The Kroekel Boys

history, lockpicking, kroekel

It seems very appropriate to kick off this blog with an overview of one of the earliest finds I made when I first turned my attention to the history of security.

While doing some fairly broad investigation of the aftermath of the Great Lock Controversy of 1851 I came across an article on Charles Kroekel, a young lockpicker from Egg Harbor City, NJ, who had a few minutes of fame when he escaped from a local lock-up. The article claimed that no cell could hold him, and he had picked every lock he was confronted with. He seemed like quite a character and I got a laugh from the details of his exploits. As I wasn't on to anything more specific at the time I decided to try to find out a little more about him.

My laughter faded.

Charlie started his lockpicking hobby young, around age 6. His talents were first revealed when Ma Kroekel 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 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.

Charlie hated it and escaped so frequently that eventually the administrators of the school refused to accept him. That was when the next judge he found himself in front of decided he had no further option than to send Charlie to a state prison. It was reported that he wept uncontrollably. Couldn't be consoled. He was 14.

In jail he was lonely, but his curiosity remained strong. 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. It was said 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 hard labor. At 17 he was released, then quickly re-offended and put back in the same prison. At 18, he was out again, but seemed to be a changed man. Early on, 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 trial. Once he passed a note to a juror, asking the man if he could spare a dime. He was described as cat like, nimble and mischievous. But, on his way out the door at 18, when met by a reporter for the first time in years, he simply wrote down his name and age, and answered no questions. 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 then went on to describe a hand sign it's readers could invoke to demonstrate their displeasure with seeing Chalie's stories repeated again and again. Eventually they did write about him again, when he was 20 years old they ran a single sentence stating that he had been struck by a train and wasn't expected to live. Thankfully he did.

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, were I visited their graves.

When I uncovered the story of the Kroekel boys it was probably the first time I ever felt like I had found something new. Something no one else knew, and I felt compelled to tell the entire world. For the first time in a decade I felt like I was doing work worth doing. I promised myself, and my audiences, that I would tell their story.

And then, despite good intentions and very real progress, I stopped. I became distracted by some new discovery, by theories, by the whole idea of locks shaping society. Suddenly the Kroekel's were a very small idea. I want to tell you that today, writing this, I will redouble my efforts. I will dig back into this full time and tell their story.

But I won't. Not right now, not yet. And until I do I will remain comfortably haunted by Charlie's ghost.