#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.

 

 

 

 

 

#169 John Curtin

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

Link to Byrnes’s entry for #169 John Curtin

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?

#82 Michael Quinn

Michael Quinn (Abt. 1841-????), aka Shang Quinn, Big Mike Quinn, Thomas Burton, William Parker, William Irving — Thief

From Byrnes’s text:

DESCRIPTION. Forty-five years old in 1886. Medium build. Born in Ireland. Single, Blacksmith. Height, 6 feet 1 inch. Weight, about 180 pounds. Black hair, gray eyes, dark complexion. Wears black mustache and side-whiskers. Has a star in India ink on left arm.

RECORD. “Shang” Quinn is an old and expert burglar and pickpocket, and is known in most all the principal cities of the United States, and has served considerable time in State prisons. He is considered to be a very clever safe burglar. He pleaded guilty in the Court of General Sessions, New York City, on August 23, 1880, to larceny of $85 from one Edward Stroyck, of No. 21 Tenth Avenue, and was remanded to August 28, 1880, when he was sentenced to two years and six months in Sing Sing prison, under the name of William Parker, by Judge Cowing. He had previously served two years in the same institution for a larceny. Quinn’s picture is a good one, taken in November, 1875.

Shang Quinn was a minor, unexceptional thief, who stood out mainly for his stature. For men of his era, he was very large; and had some training as a blacksmith and stone cutter. The nickname “Shang,” in Quinn’s case, was likely derived from allusion to long-legged Shanghai roosters, and was often applied to tall men. [The more famous criminal of that nickname, Thomas “Shang” Draper, was said to have gotten his name from the “shanghai-ing” of his unlucky saloon patrons.]

Shang Quinn was born in Ireland around 1841, and had a brother James, but nothing more is known about his family origins. He was arrested and convicted of stealing a watch from a hotel room in May, 1872; and was sent to Sing Sing prison under the name Thomas Burton. In August 1875, he was arrested at Far Rockaway rifling through the cash drawer of a railway agent. He was arrested under the name William Irving.

 

In September 1880, Quinn was caught picking a hotel clerk’s pocket at rooms near Gansevoort Market in New York’s meatpacking district. He gave the name William Parker, and was sentenced to Sing Sing once more. In September of 1885, he and several others (including Andrew Hess) were caught during a burglary. This time, the prosecutors identified him as a 3-time offender, and he was sentenced to six and a half years at Sing Sing. This was the second time he entered Sing Sing under the name William Parker. The prison registry indicates that he now had a wife named Nellie Wilson, but nothing more is known about her.

The most interesting fact about Shang Quinn is that he was questioned in prison about his connection to Annie Downey, aka Annie Martin, a young woman found murdered in January 1880 (when Quinn was not in prison). Like several other 19th century New York City murders of young women, Annie Martin’s death became a sensational case–all the more so because it was never solved. Byrnes included a description of the murder case in his book, and it was still being discussed decades later. About two years before Martin’s death, one report says that Quinn’s gang was captured in the same room in which she was found; and that Quinn had been her former lover. Quinn was questioned in prison and admitted he knew her, but said he had no enmity against her, and said she knew nothing of the gang’s activities. Authorities seemed convinced that Quinn had no connection to her death.

 

#22 Langdon Moore

Langdon W. Moore (Abt. 1833-1910), aka Charley Adams — Bank robber, counterfeiter

Link to Byrnes’s entry on #22 Langdon Moore
Along with Sophie Lyons and George Bidwell, Langdon Moore was one of the most recognizable names in Chief Byrnes’ Professional Criminals of America. These three produced autobiographies detailing their careers. Moore’s was titled: Langdon W. Moore: His Own Story of His Eventful Life, initially published in 1893 by Moore himself. It was an greatly expanded version of: Life, deeds, and wonderful escapes of Langdon W. Moore, the world-renowned bank robber, published in 1891 by Boston Enterprise Pub. Co. Both of these publications followed Byrnes’s book (1886); and, indeed, may have been written as a response to a couple of insulting assertions made by Byrnes.

One of those statements was in regards to Moore’s actions following his most famous adventure, the robbery of the Concord (Massachusetts) National Bank on September 25, 1865. A slightly romanticized version of that crime was related by storyteller Alton H. Blackington in one of his “Yankee Yarns” broadcasts from October 9, 1947. Blackington portrays Moore as a master thief. On the flip side, Max Shinburn wrote an account of the Concord robbery in 1913 that portrayed Moore as a lucky fool.

Byrnes’s entry on Moore states that, upon arrest, Moore agreed to return his share of the Concord loot, and to divulge the whereabouts of his partner, “English Harry” Howard. However, whereas Byrnes says that Howard was never captured because he missed the meeting signal left by Moore, Moore relates that his bargain to give up Howard was all a ruse:

“Twenty-five years after this incident, it was said by some small detectives who knew nothing of the facts of Woolbridge’s three days’ stand-up in the snow [waiting for Howard to appear], that I tried to give Howard up, but he was too smart for me. To those detectives and all others interested, I have only to say that the time gained in that way served all the purposes I wished it to. Howard has ever since been satisfied, and so have I.”
Moore’s goal in delaying the police was to allow time for a requisition to be issued by Massachusetts, and for the Concord National Bank to send a representative that Moore could bargain with directly.Capture
The other slight made by Byrnes concerns Moore’s 1880 conviction for both possession of burglar’s tools and for the robbery of the Warren Institution of Savings in Boston. Byrnes states that Moore was convicted on the testimony of his recent partner, George Mason, who turned on Moore after Moore neglected to provide him (Mason) and his family aid and a lawyer after his arrest.

Moore’s version of these events suggests that during an earlier bank robbery that they committed together, he suspected Mason had pocketed a valuable diamond and some bonds at the crime scene, and did not later include those in the total bag of loot to be divided. Moreover, Moore writes that Mason was arrested for a post office robbery in which he (Moore) was not a participant; and that at the time of Mason’s arrest, he (Moore) was also detained, and did not have access to funds, even to help himself. However, although Moore points out that Mason’s testimony put him in prison, Moore held a greater grudge against some other men involved, including a corrupt Boston police detective.

In general, Langdon W. Moore: His Own Story of His Eventful Life attempts to portray Moore as a rarity, an “honorable” thief who always treated his partners fairly, though they often acted treacherously in return. At the same time, his autobiography details several episodes in which Moore unhesitatingly deceived gamblers, citizens, and policemen. His book is a fascinating window into the life of a professional thief–but is more than a bit self-serving. Even so, proceeds from the publication of his book might have gone a long way towards keeping him honest in the last fifteen years of his life; and several sections of the text detail the treatment he received in prison and his ideas for prison reform.

Moore was born in northern Hillsborough County, New Hampshire, to parents Jonathan Moore (1796-1879) and Dolly Whitney (1796-1848). Langdon married Rebecca Sturge, widow of Daniel “Dad” Cunningham, in 1866. In the 1870 federal census, Langdon, Rebecca, and a 6-year-old boy named John are found living in New York. The boy, who likely was fathered by Dad Cunningham, has not been found in later censuses. Langdon and Rebecca did have one child of their own, a daughter, Nellie B. Moore, who grew to adulthood and married a man named Adler, but her fate is also unknown. Langdon and Rebecca divorced–acrimoniously–in 1891. Rebecca took up with another man while Moore was serving his lengthy sentence in Massachusetts throughout the 1880s; Moore, upon his release, sought the couple out and viciously attacked the man with a knife. Langdon later filed for the divorce. Rebecca sued for alimony, though Moore–quite naturally–claimed he had no source of income.