Stocks, drugs, and stolen silver dot ridgefield’s past
A section of the Peaceable Street home belonging to disgraced Chase Bank president Albert H. Wiggin was removed by a subsequent owner, who felt the house was too large.
Photos courtesy of Jack Sanders
Ridgefield has long been labeled Connecticut’s safest town, but it’s never been immune from robbery, chicanery, and mischievous thieves. Here are three stories taken from Jack Sanders’ latest book, Wicked Ridgefield, just published by The History Press.
Albert H. Wiggin became one of the world’s leading bankers and was once listed among America’s richest people. He was president of Chase National Bank, a post he assumed after A. Barton Hepburn, his predecessor who lived on High Ridge Avenue, was run over by a bus in New York. Wiggin lived on Peaceable Street, in a house so big that a subsequent owner tore down part of it.
Despite many good things he did for Chase, it was revealed that, during the crash of 1929, Wiggin had been selling short some 40,000 of his personal shares in Chase National Bank at the same time he was committing Chase’s money to buying the stock. “This is like a boxer betting on his opponent—a serious conflict of interest,” says financial reporter Andrew Beattie.
He put his earnings in a Canadian holding company to avoid taxes, and made millions that the bank itself did not discover until a later U.S. Senate investigation. Before the scandal, Wiggin made the cover of Time in August 1931 as one of the best counsels on the Depression.
Wiggin was forced to retire and given a $100,000-a-year pension (the equivalent of $1.7 million today), but later turned it down after a public outcry. As a result of the case, Congress added the Wiggin provision (1934) to the federal Securities Exchange Act to prevent company directors from selling short on their own stocks and making a profit from their own company’s demise.
Economics professor and market historian Charles Geist says what Albert Wiggin (left) did “give banking and the stock market a bad name for at least two generations after the Crash.”
For “Big Frank” Dreger, Ridgefield started out being just one stop on a long road of crime. However, with the aid of a corned-beef dinner and a bottle or two of homebrewed beer, his heist here proved his undoing.
The story began on February 23, 1933, when Upagenstit, the palatial mansion of Mrs. Frederic E. Lewis on West Lane, was broken into and silver worth more than $10,000 ($180,000 today) was stolen. Upagenstit was a 100-acre spread with a staff of 100. Then, on the night of June 11, 1933, Darien police picked up two men carrying pillowcases filled with silver taken from a nearby mansion. One suspect was Frank Dreger, the leader of the operation.
Despite being caught with stolen goods and undergoing hours of interrogation, Dreger refused to cooperate. Explained retired state police Lt. Leo Carroll 40 years later: “I brought him to the Ridgefield barracks, where we were having corned beef for dinner. The suspect smelled the cooking and asked if it was corned beef. I said, ‘You’re going to have some for dinner, but you ought to cooperate with me and tell me something.’”
Dreger also wanted a beer. Prohibition had not yet been repealed, but Carroll found a way. “I went to a home brewery down the street and got a bottle of beer.” (Some accounts say more than one bottle was acquired.) “Well, that suspect after dinner took me for a ride up to North Salem and there, under a tree, were the empty silver sacks” from the Upagenstit heist, Carroll recounted. Dreger was sentenced to 12 to 20 years in prison.
On December 5, 1924, James “Jimmy Joe” Joseph was working at his grocery store on the Danbury Turnpike, now Routde 7, in Georgetown. A car carrying two young men and two young women pulled up.
The foursome seemed a friendly bunch, striking up what was later described as a “jolly” conversation with Jimmy Joe. One of the women produced a bottle of lemon soda and offered it to Jimmy Joe. He took a drink and passed out. The quartet grabbed $135—about $1,900 today—and took off. Arthur A. Smith, a carpenter, drove by around 4:30 that afternoon and saw Joseph “jollying” with a group of people. A while later, Smith returned and found Joseph lying on the floor, unconscious. He telephoned Dr. Charles Ryder, who quickly diagnosed that Joseph had been drugged.
Later, Joseph gave state police from Ridgefield a detailed description of the quartet. Soon, Sgt. John Kelly and Officer Leo Carroll were in Danbury, rounding up the robbers, who pleaded guilty and were given suspended sentences. Joseph, who had moved here from Lebanon, then part of Syria, died March 6, 1972, at the age of 114. He and his brother, Joe Joseph, once ran a store at the corner of Main Street and North Salem Road. The intersection to this day is still called “Joe’s Corner.”