Saturday, January 23, 2016

A Yegg's Change of Fate

With the decision of the appellate court, Hogue's last chance to escape hanging on May 10 disappears.

A death watch had been set outside the door of the jail cell housing John Syme Hogue, the American accused of murdering the Canadian deportation officer charged with returning him from Winnipeg to stand trial in Michigan. The despondent criminal had given signs of suicidal tendencies—not surprising, considering he had just been sentenced to die on the gallows on May 10, 1917.

An appeal had been made by his attorney, Windsor barrister F. C. Kerby, immediately following the March 7 trial and sentencing. In the meantime, newspapers on both sides of the international border had been churning out sensational headlines—rhetoric more likely to distribute copies than confirmation of the actual events.

"Captured after a sensational struggle," trumpeted one report from one Michigan newspaper, the Jackson Citizen Patriot, even though it turned out that Hogue couldn't even get his gun to fire when police kicked in the door to his hotel room in Windsor, Ontario.

"Gunman, safe blower, dope fiend and nationally known American crook," gloated the Kalamazoo Gazette just after the verdict had been returned on Hogue's case.

"Death Penalty for Yegg Who Slew Officer" headlined yet another newspaper—the Muskegon Chronicle—following the fate of the convicted killer.


I had to check this one out. Surely, I thought, that was some sort of Canadian slang of the era—until I realized this was a Michigan newspaper's editorial flourish.

Google to the rescue. Wherever the term originated, "yegg" quite handily described the man, according to an updated edition of a 1949 book, A Dictionary of the Underworld. According to author Eric Partridge, a "yegg" is a professional "safe-blower."

That, indeed, was the essence of Hogue's occupation—at least, that is, according to the newspaper reports littering his already-escaped path through mid-western United States and Canada. What makes the book seem a handy reference is the author's extensive listing of support for definitions provided—a bibliographical listing of resources upon which he developed his specialized lexicon.

Whether meant to be a slur or merely statement of fact, use of the term in the era's journalistic coverage of the event only seemed to add fire to the furor.

It seems incredible to think, in the midst of this local uproar, that the brother of the condemned could consider it plausible to step in and snatch the man from his destiny. And yet, despite the original denial of Barrister Kerby's appeal, that is what Andrew Hogue did—with the assistance of key personnel, of course. Andrew Hogue enlisted the help of the newly-elected governor of his home state, West Virginia's Governor John J. Cornwell.

Why this choice would seem to this concerned brother to be an effective tool in securing the release of a condemned criminal, I'm not sure. I thought of every link possible. Family member? Business associate? Political payback?

Though the Cornwell lineage includes a mother whose maiden name was Taylor—a name also figuring in my extended family tree—I could find no immediate familial connections between the Hogue family and that of the governor. Though formerly a newspaper publisher and editor, the new governor, having just assumed office that March, 1917, had yet to establish his political reputation. He was eventually to be known for his positive role in education, mining safety, public safety, and even in raising the highest percentage of volunteers per state to serve at the start of World War I. Still, the down side of his term of office—and likely an instigating factor in limiting his tenure to one term—became his botched handling of unfulfilled promises to labor interests in the state's coal mining industry.

That, however, all came after whatever kindness he showed to the pleading Andrew Hogue on behalf of his wayward brother. Though Andrew Hogue was, himself, a civil engineer and, coincidentally, owner of a coal mine, at the beginning of the governor's term it was too early to determine what political favors the governor might have been seeking in return for his help in extracting Andrew's brother from his fate.

Newspaper reports never revealed what, exactly, the new governor might have done on behalf of John Hogue. Of course, a serious research trip to trawl through the holdings at the West Virginia state archives might reveal correspondence concerning the matter. That will have to wait for another season.

One thing became quite clear, though. Only days before Hogue's sentence was to be carried out, in a small—and understated—entry datelined Detroit, May 5, an announcement reversing course was made. Buried discreetly on page fourteen of the Muskegon Chronicle, the article explained,
The sentence of death by hanging imposed at Windsor on John Hogue...was commuted late yesterday to life imprisonment. The commutation was granted by the Canadian minister of justice at Ottawa.

And that was it. No mention of how that change of fate came to be. No names dropped, of course—that would be impolitic at a time like this. But with whatever influence tipped the hand of the powers that be—though still sentenced to a life behind bars—in a last minute maneuver, John Hogue was spared his life.

If you think the story of John Hogue—alias James Stewart, Gordon, Andrews or Anderson—has reached its last chapter, though, think again. Those newspapers in Michigan weren't fomenting such a furor for nothing. There was yet another debt to repay to society, and those Michigan editors were keen to see it paid in full.      


  1. A yegg...learn something new everyday:)

    1. Well, it was sorta new to me...I had some Twitter friends from Edmonton who used to refer to themselves as Yegs...which never made sense until I learned their airport's designation is YEG. But I don't think they were thinking of the same word...

  2. I've heard of the term Yegg. As a rabid watcher of the Three Stooges... the term comes up here and there!

    1. Now that I've learned it, seems like I'm noticing it more and more in those old newspaper articles.


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