#202 Charles Williamson

Charles H. Perrin (Abt. 1844-191?), aka Charles Stevens, Charles J. Williamson, Charles P. Hall, Charles Cherwood, George A. Vincent, etc.   — Burglar, forger, swindler

Link to Byrnes’s entry on #202 Charles Williamson

Chief Inspector Byrnes named Perrin as “Charles Williamson, alias Perrine” and described him as “one of the most extraordinary criminals this country has ever produced.” “Extraordinary” may have been the right word, but should not be equated with “successful” or “skilled.” Most of Perrin’s adult life was spent behind bars, and his main talent was sheer brazenness.

Perrin was born to Solon and Jane Perrin of Fort Covington, New York, just a few miles from the St. Lawrence River on the Little Salmon River. The Perrins were respectable people in the community; by one account Solon served as a physician, and by another he acted as Sheriff. Charles was mentioned as being noted at school for his “careless and daredevil performances.” His father Solon became ill in the mid 1850s, and died when Charles was thirteen. Charles was taken in by his uncle, Henry J. Perrin, who found work for him in the printing shop of the Franklin Gazette, located in Fort Covington.

Charles, at age 18, joined the Union Army when the Civil War broke out, though little is known of his service record. At the close of the war, he returned to New York City, where he found employment as a printer foreman in the stationers/publishers shop of Scott & Porter on Fulton Street. One night in January, 1866, one of the proprietors, Mr. Porter, from the street saw someone entering the locked storefront with a key–no one was supposed to be there. Porter summoned the police, and after a search they found Perrin inside, trying to hide himself under pieces of coal in the coal bin. He was arrested, tried, convicted, and sentenced to three years at Sing Sing State Prison.

Byrnes cites an 1869 warehouse robbery on Howard Street as one of Perrin’s crimes, committed under the alias of Stevens, but the crime occurred on January 24th a mile away at 12 Dey St., at the location of Hugh McKay, silk importers. Perrin was arrested and convicted under the name Charles Stevens, and given a sentence of 4 years six months at Sing Sing. [Note that Sing Sing’s intake registers for these months of late 1868-early 1869 do not exist, so the evidence is only found in newspaper accounts.] After his release in mid 1873–having made many criminal contacts while behind bars–Perrin moved on to the realm of forgeries–not as the “penman,” but as a self-assured front man whose job it was to gain the trust of suspicious financial bankers and trade fraudulent stock bonds.

In mid-1873, Perrin joined with a half dozen other criminal luminaries in a giant conspiracy to flood Wall Street with forged railroad company bonds. The ringleaders of this endeavor were  longtime criminals Andrew L. “Andy” Roberts and Valentine “Frank” Gleason, an engraver who was born into a family of counterfeiters. Joining the ring were Spencer “Spence” Pettis, an ambitious but weaselly forger; Walter Sheridan (#8), one of the most successful thieves and forgers of the 19th century; and Steve Raymond (#55), an English forger. Two others provided support in the form of references and introductions: shady broker Charles B. Orvis and a wealthy New York dental surgeon with many unsavory associations, Dr. Alvah Blaisdell (misspelled by Byrnes as “Blaisell”).

Perrin escaped from capture of the ring members with his share: between $80,000-$100,000. He then likely headed to England with Steve Raymond. However, he impetuously decided to come back to New York in 1875 and posed as Charles Farnham, an investment banker looking to enter a partnership with a legitimate brokerage firm. He was taken in by Rollins Brothers, bankers. While there he tried to insert forged bonds into the company’s transactions, but was discovered before much damage could be done. He was arrested and kept locked up in the Tombs, the city detention center, until his trial in October, 1876. He was hit with forty-eight indictments dating back to the 1873 railroad bond forgeries, so the sentence passed on him was stiff: ten years, plus another five. He was sent back to Sing Sing that month.

Sing Sing had a justly deserved reputation for holes in its security, which did not take long for Perrin to exploit. In 1904, a former prisoner, known only as “Number 1500,” recalled “Charley” Perrin, aka Williamson:

“Although he was a bold and merciless crook, he was an exceedingly well-educated man, and he could think harder and longer than any one else I ever met in prison. His mind must have had magnificent training from some competent person, for he could quickly acquire knowledge and retain it in its original accuracy apparently for an indefinite time. His mental equipment was peculiar in that it exhibited a remarkable power in every task to which he applied it, except in the development of a criminal project. In this line, his own chosen life, he had no more ability than an idiot. He often explained to me plans for some stupendous rascality that were so foolish as to lead me to doubt his sanity. Certainly nature never intended him for a rogue. He had, however, succeeded in one great criminal undertaking and obtained a large sum of money, the credit of which enterprise he unjustly claimed from his more capable associates…

“…It was on a warm June night of the next year [1877] that Williamson took his departure. He was employed in the bakery, then situated on the river front, and his occupation demanded his labor in the evening after the other inmates had been locked in their cells. The darkness of night had just fallen when the bakery was discovered to be on fire. In the excitement of extinguishing the flames Williamson’s flight was not for a time discovered. He had eluded the guards and run along the river front northward to the railway station. There he entered the Hudson and swam to its channel, a mile and a half away. He remained in the water until nearly midnight when he hailed the captain of a passing boat bound for New York. He impressed the master of the vessel with his sincerity in offering a liberal reward for his aid and in due time was landed in the city. The promise of substantial pay was faithfully redeemed and in a few weeks Williamson was safe in England. There he found friends who, like himself, had fled their country for their own and their country’s good and engaged with them in a scheme to rob a great London bank.”

Byrnes’ summary of Perrin’s time in England are correct; he fell in with some other American forgers, tried to pass altered checks against the Central Bank of London, Southwark branch, and was captured. Perrin was sentenced to ten years at Newgate Prison under the name Charles Cherwood. There, he demonstrated some of his “stupendous rascality” by suggesting he be employed by British authorities:

 

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Instead, British prosecutors suggested to Perrin that his sentence could be reduced simply by informing against his accomplices in England: Dan Noble, John “Clutch” Donohue, and Joe Chapman. Perrin complied, and was released in 1883 after serving half of his sentence.

Perrin returned to the United States via Canada, came to New York briefly, and headed west, to St. Louis. There he was caught on February 28, 1884 attempting to pass an altered check at the St. Louis National Bank. He gave his name as “George A. Vincent,” but papers found on him included letters and clippings indicating that he was a seasoned forger. His identity was confirmed by New York detectives, but proceedings against him in St. Louis continued. He was convicted and sentenced to ten years in the Missouri State Prison at Jefferson City.

Perrin was released from Jefferson City in August, 1892, having had two years reduced from his sentence. Waiting for him at the prison gate were officers from New York, who arrested him and took him back to Sing Sing to serve out the fifteen year sentence that he had so rudely declined to endure earlier. He was later transferred from Sing Sing to Clinton State Penitentiary in Dannemora, New York.

Perrin was finally released from Clinton on February 20, 1902. He was now 57-58 years old, and had spent 31 of his previous 36 years of adult life behind bars. However, he was still a man of surprises. From Dannemora, Perrin got on a train south to Troy, New York, where he met a woman with whom he had been corresponding through the mail while in prison. They got married that same night. Her given name was Mary Ann Smith, a former farm girl from a modest family of Cazenovia, New York–but she was not without a fascinating history of her own.

Mary Ann was born around 1862, and in her late teens migrated to New York City and took a job in a cigarette factory. According to one story, a picture was taken of the factory girls, and Mary Ann’s attractiveness created a stir. However, by another story, she followed a brother, an actor, to the city; and she worked at A. T. Stewart’s, one of the first department stores; and later as a waitress in a coffee house. She came home to Cazenovia in the summers to escape the heat of the city.

Around the winter of 1883-1884, she met Jacob H. Vanderbilt, a widower son of Captain J. H. Vanderbilt of Staten Island, and a nephew of magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt, one of the richest men in the world. Later, during divorce proceedings, Jacob Jr. would claim that he met Mary Ann while she using the alias “Violet Smith,” and that she worked in a “house of ill-fame” and in alliance with a bunco steerer (a recruiter for rigged gambling operations). Upon their meeting, Jacob Jr. became enthralled with Mary Ann, and even came to visit in Cazenovia in the summers of 1884 and 1885, where he would arrange rendezvous with her. Jacob realized his family would never approve of her, but secretly married her anyway in April of 1886–they both used assumed names. Vanderbilt installed her in an apartment in Manhattan, but word soon leaked out to his father.

Jacob Sr. told him the marriage was unacceptable, that he had to get rid of her or else he would be disinherited. Jacob Jr. relented, and told Mary Ann they would have to separate, and that she would be given $1000. Mary Ann hired an attorney instead, and what had been a private matter became a very public scandal, with public sentiment on Mary Ann’s side. They eventually settled out of court, with Mary Ann getting a substantial yearly allowance. Jacob Jr. was banished by the family to Seattle, where he took over as a bank president and remarried.

Mary Ann stayed at her Manhattan apartment, occasionally running into her Vanderbilt relatives, much to their embarrassment. It was there that she entered into a correspondence with prisoner “Charles P. Hall,”  (the name Perrin now sported.) After the two met and married in Troy, they returned to Manhattan, where Perrin enjoyed a bit of the good life thanks to the gratuity of the Vanderbilts.

Mary Ann, still known to the public as “Mrs. Jacob Vanderbilt,” further tweaked her former in-laws by opening a tea room/smoking room catering to women on fashionable Fifth Avenue. In 1903, the idea of women smoking in public–especially at a high society address–was heartily criticized.

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Meanwhile, the urge to pursue his own schemes overtook Perrin’s judgment (as it always had in the past). Perrin started to make regular visits to New Brunswick, New Jersey, in order to convince people there to invest in an electric water filtration plant:

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While the water filtration scam was percolating, Perrin also joined a cabal of corrupt New York real estate agents and lawyers in their efforts to run fire insurance frauds. Perrin had his new wife, under the name “Emily O. Hall” buy a house in Dutchess County, New York. Two days after they (supposedly) moved in, the place burned to the ground. Hall was arrested and accused of arson, but in order to have the charges dropped, agreed to cooperate with prosecutors and name his co-conspirators. Needless to say, the publicity about the arson made its way to New Brunswick, killing any last hopes Perrin had of scamming investors there.

Both Charles H. Perrin and Mary Ann Smith disappeared from the public record after 1904. It could be that Mary Ann was mortified to learn that Perrin had returned to his criminal ways; or it could be that they vanished into new, different aliases together, and surfaced somewhere unexpected with new plans, scams, and scandals–yet to be uncovered by researchers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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