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Mother Jailed for Cooking Woodpecker

On August 5, 1932, 36-year-old Anna Chess was serving a twenty-day sentence in the Fayette County jail in Uniontown, Pennsylvania. Her crime? She had taken a woodpecker from its nest and cooked it.

Mrs. Chess, who lived with her husband and two children in nearby Fairchance, was reported by neighbors to Game Warden R. G. Bryson that she had been stealing the flicker woodpeckers from their nest. Bryson went to investigate and caught Mrs. Chess red-handed; she was frying one of the birds in a skillet at that very moment.

Bryson placed Mrs. Chess under arrest and she was arraigned before Justice of the Peace William J. Ruble. Mrs. Chess explained that she had emigrated to the United States eleven years prior and that the birds were often used for food there.  She wasn’t aware that the woodpeckers were a protected species under Pennsylvania game law and accepted full responsibility for what she had done. She was fined $10 (approximately $193 today) for violating the game law.

The problem was that Mr. Chess was an unemployed truck driver at the time.  The couple had no way to pay the fine. Meanwhile, an additional $10.50 in court fees had been assessed, bringing the total to $20.50 ($395 today). She was hauled back into court and Justice of the Peace Ruble was left with no option but to place Mrs. Chess in jail for twenty days.

Not long after this story appeared in the newspapers, public outrage began to grow. Stories described Mrs. Chess as a poor mother who was simply attempting to feed her two starving children and did not deserve such a harsh sentence for what she had done.

Fayette County District Attorney Wade K. Newell was one of those who felt the pressure.  He agreed to ask Justice of the Peace Ruble to modify his sentence and, if that failed, make a further appeal to the State Game Commissioners.

But before that happened, Governor Gifford Pinchot intervened.  On August 8, he telegraphed Justice of the Peace Ruble and said that he would send the money to pay the fine.

“I was informed that Mrs. Chess is in jail for having caught a flicker and feeding it to her children, who were hungry,” the Governor stated.

“I am heartily in favor of protecting game birds and I have no intention of condoning the killing of them for food. On the other hand, I decline to see a woman put in jail for feeding her children.

“The game commission, while it was properly responsible for prosecuting her for illegal possession of the bird, was in no way responsible for her being put in jail, and learned of it for the first time through the newspapers.”

A money order was sent to Justice of the Peace Ruble, but there was one problem.  It was only made out for $17.90, not the $10 plus $10.50 in court fees.  Ruble stated, “Maybe I’m wrong but I figure that makes $20.50.”

He continued, “Don’t misunderstand me. I’m willing to charge off my costs for the Governor and let Jim Crossland, the deputy warden have his in full – but I certainly hope I never hear the word ‘woodpecker’ again.”

After six days in the slammer, Mrs. Chess was now free as a bird.  She was met on the jail steps by her family.  As she placed her arms around her two sons, Neutche, 10, and Joseph, age 8, she stated, “The Governor is a fine man.”

Flicker woodpecker
Flicker woodpecker. Image from 1914 book Nature Neighbors on page 233.
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