25, 1893 in the Indianapolis News.

“Whenever he heard of property for sale, he was always in the market at any price, and when the property was secured he at once began to lavish money in improvements. His 400-acre farm in Stuben township was increased to 800 acres in four years, and during the last year he put in more fencing than all the rest of the farms in the township. His property is nearly all owned by himself and wife jointly, and it cost $60,000, with half that mortgage covering it. It is stated by a close friend that he has an investment in the plate-glass factory at Marion, but as this is not definitely known the probable amount is not included in his assets.”

Los Angeles Post Office c. 1890.
Los Angeles Post Office c. 1890.

Augustus Cronkhite was located after several months absence by an officer who examined mail destined for him through a friend in Chicago. It appeared they were sent by Augustus’ wife and were intended to be forwarded to Augustus, who, it turns out, had fled to and been living in Los Angeles, California.

Cronkite’s friends remained loyal to him, and it was through their efforts to warn him of impending actions and to intercede to prevent his capture, that he was able to remain at large for several months in California.

Augustus was apprehended in California in March 1894. He admitted who he was, stating that he only wished to transact a little business before he was taken back to Indiana.

While in Los Angeles, he had invested in real estate and had a large tract of land in Cardena in his wife’s name.

The Telegraphic News reported statewide that:

“A sad scene occurred in the police station here Wednesday morning when Cronkhite, the embezzling county treasurer from Warren county, Ind., was taken from his cell and contronted by his wife and little boy, who had journeyed hither from Indiana, concealing their identity and also hoping to be met at the depot by the husband and father. They knew nothing of the arrest until they had waited several hours in vain. Then Mrs. Cronkhite made some inquiry and, learning the distressing truth, she made herself known to the chief of police, and the reunion that followed was one of the saddest ever seen in the city prison.”

Other newspapers reported in April 1894:

“On the way to Michigan City after the Collins, Marshal Hawkins fell in with the sheriff of Warren county, who was taking to the State prison north Augustus Cronkhite, the defaulting treasurer of Warren county. Cronkhite was sentenced to the penitentiary for three years for embezzling $150,000. After it was discovered that his accounts were short he went to California, and was in hiding several months before he was located and brought back for trial. He was a well-to-do farmer before he was elected treasurer of the county. Five prisoners arrived at the penitentiary at the same time he did, and he was made to lead the five from the deputy warden’s room to the bath-room. The tears ran down his cheeks as he stepped in line and felt on his shoulder the touch of the hand of the prisoner behind him. After Cronkhite had put on the garb of the prison the sheriff, with whom he had grown up, did not know him. Cronkhite is between fifty and sixty years old. In discussing the case the sheriff of Warren county said the Cronkhite’s fate ought to be a warning against unqualified men accepting county office. Cronkhite, he said was an honest man, he believed. He did not know anything about business methods, and in handling the county’s money lost $150,000 without being able to say where the money went. Cronkhite had been trustee of his township before he was elected treasurer, and, the sheriff said, no man in the county had a better reputation.”

After serving his three year sentence, he returned to farming in Kent, Warren County, Indiana, as shown in the 1900 US Census.


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