Louis Wolff (#204)

Louis Wolff (Abt. 1826-????), aka French Louis, Louis Brown, Daniel Brown, John Krill, Louis Wolfrain, etc. — Burglar, Fixer (locksmith)

From Byrnes’ text:

DESCRIPTION. Fifty-nine years old in 1886. Born in France. Married. Machinist. Slim build. Height, 5 feet 10 inches. Weight, about 145 pounds. Gray hair, very thin ; hazel eyes, fair complexion. Large nose. Thin face. Small mole near right eye. Wife’s name, Annie L. Wolf.

RECORD. Brown, or French Louie, the name he is best known by, is one of the most expert burglars in America. His particular line is the manufacture of burglars’ tools and making false keys from impressions in wax. He seldom takes a hand in a burglary, unless it is a large one. He generally paves the way for the operations of confederates, and works from 6 a. m. to 8 a. m. in the morning, when his operations can generally be carried on with impunity, as any person seeing him at that hour would fancy that he was simply opening the store for the day’s business. French Louie has spent at least twenty years in State prison in America, two-thirds of it in Sing Sing prison. New York. Louie was arrested in New York City on July 15, 1877, in the act of committing a burglary at Nos. 27 and 29 White Street. He was convicted and sentenced to three years and three months in State prison at Sing Sing, N. Y., on August 16, 1877. He escaped from Sing Sing on July 16, 1878, and was re-arrested in Philadelphia, Pa., on February 18, 1879, he returned to Sing Sing prison to serve out his unexpired time. He was arrested again in New York City, on August 27, 1881, for tampering with the padlock on the store of E. H. Gato & Co., No. 52 Beaver Street. There was $50,000 worth of imported cigars in the store at the time. Louie pleaded guilty of an attempt at burglary, and was sentenced to two years and six months in State prison, on September 12, 1881, by Recorder Smyth, in the Court of General Sessions, New York City. His time expired on October 12, 1883. French Louie was arrested again, under the name of John Yole, in Hoboken, N. J., on March 18, 1886, and sentenced to ninety days under the Disorderly Act. He had some tools and keys in his possession when arrested. His case was referred to the Grand Jury, which body failed to indict him. Brown’s picture is an excellent one, taken in Philadelphia, Pa.

Chief Byrnes never indicated that the real name of “French Louie” was Louis Wolff, though he knew his wife’s name as “Annie L. Wolf.” Byrnes, as per usual, begins criminal records in the late 1870s, but “French Louis” (used much more often than “Louie”) was active much earlier–dating back to the 1850s. His paper trail of newspaper clippings dates back to 1867, when he was arrested in New York for vagrancy and (allegedly) asked to be sent to the workhouse.


Wolff is difficult to track for a couple of reasons: 1) his nickname, “French Louis,” was used at different times and places by many criminals, some of whom were active during the same period that Wolff was at work; 2) in a city full of German immigrants, “Louis Wolff” and “Anna Wolff” were common names–no census records have been positively matched with the burglar; 3) and finally, Wolff had a talent for dropping a new alias each time he was arrested:

  • “John Woolford” in 1867, New York (vagrancy)
  • “John Walton alias Louis Wolfrain” in 1868, Boston (burglarizing a furrier)
  • “Louis Wolfert” in 1876, New York (stealing silk samples)
  • “J. Daniel Brown alias James Walker” in 1877, New York (stealing fine linens). Sent to Sing Sing as “Daniel Brown.”
  • “James Welsh” in 1878, Philadelphia (sent to Eastern State Penitentiary)
  • “David Brown” in 1879, Philadelphia (recognized as escapee from Sing Sing and recaptured)
  • “John Krill” in 1881, New York (attempted butglary). Sent to Sing Sing under this name
  • “John Yole” in 1886, Hoboken, New Jersey (possessing burglary tools)

As elusive as French Louis was, the most illuminating information about him comes not from law records, newspapers, or genealogy sources.  Instead, there exist a long passage of  anecdotes picked up in prison about him by the famous Bank of England forger, George Bidwell. In 1891, Bidwell published his memoirs, titled Forging His Own Chains: The Wonderful Life Story of George Bidwell.  Wolff appears in Chapter LI as the burglar, “Luelo”:

In the year 1856 an independent detective came to two young men then engaged in the jewelry business, as above described, and informed them that within a few weeks a jeweler was to arrive in New York from Germany, bringing with him a rich stock of watches, diamonds, and other jewelry, and that the store on the first floor of No. 181 Broadway had already been rented for him, as he intended doing a wholesale business.

The first thing was to plan how to get possession of his whole stock at one stroke after his arrival. There was another room for rent in the rear, and connected by a door with the premises rented for the German. That room must be secured immediately, but how to do this was a puzzler, for neither of the two confederates could act in the matter, because they were too well known to the police. It was, therefore, necessary to obtain a man of good address to do that part of the business.

These two young rogues were called Luelo and Bruno. Luelo went to Philadelphia to a buyer of stolen goods named Strauss, and upon learning from Luelo the object of his visit, he, in two hours’ time, brought and introduced to Luelo a man called Evans, who had every appearance of being an honest business man, but who was in reality a crook, though not known to the New York police as such. Luelo told Evans, in the presence of the buyer, that they were to go to New Orleans on a good paying job, and would be gone perhaps three months, he to pay all expenses in case no money should be made. This deception was used for the double purpose of throwing the buyer off from the actual job in hand, and to avoid paying the usual percentage of the proceeds of the robbery; also to avoid the risk of being betrayed or blackmailed by him.

Luelo and Evans then left for New York. On the way the former informed the latter as to the true nature of the job in contemplation. Evans was delighted at the prospect, and said he was glad to get into the company of such large operators in other people’s property, having himself been doing a picayune business for some months just to keep from starving. He appeared to think that at last he had struck a vein of good luck, but Luelo said : “No, you are mistaken; you are not to know us too well. After the job is finished, and you have received your share, you are to go back to Philadelphia, and we are again strangers. Besides, you are not to let old ‘sheeney Strauss’ know anything.”

Evans agreed to these terms, and upon his arrival in New York began operations by calling on the real estate agent, who demanded reference, also one quarter’s rent in advance. It was easy enough to pay the quarter’s rent, but as to the reference, that was for a party of “dead-beats” a difficult thing to accomplish. However, Evans, being a man who had his wits about him, accepted the terms, and told the agent that he would take the place, call the next day, and settle the matter to the agent’s satisfaction. He then took his leave without the remotest idea as to how he could fulfill his promise. The thing must be done, and after some cogitations he was furnished with §200.

Going to the house of “Henn & Co.” in Liberty Street, he purchased all the old unsalable stock of tobacco which was left on their hands. This amounted to $1,500.00, and they were very pleased to get hold of a customer who would pay cash for their damaged goods. Evans informed the firm that he was from California, and was about opening business at No. 181 Broadway. “I have purchased these goods,” said he, “to sell to peddlers, but shall soon require a large quantity of your better qualities. My name is Evans, and as I am a stranger, here is $200 on account. Please have the goods ready for delivery when I send for them.”

Taking a receipt for the $200 and the invoice, Evans departed, but as he reached the door turned, and, coming back hastily, said: “By the way, I am in trouble about the place I have rented. I supposed that the rent in advance would be quite sufficient, but the agent also requires reference. Of course, had I known such to be the custom here, I should have come prepared with the best recommendations, but I shall have to write to San Francisco, which will delay the opening of my business. Can you advise me of any better plan?”

“Oh, do not trouble yourself,” was replied. “We shall feel it a pleasure, as well as a duty, to assist you out of your dilemma.” Writing a few words, he handed a card to Evans, and said: “Hand this card to the agent, and it will save the time of writing to San Francisco.” Evans took the card, went direct to the agent with it, and found nothing more was required, the agent being personally acquainted with Messrs. Henn & Co. Evans then paid a quarter’s rent, received the key, and departed. In order to make a show of business, some empty boxes were sent in, and a carpenter set at work putting up shelves, drawers, etc. Within ten days the German jeweler arrived, passed his goods through the custom-house, and took possession of the adjoining room, with two large trunks filled with jewelry, containing his whole stock in trade. They arrived too late in the afternoon to be unpacked and put away in the safe.

Everything had been arranged to convey this safe into Evans’s room, where it had been the intention to pry or blow it open, the tools being all ready, and little fear that the noise of exploding powder would be heard in that busy part of Broadway. Late in the afternoon Luelo, Bruno, and Evans locked themselves in their office. At the usual hour the janitor knocked at every door, then closed the building, and went home. The trio of robbers then burst open the door leading to the German’s office, when what was their astonishment at the sight of the two trunks still packed, just as they came from the custom-house. This unexpected discovery simplified their plan, as all they had to do was to engage a cart for the next morning early. Accordingly, they were on hand, got the trunks on a cart before the janitor came, and took them to the Jersey ferry, where they were deposited, the cartman dismissed, another cart engaged to take them to another place, and this operation was repeated several times; so that any attempt to trace them by the police would be frustrated.

Upon getting them to a place of safety they were opened, and found to be lined with zinc, and air tight, to preserve the valuable contents from injury during the voyage. The tops of the trunks were filled with diamond jewelry, watches set in diamonds, and underneath were solid gold rings and chains. For eight days there was nothing about it in the papers; then appeared an offer of a reward of $10,000, and the goods stated to be valued, according to the custom-house invoices, at $150,000. The whole lot was sold to two receivers for $80,000, the detective who planned the job being paid $10,000, although it was not the custom to pay them in such cases but 10 per cent of the proceeds, unless they rendered active assistance in executing the plan, in which case only were they entitled to a full share.

Evans was well content with his share ($20,000), and was hurried off to Philadelphia, thankful and hoping for another of the same kind. The two friends had $25,000 each, and this was all squandered within six months; for, says a German proverb: “Wie gewonnen, so geronnen” (easy come, easy go). Their ill-gotten gains being used up, the two pseudo friends quarreled and parted, Bruno becoming “dishonest,” having turned informer, or stool-pigeon for the police; so that none of the tribe of “cross-men” would have anything to do with him. This is another illustration of what I have elsewhere stated — that all persons acting dishonestly have, step by step, reasoned themselves into a state of mind which permits them to take part in any crime against property, and that it is quite right for them to do so. In the estimation of his fellow thief, Bruno was honest so long as he only robbed the outside public — dishonest when he turned to assist the police.

Several years later Luelo — whom I may as well state was a French-German Alsatian named Louis Wolfe — met a crook called the General, and asked him where he was going so fast. “Come along, Luelo,” said the “General,” “for I am in a hurry to get some things. My family is on board, and we are off for Brazil this afternoon.” Luelo accompanied him to bid him farewell, and when near the ship, seeing a ragged looking fellow on board, said, “General, I think I know that fellow. Who is he?” “O, that is your old pal, Bruno. I did not wish to tell you that he was so badly off. He begged me to take him along, and he is to work his passage.” “Well, you are taking your ‘hoodoo’ (bad luck) with you,” said Luelo. As Luelo came on board Bruno turned away, but Leulo called to him to face about. “Shame made the rascal change color,” said Leulo to the writer. “This is your reward from the ‘fly cops’ (detectives),” said he, “for your treachery to your pals ; but I pity you, as you were once a square man, and it is the best thing you can do to leave the country.”

Handing him $50, Luelo turned to take leave of the others and departed. Eight months later the General and his family returned to New York in poverty, a revolution having broken out in Brazil. Bruno had enlisted in the Brazilian army, and disappeared from view, doubtless dying a miserable death by violence. Thus ended another of the great army of “dead-beats,” who, after living a butterfly life, alternating between abject poverty and reveling in luxury on their ill-gotten gains, varied by longer or shorter terms of imprisonment, invariably end their lives in want and wretchedness.

The detective, never having had so large a sum before, began to gamble to increase it, was finally expelled from the police force, emigrated to California, and soon after was sent to prison for the term of ten years on the charge of highway robbery.

In one of these years of the golden time Luelo found him self at the St. Charles Hotel, New Orleans. Every winter this hotel was filled with planters and their families, and it was the place where many marriages among them were celebrated. A Spanish jeweler by the name of Lopez occupied a room, in which he kept a large stock of diamonds, etc., and found his customers among the guests. Upon investigation, Luelo ascertained that Lopez took his supper at the Spanish Club, depositing the key of the specially padlocked door at the office. The door being within sight of the office, he must devise some other way of entering the room. It could have been done by going in on pretense of pur chase, and knock the jeweler down with a sandbag, but Luelo was not the man for such brutal work. Strange traits of human nature! Nearly all thieves have conscientious scruples of some kind.

Luelo found that the hotel rested on a basement of stone arches. His plan was at once formed. As his room was next to that of Lopez, he cut a slit in the carpet, bored a hole in the floor with an extension bit, crept through and found him self in the hollow which ran along above the pillars which supported the arches. Creeping along about ten feet, and lying on his back, he bored a hole as before, slit the carpet, crept up through, and found himself under the bed. He now hastened to the bureau, opened the drawers, selecting the most valuable articles, which he put into a pillow case. With a jimmy, he then turned to the trunk, and while in the act of breaking it open he heard the padlock being taken from the door.

He instantly seized the pillow-case, and swiftly, but deliberately, walked into the bedroom. Pushing the bag down, he quickly followed, the slit in the carpet closing after him, so that any one searching the room would not notice the opening. Creeping hastily along the passage, he ascended into his own room, emptied the contents of the case on the bed, hurried on his clothes; then, opening the cases, he filled his pockets with diamond jewelry. Passing out, he locked his own room, took the key, and when passing the next room saw the padlock was not on the door, but all was quiet. Leaving the key at the office, he went out, took a carriage to Lake Ponchartrain, and the boat for Mobile at 11 p. m.; then, going from place to place, he was fortunate enough to reach Cincinnati in safety.

Here he wrote a note to a buyer of stolen goods, who came and paid $55,000 for the whole booty. The following week Luelo was on board a steamer bound for Bremen, and in a few days was with his relations at the old homestead on the Rhine. He presented his father with $5,000, each of his four brothers with $2,000, leaving himself $41,000. Soon tiring of the quiet country life, at the end of four weeks he left, traveled through Germany, Switzerland, France, and Italy, arriving in New York eleven months later with $12,000, which soon disappeared at the gaming table of John Morrissey.

The purchaser of the goods informed Luelo that there had never appeared in the papers anything about the robbery, and he inferred that the hotel paid half the loss rather than that the affair should become public. Not a strange trait of human nature, but still a singular fact, that Luelo was always grieving over what he might have had out of that trunk if Lopez had only kept away a few minutes longer.

In disposing of the jewelry, Luelo had kept back a valuable diamond ring, taking it out of the setting, and sewing it in his vest as a button. While in Paris he had three paste rings made which were exact imitations, and could not be distinguished from the original by the naked eye. Arriving in New York, he stopped at the Fifth Avenue Hotel. In a few days he told the proprietor that he was out of money, and desired a loan of $2,500 on his ring until he could get funds from home. After sending the ring to a dealer to ascertain its genuineness, he readily advanced the required sum, which Luelo duly paid, receiving back his ring. Two days later he again applied for the same sum, which, on receiving, he handed over as security one of the paste rings, telling the landlord that he could not pay him under ten days. He then went to the Metropolitan Hotel, and repeated the operation with one of the bogus rings, after which he proceeded to Montreal, where he obtained $3,000 on the third paste ring.

He afterwards invested the genuine stone in a faro bank, the proprietor allowing him $5000 for it. Of course, this sum was all gambled away in a few hours. Where are the hundreds of thousands that Luelo stole? “O, gold is only glimmer,” says the song. Where is Luelo? In State prison, where all law breakers go first or last, leaving their families, if they have any, in poverty. Luelo, who is known as French Louis and Louis Brown, was sentenced in 1867 to eight years in the Charlestown, Mass., State prison. He always asserted that he did not commit the burglary with which he was charged, and was finally, by the active exertions of his wife, pardoned in 1871.

Strange! bad men nearly always get good wives. His was a beautiful and good woman, who adhered to him through all. While serving a sentence at Sing Sing prison he escaped in July, 1878, and nine months later was recaptured and returned to his old quarters. Not long after the expiration of his term he was again apprehended and sent back to Sing Sing. He is now 63 years of age, and has passed at least 25 of that in prison. His talents, had they always been honestly employed, would have saved him those years of deprivation and degradation, and doubtless would have placed him in circumstances which would have enabled him to live continuously in as great luxury as during the intervals when he was out of prison.



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