Many Petitions Signed
In March 1963 the Washington State Legislature passed an act permitting pinball games, punchboards, card games, and bingo under license by local authority. Former Tacoma councilman Homer A. Humiston quickly filed papers to initiate a referendum action against the act, and the action became known as the anti-gambling referendum, or more formally, Referendum 34. Humiston spearheaded a petition drive to collect signatures for the referendum. By June 1963 he had collected 82,955 signatures, far in excess of the 48,630 minimum required by law to submit the referendum to the ballot.
The petitions were filed with the Secretary of State Victor Meyers (1898-1991), and by June 17, Meyers' office had counted the signatures and bound the petitions into 137 volumes. Verification of the signatures was slated to start on July 1. The petitions were stored in a safe in the Permanent Registration Office, which was located in the Secretary of State's office.
Cleaning Lady Conned
Instead, shortly after the office closed on Friday afternoon, June 21, two men conned cleaning lady Ethyl Burkhart into letting them into the Permanent Registration office. Mrs. Burkhart had seen the men before: They had approached her approximately a month earlier and asked how to get into the Permanent Registration Office after hours. Other witnesses had also seen the men in the area numerous times in the preceding weeks and had even helpfully directed them to the Secretary of State's office.
In an ironic twist of fate, the chief clerk of the Division of Permanent Registrations, Sadie Blackwood, had a premonition that Friday afternoon that "something was up" (The Daily Olympian) and just a few hours before the theft had the 75-pound, three-foot-high stack of petitions moved from one safe to another in the Secretary of State's office.
Bold Move Made
Shortly after, the two crooks made their bold move -- straight to the safe where the petitions were stored. The villainous duo seem to have easily gained access to the safe. Investigators found no evidence of forced entry, and Jack Crawford, a chief criminal sheriff's deputy for Thurston County, observed that "any good safe man could have gone through that door in less than ten minutes. They could have punched it in less ..." (The Daily Olympian).
The men took the petitions and began their getaway. Burkhart saw the peccant pair making a fast exit through a courtyard carrying white sacks and a cardboard box. They saw her watching them and broke into a run. Though suspicious, she dismissed the "queer goings on" (The Daily Olympian) and went home for the weekend. When she returned to work on Monday, June 24, she again thought about what she had seen and late that afternoon reported her concerns to State Supervisor of Elections, Kenneth Gilbert. Gilbert checked the safe and discovered that the petitions had indeed been pinched.
"The Damnedest Thing"
The caper created an immediate sensation in Olympia, one that still drew grins and guffaws years later. The Daily Olympian reported that Meyers thought it was "the damnedest thing he's ever seen." Gilbert predicted "If there is anything that will raise the righteous indignation of voters, this will. I think this incident has set back liberalizing laws of this kind for years to come" (The Daily Olympian).
Thurston County Undersheriff Don Redmond vowed "We're going to go slow and not miss a trick. We have every intention of coming up with an answer" (The Daily Olympian). Witnesses described the suspects as between 40 and 50 years old. "One ... [was] small, stocky, with long brown hair combed back in a pompadour style" and the other was portrayed as "tall and spare, almost hollow-chested, with a fiddle face and large thin nose" (The Daily Olympian).
Thanks to these descriptions, the suspects were soon given the monikers "Shorty" and "Fiddleface." A composite sketch of the two men was published on the front page of The Daily Olympian on June 26. But aside from the descriptions, there were few other clues to identify them. The trail, cold when the theft was discovered, quickly grew colder.
Authorities made several pleas to the public to come forward with information, but received little. A check for fingerprints was inconclusive. Because the men had been seen absconding with the petitions in large white sacks resembling pillowslips, police investigated local hotels and motels to ascertain if any pillowslips were missing or anyone could identify the two men. But they came up empty handed.
Despite the theft, Meyers quickly certified the anti-gambling referendum to appear on the November 1964 ballot, arguing that it would have qualified anyway since there were so many petition signatures obtained in excess of the number required by state law. Even if 40 percent of the signatures had been found invalid in the verification process, the referendum still would have qualified to be placed on the ballot, and in past referendums the highest signature rejection rate on petitions had barely reached 20 percent (and was usually lower).
Since the petition signatures had not actually been verified, attorneys for the Amusement Association of Washington promptly filed an action in Thurston County Superior Court to prevent the referendum from going to a vote, but the court dismissed the action in July 1963. An appeal was filed, but in March 1964 the Washington State Supreme Court upheld the decision by an 8-1 vote. So the Great Petition Robbery was for naught, and Washington citizens voted on Referendum 34 on November 3, 1964. It lost by a margin of over 10 percent. Secretary of State Meyers ran for re-election on the same ballot. He lost too.
Shorty and Fiddleface were never caught.