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Wednesday, June 7, 2023
June 7, 2023

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Clark County History: Circus robbery in Clark County


On Sept. 16, 1921, three trains brought the Sells-Floto Circus to Vancouver after weeks of advertising. Circus workers pitched tents on a three-block area in the Hough neighborhood starting at Harney and 19th streets. Elephants pulled up tent poles and men pulled ropes, lifting fluttering canvas for the performances.

At 11 a.m. sharp, to the delight of crowds and school kids playing hooky, the grand parade marched from the circus grounds with 300 dapple-gray horses pulling colorful wagons east through the city. Brass music blared. In the crowd’s midst lurked a group of villains trying to blend in. One man stood next to his wife and children, a second near his girlfriend.

Sells-Floto promised two performances — one in the afternoon and another that night. After the final show, Roy Moore and Bert Orcutt planned to grab the cash receipts near the circus train. A truck loaded with 10 people headed to deposit the receipts in the train’s safe. When the street narrowed, three masked robbers brutally accosted the passengers until they relinquished their valuables. The criminals fled on Fourth Plain Boulevard toting a valise holding $30,000 in cash, checks and bank drafts.

Henry Burgy, police chief, called the theft the biggest Vancouver had seen. On Sept. 18, clues turned up near La Center. Near the bridge, officers uncovered a cache in the bushes holding the money mixed with clothes, notebooks and papers. Suspecting the robbers would return, officers hid alongside the road for 12 hours. They confronted the men, who ran. The officers fired; both outlaws tumbled. To the lawmen’s surprise, in the car sat women and children. Moore’s wife, Beth, dressed in men’s clothes, was potentially the third man.

In January 1922, the prisoners appeared before Judge George Simpson, feigning innocence. They seemed so clean-cut, the jury couldn’t make a unanimous decision. With a hung jury, defense attorneys filed a motion with the county clerk claiming errors in the law and jury misconduct. The accused got a second trial.

Judge Simpson presided over the second trial. On the stand, Moore’s and Orcutt’s testimony echoed each other’s. Once sequestered, the jury refused to come out until it found an agreement. Nineteen hours later, on Jan. 18, 1923, they declared both men guilty. Orcutt and Moore were sentenced to up to 15 years in prison.

During the trial, five Sells-Floto performers feared Moore’s conviction would leave his family destitute. They pleaded with Joseph Condon, the circus general manager, to hire his wife as a wardrobe mistress. Condon told authorities he’d not press charges against Beth Moore.

Her husband helped in a high-profile criminal case involving the murder and rape of 11-year-old Anna Nosko near Battle Ground. Incarcerated with George Edward Whitfield, Moore claimed Whitfield admitted to the murder.

Moore and Orcutt’s defense appealed the second trial, citing errors in law and process. Ruling in February 1923, the Washington State Supreme Court agreed. Its decision on a technicality set Moore and Orcutt free. Within the year, Portland police arrested both for another robbery.

Martin Middlewood is editor of the Clark County Historical Society Annual. Reach him at ClarkCoHist@gmail.com.