#18 Charles Becker

John Charles Becker (1849-1916), aka Charlie Becker, Charley Becker, Dutchman Becker — Forger

Link to Byrnes’ entry on Charles Becker

John Charles Becker was not born in Germany, as Byrnes suggests, but in New York to parents who had long before arrived from Germany. His father, Valentin Becker, met and married Maria Margaretha Blinn in New York in 1838. John Charles was the fourth child born to the pair, arriving in 1849. Around 1856-7, the Becker clan (now numbering five offspring) moved to Chicago, but by 1865–with two more additions–they moved back to Brooklyn.

In his teens, John Charles (known to friends as Charlie) learned the printing trade and the process of lithography. He came in contact with another German lithographer living in New York, Clemenz Haering. Haering also operated a saloon on Stanton Street in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. In 1871, 21-year-old Charlie married Haering’s daughter, Anna C. Haering, then just 16 or 17 years old. Charlie was not a drinker–he avoided bad habits that might affect his penmanship–but he did enjoy rubbing shoulders with criminals. Charlie’s knowledge of printing, lithography, and bank forms made him a target for recruitment by these shady characters. Moreover, his father-in-law, Clemenz Haering, was not above engaging in a bit of forgery/counterfeiting.

In August 1872, Charlie joined with Joe Chapman, Joe Elliott (aka Frederick Elliott/Little Joe Reilly) and Carlo Sescovitch to rob the Third National Bank of Baltimore. They entered the bank at night and cracked open its vault, taking away cash, bonds, and blank bank forms, totaling between $200,000 and $300,000–an enormous sum for the period. Many of the bonds were registered bonds, which thieves usually ignored because their numbers can be traced. The theft of these bonds, along with the blank forms, indicated to detectives that the robbers had a forger among them that could use the forms and change the numbers on the bonds. Witnesses had seen men around the bank in the days before the robbery, and were able to give descriptions of them. From those descriptions, detectives thought they knew who to look for–but Chapman and the others could not be found anywhere.

There was no rational reason that Charlie Becker, with his unmatched handwriting and engraving skills, needed to be involved in the heist itself; like other “penman,” he could have stayed safely in a studio with his pens, brushes, and inks. But he seemed to enjoy the thrill of crime.

The four thieves had already left the country before police could make those identifications. However, they realized the danger of traveling with the stolen bonds. Before leaving on a steamer to Europe, the stack of bonds was left with Chapman’s wife, Lydia, who was unknown to authorities. She was under instructions to bring the bonds to England in a trunk once the waiting thieves sent her the signal.

One of the reasons that the series of events from 1872-1873 involving Becker, Chapman, Joe Elliott, Sescovitch, and Adam Worth is so compelling is that it involves so many classic crime story elements: a huge bank heist; partners who distrust one another; capture and imprisonment; treachery; a prison escape; kidnapping; romantic rivals; an unsolved murder; a theft of a classic artwork; a criminal mastermind…and baffled authorities.

One of those frustrated lawmen was Andrew Lewis Drummond, operative of the United States Secret Service, who was assigned the job of finding and stopping the Baltimore bank thieves–not so much for the sake of the stolen items themselves, but to prevent Becker from becoming the most dangerous forger in America. Years later (in 1908), Drummond wrote about his role in the story–which was to follow the trunk of bonds that was in the possession of Lydia Chapman:

TRUE DETECTIVE STORIES: TWO WOMEN AND A RED TRUNK

BY A. L. DRUMMOND, FORMERLY CHIEF OF THE U. S. SECRET SERVICE

Early in August, 1872, the Third National bank of Baltimore was robbed. The vault was blown at dead of night and between $200,000 and $300,000 taken. A large part of this sum was in coin and currency. The rest was in registered bonds and coupon bonds. The robbers escaped without leaving a clew of their identity.

Coupon bonds can be cashed at any bank as readily as one government note can be exchanged for another. Registered bonds cannot. Ordinary thieves therefore do not take bonds the numbers and the names of the owners of which are matters of record. Forgers are the exception. With their secret chemicals for removing printing and writing inks without leaving a stain that even a magnifying glass will show, they can make use of registered bonds. The fact that a large lumber of blank drafts and checks had been stolen also indicated that one of the robbers was an expert forger.

From these bare facts it soon developed that the robbers were Joe Elliot, Joe Chapman, Charlie Becker and a Russian. Becker was the forger — one of the best that the world ever produced. Careful search revealed their movements for several days preceding the robbery. It was even found that men answering their descriptions were seen near the bank on the day it was rifled. But when all these facts became known the earth seemed to have swallowed the men who were wanted.

More than a month passed and nothing was heard of them. On September 17, the chief of the Secret Service called me to his office. Beside him sat a man with a long white beard. The chief introduced him to me as Clement Herring, father of Charlie Becker’s wife.

“This man runs a saloon on Stanton street,” said the chief. “He expects his daughter and Mrs. Chapman to call on him tomorrow morning. Be on watch outside, and if they come he will signal you. He says they are going to leave for Europe in the afternoon, and that among their baggage will be a small red trunk containing the registered bonds stolen from the Third National. Mr. Herring thinks they will get the trunk either on Lexington avenue near Twenty-second street or on Eighth avenue near Forty-eighth street.

“Here’s what I want you to do. Once you get sight of these women, follow them wherever they go. If they get the red trunk, follow them on to the ship and learn the number of their stateroom and the names under which they depart — they are not going to use their own names. When you get these facts put them in this letter that I have written to the chief of police of Southampton, and give it to the purser on the ship, who will deliver it to an officer waiting at the pier on the other side. He will be notified that you are coming and will know what to do. Don’t arrest the women; don’t seize the trunk.”

At 8 o’clock the next morning I took up the watch in front of Herring’s saloon. I waited more than an hour before anything happened. Then a stylish carriage drove up. Two women alighted, and in the moment that elapsed before they descended the three steps that led to Herring’s basement saloon I took careful note of their appearance.

Each woman was apparently 30 years old and strikingly handsome. Both were gowned in the height of fashion. The blonde woman, who I afterward learned was Mrs. Becker, was a trifle shorter than her companion. Mrs. Chapman, who was a statuesque brunette of perhaps live feet eight or nine. Both women were wreathed in smiles and apparently radiantly happy. They were going to Europe to meet their husbands, and evidently the prospect pleased them.

Two or three times while they were inside I walked past the place and caught glimpses of them through the window. The two women seemed to be sipping at glasses of Rhine wine, while they talked to the gray whiskered man who sat on the other side of the table. Mrs. Becker did most of the talking. The lightheartedness that marked her manner in the street had departed. She spoke earnestly and seriously. The man listened, almost sadly.

While I was waiting I sent a newsboy to call a hack driver who had often driven me on business trips, and when, about 11 o’clock, the women left the saloon, I was ready to follow them. But I had not taken into account the possibility that the driver might not come with the accustomed cab. He didn’t. He came with what was the most fashionable turnout of the time — a Clarence coach, drawn by two horses. This fact is of importance only because the semicircular front of the coach was glass and I was dressed like a stevedore — slouch hat, blue shirt, rough trousers and no coat or waistcoat. I had contemplated the possibility that my work that day might take me along the docks, and had dressed accordingly.

However, there was nothing to do but to jump into the coach and tell the driver to follow the women wherever they went. They cut in and out through side streets and finally turned into Lexington avenue. I remember with what amazement I was stared at by others who drove fashionable carriages like my own. Behind the semicircle of glass I sat like the modern “demonstrator” in a show window — apparently a stevedore seeing the sights at $8 a day!

Near the corner of Twenty-second street — at the number at which the aged man had said they might get the red trunk — the carriage containing the women halted. As they alighted and went up the steps to the house I saw that they were again the happy, frolicsome women who were overjoyed at the prospect of seeing their husbands. All of the earnestness, and the seriousness with which they talked to Mrs. Becker’s sad eyed father had been swept away in a swirl of smiles.

Ten minutes after the door closed upon them a servant came out with some hand baggage. He placed it on the carriage at the driver’s feet and went back after some more. I watched carefully for the red trunk, but it did not come. In a few minutes the women appeared, still smiling. They entered their carriage and were driven up •Lexington avenue to Twenty-eighth street, then over to and up Broadway.

I followed along in my Clarence coach, keeping half a block behind them. They went straight up Broadway to Eighth avenue, and from there to the Forty-eighth street house that Herring had told me about. About an hour after they entered the premises the red trunk was brought out. A few minutes later the women followed.

Telling my driver to be sure not to lose them, I resumed my pursuit. They drove straight to Cortlandt street and, still secluded in their carriage, went on the ferry. I let a few teams get in after them and then drove on the boat.

 I knew they were headed for the Cunard piers at Jersey City, which at that time were just below the present slips of the Pennsylvania railroad. I also knew they had taken passage on the old sidewheel steamboat Cuba. So while we were crossing the river I left my carriage to look for the ship. To my amazement I saw that it was not at the pier. The next instant I saw it lying in the middle of the river. The tide had gone out at noon and the dock, not having been dredged as deeply as docks are now, the ship had gone out into the stream. Late passengers would be compelled to go out on a tender.

This was a possibility that I had not contemplated. It is comparatively easy to board a ship lying at her pier and almost impossible to get aboard a tender. While I was wondering what I should do, the ferry boat nosed her way into the slip and I was compelled to do something quickly. This is what I did:

I had worked my way among the teams up to a point perhaps 50 feet behind the vehicle in which were the two women. When their carriage drove off I followed it. When they alighted, I was almost beside them, and when their handbags were put off the carriage I grabbed two of them and made for the gangplank leading to the tender.

Fortunately the crew of the tender thought I was a stevedore, and the stevedores thought I belonged to the tender. So nobody molested me and I got aboard. As soon as I could I looked for the women and was rejoiced to find that they had taken seats at the opposite end of the boat. I kept away from them all the way over and proceeded them up the ladder to the ship. Once on board the Cuba, I contrived to get behind them in order to let them lead the way to the stateroom. They walked down the starboard side of the cabin to a point half way between the middle of the ship and the stern and then turned in to a little hall. I knew their stateroom could be only a few feet away, so I asked them if the baggage I carried belonged to them. They looked at it and replied that it did. I asked where I should put it and they led me to their staterooms, the numbers of which I  noted. Then I held up a handbag which bore the name of “Mrs. Bruce Cutting” and asked to which of the women it belonged. Mrs. Chapman replied that she was Mrs. Cutting. The other bag was marked “Mrs. Steward,” which Mrs. Becker told me was her name. Mrs. Chapman was evidently impressed with my desire to make no mistake in delivering their baggage, as she gave me a 25 cent tip.

This part of the work over, I went to the writing room and, in the letter written by the chief of the Secret Service to the chief of police of Southampton, filled in the names under which Mrs. Becker and Mrs. Chapman had departed, together with the number of their stateroom. Then I sought the purser and presented my letter of introduction.

“Did you get track of them?” he asked.

I replied that I had and gave him their names. He consulted his passenger list and ran his forefinger down the column of names.

“You’re right,” said he. “Here they are, and the number of their stateroom is the same that you gave to me.”

I handed him the chief’s letter to the Southampton chief, urged him to deliver it before the women could leave the ship, and went aboard the tender just as the Cuba was preparing to get under way.

The rest of this narrative had to do with events that took place in Europe. And it should be borne in mind that in following the women and the red trunk the purpose was twofold— first, to learn the whereabouts of the band that robbed the Third National bank of Baltimore; and, second, to nab Becker if he should attempt to alter and sell any of the registered bonds. The women had committed no crime — we could not prove guilty knowledge on their part concerning the contents of the trunk — therefore we had no occasion to arrest them. And there was nothing to be gained by seizing the trunk, since the payment on all of the stolen bonds had been stopped. We wanted only Becker and his band.

When the Cuba reached Southampton, an officer representing the chief of police was at the pier. He read the letter that was handed to him by the purser and followed the two women ‘when they left the ship. Half an hour later he was on the same train with them, bound for London, where they remained a night. The next morning they went to Paris. And the red trunk was among the baggage that followed them to the hotel at which they stopped in the French capital.

The Southampton detective engaged accommodations at the same place and for a week nothing of importance developed. The women, who seemed to be plentifully supplied with money, went out every morning, evidently intent upon replenishing their already large stock of finery. In the evenings they went to the theaters.

One morning the Southampton detective waited in vain to see them go out for their accustomed shopping tour. An hour after the time when they usually entered the carriage he began to be nervous. Finally he went to the clerk and, after having led up to the subject gradually, made some reference to the “beautiful English women” whose beauty had been the subject of considerable comment. The clerk didn’t know whom he meant. The detective had purposely misstated their nationality in order not to display a knowledge of them that they might regard as suspicious if it should come to their ears. But in a moment the clerk realized the detective’s mistake and said:

“Oh. you mean Mrs. Cutting and Mrs. Steward. But they are not English women; they are Americans. They left the city this morning.”

The closing sentence jarred the detective to his boot heels, but he controlled his emotions.

“Where had they gone?” Oh, the clerk did not know. They left after midnight and another clerk was on watch. But he might be able to find out.

In a little while the clerk imparted the information that to the best of his knowledge and belief the ladies had gone to Berlin. Strangely enough, the detective was to depart for the German capital the same evening. Perhaps he would be fortunate enough to go again to the same hotel with them.

At 5 o’clock in the afternoon, the detective, on his way to the train, stopped a moment at the clerk’s desk to bid him goodby. Pleasantries were exchanged, the two men had shaken hands, when the clerk hurled a parting bit of badinage.

“Too bad you will not meet the American ladles in Berlin.” he said. “They have gone to Genoa.”

The detective made enough inquiries to convince him that the information was undoubtedly correct and changed his own plans accordingly. On the way down to the Italian city he cudgeled his mind to determine how he should go about it to get track of his lost immigrants. They would reach Genoa several hours ahead of him and might even have sped on to another city before his arrival. There was only one chance by means of which he might get trace of them — the red trunk.

So when he reached Genoa he made anxious inquiries of the man who had charge of the baggage concerning two ladies whose present address he wished to learn. Speaking no Italian he had difficulty in making himself understood, but at last sought to identify his friends by explaining that among their baggage was a red trunk. The baggage hands were questioned, and at last a man was found who had sent the box that was covered with the hide of the brindle cow.

It had been transferred to the wharf of a steamship company that operated a line of boats between Genoa and Constantinople.

Again the detective resumed his travels, only to to find when he reached the city of the sultan that he had lost all track of the women. Nobody had seen the red trunk — nobody at any of the hotels had seen the women. And he was on the point of returning  to Southampton to report his failure when something happened.

Becker and Chapman were arrested by the Turkish authorities for selling forged bonds! Their trial brought their wives in public to their sides, and by shadowing them their new habitation was learned.

Becker and Chapman were quickly found guilty and sentenced to a long term of Imprisonment In Smyrna. The jail was a flimsy affair and in a few weeks they escaped. Simultaneously with their departure Mrs. Becker and Mrs. Chapman went to London, the detective following and tracking them to a boarding house in an obscure part of the city. Within a week their husbands joined them, together with the other two men who robbed the Third National bank of Baltimore, and within another week Mrs. Chapman was dead.

The cause of her death will perhaps never be known. The end came suddenly. It has always been supposed that she was poisoned by some member of the band.

After Mrs. Chapman’s death the party separated. Chapman came to the United States, robbed another bank, was caught, convicted and sentenced to twelve years’ imprisonment. Becker came to Brooklyn, where a policeman arrested him in the act of making the plates for a 1000 franc French note. The red trunk was never found.

Others may wonder, as I did at first, why Mrs. Becker’s father betrayed her husband to the secret service. I put the question to the man flatly.

“Charlie didn’t treat me right.” he said. “He and I were in on a counterfeiting deal one time and he got all the best of it. I never could bear a dishonest man. And. besides, I didn’t want my daughter to go to Europe to meet him.”

Byrnes’ 1886 profile of Becker took his career up to his imprisonment in the King’s County Penitentiary, from which he was freed in 1887. In 1892 he roamed the upper midwest and northeast with forging partners Richard Lennox, Joe English, and Robert Bowman. He and his team then went to California, where they were captured and tried. Charlie was sentenced to seven years in San Quentin, but with good behavior was released in 1903.

Capture3

Opon his return to Brooklyn, there were rumors that the American Banking Association offered Becker a living stipend just to help keep him honest. Towards the end of his life, he was employed by the Pinkerton’s as an informant patrolling racetracks. He and his with lived as John and Anna Becker in Brooklyn. He died of diabetes in September, 1916. His wife Anna Haering, ever loyal, died just a couple of weeks after Charlie. They are buried in Brooklyn’s Evergreen Cemetery.

 

 

 

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