#11 John Larney

John Larney (1836?-19??), aka Mollie or Molly Matches, et al. — Pickpocket, Bank Burglar

From Byrnes’s text:

DESCRIPTION. Forty-seven years old in 1886. Born in United States. Married. No trade. Stout build. Height, 5 feet 7 inches. Weight, 160 pounds. Brown hair, hazel eyes. Wears a No. 7 shoe, and generally wears a full dark beard. He has two upper teeth out on right side; also a small India-ink mark between thumb and forefinger of left hand. Straight nose. Part of an anchor on one arm.

RECORD. “Mollie Matches,” or John Larney, which is his right name, although a talented thief, was always an outspoken one. He makes his home in Cleveland, O.; wears fine clothes, which is his weakness; seldom indulges in liquor, never to excess; he has an aversion to tobacco. When he settled down in Cleveland, in 1875, he said he was going to live honestly if the police would let him. For some reason or another he failed to do so. The great fault with Mollie was the freedom with which he talked of his affairs, to which failing he ultimately owed his downfall.

The act that made Larney notorious and gave him his alias was on the occasion of a large celebration in New York City, when he was a boy. He disguised himself as a match girl, and, basket in hand, mingled with the crowds in the streets. Being slight in form and having delicate features, the boy had no difficulty in carrying out the deception. His day’s work, it is said, netted him over $2,000, and the nickname of “Mollie Matches.” During the war Mollie attained great eminence as a bounty jumper. He says that he enlisted in ninety-three Ohio, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and New York regiments.

Being of a frugal disposition, and having an eye to comfort in his old age, he invested in property in Toronto and Silver Creek, Canada, which he still holds under the name of John Dolan. Later he bought real estate in Cleveland, O. Mollie Matches has become pretty well known all over the United States. At the age of thirty-three years he had served eleven years in various reformatories and penal institutions, and was still indebted twelve years’ time to others from which he had escaped. He still owes six years to a Massachusetts State prison where he was sentenced to for seven years. He staid there just nine months; he had the freedom of the jail-yard on account of his eyesight failing him; he finally recovered his liberty and eyesight both.

About seven years after his escape he was again sent to the same prison, which was in Salem, and served a sixteen months’ sentence without being recognized. The adventures through which this man passed are wonderful. He is believed to have realized by his tricks about $150,000, a large portion of which he has paid out lately to lawyers. Mollie was convicted at Galesburg, Ill., for robbing the Farmers’ and Mechanics’ Bank of that city, and was sentenced to ten years in State prison at Joliet, Ill., on July 17, 1882. At a trial in Cleveland, O., on January 14, 1885, the above bank obtained a judgment of $12,000 against Mollie. An associate of his, Eddie Guerin, testified on this trial as follows:

“After I had concluded that the Galesburg Bank was an easy one to work, I sent for ‘Mollie Matches’ and two others. They agreed with me. One of them went to a neighboring town and hired a horse and wagon containing a large dry goods box. We hitched the team near the bank about noon. ‘Mollie’ watched the president and treasurer go out of the bank, and immediately entered it and went to the cashier and proceeded to buy a New York draft, with small silver, making much noise. Another man stood near by holding up a paper that screened the third man, who sneaked in and took $9,600 off the desk alongside the cashier, while Mollie was arguing with him about the draft. Mollie admitted to the cashier that he had made a mistake as to the amount of money he had with him, and gathering up what he had, said he would go for some more.”

Once outside, the ‘look-out,’ the sneak and Mollie (the ‘stall’) jumped into the wagon, and were driven by the fourth man to the railroad depot, and all escaped.

It was months afterwards that Mollie was arrested in Cincinnati, O., on December 21, 1881, and taken back to Galesburg for trial. His picture is a fair one, although a copy.

John Larney, known better as “Molly Matches,” was perhaps the most well-known American pickpocket of the nineteenth century. Chief Byrnes’ account of his career is basically correct, but four years earlier, in 1882, the Cleveland Leader published its own biographical account of Larney’s origins that is richer in detail (and likely more accurate):


John Larney/Mollie Matches. Illustration by David Birkey http://cargocollective.com/dbillustration

Following the Civil War (in which he admirably enlisted–by his count–93 times in order to receive the bounties), Larney settled in Cleveland, Ohio, and bought some property under the name John Dolan. He married a Cleveland woman, Mary Sullivan, in August 1866. He opened a saloon, but most of his income came from long-distance pickpocket tours. He knew every technique of working crowds, train stations, seaside resorts, fairs, passenger steamers…anyplace people jostled together. Often, Larney directed a team that worked in conjunction with one another: one creating a distraction, one stalling the victim with a bump or misdirection, another dipping into pockets or purses, and another cruising quickly past to take the purloined property from the “dip.” But in a pinch, Larney could work alone.

Chief Byrnes points out that Larney was a versatile criminal, as witnessed by his involvement in a robbery by sneak thieves of a bank in Galesburg, Illinois in July, 1879. The gang included Jimmy “Nosy Jones” Carroll (aka “Red-Headed Jimmy”), Patrick”Paddy” Guerin, and Billy Burke (a husband of Sophie Lyons). With the spoils, Larney bought property in Canada under the name “John Dolan,” and while there also decided to acquire a second wife, Catharine Flight.

During the period around 1879-1880, there’s an anecdote about Larney that demonstrates one of his talents:


Examples of the different looks of Molly Matches can be found in Grannan’s pocket guide to criminals:

Larney was tracked down for the Galesburg robbery in 1881–which precipitated his divorce from Mary Sullivan–and in 1882 was sent to Joliet on a ten-year sentence. With time reduced, he was freed in the fall of 1888.

He returned briefly to Cleveland before embarking on a pickpocket tour of Ontario with his friend Joe Dubuque. He was arrested in Toronto, but turned loose for lack of evidence. He returned to Ohio, only to be nabbed for plying his skills in Ashtabula County in mid-1889. That slip sent Larney to the Ohio State Penitentiary from 1889 to 1892.

After this release from prison, Larney returned to Ontario; in Toronto he was arrested for fleecing an English gentleman–not by picking his pockets–but by running a con game. Escaping a serious sentence, Larney invaded Vermont and was caught picking pockets in Burlington, Vermont, in 1894. This resulted in a prison term of four years.

Upon his release in 1898, Larney went back to Canada and was arrested for picking pockets; but while detained, officials there realized that the old bigamy charge against Larney had never been resolved, so he was sent to St.-Vincent-de-Paul Penitentiary on a seven-year sentence, which with reduced time allowed him freedom by 1904.

Molly Matches was now about sixty-eight years old; ten years earlier, authorities thought that he was too old to pick pockets. Nonetheless, Larney teamed up with an even older criminal, known by the aliases “W. H. Bankhard,” “Joseph Brown,” and “W. H. Brown,” and “William Phillips.” [None of these names match notorious criminals; could it have been the infamous Chicago pickpocket, Cabbage Ryan? Or Joe Dubuque?] They also recruited some younger accomplices, and set out on a pickpockets’ tour. They were arrested together in York, Pennsylvania; but were soon released.

The old pickpockets then traveled across the country to Southern California, with the object of hitting fairs, funerals, and passengers trains going up the Pacific coast. Starting around Christmas, 1904, along with two young assistants they were responsible for a string of reported robberies on passengers on trains and at streetcar depots between San Diego and Los Angeles. They were briefly detained, but on release hit the crowds at the funeral of Jane Lathrop Stanford.

The gang passed through San Francisco on their way to Portland, where the Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition was underway. Police now had matched the descriptions of the Los Angeles detainees and knew that Larney was leading the gang. Alerts appeared in papers in San Francisco, San Jose, Portland, and Tacoma. By the time the four men arrived in Tacoma, detectives were ready for them. They were arrested on suspicion, and the news was blared on page one:


Larney took the setback in stride, and appeared jaunty and healthy when posed for his picture, sporting a white goatee and a captain’s hat:


Larney, with or without his companions, left Tacoma and was back east by August, 1905. He was picked up by Philadelphia detectives who had chased him to Somers Point, near Atlantic City, New Jersey. That was his final known misadventure.

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