Crimes, civil or criminal, in Lake County’s middle years, were as varied and interesting as they were in the great centers of the world. They ran the gamut from murder and robbery to fraud and con games. Nevertheless, this story of Lake County’s bankruptcy is nowhere as grand or important. It is a tale of simple thievery, followed by over-zealousness and carelessness, that caused the town to believe the County Treasury had been robbed… not once but twice. It is the story of how Lake County nearly went bankrupt and nearly repeated the catastrophe a second time.
James Cook, a man with a bad memory, was the Lake County treasurer in 1864. Cook kept the money, all collected from taxes, in a stout iron chest. It was always put near the County Building down the road in a special hiding place on the premises of Ben Levy’s Mercantile store, Treasurer Cook’s friend. The supervisors wanted to purchase a better safe for Cook, but the County couldn’t afford one.
By October 1864, after the taxes had been paid, the chest held all of the County’s money. It was an amount smaller than the property taxes paid to the County from the previous year by the farm owners. It totaled the lordly sum of $1,838.46; all the money the County had on which to operate that year.
That same night, thieves that had been watching Treasurer Cook’s comings and goings with the money broke into Ben Levy’s establishment. It was a wooden building with no more protection against thievery than a chicken coop. They stole the money.
The loss of Lake County’s entire tax revenue shook up Cook pretty well. Thereafter, no longer did Jim Cook keep the treasury in the wooden chest at the store. Instead, he placed the receipts in a shot bag and took them home each night. Cook was a careful man. To keep any potential thieves that watched him, and to keep them guessing, just in case any of the rascals had seen his change of hiding place, Cook changed the place of concealment often. One night it would be in a crack in the boards, and another night, it might be placed over the door, in the rafters. Or, sometimes, he would bury the shot bag in his back yard.
That clever plan worked fine. No more was Lake County’s treasury stolen. Jim’s only trouble was he had found so many good hiding places for the money that sometimes he forgot where he put it.
On Monday morning, preparing to go to work, Jim Cook searched the place he thought he had left the County’s money. Without success. It was not there. Distraught, Treasurer Cook rushed into the District Attorney’s office to report theft.
“Mr. Thompson,” he said to the District Attorney, barely able to get the words out of his mouth for his distress, “Thieves have stolen the money again.”
The D.A., familiar with Jim Cook’s lapses of memory, tried to calm his friend.
“Calm down, Jim,” he said. “Where did you put the shot bag last night?”
The Tax Assessor’s frantic response was to throw up his hands and wail, “It was not where I put it. I’ve searched everywhere. The money is gone.”
Truly, here was a tragedy of epic proportions. If the money was not recovered, it meant the County was bankrupt again. The two men rode off and went back to Jim Cook’s small, rudely fashioned house a short distance from Lakeport to look for the money. Finally, after an hour of searching every possible hiding place he could imagine, the District Attorney found the shot bag. The money still safely inside. Mr. Cook had placed the shot bag with the money carefully inside a rough opening in the plaster over his front door. The bag was hidden under a small pile of papers and rubbish that Cook had piled up to hide the money from the thieves.
Eventually, as more people paid taxes and taxes increased (as rain follows sunshine), the county prospered. A safe was purchased. The embarrassing episode of the misplaced funds occurred no more. Lake County’s treasure was safe from thievery and bad memory at last.
Next episode; Pioneer Tales
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