John Larney (#11)

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

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

Following the Civil War (in which he admirably enlisted–by his count–93 times), 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, beach resorts, 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 pickpocketing; 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 pickpocketing 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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