The Kroekel Boys

While doing some unrelated research into public understanding of physical security in the 19th century, I happened on an article from “The Silent Worker” about Charles Kroekel, a deaf child who was described as “the most precocious burglar ever behind the bars of a jail.” This line, in particular, caught my attention:

When his deft fingers encounter a lock that they cannot pick he generally manages to squeeze through some small opening, and in this way he has escaped from nearly every place in which he has been confined.

It went on to say that he had just been sentenced to 2 years in State Prison. According to the article he was 13 and had already spent three years of his life in jails & reformatories. I was intrigued and heartbroken in one fell swoop. I had to know more. Initially all I could find was a 2nd article. He was 18 in this one and had just been confined to the Camden City Jail pending trial. This article, too, commented on his picking prowess:

No cell was able to hold him, and, though he did not always succeed in escaping from the jail he was always able to pick the lock of the cell door. Among the police officials of New Jersey he acquired the reputation of being able to pick any lock ever made.

Unfortunately there my research stagnated for nearly a year, but I couldn’t stop thinking about him. I even found thin excuses to bring him up in various talks and workshops I gave. Lis Pardi happened to be in the audience during one of these digressions and over crepes after the event she offered to help me hunt down new information. One item she uncovered—among many—was particularly stunning. There was a brother!

Probably the youngest prisoner in the State charged with burglary was arraigned before Justice Breder this morning. He was the 10-year-old deaf-mute, Oscar Kroekel, brother of the famous mute, Charles Kroekel, who, notwithstanding his youth, has been in every penal institution in the State, and who is an expert at picking locks. Young Oscar bids fair to rival his brother. Within the past year he has on several occasions been arrested for breaking into dwelling houses…

The fresh information Lis dug up provided me a number of new leads. Two other volunteer researchers, Andy Kelly & Molly Sauter also dug up new info on the boys.

We learned that Charlie started his lockpicking hobby young, around age 6. His talents were first revealed when his mother caught him opening a cabinet with a piece of wire. The mystery of a number of small thefts in the neighborhood was thus solved. Unfortunately Mr. & Mrs. Kroekel don’t appear to have much patience for that sort of mischief. While he had been enrolled in a school for the deaf at a young age, his run ins with the law quickly overwhelmed his family and he was sent off to a reform school. To give you a sense of how these reform schools ran, their students were referred to as inmates. At the time his former school produced a short quote in their school newspaper:

Charlie Kroekel, who was a pupil here for two or three years, is now an inmate of the Reform School at Jamesburg. Charlie seems to be one of those persons who are born with an instinct for pilfering and other kinds of mischief. Yet he showed a pleasant, affectionate disposition, when here, and in all his mischief he never seemed to do anything from ill-will to any one, or to take any thing because he wanted it, but rather to gratify an uncontrollable impulse. It is a question how far such a person is responsible for his actions.

This is pretty consistent with every anecdote you’ll find about Charlie. It was always curiosity and compulsion that appeared to drive his burglaries and escapes. When his mother caught him as a child he immediately led her to the trinkets he had pilfered, when he escaped from county lock up, he would simply walk down the hall to hang out with the guards. Never in any account does there appear to be malice or greed in any of his actions. And yet, he spent more than three quarters of his teenage years behind bars.

The reform school is one of the few places where he appeared to be painfully unhappy. He escaped several times running as far as Atlantic City before being caught or turning himself over to someone, cold and hungry. The school itself had a scary reputation and Charlie was far from the only kid to attempt escape. 4 boys who escaped together back in the late 1902 famously described their abuse to reporters before being put away again. As best I can tell things haven’t gotten much better. A report from 2010 suggests that 1 in 3 children incarcerated at the New Jersey Training School (the current name for the same facility) were sexually abused by the staff.

In July of 1889 he was found in New York City, breaking into a store. When he was picked up by the police, he gave them a note with his name and a small cry for help “I am hungry and sleepy”. He was arrested, but the police appear to have treated him kindly. Of course, they discovered that he had escaped from the Reform School and got in touch. When an officer of the school came to claim him the next morning, he had vanished. They discovered that he picked the lock in the night. He made it all the way to Atlantic City (where he was again arrested for breaking into a store) before being arrested again and sent back.

Eventually Charlie had escaped so frequently that the administrators of the school refused to accept him, so he was brought up on the new charges. The trial was pretty well attended, and Charlie apparently put on a bit of a show. This trial is the first time we get a description, along with an illustration, of him.

He is exceptionally bright and keen. He has light hair, blue eyes, wonderfully small hands and is as nimble as a cat.

As a joke, during the trial, he apparently passed a note along to the jury asking if anyone could spare a dime. Judge Reed, who had seen Charlie year after year, initially tried to hold off on sentencing. He was sympathetic, he genuinely believed Charlie was too young to go to prison, but the reform school refused him, and no other option was presenting itself. Reed sent Charlie back to the county jail for 5 months, where he seems to have been happy. For once, he didn’t try to escape, but instead seemed to genuinely enjoy the company of the officers at the low security lock up.

It couldn’t last though. It was always going to be a temporary solution, and after 5 months Judge Reed found himself out of options. In May, 1891, Charlie was sentenced to a year at a state prison. It was reported that he wept uncontrollably and couldn’t be consoled. He was still only 15.

In jail he was lonely, but still curios. Though he couldn’t hope to escape from the guards, he could still pick open his cell easily and would often be found in the walkways, with a small chalkboard, having conversations with other inmates. He would ask them about the world outside. His own parents had given up on him young, but now he had a hundred incarcerated fathers to learn from.

At 16 he was out again, but re-offended and was sentenced to another year of hard labor. At 17 he was released, quickly re-offended sent back to the same prison. At 18, he was out again, but seemed to be a changed man. When the press were as ever-present as the judges and police, he was known for playing pranks in the county lockup, and always joking even during his trials. But, on his way out the door at 18 all that made people root for him had been lost. The deaf community, turned on him as well. From an editorial in The Silent Worker,

We print this month one more paragraph about Charlie Kroekel, and here we propose to stop. This one deaf-mute lad, with a criminal twist in his brain, has had more said about him in the papers than all the honest, hard-working deaf-mutes in the country have had.

They described a sign it’s readers could invoke to demonstrate their displeasure with Charlie’s recidivism. Eventually they did write about him again, when he was 20 years old they ran a sentence stating that he had been struck by a train and wasn’t expected to live. Thankfully he did.

Between 10 and 20 years old, he racked up over 100 charges of burglary, was arraigned at over 30 different courts and was reportedly held in every correctional facility in New Jersey. He escaped dozens of times, and in all, spent nearly three quarters of those years incarcerated.

A few years ago, my curiosity with Charlie, and his brothers Oscar and Albert, who were both escape artists and lockpickers in their own right, led me to Egg Harbor City, where I visited their graves. I was in NYC for a Grub With Us dinner and to see a few friends. I had a few hours free Thursday morning and decided I’d drive down to Egg Harbor City, NJ, home of the Kroekel boys. I arrived at about 1 am, having left New York around 11 pm. I drove between the borders of the town to get a sense of its size. I slept in my car in a Rite Aid parking lot and waited for morning.

There were a few things I wanted to see. I had the address of their old house, the site of their burial and I knew that May’s Landing, an adjacent town, was where Charles frequently ended up in court. Unfortunately, neither the house or courthouse appeared to be old enough to be original, but I did have luck at the Egg Harbor Cemetery. The moment I saw “Kroekel” I was mesmerized. I took photos of several of the graves.

I wish I had thought to bring flowers for Minnie’s grave. It could have used a cleaning as well. Curiously, it seemed the oldest stones were the best preserved. While I hadn’t thought to bring Minnie flowers, I did bring some tokens for Charles and Oscar. 2 cutaway locks I had made myself.

I searched around the car for a bit, but couldn’t find the key for Oscar’s lock. I was frustrated for a while until I realized that he probably wouldn’t mind a missing key.

Timeline on the Kroekels:

With help from Lis, Andy, and Molly, I’ve been able to collect information from a number of sources. I still don’t have a complete picture, but I have been able to put together a rough timeline.

  • 1876 - Charlie is Born

  • 1883 Gets caught picking a lock for the first time

  • 1883-85? - Pupil of the New Jersey School for Deaf-Mutes

  • 1886 - Oscar is Born

  • Jan. 1889 - Charlie is an inmate of the Reform School at Jamesburg.

  • Sum. 1889 - Caught stealing in NYC, escapes to Atlantic City where he is caught again.

  • May 1891 - Sentenced to a year in the State Prison by Judge Alfred Reed

  • May 1891 - Silent worker disavows Charlie.

  • Sep. 1892 - Sentenced to 2 additional years at State Prison.

  • Nov. 1893 - Is released from prison.

  • 1893 - Albert is Born.

  • Nov. 1894 - Charlie is back in Camden City Jail for burglary.

  • Oct. 1896 - Residing at Trenton prison.

  • Oct. 1896 - Oscar is arrested for B&E at residence of George Voss.

  • May 1897 - Charlie arrested in Egg Harbor for burglary.

  • Jan. 1898 - Oscar is the “Youngest Prisoner in the State” On his way to the reform school.

  • Oct. 1899 - Charlie is struck by “the cars” and “not expected to recover” He survives.

  • Oct. 1900 - Albert is caught having run away from home.

  • Dec. 1906 - Oscar, after watching a movie which included a burglary scene, returns home & imitates the act on a nearby building. When the cops arrive he said he wanted to see if he could do what he had seen in the movie and seemed quite amused by the whole situation. He was promptly arrested. He had been out on probation when this occurred.

  • 1942 - Charlie Dies.
  • 1949 - Albert Dies.
  • 1960 - Oscar Dies.