#100 Edward Lillie

Edward Lilly (Abt. 1822-1894), aka Big Ned Lilly, Ed Lillie, Joseph Morgan, Edward Walsh, etc. — Sneak Thief, Confidence Man

From Byrnes’s text:

DESCRIPTION. Sixty-five years old in 1886. Born in United States. Sailmaker. Married. Slim build. Height, 6 feet i inch. Weight, 166 pounds. Black hair, turning quite gray; gray eyes. Wears a gray chin whisker. Has a sloop and owl in India ink on right arm ; spots of ink on left arm.

RECORD. Ed. Lillie is one of the most notorious confidence operators in America. He does not confine himself to that particular branch of the business, as he has done service for forgery and robbing boarding-houses. He is known in a number of the large cities of the United States and Canada, and is considered a very clever man.

He was arrested in New York City on November 25, 1876, under the name of James H. Potter, charged with purchasing from George C. Flint, of West Fourteenth Street, New York City, $600 worth of furniture, and giving him in payment therefor a worthless check for $750 on the National Bank of Newburg, N.Y. The bank’s certification on the check was forged, and he received $150 in change. In this case Lillie pleaded guilty, and was sentenced to two years and six months in State prison, on February 2, 1877, by Judge Gildersleeve.

He was arrested again in New York City on July 28, 1879, in company of one John Hill, alias Dave Mooney (173), charged by Mrs. Lydell, who kept a boarding-houSe at No. 46 South Washington Square, with entering the room of one of her boarders and stealing $575 in money, three watches, two chains, and a locket, altogether valued at $1,000. In this case he was discharged for lack of evidence. Lillie was arrested again on board of a Galveston steamer, lying at the dock in New York City, on January 9, 1881, charged with obtaining $50 from Miguel S. Thimon, a Texan, by the confidence game. In this case Lillie was sentenced to two years and six months in State prison, on January 12, 1881, by Judge Cowing.

He was again arrested plying his vocation along the river front in New York, in June, 1884, and sentenced to six months in the penitentiary, charged with vagrancy. He obtained a writ, and was discharged by Judge Lawrence, of the Supreme Court, on June 13. 1884. He fell into the hands of the police again in New York City, on February 27, 1885, charged by Benjamin Freer, of Gardiner, Ulster County, N. Y., with swindling him out of $250 in money. One David Johnson, of Catasauqua, Pa., also charged him with swindling him out of 102 English sovereigns on January 2, 1885, on board of an Anchor Line steamer, while lying at the dock in New York City. Johnson was on his way to Europe. Lillie was tried for swindling Johnson, and sentenced to five years in State prison on March 9, 1885, by Recorder Smyth, in the Court of General Sessions. Lillie’s picture is an excellent one, taken in November, 1876.

As per usual, Byrnes recites a criminal record starting in the late 1870s; but Ed Lilly was one of the oldest criminals in Byrnes’s book, and had already had a long career by that time. In fact, even by 1858, he was described as an extensive operator of confidence games in New York, Philadelphia, and other large cities. His origins are not known, but he likely came from New York City or Boston. As a young man he learned an honest trade–sailmaking.

In 1858, Lilly was arrested in New York for swindling a man via a con known as the “patent safe game.” [Note: in some instances this small patent safe was called a “little joker”; but “little joker” was a term also used for the object hidden under a shell in the shell game; and later, a device used to crack combination locks.] In this operation, Lilly would make the acquaintance of the victim, and then both he and the victim would happen meet a total stranger (who in actuality was an accomplice of Lilly). The stranger would show them a new small safe he had invented with a hidden chamber, inside of which was an object. While the stranger was (supposedly) distracted, Lilly would sneak the object out of the chamber in view of the victim, then would bet the stranger that the object was no longer in the safe. Lilly would then ask the victim for a loan to cover the sure bet. The victim would supply the loan. Then the stranger would open the safe and (via a trick mechanism in the safe) find that the object (actually its double) was there, losing the bet. Lilly would pretend bafflement, and would promise to meet the victim later to pay back the loan for the lost bet. In this instance the victim went to the police. Lilly was convicted and sent to Sing Sing for two years.


Upon his release, Lilly was arrested in 1860 for burglary, but escaped conviction. At the onset of the Civil War, Lilly moved to Washington, DC, and opened up a canvas tent and flag store–his skills as a sailmaker were now in high demand, as the War required huge amounts of canvas camp goods. As busy as he was, Lilly was often mentioned in the Washington newspapers for getting into fights in gambling houses, carrying concealed weapons, intoxication, and attending prize fights.

It was while in Washington that Lilly proved he had a heart. He became upset over a lost dog:


He had even named the dog for his favorite gambling game, Faro. Lilly seemed less attached to his female companions: including Kate Walsh, Sarah Hart, and Margaret Lilly–the last of whom ditched Ned Lilly in favor of the affections of fence Moses Erich (to mention just two of Mag Lilly’s several notorious male companions).

In 1870, Ed Lilly was arrested in Syracuse, accused by one of his victims. Police there confiscated Lilly’s baggage, and found some fascinating items:


During the 1870s, Lilly added forged checks and counterfeit bonds to his kit, a risky choice, in that being caught with those subjected him to the risk of additional charges. It was on a charge of Forgery that he was convicted in New York in 1877 and sent to Sing Sing under the alias James H. Potter, the crime that Byrnes first recites in Lilly’s history.

As Byrnes recounts, Lilly was sent to Sing Sing two more times, in 1881 and 1885. In 1889, Lilly was arrested with bogus bonds in his possession at the Hoboken ferry terminal, and was consequently sent to the Hudson County Penitentiary (Snake Hill) for six months.

In 1894, Lilly checked into a Baltimore boarding house under the name “Alexander Stewart.” He was found one morning in his room, asphyxiated by gas escaping from an unlit lamp. He would have died anonymously, had it not been for the distinctive tattoos that he, like many criminals, bore on his body: in his case a sailing ship and an owl. Those features had been recorded several times in Sing Sing, and were recognized by New York officials.





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