by Mike Hays
“Burglars have passed here,” Nyack postmaster Philip Doersch shouted to his assistant when he opened the door to his private office at 5:30 pm on April 23, 1895. A rear window was ajar. The safe was open and empty. A small hole had been dug near the suit to break the lock. All that was left of the contents of the safe were two boxes of pennies in 25-pack that had been removed from the safe and left on the floor probably because they were too heavy to carry. Burglary tools were strewn about the room. It was the largest mail theft in Rockland County history.
The story of the post office robbery of 1895 is a small slice of life in our small village at the end of the 19the a century where everyone knew each other, where money was scarce for everyone except the very rich, and where thieves confirmed the view that foreigners should always be seen as suspects. Back then, much of America was still the “wild west” where it all happened. In an El Paso saloon in 1895, John Wesley Harding, outlaw and murderer, was shot dead by an off-duty policeman. Our quaint and conservative village was ripe for picking and the post office was an easy target.
The Doersch family
The family of Postmaster Doersch was typical of the immigrant workers who came to Nyack in the 19e century. The family immigrated from Germany in 1857 to make their mark in the Nyack shoe industry. Henry Doersch Sr. made and sold shoes at a store on Burd Street, near Court Street, which was probably also the family’s residence. The family had five children: Conrad, Henry Jr., Charles, Phillip and Katie.
Henry and Charles opened the Doersch Brothers grocery and grocery store in the old Wigwam building on the corner of Broadway and Church St. Henry Jr. continued to run the store on his own after Charles’ death in the age of 25 in 1883. Conrad started a large shoe manufacture. factory in 1878, just at the time of the introduction of steam sewing. He worked on the second floor of a Morrow-owned factory near the Railroad Ave station. and Cedar Hill, now the site of the Pavion Apartments. By 1890 it employed 34 men and 16 women, being one of Nyack’s largest shoe makers at the time.
Postmaster Philip Doersch
Philip Doersch was quite a contrast to his brothers. He too was involved in many civic groups, but he was best known in his early days for the cornet game, leadership of the Nyack Band and his involvement in the Nyack Athletic Club. As a Democrat he was appointed postmaster during Cleveland’s second term in 1892. Doersch was the driving force behind the implementation of direct mail delivery in the village. He made the necessary changes to ensure Nyack got federal clearance. It was left to his successor, George Helmle, to set up direct mail distribution.
Like the other postmasters in Nyack, Phillip moonlighted. He worked in the shoe-making business and ran retail stores in the Onderdonk block on Main St and the Voorhis Building on Broadway, taking over this store from his sister Katie. In 1891, a runaway horse that raced down Main Street and then turned towards Broadway crashed into the glass window in front of Doersch’s store. With a Republican back in the White House, Doersch was once again looking for a job. He tried his hand at conducting the Opera near the station, but like many who came before him, he was unsuccessful. He then traveled for various business ventures in the South. In 1907 he received a patent for a bottle closure device. He died in Nyack at the age of 52 in 1912.
Post office building
In 1895, Nyack’s post office was located in a three-story brick building known as the Post Office Block on the west side of S. Broadway between Church St. and Depew Ave. Next to it to the north was the Doersch Brothers grocery store and to the south, the Christie Town Residence and Pump, and the Presbyterian Church, now the Nyack Center. The post office was closed at night with heavy shades drawn on the windows. The rear of the building faced the Van Houten Livery & Stable. The post office remained in this building until it was moved across the street in 1913 to the Doersch Building on the corner of Remsen and Broadway. The building was razed in 1959 to make room for urban renewal. Tallman Towers now occupies the site.
What was stolen?
Doersch reported that $ 1,039.25 in stamps was collected, mainly from a set of commemorative stamps in honor of Columbus and the 1893 Colombian Exposition known as the Columbians. The postage was $ 0.02 an ounce in 1895. There was a shortfall of $ 261 in cash from money orders. He was missing an additional $ 150 in cash, $ 8 belonging to the deputy postmaster, his wallet and his bank book. Nine registered letters containing marketable bonds of an unknown amount were also missing. The total value of approximately $ 1,500 equals $ 52,000 in 2022, adjusted for inflation.
What was perhaps even more valuable than stamps and cash was a numbered key to Nyack’s unique PO Box at Mansfield Ave. and S. Broadway. Remarkably, the key would fit any mailbox in the country.
Doersch immediately telegraphed government officials. Two New York postal inspectors were assigned by the United States Postal Inspector to investigate. A $ 200 reward notice for any information leading to the arrest of the thieves has been sent. Doersch was also relieved to learn that he was not personally responsible for the stamps.
Normally, the police suspect local perpetrators when a petty theft is committed. These thieves were professionals. They explored the scene, planned an escapade, gathered their tools, knew how to “break” a safe, left behind them what they did not need and escaped before the automobile, all in less than 12 hours. .
W. Crosby later reported that he saw two suspicious people, aged 30 to 35, one with a mustache and the other with a beard, hanging out near the Nyack Rowing Association boathouse in butt of Spear St. They appeared to be examining boats in the nearby Hanes shipyard.
Richard Harvey was working late in his law firm that night. At 1a he would post letters. He reported hearing a noise from the back of the building that sounded like someone moving barrels of trash. He stopped but didn’t think much about it. Frank Colsey who had just gotten off the midnight train also heard a noise as he passed the post office. He assumed the noise was coming from someone in the lumberyard behind the building.
After forcing their entry, the thieves drilled a hole near the safe’s combination to break the locks. They left behind four small drills and a bottle of oil on top of the safe, three larger drills on a table and a hammer that had been stolen from Winant’s smithy in S. Nyack. They also left the heavy pennies behind.
The next day, Dr. LB Couch found a metal object on a post near Brookside Ave in S. Nyack which turned out to be a door from one of the small drawers in the safe. How he got there has remained a mystery.
The thieves stole a boat in the Haines shipyard that belonged to Mr. Shakespeare. The boat, oars intact, was found the next day in Irvington. From there the trail turned cold.
An anti-climate capture
In October 1895, Jake Ross was arrested in Dennison. Iowa, a small town, northeast of Omaha, NE. Ross was a well-known con artist and post office vault blower. Apparently his partner turned the state’s evidence on another crime and, after arguing with Ross, informed him
An editorial in the Rockland County Journal felt the post office would be safer if it was open around the clock with a well-lit lock box area. Aside from Philip Doersch being personally responsible for the money lost, this may be the only result of what the Deputy Postmaster l. O. Gregory later recalled the day when “it was a feeling that I had never had before, and had never had since, to walk into a trashed place like this office was.” It was the “heaviest” robbery in Nyack of its time.
From there, the story cools down. Was Ross taken back to Rockland to stand trial? If so, has he been convicted? Or was he also arrested and tried for other crimes elsewhere and never tried in Rockland? His fate is unknown. Like much of human history, a novelist is needed to sort out the details of human madness.
Michael Hays has been a resident of the Nyaks for 35 years. He grew up the son of a teacher and a nurse in Champaign, Illinois. He recently retired after a long career in educational publishing with Prentice-Hall and McGraw-Hill. He is passionate about cycling, amateur historian and photographer, gardener and dog walker. He has enjoyed more years than he wants to count with his beautiful companion, Bernie Richey. You can follow him on Instagram as UpperNyackMike.