#137 James Lawson

James Lawson (Abt. 1843-19??), aka Nibbs, Nibsey, James W. Williams, James Fitzgerald, William J. Maloney, James Tuoney, James W. Maloney, James W. Meyers, James W. Myers, etc. — Pickpocket

From Byrnes’ text:

DESCRIPTION. Forty-three years old in 1886. Born in Ireland. Single. No trade. Stout build. Height, 5 feet 7 inches. Weight, about 160 pounds. Black hair, gray eyes, dark complexion; generally wears a full black beard. Has a vaccination mark on his right arm.

RECORD. “Nibbs” is an old-time Bowery, New York, pickpocket; he is as well known in Philadelphia, Chicago and Boston as he is in New York. He has been arrested in almost every large city in the Union, and is considered a clever thief. He travels all over the country, and can generally be seen with some of the local thieves. He is an impudent fellow, and wants to be taken in hand at once.

He was arrested in New York City for attempting to pick pockets, and was sentenced to one year in the penitentiary on Blackwell’s Island, on March 18, 1875. He was arrested in Philadelphia, Pa., on April 24, 1876, charged with picking a man’s pocket; his picture was taken, and he was discharged.

He was arrested again in Jersey City, N.J., on December 20, 1876, charged with robbing a German farmer of his pocket-book and money in the Pennsylvania Railroad depot. When searched at Police Headquarters, a kid glove was found in his pocket; in the finger of the glove was a large and beautiful diamond, valued at $1,000. In his vest pocket was found the setting of the stone, a stud for a shirt front. It was advertised, and turned out to be the property of Captain Wilgus, of Lexington, Ky., who had been robbed of the stone by a mob of pickpockets while getting on a train in Louisville, Ky.

“Nibbs” was convicted of robbing the German in the depot, and sentenced to five years in Trenton, N.J., State prison, on January 27, 1877. He was arrested again in New York City on February 11, 1882, for robbing a man on a Grand Street horse-car of his pocket-book. For this he was sentenced to three years and six months in Sing Sing prison, on March 8, 1882. Lawson is now at large.

As is the case with many of the pickpockets of Byrnes’ era, determining James Lawson’s real name and origins is nearly impossible. Pickpockets led far more transient lifestyles than other types of thieves, were well-trained in dropping aliases, and never merited the more thorough intake registrations found at several State Prisons (they were usually relegated to brief terms in county and municipal jails).

Lawson’s nickname, “Nibbs” or “Nibsey,” is of some help in tracing his career. As usually applied, “his nibs” is a mocking term aimed at a self-important person, one who thinks he is better than others.

In Lawson’s case, researching his career backwards–from most recent to oldest–connects events and identities. In March 1901, four men with criminal records sauntered into New York’s Union Square Bank and loitered in the lobby for a couple of hours. They were arrested on suspicion. One was identified as James Tuoney, age 60, nicknamed Nibsey. The New York Sun recalled that “in Chief Byrnes’ time,” Nibsey and a much more famous thief, Abe Coakley, had been caught stealing a man’s wallet on a Grand Street streetcar. That links Lawson to another of his aliases, James Williams; that crime is described further below.

On February 14, 1894, a pickpocket nicknamed Nibsey was arrested in Hoboken, New Jersey, along with two other longtime dips, “Skinner” (aka H. Williamson, Clark King) and Jimmy Keenan. They were accused of jostling passengers entering rail cars and then stealing their pocketbooks or wallets. In Chief Byrnes’ 1895 revised edition, he indicates that this Nibsey was, indeed, James Lawson. At the time of this 1894 arrest, Nibsey gave his name as James Fitzgerald. The Jersey Journal, while reporting this same 1894 arrest, said that James Fitzgerald was also known as James W. Meyers and James Lawson. It also referred to an arrest of the same man in Jersey City’s Pennsylvania Railroad depot in 1876.

The February 1894 arrest resulted in a conviction, and Nibsey was sent to the New Jersey State Prison in Trenton to serve an eight-year sentence; which explains where he was between 1894 and 1901.

Capture

In January 1892, the New York Tribune reported that Nibsey Williams, aka William J. Maloney, had just been released from the Tombs (New York City’s municipal prison) after nearly three years, following his 1889 arrest with Abe Coakley.

That 1889 arrest in resulted from a New York streetcar robbery in which a Israel Hirshkowitz was robbed of $545. The man arrested and put on trial gave the name James Williams. He had partners who escaped. At Williams’ trial, one of those partners, Abe Coakley, a bit drunk, decided to show up as a courtroom spectator to show his support. The victim, Hirshkowitz, saw Coakley and immediately identified him as one of the men who robbed him. Coakley was arrested, but was released on bail. He promised Nibsey that he would give Hirshkowitz his money back in return for dropping all charges. However, weeks passed and Coakley did nothing–Nibsey Williams realized that Coakley was spending the money and had no intention of getting him out. In return for this treachery, Nibsey offered to testify against Coakley. Prior to this, Coakley had never been jailed since he was a teen. Coakley was tried, convicted, and sent to prison on a long term; while Nibsey earned a bad reputation as a squealer.

Prior to this misadventure, in May 1888, “James W. Myers” aka James Lawson was locked up in Albany, New York, with three other pickpockets. They were accused of working the crowd attending a eulogy speech given by the famed orator, R. G. Ingersoll.

In early January 1882 (not February 11, as Byrnes says), “James C. Meyers alias Nibsey” was caught in New York robbing a passenger on a Grand Street streetcar. Byrnes says that Nibsey was sent to Sing Sing for this crime–which would explain where he was between 1882 and 1888–but the Sing Sing registers do not list any man matching his description or any of his aliases being incarcerated in 1882. However, he may have just been sent to a different prison. Hence his lack of criminal activity from 1882 to 1888.

Going back further into Nibsey’s history, we find that in April 1877, under the name James W. Myers, he was sentenced in a Hudson County, New Jersey courtroom for picking pockets on the Pennsylvania Railroad. The crime occurred in December 1876–at which time the Brooklyn Eagle identified the suspect as Henry Myers, alias Lawson, alias Nibbs. The sentence was four years’ hard labor, bridging the gap from 1877 to 1881. When he was first held in the Jersey City cell, Captain Walling of the NYPD visited him, and identified him as “the notorious pickpocket, Nibsey.”

 

This ends the demonstrable events of Nibsey’s career, from 1876-1901. However, New York papers from the mid-1860s through to 1875 refer to a famous pickpocket nicknamed Nibsey. His given name was mentioned several times as Charles Wilson, an Englishman. Wilson was not only a pickpocket, but also a Tammany Hall thug recruited to vote multiple times in 1868. He was mentioned as a resident of Reddy the Blacksmith’s saloon, the most notorious criminal hangout prior to Shang Draper’s saloon.

As yet, no link has been found indicating that Nibsey Wilson was the same person as Nibsey Lawson/Meyers/Williams.

 

 

 

 

 

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