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Keys and Aliases

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On this date in 1916, J. E. Shannon was being held in the Cass County jail. He had been arrested in March after a robbery and gunfight in a Drugstore in Davenport, south of Fargo. Five months later, on August 24th, Sheriff John Ross discovered something unusual.

The Fargo Forum reported, “Every Sunday there is a thorough search made of the jail, during which every article is gone over thoroughly. In the last search…a most artistic set of two keys were found that would work to perfection.”

The keys were found a jacket owned by a prisoner other than Shannon, and while there was no evidence linking the keys to Shannon, he was the only suspect. He had tried to escape just a few weeks earlier, and Sheriff Ross believed he was the only one with enough talent to make such keys.

Quoting from the newspaper: “The keys show the work of a master hand, having been made from tablespoons with the aid of a safety razor blade and a couple of pieces of spring steel … The discovery of the keys led to a further and closer search, which revealed the tools they were made with, all being hidden in the same locality, and in such a way that the officers are led to believe that the manufacturer anticipated being caught with the ‘goods,’ and tried to place them where they would not likely be charged to him.

“In making the keys,” the story continued, “tablespoons were flattened out and part of the bowl used for the key part, while the handle served as the shaft. In providing heat with which to soften the metal, grease, taken from meats served prisoners, had been collected in a small can, and used as a torch.”

In the days following the discovery, Fargo’s Chief of Police discovered Shannon had a 10-year criminal background that spanned the country.

It began in 1906, when he was arrested in Kansas City for vagrancy. Adopting a number of aliases, he would go on to be arrested in Denver, San Francisco, St. Louis, St. Paul, Chicago, Minneapolis and Detroit. His crimes included burglary, shoplifting, pickpocketing, illegal drugs, being a con artist and even arson.

Dakota Datebook by Merry Helm

Source: Fargo Forum. 24 Aug 1916 and 26 Aug 1916.

Dakota Datebook is made in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, and funded by Humanities North Dakota, a nonprofit, independent state partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in the program do not necessarily reflect those of Humanities North Dakota or the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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