Sunday, October 18, 2015

A Shot in the Arm

Where the bullet hit William H. Cavnah.
Blazing bullets, daring daylight robberies, and police car chases were the last things my cousin William H. Cavnah expected on a normal workday in Canton, Ohio, as the roaring twenties were coming to a close.

William H. Cavnah (1869-1931) was a prominent businessman in Canton, Ohio, at the tail end of the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth. He lived in Congress Lake, an upscale area of Hartville, Stark County, Ohio, not far from Canton. For many years he was the secretary-treasurer and general manager of the Canton Foundry & Machine Company of Canton, as well as secretary and treasurer of the Embro Manufacturing Company. He was also on the board of a Colorado gold mine headed by his uncle Louis Cavnah. His father Henry Cavnah had been a prominent businessman in Canton, too. His wife Sue M. Zerbe Cavnah was known for her prize-winning flowers grown in the beautiful gardens of the Cavnah Congress Lake home. And members of his immediate family were part of Canton society.

He was also my second cousin three times removed. His parents were Henry Aloysius Cavnah (1843-1904) and Mary M. Niesz Cavnah (abt 1845-abt 1872). Mary Niesz's parents were William Niesz (1822-1913) and Delilah Roush Niesz (1822-1854). Delilah Roush's parents were Frederick Roush (1789-1844) and Anna Maria Haflich Roush (1791-1869), the great grandparents of William H. Cavnah and my great-great-great-great-grandparents.

In the 1920s many companies paid their workers in payroll checks. But payroll checks weren’t as convenient as cash. Not all workers had bank accounts. Some banks placed holds on checks drawn on other banks. Banking hours weren’t always convenient for men who had full-time jobs.

On Saturday, August 31, 1929, any worker receiving a payroll check would have to wait longer than usual to cash it. Monday, September 2, was a holiday—Labor Day. The banks would be closed. Unless there was still cash on hand from a previous paycheck, any purchases would have to be delayed until after the holiday was over.

William H. Cavnah understood his workers’ needs. Every Saturday since 1892, cash for the payroll had been brought to the plant of the Canton Foundry and Machine Company to pay the workers. Just before noon on that fateful Saturday Cavnah and John R. Bucher, vice-president of the firm, were returning to the foundry office from the George D. Harter bank. Cavnah carried $1,117 of payroll cash in a front pocket of his coat.

As Cavnah and Bucher stepped out of the car onto the curb in front of 300 3rd Street SE, two men with hats pulled low to shade their faces approached with drawn guns and ordered Cavnah and Bucher to raise their hands. Face-to-face with a bandit, Cavnah felt his ire rising. As he reported later, “I just got angry clear through and felt like I’d like to take a good solid punch or kick at him.”

A punch is exactly what Cavnah took. He clamped one hand over the pocket that held the money and with the other hand struck out at the bandit, who fired his gun, a .38 caliber revolver. Cavnah staggered back with a bullet wound in his right shoulder. The bandit tore the cash from Cavnah’s pocket and jumped with his partner into a Ford coupe parked close by. The Ford raced away. An alarm was raised and the police gave chase.

Cavnah was rushed to a doctor’s office where Dr. Morris Reno examined him. The bullet had passed through Cavnah’s shoulder and the wound it left wasn’t life-threatening.

Meanwhile, the bullet had struck a window at 320 3rd Street SE, the home of Mrs. Thelma Gonzales. Shattered window glass spattered her face and a piece flew into her eye. Her wounds were seen to by City Physician William Klomm.

Anton Blazekovich
On the Mahoning Road on the other side of Canton Saturday morning business was slow in the store of 41-year-old Anton Blazekovich. But Blazekovich expected to be busy later in the day. His cash register was stuffed full of money intended for cashing the payroll checks of workers at the nearby Canton Malleable Iron Company.

Just ten minutes before William Cavnah was shot, a young man walked into Blazekovich’s store and asked to see a hat. Blazekovich showed him one. He asked to see a second.

Blazekovich’s 15-year-old daughter Mary was helping her father in the store that day. She described what happened: “As father turned around to get another hat, I saw the man draw the gun and at the same time the second man appeared at the door of the store and leveled a pistol at father.”

The first gunman ordered Anton Blazekovich to open the cash register. When Blazekovish refused, the man tried to open it himself, but failed.

Mary continues: “As father turned around, the man he had been showing the hats to pressed a gun against his stomach and father grabbed for it and the man pulled the trigger.” The .32 caliber shot hit Blazekovich on his right side, entering below the eighth rib, puncturing his lung, and leaving at the eleventh rib. “Father crumpled to the floor and both men ran,” explained Mary. As they fled, the two men warned her to keep quiet, but she didn’t. “I screamed for help and a lot of people came running.” Mary hurried across the street to her home to tell her mother, Theresa. Anton Blazekovich was rushed to Mercy Hospital in a passing auto, but soon died.

Mary Blazekovich
A. A. Thoma, the owner of a confectionery store on the opposite corner, saw the bandits flee in their Chrysler De Soto and gave chase in his own car. He lost the bandits, but told the police the license number and described a red and black striped trunk on the rear.

Minutes after the incident, police cordoned the northeast section of Canton. Police cars armed with machine guns manned by officers with riot guns and sawed-off shotguns guarded every road leading out of the city. Every town within 100 miles of Canton was alerted to be on the lookout for both teams of bandits, thought by police to be working in tandem.

Canton Coroner T. C. McQuate and police Patrolman Haley were hurrying to the Blazekovich store when they recognized the Chrysler De Soto from Thoma’s description. The car was abandoned at the side of the road. The plates were found to have belonged to a Chevrolet registered in Cleveland, leading police to conclude that the car was stolen. A hat dropped by one of the bandits as they fled also bore the label of a Cleveland merchant. These clues prompted Canton police to concentrate the search for Blazekovich’s slayers on Cleveland.

A front page newspaper headline in Canton screams the latest about the incidents of August 31, 1929.

Meanwhile, a witness to the Cavnah holdup, L. M. Nixon, had gotten the Ford coupe’s license number as the car sped away. A short time afterward this car, like the one used by Blazekovich’s killers, was found abandoned. But this one hadn’t been stolen. The bandits had actually rented it early Saturday morning from the Canton You Drive Company. You Drive manager J. A. Riley identified 28-year-old Joseph Romeo as the renter. Several hours after the holdup Romeo telephoned Riley to report falsely that the rented car had been stolen from a parking space.

The police theorized that the attempted Blazekovich robbery was intended by the bandits as a distraction to draw police away from the area where the Cavnah holdup was taking place. But by Saturday night Canton Chief of Police Earl Hexamer abandoned the theory that the crimes were connected.

Sunday morning, September 1, Canton Police Detective Norman Van Alman went to Cleveland to work with police there in tracing Blazekovich’s killers. But no progress seems to have been made. By the end of the week, Van Alman had returned to Canton.

Sue M. Zerbe Cavnah, right, at the Congress Lake Flower Show.
The funeral of Anton Blazekovich was held Tuesday, September 3, the day after Labor Day.

That following Saturday, September 7, was a busy one for the Cavnah family. While William’s wife Sue M. Zerbe Cavnah (1870-1956) and their seven-year-old son William Henry "Billy" Cavnah, Jr. (1922-1977) were winning prizes for flowers at the Congress Lake Flower Show, William Cavnah traveled to Youngstown, Mahoning County, Ohio, along with John Bucher and Canton police Detectives Albert Bush and Norman Van Alman.
Word had come from the police in Youngstown of a possible suspect in the Cavnah holdup. There Cavnah identified 23-year-old Mike Lewis as the man who’d shot him and stolen the payroll money.

There was one catch, however. The Youngstown police didn’t want to turn Lewis over to the Canton police. Only hours before Cavnah identified Lewis, employees of Youngstown’s Wehle Bakery had identified Lewis as one of a gang who’d robbed the bakery of $1300 the previous April 26. Youngstown authorities wanted to try Lewis for the bakery robbery and several other crimes committed in Youngstown.

On Tuesday, September 10, Canton Captain of Detectives Swope traveled to Youngstown and filed affidavits of highway robbery and shooting with intent to kill against Mike Lewis. But Swope returned to Canton the next day empty-handed. Youngstown authorities had decided to prosecute Lewis there first. Only after all Youngstown charges against Lewis had been dealt with would Lewis be allowed to face the music in Canton.

By November 17 Mike Lewis had not yet been tried for the Cavnah holdup. But that day Canton police took custody of Joseph Romeo (alias Lotie Earig, alias Lari Carlechi), who’d rented the Ford coupe in the Cavnah holdup. Romeo had been captured in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Canton police charged him with highway robbery.

Unfortunately, that’s where the certain path of this story ends. Those affected by the murder and robbery went on with their lives. Anton Blazekovich’s wife Theresa married again. Mary Blazekovich became a teacher at the J. J. Burns Elementary School in Canton and in 1941 married A. Lynn Altenbernd. William Cavnah returned to his desk at the Canton Foundry and Machine Company and switched from paying the employees in cash to paying with checks. On March 20, 1931, almost a year and a half after being shot, William Cavnah died at Canton’s Mercy Hospital after a three-week illness.

I find no report that Anton Blazekovich’s killers were ever caught. I’ve found no further trace of Joseph Romeo. But I might have discovered what happened to Mike Lewis.

On April 21, 1930, a disastrous fire broke out at the Ohio Penitentiary in Columbus, Ohio. A group of convicts set the fire as part of an escape attempt, but their plans went awry. The fire quickly grew out of control. Guards unlocked as many cells as they could, but before the fire was put out, more than three hundred convicts had died. In the days that followed newspaper headlines screamed the tragedy. Lists of dead filled news pages. Among them was the name Mike Lewis, place of origin unknown. Was this the same Mike Lewis who shot William Cavnah? Was Mike Lewis sent to the Ohio Pen for his crimes, whether committed in Youngstown or Canton, only to perish there in the fire a few months later? I don’t know for sure, but I think it’s likely.

In poor taste: The First Trust & Savings Bank of Canton uses the Cavnah holdup and Blazekovich slaying to advertise their services and say, "I told you so."

3 comments:

  1. His son William Cavnah is my Uncle

    ReplyDelete
  2. Contact me at lonnie_schrader@att.net

    Bill Cavnah wife is still alive age 92,he was my father's brother, Bill was adopted as a baby.

    Lonnie

    ReplyDelete
  3. Thanks for your comments, Lonnie. I've e-mailed you privately. Glad to connect, cousin!

    ReplyDelete