David Mooney (1852-1913), aka James H. Brady, John H. Hill, Little Dave — House thief, Murderer
Judging by the space Byrnes devotes to his profile of David Mooney, he was obviously fascinated by the excuses a man would make when accused of murder. Byrnes reprints a lengthy interview that a newspaper reporter elicited from a newly-arrested Mooney, in which Mooney issues denials of involvement in the death of his thieving partner, Edmond “Frenchie” Lavoiye. It was an ill-advised interview, and Mooney made several assertions that were later contradicted.
Byrnes added his own twist after quoting this interview: the fact that Mooney later confessed to the murder, which supposedly was caused by an argument over a pair of diamond earrings that Lavoiye intended to gift to a woman. Perhaps Byrnes’s intended to make a point that a criminals were often experts at dissembling. However, in Mooney’s case, his confession and sentence to life in prison did not end the debate over his guilt.
During his trial, the jury heard that the alleged suicide note left by Lavoiye showed similarity to Mooney’s handwriting, though Mooney claimed he was barely literate. Lavoiye’s pistol had been found in the hand of his disabled arm, causing the prosecution to assert that Mooney must have placed it there. Also, the prosecution called medical experts as witnesses who stated that Lavoiye’s wounds could not have been self-inflicted. As the case mounted against him, Mooney was advised to confess to a lesser charge of manslaughter–claiming self-defense–that would earn him a lighter sentence–perhaps seven years. Instead, he was found guilty of murder, and sentenced to life behind bars.
He was sent to the Massachusetts State Prison in Charlestown in late summer, 1881. For the next twenty-six years, the world heard no news about Dave Mooney. Then, in 1907, a long feature article appeared in the Chicago Inter-Ocean newspaper entitled “Tale of Forty Thieves as Told by the Forty-First.” It took a nostalgic look at the famous professional criminals of the 1870s and 1880s, with updates on their fates; the intention was to show that most met bad ends. The article contained a strong defense of David Mooney’s character:
“It was always ‘Dave ‘Mooney’s boast that outside of the business he was a gentleman. Mooney may be classed as the ‘king of the porch climbers.’ One of his greatest feats was the robbery of the Drexel mansion, in Philadelphia, of jewels and other valuables worth about $200,000. Mooney got away with the booty, but a boy he had used as a ‘lookout’ was arrested on suspicion. Mooney entered into negotiations and by an arrangement made through a lawyer returned every penny of his spoils to the family in return for the boys’ liberty.
“There is another little romance connected with Mooney’s ‘finish.’ Of course, it does not turn out well. One of the man’s redeeming traits was a love of children. He was married, but childless, and from an institution adopted a deaf and dumb girl, who was reared in comfort and in absolute ignorance of her foster father’s vocation.
“‘Frenchy’, known to be a pal of Mooney, was found dead in a room in Boston several years later, and Mooney was suspected. ‘Frenchy’ had been shot to death. A reward of $500 was offered for his capture, and Mooney, with his wife and foster daughter, went to Albany to lie low for a time. He was innocent of the crime, his friends have always said, but he knew his record would convict him in any court.
“Allowed to play in the open air, the girl one day in a store saw a picture of her father in a newspaper, with the information that the police would pay $500 for his capture. For some inexplicable reason she went to the police and afterward led them to Mooney’s hiding place. He was arrested, taken to Boston, and is today a ‘lifer’ in Charlestown. What became of the girl is not known.”
Two weeks later, in late January 1907, “The Forty-First” was back with another long column, this one dedicated entirely to presenting the case for Mooney’s innocence.
The publication of these articles in 1907 earned David Mooney some supporters, foremost among them Bernard Keenan, a city official in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. Keenan lobbied the pardon board on Mooney’s behalf. It was pointed out that Mooney had been promised a much lighter sentence in return for confessing to manslaughter, but had been in prison for thirty years.
Finally, in February of 1912, Governor Foss of Massachusetts pardoned Mooney after thirty-two years of confinement. His wife and adopted child had died while he was in prison. Upon his re-entry into society, Mooney was asked what had changed most since he had been jailed. He answered without hesitation, that what dazed him were women’s hobble skirts: the skin-tight, full-length skirts that barely allowed the wearer to move her feet a few inches.
“They are the funniest things I have ever seen,” Mooney said.
Mooney, at age 61, got a job as a night watchman at a theater in Pawtucket. He was found dead from natural causes in the theater’s bathroom stall less than a year later, in 1913. His Pawtucket friends raised the money for his funeral and burial.