William James Burke (#162)

William James Burke (1858-1919), aka Billy Burke, Billy the Kid, Charles H. Page, John Petrie, William Brady, etc. — Sneak thief

From Byrnes’ text:

DESCRIPTION. Twenty-eight years old in 1886. Born in United States. Married. Printer. Stout build. Height, 5 feet 6 inches. Weight, 140 pounds. Dark brown hair, dark gray eyes, straight nose, round face, florid complexion. Small ears. Upper lip turns up a little. Cross in India ink on his left hand, near thumb. Dot of ink on right hand, between thumb and forefinger.

RECORD. “Billy the Kid” is one of the most adroit bank sneaks in America. He is now about twenty-eight years old, of pleasing address, and claims Chicago, Ill., as his home. He is known in all the principal cities in America and in Canada. This young man is credited with being the nerviest bank sneak in the profession. He is an associate of Rufe Minor (1), Minnie Marks (187), Big Ed Rice (12), Georgie Carson (3), Johnny Jourdan (83), and several other clever men. He has been arrested one hundred times, at least, in as many different cities, and although young, has served terms in three prisons.

At 12:30 p.m. on August 1, 1881, a carriage containing two men drove rapidly up to the Manufacturers’ Bank at Cohoes, N.Y. At the same moment a man walked briskly into the bank, and toward the directors’ room, in the rear. One of the men in the carriage jumped out, and entering the building, asked the cashier, N. J. Seymour, to change a $20 bill. While the change was being made the man at the rear of the bank forced the door of the directors’ room and obtained entrance to the space behind the desk. He rushed up to the safe, the door of which stood open, and snatched a large pile of bills, done up in packages of $100 and $500 each, and amounting in all to over $10,000.

James I. Clute, the discount clerk, who sat at the desk at the time, not more than ten feet from the safe, sprang from his seat, grasped a revolver, and followed the thief. The burglar was so quickly pursued that he dropped the packages of money in the directors’ room. Clute kept after him, and tried to bar the way at the door, when the thief pushed him aside and ran quickly down two or three streets, crossed the canal, and fled toward the woods. The thief who remained in the carriage drove furiously down the street, and the man who asked for the change meanwhile had left the bank. He met the carriage a short distance from the scene, jumped in, and was driven out of the city. The thief who fled toward the woods succeeded in eluding his pursuers, and shortly after entered the house of a Mrs. Algiers and took off his clothes and crawled under the bed. A man who was at work in a mill opposite the house saw the man’s proceedings, and notified the police. The house was surrounded, and the intruder captured. A search of his clothing revealed a false mustache, a watch, $45 cash, two pocket-books, some strong cord, and other things. He was afterwards identified as Billy Burke.

After remaining in jail some little time he was released on $10,000 bail. On September 9, 1881, an attempt was made to rob the vault of the Baltimore Savings Bank, in Baltimore, Md. Four men (no doubt Burke, Jourdan, Marks, and Big Rice) entered the treasurer’s room, where were several customers of the bank, and one of them engaged the attention of the treasurer by asking him about investments, holding in his hands several United States bonds. Another then walked back toward the vault, in a rear apartment, but his movements were observed by one of the clerks, who followed and arrested him in front of the vault. The other three retreated hastily and escaped. The party arrested gave the name of Thomas Smith, but was recognized by the police as Billy Burke, alias “Billy the Kid.” In this case, as at Cohoes, N.Y., he was bailed, went West, and was arrested in Cleveland on December 12, 1881, and delivered to the police authorities of Albany, N.Y., taken there, and placed in the Albany County jail, from where he escaped on January 7, 1882.

A reward of $1,000 was offered at the time for his arrest. He was finally re-arrested at Minneapolis, Minn., on March 13, 1882, in an attempt to rob a bank there, but afterwards turned over to the Sheriff of Albany County, N.Y., taken there, tried, convicted, and sentenced to five years’ imprisonment in the Albany Penitentiary by Judge Van Alstyne (for the Cohoes bank robbery), on March 31, 1882. He was tried again the same day for breaking jail, convicted, and sentenced to one year more, making six years in all. Burke was sentenced in this case under the name of John Petrie. His sentence expired on June 2, 1886.

Warrants were lodged against him at the penitentiary some time previous from Lockport, N.Y., Detroit, and Baltimore. He was re-arrested, as soon as discharged, on the Lockport warrant, which, it is said, was obtained by his brother-in-law, for an alleged assault. The scheme was to prevent him from being taken to either Detroit or Baltimore, where there are clear cases against him. His picture is an excellent one, taken in March, 1880.

Nearly every background article on Billy Burke begins with his role in the robbery of the Manufacturers’ Bank in Cohoes, New York; but it is apparent that he was already well known as a thief and street tough by that time. He was involved in an equally famous bank robbery in July 1879, in Galesburg, Illinois, along with Jimmy Carroll, Paddy Guerin, and John Larney (aka Molly Matches).


Burke was born and raised in Massachusetts–near Peabody–by James M. and Alice Burke, both of whom came from County Tipperary, Ireland. He left home as a teen. One account suggests he was a bell-hop in Buffalo; and most sources indicate he spent the last years of the 1870s and 1880 in Chicago. Articles from Chicago papers during those years note a Billy Burke involved in knife and gun fights in company with Paddy Guerin, one of his partners in the Galesburg robbery.

Immediately after the Cohoes robbery, Burke started to be mentioned under the nickname “Billy the Kid.” This was no doubt a nod to his passing similarity to the western outlaw of the same name, Henry McCarty (aka William Bonney), who was the same age as Burke–and who was killed a month earlier than the Cohoes robbery. However, McCarty/Bonney was mainly a hired gun, whereas Billy Burke was a sneak thief.

Following his release from prison in Albany in 1886, Burke teamed up with: Sophie Van Elkens, aka Sophie Levy/Sophie Lyons, a well-known consort of sneak thieves and a lifelong shoplifter and pickpocket; George Moore aka Miller/W. H. Burton; and (according to one report) Louisa Farley aka Jourdan/Bigelow. Burke, Moore, and Sophie were arrested in St. Louis in early 1887, but were released for lack of evidence and told to leave town. When they indicated they might move on to Louisville, Kentucky, the Louisville Courier Journal decided to run an article on them complete with engravings of their mugs. It was said that Burke and Moore specialized in shoplifting silk bolts. A St. Louis paper ran an image of the type of coat they wore with large inner pockets:


Burke and Sophie decided to leave the Ohio Valley and go abroad. Later in 1887, Burke was caught with two other men robbing a Geneva bank messenger. He was placed in a Swiss jail for two years. Upon his release, he went to London, where he was caught attempting to remove a bag of cash from a bank. For this, he was jailed another year and a half.

Burke and Sophie returned to the United States, where he was seen with his old friend Paddy Guerin. Burke, Guerin, and Sophie then decided to trail a traveling circus: a common trick of sneak thieves was to make a grab of cash or store goods while town people and businessmen were distracted by an arriving circus parade. Burke was captured in Mount Sterling, Kentucky. He was sent to prison to serve a three-year sentence, while Sophie was released. Released early in 1894, Burke returned to New York and was soon caught trying to steal $450 from the offices of the New York Commercial Gazette. This misadventure cost Billy another two and a half years behind bars.

Meanwhile, the love of Billy’s life, Sophie, had over the years established herself in Detroit and made a small (legitimate) fortune in real estate. Billy attempted to join her there in 1899, but was told to leave that city by the local police. He went abroad again, and was caught attempting a robbery in Budapest. This time, he earned a tour of an Austrian prison for two years. In 1904, he returned again to Sophie in Detroit, but the local police picked him up on suspicion almost immediately. By this time, Sophie had enough pull in Detroit to get Burke released, and he stayed with her in Detroit for the next couple of years

In 1907, he was again caught, this time in Philadelphia, trying to rob a bank messenger. He was installed inside the eastern State penitentiary for three years. With early release, Billy was back on the street in early 1909. He again traveled to Europe, this time to Sweden. He failed in an attempt to rob a bank in Stockholm, and was sent away for three years. Meanwhile, back in Detroit, Sophie–who had not been arrested since 1892–started writing columns and working on a book about her criminal reminiscences, as well as providing charity to Detroit hospitals, shelters for women, and aid to the families of convicts. However, the one person she could not help or reform was her own (now) husband, Billy Burke.

Burke returned from Sweden in ill-health, spent his last years in Detroit with Sophie, and died in 1919 at age sixty.










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