The Mysterious Mr. Raffles

It was a busy summer for the New Jersey Digital Newspaper Project. The team closely reviewed and analyzed multiple years of microfilm for the Perth Amboy Evening News, the first newspaper slated for digitization. We continue to work closely with our vendors to establish and implement the most efficient workflows to duplicate and digitize the microfilm, and we are close to getting the first batch of issues of the Perth Amboy Evening News online. As we progress we thought it would be fun to share stories from these early 20th century newspapers. Like the adventure of the mysterious Mr. Raffles from March 1907.

On Saturday, March 16, 1907 the newspaper ran a front-page story titled “Raffles to Walk the Streets of This City” with the lure of a $50 reward (in gold!) for the person who captures him.

March 16, 1907

Who was Mr. Raffles? Why was he at large? The accompanying article provided background.

The idea of the scheme was copyrighted in 1904 by George H. Donahue and John C. King, newspaper writers, who have used it since then in nearly every large city in the country. At a great expense permission has been secured from Donahue & King, owners of the copyright, to use the “chase” in this city and a well known man has been engaged to impersonate “The Mysterious Mr. Raffles from Sexton’s Drug Store.”

A great surprise is in store for the people of this city when his name become [sic] known after his capture. Until then he will be known only as “Mr. Raffles.” He will tell in this paper of his travels each day and his narrow escapes, the people he meets and talks with, etc. A good description of him will be published Monday night. He will be turned loose Wednesday morning.

As promised, Monday’s paper provided a description, along with additional contest rules.

March 18, 1907

If you think you have your man, step right up to him with a copy of the latest edition of the EVENING NEWS in your left hand, place your right hand on his left shoulder and say:

“You are the mysterious Mr. Raffles from Sexton’s drug store.”

If you are right he will ask you to step to Mr. Sexton’s pharmacy where your name and address will be taken and the following day you will receive $50 in gold.

On Wednesday Mr. Raffles was cut loose among the good folks of Perth Amboy! He evaded capture, although many people were stopped and accused of being him. The excitement was such that the editors were compelled to reiterate the rules (copy of latest newspaper, place your right hand on his left shoulder, say the correct words, etc). They also issued a gentle warning.

Many people will be stopped during the chase and for their benefit the NEWS would like to warn the eager ones that when any person approached denies that he is Raffles, don’t be too persistent. Take his word for it and leave him alone.

On Thursday Raffles began contributing front-page stories about his exploits and providing clues regarding his location the next day. He also thought his gig was just about up.

It does not seem that I can very long evade capture as I think at least one citizen of this city is already on the right track and I am afraid if he meets me again it will be all over with me. – March 21, 1907

March 21, 1907

But he was wrong. This continued for more than another week! Every day Mr. Raffles would detail his routes from the previous day, reveal his upcoming location(s), and offer additional tips.

At Brody’s stationary store I bought the Morning World. There were about five young men in the store at the time, but they allowed the fifty to slip through their fingers very easily. – March 22, 1907

It was nothing short of a miracle I was not captured yesterday morning on my way to Metchen by a well known county detective whose two initials I will disclose to you at the finish of this story. I was on the same car with him, but he glanced my way but once, nodding to me and then resuming the perusal of his newspaper, the New York Press. The car was numbered 1151 and in charge of conductor No. 5035. – March 23, 1907

Today and tomorrow, I will be either in the business sections of the city or Woodbridge and Sewaren. Don’t forget the rules. – March 25, 1907

It is probably a surprise to you to know that the “MYSTERIOUS MR. RAFFLES FROM SEXTON’S DRUG STORE” has heard the beautiful peals of the wedding-bells and is proud to state that he has more than a Teddy Bear to worry over–a nice boy and girl, thank you…and as an extra feature tomorrow, my wife will give you a full detailed description of me from her own pen. (You know how well a wife can describe her husband.) – March 26, 1907

He smokes cigars incessantly. His tailor says he is “bow-legged,” but I never noticed that until after we were married…He wears a serious expression and walks quickly. Wears a 7 1/2 shoe, 14 1/2 collar and 6 7/8 hat. Dresses very quietly and looks very much married. – from the description provided by Mrs. Raffles, March 27, 1907.

I finished my eighth day last evening and was approached for the first time during the day. I will not say where nor at what time, but can say this much: the party who recognized me forgot to memorize the rules and this alone saved me. – March 28, 1907

RAFFLES AS SAILOR BOY MADE MERRY – headline from March 29, 1907

Finally, on Friday March 29, 1907, the mysterious Mr. Raffles was nabbed.

March 30, 1907

In this final story Mr. Raffles describes in great detail a dream he had of being captured. Indeed, it continues on page three from the front page. (Apparently, he was not concerned about “burying the lead.”) Finally, he gets to it.

It was about 4 o’clock when James Donnelly, of 27 McClennan street, Perth Amboy, spotted me as I was making for the above mentioned store. He followed me a short distance and approached me correctly, which ended the chase then and there. I was dressed in the garb of a painter and carried my tools of the trade with me. I had made my change of clothes at the ball field as arranged, but left the ladder behind. The contents of the dream was the trip that had been planned, but I did not get a chance to carry it out. However, I gave you all a good run for your money while it lasted and I guess everybody who is any way intelligent is happily satisfied. – March 30, 1907

Incidentally, “Mr. Raffles” was not a local Perth Amboy resident. He was Henry Schlee of New Brunswick, New Jersey. As he put it:

I framed the stories to make you think it was a local man and that I lived here. It was digested properly. Of course, a certain system must be used to keep you guessing, but I began taking big risks during the last few days and was picked out at last, although ten days isn’t half bad in a town of this size.

Not bad at all, Mr. Raffles, not bad at all.

Stay tuned for additional project updates and glimpses into the past!

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