Saturday, February 8, 2020

Cannery Crime Blotter II: Getting Under a Canner's Skin

This is the second in an ongoing series of true crime from the annals of San Jose canneries. This article was lifted from the front page page of the March 22, 1928 San Jose Evening News.

Canning's always been a risky business: weather, greedy farmers, cheating wholesalers, and shifty-eyed socialists were always a concern. But did you ever hear about the time the Captain Kidd gang tried to break into the Greco cannery?

"The Big San Jose tunnel mystery is solved.

For a short time yesterday, it looked like a gang of bold, bad yeggs had tunneled under the Greco Cannery on Howard Street with the idea of getting a crack at the safe.

A squad of bluecoats was rushed to the scene by Chief of Police Black. They found - not a band of desperadoes but the "Captain Kidd Gang" - six lively youngsters who attacked the policemen in the "pirate cave" with its 75-foot exit.

It was a brief skirmish and not a shot was fired. The battle was waged in words, between the group of small boys who stood right up and talked straight from the shoulder to the big policemen. But the policemen won, for what can young 'pirates' do against big policemen in this day and age?


Author's reconstruction of likely "Captain Kidd" tunnel path.

The story of the tunnel mystery is as follows: Late yesterday afternoon a workman sent under the Greco Cannery building to make some repairs came upon a heavy board trapdoor in the ground, well under the cannery. He investigated, and on giving the door a few kicks, it gave way and revealed a sloping entrance to a tunnel through which a grown man could easily crawl.

Quivering with excitement and thinking the secret entry was the work of robbers laying plans for robbing the company office, the workman rushed into the cannery office and told the story of his discovery. V. V. Greco of the canning firm crawled under the building and looked for himself. He lost no time in getting Chief of Police Black on the telephone.


The officer sent Captain of Detectives John Guerin, Officer Covill, and Traffic Officer William E. Snow to the cannery. The traffic cop was sent as a committee of one to crawl through the tunnel and find where it led to. Traffic Officer Snow slid down the sloping entrance to the tunnel and crawled and crawled and crawled - about 75 feet - finally coming out into a three-room dugout.

He sought an exit and found it, coming out into the open air in the chicken yard of the Roumasset home, 374 North Autumn Street. Hurrying back to the other officers, Officer Snow told what he had found. After a hasty conference it was decided to have cannery officials and police keep a watch on the tunnel, it being the natural supposition that eggs were burrowing under the cannery in a clever plot to reach the office safe undetected and blast the strong box.


But while the three officers were standing over the dugout they were rushed by several small boys, including the younger members of the Roumasset family. The boys indignantly demanded what the cops were doing, trying to cave in their dugout. The mystery was solved.

And then from the lips of the "culprits" poured the story. The dugout, with its three rooms, was their "fort". They had started digging the tunnel some months ago, planning it as a secret exit in the event the "army" or "gang" should become besieged in the underground fort.

MISSED BEARINGS Originally it was planned to have the tunnel open into a hidden place near a spur track in the railroad yards, but the "chief engineer" in charge of the underground workings missed his bearings and when the tunnel broke through the ground, it was right under the floor of the Greco Cannery. The boys had no intention of doing any harm and no one but the gang knew about the tunnel, although parents of some knew of the dugout in the back yard.

The police ordered them to seal the tunnel, which the boys reluctantly agreed to do, if the police would rush reinforcements in case of a raid by an opposing gang. confirms that the Roumasset house was at 374 North Autumn, and a Sunburn map shows the house was right next to the tracks, just west of the Greco cannery. Charles Roumasset was the patriarch, born in New Almaden, and a meat cutter by trade. His wife was Lillian. They lived with her mother, Maria Magistretti, who was born in the italian part of Switzerland. also names the likely "Captain Kidd gang" members: Charles (15 at the time), John P. (12), Robert (11), and Eugene (9). Considering their father's birth in the midst of miners, I'm a bit disappointed they didn't aim their tunnel better. There's a bit on the four boys on the Internet, but they never got caught again tunneling into a cannery - apparently the Captain Kidd gang got scared straight.