‘The Great Klaholt robbery’, 1883

The south side of the Springfield square in 1928. J.C. Klaholt & Co. is in mid-block; the sign “Jewelry” can be seen faintly on the building. Klaholt’s clock (see below) is in front of the store. (Sangamon Valley Collection)

One hundred-forty years ago this week, “adroit cracksmen” made away – briefly – with what probably is the most lucrative burglary haul in Springfield history.

The theft was carefully planned. The getaway, apparently, was not.

The theft took place in the early morning of March 3, 1883, from the J.C. Klaholt jewelry store on the south side of today’s Old Capitol square. Joseph Klaholt (1854-1911) valued the swag – jewelry, diamonds and watches – at $20,000, an amount that equates to almost $600,000 in 2023.

“According to the best information obtainable,” the Illinois State Journal reported on Monday, March 5, the thieves “began their work about 2 o’clock Friday night, and in two hours had entered the building, opened the safe, rifled it of contents, and departed without leaving a definite clue as to their identity, although they were meantime compelled to overpower and bind and gag a night watchman.”

The watchman was Fred Schutt, one of two privately hired security guards (the other was Henry Nelch) who protected downtown businesses at night. Their practice was to split up, each patrol several blocks on his own, then rejoin to check the two banks on their route.

Schutt was in the alley behind the south side of the square about 2 a.m., the Journal said, when he “noticed a paper pasted over a small hole in the rear door of Klaholt’s store – the hole having been left there on purpose for the watchman to look in and see that everything was all right.”

Walking up to the door to ascertain the cause of the unusual appearance of the premises, Schutt says he was confronted by a man with a drawn revolver in his hand and a mask over his face, who told him to surrender. Schutt says he drew his own revolver, which snapped but failed to go off. Then a second masked man appeared and put a pistol to Schutt’s head, with directions for him to keep quiet or he would be killed. Schutt realized that resistance was useless, and surrendered.

Schutt was tied hand and foot so the thieves could finish cleaning out Klaholt’s. Before a blanket was thrown over his face, Schutt said later, he saw three robbers in the store.

The burglars had gotten into Klaholt’s by cutting out a panel in the rear door where Schutt was seized. They then had to drill holes in two metal doors to open Klaholt’s safe.

Investigators later determined that another member of the burglary ring had been stationed in the law offices of James Patton and Lloyd Hamilton, upstairs from Klaholt’s, to alert the safecrackers to police and passersby. According to the Journal:

A hole was bored through the floor and ceiling, and the man up stairs would keep a sharp lookout, and when he heard any one coming on the pavement below, would signal his friends by means of an augur (sic) attached to a cord, which was lowered through the hole and tapped a given number of times, and thereupon the operators on the safe would secrete themselves until the person outside had passed by, and would not resume the drilling process until the unknown parties were out of hearing. …

Having opened the safe, they took out all of the trays, containing diamonds, watches, chains, rings and other jewelry, assorted them in boxes or packages, carried them out into the alley, and made good their escape with the booty.

The thieves ignored thousands of dollars more in potential loot, mainly silver and silverplate in display cases, “well knowing the most valuable part of the stock would be kept in the safe,” the newspaper reported. “Such a thorough cleaning out of the valuables in any place was probably never before witnessed.”

The burglars left behind their tools – chisels, augers, drill bits, a hatchet, etc. Police realized afterwards the tools had been stolen earlier in the evening from a nearby hardware store and a carpenter shop. The thieves also left Schutt, still tied up, in a coal shed behind Klaholt’s store. Schutt managed to work his legs loose and stumbled out of the alley about 4:30 a.m. to alert Nelch and police to the crime.

Nelch and Schutt had planned to meet at 2:30 a.m. to visit the two banks. Nelch apparently wondered about his partner’s failure to appear on schedule, even asking some night police officers if they’d seen Schutt. However, neither he nor they instituted a search. Their failure, the Journal opined, “proves to have been a serious lack of judgment.”

The burglars’ otherwise impeccably planned caper ran into problems after the theft. Or maybe they simply ended up with more loot than they expected.

At any rate, a week after the burglary, the Journal reported, three small boys playing in the Old City Cemetery found a gold locket and several jewelry cases lying in plain view “near the grave of Mr. Wickersham … which has a large flat stone covering very close to the ground.”

(The Old City Cemetery was south of Washington Street east of what today is Pasfield Street. Those known to have been buried there were moved to Oak Ridge Cemetery, but  remnants of the burial ground remained in 1883.)

The old city cemetery, where the boys found the loot, is the forested area on the top right of this drawing. Washington is the street right of the cemetery site; Reval Street, today’s Pasfield Street, runs across the top. (From August Koch’s 1872-73 “Bird’s Eye View of Springfield,” reprinted by the Iles House Foundation, 2003.)

The three boys – Dan and John Hallihan and Frank Pearce, all between 9 and 12 years old – looked into the tomb. Dan Hallihan reached in and pulled out “a couple of rubber overcoats and a pair of overalls.”

“He could also see packages of large size,” the story said. One of the three stood guard while the other two boys went to Klaholt’s store with their discoveries.

Klaholt and attorney Patton rushed to the cemetery, lifted the stone and found two large satchels full of loot from the burglary.

“It is presumed the robbers found the satchels entirely too heavy to carry and as likely to prove tell-tale burdens in daylight,” the Journal said, “so they sought as safe a hiding-place for them as they could find in the emergency, intending to return at a future time and carry away the ‘swag.’”

One of the satchels weighed out at 125 pounds, the newspaper said.

The burglars still did well. All the diamonds, valued at $3,000, were gone, as was about $4,000 worth of jewelry, for a final haul in 2023 dollars of about $200,000. Klaholt also found that some of the recovered items had been damaged in the burglars’ rush to escape. But he was back in business quickly.

“The burglars did the sleek thing in getting away with the Klaholt stock, and Mr. Klaholt did the handsome in replacing the stock with a new and complete one so soon,” an Illinois State Register ad said a few days after the robbery. “He invites you to call and examine his rings, diamonds, watches, etc., which are elegant and first-class.”

The robbers were never identified. Unfortunately, there’s also no indication in newspaper coverage whether Klaholt rewarded the three inquisitive, and honest, boys who found his stolen jewelry.

J.C. Klaholt & Co.

Joseph C. Klaholt, undated (Findagrave.com)

Springfield-born Joseph C. Klaholt was only 23 in 1877, when he went into the jewelry business on the south side of the Springfield square. Klaholt bought out a combination jewelry/optical store operated by William C. Sommer (1849-1922).

Sommer had been in business with his father, G.B. Sommer (?-1874), at Fifth and Monroe streets until the older man’s death. W.C. Sommer then moved to what today is the 500 block of East Adams Street.

Klaholt the Jeweler, later J.C. Klaholt & Co., remained at 514 E. Adams St. for more than 50 years. J.C. Klaholt’s son Carl (1884-1931) ran the business after his father died in 1911.

J.C. Klaholt & Co. folded early in the Great Depression, possibly pushed over the edge by another brazen robbery. On March 10, 1931, a lone gunman “dressed in a black chinchilla coat” pulled a gun on Carl Klaholt and a clerk, grabbed a fistful of uncut diamonds and escaped out the door. The value of the loss wasn’t immediately known, but was substantial, Klaholt said.

Creditors forced Klaholt & Co. into bankruptcy a few months later, and that sent Carl Klaholt into a tailspin as well. On Aug. 22, 1931, a couple of weeks after the forced sale of the store’s assets, Klaholt shot himself in the head in his home. The Journal’s story noted:

Business reverses are believed to have caused Mr. Klaholt to suffer from melancholia. His jewelry store stock was sold at auction recently, and involuntary bankruptcy proceedings are pending in the federal district court. Prior to the auction sale, bandits robbed Mr. Klaholt of valuable uncut diamonds. They were not insured.

In 2023, U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth’s Springfield office occupied the ground floor of the former J.C. Klaholt & Co. building.

‘Klaholt’s clock’

The clock was often prominent in Klaholt advertising; this is part of an 1884 ad. (Courtesy State Journal-Register)

Aside from the jewelry store, J.C. Klaholt’s purchase of William Sommer’s jewelry business included a landmark clock. Its prominent location on the city square made “Klaholt’s clock” one of Springfield’s time standards, as the Journal noted when the entire U.S. went on so-called “railroad time” in November 1883:

The public will understand that the clock in front of Klaholt’s store has been sent away to undergo some changes, which will enable the machinery to be set inside of the store, and still drive the hands in their present position at the edge of the sidewalk. It will be returned in a few days. In the meantime, the clock in the store is set to the exact time of the central meridian, and Mr. Klaholt will be glad to set the watches of the populace to the true time.

The Barker-Goldman-Lubin construction supply company bought the clock when Klaholt’s went out of business in 1931. Barker’s had the clock refurbished and reinstalled in 1933 in front of its headquarters at 300 N. Ninth St.

“The clock is keeping excellent time,” Barker’s officials told the Journal.

Its later whereabouts are unknown.

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