GREAT BARRINGTON >> A down-on-his-luck man stranded in Becket was grateful for a hand up — and he showed it in an unusual way.

It was September 1892. John C. Mueller, 36, was orphaned after his father died in the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863 and his mother died in New York City a dozen years later. Mueller married and moved to Alabama to work in a lumber mill.

His wife took ill in spring 1892. Mueller was injured in a boiler explosion. "The news of his injuries affected Mrs. Mueller so badly that she never recovered and died before he was able to sit up in bed," the Springfield Republican reported. His house was burgled and he became distraught. He sold the house and his belongings and went north to find his sister, who he presumed was in Lebanon, N.Y. She wasn't there.

Determined to find work, Mueller set out for Westfield, where he'd heard there was cabinetmaking work to be had at an organ factory. He walked as far as Becket but became exhausted. Found prostrated in a Main Street yard, he received quick care from Dr. L.W. Combs.

"Being without money he was taken in charge by Overseer of the Poor Jennings, who took him to Dwight Mallison's to stay. Mueller wired a friend in Chicago, who sent money. Mallison directed Mueller to M.E. Ballou & Son's factory, where he took a job making baskets.

Unexpected windfall


Time passed. Mueller heard again from his Chicago friend, named Firestone, who advised that Mueller's uncle in Germany had died. Mueller obtained a copy of the will, which said in part: "John B. Mueller, my beloved nephew, is hereby given $62,500 in money, one-half of a piece of real estate valued at $60,000 and one half of a silk plant, situated at Lyons, France and valued at $375,000." The total bequest was $280,000.

Mueller located his sister, who was recently widowed and living in Lebanon, Ind. There were another 10 scattered heirs. Mueller went to Chicago and to Omaha to find some of them.

With his new riches, Mueller felt magnanimous toward townspeople in Becket who had helped him when he was down. He announced plans to build a furniture factory. It was to be a three-story, brick building 100 by 40 feet, furnished with the latest in machinery, at a cost of about $40,000. The factory would employ 80 workmen to make furniture to be sold through H.K. Barnes of Boston.

"It is stated on good authority that the plant will be built on the land owned by Sidney Barnes, which was occupied by the old McElwain sawmill and wood working establishment and which was burned down several years ago," The Berkshire Eagle reported Sept. 3 1892. Mueller would purchase the nearby Elias Ballou property to house laborers.

A $62,000 check was expected as an initial payment from the estate. The Springfield Union on Sept. 10 reported Mueller "will begin building operations at once."

Paying forward

Mueller was in and out of town. Becket residents were ecstatic. For a few weeks. Until Mueller failed to come back to town.

Becket residents learned that a man matching Mueller's description, working for a furniture factory in East Utica, had inherited $100,000 from an uncle's estate. That man went by the name of William Hahn.

Police in Utica told Ballou of Becket that Mueller "had told substantially the same story in that town and on the strength of his anticipated fortune had borrowed sums of money, with which he had skipped out without settling," The Eagle said Dec. 20. And Ballou sent a photo of Mueller.

The Republican's Sept. 22 issue revealed the fraud. "This poor German talked so innocently, and was so humbly grateful that the people had full confidence in him...

He said he would build a house for Mr. Mallison, who would become superintendent of the new factory. "He went so far as to negotiate for grading the place, for the brick, machinery and even the roofing, borrowing money of the man who came to sell him the latter. He borrowed money right and left on the coming check for $62,500. Poor workmen loaned him small sums, and the business men advanced larger sums."

"Mueller is a professional swindler," The Eagle concluded, "and has worked the same game in a number of towns. He has been heard from in several places since he so mysteriously left Becket. In Bennington, Vt., a man answering to the description obtained money, and again on a Lake Michigan steamer he feigned illness and the passengers took up a collection for him."

Utica police arrested the man called Hahn and "he confessed that he had operated in Becket under the name of Mueller. He admitted that he had not fallen heir to any money, but said he had a sick uncle in Germany, from whom he expected generous bequests. Documents were found on him [that showed] he had worked the same swindling scheme in Indiana, Michigan, Mississippi and Alabama. He is 34 years of age," the Utica Herald reported Dec. 18, 1892.

He didn't even give his right age.

Bernard A. Drew is a regular Eagle contributor.