#106 William B. Towle

William Bentley Towle (1857-1898) — Medical supply thief

From Byrnes’ text:

DESCRIPTION. Twenty-eight years old in 1886. Born in Australia. Very slim build. Married. Height, 6 feet 1 inches. Weight, 160 pounds. Sandy hair, blue eyes, sandy, complexion. Has scars on the left arm, near the wrist; freckled hands.

RECORD. William B. Towle makes a specialty of robbing doctors’ offices. Twenty-seven physicians, all Towle’s victims, were present in court in New York City on July 19, 1884, to testify that he had entered their offices and stolen medical instruments, etc. His method of operating was the same at nearly all the places which he visited. Sometimes he would dash up to a doctor’s door in a cab, and after hastily inditing a note, be left alone in the office and suddenly leave the premises with whatever he could lay his hands on.

At one time he was a clerk in a drug store, there becoming familiar with the value of different articles used by physicians and surgeons. He was convicted and sentenced to two years in State prison on August 6, 1884, by Judge Cowing. Towle was recognized in court as a man who in January, 1884, was arrested for assaulting a man named Oliver, in Abingdon Square, New York. It was said at the time that Oliver had found his wife and Towle under suspicious circumstances. For this assault Towle was sent to Blackwell’s Island, and was only a short time from there when arrested for robbing doctors’ offices and sentenced as above. His picture is an excellent one, taken in July, 1884.

William Bentley Towle was certainly a unique individual, but he should not be classed as a “professional criminal” based on the one crime spree conducted between May-July of 1884. The motivation behind those robberies of medical supplies is still unclear, but fits a portrait of Towle as a man of strange and powerful impulses.

He was born to Dr. Frederick W. Towle and his wife in Geelong, Victoria, Australia in 1857. At age 18, William joined the police force of Victoria as a constable. That same year he was married to Eveline Hewitt. They had a daughter, Bertha, in January 1877. However, William tired of that vocation after two years, and then determined to follow in the footsteps of his father as a surgeon. He first went to England to finish his education; his plan must have been to be educated as a surgeon in England, as his father had been.

What happened to Towle in England between the critical years 1878 and 1883 is a blank, as is the status of his marriage. He did not complete any medical degree while there. He appeared in New York City in late 1883, alone. However, he quickly became enamored of the affections of an unhappily-married woman, known only as Mrs. Oliver. In January 1884, Towle was arrested in Abingdon Square in New York’s West Village for assault on Mr. Oliver. In his pocket was found a note indicating that he and Mrs. Oliver intended to elope (despite both being legally wed to others). Towle was sent to the county prison at Blackwell’s Island for ninety days.

When Towle was released in May 1884, he conceived his crime spree. He was, obviously, trying to raise a large amount of cash as quickly as possible, using his knowledge of expensive medical tools and lax security in physician offices. It is known that during his thefts, he asked one doctor about whether medical coursework completed in England would be accepted by American medical colleges; so perhaps he was raising money to get into medical school. Or to run away with Mrs. Oliver. However, after robbing over twenty-seven doctors, he was finally caught short of achieving his mysterious goal. Instead of medical school, Towle found himself enrolled in a two-year semester at Sing Sing.

Upon his release, with time reduced, Towle headed to Chicago and enrolled in medical school at the University of Illinois. He supported his studies by working nights for the Chicago Inter-Ocean newspaper. He served as an intern at the Cook County hospital, but in 1888 opted to finish his degree at Bishop’s Medical Facility in Montreal–a degree from a University in the British Commonwealth would be valid in any Commonwealth country, including Australia. By one account, he graduated with honors.

Dr. William Bentley Towle first took positions in England, but by 1891 had returned to his native Australia. He took a series of positions in small Australian towns or rural areas: Geelong in Victoria; Berrigan in New South Wales; Gympie in Queensland; and Wilcannia in New South Wales. There is no indication that he ever reconnected with his estranged wife, Eveline. She remarried in 1893; and Towle himself remarried in 1897.

Towle appears to have burned bridges with his family. He had no contacts within the Australian medical community, and was unable to establish his own thriving practice. Thumbing his nose at the establishment, Towle decided to advertise his services, claiming to cure maladies that others could not. In essence, he became a quack.nla.news-page000023772751-nla.news-article222631490-L3-614d73a3f7d12fa16d15548b58116251-0001

Aside from questionable diagnoses and treatments, Towle championed some very strange medical concepts. Like some others in the Victorian period, Towle was convinced that “self-abuse,” i.e. masturbation, was the cause of many ailments. He wrote a book, The Sexual System in Health and Disease. In this work, Towle claimed that his “Hercules Life Renewer,” a belt with an attached pouch for the genitals that delivered an electric shock, would stop “self-abuse” and cure impotence.

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However, Towle himself suffered from other unhealthy habits. He was said to have long suffered from sleeplessness, a condition he medicated with chloral drops, a synthetic opiate popularly known as “knockout drops.” To rouse himself from his induced stupors, he took cocaine. One night in November, 1898, he added too many chloral drops to his nightly glass of beer and never awoke, ending the career of perhaps the strangest “Professional Criminal of America.”

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