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.
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.
Despite the new living situation, many continued to protest Ida’s confinement. Her young age was still a concern and petitions were steadily presented to the Board of Pardons. After three months in prison, Ida was pardoned and released on April 21, 1903, and sent to the Florence Crittenton home in Boise. Established throughout the country in 1892, Florence Crittenton homes were meant to serve as reform houses for “fallen women.” Permeated by Christian evangelism, these homes preached salvation and provided shelter for unmarried, pregnant women to combat prostitution. Ida, having previously garnered the attention of the WCTU, would have been a prime target for the Crittenton house’s reform efforts to dissuade further criminal activity. Ida was to stay there until arrangements could be made to send her back to her family.
Not long after Ida was released, Fred was paroled and released from prison. His infatuation with Ida continued as he wrote letters to her signed “Jennie Davis” and his own name. Those letters contained words of assistance and sympathy. Later, Fred called the home posing as Ida’s uncle, “Mr. Davis,” describing that he and his wife would like Ida to come live with them. Fred explained that Mrs. Davis was ill and could not speak on the telephone herself and that his two daughters would come fetch Ida and take her to the Davis home. Fred indeed sent his own daughters to lure Ida away. The matron of the Crittenton house, suspicious, interrogated the girls and Ida about the plan. Ida confessed that Fred was behind the plot. She divulged that he was just released from prison and wanted to elope with her, but Ida was adamant that she did not care for him and had only spoken to Fred once, through her window in prison. When pressed, Ida surrendered Fred’s letters, which had his return address on the envelopes.
Upon investigation, Fred and his daughters were located at the address on the envelopes. He insisted that Davis was a real person, with whom Fred was acquainted. According to Fred, conveniently, Davis was a neighbor down the road who had since moved and could not be located. Fred went on to say that he was in Caldwell the day of the incident and that his daughters were in Pennsylvania. He further stated that he was due to be married the day of the investigation and that he would never dream of luring Ida away. Needless to say, most do not believe Fred’s story. After the ploy was discovered, Ida’s attorney came at once to Boise to take her back to her family, now residing in Washington.
According to the 1910 census, Ida did return to live with her family. By then her mother and stepfather had bought a farm between Greer and Fraser in Clearwater County. John died in 1913 and Mary Ann married a third time to Samuel Eby in 1915.
Unfortunately, beyond that, I was unable to track the events of Ida’s life. The popularity of the name “Ida Belle” with girls born in 1887 makes it difficult to verify which “Ida” specific documents are referring to. One lead is that she might have married a man with the last name “Smith.” But between both of those common names, researchers without anything else to go on run into a dead end. Some websites claim that Ida died in 1938, but in fact, it was her sister Emma who died at that time. The rest of Ida Belle Laherty’s life remains a mystery.
Three other women were sent to the Idaho State Penitentiary from Latah County, the most famous of which is Margaret Hardy, who committed second degree murder in 1895. The other two women’s crimes were forgery and attempted robbery. You can learn more about the 216 women who served time at the Idaho State Penitentiary in the book, Numbered, adorned with Ida’s defiant scowl, or by listening to the prison’s podcast, Behind Gray Walls.
Ancestry.com for Idaho State Penitentiary records collection and mugshots.
Skye Cranney's research on Ida Laherty for the Idaho State Historical Society.
The Spokesman-Review, The Idaho Daily Statesman, and The Lewiston Teller newspapers.