#4 William Vosburg

William H. Vosburgh (1827-1904) alias “Foxy” “Old Bill” — Bank thief, burglar, confidence man

From Byrnes’s text:

DESCRIPTION. Fifty-seven years old in 1886. Born in United States. Can read and write. Married. Stout build. Height, 5 feet 10 inches. Weight, 170 pounds. Hair, dark, mixed with gray. Gray eyes. Light complexion. Generally has a smooth-shaven face.

RECORD. Vosburg is one of the oldest and most expert bank sneaks and “stalls” in America, and has spent the best portion of his life in State prisons. He was formerly one of Dan Noble’s gang, and was concerned with him in the Lord bond robbery in March, 1886, and the larceny of a tin box containing a large amount of bonds from the office of the Royal Insurance Company in Wall Street, New York, several years ago. Vosburg was arrested in New York City on April 2, 1877, fo”” the Gracie King robbery, at the corner of William and Pine streets. He had just returned from serving five years in Sing Sing prison. In this case he was discharged. On April 20, 1877, he was again arrested in New York City, and sent to Boston, Mass., for the larceny of $8,000 in bonds from a man in that city. He obtained a writ in New York, but was finally sent to Boston, where they failed to convict him. On June 10, 1878, he was arrested in New York City, charged with grand larceny. On this complaint he was tried, found guilty, and sen- tenced to fifteen months in the penitentiary, by Recorder Hackett, on December 28, 1878. He did not serve his full time, for on May 3, 1879, ^e was again arrested in New York City, with one John O’Brien, alias Dempsey, for an attempt at burglary at 406 Sixth Avenue. In this case he was admitted to bail in $1,000 by the District Attorney, on May 17, 1879. The case never was tried, for on September 23, 1879, he was again arrested, with Jimmy Brown, at Brewster’s Station, New York, on the Harlem Railroad, for burglary of the post-office and bank. For this he was tried, convicted, and sen- tenced to four years in State prison at Sing Sing, on February ig, 1880, under the name of William Pond, by Judge Wright, at Carmel, New York. Brown never was tried. After his release he claimed to be playing cards for a living, when in fact he was running around the country “stalling” for thieves. He was arrested in Washington, D. C, on March 4, 1885, at President Cleveland’s inauguration, for picking pockets. Through the influence of some friends this case never went to trial. He then started through the country with Johnny Jourdan (83), Philly Phearson (5), and Johnny Car- roll, alias The Kid (192). On April i, 1885, the party tried to rob a man in a bank at Rochester, N. Y., but failed. They followed him to a hotel, and while he was in the water-closet handled him roughly and took a pocket-book from him, but not the book with the money in it. Phearson and Carroll escaped, and Vosburg and Jourdan were arrested, and sentenced to two years and six months each for assault in the second degree, by Judge John S. Morgan, on June 15, 1885, at Rochester, N. Y. Vosburg’s picture is a good one, taken in March, 1885.

No less an authority than the New York Times labeled Bill Vosburgh (often spelled Vosburg, as Byrnes did) “the Father of Modern Criminals.” Typically, Byrnes’s recitation of Vosburgh’s career begins in 1877, but he was active close to thirty years earlier. He was a bank sneak, but also a pickpocket, burglar, and con-artist.

Byrnes did not reveal any of Vosburgh’s fascinating family connections. Vosburgh was born in Albany New York to a prominent family; it was said his grandfather fought in the Revolution; his father in the War of 1812, and that his uncle was Albany’s Postmaster. These figures were never named, but an educated guess is that his uncle was Isaac W. Vosburgh, son of William Vosburgh and Mary McDonald.

More interesting are Old Bill’s in-laws. He married Mary Ann Sturge, the daughter of an old English pickpocket and thief, Bill Sturge. Mary Ann had a sister, Rebecca “Becky” Sturge, who married twice. Her first marriage was to Daniel “Dad” Cunningham, a small, short-tempered fighter and gambler. A year after Cunningham died, Becky remarried to Langdon W. Moore, aka Charley Adams, one of the most famous bank robbers of the nineteenth century.

Vosburgh was also mentioned as being a brother-in-law to bank thief Preston Hovan (brother of Horace Hovan). However, it has not yet been discovered how they were related–or whether these sources just confused Preston Hovan with Langdon Moore due to an alias they both used, Charles Adams.

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One of Bill Vosburgh’s daughters (Emma or Rebecca) married sneak thief Harry Russell, who ran in the same gang of 1890s post office thieves with George Carson and Joe Killoran.

In the late 1890s, Vosburgh enjoyed regaling reporters with the exploits of his criminal career, noting the crimes that were now too old to prosecute; ones for which he had been acquitted; and ones that sent him to prison–but avoiding mention of the successful crimes that might still incriminate him, such as his tutelage of pickpocket George Appo (subject of Timothy Gilfoyle’s book, A Pickpocket’s Tale )

He told a story of becoming a criminal after taking a packet of money he was entrusted to deliver and losing it at an Albany gambling resort; in desperation he sought help from a known thief, Flemming, who used Vosburgh to help rob a grocery store owner. They then partnered to rob “every grocery store in Albany.”

However, Vosburgh never told reporters about his more infamous adventures with Flemming–robbing the family vault of the Van Rensselaer family for silver buried with the corpses.

See Paula Lemire’s account, “The Night In Question Was Dark and Slightly Stormy.

Vosburgh then went with his new pals to New Orleans, and once there began to specialize in robbing the staterooms of Mississippi riverboats [there was good reason why Herman Melville set his novel The Confidence Man on a riverboat–they were magnets for thieves.]

By 1857, Vosburgh’s name appeared in the National Police Gazette as a known criminal. In the early 1860s he was said to be a member of Dan Noble’s gang of bank sneak thieves. He was implicated in 1866’s infamous Rufus Lord bond robbery (in Byrnes’s book, the year of this is incorrectly given as 1886), but never arrested; the same year he was also implicated in the robbery of the Royal Insurance Company on Wall Street; both of these heists were said to be directed by Dan Noble.

In 1873, Vosburgh was caught trying to rob a diamond broker of Springfield, Massachusetts. He was convicted and sent to prison, then released in early 1877. In April of that year he was arrested for stealing bonds from Gracie King, but was discharged for lack of evidence. A few days later he was arrested in Boston for stealing $8000 in bonds, but was tried and acquitted.

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He was again arrested in New York for Grand Larceny in June, 1878; and was sentenced to 15 months in prison. Vosburgh spent the years 1880-1884 in Sing Sing under the name William Pond for the robbery of the post office and bank at Brewster’s Station, New York.

A few months after his release, he was caught as a pickpocket in the crowd during Grover Cleveland’s inauguration in March, 1885. He was released, but was discovered the next month in Rochester, New York, attempting to rob a man leaving a bank. At that time he was touring with Johnny Jourdan, Philly Pearson, and Johnny “The Kid” Carroll. Vosburgh was convicted and served a term in Rochester until 1888.

From 1888-1895, Vosburgh tutored pickpockets and acted as a “steerer” for con-artists running the “green goods” scam, in which yokels visiting the city were convinced to buy a large stack of counterfeit bills, thinking they could multiply their investment ten-fold.

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In November, 1895, Bill was picked up for fleecing a Nebraska farming visiting New York out of $500 in a “green goods” scam. However, he made a deal with the city District Attorney Goff to testify in a case against the New York City Sheriff, Tamsen, alleging that Tamsen mismanaged his jail. Vosburgh took the stand and told several amusing stories about visiting his son-in-law, Harry Russell, in Tamsen’s jail and bringing him 3 revolvers and a bottle of whiskey. Russell and two of his post-office robbery gang accomplices escaped from the jail. Many newspapers criticized Goff for accepting Vosburgh’s questionable testimony.

Vosburgh died in April, 1904. Some accounts said he was buried in Bronx’s Greenwood cemetery; others in Brooklyn’s Woodlawn; neither cemetery has him listed in their online burials database.

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