#81 Frederick Benner

Francis Bellman (1854-19??), aka Frederick Benner, Frederick Bennett, George Harrison, John Watson, Frank Belmont, Dutch Fred — Pickpocket, Thief

From Byrnes’s text:
DESCRIPTION. Thirty-three years old in 1886. German. Born in United States. Barkeeper. Married. Well built. Height, 5 feet 6 inches. Weight, 148 pounds. Light hair, blue eyes, light complexion. Wears a light-colored mustache. Has letters “F. E.” in India ink on his left fore-arm.
RECORD. Benner, alias “Dutch Fred,” is a New York burglar and pickpocket, having served time in Philadelphia and New York penitentiaries for both ofifenses. He is very well known in both cities and is considered a clever man. He was arrested on May 31, 1879, in the Lutheran Cemetery, on Long Island, N.Y., in company of Johnny Gantz, another New York pickpocket, charged with picking a woman’s pocket. He was sentenced to five years in Sing Sing prison, in the Queens County, Long Island, Court, in June, 1879.
He made his escape from the jail in Long Island City, in company of three other prisoners, on June 28, 1879, by sawing through the iron bars of the jail windows. He was arrested again in New York City on July 24, 1879, and delivered to the Sheriff of Queens County, who at once delivered him to the prison authorities at Sing Sing. Benner was arrested again in New York City, and sentenced to three years and six months in State prison at Sing Sing, on August 20, 1883, for burglary, under the name of Frederick Bennett. His time expired on April 20, 1886. “Dutch Fred’s” picture is a good one, taken in October, 1877.

Byrnes’ account of Frank Bellman’s career up to 1886 covers all that is known of his crimes to that point. He was never considered more than a second-rate thief. While one Sing Sing register correctly identified his real name as Bellman, Thomas Byrnes did not appear to know this. Bellman came from a large German family living in Jersey City, New Jersey. Two of his older sisters died while Frank was a teen.

In December 1886, after Byrnes’ first edition was published, Bellman was arrested under the name “George Harrison” for assaulting a saloon owner named George Kling. Bellman realized that if recognized as a repeat offender, he would face a long sentence, a prospect he feared:

Bellman’s injuries were not fatal. He was brought into court three months later, recognized as a repeat offender, and sentenced to eighteen years in Sing Sing.

At some point early in his incarceration, a movement was started to promote clemency for Bellman. How this started isn’t known: it could have been because of sympathy generated by his sentencing theatrics; or family members could have lobbied on his behalf. However, the most plausible and intriguing possibility is that Bellman himself reached out from behind bars to contact his favorite author, Laura Jean Libbey.

Laura Jean Libbey was a bestselling author of dime novels featuring young working women, alone in the world, struggling for advancement (although that often was accomplished through marrying a successful man). Her works were immensely popular–putting her on par with Horatio Alger and Erastus Beadle of the previous generation. Some sources mention that–for reasons unknown–her works were also popular among an unexpected demographic: male convicts.

Libbey, at that time, was unmarried. She responded to Bellman’s plight and lobbied New York Governor Flowers to commute his sentence. Her plea was effective: Bellman was set loose in December, 1892.

Six months later, he was caught stealing shoes from a shoe store. He had grabbed four shoes–none of which were mates to another. He was nabbed by NYPD officer Kuntz [sadly, not a close relative of the blog author. -ED] By 1900, Frank was out of prison and living in a boarding house in Jersey City. His whole family, save one married sister,was gone: three brothers, two sisters, and his parents had died before Frank reached forty. How much longer Frank lived is unknown.

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