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Misbehavin' in Moscow: The Story of Ida Laherty

This article first appeared in the July/August 2022 edition of Home & Harvest magazine.

By Hayley Noble, LCHS Executive Director

My previous employment at the Old Idaho Penitentiary means that certain crime stories stick with me. One of the favorite tales to tell in Boise involves Ida Laherty. She is fairly notorious at the “Old Pen” for her antics, young age, and subsequent incarceration. With that, I was surprised when I moved to Moscow that her story is not as well-known as I would have thought. So, buckle up for some local true-crime; here is Ida’s tale.

Born in 1887 in the Washington Territory to Charles and Mary Ann Laherty, Ida Belle grew up on her family’s homestead in Whitman County, established in 1884. Charles died in 1898, and with six children at home to feed, Mary Ann remarried in 1899 to John Bertholf. John proved to be an abusive stepfather, often beating Ida and her siblings. Working as a farm laborer, John moved the family to Saint Maries, Idaho, shortly after their marriage. To make things more complicated, Ida’s sister, Emma Henrietta “Etta” married John’s brother, James Bertholf, her step-uncle, also in 1899.

Ida, fed up with her stepfather, left home at fifteen years old and settled in Moscow in 1902. While there, she met William Lewis of Reardon, Washington. Convinced of his love for her, Ida agreed to commit a crime for William that guaranteed a big payoff. William planned for Ida to steal a team of horses and a buggy from the Holliday Brothers of the Commercial Livery in Moscow and drive the team into Washington. William would meet her in Sprague, Washington, and the pair would sell the horses for a large sum of money. On October 2, 1902, Ida did just as he had planned and waited for William in Sprague. After he failed to show up, authorities arrested Ida several days later in Creston, Washington. It’s believed that she never saw William Lewis again after he stood her up.

One of Moscow's livery stables. LCHS Photograph 01-03-723.

Idaho state law enforcement transported Ida back to Moscow to stand trial in Latah County. Her trial began on November 8, 1902, charged with grand larceny. Latah County Court found Ida guilty and sentenced her to one year in the Idaho State Penitentiary. Incarcerated on January 10, 1903, as #901, she was just sixteen years old and one of the youngest women to ever serve time at the Idaho State Penitentiary. Not long after she entered prison, public outcry stirred the possibility of reforms for juvenile offenders. A petition presented to Governor Morrison called for the parole of all imprisoned children under the age of eighteen. Without a reform school or institution, prison was the only option for punishment; an option that some felt was an extreme measure. Eventually nothing came of the petition effort, but Ida had other allies.

The Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) pleaded for Ida’s release, due to her age and lack of separate living quarters for female prisoners. The WCTU sent three petitions containing over three hundred and seventy-six signatures to the State Board of Pardons.

Just the sixth female prisoner, Ida befriended Josie Kensler #565 in prison for second degree murder after killing her husband. Guards described Ida as an “ill-mannered” child and her scowling mugshot shines with defiance. With so few women in the Penitentiary, there was no separate dormitory for females incarcerated there. The prison’s solution was to section off one of the male cell blocks in an attempt to keep men and women separate. This arrangement did not fool many, and immediately there were issues. Josie mysteriously became pregnant, and scandal followed after she claimed the warden forced her to have an abortion; but Josie’s story is a tale for another time.

Ida gained the attention of Fred Marshall #701, incarcerated for assault with a deadly weapon. Fred, a known member of the Marshall Gang, got mixed up in a disturbance at Gallagher’s Hall, a Boise dance hall on February 6, 1901. Fred and his brother

were in a fight with James Peterson. Fred clubbed James in the head with the butt of his revolver. Fred claimed that James had a gun, but that was later proved false. Fred was found guilty and entered the Idaho State Penitentiary on July 2, 1901, sentenced to serve two years. Married with two daughters, Fred’s wife divorced him not long after he went to prison.

The warden recalled finding Fred speaking to Ida through her window. Officials boarded up the window, but that did not stop Fred. He continued to pursue her and wanted her to marry him. Warden Perrin wrote, “The child was kept in a separate cell, but allowed to take daily exercise in the company of Mrs. Kensler.” Fred’s behavior, Josie’s scandal, and public outcry forced prison officials to remove women from the main penitentiary walls. The women moved into the warden’s house, with his wife acting as matron. The women were isolated, and the warden got a new house. Then in 1906, walls went up around the house and the still-standing dormitory was finished in 1920. This new arrangement meant that the female prisoners kept to themselves, cooking, cleaning, sewing, gardening, and doing other domestic chores.