The burglary of poor Mrs. Toppings

Published on Wednesday, 23 July 2014 00:08 - Written by Seth Cowan, Guest Contributor

When I attend community and family gatherings at Manchester, people frequently recall the 1933 burglary of poor Mrs. Toppings.

Nothing like it had ever happened nor would ever happen again in the small rural community just eight miles from the Red River.

The culprits began to plan their afternoon activities as they sat together in the large, up-to-date, three-holer outhouse behind the Marchbanks’ home.

Back outside in the yard, they opened the gate and sauntered casually down the back way, off the road, toward the barn behind Mr. Marchbanks’ country store.

Leaning against a big stump in the barnyard, they thought about what to do next. One suggested, “Let’s go to Toppie’s house.”

Good idea! They crawled through the wire fence and headed that way.

Mrs. Toppings, a poor widow woman barely surviving, lived in a two-room clapboard house 100 yards west of the barn. When they arrived, she was not home. The unscreened front door was wide open.

Inside, sat her dining table with wooden benches on each side. A white cup towel hemmed from faded flour sacks covered leftover food and containers.

Soon, one of the culprits pulled over a bench and stood on it, handing down plates, sugar, flour, and other supplies from the open kitchen shelves.

The other carried them to the front door and threw them out into the yard. Then came the utensils from the table. No one passed by the nearby deep sandy road so they completed their task undetected.

When the vandals finished their dastardly deed, they slowly retraced their path. Reaching the large yellow Marchbanks’ house, they entered the front yard. There, just outside the front gate, a small group of men stood in a circle, murmuring.

Tobe Marchbanks and my dad were among them. They had discovered the burglary of poor Mrs. Toppings’ house.

Who would do such a thing to this beloved woman? The community drunk was the only person they could imagine.

I was 4 years old, and my friend, Billy Joe Marchbanks, was 5. We walked into the middle of the group.

My dad happened to look down and saw what appeared to be white powder — could it be flour? — on my little green coveralls.

“Have you been to Toppie’s house?” he asked.

“Yes,” I confessed without guilt or fear. The burglary mystery was solved.

Neither Billy nor I felt any malice toward Toppie. It just seemed the thing to do on a slow summer day.


Seth Cowan, 85, was born in the small community of Manchester, Texas, just eight miles from the Red River and 20 miles from Detroit. At age 4, his family moved into Detroit, where he graduated from high school in 1945. He is a resident of Meadow Lake Senior Living Community. A retired physician, he volunteers at Bethesda Health Clinic and is active in Meadow Lake’s memoir writing group.