Not all BC history starts - or even ends - in BC.
It’s a wicked world, and when a clever man turns his brain to crime it is the worst of all.
—Arthur Conan Doyle, The Adventure of the Speckled Band
Editor’s note: the following is excerpted and adapted from Wicked Lewiston: A Sinful Century (2015)
On not a few occasions, Lewiston, Idaho’s laissez-faire mindset has embraced, rallied or even protected residents involved in serious crimes. For three years during World War II and soon after, the American military declared the city “off limits” to thousands of active-duty personnel training in camps in the Inland Northwest. Lewiston’s “social” climate was just too naughty, and its naughtiness had fully matured over the decades following its founding in May 1861.
Even Canadians found it a tough place.
In December 1950, a local ruffian picked a fight with Donald Gower, a Canadian commando who had been reactivated with the Second Field Regiment for the Korean War and was on Christmas leave. The drunk ended up dead. When a jury acquitted Gower, the audience cheered.
But that is not our story.
This is the account in the 1880s of an outrageous scheme whose perpetrator’s chutzpah baffled even a United States president. The course of events would preoccupy British Columbia’s judicial process and be an early test of Canada’s contradictory extradition policies, which had alternately swung from imperial to home-grown and back to imperial since confederation in 1867.
Isaac Newton Hibbs was born in Carthage, Illinois, on March 10, 1851, to James and Elizabeth Hibbs, whose brood numbered six sons and a daughter by 1870.
By 1877, Newton (as he was called) and his wife Ella were a familiar sight on the streets of Lewiston, and he quickly developed a good reputation among his neighbors. On November 2, 1880, they elected him as a Republican to the House of Representatives of the Eleventh Idaho Territorial Legislature. Hibbs served one term and would soon be on to his next public office.
Before 1912, Lewiston had no federal building in which to house the United States Post Office. Buildings along Main Street served that purpose. Postmasters, who were local businessmen, performed their duties from a space inside their stores dedicated to postal affairs.
The office of postmaster required more than just an appointment. As a federal official, Newton was required to post a substantial bond. His considerable stature in the community convinced five local leaders, most notably banker William Kettenbach, to step up, each posting a $4,000 USD ($141,000 CDN today) bond on February 1 to underwrite Hibbs’ worthiness and fidelity.
In two years, these would be five very unhappy men.
Beginning in 1864, Americans could purchase and send money orders, buying them at their local post offices. Suspicious activities arose, and in 1872 the United States Congress enacted the Mail Fraud Statute. The new law reaped some early, low-hanging fruit.
He proceeded to forge money orders to the tune of about $6,000 ($128,000) and had them cashed in the East. Realizing that his embezzlement scheme was about to be unmasked, he fled to Ogden, Utah, where officials caught up with him in April. He was extradited in late May, stood trial in Idaho and led off to the state penitentiary.
Audacious crimes are often pulled off by taking advantage of people’s inattentional blindness. Newton Hibbs was not blind to an opportunity.
In January 1885, the registered mail pouch bound for Lewiston from Dayton, Washington, was rifled.
The official investigation produced no definitive findings. Among other things, the pouch contained a new supply of money order forms for the postmaster. Those money orders were worth more than the $400 ($14,800).
People in Lewiston soon forgot about the missing bag. The United States Post Office certainly did not, and veteran inspector John Murphy dug his teeth into the case like a stubborn bulldog.
The postal inspector for Idaho had his suspicions that the pouch had been stolen at the Lewiston post office and recommended that Hibbs should not be allowed any credit and the loss charged against him.
As a result, Hibbs was suspended as postmaster in April, and it was in the period between his removal and the naming of Charles Kress as his successor that he did his greatest damage to the postal money order system in the United States.
Hibbs’ modus operandi was surprisingly simple. Lewiston was the distribution point for a large number of post offices in northern Idaho and eastern Washington. Newton would issue a money order under a fictitious name, usually “John G. Wilson” or “J.G. Wilson,” listing the name of a post office in his region as the recipient.
The money order was then sent to banks back East. Several were traced to Decatur, Illinois. Hibbs would then write a letter to the paying postmaster, asking him to cash the money order and place the funds in a local bank until he arrived to pick up the funds.
After a week or so, he would write to his fellow postmaster to say that he was unable to make his planned visit and requested that the postmaster send the money by registered mail addressed to the same person he had falsified in the money order. When the bank drafts arrived, Hibbs signed the receipt card with his alias, returned the card and the transaction was complete.
He limited the money orders to $300 ($10,500) and judiciously spread the fraudulent money orders among the post offices whose mail passed over this desk.
Between April 1, 1884, and May 1, 1885, he wrote phony money orders totally $20,645.28 ($740,000). No one locally seemed to be the wiser. Newton packed up and lit out on May 2, telling people that he was going to check on some mining investments he had made in Canada. There was at least a germ of truth in his explanation.
Passing himself off as a cattle dealer named T.G. Wilson, he soon showed up in Little Dalles, Oregon, on the Lower Columbia River east of Portland, telling people that he was about to enter into a contract with the Canadian Pacific Railway Company.
The Daily British Colonist of July 1, 1885, picked up the story:
He gave it to be understood that he had made a large sum of money in the cattle business, making no secret of the fact that he had lived for some years at Lewiston. Owing to some delay in the departure of the steamboat [Kootenai], Hibbs was compelled to wait several days in the Little Dalles, but he seemed to evince no anxiety about this, and had no apparent desire to get across “the line” into the haven for defaulting bank cashiers.
While in the Little Dalles someone recognized him, and surprised to see him so far from home said, “Hello, Hibbs, what brings you out here?” Hibbs looked at his questioner, and replied with the greatest nonchalance that his name was not Hibbs and said he had not had the pleasure of meeting him before. Throughout his stay in the Little Dalles, Hibbs kept up his assumed character of a wealthy stockman to perfection, and no one had the remotest idea that he was the gentleman whom the police were so anxiously inquiring after.
Perhaps one of the chief reasons accounting for the man’s apparent security was the fact that the Little Dalles is two days’ journey from any point of telegraphic communication, and is only a few miles from the boundary border.
Hibbs arrived in Victoria on May 25 and registered at the new Oriental Hotel, one of the first built in Old Town, under the name “John G. Wilson.”
His stay in the provincial capital was cut short. George Seybolt, chief postal inspector for the Pacific Coast, quickly grew suspicious when his queries to the Lewiston post office were going unanswered. Hibbs’ downfall was telling his Lewiston neighbors that he was going to Canada. Upon learning this, Seybolt dispatched Murphy and a colleague named Culver to Victoria to coordinate their efforts with the British Columbia Provincial Police.
Newton expected a large amount of cash to reach him in Victoria, but the American consulate had already persuaded Canadian postal officials not to deliver anything to him under his aliases.
The provincial police swung into action, assigning Constable Frederick Hussey to head up the case. American investigators had no authority to arrest Hibbs. Hussey would rise through the ranks with special assignments like this one, finally being promoted to superintendent commanding the provincial police in 1891.
He would begin his search for Hibbs in the city. The game was afoot.
Hibbs paid the bill at the hotel and dropped out of sight for a few days.
He checked back into the Oriental on June 2, this time with Ella and Grace, and then left a few days later for the interior of the province just one day ahead of his Canadian and American pursuers, leaving his family in Victoria.
Traveling up the Fraser River by river steamer, he set out for Farwell (now Revelstoke), on the Columbia River and some four hundred miles east of Vancouver. On the upstream journey, Hibbs struck up friendships with several of the passengers and was very generous with his money, even volunteering a loan of a couple thousand dollars to one man, telling him that he did not need any security.
Just when this story could not get any more complicated, a Lewiston banker showed up.
William Kettenbach, the president of the Lewiston National Bank, was also hot on Hibbs’ heels. Kettenbach wanted his bond money back before the government had a chance to seize it, and he would be able to identify the runaway postmaster for the Canadian police.
Although there was little friendship among them, Kettenbach and the two American agents decided to work together under Hussey’s leadership to apprehend Newton, who was laying out $3,000 ($80,000) to build a new hotel in Farwell.
Almost immediately upon arriving in the new town, Newton was recognized by a Lewiston resident named Allen.
Finding it impossible to hide his identity, he admitted that he was traveling under the alias of Wilson and begged Allen “not to give him away.”
Hibbs knew that the authorities were looking for him. His story was featured in the newspapers, but he had no idea the police and post office detectives were so close. He had ordered furniture for the hotel and was on his way back to Victoria to buy provisions for his new business.
Hussey, Murphy, Culver and Kettenbach finally caught up with Hibbs on June 16 at Harrison River (now Harrison Mills). Hussey arrested Newton and took him to the town of Yale, where the party stayed in the same hotel a few days before, the agents having not recognized Hibbs, as Kettenbach had been busy with other affairs.
When Hussey searched Newton, he found his clothes to be literally padded with U.S. bank notes: $500s, $100s and $50s, to the total of $10,500 ($369,000). That would just cover Kettenbach’s bond, but the money was now “Queen’s evidence.”
In his limited time in Farwell, Hibbs manage to drop $200 ($7,200) in a card game with a professional gambler, who, when later learning that Hibbs had more than $10,000 ($355,000) on his person, told investigators that he was almost tempted to commit suicide. He had let a plump pigeon get away.
Hibbs confessed to having written the phony money orders with fictitious names but resisted the claim that he had committed forgery, something he said he “was careful not to do.” It would take U. S. federal and district courts to decide the issue.
Hibbs now in tow, Hussey boarded the steamer Yosemite and headed down the Fraser River for the coast and the provincial prison in Victoria. He delivered Hibbs to the Bastion Square facility on June 23. Ella and Grace were waiting. Newton would stay under guard in the Victoria police barracks in Bastion Square for a month before the wheels of justice began to turn.
On July 27 and July 29, Murphy made his case for extradition before Henry Crease, chief justice of the British Columbia Supreme Court, citing thirty-nine counts of “forging and uttering” post money orders.
According to Justice Crease, the Hibbs case “called for very close attention.” The hearings produced volumes of information from American and Canadian sources. The sessions disclosed that Hibbs had also used the alias “W.H. Dent,” but the litigation focused on the “definition of forgery under our criminal law.”
In a lengthy and detailed decision forwarded to Ottawa, Crease found that that Hibbs’ scheme was “a deliberate case of wholesale forgery and breach of trust.”
In an effort to convince federal officials that extradition was appropriate, he wrote that the action “would be notice everywhere that the skillfully planned postal frauds are powerless before the prompt and vigorous administration of the law.”
Canadian lawyers weighed their options until September 10, when Minister of Justice Alexander Campbell finally issued a warrant for Hibbs’ extradition to the United States, remanding him into John Murphy’s custody.
Hibbs had spent seventy-nine days in the provincial prison. The provincial police chained a twenty-pound steel ball to his leg until he was safely in the hands of American officials and aboard a ship bound for the United States.
Canadians sighed with relief and washed their hands of him.
Although the American courts were catching up with Hibbs, the legal wrangling continued over some unfinished business in Victoria. The United States government had retained Canadian attorneys, at $1,000 ($35,000) for each lawyer. When, in January 1886, the bill came in, the U.S. Treasury objected and denied the claim. The January 8, 1886 issue of the Victoria Daily Colonist commented:
There is no doubt, however, that the Victoria lawyers will get their money, for even the treasury officials hold out in the belief that Congress will naturally appropriate the sum necessary to pay for such services, Congress is seldom niggardly in matters of the kind.
Dubois delivered Hibbs back to Lewiston in the fall of 1886 for his second trial. Indicted this time on eight more counts, he would not be as lucky. While the jury could not agree on four counts, they did find him guilty on the other four.
In January 1887, that was more than enough to earn him a sentence of five years in the state penitentiary.
In the meantime, the December 31, 1886 issue of the Willamette Farmer quipped that “the [Victoria] lawyers will probably get the rest of the ‘boodle.’”
Steven Branting is the Institutional Historian at Lewis-Clark State College in Lewiston, Idaho. His work has been honoured by the American Association for State and Local History, The History Channel and the Society for American Archaeology.
Married to the former Shann Robertson – a graduate of old Mt. View Senior Secondary – Branting visits Victoria annually and spoke last May in Bastion Square about perceptual roadblocks to authentic, definitive historical investigations.