By Jim Harmon

There are so many classic lines in the 1942 film "Casablanca."

“Here's looking at you, kid,” “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship,” and of course, “Play it again, Sam.”

But for today’s purposes, we’ll use another classic line, this one from Captain Renault after Rick (Humphrey Bogart) shoots Nazi Major Strasser: “Round up the usual suspects.”

CASABLANCA - Movie Poster 1942
CASABLANCA - Movie Poster 1942

Far before 1942 (in fact, more than 100 ago), that line was rather routinely used by lawmen as they tried to solve cases or rid the town of panhandlers and vagrants.

Case in point: the August burglary of a Missoula car-repair garage in 1924.

Police Commissioner Frank O’Donnell immediately ordered officers to round up “all suspicious-looking persons and bring them to jail for investigation.”

And he meant everyone: “All persons, men or women, whose actions are suspicious, who are out on the streets late at night without any obvious reason, who come under the vagrancy regulation, in short anyone who comes under the classification of questionable are to be taken into custody.”

Daily Missoulian - August 7, 1924
Daily Missoulian - August 7, 1924

“At the city jail, the arrested persons will be given a hearing and if they can't prove to the satisfaction of the officers that they are tending strictly to their own business they will be held for further investigation.”

Missoula had experienced a rash of petty robberies and burglaries, so many that police were “of the opinion that there is a gang working here, different robberies not being the work of one man.”

“Clyde Oliver, picked up by police officers at the Milwaukee train depot (since he looked suspicious) is now in the county jail facing charges of burglary in connection with the robbing of donation boxes at St. Anthony's Catholic Church the previous Sunday night.”

At the jail, a search of Oliver’s possessions uncovered items from the church and also items taken in burglaries at a local rooming house and a drugstore, and even a business in Wallace, Idaho.

Daily Missoulian, 1924
Daily Missoulian, 1924

Earlier that same summer, thieves helped themselves to all the groceries they could carry after they had apparently hidden in the Quality Market grocery store on South Higgins Avenue while it was open, and did their shopping after hours.

Car batteries were another hot item in the summer of ‘24. Petty thieves lifted batteries from vehicles on Owens Street and on East Pine. Other thieves grabbed paper currency and coins from a pool hall in Milltown.

When summer fair season approached, Missoulians were warned of a “large number of thieves and pickpockets following the carnival circuit through western Montana."

Residents were told to “keep their doors locked when they are away from home, keep their garages and automobiles locked, and not to leave their cars parked on the streets.”

They were also advised to “watch their pocketbooks while they mingled with the crowds” at fairs.

If that wasn’t enough, folks had to keep an eye on their flocks. That’s right, chicken thieves were out at night!

“Mrs. Louise Yanke’s chicken coop at her place at 212 North Second Street West” was broken into. The thieves “stole 20 of her fine Plymouth Rock chickens.”

Police, investigating the incident the following day, admitted they were unlikely to find the stolen property. “All chickens look alike when they’re dressed,” said one officer.

While we’re on the subject of being “properly dressed” (ha ha), thieves broke into Barney’s Fashion shop on Higgins Avenue, taking eight silk shirts.

And finally, I’ll admit, while I’m aware that panhandling and vagrancy were considered crimes, I wasn’t aware that “mooching” fit that category. Mooching to me, would be something like a buddy asking for a quarter. “Hey, can I mooch a quarter for a Coke?”

But the law did exist, at least in 1924. In one case, three 20-somethings were arrested for “vagrancy and mooching,” locked up for one night, then lectured “severely” the next morning by the police judge. They were given the “floater sentence” for their actions.

The “floater sentence” benefited both sides (the moochers and the public). The moochers, after a night in jail, would appear in court, be fed breakfast and be “sent on their way.” It was just rather straightforward and simple back then.

In more modern times, we tend to want to know how and why the miscreants lost their way. As the Limelighters (a folk group of the 1960s) queried in their song, “Gunslinger,” “When you were a child did the Cheyenne and Souix, refuse to play nicely with you? Did you come from a broken home on the range?”

Perhaps so. But still, the floater sentence (archaic as it is) at times seems rather appealing.

Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at His best-selling book, “The Sneakin’est Man That Ever Was,” a collection of 46 vignettes of Western Montana history, is available at