Frontier Justice

June 3, 2011


You will not find a more riveting depiction of the seamy underbelly of late-nineteenth-century Tacoma, Washington, than the recitation of facts in the case of State of Washington v. Concannon (25 Wash. 327), a matter decided by the Supreme Court of that great state in 1901. All of the classic elements are there: a rogue ex-cop, an opium-addicted stool pigeon, a stolen key copied by means of a wax impression, and the statement, “I am only a thief; but even thieves have honor.” Enjoy:

Defendant was convicted of the crime of grand larceny. The information charged him with taking and assisting in taking, stealing, and carrying away certain musical instruments, all of the value of $ 350, the property of A. A. Tayler. The principal witness at the trial was J. P. Dunlap, an accomplice.

The evidence produced by the state was substantially as follows: On about the 17th of September, 1898, late at night or early in the morning, the music store of A. A. Tayler & Co., situated on C street in Tacoma, was entered by the witness Dunlap, who made the entry by unlocking the door with a key then in his possession; that he remained several hours in the building, and took the musical instruments described in the information, and carried them away. Dunlap testified with particularity as to the manner in which he entered the store and took the instruments, and that he was aided and assisted by the defendant.

The defendant had been connected with the city police of Tacoma as a detective for some years. In March, 1898, as a police officer, he had arrested Dunlap for having burglarious instruments in his possession, and had frequently come in contact with Dunlap, who was then known to the police as “Dun.” At that time and previously Dunlap, under the name of Dun, was known to the police as an habitual criminal. The larger portion of his time since youth had been spent in the penitentiary, he having served four terms for felonies, including larcenies. He was frequently shadowed by the city detectives, and particularly by Concannon. He was sometimes used to procure information relative to crimes committed by other suspects.

During the summer preceding the stealing of the musical instruments, the defendant’s connection with the city police was severed, and he opened an office in the city as a private detective. Dunlap testifies that thereafter defendant proposed to him that Dunlap should enter the music store, take the musical instruments and secrete them, and that defendant would then, in the capacity of detective, negotiate with the owner of the stolen goods for their return, secure a reward therefor, and divide the proceeds with Dunlap; that the reason assigned by defendant for the commission of the crime was to assist in establishing defendant’s reputation as a detective in the business community. A number of conferences between himself and defendant relative to the larceny are detailed by the witness, in which he states that defendant procured and gave to witness the key with which he opened the door of the music store. Written notes were produced by the witness, which he stated had come from defendant during the pendency of the agreement between them to steal the musical instruments, and at great length the witness detailed many conferences and meetings relative to the larceny and in pursuance of the agreement; that defendant was present, though outside, and on the street, when the larceny was committed; that some of the musical instruments in a sack were taken by himself and defendant to defendant’s home, which was a small hotel; that these instruments were placed in the dining room early on the morning of the 18th of September, which was Sunday; that witness secreted the other instruments in an old building, and also, on the same Sunday, took those which had been carried to defendant’s place away from there, and secreted them with the others; that defendant told witness thereafter that he was negotiating with Tayler, the owner, for the return of the goods, but that such negotiations were unsuccessful, as Tayler would not pay sufficient reward for their return.

It seems that thereafter the witness was charged with the larceny, though sentence had not been passed upon him at the time of the trial. Dunlap stated he was to be leniently dealt with because of his testimony given at the trial of defendant. He also testified that since about 1883 he had been habitually using opium in large quantities. During the trial, and while he was testifying, which occupied several days, opium was regularly administered to him; he could not proceed without the drug. The state also produced Mary Dunlap, the wife, who testified that she had been the wife of J. P. Dunlap for some two years. She had also been arrested at one time by the defendant, in connection with her husband. She was, and had been for a long time, an habitual user of narcotics, both chloral and opium, and at times during her examination declared herself bordering on hysteria. She testified that she knew of the intended larceny of the musical instruments; that during that time she heard detached portions of conversations between her husband and defendant; that she saw a key, which defendant gave to her husband; that she heard mention made of a music store. She could not identify any key. On cross examination she frequently, under her privilege, declined to answer questions that might be incriminating.

Mr. Tayler, the owner of the musical instruments stolen, testified to the circumstances attending the larceny; also that thereafter the defendant came to his store and presented his card as detective and offered to undertake their recovery for a reward of $ 100; and that they had several conversations in regard to it; that defendant, in the early part of their negotiations, stated that he would restore the goods and arrest the parties, or ask no compensation. They did not agree upon the terms, and defendant did not undertake the recovery of the goods for Mr. Tayler.

There were other circumstances introduced by the state, through various witnesses, which are of no considerable importance, — such as evidence relating to a young lady, an acquaintance of defendant and one who conferred with him somewhat in the detective business, having been with a clerk of Tayler and his sister in recreation at a summer camp, where the young lady had the opportunity of access to the clerk’s valise, in which a key to the music store was left; and perhaps the intention of this evidence was to suggest that a wax impression could have been taken of this key, which furnished the model for the key that unlocked the music store, and which Dunlap had testified to. But such evidence is mentioned only to illustrate that many of the circumstances and incidents related by various witnesses for the state were only suggestive of suspicion or opportunity of the defendant.

After the trial was concluded, and a verdict of guilty returned against the defendant, and immediately after the motion for a new trial was overruled, but before sentence, the witness J. P. Dunlap, who was then in the county jail, and had been for a long time prior thereto, under conviction of this larceny, and charged with other offenses, informed the sheriff that he desired to make a statement of the truth in regard to the testimony he had given at the trial, and the sheriff informed counsel for the defendant of Dunlap’s request. Counsel came to the jail, and there Dunlap, in the presence of the sheriff, and afterwards to others who are mentioned, made the statement, in substance, that he was ready to go into court and testify to the motives that induced him to testify in the trial, and that he would make it so plain that his statement would be obvious.

Dunlap was then informed that sentence would be passed upon defendant the same day. He thereupon requested that the court be advised that he would testify that the defendant, Concannon, had nothing whatever to do with the Tayler robbery. The sheriff stated that no inducement or suggestion had been made to Dunlap to procure any statement from him; that again on the following day, and after the county physician had prescribed the necessary opium for Dunlap, and in the afternoon, the wife of Dunlap, who was also a witness at the trial, called to see her husband, and Dunlap said to his wife, in the presence of the sheriff: “I am going to make a clean breast of it, and tell the whole truth and exonerate Concannon”; and the wife responded: “Think it all over before you do it.”

On a subsequent day Dunlap said, in the presence of counsel and the sheriff, that he was too weak to make out his statement then, and he had some misgivings whether the authorities would not punish him for perjury; that again some days subsequently, when the wife was with Dunlap, and in the presence of the sheriff, the wife said to the sheriff in Dunlap’s presence, referring to her husband: “He will make the statement which he said he would make, and he will make it fuller and stronger than he told you;” and Dunlap answered: “Yes; I am only a thief; but even thieves have honor; and I don’t care if they give me the full term of the law. I will come out with the whole truth, and I will make my statement tomorrow, and show how this job was put up against Concannon. I will have it ready by tomorrow evening.” Dunlap reiterated this statement to several other persons voluntarily, but afterwards stated that he would not make the statement until after his trial and sentence, when he would make a full and complete one entirely exonerating the defendant.

As far as can be determined, Dunlap never did “make a clean breast of it,” but Concannon’s conviction was vacated and the case was remanded for a new trial.


One Response to “Frontier Justice”

  1. I'm with stupid said

    Proving crime does not pay? Or, perhaps, truth and justice triumph in the end?

    All I can say is, what a tangled web we weave.

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