#79 Frank Reilly

Frank Downing (Abt. 1853-????), aka Frank Reilly/Riley, Frank Rawley, Frank Jourdan, Clarke, Donovan, Stuart, etc. — Burglar, Jailbreaker

From Byrnes’s text:

DESCRIPTION. Thirty-three years old in 1886. Born in New York. Medium build. No trade. Married. Height, 5 feet 6 inches. Weight, 132 pounds. Light-brown hair, brown eyes, thin face, ruddy complexion. Small, light-colored mustache.

RECORD. Reilly has been known under a great many names. He is now thirty-three years old, and was only seventeen when he made the acquaintance of the police. That was in 1870, when he was arrested in Morrisania, N.Y., for a burglary at White Plains. While in the jail at White Plains awaiting trial, he noticed that the inner door of the prison was open at dinner-time and the outer door was shut, while at other times the outer door was open and the inner door closed. By the simple expedient of hiding himself between the two doors at dinner-time he found himself a free man.

The following year he was recaptured, and sentenced to Sing Sing prison for five years. Two constables started to drive with him to the prison, and when about half-way Reilly suddenly slipped the handcuffs off, darted out of the coach, and disappeared. For two days the woods were searched in the vicinity by the constables and country folk, and then Reilly was found hidden in a swamp, half starved.

After serving two years at Sing Sing he was transferred to Clinton prison, from which he almost succeeded in escaping, having got out of his cell and was in the act of breaking open the door to the roof when discovered. He had torn his bedclothes into strips and braided them into a rope, with which to let himself down. In the latter part of 1874 his term expired, he having been granted commutation for good behavior, and he returned to New York, where he speedily became embroiled with the police. In that same year (1874) he was arrested for trying to rescue two burglars from the police, and was sent to Blackwell’s Island penitentiary for one year for disorderly conduct. He stayed there exactly two hours, walking calmly out past the keepers without being questioned by any one, and coming back to the city on the same boat which took him to the Island.

The next year (1875) he broke out of the Yorkville prison, New York City, where he was confined for stabbing a United States deputy marshal, by spreading the bars of his cell with a lever made out of a joist. He went to Philadelphia, where, in February, 1876, he and some of his companions were caught breaking into a warehouse. One of the burglars fired at a policeman, wounding him. The other policemen returned the fire, and Reilly received four bullets in his body. After spending five months in a hospital he spent two years in the Eastern Penitentiary, at Philadelphia.

On his release he returned to New York, and between 1878 and 1882 he served two terms for burglary in Sing Sing prison. It was after being released from Sing Sing the second time that he made a desperate attempt to break out of the Tombs prison, in New York, where he was awaiting trial for assault. His cell was on the eastern side of the second tier. He had a common pocket-knife, and a broken glazier’s knife, which served as a chisel. With these tools he dug through the wall, under a drain-pipe in his cell, and one night was discovered by a keeper in the prison yard. He was taken to a new cell, and when he was sentenced to Blackwell’s Island the warden breathed a sigh of relief.

After his release from the penitentiary he was arrested again in New York City, and sentenced to Sing Sing State prison on September 25, 1883, for five years, for robbing a man in Bleecker Street of $140. He escaped from the mess-room there on November 14, 1883, with Charles Wilson, alias “Little Paul” (29), by sawing the bars of a window opening into the yard, and after getting out of prison they walked to New York. Scarcely three weeks had elapsed when Reilly again got into trouble in New York City. He and some companions resisted an officer who tried to arrest them for disorderly conduct. In the row Reilly got clubbed, and was sent as a prisoner to the Presbyterian Hospital, where an officer was sent to watch him. The officer fell asleep, and Reilly, whose wounds had been bandaged, got up, stole the orderly’s clothes from under his pillow, and made his way to a second-story window, from which he dropped to the ground. He could find no shoes in the hospital, and had to walk three miles in his bare feet before reaching the house of a friend.


He was arrested again in New York City for beating a woman named Clara Devine, on New-year’s day (1884), and committed for ten days, for disorderly conduct, by Justice White, in Jefferson Market Police Court. Shortly after his committal he was identified by a detective sergeant, and taken back to Sing Sing prison on January 5, 1884, to serve out his runaway time. His sentence will expire, if he does not receive any commutation, on September 24, 1888. Should he receive his commutation, it will expire on April 24, 1887. Reilly’s picture is a very good one. It was taken in November, 1878.

Downing was a mediocre, impulsive burglar and bully, barely capable of living in society. However, those same opportunistic traits made him one of the most adept jailbreakers of his generation.

Byrnes, in this case, was relying on a January 6, 1884 New York Times article as his source material. This article offers much more complete detail:


During two separate intakes into Sing Sing, Frank admitted to having a sister: Mrs. Mary E. Cavanaugh of Milford, Massachusetts. Mrs. Cavanaugh was a widow; her most recent husband–who died shortly after their marriage in 1879–was William Cavanaugh. Mary’s maiden name was Downing. As indicated in the Sing Sing records, Frank’s January, 1869 (not 1870, as Byrnes states) conviction was under his real name, Frank Downing.

Byrnes ends Frank’s story in January, 1884–with Frank once again ensconced in Sing Sing. But, given Frank’s proclivities, that was not the final word. Two months later:


After this, Frank Downing made his final escape: from history. Nothing more is known about his fate after March, 1884.


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