On 12 July, 1946, the Hagerstown (Maryland) Daily Mail printed the obituary of local notable George Waters Bittle, who died on 10 July in Frederick City Hospital, aged 79. Bittle was a long-standing board member of the Myersville Savings Bank and had operated a general merchandise store on Main Street for more than half a century. In hindsight, the newly deceased Bittle had likely enjoyed an extra 42 years of life. Against the odds, Bittle survived three bullets fired into him during an attempted burglary of his business in August 1904.
Bittle’s near murder was the byproduct of a series of break-ins in Myersville. Frankly, the town had a crime problem. The young man most likely responsible for these thieveries was the child of another notable citizen—a Civil War hero who’d won the Congressional Medal of Honor for exceptional battlefield bravery—Captain Joseph Koogle.
George Bittle was born 27 October, 1866, in Ellerton (just outside Myersville), to Thomas Franklin Bittle (1838–1917) and Mary Elizabeth Waters (1840–1893). In 1904, the same year when the little town finally incorporated after some 150 years of settlement, there were three Bittle businesses in town—George’s general store and that of his kinsman Lawson Franklin Bittle (1874-1948), as well the coach manufacturing shop of another cousin, Charles Jacob Bittle (1862-1846). George’s father Thomas owned an Ellerton farm on which young George had worked. In 1888, George married local girl Mary Elizabeth Routzahn (1865–1936) and had two sons, David Edgar (1889-1952) and Roy Routzahn, the latter of whom was born in 1895 and died aged two months.
In September 1891, George purchased the store at 419 Main Street previously operated by his brother J. Elmer Bittle (1864-1939), who had become a minister, and before that by the Honorable Upton Burhman (1824-1895), who went on to become a Maryland state representative. By 1899, George was treasurer of the Myersville Savings Bank, of which he was a charter member. He also served for a number of years as Myersville’s postmaster.
“Many people will remember … the George Bittle store … and the upstairs hall where the Junior Order of United American Mechanics held secret meetings…. Bittle sold groceries, hardware, drugs, patent medicines, notions, shoes and boots, warm clothes, and had an ice house on the ground floor in the back,” wrote Thomas Rose and Charles S. Martin in The History of Myersville. “Bittle had a famous clerk, Russell ‘Musket’ Grossnickle, who was also a part-time veterinarian (horse and cow doctor) and dentist. Many people went to the backroom where shoes were sold to have their teeth pulled by Musket with his pliers.”
The late evening of 3 August, 1904, was hot and sultry, but with a luminous Moon. George Bittle closed up his shop but did not go home. As he had done on multiple recent occasions, Bittle sat on his front porch, armed with a breech-loading gun, to watch over his store. The night song of the cicadas and crickets and the calls of the amphibians at Frog Hollow were thick in the humid air around him.
Two months earlier, on 9 June, someone had burgled his storeroom and taken about $50 in jewelry—more than $1,500 in today’s worth and a significant loss. On 6 July, the storeroom was entered through the cellar, but the thief may have been spooked and fled empty-handed, leaving a lit lantern outside the door.
Sometime between 10 and 11 p.m., Bittle’s neighbor, Joseph Wolf (1850-1911), and another man strolled past the storefront. The second fellow wore a dark slouch hat and dark clothing. Bittle was sure it was George Henry Koogle (1884-1958), son of well-known Captain Jacob Koogle (1841-1915), who had been in the store earlier that evening and who possessed a distinctive gait. Shortly after this, Bittle heard noises at the rear of the building, went there—finding no one—then remained awhile, keeping lookout. At about 12:15 a.m. he heard noises at the front of the building and quietly retraced his steps. Under the bright moonlight, he saw a figure half-crouched, fiddling with the door lock.
According to his own testimony, quoted in the 8 August Frederick News, Bittle yelled, “You dirty rascal, what are you doing there? Hold up your hands or I will kill you.” The would-be robber uttered an expletive and turned toward Bittle, who tried to buffalo him with the gun. “The burglar threw up his hands to ward off the blow and the end of the barrel struck him hard enough to throw the breach out of adjustment,” reported the Hagerstown Herald and Torchlight on 10 August. The robber, also armed, opened fire on Bittle with a 32-caliber revolver, wounding Bittle once in the leg and once in the shoulder; the force of the second shot may have spun Bittle around because the third bullet struck him in the back.
Jacob Koogle was a distinguished local war hero. During the second year of the Civil War, on 13 August, 1862, at Middletown, the 20-year-old Myersville farmer enlisted as a private in Company G, 7th Maryland Infantry Regiment for the term of three years. Koogle was handsome—5′ 8″ tall with a fair complexion, sandy hair, and grey eyes, according to his army records. He proved himself a steady, brave soldier during action at the Battle of the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Courthouse, Cold Harbor, and the assault on Petersburg. These battle actions were followed by the first approved leave during his two-and-a-half-year enlistment, to visit his aged and seriously ill mother. When he returned to his unit, it was an almost immediate return into battle.
Koogle, who was by then promoted to Company G’s first lieutenant, brazenly earned his fame at the Battle of Five Forks on 1 April, 1865. “With a small band of Union soldiers, [he] entered the Confederate breastworks for the purpose of capturing the Confederate color bearer, and taking the flag from him. Amidst a hail of bullets, he made his way back to Union lines [alone, his companions having been captured,] and arrived there with three bullet holes in his cap and six in his coat, but not wounded,” noted Our Camp Journal, April 2009, a publication of 7th Maryland reenactors. (Earlier that year, reenactors in full Union Army uniform had conducted a graveside ceremony honoring Koogle.)
Within weeks of the Battle of Five Forks, the war was over, the president had been assassinated, and Koogle was released from service after receiving the Medal of Honor.
Mustered out, Koogle returned to his farm outside Myersville. There, he organized and captained a local volunteer militia. Our Camp Journal reported that Koogle “again distinguished himself, when single-handed, he held at bay a number of voters who refused to take the oath of allegiance to the Union and endeavored to take the ballot boxes of the Jackson District. Jumping onto a table, he pulled his gun and the men gave up on the attempt to takes the boxes.”
Koogle married Mary Minerva Poffenberger (1852-1914) on 28 December, 1871. They had six children, including George Henry, who was the third son. During the last decades of the 1800s, Koogle became a charter member of the Flook, Gaver & Co. Bank and was a devoted congregant of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, both located on Main Street, Myersville. He also served as an area funeral director.
Koogle remained a hero in the eyes of his friends and neighbors and was respected and treated with deference. To his children, however, Captain Koogle may have seemed a very tall yardstick against which to be measured.
George Bittle chased his attacker along Main Street, managing to get off one shot that missed. It was then, he later said, that he realized he’d been injured. Neighbor Isaiah Moser (1838-1922) had heard the gunfire in the street and responded to Bittle’s aid. The victim was taken home and physicians summoned. According to the Frederick News‘s 4 August reportage, one bullet had penetrated the “fleshy part of the leg and was found the next morning in his bedroom. The bullet which entered his back was cut out by his physicians, but the one in his shoulder could not be located.” Bittle told those around him that he was sure the shooter was George Koogle, Captain Koogle’s son, and Moser headed the one-and-a-half miles to the family’s farm in search of the suspect.
Clara Koogle, the Captain’s daughter, would testify—as reported in the Frederick News of 9 August and 17 December—that she was awaked that night by George passing noisily through her room, which led to his own, and shortly heard “the clock striking half past, but did not know the hour.” Later, at about midnight, she looked into George’s room and, because of the strong moonlight, saw him in bed. Moser arrived between 1 and 2 a.m., asking of George’s whereabouts. Clara shook her brother awake and “asked him what he had been doing, as Isaiah Moser was downstairs.” He told Clara he had been home since 10:30 p.m.
At some point thereafter, Frederick County Sheriff Charles T. K. Young (1866-1914) arrived to take George into custody. Young also took a broken revolver that George offered up as the only one he owned. Young also saw that Koogle’s right hand was hurt and asked how the injury occurred. Koogle said that he’d cut his hand while trying to tighten a plowshare.
By the afternoon, Young had taken Koogle to Frederick, where Justice of the Peace Christian H. Eckstein (1845-1917) set $3,000 bail before a hearing in Myersville. Captain Koogle handed over the money and his son was released. The News stated pointedly, “Koogle is one of the best-known residents of that section of the county and much sympathy has been expressed for him.”
Myersville was a bit of a Den of Iniquity back in The Day. In 1905, Ira Moser wrote in The History of Myersville, “About 50 years ago, a grog shop was established in the stable on the town property of Mr. George D. Toms, by John H. Young. This place was the scene of the most disgraceful conduct, brawls, etc., every night, especially on Saturday nights. This continued for years and was named the ‘Old Lick.’ Later, other grog shops started and gambling was carried on in these shops to a great extent. One proprietor of a grog shop who was a magistrate sold the liquor one day and fined his customer on the next.”
A review of news reports dating from 1890-1920 yields strong evidence of a young male population who enjoyed scrapping and perpetrating vandalism. One example reported by Valley Register in 1894, was that “it was discovered some malicious person had taken the taps from the axles of the bandwagon” of the Myersville Band, which was engaged to play at an area picnic. “It was necessary for a blacksmith to drill holes in the axletrees and insert pins to prevent the wheels coming off before the journey could be made.”
A 1904 Register article discussed the bad behavior of young males of both Myersville and nearby Wolfsville after a special church event. A “general battle” over Wolfsville’s “best girls” resulted in “at least a half dozen or more receiving marks.” In December 1908, someone purposely threw a heavy piece of wood at Emma T. Shank (1860-1954) that crashed through her window and nearly struck her head. There was an ongoing series of beatings of the editor and staff of the Myersville Monitor by local high school boys (including my own great-uncle), and repeated incidents of property damage that led to the closure of the town’s newspaper in 1910 and the relocation of its editor to Ohio. That same year, 21-year-old Harry B. Smith (1889-1918) was sent to prison for five years for arson, having burned the stock barn of his 23-year-old fellow-townsman Wheeler Atlee Smith (1887-1948) out of—his own words—”Pure devilishness,” killing seven horses, a herd of cattle, six hogs, and a prized stallion.
Break-ins were also common. In 1897, the Myersville Guide—the predecessor to the Monitor—reported that someone had tried to force entry to Joseph Brown‘s (1819-1912) Main Street store. “A number of one-inch augur holes were bored in the lower part of the shutters of a window in the wareroom at the rear of the store, with the evident intention of unfastening the catch, which wasn’t there, the shutters being fastened with an iron bar.” The frustrated burglar then tried to force open the shutters with something like an iron rod, but eventually gave up and fled.
In the early hours of 23 September, 1901, the Main Street banking house of Flook, Gaver, et al., was burgled by thieves who actually blew the vault doors with nitroglycerin then “wrecked the inner safe and stole a considerable amount of money” in addition to gold, silver, and important papers. “Entrance [to the bank] was gained by prying open the front door,” reported the Baltimore Sun. Several days later, the Monitor’s office’s safe was also cracked and $2 pilfered. Both burglaries were thought to be the work of three men who had stolen the tools they used from John Leatherman’s blacksmith shop.
As would come out at the resulting attempted murder trial of George Koogle, merchant Joseph Brown’s son-in-law, Peter R. Langdon (1849-1920), had his own shop broken into in December 1903, and another town store—that of Charles C. Moser (1861-1929)—had been broken into in May 1904. “The thief entered the store by boring ten holes in the door and taking out a piece of wood large enough to permit a man’s hand to get through and in that way remove the bar,” noted the 9 August Frederick News. Both shops had merchandise taken. Some of those stolen goods, as well as those from the June break-in of George Bittle’s store, had been fenced in Myersville and the surrounding area. Ω
To be continued in Part Two.