On February 3, 1883, a German grocer named John Von Dohlen was working at his store in Manhattan's West Village. He had a large sum of money on him (hundreds of dollars), as became clear when a customer asked for change and got a clear view of the bills.

That customer walked out, and two new ones walked in, laughing. The two of them wanted the grocer to settle a bet for them, they said. Each man believed he had the larger hat. To figure out who was right, they wanted John to fill each hat with molasses, and by holding more of the delicious syrup, one hat would prove its owner had the larger head. They'd pay for the molasses, of course.

John first assumed they were kidding, but he agreed to go through with it. He scooped molasses into the first hat. Then one of the men pinned his arms to his side. The other now picked up the hat and plopped it on John's head, so the syrup flowed down, filling his eyes. With John now blinded and very confused, the men relieved him of his money and took off. 

The robbers were eventually caught and jailed, and police discovered they were career criminals who used a bunch of different names. But the really weird thing about this story is how the molasses crime mutated as a legend. 

Books about New York crime now refer to a 19th-century "Molasses Gang," who had three members (whose names don't correspond with any of the Dohlen robbers' aliases). The Molasses Gang, they claim, existed years before the Dohlen incident and pulled the molasses trick not as a one-off maneuver but as their regular M.O., again and again. Harry Houdini also wrote a book where he claimed this was a common tactic, and he placed the crime as happening repeatedly near London. 

None of these other references to the molasses trick are backed up by contemporary news sources. So, we're thinking they're a bunch of fictional copycats ... which is the highest honor any criminal can ask for.  

This fact came from the new One Cracked Fact newsletter. Want more like this, straight from your email inbox, without any ads or popups?

For more old-timey crime, check out:

5 Bizarre Ways Our Ancestors Solved Major Crimes

6 Real Crime Waves From History That Were Hilariously Insane

5 Ways The Past Was Even Crazier Than You Thought

Follow Ryan Menezes on Twitter for more stuff no one should see. 

Top image: Badagnani/Wiki Commons

Forgot Password?