Leader of "Blacklegs" Caught in Web He Never Imagined

By Lawrence Sullivan

Internet access to facts long hidden in dusty files allowed family researchers to finally tree a notorious counterfeiter who fled northern Indiana a century and a half ago.  (See "Down at Latta's Mill," posted elsewhere on this GenWeb page.) 
    When a gang of horse thieves and counterfeiters known as "Blacklegs" was smashed and scattered in 1858, the three principal leaders took off. One shuffled off to Buffalo, another went to Missouri, and William Latta headed for Iowa.
    All three were still missing when state-sanctioned vigilantes known as the Committee of Noble County Invincibles issued their final report. The members disbanded after their crowning accomplishment – the breakup and prosecution of more than 100 gang members and the hanging of a hapless young Canadian named Gregory McDougall near Ligonier.
     Until that crucial blow, "Blacklegs" operating from Latta's tavern and sawmill hideout near Rome City had wreaked fear and havoc for nearly 20 years as far afield as Minnesota, New York and Pennsylvania. Some even hit southwestern Ontario.
     The primary historical source for the story is a booklet entitled "History of the Regulators of Northern Indiana," published in 1859 by M. H. Mott, a Kendallville lawyer. As quoted in my original story, written nearly 20 years ago, here's what Mott had to say:
    "On Jan. 17, 1858, Gregory McDougle [sic] and eight others were arrested in or near Rome City. Taken to Ligonier, McDougle was brought before the Committee of Noble County Invincibles on the night of Jan. 25, 1858 whereupon a committee of five men was duly appointed to examine the witnesses and report upon the evidence and the final disposition of the case.
& "The committee, after having made a full and fair investigation of all the testimony . . .  recommended that the said McDougle be hung by the neck until dead on Tuesday, the 26th day of January 1858 [which is to say the following day!] at 2 o'clock p.m."
     The hanging went off as scheduled, nine days after McDougle's arrest and some 18 hours after his "trial" before the Invincibles.
    Then bounty hunters set off in pursuit of William Latta, William Hill and George Ulmer, whom Mott describes as "the chief pioneers and leaders of the banditti." Ulmer and Hill were eventually caught, convicted, and imprisoned.Latta's whereabouts were unknown to Mott, and apparently to anyone else until the Internet explosion.
     Latta eluded the bounty hunters, but he couldn't hide from today's sophisticated Internet search machines. A census search caught the rascal in a matter of seconds. There, in southeastern Iowa, just where McDougall's brother had said he was, was our man neatly captured among prisoners at the state penitentiary at Ft. Madison: William I. Latta, 60, farmer, born in Pennsylvania, crime counterfeiting.
A story on his arrest was found almost as quickly in a search of microfilmed newspapers now available on the web. Here's what The Davenport (Iowa) Gazette reported on April 21, 1859:

COUNTERFEITERS ARRESTED.-- Just as we are going to press we learn the particulars of the arrest of two men at New London and the finding of about $2,000 in counterfeit money. The parties are an old man, who gives his name Wm. Latta, and a young man who has recently been in the employ of Mr. Bacon, of Washington, Iowa. The old man came to Washington from Wisconsin, and left shortly afterwards with his young confederate, under circumstances which gave rise to suspicion. Information was given to Sheriff Gallagher, of Fairfield, and Sheriff Devol and Deputy Penny, of this place, who traced the suspected gentlemen to New London and made the arrest. About $2,000 in counterfeit bills, of the Sack City Bank, Wisconsin, were found in a manger in the barn where they were arrested.

     I did not find a story on Latta's trial and conviction, but did come upon a later report that he was freed in the summer of 1860 under a governor's pardon that a leading cleric of the day described as "fishy." The preacher claimed Latta was released in return for a promise to pump $20,000 in counterfeit currency into a political race then under way in western Iowa.
     Also thanks to ready access to files otherwise impossible even to find, we chased our missing felon to ground at Greenwood Cemetery in Monroe, Wisconsin, under a tombstone inscribed "William Latta - died Nov. 18, 1867, Age 68 ys."
     Most libraries with computers available for public use subscribe to various newspaper data programs. Good contemporary reports of the "Blacklegs" final rout can be found in the following week-by-week accounts in The Fort Wayne Sentinel: 23 Jan. 1858 - “Great Excitement in Noble County / Wholesale Arrest of Counterfeiters and Horse Thieves."
30 Jan. 1858 - “The Vigilance Committee in Noble County -- Man Hung!" 
6 Feb. 1858 - Two stories, "The Noble County Regulators" and "The Work Goes Bravely On."
13 Feb. 1959 - Article without headline begins, "The Noble & Lagrange Regulators, having performed their task and rid themselves
entirely of the gang who have so long infested their neighborhood, have peaceably abandoned . . .

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