John D. Nicholas - Rogue Railway Clerk

In 1883, a railway postal clerk used his position to rifle through and steal valuable mail from his train run. After his arrest, the clerk, John Nicholas, attempted to stall the legal process. He then, ironically, claimed he didn’t have access to a speedy trial.

John D. Nicholas' Crime

In 1883, Post Office Inspector's Seybolt, Robinson, and Bannerman began investigating John D. Nicholas. Nicholas was a clerk on the Southern Pacific Railroad, working a route running between Miles City and Helena, Montana. It was discovered that all the losses reported on the route since August 1, 1883, had occurred on Nicholas' turns.

At one point, Nicholas' run was extended, and it became his practice to return to Miles City on nearly every trip back. This gave him access to registered mail that was not under his protection during his usual runs. Nicholas made one crucial mistake when he removed a label from a registered package and replaced it with a new one. Through expert handwriting analysis, inspectors determined that the new label was in Nicholas' handwriting.

The Arrest and Trial of Nicholas

After months of gathering evidence against Nicholas, post office inspectors arrested him in November 1883. Nicholas waived examination after his arrest and was forced to wait for the next grand jury, which would not be held until May 26, 1884. John D. Nicholas was indicted on May 28, 1884, on two charges of robbing the U.S. mail.

At this point, Nicholas moved for a continuance of the case. Unfortunately, the count would not be in session for several more months, leaving Nicholas in jail for 11 months after his arrest. Nicholas, who was not without resources, then appealed against the court, stating e was denied access to a speedy trial.

The Fate of John D. Nicholas

In October 1884, the Acting U.S. Attorney General, post office inspectors, and William DeWitt, U.S. Attorney for Montana were forced to investigate whether the accusations against Nicholas were true. Unfortunately for Nicholas, his accusation of being denied a speedy trial was overruled.

Nicholas was found guilty in 1884 on both counts of robbing the U.S. mails. Based on available historical sources, his final punishment is unknown. According to 18 U.S. Code Section 1708, his punishment today would be up to five years in federal prison.


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