Horace Hovan (1852-192?), aka “Little Horace” — bank sneak thief
While there may be no “born criminals,” Horace Hovan did take up thieving at an early age. He was raised in Richmond, Virginia to Irish parents: John F. Hovan and Harriet B. Rowe. 1864 was a momentous year for the Hovans; John F. Hovan disappeared, perhaps into the maws of the Civil War; Harriet gave birth to her fifth child, a daughter, Gennet; and Horace Hovan, aged 12, was arrested for pick-pocketing.
Hovan was the scourge of Richmond for the next seven years, being arrested for: stealing soap; beating a black man; pick-pocketing; and robbing store tills. In 1868, at age 16, he jumped bail and fled the city. He and his two brothers stayed in Philadelphia for a while, but migrated back to Richmond in 1870. There, he married a local girl, Martha Abrams. By 1871, Horace had graduated to breaking and entering houses. Just days after his mother passed away, he was caught and held on $2500 bail–and likely jailed. Horace and Martha’s son, Horace Jr., was born in 1872, but died less than a year later. A daughter, Cellela, was born in 1873. Horace, by this time, was on the road working with other thieves, and sent back money to his wife who was living in Baltimore.
In early 1873, Hovan and three partners (two of whom were John Price and Philly Phearson) stole from banks in Berks County, Pennsylvania and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Their method was “sneak thieving”–today known as “snatching,” i.e. a quick motion to grab objects and run away with them. In banks, this was done as bank customers placed bills on a counter; or as cashiers counted out money; or as distracted bank workers left papers unattended. Horace (unlike his brother Preston) never carried weapons, and never struggled when caught.
The gang moved westward, and in late March broke into the Pittsburgh Safe Deposit and Trust Company, where they hit the mother lode. Hovan walked out with $50,000 in railroad bonds. The gang immediately went to New York City, where Hovan–posing as a “curbstone broker” (a broker who makes trades on the street)–tried to negotiate the bonds for cash. He was arrested and taken to stand trial at Pittsburgh under the name Charles G. Hampton. Hovan was jailed from late April to late October awaiting his trial. Johnny Jourdan appeared to testify on Hovan’s behalf, offering an alibi that Hovan had been in New York–but the jury discounted that. Hovan was sentenced to two years and eleven months in Western (Pa.) Penitentiary.
Upon his release in 1876, Hovan partnered with “Big Ed” Rice and another unnamed man to rob the Bank of Nova Scotia in Halifax. Cleverly, they took advantage of an existing diversion–a circus parade:
The three were stopped and detained, but were later released. Chief Byrnes incorrectly dates this robbery to the year 1870 (when Hovan was still in Richmond); many other sources repeated this error. The 1876 crime was the first bank robbery in the history of Halifax.
Hovan may have spent 1877 at home with his wife–she passed away in April, 1877. His remaining daughter, Cellela, died a year later, in 1878, at age 5. Hovan returned to New York and began relations with a new woman, Charlotte Newman Dougherty. She was the wife of Daniel F. “Big Doc” Dougherty, a bank robber who was sent to prison in 1868 for a fifteen year term.
Charlotte Dougherty, Hovan, Rufus Minor and George Carson teamed up to steal over $250,000 in bonds from James Young, a Wall Street broker. They fled south, but were caught two months later in Petersburg, Virginia; some bonds in a tin box were found in Rufe Minor’s room. The quartet was brought back to New York, but all were released for lack of evidence.
Hovan returned south to Charleston, South Carolina, and was apprehended while taking $20,000 from a bank; he feigned illness, was taken to a hospital, and escaped.
He teamed up again with Minor, Carson, and Johnny Jourdan to steal a tin box containing over $60,000 from a Middletown, Connecticut bank on July 27, 1880. All were arrested by November, but tellers could only identify Jourdan.
Byrnes summarizes Hovan’s next years succinctly:
“Arrested again in June, 1881, at Philadelphia, Pa., with Frank Buck, alias Bucky Taylor (27), for the larceny of $10,950 in securities from a broker’s safe in that city. He was convicted of burglary, and sentenced to three years in the Eastern Penitentiary, at Philadelphia, Pa., on July 2, 1881, his time to date back to June 6, 1881. He was pardoned out October 30, 1883, on condition that he would go to Washington, D. C, and testify against some officials who were on trial. He agreed to do so if the Washington authorities would have the case against him in Charleston, S. C, settled, which they did. He then gave his testimony, which was not credited by the jury. He remained in jail in Washington until May 10, 1884, when he was discharged.”
Regaining his freedom, Hovan returned to New York and formally married Charlotte Newman Dougherty (though her husband Big Doc was still alive). In 1885 he traveled to England with Charlotte and Frank Buck. He was caught stealing bank notes there and was thrown into an English prison for three years. After serving his term, he returned to North America via Canada. He was caught stealing from a bank in Montreal, but was released on bail, and fled to the United States. A month later, in December 1888, he and Walter Sheridan attempted to rob the People’s Savings Bank in Denver, Colorado. They were caught, made bail, and fled.
Horace returned to Europe with his brother Preston in 1889. He and Preston had very similar looks, so one of their tricks was to have Preston publicly escort Charlotte around in hotels, at the same time that Horace was stealing from banks. Later, Horace could claim that he had been with his wife, a fact verified by many impeccable witnesses. In 1890, Horace and another American thief, Billy Porter, were arrested in Toulouse, France for burglary, but both only served a few months in jail.
Horace and Charlotte lived quietly in England for the next few years, but in 1895 he was arrested in Frankfort, Germany. Charlotte died in England sometime during this period. From Germany, Hovan’s activities are unknown–it may be he was imprisoned there for several years. He returned to the United States in bad health sometime after 1900. Upon meeting detective Robert Pinkerton, he begged for help in finding an honest job. Pinkerton helped set him up as an elevator operator–a job he held for at least six or seven years. He was exposed by William Pinkerton in a newspaper article, bragging about his brother’s role in Hovan’s reform; this may have brought Hovan unwanted scrutiny.
In 1913, newspaper reports claimed Hovan and his old partner Big Ed Rice were caught stealing from a bank cashier in Munich, Germany. Horace would have been 63, and Rice was older, 72. However, in 1923 an article appeared saying that Hovan was still in the elevator business, and was now a manager–and had been reformed for twenty years.
After that 1923 mention, Hovan’s name in public records disappears. He would have been about 70 years old in 1923.