After arriving by rail in Jamestown, man accosted for $31 in 'crudely planned' robbery
The aftermath of a badly executed robbery resulted in a death on Christmas Day, 1920, in the Stutsman County Jail.
JAMESTOWN, N.D. -- A crime, described by newspapers of the time as "very crudely planned and poorly carried out" resulted in the arrests of three people in Jamestown in 1920. As the court proceedings regarding the crime played out, one person would die in custody.
The incident began at about 11 p.m. on Dec. 16, 1920, near the Midland Continental Depot in Jamestown.
According to newspaper and court reports. Oscar Engrave, a part-time employee of the Jamestown street department and occasional wrestler at local sporting events, convinced David Watt, 19, and Belle Hester, 20, that Conrad Werder was carrying a large sum of cash and was arriving in Jamestown by rail that evening.
The three alleged accomplices concocted a plan to rob Werder that night on the streets of Jamestown.
Engrave introduced Hester to Werder at the railroad depot. She convinced him to go for a walk along Jamestown's Main Street (now First Street South). In the newspaper descriptions of the events that evening, she was referred to as a decoy.
Hester steered the walk to a dark corner of the street where Watt accosted the pair with a handgun. He took, according to newspaper reports, $31 from Werder and also took Hester's pocketbook. Hester and Werder continued walking briefly. When Hester attempted to walk away from Werder he tried to detain her and called for police officers. Werder and a Jamestown Police Department officer followed Hester to her room at the Capital Hotel.
At first, Hester proclaimed she was a victim but then broke down and admitted her part in the crime and implicated Engrave and Watt. Both were arrested within an hour. Investigators also found, stashed under the boardwalk near the depot, the $31 in cash and a "rusted 22 calibre revolver," according to newspaper reports.
The three arrests occurred at near midnight on the night of Dec. 16, 1920. On Dec. 18, a Saturday, the three appeared before Judge W.L. Nuessle in District Court in Jamestown.
Watt, who claimed to be from Urbana, North Dakota, pleaded guilty to first degree robbery. He was sentenced to the state's training school, a juvenile detention facility, until he reached the age of 21 or a term of about 14 months.
Nuessle noted in a letter he wrote to the superintendent of the training school, Watt was an alcoholic at the time of the crime and was weak and not fit for labor. He continued by warning the superintendent not to allow Watt to have an opportunity to escape and ordered that he serve the whole sentence.
Hester also pleaded guilty to first degree armed robbery. Because she was 20, she was sentenced as an adult to five years at hard labor in the North Dakota State Penitentiary on Dec. 18.
Engrave pleaded not guilty to first degree armed robbery and asked for a change in venue. Engrave claimed that Nuessle was prejudiced against him and that it would be impossible to get a fair and impartial jury in Stutsman County because of newspaper coverage of the incident.
Another factor was the jury trial system in place in North Dakota in 1920. A panel of jurors was selected to hear all jury trials held during a court term. This meant that jurors could hear multiple cases over several days or weeks.
Engrave claimed that at least some if not all of the jurors had been in court when Hester and Watt had entered guilty pleas and could be prejudiced against Engrave in court.
Nuessle agreed with the arguments and scheduled Engrave's trial to occur in Kidder County in February. He was free on $2,000 bond. Adjusted for inflation, that is the equivalent of more than $25,000 today.
On Dec. 21, 1920, Nuessle suspended Hester's sentence and placed her on five years probation. However, she was not released from jail and continued to be held at the Stutsman County Jail to ensure her testimony against Engrave in February.
Somewhere during the morning hours of Dec. 25, 1920, Hester had a nose bleed. The jail staff was unable to control the bleeding and she was transferred to Trinity Hospital in Jamestown. Two hours later, early in the afternoon of Christmas Day, Belle Hester was pronounced dead.
Newspapers speculate the injuries may be self-inflicted or possibly related to kidney disease, however, there is no court record regarding the cause of death.
In the days that followed, Hester's family in Pocatello, Idaho, was notified. Her mother sent a telegraph requesting her daughter be buried in Jamestown at the Catholic Cemetery. On Dec. 29, 1920, J.W. Ravenscraft, possibly a father or brother to Hester, arrived in Jamestown to complete the arrangements
Ravenscraft provided the full name of Belle Hester Ravenscraft and gave her occupation as student. He provided no other information regarding Hester, leaving spaces on the Record of Funeral document for marriage, date of birth and cause of death, blank.
He did pay the $166.50 cost of the funeral and burial in an unmarked and unrecorded grave in Calvary Cemetery in Jamestown.
On Feb. 22, 1921, in District Court in Steele, Kidder County, Engrave pleaded guilty to first degree robbery. He is sentenced to one year in prison which was suspended and he was placed on probation for one year.
There is little mystery to this case. A poorly planned crime was executed badly resulting in only small proceeds. After all, the $31 taken in the crime has buying power equivalent to about $425 today when adjusted for inflation.
The only mystery is the cause of death for Belle Hester Ravenscraft and her final resting place. The burial record that exists does not note the lot where she was buried.
And, records of coroner's inquests and related documents are sealed even for cases of death 101 years old.