John William Curtin (1849-????), aka John Prescott, John Colton, John Curtin, John Curten, Yankee Jack, John Roberts, Henry Reynolds, James Freeman, etc. — Sneak thief, jewel thief
John W. Curtain was born in 1849 in Massachusetts to Irish immigrant parents, John and Hannah (Anna) Curtain, the the third of their eight children and the first to be born in the United States. In various census records, the spelling of the family name is given as Curten/Curtin/Curtain. Byrnes and others used the more traditional Irish “Curtin” most frequently when naming this thief; but his Massachusetts birth record uses the spelling “Curtain.”
Curtin started stealing at an early age, and was specializing in jewelry robberies by the time he was twenty. In 1870, he was arrested and convicted for the September, 1869 robbery of the Fogg & Sawyer jewelry store in Boston. He was sent to the Massachusetts State Prison for an unknown term.
Freedom brought Curtin the opportunity for more work; he was successful enough to return to his family’s home in Cohoes, New York, and buy two cozy cottages for his relatives.
In August 1874, Curtin and an accomplice were caught switching diamonds rings in a jewelry store with cheap paste replicas. He gave the name James Freeman. After he was brought in and seated in a Philadelphia courtroom to face trial, he suddenly sprang up, leapt over several rows of benches, and jumped out of a window, sixteen feet above the street. He dashed off and lost his pursuers by ducking out the rear entrance of a hotel.
Five weeks later, Curtin resurfaced across the continent in San Francisco. He attempted to use the same technique to sneak a diamond ring from Anderson & Randolph’s jewelry store. Several days later, he was caught on the streets by famed San Francisco detective Isaiah W. Lees. Curtin was arraigned and held on $1600 bail. The bail money was sent east by New York’s leading fence, Marm Mandelbaum–an indication that Curtin was in the inner circle of New York’s thieving community. In return for her loss, Mandelbaum took over the mortgages of Curtin’s Cohoes cottages.
Curtin returned to New York, where he was quickly arrested and sent back to Philadelphia to stand trial again for his earlier transgressions there. This time, there was no escape, and he spent the next three years and six months in Eastern State Penitentiary.
Upon his release in 1878, Curtin returned to New York and lifted a package of jewelry and razors from the Taylor Brothers store. He escaped to Chicago, and was subsequently sought for a robbery there. Curtin returned to New York, only to be arrested. Facing prosecution in both Chicago and New York, Curtin chose to face the music in New York. He was sentenced to Sing Sing for a term of four and a half years under the name John Roberts.
The threat of prison was no deterrent to John Curtin. Upon his release from Sing Sing, he and partner Eddie McGee were arrested in a Philadelphia jewelry store, caught trying to substitute fake gold chains fro real ones. Curtin gave the name Henry Reynolds; he was not recognized as a repeat offender, and was given an extremely light sentence, just one year in Philadelphia’s Moyamensing jail. During this period, Curtin was rumored to have been supported by New York’s “boodle” alderman, Henry W. “Fritz” Jaehne, also known as one of the fences who filled the vacuum when Marm Mandelbaum was forced to leave the country.
McGee and Curtin, once they were freed in 1884, sailed for Europe. In Paris, Curtin was caught stealing and sentenced to four years in a French prison. However, he was able to get the sentence reduced, and was released in April, 1886. By May he was back in the United States, and while visiting his family in Cohoes, got into a fight with a policeman in Troy, New York. Before he could be detained for any older crimes, Curtin sailed across the ocean to England. There he planned to partner with a couple of his friends, Billy Porter and Frank Buck, to commit robberies organized by criminal mastermind Adam Worth.
However, before those plans could gel, Curtin followed his own agenda and was caught trying to sneak an envelope of diamonds out of a London jewelry store in June, 1886. While being conveyed to the police station, Curtin threw some papers out of the police wagon, which were picked up and found to have his real name and Cohoes address on them. Despite this, Curtin insisted his name was John Colton. He was sent to jail for a year and a half.
After he was let loose in 1888, Curtin went to Manchester, England, and was captured taking a bag of cash from a courier’s wagon outside a bank. He gave his name as John Randall, then changed it to John Prescott. During his trial, evidence from Chief Byrnes was submitted revealing the prisoner as John Curtin. This time, Curtin was put away for five years, to be followed by three years of police supervision.
Upon serving his term and being released in 1892, Curtin was given thieving assignments on the continent by the kingpin of thieves, Adam Worth. Curtin played a pivotal role in the downfall of Worth, a story that is told more completely in Ben Macintyre’s The Napoleon of Crime: The Life and Times of Adam Worth, Master Thief. In October, 1892, Curtin, Alonzo Henne, and Worth attempted a robbery in Belgium. It was rare for Worth to involve himself, and it ended disastrously for him: he was captured and jailed, while Curtin and Henne escaped.
Curtin returned to England and, as per Worth’s instructions, provided support to Worth’s wife. In fact, he did far more: he seduced her, spent all of Worth’s saving, and sold off his property. By the time she realized the full extent of his villainy and her complicity in it, she was driven to insanity and lodged in an asylum. Stuck in his Belgian prison, Adam Worth went into a rage when he learned of Curtin’s treachery.
However, Curtin’s flush times were short-lived. In 1893, he was picked up in London by police on two charges: one, of violating the terms of his parole; and secondly, he was wanted in Germany for a robbery committed in Frankfort. A revolver was found in his lodgings. Since Curtin was not a British citizen, it was decided to extradite him to Germany.
Nothing more was heard of Curtin until April 1902. An article appeared in one newspaper, the Washington Times, headlined simply “Johnny Curtin, Bank Sneak and Burglar.” The long article, taking up nearly a full column, detailed Curtin’s career, up until his arrest in 1886–but did not indicate any new information, or that he had recently died. There was no explanation as to why the item was now appearing.
Adam Worth, the criminal genius whom Curtin had destroyed, had died three months earlier, in January 1902, a few years after being freed from his Belgian prison. Did Worth, or Worth’s network of underworld friends, let Curtin’s treachery go unpunished?