From time to time, Slate has republished past works of journalism that weighed in on current controversies, from a Union officer’s thoughts on honoring the Confederacy to a Los Angeles Times column from the 1920s about whether it was OK to use the word daddy in a sexual context. This story, about a Belgian man arrested in Chicago in 1899 after trashing his house in a rage because he was under the impression two men were trying to steal his inventions, has absolutely no bearing on any issues of the day. No one mentioned in this story went on to become famous, and the dispute among J. Caillet, “Bat” Jennings, and Silas Barr has long since been resolved by the grave—if Jennings and Barr existed to begin with. (Caillet did.) But it’s a gorgeous and strange piece of writing, particularly Caillet’s brief account of his long decline, and it would be a shame to have to wait for a current event that could somehow be yoked to a “paranoid, down-and-out Belgian inventor” frame to bring it to you. So here’s Caillet’s story, as published (with no byline, sadly) on Feb. 3, 1899, in the Chicago Tribune. —Matthew Dessem
TELLS OF RICHES AND WOE
J. Caillet, a Mad Inventor, Mystifies the Police
Aged Belgian, Who Says His Family Is Wealthy and Powerful, Imagines Foes Are Trying to Steal His Models from 399 West Randolph Street and Goes Insane—Strapped Down at Police Station—Wife Corroborates His Statements.
J. Caillet, 399 West Randolph Street, who says he is an inventor of reputation and son of Peter Luis Caillet, a former banker in Brussels, worth $10,000,000, was locked in a cell at the Desplaines Street Station last night on a charge of disorderly conduct. He was arrested on the complaint of his wife, who went to the Lake Street Police Station and said there that her husband was breaking the windows and furniture of the house and becoming dangerous because he supposed that two men were trying to break in and steal his inventions. Her husband, she said, had been driven insane by his misfortunes and the poverty that had followed his once brilliant career.
Caillet was so violent when brought to the station that he had to be placed in a “strait-jacket.” Lieutenant O’Hara questioned both the man and his wife for an hour, but was unable to get a connected story from them. Mr. Caillet, when seen later, talked as follows:
“I am a Belgian, and the son of Luis Caillet, a wealthy banker of Brussels, who died in 1860. I was educated as a civil engineer, and I have served three years in the French army. I have been in this country twice, the first time in 1892, when I came to travel and to spend my money. I was married to Mrs. Agnes Gray, a Scotch woman, in Boston. I returned before the World’s Fair, and I had an exhibit there.
“After the Fair, my wife and I lived at the Victoria for a time, moving from there to 4114 Grand Boulevard. My inventions include a process for preserving hides and a device for muzzling dogs. At last all my money was spent, and we moved to the West Side, coming after a time to live in the house at 399 West Randolph Street, where the men tried to steal my inventions. They are ‘Bat’ Jennings, 416 State Street, and Silas Barr, 5819 Indiana Avenue.
Caillet then mentioned the many friends he possessed in this city and Belgium, adding that a remittance of $350,000 was due him from his father.
“See Mr. Henrotin, the Belgian Consul,” he told the police. “He will tell you who I am.”
The man’s wife followed him to the station and declared that every word her husband said was true. “And there’s more to it, too,” she said. “He has been persecuted by two men who are trying to take his fortune away from him.”
For more than an hour, Lieutenant O’Hara questioned Mrs. Caillet, and when he had finished the interview he was as much puzzled as to what to make of the case as he had been when he first heard Caillet’s statement.
When questioned regarding Caillet’s story early this morning, Consul Henrotin said he recalled that a Belgian of that name lived in Chicago, and was, he thought, an inventor of children’s toys, it seemed to him. Caillet, he said, came from a good family in Belgium, though he was not too familiar with the details of his history. He had not heard from him for some time, and did not know that he was married.
No such names as “Bat” Jennings and Silas Barr are given in the city directory at the addresses given by Caillet.