#174 William Wright

William Wright (1831-19??), aka Roaring Bill, Charles W. Thompson, Watson — Thief

From Byrnes’s text:

DESCRIPTION. Fifty-three years old in 1886. Born in United States. Single. No trade. Slim build. Height, 5 feet 4 inches. Weight, 130 pounds. Brown hair, turning gray; gray eyes, sallow complexion. Generally wears a mustache, which is quite gray. Scars on right eyebrow, under lower lip, and on chin.

RECORD. “Roaring Bill” is an old New York thief. He has spent the best portion of his life in State prisons and penitentiaries, and is well known in all the principal cities in America. He is a general thief, can turn his hand to almost anything, and is considered a very clever man. He is credited with having served four years for an express-train robbery in Colorado; also, with robbing an Adams Express Co. money-car, out West, of $15,000.

Bill was arrested in Providence, R.I., and sentenced to four years in the Rhode Island State prison on March 21, 1881, for the larceny of a valise containing a sealskin sack and several other things from a railroad train between New York and Providence. His sentence expired on October 25, 1884.

He was arrested again in New York City on August 10, 1885, and committed to Blackwell’s Island for three months, in default of $500 bail, as a suspicious person, by Justice Murray. Wright’s picture is a good one, taken in August, 1885.

Just before Chief Inspector Byrnes retired from the police force in 1894, a writer for a Buffalo newspaper asked him who were the most capable thieves not then in jail. Byrnes listed eight men: Rufus Minor, Joe Elliott, John Love, Ned Lyons, Gus Kindt, Mike Kurtz, Chauncy Johnson…and William Wright. None of these are surprising, except for Wright. Byrnes added, “Bill was one of the funniest, one of the shrewdest, and one of the most deceitful crooks I ever saw. It’s well-nigh impossible to fasten a crime on him.”

Wright received the nickname “Roaring Bill” from his loud, boisterous behavior when drunk.
Wright’s documented criminal history began–as Byrnes wrote–in 1881. However, Wright was already fifty years old by that time. Byrnes hints at some interesting details in Wright’s background, none of which can be confirmed. Still, these fragments are fascinating: Wright had been a cowboy in Texas; he had been in the regular army (but when and where is unknown); and he robbed a train in Colorado and spent four years in State prison in that state. In New York in the 1870s, he had been a member of Jimmy Hope’s gang of bank thieves.

By comparison, Wright’s crimes from 1881 and forward seem petty. He was caught that year taking a sealskin coat from a passenger on the Fall River line train on its way from Boston to Newport, Rhode Island. He was arrested in New York, but was tried in Rhode Island and sentenced to four years in the State Prison.

While jailed in Providence, one of Bill’s fellow prisoners did not find him so amusing. That prisoner’s name was James Dunbar, alias Dunmunday, alias Shea. Dunbar was said to have been a former member of the Jesse James gang (a claim yet to be proved). One day in the prison workshop, Dunbar grabbed a hefty hammer and brought it swiftly down on Wright’s head. Bill was saved only by his thick skull. Dunbar was thrown into solitary confinement, and through his own vile temper remained there until he died. Some say he attacked Bill for no reason other than to get transferred to an asylum from which he could escape; others say that he wanted to silence Bill, since Bill was the only one who recognized him as a member of the James gang.

The more likely scenario is that Bill said or did something to the man to provoke the attack. A different prisoner, who testified a few years later to a committee investigating conditions at the State Prison, claimed that Bill was the worst man he had ever met; and said that Bill–who also worked as a prison hospital orderly–gave the patients indigestible food contrary to doctors’ orders.

After his release, Bill could be found living at the Rochester House hotel in New York and spending summer days at Coney Island, working the crowds there as a pickpocket, and stealing items from the bathhouses where people changed out of their street clothes. One night in March, 1886, Bill was standing at the bar at the Rochester House when the stakes backer of the boxer George Le Blanche rolled in, despondent that his man had just lost a bout to Jack Dempsey. The backer mistook Bill Wright for a man named Tuthill, the brother of Dempsey’s backer, and thrust $2000 into Wright’s hands to settle accounts to the winner. Bill looked at the money and hesitated. However, he considered Dempsey a friend, and so he gave the money back and directed the man to visit the bar of the Hoffman House, where he knew Dempsey was staying.

A year later, in February 1887, Wright was in Albany plying his trade, and believed he might find good pickings in the New York State Senate chamber. During a recess in proceedings, he got onto the floor of the chamber and walked away with Senator Jacob Worth’s overcoat. He was caught and charged with grand larceny; Senator Worth insured that Wright was given the maximum sentence: nine years and eleven months at Clinton Prison, Dannemora.

By 1898, Bill was back in New York, once again working the crowds at Coney Island. However, he was soon arrested again, tried and sentenced to ten years at Sing Sing. Bill was 67 years old when his last term started. He would roar no more.

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