Editor's note: This is one in an occasional series of stories about Minnesota and its rich bike history in honor of the bicentennial of the invention of the bicycle.
The dark annals of bicycle thievery give us few cases more curious than that of Anthony Ferodowell.
One spring day in 1895, according to allegations in court records, a bicycle was parked at 6th and Minnesota streets in downtown St. Paul in front of what was then the New York Life Building. The bike belonged to a man — apparently a prominent man — named S.W. Mattson. An S.W. Mattson was listed at the time as “secretary & treasurer” of St. Paul’s Security & Trust Co.; as president of the Epworth League, a Methodist Church group; and as secretary of the South St. Paul Belt Line Bridge and Railway Co.
Mattson, in any case, had a bike, which he told police had disappeared. This particular alleged theft came near the peak of the nation’s late 19th-century’s bicycle craze — an explosion of preautomobile bike riding and ownership that has never been repeated. Bikes in those years were being stolen almost out from under people.
In Minneapolis, police were taking about 1,000 bike-theft reports a year. The district court was keeping one grand jury busy solely with bike theft cases. In one three-month period, police arrested 63 alleged bike thieves in the city; nine of the arrests came on a single busy summer day. Minneapolis police were recovering less than half the bikes reported stolen.
The St. Paul Globe wrote in 1894, speaking of Minneapolis: “The city has been infested with bicycle thieves for some time, and the (grand) jury will devote its work in an endeavor to apprehend the annoying fellows.”
St. Paul was not much better. The city’s newspapers were running advertisements from the American Wheelman’s Protective Association, an insurance company, claiming that it by itself had “recovered, restored and replaced” more than 500 bicycles in the city in the previous four years.
So Mattson, on that day in 1895, could not have been optimistic that he would see his bicycle again. But, luckily — conveniently … maybe just a little too conveniently? — Mattson told police he later saw Ferodowell riding his missing bike across the Wabasha Street Bridge.
News accounts included this vital detail from the police report: Mattson’s nameplate had been pried off the bike, and the plate was found by police in Ferodowell’s own pocket.
Ferodowell was arrested and charged with grand larceny. We don’t know how long he was in custody, but it was not unusual at the time for alleged bike thieves — clearly a major public menace — to be held on $500 bail, a sum that today would be more than $13,000. Ferodowell, despite sworn eyewitness accounts by a prominent member of the community and apparently damning physical evidence, pleaded not guilty. It was a plea from which he would not budge.
So it came to pass, on the week of May 13, 1895, that a Ramsey County district judge named J.J. Egan gaveled to order Ferodowell’s trial on grand larceny theft charges involving a single bike. Egan impaneled a jury, presumably comprised of 12 men, given the seriousness of the charge and customs of the time. The Globe’s reporter on the scene wrote that prosecutors told the jury about Mattson’s discovery of his missing bike, how he later saw Ferodowell riding the same bike on Wabasha Street Bridge, and that police later found the bike’s incriminating ID tag — surely the case’s Exhibit A — in Ferodowell’s own pocket.
What was Ferodowell’s defense? How compelling or reliable was Mattson on the stand? Did Ferodowell and Mattson have some previous relationship? What kind of courtroom did Judge Egan run? The Globe’s report touched on none of those questions. All we know is that, in the midst of a 19th-century bike-theft crime wave and profound public outrage with vermin bike thieves, the jury emerged with a verdict after just three hours of deliberations: not guilty.
We know not what became of Anthony Ferodowell. An S.W. Mattson of the time, for whatever reason, appears to have fled St. Paul in the following years to become an itinerant Methodist minister.
Tony Brown is a freelance writer from Minneapolis.