#139 Thomas Fitzgerald

Thomas Fitzgerald (Abt 1834-????), aka Big Tom Phair, John Phair, Thomas Sweeny – Pickpocket

From Byrnes’ text:

DESCRIPTION. Forty-nine years old in 1886. Born in Ireland. Married. Carpenter. Stout build. Height, 5 feet 11 inches. Weight, about 200 pounds. Brown hair, blue eyes, light complexion. Generally wears a sandy chin whisker and mustache.

RECORD. “Big Tom Phair,” the name he is best known by, is a clever thief, and generally works with his wife, Bridget Fitzgerald, an old Irish pickpocket, or some other woman, and can be found in the vicinity of funerals, ferry-boats, or churches. They are mean thieves, generally robbing poor women.

Fitzgerald and his wife, and Mary Connors, were arrested in New York City on May 1, 1873, charged with robbing a woman named Sophie Smith, on Broadway, of a pocket-book containing a quantity of checks and her husband’s pension papers from the United States Government. Tom pleaded guilty and was sentenced to two years and six months in State prison, on May 26, 1873. Bridget, his wife, was discharged. Mary Connors also pleaded guilty to an attempt at grand larceny, and was sentenced to one year and nine months in State prison, the same day, by Judge Sutherland.

Fitzgerald and his wife were arrested again under the names of Tom and Sarah Thayer, on a Staten Island ferry-boat, at the Battery, New York, which was conveying the friends of the Garner family to Staten Island to attend the funeral of Wm. F. Garner. Mrs. Fitzgerald was again discharged. Tom was held under the Habitual Criminal Act, and sentenced to ninety days in the penitentiary on Blackwell’s Island, on July 27, 1876. He was afterwards discharged on habeas corpus proceedings. He has been very lucky of late years. Although arrested several times, he manages to keep out of jail. His picture is a very good one, taken in November, 1875.

Very little can be said to expand on Chief Byrnes’ entry on Thomas Fitzgerald, alias Phair. His true given name remains unverified. Fitzgerald’s supposed wife, Bridget Fitzgerald (alias Sarah Phair), appears to have been active as a pickpocket much longer than Thomas, working into the 1890s. They were both said to have been born in Ireland. Like many pickpockets, their transient lifestyle and lack of family connections makes them nearly impossible to track.


The Fitzgeralds did have one known family relationship, to a pair of pickpockets profiled in Byrnes’s 1895 edition of Professional Criminals of America: Patrick Breen and his wife, Agnes (alias Sally alias Sarah alias Honora Mahoney). Mrs. Breen was cited as being the sister of Bridget Fitzgerald. The Breens were most active in the 1890s; whereas the Fitzgeralds were mentioned more in the 1870s. However, the real names and background of the Breens are as much a cipher as the Fitzgeralds.

The Fitzgeralds and the Breens were pickpockets who specialized in targeting those attending church and at funerals. Because their victims were often poor, this class of pickpocket was looked down upon by the rest of the criminal fraternity.

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