Clarence Murphy - Salem, Massachusetts

Salem, MA, USA

“His infatuation for the green cloth and wonderful maintenance of nerve was noted and quoted, it making no apparent difference in his demeanor whether luck favored him or fortune on him frowned.” 
- The Boston Globe on Clarence Murphy  (February 18, 1896)

Clarence Murphy was born in Salem in 1856 to Irish parents. He was well-respected in the community, earning a job as a clerk at the Salem Savings Bank in 1880 and serving as treasurer of the Old Men’s Home (John Bertram House). He was active in local sporting groups and was even celebrated for owning the first bicycle in the city. Murphy was known to have enjoyed yachting and ran in affluent social circles, which took him to Boston in the summer of 1893. It was there that he met his wife, described as a “well-known belle” from South Boston; they married only a month after meeting. She accompanied him to Salem but the couple frequently visited her family in Boston.

Six months later, shortly before 11:00 am on December 2, 1893, Salem Savings Bank President Edward D. Ropes and Treasurer Charles N. Simonds politely confronted Clarence Murphy, about some peculiar entries in the bank’s ledgers. During their questioning, Murphy slipped out of the room and quickly made his way to a bank drawer. He stuffed $500 into his pocket before grabbing his overcoat. Ropes and Simonds, who had been waiting for Murphy’s return, looked out of an office window to see him running down Higginson Alley toward Washington Street.

Ropes and Simonds chased after Murphy but he jumped a gate and was quickly out of reach. He headed down Washington Street toward the Boston & Maine Railroad Depot, presumably to catch the 11:20 am train to Boston. He then doubled-back, instead running to Essex House, a hotel with stable and livery at 176 Essex Street. He requested his horse and to asked borrow a light buggy, which the proprietor, Mr. Davis, obliged. It is said that Murphy then drove up Essex Street and headed toward Bridge Street. Before leaving, Murphy sent a note and cash to his wife by messenger. Around 3:30 pm, Murphy had boarded his horse and buggy at Conant Stable in Lowell, about 25 miles outside of Salem. That would be the last time anyone would see him.

In the days following Murphy’s escape, thousands of dollars were withdrawn by concerned patrons as the bank quickly tried to calculate the total damage of Murphy’s embezzlement. Within a year, over 12,000 depositors would submit their books for verification of their accounts with the bank. The story of Murphy’s crime spread nation-wide, as a $500 reward for Murphy’s whereabouts was posted. Over the next few months, the Boston Globe speculated on Murphy’s destination, predicting Canada, Mexico, and South America as options.

In March 1894, the bank made headlines again when it reported that its late treasurer William H. Simonds, Jr. had also embezzled from the bank. Simonds died less than two months before Murphy fled Salem and a review of his books revealed irregularities. Simonds had worked at the bank since 1865 and had been treasurer for thirteen years when he died. Clarence Murphy, who was named a trustee of Simond’s will, appeared to confirm this suspicion in a letter that was forwarded to a friend in Salem after his escape. Murphy claimed that he confronted Simonds about missing funds, and then was recruited by him to help cover up his misdeeds. Murphy ultimately began skimming himself, which in turn was concealed by Simonds. Upon Simonds death, Murphy realized that it was only a matter of time before he would be discovered by a new treasurer. After William H. Simonds, Jr. was publicly accused of fraud, his widow filed a deed conveying her home on Washington Square to the bank as repayment; the house had an estimated worth of $7,800.

After over two years on the run, Clarence Murphy was apprehended in San Francisco on January 31, 1896. Murphy had been living under the pseudonym of C.M. Clark. Three weeks prior, a detective named Gaston Strauss contacted Salem City Marshal John W. Hart, asking if the reward for the capture of Clarence Murphy was still valid. Hart replied that the moment Murphy was in his custody, the reward would be paid. Strauss notified San Francisco police who then apprehended Murphy. While in custody with his hands in cuffs, Murphy opened and jumped through a window to the pavement below, a drop of fourteen feet. Two shots were fired by police at Murphy but missed. He was recaptured a short time later and placed in a steel cell.

Murphy’s capture made the front page of the Boston Globe; his return to Salem and subsequent trial were closely followed by the press. The Globe interviewed Murphy for three hours while on the way back to Salem, during which he admitted that he had been stealing from the bank for eighteen months and began after discovering Simond’s fraud. He credited his own downfall to an addiction to poker playing, which worsened once in California. Clarence Murphy was returned to Salem on February 17, 1896, on the 7:10 pm train. Over 1,000 people turned out to witness the event. The Boston Globe reported, “Murphy’s reappearance in Salem after an absence of 36 months and 15 days recalls a statement made by him soon after he fled from the bank that it would be a cold day when he returned, and the readings of the thermometer tonight showed that prediction was accurate.”

Clarence Murphy’s bail was set at $25,000 while he awaited trial, which began on May 26, 1896. He was charged with embezzling $47,000 from Salem Savings Bank. Clarence A. Evans, a fellow clerk at the bank testified against him. On May 29th, Murphy was found guilty and sentenced to 10-15 years. He was paroled in 1905 and his sentence reduced to 10 years for good behavior. He moved to the home of his brother in Beverly, where he lived out the remainder of his life. Clarence Murphy died in 1942 and is buried in an unmarked grave in Beverly's Central Cemetery.

Recommended Reading
- Salem Savings Bank
- Asiatic Building

*This article was written by Jen Ratliff for use by Salem State University Archives and Special Collections

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