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The Work Case

The year was 1869 and spirits were high in Indiana, the Civil War had just ended, and the town was on the verge of a golden era. Lawyers, doctors, and other prominent business owners had capital to invest. This was thanks to the rapid population growth taking place, which provided the workers necessary to fuel business and industry. The community had outgrown the first courthouse completed in 1809 and was witnessing the construction of a grand new building where the previous one had stood on the corner of North Sixth and Philadelphia Street. As a result, county offices were moved to the Drum building across the street and business carried on as usual.

It began with a seemingly innocent ad placed in the March 4, 1869 issue of The Indiana Democrat. The post was official county business and called for the sale of $30,000 worth of bonds, at the time a common practice for businesses and local governments to raise capital. The certificates were advertised to be as good as, if not better, than government bonds. They were championed as “safe and profitable securities” and with the six percent tax free interest being paid semiannually, the transaction served as a sound investment for residents. A certain amount of trust in government is required when purchasing bonds. However, that trust in local government and the individual clerk who was tasked with selling the bonds, would lead to one of the worst county scandals of the nineteenth century.

Most ploys succeed due to the trusting nature of their followers. Some people can smell a scam from a mile away and others fall right into them. However, sometimes a scam concealed behind the trust in a higher institution can fool even the savviest of individuals. After all, these institutions are built on trust to begin with. But even the craftiest schemes eventually run their course. In March of 1870, another advertisement appeared in the paper, this time offering a $50 reward for the return of the county’s recently stolen bond book. Someone was trying to cover their tracks and it would not be long before their elaborate financial scheme would begin to crumble.

A year passed until the supposed perpetrator was caught. An article appeared in the Indiana Progress stating the following:

This community was thrown into an unusual state of excitement on Wednesday of last week by the announcement that James B. Work had been arrested on suspicion of having a hand or knowing something about the bond business, by which this county is supposed to have lost several thousand dollars. As there are many rumors being circulated and the names of a number of persons mentioned in the connection with this embezzlement, it would be well to wait until something more definite is known and not connect everybody with the affair, who has a word of sympathy for Mr. Work. It is bad enough as it is without adding anything to it. If we will but have patience a legal investigation will no doubt unravel the whole mystery.”

The County Investigates

Following the arrest, a major investigation was launched into the county and its finances. A special commission was created to review the debacle, find those parties responsible, and if possible, recover the stolen funds. The commission consisted of A.L. McClusky, E.H. Wilson, S.M. Hazlett, H.P. Lewis, and A.J. Hamilton.

The entire case revolved around a little black book, ten inches long and three quarters of an inch thick, known in the office as “The Bond Register.” This was the sole record of bonds sold in the county. Locating this volume, or discovering who stole it, would shed light on the massive discrepancy in the county’s finances. Former and present county employees were under suspicion and interviewees wisely attested to their lack of knowledge on the theft. However, there was one individual who gave a particularly troubling responses, or lack thereof…

When William R. Black left the position of clerk and was succeed by James B. Work, he assured the commission that the book was still in the office. His claim was that there were no bonds issued that the county did not get the money for during his tenure. It was under Work’s tenure that the book would disappear, and money would go missing. James B. Work was interviewed and refused to answer certain questions, believing that his answer would somehow incriminate him. How big was this deficit and what did Work have to hide?

By the conclusion of the audit, there were some very startling figures and more questions than there were answers. In addition to the odd testimonies, the commission found a discrepancy of over $58,000 in the county’s finances, the equivalent to nearly $1 million today. Work was promptly arrested and held under suspicion for his connection with the crime. Only a proper trial would remedy this issue and bring those responsible to justice.

The Trial

The facts stood as follows: Anyone coming to the back door would need to cross the neighboring porch. Surrounding residents recalled seeing burning paper coming from the chimney the night of the robbery. The office was broken into, and papers were strewn about on the floor. The bond book was taken, leaving no record of any purchases or payouts, removing any evidence of illegal activity. The safe in the treasurer’s office was accessible by a hidden key, which the thief appeared to know precisely where to find it. When the old bond book was not returned a new one was issued, and the commissioners advertised to have all old bonds returned to be recorded. However, investigation by commission would find that some pages were mysteriously absent from the new book. The clerk through all of these events was James B. Work.

Aside from the theft, the protocol for issuing bonds may have ultimately led to the fraud. Each bond was personally signed by the commissioners, but not necessarily issued by them. A handful of the certificates were pre-signed, left in the treasurer’s office, and authorized to be sold by the clerk. The idea was that the clerk could negotiate bonds during the absence of the commissioners. After a sale took place, the money was supposed to be transferred to the treasurer and recorded in the book. Mr. Work was employed as clerk for a total of eighteen months with the county. During his tenure, the treasurer’s office was broken into, and the bond book was stolen. Work resigned shortly thereafter in April and proceeded to leave the county.

When the time came for character testimonies, Work had the likes of Silas M. Clark and General Harry White testifying on his behalf. However, there were other depositions which painted Mr. Work in a more suspicious light. Multiple witnesses indicated that when dining, Mr. Work repeatedly wanted to pay for the large bills and had a habit of furnishing hefty sums of cash. When asked where he received the money, he would simply reply, “From a friend.”

The final damning piece of evidence was submitted in the form of a letter, supposedly sent by Work himself to the commissioners. The letter alleges that Work needed money and would furnish a full confession if the commissioners would pay him $100 (he was badly in need of money at the time, practically broke). After receiving payment, he would also identify the four others involved. Mr. Work swore that he never saw the letter before in his life and claimed he often had delirium tremors, which is why he could not remember anything. Handwriting analysis would indicate that the message was indeed in his hand, however, the envelope was inscribed by someone completely different, leading credence to the claim that there were four “others” involved.

Friday evening about 9 o’clock, the jury returned with a verdict of guilty on the second count in the indictment, this count being specified forgery of the “Kline bonds.” J.M. Thompson made a motion for a new trial; however, it was overruled. A fine of $50 paid to the Commonwealth, the cost of prosecution, and imprisonment in the Western State Penitentiary for 1 year 8 months was the sentence. The case cost the county a sizable amount of money and more importantly the public trust, which took years to rebuild, and no doubt brought into question the validity of other government officials.

The Work Case Today

With the prevalence of computers today, this case may have played out far differently. Depending on what software was being used, there could potentially be no trace of any transactions, or entries could be edited without anyone’s knowledge. The ability to log in remotely would eliminate the need to physically enter the office space and arouse suspicion. However, certain programs leave extensive audit trails and there is far more available in the means of surveillance. Had James B. Work attempted his stint today, it is likely the same fate would have befallen him– illustrating that the truth comes out eventually, no matter how brilliant the scheme may seem.


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