Joe Elliott (1853-1892/3), aka Frederick Elliott Frederick Reilly, Joseph Reilly, Little Joe Elliott — Forger, Burglar
Chief Byrnes’ account of Joe Elliott’s career is one of the longest in Professional Criminals of America, but even so, it only begins to convey the dramatic events surrounding the forging tour that went from America to London, to Turkey, and back in the mid 1870s. Byrnes elaborated on some of the details given under this entry elsewhere in his book, under the entry for Charlie Becker. In fact, Byrnes was unaware that that during that trip, Elliott was recruited by master criminal Adam Worth and that they perpetrated perhaps the most famous art robbery of the nineteenth century: the theft of Gainsborough’s painting The Duchess of Devonshire.
That story is told more completely in Ben Macintyre’s The Napoleon of Crime: The Life and Times of Adam Worth, Master Thief. Macintyre’s version focuses on Worth’s role, but lays out the exploits of Joe Elliott. Another (much earlier) writer, American journalist and author Jack Lait, also sensed that the narrative around these events was compelling. In 1919, he wrote a series of four long articles for the Chicago Tribune on the principal figures in these events: Little Joe Elliott; Joe Chapman and his wife Lydia; Charlie Becker; and Adam Worth. Unlike much of Lait’s other column writings, these articles were never reprinted in any of his books.
Lait was a feature writer, not a historical researcher, so there are factual errors in his account of Joe Elliott. And–unlike the Pinkertons, British police, and most written accounts–Lait accuses Elliott of the murder of Lydia Chapman, based on a rumor told to him by “a trustworthy thief.” Even so, in this one article Lait captures the narrative of Elliott’s life in a way that the dry recitation of his arrests and convictions can not. The result is a classic of American feature writing:
Little Joe: The Career of America’s Most Notorious Bank Robber (1919) by Jack Lait
Fancy a lad, born in an alley back of a brickyard, of Irish immigrant parents; at 25 he is a man about town in New York, mingling with the bloods and dudes, actresses and rounders; he is a scintillating conversationalist; he is as well and as tastefully dressed as any man; he is chivalrous and courtly towards women; he never flashes extravagant sums of money, but he is plentifully supplied for all needs of this financially exacting existence. What would you say was this young fellow’s means of livelihood? What calling had be adopted to refine his manners?
The man is Frederick Reilly, and he is the most notorious bank robber in America, the most desperate safeblower on earth, the most daring forger of his time. His presentable features deck every rouges’ gallery over the civilized maps. He is known to the International police as Joe Reilly, as Little Joe, as Joe Elliott.
Little Joe is dead. Before his end he had punctuated one of the most varied and thrilling criminal careers ever compiled, had stolen millions, had married and lost and remarried, and again lost one of the most bewitching stage stars of his period, had rifled strong boxes in many states as well as in England, France, and Belgium, had flooded Turkey with spurious securities, and had escaped prison at Smyrna, had been held by Greek mountain banditti for ransom, had been loved by and had murdered the beautiful wife of one of his “pals,” had served more than a score of years behind bars, died a miserable wreck and a penniless pauper in a charity hospital ward. That man had lived!
As a boy he started shoplifting in his native town. Veteran crooks saw in him material for higher endeavors than counter snatching, and he was taken into a band of bank sneaks. His first undertaking in this art cost a private bank in Worcester, Mass., $20,000, which Little Joe ” hooked” with a long, slender wire that came out of his sleeve to a fish hook end, and which he slipped between the bars of the teller’s cage into the band of about twenty $1,000 currency notes while his associates distracted the man’s attention.
He dallied with this type of thievery for years, when he was at large, stole a lavish livelihood, and affected the bright lights of the rialtos for his divertissement. Leading players, sporting men of his generation, and the other celebrities of the bubble cafes were his cronies.
His bravado drew the attention of Charlie Becker—”the Dutchman,” he was called—the most expert forger that ever uttered a false instrument. Becker needed just such a man —one who looked above suspicion and one who had steel nerve—for a “layer down.” Becker could issue “dirty paper” without limit; his earning capacity was held down only to what could be negotiated. So he coupled up with Little Joe, to the great woe of many financial institutions.
Booth’s theater, in New York, had a saloon on the ground floor. It was owned by Ivan Siscovitch, a Russian forger, and was the forgers’ rendezvous, where men of that craft foregathered. Becker, Siscovitch, Elliott, Joe Chapman, and others “blew” to Turkey, where they cashed letters of credit purporting to have been sold by Coutts Bank, London. Adam Worth, the great thief, who with Elliott and “Junka” Phillips stole the Gainsborough painting in London, was the backer and steersman of the expedition. Worth, however, did not accompany it beyond Paris.
In Smyrna the gang was arrested, tried with Turkish justice, and sentenced to the world’s foulest prison. Worth hurried to Smyrna, and by devious devices procured the liberation through bribery of all except Chapman. The escaped convicts fled into Greece, where in savage mountain wilds all were seized by bandits, who chose Elliott as messenger and kept the others as hostages. Elliott traveled to London, where Worth gave him $10,000, the required sum, and Elliott returned, paid the kidnappers, and with his freed companions reached Paris. Elliott proceeded to London and there met Lydia Chapman, wife of the lone blackguard left at Smyrna.
Worth ordered Elliott, Becker, and Siscovitch to board at Mrs. Chapman’s, as he proposed to see her provided for. She was a woman of extraordinary beauty, and the physical bearing of a duchess, though she bad been an accomplice to the criminal enterprises of her husband, likewise a distingue individual, and others. Mrs. Chapman fell violently in love with Little Joe. Elliott, Becker, and Siscovitch left one night for the continent on a little junket into Berlin with “wrong” British government bonds. The following morning Mrs. Chapman died in convulsions, having been poisoned. Her jewelry and money had disappeared. Elliott, Becker, and Siscovitch returned and gave themselves up, all denying any knowledge of the tragedy. No one was convicted.
But I have it from a friend of Chapman’s, a trustworthy thief, that Chapman, who tore his beard and mourned for years over his wife’s death, bought, many years later, in New York, the locket which his wife had worn; he bought it from my informant, who swore to him, as he did to me, that he had bought it from Little Joe Elliott.
That Elliott was not above such a deed is certain. Worth had his redeeming qualities —he loved his family and he “went the limit” for his accomplices; many other scalawags and thieves have strains of good motivations by some human impulses. But Elliott, except for his gentlemanly appearance and manners and, at times, fierce courage and spendthrift liberality, had no saving graces. The sign on his heart was the double cross, and before he died he attempted to sell out Worth, his friend. He betrayed Chapman after he had deserted him, then murdered Chapman’s wife, who loved him, because he had tired of her–and robbed her before he left her to die.
The other storied romance of his life was not born of the sane love of a man—it was the frenzied passion of a maniac; and its queen, its fool, its victim, though its heroine, was the most beloved woman of her day in public life. Little Joe met Kate Castleton, the darling of minstrelsy, when she was at the gateway of her vast popularity, playing her first protracted New York engagement. He courted her violently; madly, persistently; he smothered her with costly flowers, he showered her with diamond studded gifts, he lay in wait for her at the stage door after every performance, he sat alone in a stage box during every performance. And in brief time the little wicked fellow conquered her and and won her.
She knew what he was—or, as she thought, what he had been. Hundreds warned her against this smartly tailored thief with the engaging presence. But he promised her everything. And she went with him to the Little Church Around the Corner one evening after the performance. Her supporting company and a few chosen notables of the night life were witnesses. The wedding supper was at Delmonico’s, and the bride hectically happy. After a honeymoon tour of a month the pair went to live in handsome apartments on Twenty-first street.
Elliott was possessed of considerable money at that time, and he induced his bride to renounce the stage. All seemed serene until he was arrested for having passed a forged draft for $64,000 on the New York Life Insurance company. Sadly, the disillusioned wife returned to her footlights. She faced the public bravely–the public which knew her woes, for the newspapers rang with them. And the American audiences applauded.
While being taken to the Tombs from court, Elliott bowled his guard over and escaped. He was arrested again seven months later as party to a $3000 safe blowing in Boston, and was returned to New York and tried on the $64,000 job. Becker turned State’s evidence, procured immunity for himself, and Elliott went to Sing Sing for four years.
His wife’s love returned with his tribulations. She visited him whenever she was allowed to, and used every influence at her command to have Little Joe pardoned, but found it impossible. She was received by the governor and made a personal plea for a commutation, but failed.
On his release the dashing young swindler made renewed promises of honest behavior, and his brave wife believed him. But he grew jealous of her career, which she refused to again interrupt, and made himself so disagreeable that she was forced to divorce him. But within less than a year she married him once more. He then became her manager, and for three years conducted her tours in “Pop,” beginning with her huge success in that comedy at the old Bijou. But jealousy again possessed him. He disappeared,returned unexpectedly, met his wife leaving the theater in company with a young New York aristocrat, and fell upon her escort with a blackjack. Elliott felled him, then brutally kicked him, smashing his skull and nose. He escaped. Kate divorced him shortly afterward and married Harry Phillips, her manager in “Crazy Patch.”
Elliott, having alienated the tough thieves with whom he had operated, and having actually remained honest and remote from the haunts of criminals for some years, now “hooked up” with Gus Raymond and George Wilkes, forgers, and with them “took” a bank in Rochester for $2500. They arrived there while the town was alive with a race meeting. Wilkes prepared a draft as issued by the Bank of Montreal on the Bank of the Republic of New York. Elliott, under the name Edwardes, and Raymond, under the alias of James W. Conklin, each rented an office, and each engaged a clerk. Raymond opened an account at the Flour City National Bank; Elliott opened one at the Commercial National bank.
Elliott deposited the worthless “draft” and sent his clerk to Raymond with a check for $2500 to Raymond’s credit. Raymond sent his clerk to Elliott’s bank, had the check certified, then sent his clerk to his own bank and cashed the check. Two weeks later the trio turned up in Dayton, O., and attempted the same game with different names. They were arrested, and, as usual, made a scramble to sell each other for their own liberty. Elliott was “whipsawed” between the two and was about to be sentenced when he escaped. Later he was rearrested and sentenced to Sing Sing.
While there he sent for the Pinkertons and sought from them those influential factors a pardoning parole and a reward on representations that he could “turn up” the immortal Gainsborough painting. He glibly “squawked” against his old partner and benefactor, Worth, whose theft of the masterpiece had until then remained a mystery. He satisfied the detectives that Worth, Phillips, and Elliott himself had stolen the painting. But Little Joe did not know the whereabouts of the canvas, having accepted from Worth long before that a price for any equity that he might have in the stolen treasure by virtue of his participation in the burglary.
Elliott served his term. With new worthies he made up some presentable American railroad bonds and crossed to Amsterdam, where he and the gang were seized, but Elliott, by a master stroke of agility and desperation, contrived to destroy the evidence even as the clumsy Dutch police had them in hand. After a long trial the band was acquitted, but run out of the country.
Elliott dropped down to Paris, where he had figured in many atmospheric and daring bits of crooked business, not the least malodorous of which had been the episode at the American bar, where he had robbed a diamond merchant of $25,000 worth of gems in a satchel while Adam Worth was running the world famous establishment as monitor for its proprietor, his friend and fellow robber, “Piano Charlie” Bullard, who had been forced to fly France.
In Paris, Elliott became a gambler and a desperado. He frequented the gilded gaming palaces of the day and place, and, when “in luck,” won large stakes, and when “hoodooed” robbed the clubs at the point of a revolver. He was feared and fearless. Once he was arrested, but he broke the bastille and crippled the man who had testified against him with four bullets in a populous cafe, then bullied his way out in safety with the smoking weapon.
He returned to New York and called on the chief of detectives, Inspector Byrnes, pledging good behavior if the police would let him alone, and holding out that he intended to go into the theatrical business, having brought with him from Paris a young comedienne who had become the furore of French cabarets. Byrnes wished him luck and said he would be “decent” as long as Elliott remained decent.
The girl and Elliott were soon afterward arrested for fighting on the street, and she told a sensational and probably veracious tale of how Elliott had beaten and cowed her. A hint which she dropped to the police unwittingly convinced the Pinkertons that Elliott had again been involved in swindles, and a close watch was placed on him. He was followed out of the city and arrested with two old confederates after they had bilked a country bank. Strong pressure was brought by the Pinkertons and the New York police in the prosecution, and Elliott “went down” this time for fifteen years, his longest and last sentence.
His health broke after he served a fifth of this “stretch,” and he was pardoned to die. With scarcely a dollar, his eyes deeply sunken into his shapely head, the bristling, raven hair of old splotched with sickly gray, his small frame bent and weak, he staggered out. He was “picked up” in New York as a vagrant and sent to a public hospital, where he died, cursing Kate Castleton, who had loved him, and all the other friends whom he had wronged and outraged.