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The Locksmith of Philadelphia by Unknown


Some years ago, in the city of Philadelphia, there lived an ingenious locksmith, named Amos Sparks. Skilled as a maker and repairer of locks, he was particularly celebrated for his dexterity in opening them, when it was necessary to do so in cases of emergency. Like many men of talent in other departments, Amos Sparks was poor. Though a very industrious and prudent man, with a small and frugal family, he merely obtained a comfortable subsistence, but he never seemed to accumulate property. Whether it was that he was not of the race of money-makers, whose instinctive desire of accumulation forces them to earn and hoard without a thought beyond the mere means of acquisition—or whether the time occupied by the prosecution of new inquiries into still undiscovered regions of his favourite pursuit, and in conversation with those who came to inspect and admire the fruits of his ingenuity, were the cause of his poverty, we cannot undertake to determine—but perhaps various causes combined to keep his finances low; and it was quite as notorious in the city that Amos Sparks was a poor man, as that he was an ingenious mechanic. But his business was sufficient for the supply of his wants and those of his family, and so he studied and worked on, and was content.

It happened that, in the autumn of 18—, a merchant in the city, whose business was extensive, and who had been bustling about the quay and on board his vessels all the morning, returned to his counting-house to lodge several thousand dollars in the Philadelphia bank, to renew some paper falling due that day; when, to his surprise, he had either lost or mislaid the key of his iron chest. After diligent search, with no success, he was led to conclude that, in drawing out his handkerchief, he had dropped the key in the street, or perhaps into the dock What was to be done? It was one o'clock—the bank closed at three, and there was no time to advertise the key, or to muster so large a sum of money as that required. In his perplexity the merchant thought of the poor locksmith. He had often heard of Amos Sparks; the case seemed one particularly adapted to a trial of his powers, and being a desperate one, if he could not furnish a remedy, where else were there reasonable expectations of succour? A clerk was hurried off for Amos, and having explained the difficulty, speedily reappeared, followed by the locksmith with his implements in his hand.

The job proved more difficult than had been anticipated, and, fearful of losing credit by the delay, the merchant offered five dollars' reward to Amos if he would open the chest in as many minutes. Amos succeeded. The lock was picked, and the chest flew open. There the merchant's treasures lay, but they were not yet in his possession. As he enjoyed but a poor reputation for uprightness of dealing, Amos could not trust to his promise of payment. Holding the lid in his hand, he respectfully requested the sum which had been offered; and, as he had expected, it was refused. A much less sum was meanly proposed in its stead, on the plea that it was surely sufficient for a few minutes' work. Amos was indignant and inexorable. The merchant shuffled and fumed. In an instant down went the lid of the chest, and, fastening by a spring, it was again locked as securely as before.

The merchant looked aghast at Amos, and then darted a glance at the clock: the hand pointed to within twenty minutes of three, and seemed posting over the figures with the speed of light. What was to be done? At first he tried to bully, but it would not do. Amos told him, if he had sustained any injury, he might sue as soon as he pleased, for that his time was too precious just now to be wasted in trifling affairs; and, with a face of unruffled composure, he turned on his heel and was leaving the office.

The merchant called him back—he had no alternative—his credit was at stake—he was humbled by the necessity of the case; and handing forth the five dollars, 'There, Sparks,' said he, 'take your money, and let us have no more words.'

'I must have ten dollars now,' replied the locksmith. 'You would have taken advantage of a poor man; and, besides opening your strong box there, I have a lesson to offer which is well worth a trifling sum. You would not only have deprived me of what had been fairly earned, but have tempted me into a lawsuit which would have ruined my family. You will never in future presume upon your wealth in your dealings with the poor, without thinking of the locksmith, and those five dollars may save you much sin and much repentance.'

This homily, besides being preached in a tone of calm determination, which left no room to hope for any abatement, had exhausted another minute or two of the time already so precious. The merchant hurriedly counted out the ten dollars, which Amos deliberately inspected, to see that they belonged to no insolvent bank, and then deposited them in his pocket. Having thus made quite sure of his reward, he dexterously opened the lock, and placed the merchant in possession of his property, in time to save his credit at the bank.

About a month after this affair, the Philadelphia bank was robbed of coin and notes to the amount of fifty thousand dollars. The bars of a window had been cut, and the vault entered so ingeniously, that it was evident the burglar had possessed, besides daring courage, a good deal of mechanical skill. The police scoured the city and country round about, but no clue to the discovery of the robbery could be traced. The public mind was powerfully excited. Everybody who had anything to lose, felt that daring and ingenious felons were abroad, who might probably pay them a visit; all were therefore interested in the discovery and the conviction of the perpetrator of so daring a deed. Suspicions at length began to settle on Sparks; but yet his poverty and known integrity seemed to give them the lie. The story of the iron chest, which the merchant had hitherto been ashamed, and Amos too forgiving, to tell—for the latter did not care to set the town laughing at the man who had wronged him—now began to be told. The merchant, influenced by a vindictive spirit, had whispered it to the directors of the bank, with sundry shrugs and innuendoes; and of course it soon spread far and wide, with all sorts of exaggerated variations and additions. Amos thought for several days that some of his neighbours looked and acted rather oddly, and he missed one or two who used to drop in and chat almost every afternoon; but not suspecting for a moment that there was any cause for altered behaviour, these matters made but a slight impression on his mind. In all such cases, the person most interested is the last to hear disagreeable news; and the first hint that the locksmith got of the universal suspicion was from the officer of the police, who came with a party of constables to search his premises. Astonishment and grief were the portion of Amos and his family for that day.

'Cheer up, my darlings,' said Amos, who was the first to recover the sobriety of thought that usually characterised him—'cheer up—all will yet he well; it is impossible that the unjust suspicion can long hover about us. A life of honesty and fair-dealing will not be without its reward. The real authors of this outrage will probably be discovered soon, for a fraud so extensive will make all parties vigilant; and if not, why, then, when our neighbours see us toiling at our usual occupations, with no evidences of secret wealth or lavish expenditure on our persons or at our board, and remember how many years we have been so occupied and so attired, without a suspicion of wrong-doing even in small matters attached to us, there will be good-sense and good-feeling enough in the city to do us justice.'

There was sound sense and much consolation in this reasoning: the obvious probabilities of the case were in favour of the fulfilment of the locksmith's expectations. But a scene of trial and excitement—of prolonged agony and hope deferred—lay before him, the extent of which it would have been difficult, if not impossible, for him then to have foreseen. Toiled in the search, the directors of the bank sent one of their body to negotiate with Amos—to offer him a large sum of money, and a guarantee from further molestation, if he would confess, restore the property, and give up his accomplices, if any there were. It was in vain that he protested his innocence, and avowed his abhorrence of the crime. The banker rallied him on his assumed composure, and threatened him with consequences; until the locksmith, who had been unaccustomed to dialogues founded on the presumption that he was a villain, ordered his tormentor out of his shop, with the spirit of a man who, though poor, was resolved to preserve his self-respect, and protect the sanctity of his dwelling from impertinent and insulting intrusion.

The banker retired, baffled, and threatening vengeance. A consultation was held, and it was finally determined to arrest Sparks and commit him to prison, in the hope that, by shutting him up, and separating him from his family and accomplices, he would be less upon his guard against the collection of evidence necessary to a conviction, and perhaps be frightened into terms, or induced to make a full confession. This was a severe blow to his family. The privations forced upon them by the want of the locksmith's earnings were borne without a murmur—and out of the little that could be mustered, a portion was always reserved to buy some trifling but unexpected comfort or luxury to carry to the prisoner.

Some months having passed without Sparks having made any confession, or the discovery of any new fact whereby his guilt might be established, his prosecutors found themselves reluctantly compelled to bring him to trial. They had not a tittle of evidence, except some strange locks and implements found in the shop, and which proved the talent, but not the guilt, of the mechanic. But these were so various, and executed with such elaborate art, and such an evident expenditure of labour, that but few, even of the judges, jury, or spectators, could be persuaded that a man so poor would have devoted himself so sedulously to such an employment, unless he had had some other object in view than mere instruction or amusement. His friends and neighbours gave him an excellent character; but on their cross-examination, all admitted his entire devotion to his favourite pursuit. The counsel for the banker exerted himself with considerable ability. Calculating in some degree on the state of the public mind, and upon the influence which vague rumours, coupled with the evidences of the mechanic's handicraft exhibited in court, might have on the mind of the jury, he dwelt upon every ward and winding—on the story of the iron chest—on the evident poverty of the locksmith, and yet his apparent waste of time—and asked if all this work were not intended to insure success in some vast design? He believed that a verdict would be immediately followed by a confession, for he thought Amos guilty, and succeeded in making the belief pretty general among his audience. Some of the jury were half inclined to speculate on the probabilities of a confession, and, swept away by the current of suspicion, were not indisposed to convict without evidence, in order that the result might do credit to their penetration; but this was impossible, even in an American court of justice, in the good old times of which we write. Hanging persons on suspicion, and acquitting felons because the mob think murder no crime, are modern inventions. The charge of the judge was clear and decisive. He admitted that there were grounds of suspicion—that there were circumstances connected with the prisoner's peculiar mode of life that were not reconcilable with the lowness of his finances; but yet of direct testimony there was not a vestige, and of circumstantial evidence there were not only links wanting in the chain, but, in fact, there was not a single link extending beyond the locksmith's dwelling. Sparks was accordingly acquitted; but as no other clue was found to direct suspicion, it still lay upon him like a cloud. The vindictive merchant and the dissatisfied bankers did not hesitate to declare, that although the charge could not be legally brought home, they had no doubt whatever of his guilt. This opinion was taken up and reiterated, until thousands, who were too careless to investigate the story, were satisfied that Amos Sparks was a rogue.

Amos rejoiced in his acquittal, as one who felt that the jury had performed a solemn duty faithfully, and who was glad to find that his present experience had strengthened rather than impaired his reliance on the tribunals of his country. He embraced his family as one snatched from great responsibility and peril; and yet Amos felt that though acquitted by the jury, he was not by the town: he saw that in the faces of some of the jury, and most of the audience, which he was too shrewd an observer to misunderstand. He wished it were otherwise; but he was contented to take his chance of some subsequent revelation; and if it came not, of living down the foul suspicion.

But Amos had never thought of how he was to live. The cold looks, averted faces, and rude scandal of the neighbours, could be borne, because really there was some excuse in the circumstances, and because he hoped that there would be a joyful ending of it all at some future day. But the loss of custom first opened his eyes to his real situation. No work came to his shop; he made articles, but he could not sell them; and as the little money he had saved was necessarily exhausted in the unavoidable expense of the trial, the family found it impossible, aided by the utmost exertion and economy, to meet their current outlay. One article of furniture after another was reluctantly sacrificed, or some little comfort abridged, until, at the end of months of degradation and absolute distress, their bare board was spread within bare walls, and it became necessary to beg, to starve, or to remove. The latter expedient had often been suggested in family consultations, and it is one that in America is the common remedy for all great calamities. The Sparkses would have removed, but they still clung to the hope that the real perpetrator would he discovered, and the mystery cleared up; and, besides, they thought it would he an acknowledgment of the justice of the general suspicion if they turned their hacks and fled. They lived upon the expectation of the renewed confidence and companionship of old friends and neighbours, when Providence should deem it right to draw the veil aside. At length, to live longer in Philadelphia became impossible, and the whole family prepared to depart. Their effects were easily transported, and as they had had no credit since the arrest, there was nobody to prevent them from seeking a livelihood elsewhere.

Embarking in one of the river boats, they pushed up the Schuylkill, and settled at Norristown. The whole family being industrious and obliging, they soon began to gather little comforts around them; and as these were not embittered by the cold looks and insulting sneers of the neighbourhood, they were comparatively happy for a time. But even here there was for them no permanent place of rest. A traveller passing through Norristown, on his way from the capital to the Blue Mountains, recognised Sparks, and told somebody he knew that he wished the community joy of having added to the number of its inhabitants the notorious locksmith of Philadelphia. The news soon spread. The family found that they were shunned as they had formerly been by those who had known them longer than the good people of Norristown, and had a fair prospect of starvation opening before them. They removed again. This time there was no inducement to linger, for they had no local attachments to detain them. They crossed the mountains, and, descending into the vale of the Susquehanna, pitched their tent at Sunbury. Here the same temporary success excited the same hopes, only to be blighted in the bud by the breath of slander, which seemed so widely circulated as to leave them hardly any asylum within the limits of the State. We need not enumerate the different towns and villages in which they essayed to gain a livelihood, and failed. They had nearly crossed the State in its whole length, been driven from Pittsburg, and were slowly wending their way further west, and were standing on the high ground overlooking Middleton, as though doubtful if there was to be rest for the soles of their feet even there. They hesitated to try a new experiment. Sparks seated himself on a stone beneath a spreading sycamore—his family clustered around him on the grass: they had travelled far, and were weary, and, without speaking a word, as their eyes met, and thinking of their prolonged sufferings and slender hopes, they burst into a flood of tears, in which Sparks, burying his face in the golden locks of the sweet girl who bowed her head upon his knee, joined audibly. At length, wiping away his tears, and checking the rising sobs that shook his manly bosom—'God's will be done, my children,' said the locksmith; 'we cannot help weeping, but let us not murmur. If we are to be wanderers and fugitives on the earth, let us never lose sight of the promise which assures us of an eternal refuge in a place where the wicked cease from troubling and the weary are at rest. I was perhaps too proud of that skill of mine—too apt to plume myself upon it, above others whose gifts had been less abundant. My error has been that of wiser and greater men, who have been made to feel that what we cherish as the means of obtaining earthly blessings, sometimes turns out a curse.'

To dissipate the gloom which hung over the whole party, and beguile the half hour they intended to rest in that sweet spot, Mrs Sparks drew out a Philadelphia newspaper which somebody had given her upon the road, and called their attention to the deaths and marriages, that they might see what changes were taking place in a city that still interested them, though they were banished for ever from its borders. She had hardly opened the paper when her eye glanced on an article which she was too much excited to read. Amos, wondering at the emotion displayed, gently disengaged the paper, and read: 'Bank robber—Sparks not the man.' His own feelings were as powerfully interested as those of his wife, but his nerves were stronger; and he read out, to an audience whose ears devoured every syllable of the glad tidings, an account of the conviction and execution of a wretch in Albany, and who had confessed, among other daring and heinous crimes, the robbery of the Philadelphia bank, accounting for the disappearance of the property, and exonerating Sparks, whose face he had never seen. These were tidings of great joy to the weary wayfarers beneath the sycamore; their resolution to return to their native city was formed at once, and before a week had passed, they were slowly journeying to the capital of the State.

Meanwhile, an extraordinary revulsion of feeling had taken place at Philadelphia. Newspapers and other periodicals which had formerly been loud in condemnation of the locksmith, now blazoned abroad the robber's confession—wondered how any man could have been for a moment suspected upon such evidence as was adduced on the trial—drew pictures of the domestic felicity once enjoyed by the Sparkses, and then painted—partly from what was known of the reality, and partly from imagination—their sufferings, privations, and wrongs in the pilgrimage they had performed in fleeing from an unjust but damnatory accusation. The whole city rang with the story. Old friends and neighbours, who had been the first to shun them, now became the loud and vehement partisans of the family. The whole city was anxious to know where they were. Some reported that they had perished in the woods; others that they had been burned in a prairie, which not a few believed; while another class averred that the locksmith, driven to desperation, had first destroyed his family, and then himself. All these stories of course created as much excitement as the robbery of the bank had done before, only that this time the tide set the other way; and when the poor locksmith and his family, who had been driven like vagabonds from the city, approached its suburbs, they were met, congratulated, and followed by thousands: in fact, theirs was almost a triumphal entry. And as the public always like to have a victim, Sparks was advised on all hands to bring an action against the directors of the bank: large damages would, they knew, be given, and the banker deserved to suffer for the causeless ruin brought on a poor but industrious family.

Sparks was reluctant to engage in any such proceeding. His character was vindicated, his business restored. He occupied his own shop, and his family were comfortable and content. But the current of public opinion was too strong for him. All Philadelphia had determined that the banker should suffer. An eminent lawyer volunteered to conduct the suit, and make no charge if a liberal verdict were not obtained. The locksmith pondered the matter well. His own wrongs he freely forgave, but he thought that there had been a readiness to secure the interests of a wealthy corporation by blasting the prospects of a humble mechanic, which, for the good of society, ought not to pass unrebuked. He felt that the moral effect of such a prosecution would be salutary, teaching the rich not to presume too far upon their affluence, and cheering the hearts of the poor while suffering unmerited persecution. The suit was commenced, and urged to trial, notwithstanding several attempts at compromise on the part of the banker. The pleadings on both sides were able and ingenious; but the counsel for the plaintiff had a theme worthy of the fine powers he possessed. At the close of a pathetic and powerful declamation, the audience, who had formerly condemned Amos in their hearts without evidence, were melted to tears by the recital of his sufferings; and when the jury returned with a verdict of ten thousand dollars damages against the banker, the locksmith was honoured by a ride home on their shoulders amidst a hurricane of cheers.