That slippery old ‘Sykes’ played trickery on downtown merchants


This 1875 photo of Hannibal is representative of the time when a man named ‘Sykes’ came to Hannibal and identified himself as a wealthy farmer from Illinois. Before he fled town, he took advantage of the good will of a number of Hannibal’s downtown businessmen. STEVE CHOU’S PHOTO FROM BLUFF CITY MEMORIES.

MARY LOU MONTGOMERY

In the autumn of 1875, a ‘man of means’ arrived in Hannibal, boasting of his large farming operation in mid Illinois. The excitement of his presence rippled throughout the community, but had a particularly profound impact in downtown Hannibal, where merchants were anxious to do business with this ‘big spender.’

The man – described in the newspaper simply as “Sykes” – put forth a presentable appearance, and the story he told was believable to those he encountered. Those businessmen eagerly granted him credit until – he said - his money was available from his bank back home.

In the meantime, a few of those outside of the inner-downtown business climate grew suspicious that a major scam might be in progress.

Marsh Bullock was among those. A 31-year-old handwriting teacher, he was instrumental in the capture of “Sykes” near the Salt River in Ralls County, and bringing him back to Hannibal for justice.

Bullock and his two aides in the arrest – a policeman named Butner, and a man by the name of Eales - became local heroes.

Bullock penned the following verse, published in the Dec. 11, 1875 edition of the Hannibal Clipper. You’ll notice the names of some of Hannibal’s leading businessmen of the era, and a (politically incorrect) reference to a religious affiliation that remains unedited from the original text – for history’s sake.

Sykes

There was great commotion in this town,

You never saw the like, sirs;

The merchants were hunting all around

For a man by the name of Sykes, sirs.

He bought a bill of goods, they say,

They had them all done up, sirs,

But about the time he was to pay,

He gave them all the slip, sirs.

Of Wm. Pitts some goods he bought,

And they say of several others;

W.S. Sparrow he ne’er forgot

And called on the Hickman Brothers.

Of Jonathan Smith he bought dry goods,

Of Bully Brooks, his liquor,

Of Payne & Drescher a suit of clothes –

With all he made a dicker.

They led him all around the Jews,

As slick as “little mices,”

The Drescher boys sold boots and shoes,

To him at “bottom prices.”

L.B. Seaton sold him china ware,

Brown Brothers sold him jewelry,

And Kemp, his boarding boss, declares,

That this is all no foolery.

Sykes has plenty of greenbacks in the bank,

(And I guess they are all there yet, sir,)

On all of them he played a prank –

He’s no fool, you bet, sir.

And yet his stock was not complete,

Dulany & Mc. Did wonder;

But finally he bought two thousand feet

Of the very choicest lumber.

You never saw such crazy men,

A running all around, sirs,

They said they’d pay us when

We brought him into town, sirs.

They said “Now Wes., just bring him back

And we’ll pay you for your trouble;

We’ll tie a rope around his neck

And send him to the D----.”

And so we brought him into town

And took him ‘fore ‘Squire Lacy.

And now they tell it all around

The poor old man is crazy.

But crazed or not, say what you will,

Or think whate’er you will, sir,

Our merchants surely have their fill

Of crazy men like Sykes, sir.

  • Marshall C. Bullock

Admits guilt

On the way back to Hannibal with his three captors, Sykes admitted his true identity.

“During the first four miles of travel with the officers this morning,” the Hannibal Clipper reported, “the prisoner maintained a stubborn silence, but was finally importuned to make a confession, in which he stated that he escaped from the Lewis county jail a few months since, having been held on a charge of obtaining goods under false pretenses. Further more he had previous married a lady in that county. Escaping from the Lewis county jail he went to Ralls County where he worked a few months, and became acquainted with the widow Bloodgood, married her, thus committing the crime of bigamy.”

No recourse

The Hannibal merchants failed in their efforts to seek justice for the man who swindled them.

On Dec. 10, 1875, the Clipper noted that Sykes had been taken back to Lewis County to answer a charge of breaking jail, and also for obtaining goods under false pretenses.

West End response

But the merchants of the West End (Market Street) couldn’t let the vulnerability of their business rivals downtown go down without interjecting a little comeuppance.

“Why, if that cuss of a confidence tricks, Sykes, had come to the West End, we would have been at a glance, his transparencies were so thin! The steady-going businessmen of the West End never force sales on unknown windbox blowers. It would be amusing to know the names of all the down towners that ‘Sykes’ was treated, feted and trusted with little loans of cash – just till the bank would open, you know.” – Hannibal Clipper, Dec. 2, 1875

NOTE, in 1875:

“Kemp, the boarding boss” may have been referring to George W. Kemp, who ran the Farmers Hotel at 148 Palmyra Avenue.

Marshall C. Bullock owned a house at 511 N. Fourth Street, where he lived with his wife and three children. He would later work for the Hannibal police department, but when the Hannibal city directory of 1875 was published, he was a writing teacher, with classes offered in the basement of the Christian Church, which was located on the southwest corner of Sixth and Bird. During his career he was also a carriage painter.

Wesley Butner was on the Hannibal police force, and lived at 405 S. Fifth, on Hannibal’s south side.

The only person named Eales listed in the Hannibal City Directory in 1875 was Rice Eales, a sewing machine agent, who resided on the north side of Valley west of 10th Street in south Hannibal.

Walter E. Payne and William B. Drescher operated Drescher and Payne dry goods and carpets, 122 N. Main.

Daniel M. Dulany, William H. Dulany and Jesse H. McVeigh operated a lumber dealership on the south side of Collier between Seventh and Eighth streets.

Louis B. Seaton operated a china, glass and queensware business at 110 N. Fourth.

Hiram M. Brooks operated a saloon at 208 Broadway.

W.R. Pitts operated a saddlery and leather shop at 309 N. Main St.

William S. Sparrow operated a grocery and provisions shop at 110 Third Street.

Jonathan Smith’s dry goods store was located at 202 N. Main.

Philander A. and Hugh L. Hickman operated a hardware store at 305 N. Main.

Joshua V. and John J. Brown’s jewelry store was at 304 Broadway.

This photo, taken in 1894, shows people standing in front of Drescher’s Dry Goods, located on the ground floor of this building, located in the 200 block of Broadway. The Drescher family – long time Hannibal businessmen, were among those swindled by a con man in 1875. STEVE CHOW’S PHOTO FROM BLUFF CITY MEMORIES.

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