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The Huckster Vs. The Highwaymen

by James Rada, Jr.

By the time the sun cleared the horizon in the east on March 27, 1899, J.T. Waesche was already at work. Waesche, who was a huckster, had harnessed his team and set out to cross Catoctin Mountain to sell his goods in Washington County.

He traveled along the unpaved road that would eventually become MD 77 in the 1950s, moving slowly as his team pulled his wagon up Catoctin Mountain.

Waesche was about 2.5 miles west of Thurmont when he heard two voices call out, “Halt!” from either side of the road.

“Upon looking up, he found that two men, partially hidden by large rocks and with masks over their faces were covering him with their revolvers,” the Catoctin Clarion reported.

Although Waesche didn’t tug on the reins of the horses, they stopped at the sound of voices.

“Surrender. Throw up your hands,” one highwayman ordered.

Waesche should have expected something like this to happen at some point.

The newspapers had run stories about highwaymen robbing people along this road, but Waesche wasn’t armed. He remained calm. He stared at the men, trying to get a read on them and deciding what he should do.

“Well, I’m not going to do it,” he finally said.

He flicked the reins to start his horses moving. The highwaymen stepped from behind the rocks and moved toward the wagon.

“Stop or I’ll shoot you!” one bandit warned.

Waesche saw the man pointing his pistol in Waesche’s direction, but he also noticed that it was aimed over his head.

“One of them fired, and one of the horses, being a very nervous animal, ‘she went up into the air and came down running’ as Mr. Waesche put it,” according to the Clarion.

Waesche urged his horses to gallop, and the wagon hurried past the two highwaymen.

“They fired as many as a half-dozen shots, but they were either very poor marksmen or hoped to cause a run-away and smash-up, thus catching their man, as not one of their shots struck the wagon,” the Clarion reported.

Waesche drove to F. N. Wilhide’s house, which was the first house he came to a half mile up the road, where he could get help.

Besides the reported robberies along the road, the Clarion reported that three young men had been traveling along the road around midnight the night before. They saw a fire in the woods and walked over to see if it was a campfire or the beginnings of a forest fire.

“Upon approaching the light, the young men saw two men seated near a fire and they were engaged in making and fitting on masks,” the Clarion reported.

One of the men approached the three travelers. They exchanged pleasantries and the three men continued on their way. They thought nothing of the encounter until they heard about what happened to Waesche. They told the Deputy Sheriff Anderson of Thurmont that they could identify the men if they saw them again.

The Frederick Post reported that Anderson had an idea of who the two men were. He traveled to Hagerstown looking for them, but could not locate them.

The Frederick paper also reported a very different version of the story. The newspaper reported that Waesche was armed with two revolvers, and he drew them when the highwaymen challenged him.

“The would-be robbers, seeing they had run against the wrong man, took to their heels across the country,” the Frederick Post reported.

Either way, Waesche protected his property and put the highwaymen in their place.

A shot of MD 77, near Sandy Hole, when it was still just a dirt road in the early 20th century.