In the winter of 1908, Joe Sutter and “Shorty” Gamble grappled with a mystery that was costing them both money and sleep.
About once a week, the cash register at their North Third Street sporting goods store in Burlington ran out of small amounts of cash, and the two men were unable to explain the disappearances.
The problem was first noted one morning when Gamble returned from a wrestling match at Fort Madison and decided to stop by the store to check receipts from the previous day.
He wrote down the money in the cash register and then went home. But a few hours later, his partner opened the store and a check of the register revealed that $2.30 had disappeared in those few early hours.
Even by 1908 standards, it wasn’t a major loss, and if it was a theft, why wasn’t the entire contents of the $28.40 cash register gone?
Gamble and Sutter checked the store’s windows and doors and found that they had been securely locked, so the two owners eventually justified that the loss was just an accounting error.
To their surprise, this mistake seemed to repeat itself a few days later when the ledger recorded a loss of $4.75, and then a third loss of $3.95 occurred the following week.
By then the two men were convinced that someone had made a copy of the store keys and was making an early morning withdrawal, so they set a trap to catch the thief.
For two nights, the men maintained a vigil outside the store, but saw nothing unusual.
Then on the third night, after the wake was over, another withdrawal of $5.16 was made at the cash register.
At this point, the two store owners went to the police with their problem.
Police Chief Hiltz was intrigued by their mystery, but explained that the flu virus had him shorthanded and he could offer no help at the time.
The two disgruntled shopkeepers turned back to their watches, but now they armed themselves with two large guns and flashlights.
They also brought food to feed them and placed beds inside the store, both in front and behind the doors.
The night turned out to be quiet, and finally, at 5 a.m., Sutter checked his watch and decided the thief had taken his night.
He got up from his backdoor post and made his way through the dark store to where Gamble held his post and suggested the two call him a night.
As the two men whispered, they suddenly realized that there was movement elsewhere in the store.
A light flickered briefly near the cash register and there was the sound of the till being opened.
For a moment, both men were stunned. How did the thief manage to get in when the back door and the front door were guarded?
When they recovered from their surprise, Sutter motioned that he would cut the back door while Gamble had to sneak behind the counter to a point where he could surprise the thief.
As the two men stepped forward, a creaking plank betrayed their presence and in an instant the thief’s light faded.
Gamble then stepped forward and shouted aloud for the visitor to surrender, but the only response was silence.
Sutter then flipped the switch and the two men rushed out to find that there was no one at the cash register.
Then came a crash as the front door swung open and a shadowy figure emerged from the street.
Gamble rolled, screamed and fired his .38 caliber Colt at the vanishing form.
All he accomplished was the demolition of the storefront and the peace and quiet of downtown Burlington.
Sutter and Gamble rushed down the street in time to see their prey running towards Washington Street.
Gamble took off after the figure while Sutter stood in the middle of the street and fired his gun, splattering the doors and windows of nearby stores.
The thief turned the corner and ran down the driveway near Moore’s transfer barns and now it was Gamble’s turn to go up in flames.
His barrage of gunfire bounced off buildings and woke much of the city as lights now appeared in the windows of downtown apartments.
The thief had now turned to run for the river, but the two shouting and swearing traders were winning over him.
As the robber walked past the Panley House annex, Sutter was able to take him down with a flying tackle.
An excited crowd had now gathered and it was with difficulty that the arriving police were able to extricate the thief from the brutality of shopkeepers and their neighbours.
Officers, their prisoner, shopkeepers and onlookers marched to the police station, where it was determined that young Tom McKee had a gunshot wound to his foot and much to explain.
McKee was to confess that he was a tenant in an apartment above the store and made his entrance by stooping down a small air shaft and he limited his flights in the hope that it wouldn’t cause too much distress to Gamble and Sutter.
McKee was then taken to hospital for the gunshot wound and later to court, where he was sentenced to six months in prison.
But he probably considered himself lucky to have escaped the heavily armed crime breakers.