Chasing Charlie: the criminal adventures of the brothers Ricklefs Part I

Ever since I discovered that my grandmother's grandmother, Meta Ricklefs Haase, had two brothers, Charles Ricklefs and John Ricklefs, who were both criminals of the robbing and burgling variety, I've been fascinated by them, my "great uncles." Using old newspaper articles, I learned a bit about their early 20th century criminal exploits, but boy, did I only scratch the surface.

I wrote recently that after finding further evidence that their activity was less of a one-time lapse of judgment and more of a lifelong habit, I sent away to the New York State Archives to see what kind of prison records they had available.

Today, I heard back. (So for all of you considering using the archives for this kind of research, the NYS Archives were fairly quick - I made my request about 1-2 weeks ago and since I only got three pages back, they didn't even charge me for the copying/postage fees.)

I've been trying to find everything I can on the Ricklefs boys, just trying to understand who they were and why they did what they did. Charles, the younger brother, in particular has become my "reason for researching" right now - it was John, 10 years older, who began his criminal career first, but it was Charles who followed John's lead and, when John seemed to have finally learned his lesson and had his fill, it was Charles who ended up wreaking the most havoc.

But let's recap: In March of last year, I first spoke about John and Charles, when I had discovered newspaper articles detailing how John had been shot in the chin while committing a home burglary in 1916. He was found not guilty of that burglary because of an error made by one of the prosecution's witnesses, and was acquitted of a home robbery committed just days before the one in which he was shot because his 19 year old brother, Charles, took the fall and was sent to prison in his stead.

In a second entry a month later, I uncovered the fact that John was first arrested in 1907, at which time he went by the alias Harry Young, and that in 1938, Charles, now 41 years old, was arrested for robbing the Mattituck National Bank on the east end of Long Island and sentenced to 15-30 years in Sing Sing. Again.

I think, though, a year later, that I am finally starting to scratch the surface of who these guys really were and I can't stop - these two brothers who grew up in a neighborhood that's tough today and was tough 100 years ago, these two brothers that fell in with a bad crowd, these two brothers that grew up in the golden age of organized crime, who grew up during Prohibition and the Great Depression, and Charlie Ricklefs, who loved his brother so much or was at least so loyal to him that he took the fall for a crime he didn't commit in order to save John from a life sentence, and came out of that prison stint apparently changed, for the worst, forever.

So, that's all I'll write for now, except to say that this is a perfect example of how important getting ALL the information about a person is, and how important CONTEXT is, to piecing together the puzzle. It doesn't matter how you do it or what you use, but chances are you're going to have to look in more than one spot and occasionally think outside the box!

Did I build it up enough for ya? Don't worry - I'll get to the good stuff soon enough :)