#9 William Coleman

William Coleman (Abt. 1847-19??), aka Billy Coleman, Walter Williams, William Fanning, Eugene Johnson, George Watson, Henry E. Hill, William Frost, George Holden, etc. — Sneak thief

From Byrnes’ text:

DESCRIPTION. Thirty years old in 1886. Born in United States. Married. No trade. Slim build. Height, 5 feet 11 inches. Weight, 155 pounds. A fine, tall, smooth-faced fellow. Brown hair, blue eyes, fair complexion; wears a No. 9 shoe. Has W. C. and N. Y. in India ink on right arm, slight scar on the right side of face, mole in the centre of his back.

RECORD. Billy Coleman was born in New York, and is well known in all the principal cities in America, especially in Chicago, where he has lived. He was arrested in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., and sentenced to Sing Sing prison for five years, on October 14, 1869, for burglary in the third degree. He escaped from Sing Sing on a tugboat on August 17, 1871. After his escape he went South, and was convicted and sentenced to three years in Pittsburgh, Pa., and served his time in the Western Penitentiary.

He was arrested again in New York City for attempting to pick pockets, and sentenced to one year in the penitentiary in the Court of Special Sessions, New York, on January 22, 1876, under the name of Thomas Moriarty. After his discharge he went West, and the record shows that he was arrested in Chicago, Ill., and sentenced to one year in Joliet prison on March 9, 1882. His time expired in January, 1883. Coleman then started around the country with Rufe Minor (1) and Johnny Price, sneaking banks. Coleman and Price were arrested in Augusta, Ga., on March 26, 1884, for sneaking a package of money, $2,700, from a safe in that city. After abstracting $150 from the package and dividing it, Coleman, Rufe Minor and Price parted for a few days. Two days afterwards Price and Coleman were arrested, and shortly afterwards tried and convicted; they were sentenced to seven years in State prison each on May 7, 1884. Rufe Minor came north and was arrested in New York City on June 28, 1884, and taken to Augusta, Ga., by a requisition. Coleman has been arrested and convicted of several other robberies throughout the country, under aliases. This fact makes it difficult to give data correctly. He still owes time in Sing Sing prison, N. Y. His picture is a good one.

Billy Coleman’s criminal career followed a depressingly familiar pattern: months of freedom interspersed by years of imprisonment. Chief Byrnes’ recitation stopped less than halfway through Billy’s cycle of prison sentences. After his release from the 1884 seven-year stretch handed down in Augusta, Georgia, Billy went to Cincinnati–only to be run out of town by the police there (who may have confused his record with that of a different Billy Coleman). In 1893, he was caught attempting the robbery of a Rochester, New Hampshire post office, an escapade that placed him in the State Prison at Concord for three years. In 1900, he was found inside the Internal Revenue offices in Washington, D.C. in possession of purloined revenue stamps. Because he did not escape the building, he was only given five months in jail.

By this stage of his career, among the few people that Billy brought joy to were the patrolmen and detectives that nabbed him–and then discovered what a famous criminal they had caught. However, these arrests paled compared to the publicity surrounding Coleman’s most famous caper.

In 1905, while casing out the rural, but relatively wealthy, community of Cooperstown, New York, Billy stumbled across the Clark family estate. The Clark family had earned its riches as partners of sewing-machine magnate Isaac Singer; and also through Manhattan real-estate deals. The 5000-acre Cooperstown property that Billy found was managed by F. Ambrose Clark, a noted equestrian and step-son of Bishop Henry Potter , leader of the New York City Episcopal diocese. When Billy first saw the estate’s office building–where accounts where received and paid–he believed it to be a local bank.

During a lunch break, Billy noticed all the office workers leave the building. Curious, he slipped in and saw the office contained a floor safe that had not been locked. He peered inside, but saw no cash–just a tin box. He took the tin box and went down to a basement room to break it open; it was a struggle to pry it open, and the effort gave Billy a nosebleed. But he eventually cracked open the box and inside he found the jewelry collection of Mrs. F. Ambrose Clark, including many diamonds. Billy beat a retreat, hardly believing his good luck.

The story of the lawmen’s chase after Billy Coleman was the subject of (at least) four different, widely-publicized, and sometimes conflicting accounts–each of which emphasized the role of different detectives. In an April 15, 1906 article written for the Chicago Inter Ocean, William A. Pinkerton presented a straightforward, neutral account of the tracking down and arrest of Coleman, in which a team of several Pinkerton agents (hired by the Clarks) took the lead. Pinkerton used the neutral “we” in describing the agent’s actions, leaving it to the reader to interpret whether that included William A. Pinkerton himself, or just the agency’s employees in general.


However, in 1908, a self-promoting former detective in Chicago’s police department, Clifton Wooldridge, published a book, Twenty Years a Detective, in which he claimed to have been in on the tracking down Coleman through the use of “we” :

“From descriptions of the thief we obtained from witnesses who had seen him loitering in the vicinity of the Estate office, and from the manner in which the robbery was
committed, we believed it bore the earmarks of Coleman’s work. Subsequent developments satisfied us that our conclusions were correct, and we caused Coleman’s arrest, two weeks after the robbery, in New York, by Police Headquarters’ detectives.”

Wooldridge’s bombastic book made many other suspicious claims to burnish his credentials; but there is no evidence at all that the Chicago Police Department or Wooldridge had any role in solving this crime, and therefore had no right to use the collective “we.” [Elsewhere in his 1908 book, Wooldridge indicates that he had been “released” of his detective job a year earlier.]

A few years later, in 1911, Walter G. Chapman of the International Press Bureau hired a hack writer, George Barton, to do a series of serialized articles on the “Adventures of the World’s Great Detectives.” One of these focused on Coleman, the Clark Jewels, and William A. Pinkerton. Barton cast Pinkerton as the lead actor in catching Coleman. According to Barton, Pinkerton realized that Coleman was responsible from the very start:

“After Mr. Pinkerton had obtained all of the details concerning the Cooperstown robbery, he mentally compared the circumstances with the methods of the great criminals he had known. Finally, he looked up with the light of discovery in his eyes. He spoke to one of his assistants. ‘There is only one man in American who could have had the nerve and ingenuity to do that job.’

‘Who’s that?’

‘Billy Coleman.'”

Barton’s fictionalized version also portrayed William Pinkerton on the scene to interrupt Coleman as he sought to dig up the ground where he had hidden the jewels; in reality, several Pinkerton agents watched as Coleman dug, and let him dig in the wrong spot uninterrupted. They later dug nearby and found the stash, and arrested him at his home. However, Barton’s version made a much more heroic tableau:


In a letter to publisher Chapman,  dated May 21, 1911, an irate William Pinkerton listed his objections to the Barton article, stating he did not know Barton, did not offer him an interview, and had no personal connection with the case, which was handled by his brother Robert A. Pinkerton and George S. Doughterty, who later joined the New York Police.

Ironically, one of the main Pinkerton agents involved in the case, the aforementioned George S. Dougherty, was not above touting his own role in the case. His version of events honed close to the truth, and appeared in a syndicated, full-page article that first appeared in 1913. It, too, had melodramatic graphics, but depicted the Pinkerton men digging up the jewels:


The headline of this article was “How I Solved a $100,000 Gem Robbery.”

Billy Coleman was still alive (and still thieving) when all these accounts were published. He must have been chagrined to see so many people making money off the episode for so many years, events which had brought him no benefit except more years in jail.

Arrested in 1918, now over seventy, Billy’s legacy caused one newspaper editor to reflect:

“Why does this man commend himself to our attention? Not because he is a great criminal, for he is in truth only a weak and pallid offender. His biggest robbery was a fiasco because he was so clumsy as to cache his jewels under the eyes of his shadows. Neither is he one of that type of successful criminals who achieve through their very lack of celebrity. Coleman has always been more widely known than any deed of his. And, where success is concerned, the man has spent the greater part of his time since 1869 in prison…What then is his eminence? Persistence, unchangeableness, frozen habit. For fifty years this pitiful old man has been going in and out of the portals of prisons. Not for one hour of breath has he been from under the shadow of the clutching hand of the law. He is at home only in the cell or its purlieus, the walks of crime.”










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