murder mystery, crime, & detective fiction



by Stanley Rushton

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Real Detective Tales | June/July 1927 | Vol. 11 | No. 2

Est. Read Time: 5 mins

When you use a typewriter for an unlawful letter you might as well sign it with your own thumbprint, because of all the typewriters in use throughout the entire world, no two, Cortelyou points out, write exactly alike.

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Are you being gripped by a mad passion to use a poison and muck-dripping pen for the sending of an anonymous letter? Have you contemplated using the typewriter to frame a Black Hand epistle?

If so, just bear in mind while spreading the rhetorical poison or attempting to levy blackmail that the chances are the letters will be immediately traced to your pen, and even more swiftly if they are typed.

This is the admonition of James T. Cortelyou, former chief of postal inspectors, recently appointed chief of the Philadelphia District Attorney's staff of detectives.

Frequently the sender of an anonymous letter will use a typewriter in the belief that his handwriting, even if disguised, might provide a clue, but that it would be impossible to trace the typed epistle.

Nothing could be more in error. When you use a typewriter for an unlawful letter you might as well sign it with your own thumbprint, because of all the typewriters in use throughout the entire world, no two, Cortelyou points out, write exactly alike. A typewritten line to the trailer of the poison pen and blackhand letter, such as the postal inspector, is regarded as much an identifying clue as the fingerprints left upon a safe which has just been blown open.

First, the letter goes under a powerful magnifying glass to determine what make of machine was used, and then the class number is ascertained. Now comes the process of elimination after the recipient of the letter has provided a lengthy list of all persons who might feel unfriendly toward him.

Gradually the list narrows down, and then among the suspects it is learned which have had access to such a typewriter as was used. Sounds easy, doesn't it? But first you must qualify as a typewriting expert and rank in the same class as the highly-paid handwriting expert before your testimony would be acceptable.



One of the most interesting cases in the Cortelyou records is that of the Black Hand letters which for 17 months completely baffled a corps of inspectors. It has for its finale the arrest in a woodland shack near Coryopolis, Pennsylvania, of a pretty girl thrill-hunter who had been the author of the poison-pen and blackmail letters simply because she gained a "kick" out of being ht.

"In this case," said Cortelyou, "wealthy residents of Coryopolis were in constant receipt of letters demanding amounts which varied front $5,000 to $50,000. The letters were typewritten and in each one the recipient was instructed to display willingness to meet the demands by inserting in the personal column of a Pittsburgh newspaper a cipher message contained in the letter.

"For seventeen months this continued. The cipher replies were inserted in the newspaper, but no further move was made. Then I went to Coryopolis to direct the search for the mysterious writer, and was convinced that I was up against the toughest case of my career.

"My check-up showed there was no typewriter in Coryopolis upon which the letters were written, unless it was well concealed. The check-up then extended to those who commuted to a larger town and who would have access to typewriters there.

"While awaiting developments my attention had been attracted at the railway station by a pretty bobbed hair girl of the flapper type who made the daily trip to the larger town, chatting and laughing with her fellow passengers and appearing to be a general favorite and confidant of girls of her own age and station, who had occasion later to regret having revealed indiscretions to this sympathetic listener.

"My attention became more closely drawn when I noticed that on two evenings each week, instead of alighting from the returning train on the station platform, she jumped down from the opposite side of the coach, forcing her way through brush and over rubbish heaps, and vanishing into a strip of deep woods.

"In the meantime we had been sending some fictitious query to every concern in the other town where a Coryopolis commuter was employed and the replies were coming in typewritten form as we had sought.

"Looking over a batch of these replies, I saw before me the imprint of the same type keys which had struck out the blackmail letters. It was a concern specializing in the collection of bad debts, and three hours later I had learned that the flapper, into whose small pink ears other girls loved to pour their secrets, was employed there as a typist.



That night I had my men planted in the woods into which the girl was accustomed to make her way. I also was under cover near the railroad tracks.

"Sure enough, as the train came to a stop, the girl, clad in a collegiate sweater and white sneakers, swung down from the platform. Carrying a tennis racket and a number of packages, she made her way over the old route.

"Finally, in a clearing which might easily have been hidden from our view even though we'd been searching for it, we saw the shack and a great hulk of a youth in soiled flannels lounging on a bench before it.

"Making certain that my men had surrounded the place, I stepped forward and asked if I might have a bucket of water for the dry radiator of my car which had stalled on a back road near here.

"'He's a spy, Joe,' shrilled the girl. 'Knock him off!'

"With a shouted curse, the youth—her brother, I later learned—made a grab for an automatic pistol on the window sill, while the girl tried to reach a pump gun standing in a corner. My men were too quick for them, however.

"The girl did succeed in breaking loose for an instant after she had sunk her teeth into the wrist of an inspector, and attempted to destroy some slips of paper which we found were different codes which had been used in the letters. We also found another typewriter, a quantity of stationery which had been used for those baffling letters and lengthy memorandum as to the confidences girl friends had been pouring into her ready ear on the commuters' train.

"The brother, a fugitive because of a series of robberies in which he had sought thrills rather than plunder, and his sister admitted they had planned a series of blackmail and poisonous letters which would have ruined the lives of the foolish flappers who had confessed indiscretions and might have driven one or two brides to suicide.

"Here was an example in which two jazz-age victims, jaded from normal pursuits, had gone forth as thrill-hunters. They confessed they found thrills in seeing the code messages appear in the newspaper personal column in swift reply to their demands."