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Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Local Chess Player Robbed and Murdered


    William C. Wilson, a prominent member of the Franklin Chess Club, owned a bookstore and the Philadelphia Circulating Library, a private, subscription lending library. The Franklin Chess Club was at that time located on the third floor above Wilson's library. Wilson was murdered in his store on the evening of August 16, 1897.
     Wilson was born in Rutland, Massachusetts on September 11, 1842 and after graduating with honors from high school he clerked for some time in a book store in Worcester, Massachusetts. It was during that time that he learned to play chess and soon demonstrated considerable talent. He defeated two college champions and was known for his blindfold ability. 
     At the outbreak of the Civil War he was preparing to go to college, but instead elected to recruit a company which then joined up with the 104th New York Infantry. At that time he was a first lieutenant. On the first day of the battle of Gettysburg he was captured by the Confederates, but refused parole.
     Parole was a rather unique thing. The release of prisoners of war on parole actually predated the Civil War. On February 18, 1861, after Texas seceded, Major General David E. Twiggs surrendered all Union forces in the state to the Confederates. The officers and men were soon on their way north, carrying with them paroles stating that they would not serve in the field until formally exchanged. On April 14, 1861, the opening shots of the war were fired at Fort Sumter and the entire Union garrison was not only paroled to their homes, but the Confederates also provided them with transportation.
 
Deep in the bowels of Libby Prison
     After refusing parole Wilson spent 20 months in Libby Prison and Charlottesville, North Carolina where he played chess to pass the time. While at Charlottesville he escaped and walked about three hundred miles and after many adventures, made his way to Union lines and returned to duty, was wounded in the leg in battle, recovered and went on to serve on the staff of, or command, three other regiments. He emerged from the Civil War with the rank of Major.

     One of the outfits Wilson served with was the Tenth Indiana Regiment and in a letter to Brigadier General W. S. Rosecrans, Wilson's Commanding Officer describing the Battle of Rich Mountain wrote, “The officers and men under my command behaved with a great degree of coolness and courage during the entire engagement. I would call especial attention to Major William C. Wilson, who gallantly led forward the left wing, although severely wounded...”
     Wilson played no known match or tournament games, but in simuls he defeated Steinitz, Zukertort Chigorin, Blackburne, Gunsberg, Weiss and Bird. Had he devoted more time to chess no doubt he would have progressed further. It was Wilson who did most of the analysis that helped the Franklin club beat New York in a correspondence match in 1886. For several years prior to his death Wilson was vice-president of the Franklin Chess Club
     Wilson moved to Philadelphia about 1875 and started his circulating library which at the time of his death was one of the largest in the country. A circulating library was a business with the intention to profit from lending books to the public for a fee. They offered an alternative to the large number of readers who could not afford the price of new books in the nineteenth century.
     On the evening of August 16, 1897, shortly after 7pm, while working on his books in the front room on the first floor while his friends were waiting for him to show up at the club, he was brutally murdered at his desk with a hammer or other blunt instrument and the desk, cash drawer and closet were broken open and ransacked. Wilson's watch and money were taken.
     About a half an hour later a patrolman found the store gate open and the door to the store ajar. Upon investigation the policeman found closets, drawers and trunks had been broken into and the contents scattered on the floor. He also found a blood-stained hammer lying on the floor. Near the front of the store was a pool of blood with a trail of blood leading behind the showcases where the policeman found Wilson's body with his skull crushed. Wilson's face was nearly unrecognizable and his pants had been almost pulled off and the pockets had been turned inside out. There was a towel around Wilson's neck which apparently had been used to strangle him.
    Wilson was last seen alive at about 6 o'clock when he left his boarding house to return to his store. The men who killed him were evidently familiar with his habits and apparently forced an entrance to the store while he was out and waited for his return. Wilson was supposed to keep a large sum of money in the store. There were no clues as to the identity of the perpetrators.
     Enter William Harris. On the night of October 4, 1897 Harris turned himself in to Philadelphia police, claiming he was one of three men who had murdered Wilson. Harris said he accompanied two men to Wilson’s store with the object of robbing him then beat him to death. Another account indicated Harris claimed they had beaten Wilson to death with a hatchet and that Wilson’s missing watch could be found in a potato patch in New Jersey two miles south of a town named Gloucester.
     Detectives couldn’t find the watch and believed that other parts of Harris’ confession could not be corroborated. Philadelphia’s District Attorney and Director of Public Safety considered Harris not to be of sound mind and not guilty. They had also discovered that Harris' real name was John Tittemary and that was that. 
    Then in February, 1898 a fellow known as “Big Bill” Mason, who was reputed to be a well-known crook, somehow became a person of interest.  One anonymous source claimed that Mason had Wilson’s watch in his possession. 
    “Big Bill” was William Mason, described as one of the most desperate criminals in the country.  He was arrested in July 1898, along with three others: George“Red” Spencer, Thomas Reilly and Jim Coffey. Big Bill had been arrested in New York City on Monday night, July 11, 1898 and was extradited to Pennsylvania on a murder charge within four days of his arrest. Police had the serial number on Wilson's watch, but Big Bill wasn't carrying it.
     On September 7, 1898 on an unrelated charge of carrying burglar tools, Red Spencer was sentenced to nine months in the penitentiary and Thomas Reilly was given a year. 
      After that the trail goes cold and nobody knows whatever happened to Big Bill Mason because he and the Wilson murder case just vanished from newspaper accounts!  Even such a prominent researcher as John Hilbert couldn't dig up any further information.

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