Our Old Times: 1920’s stolen car ring ‘helped’ owners turn cars into cash

Photo courtesy of Peter Betz Stolen car king Leo Blowers received his moment of fame courtesy of the Morning Herald, which might have also asked readers, “Would you buy a used car from this man?” (Photo courtesy of Peter Betz)

During the summer and fall of 1924, more than a few automobiles began disappearing from the streets of Gloversville.

In all, before a local car theft ring was broken, fourteen cars went missing, some with the connivance and blessing of their owners. The Gloversville car thieves were wrong, however, in thinking neither the insurance companies nor the police would notice the increase of auto thefts and the insurance claims that rapidly followed.

The Dec. 31, 1924 Morning Herald gave readers a dark type headline they couldn’t well ignore when it announced the arrest of the apparent ring leader of the gang. “Police believe that with the arrest of Leo Blowers, 28, of 18 Spring Street, they have landed the ringleader of a gang of automobile thieves active in this section for some months. Blowers has admitted to complicity in the theft of nine of fourteen stolen automobiles recovered by police and detectives acting in the interests of insurance companies. More arrests will follow, now that they have apprehended the man they believe the ‘brains’ of the gang.”

Although this all happened long ago, many of the techniques used to disguise and resell the stolen vehicles mimic today’s so-called ‘chop shop’ methods. “The stolen cars were made over and distinguishing marks eliminated. In some instances, motors were transferred from one to another. Motor numbers were altered by use of chemicals. In one case, a sedan was changed into a touring car.” The thieves were non-judgmental regarding their choice of brands: stolen autos included three Fords, a Durant, a Star, an Oakland, two Packards, a Maxwell, a Cleveland, a Buick, two Cadillacs, two Elcars, and a brand-new Nash.

The car that apparently broke the case open was the new Nash, stolen in Johnstown. “The specific charge against Blowers resulted from theft of a Nash sedan, value $2,000, stolen from Behlen Nash Company of Johnstown on October 17th. The car was sold to a Schenectady used car dealer named Donald Coffey for $275.00. Later on, the machine was stolen back from Coffey, who reported the theft, which started the investigation by Schenectady police. The car was finally recovered in Troy yesterday.” It was Coffey’s report that spurred Johnstown, Gloversville, and Schenectady police agencies to compare notes and break the case.

Once apprehended, Blowers became a good ‘singer’, and rapidly crooned the names of his co-conspirators, including some respectable local citizens who, although not in the ring themselves, didn’t mind having their autos ‘stolen’ in return for some nice fresh insurance company money.

Blower’s ‘song’ sung in January 1925 to the Fulton County Grand Jury, included their names too. As for others involved, police stated, “Blowers had agents and fences all over the state.”

On the list was Gloversville taxi driver Harold Bentley, charged with grand larceny because “On September 14th, he delivered Blowers a Durant sedan valued at $1490.00 and insured for $1180.00 with the America Insurance Company, for the purpose of reporting it stolen and collecting the insurance, which he did.” Gloversvillian Oscar King “on October 7th arranged with Blowers to have the latter steal his Star auto. Blowers stole the car and King collected the insurance.”

Also involved was Mrs. Lena Ham, who on September 9th, “arranged with Leo Blowers and Edward Krycher to have her car stolen and collected the insurance money.” Meanwhile, Krycher was indicted for stealing a car belonging to a Joseph D’Angelis so that D’Angelis could collect the money. The list continued growing, but the biggest fish netted in these insurance scams was prominent Gloversville Water Board member and druggist Augustus A. Farthing.

Augustus Farthing’s drug store must have been a good business since he’d accumulated not one but three expensive Packards. Blowers testified Farthing owned a 1917 and a 1921 Packard and wanted to dispose of both and keep only his newest one, and that Farthing then asked him “whether he could dispose of the two older cars so that the insurance could be collected and whether or not the cars wouldn’t be found again.” Having been assured his old Packards would disappear from the streets of Gloversville and the face of the earth in general, Farthing approved the project, and shortly Blowers and Krycher saw to it both cars were ‘stolen.’

Some cars liberated by the ring were altered at an Albany garage, but others were simply sold to Coffey, whom police stated wasn’t involved in the illegal proceedings. They did, however, imply Coffey should have become suspicious when, as time passed, Blowers and his cohorts continued bringing him more cars to buy at lower than normal prices. Blowers was sentenced to jail for five years, Krycher, Bentley and others for three or less.

It was druggist Augustus Farthing’s involvement that garnered the most newspaper coverage because of his prominence.

During 1925 he was tried twice, both juries being hung. Finally, when he faced a third trial in June 1926, Farthing confessed, was fined only $1000.00, and quietly returned to the more dependable business of selling drugs. Time passed, and when he died in 1939, he received a highly praiseworthy newspaper sendoff for his many community related activities. Perhaps it was Schenectady car dealer Coffey who got the last laugh. Referring to the new Nash Blowers first sold him and then stole back, Coffey remarked, “Those fellows sure don’t let you keep cars very long.”