Tag Archives: Post Office

Update on the sad tale of “Owney the Postal Dog”

After a review of the Toledo Blade article regarding this sad episode from  June 11 of 1897, it appears the name of the policeman who shot Owney was not Fred Free (or Freeman), but was a Patrolman Smith(no first name given). It also seems that Owney was not killed immediately after he reportedly bit a mail clerk at the train station, but his execution was delayed until the next day owing to the fact that the first policeman who was ordered to shoot the globe trotting pooch, refused to do so.   As a result, so states the article, that Postmaster Brand had Owney chained to a post until the next day, and then..

“Shortly after 4 o’clock yesterday, Patrolman Smith took the dog to an alley behind the police station and with a shot put an end to the career of the famous pup.”

Sgt. Beth Cooley, at the Toledo Police Museum says she is searching for the records of a Patrolman Smith who might have served on the department at that time. The Chicago Tribune had reported that the officer who shot Owney was Fred Free, but after some research into the records, Sgt. Cooley says there was no Fred Free on the department, but there was a Fred Freeman who was a Toledo policeman during that time. That could have easily been the mix-up, but the Blade said the executioner was a Patrolman Smith.

It’s also noted from this article that it had been decided before Owney was executed to have his remains stuffed and mounted and sent to the Post Museum in Washington D.C. Perhaps this was an atempt to mollify the thousands of postal clerks and others around the globe who loved the dog, as it was noted by the Blade reporter at the time that Owney’s tragic killing would “bring down the wrath of the heavens” upon the heads of those involved in Owney’s death.

Not sure if such wrath was ever visited upon Toledo.

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Owney the famous postal dog met his tragic demise in Toledo

Some historical events Toledo can lay claim to and be proud of,  others,… not so much.  The Owney the postal dog story is one of the latter. This week, the U.S. Postal Service will pay tribute to the famous little postal pooch by honoring him with his own postage stamp which will officially celebrate Owney as one of America’s great animal heroes, if not the first.  If you don’t know the story of Owney, it all started by in 1888 when this scruffy Irish-Scottish Terrier  mongrel took up residence in the Albany, New York post office.  It is recounted that Owney loved the scent of the mail bags and began riding the mail wagons and then one day hopped onto a rail car and started riding the trains. It was here where Owney’s legacy was carved.  Within a few years, Owney managed to travel on these cars quite extensively and quite independently, and as he appeared at various postal stations along his routes, postal employees would affix a postal tag to his harness and collar.   He soon became laden with hundreds of tags as he routinely criss-crossed the United States on the rail cars. He even ventured in 1895 on an international journey and showed up in Japan, parts of Asia, and Europe until he safely returned to the U.S. and his home in Albany.  In short Owney was a star , perhaps the first “dog-star” in the United States long before Lassie and Rin-Tin-Tin.  He was beloved by postal employees and members of the general public alike who wanted to get a glimpse of this famous world traveling mutt.

But not everyone loved Owney. In April of 1897, the Chicago Postmaster was disgusted by Owney’s presence on the rail cars and postal stations, calling him a mongrel cur who was nothing more a nuisance to employees and that he should be banned from the rails. His remarks were widely reported at the time, and who knows if his sentiments were shared by others.  A few months later, on June 11th, 1897, Owney had made his way to Toledo and it would be his last. There are several varying accounts of what took place, but according to the Chicago Tribune, when Owney got to Toledo’s Union Station, a postal clerk called a newspaper reporter and photographer to get some pictures and a story. The clerk had chained Owney up to a post to keep him there while awaiting the arrival of the photographer. One account says that Owney detested being tied up or restrained and starting protesting loudly and when the clerk tried to get him to quiet down, Owney bit him on the hand. That action prompted the Toledo Postmaster, Rudolph Brand, to call for a policeman to come to the scene and that an officer named Fred Free, shot and killed Owney while he was still chained to the post.  The Chicago Tribune called it an “execution”.  While other newspaper accounts(perhaps engaging some damage control), said Owney had been running loose and “had gone mad” when he was shot.   We may never know exactly what happened in Toledo, or why Owney met his fate that day, but Owney’s legacy was hardly forgotten. When word surfaced around the nation that the famous mail-pooch’s stamp had been cancelled,  mail clerks throughout the country raised funds to have the cinnamon colored terrier  stuffed and preserved. His mounted body was eventually given to the Post Office Department’s headquarters in Washington.   It remained there, on display, until 1911, when it was transferred to the Smithsonian in Washington where Owney has been on display in a glass case, ever since.   Now 114 years after his death in Toledo, Owney is not only getting his own postage stamp, but his mounted remains have been restored and his exhibit, which includes hundreds of his postal tags will be displayed prominently at the museum.

If you know more about Owney’s travels and experiences in Toledo, including his death, please share. I will post any additional material here.

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Filed under Famous Animals of Northwest Ohio, Uncategorized

Toledo’s Biggest Robbery Not Forgotten

It was 90 years ago that Toledo was thrust into the national crime spotlight, thanks to a previously obscure small time crook by the name of Joe Urbaytis.  On February 17th, 1921, he and a gang pulled off the largest robbery in Toledo history. Not a bank or a store, but the main post office building on 13th Street between Madison and Jefferson. Witnesses said they saw a car swerve onto 14th Street at the rear of the post office. The five men inside the car(later found to be stolen) had been tailing a U.S. Postal Service truck which had just loaded up six pouches at Union Station, filled with securities, cash and bank notes.  The bandits obviously knew what they were after and when the truck reached the loading dock, the men in the car emerged with guns and began ordering postal workers to the floor.  The workers complied and within minutes, the bandits led by Joe Urbaytis were back in the car, and speeding away from downtown.  While no one was shot or killed, it was no less dramatic, for this would prove to be far more than a daring but simple robbery.

The value of the loot  taken in the robbery was estimated to be at least a million dollars.  In today’s dollars, according to a CPI inflation guide, that would be worth about 12 million dollars. The biggest heist in Toledo history. Before it was over it would involve more than a dozen suspects, including a local priest, and would also make Joe Ubaytis and members of his gang some of the most wanted criminals in America.

The Toledo Police Department, 90 years later, still has the file from that dusty old case.  Although yellowed and brittle, the contents  fill in the blanks of the investigation that was carried out by Toledo Police and the FBI as they tried to figure out just who had pulled off this stunning caper.  The case was a high priority and the intense pressure eventually lead to the arrests of 18 people, including the “mastermind” of the operation, Joe Urbaytis. He had been a small time criminal with a lengthy rap sheet, born and  raised in the Polish neighborhoods of Lagrange Street.  The file tells a riveting story of how TPD officers worked for days to find Urbaytis, whom they had suspected from the early start of the case.  They  had also suspected he might flee to Chicago along with his other familiar compatriots, George Rogers and Charles “Split Lip” Shultz.  On the evening of February 22nd, 1921, police and railway detectives found Urbaytis and some of those gang members on board the Toledo to Chicago train near Elkhart, Indiana.

Urbaytis might have been in custody, but he proved to be very uncooperative  and did not give up information easily.  After he and about a dozen others were convicted in federal court that summer of 1921 of conspiracy in the case, they were still awaiting trial for the robbery itself. But Urbaytis, Rogers and Shultz had other plans and managed to overpower the turnkey at the Lucas County Jail and escaped.

They remained at large for years and It wasn’t until 1924, that Urbaytis turned up again. This time in Columbus, Ohio, where he was involved in a dramatic gun battle with police, and was shot.  Seriously wounded, he lay in a Columbus hospital and allowed reporters in for bedside interviews and photos. He reveled in his notoriety as a popular public enemy.  Eventually he recovered and was sent back to Toledo where he and the others faced the legal system and were eventually convicted of the robbery and the additional escape charges.  Facing a 60 year sentence, he was shipped off to federal prison. But the Toledo native, was not to be confined for long, and in 1928, he slipped his bonds again, escaping from federal prison in Atlanta.

But this time when he was recaptured, in 1934, federal prison officials sent Urbaytis to the “Rock”, the Alcatraz, federal prison on a remote island in Oakland Bay California where escape was improbable.

The story could have ended there and Urbaytis might have died in prison and obscurity, but once again he escaped. This time, however, by virtue of a shortened sentence and a second chance at freedom. In 1943, Urbaytis was released and came home to Toledo, but instead of takinga low profile after his new found freedom, the ex-con and notorious crime figure almost flaunted his freedom by opening an unlicensed night club on Woodville Road, near the railroad overpass.  But in 1946, Joe’s streak of luck ran out. He was gunned down inside of his Bon-Aire Supper Club on Woodville Road. He did not esacpe death. His life of crime was over. Toledo Police Chief Ray Allen even wrote a letter to FBI Chief J. Edgar Hoover letting him know that Urbaytis had been shot and killed and the FBI could close the books on him for good.

Ninety years later, all that’s left is a thick and brittle file in the Safety Building, crammed with photos, mug shots, fingerprint cards, police reports and newspaper articles telling the 25 year tale of the robbery and the “brains” behind it and his violent demise.

There are still, however a few more loose ends that this author and others are trying to resolve. It seems that one of the gunmen in the 1921 heist was known as “James Colson”. His real name was Nathan Otterbeck and he was not arrested until 1923. A newspaper article I found from that era, says he was arrested on a train in Davenport, Iowa. Family members continue to search records to find more information about him and his background. We do know he died under another name in Idaho. If you have more information about Colson or Otterbeck, let us know.

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Filed under Toledo area crime news