For the first installment of this series click here
For the second installment of this series click here
After gaining several more signatures for the petition W knew that it would soon be time for him to leave town as his facade could not last forever. Although characters like Pomphrey had raised W’s suspicions, there was no hard evidence to work with that undeniably pointed to any particular person or group as being involved. None of the signatures he received on the petition or had seen elsewhere around town matched the handwriting in any of the letters from A.A.A. and W would have to leave without having made much progress.
Following a brief absence, W returned to the Melrose area after enough time had passed in order to make it seem like he had been busy dealing with business related to his petition. The investigation continued to produce few leads upon his return but soon gained more momentum in May of 1874. Word reached W of a possible handwriting match between A.A.A. Oaks and a man named Riker who lived nearby. Apparently during the fall of 1873 a CB&Q train had passed Riker’s farm and sparks from the train ignited hay on his property, causing some damage. Riker had written to the CB&Q about this issue shortly before the letters from A.A.A. started coming in and at first the similarity in penmanship went unnoticed, but after the blackmailer’s handwriting had circulated enough among the CB&Q officials in Iowa the resemblance was remembered and E.C. Brown and W were contacted.
After gaining some details about Riker, who was apparently just a poor farmer with a bad reputation living outside of Melrose, Iowa, W confronted him personally and declared his suspicions in the hope of extracting a confession. With some bluffing W explained how all the evidence pointed to Riker and that it would be best for him to admit to being behind the entire scheme rather than wait and potentially make things worse for himself and his family who depended on him. Riker refused to admit any such thing, but W “could see the guilt in him” as they talked. W left without a direct confession from Riker and confronted a few other minor suspects and people who knew Riker for further information, which made W even more convinced Riker was the culprit.
With W confident that he had discovered the man behind the letters all that remained was determining what the CB&Q would do with their blackmailer. W took his information and suspicions back to Burlington to speak with E.C. Brown to reveal all he could about his interactions with Riker and details concerning his probable involvement with the letters. Just before speaking with Brown, W had some of Riker’s letters examined and compared to the letters from A.A.A. by a man with “a keen eye for such business” who concluded that the writing was a match. W then met up with Brown to discuss Riker’s living situation, his conversations with him and his acquaintances, and all the factors that indicated his guilt. Brown agreed with W’s observations.
Brown was apparently so relieved to find out that this was the work of one man as opposed to a large group that he saw little harm in letting Riker off with a warning. W was dispatched one last time to speak with Riker and again told him they knew of his guilt but the company did not wish to prosecute him and instead give him an opportunity to redeem himself for his sake and that of his family who depended on him. This news was not without further warning, though — W firmly told Riker that if any harm should befall CB&Q cars in the area they would seek out Riker at “a moment’s notice” and use the evidence already accumulated against him from this case for prosecution later. Riker, however, continued to protest his innocence and did not readily confess anything. “If anybody sends the company anonymous letters, or if they should injure trains within ten miles of my place, I am to suffer for it” Riker remarked, apparently dismayed. “W replied, he [Riker] would be the one to suffer if an accident occurred to a train anywhere for forty miles on either side of his place” thus making it very clear that Riker would need to behave from now on. In the report we are told that W talked to Riker “for about an hour” more and they left on relatively friendly terms.
While one might imagine the papers of a nineteenth century railroad company to only contain business letters, financial documents, and other day-to-day memos typical of any corporation, it is clear from the case of “A.A.A. Oaks” that there is much more than that waiting to be discovered in this collection. The contents of the posts concerning this Pinkerton investigation contain merely a fraction of the information in all the letters we have about W and A.A.A. Oaks in Iowa, and highlights one of the many interesting and unexpected finds in the CB&Q archives. The papers pertaining to this case and many other documents found within the archives can also tell students and scholars a great deal about midwestern life in the nineteenth century – such as what daily life in rural communities was like as well as offer perspective on the tensions between large corporations and small towns – and also has significant importance for future research beyond the obvious railroad connections.
I hope you have enjoyed these posts and have gained some insights into the diversity of items we are uncovering as we process these materials!