#94 James White

AKA James White (181?-????), aka Pop White, Doc Long, James Allen, James Adams, James Dunn, William Wills, Walter Wells, etc. — Pickpocket, grifter, hotel thief

From Byrnes’s text:
DESCRIPTION. Seventy years old in 1886. Born in Delaware. Painter by trade. Very slim. Single. Height, 5 feet 8 inches. Weight, about 135 pounds. Gray hair, dark-blue eyes, sallow complexion, very wrinkled face. Looks like a well-to-do farmer.
RECORD. Old Pop White, or “Doc” Long, is the oldest criminal in his line in America. Over one-third of his life has been spent in State prisons and penitentiaries. He has turned his hand to almost everything, from stealing a pair of shoes to fifty thousand dollars. He was well known when younger as a clever bank sneak, hotel man and confidence worker.
He is an old man now, and most of his early companions are dead. He worked along the river fronts of New York and Boston for years, with George, alias “Kid” Affleck (56), and old “Hod” Bacon, and was arrested time and time again. One of their victims, whom they robbed in the Pennsylvania Railroad depot at Philadelphia in 1883 of $7,000, died of grief shortly after.
Old White was discharged from Trenton, N.J., State prison on December 19, 1885, after serving a term for grand larceny. He was arrested again in New York City the day after for stealing a pair of shoes from a store. He pleaded guilty, and was sentenced to five months in the penitentiary on Blackwell’s Island, in the Court of Special Sessions, on December 22, 1885.
Pop White’s picture is a good one, taken in July, 1875.

Pop White’s real name and origins have been lost, along with most of his criminal history. He was adept at using a variety of aliases, and reticent in speaking with lawyers, detectives, and reporters. The July 1875 photo in Byrnes’s collection can not be linked to an arrest record; the earliest account found about White is an 1878 arrest in Philadelphia as Walter Wells, alias Doc Long. At that time he was already recognized as an old thief.

As perhaps the oldest criminal listed in Byrnes’ Professional Criminals of America, it may be that Pop White could have told more stories of 19th Century crooks than anyone else; he might have been a fascinating character–but he was tight-lipped, and his crimes were small: stealing from hotel rooms, pickpocketing, small cons, etc. He was a classic grifter. The last misdeed of Pop White was in 1893, when he was arrested in Philadelphia and sent to the county prison for 90 days.

By far the most notable exploit of Pop White occurred ten years earlier. In March, 1883, there was a robbery of $7000 in gold coins stored in the valise of a man named as Jesse Williams, described by newspapers as a 70-plus-year-old farmer from Orange County, New York, who was traveling south to purchase new farmland. Williams took a train from New York to Philadelphia, and stood by for his connecting train in the gentlemen’s waiting area of Penn Station. There he was approached by two other older gentlemen, who engaged him in conversation; these two were Pop White and his partner, George Affleck. White put down his baggage and steered Williams into the station’s saloon, assuring Williams that his baggage would be safe if he left it next to his. Upon coming out of the bar, Williams discovered that his satchel–containing the gold–was gone, and so was Affleck. Pop White soon vanished, too.

White and Affleck were tracked to New York, where Byrnes’s detectives arrested Affleck and his wife. The satchel of Williams’ was found in Affleck’s hotel room, but only $1000 was left. Affleck claimed another $1000 had been deposited in banks. White was caught a few months later in Boston, and jailed there. The victim, Jesse Williams, said that the $7000 had been his life’s savings; after lawyer expenses he got back just $940.

Six months later, eastern newspapers reported that Jesse Williams had died of grief. It seemed to be a clear example of the heavy human cost caused by habitual criminals, and Thomas Byrnes made it the center of his profile of Pop White.

Little more can be said about the career of Pop White…but it turns out that there was much more to the story of his most notable victim, Jesse Williams.

In March, 1883, right after the robbery and arrest of Affleck was reported, people in Orange County, New York asked each other if they knew of Jesse Williams, and why he might be carrying around $7000. It was a minor mystery for quite a few days until a Port Jervis (Orange County, NY) newspaper discovered that the man’s full name was Jesse Williams Jennings, who had indeed been born in Monroe, Orange County, but who had moved to a western state over fifty years earlier.

Jesse W. Jennings had moved to what was then the frontier of America, the state of Indiana. Here is what A History of St Joseph County Indiana wrote about him in 1907:

Jesse W. Jennings, deceased, was numbered among the earliest pioneers and leading agriculturisrts of St. Joseph county, whom to know was to esteem and honor. He was a native of the Empire state of New York, born in 1809, the son of James Jennings. In his native commonwealth Jesse W. Jennings learned his trade of shoemaking, and during his early manhood he went to Cleveland, Ohio, where he was married to one of the city’s native daughters, Mary Ann Pearse, her birth occurring in 1811. In 1830 Mr. Jennings came to St. Joseph county, Indiana, entering and taking up his abode on a farm in Clay township. He subsequently returned to Cleveland, but afterward again made his way to St. Joseph county and to Clay township, where he cleared a farm and continued its improvement and cultivation until failing health caused him to remove to South Bend. He later, however, bought the old county farm in Center township, but a short time afterward returned to his old place, there remaining until he became the owner of a farm in Portage township, which now consists of four hundred and fifty acres. At one time his estate consisted of over six hundred acres. His reputation was unassailable in all trade transactions, and by the exercise of industry, sound judgment, energy and perseverance he won a handsome competence, of which he was well deserving. During his later life Mr. Jennings traveled a great deal, and his death occurred in Cleveland, Ohio, but his remains were brought back and buried in the city cemetery of South Bend. He was the father of seven children, four sons and three daughters, but only three of the number grew to years of maturity. Mrs. Lucy Farneman, the fifth child in order of birth, now resides on the farm in Portage township which was formerly the David Ulery farm, and was also the Stover farm. The tract consists of one hundred and fifty acres of rich and fertile land. Mr. Jennings gave his political support to the Democratic party, and had fraternal relations with the Independent Order of Odd Fellows. He enjoyed the confidence of all with whom his dealings brought him in contact, and he was regarded as one of the representative citizens of old St. Joseph county.

This complimentary biographical sketch, however, glosses over some of the more turbulent aspects of Jesse’s later years. By the late 1870s, Jesse and his wife Mary Ann Pearse were divorced. As part of the settlement, she obtained a large piece of land adjacent to his, which she leased out to tenant farmers. She then remarried to a second husband. Jesse, apparently, believed the terms of his settlement with Mary Ann entitled him to some of the income from the lease, and this gave rise to a dispute both with his former wife and the tenants. Meanwhile, Jesse also was getting tired of living alone with no cook.

In the spring of 1879, Jesse asked his itinerant farmhand, a 19-year-old youth from Western Pennsylvania, to go back to Pennsylvania and pick out a young woman for him to marry. The young man went, solicited one of his neighbors, and she began a correspondence with Jesse. They traded letters, and Jesse sent his picture (he was 70; she was 20) and proposed to marry her–if she would come to Indiana and he liked her. She refused. Jesse turned elsewhere, and proposed to a female cook working in a local restaurant. She accepted, and Jesse gave her cash to get a wedding dress. But Jesse started to have second thoughts–thinking perhaps it was his money that she wanted–and broke off the engagement. In the fall of 1879, she sued Jesse for breach of promise.

At about the same time, Jesse’s temper boiled over concerning his wife’s neighboring lease. On December 2, 1879, a barn on that property burnt down to the ground, along with two horses, five cows, and machinery, altogether valued at $2500, but only insured for $1000. It was immediately apparent that the fire was a case of arson. Jesse’s young farmhand was arrested and thrown in jail, where he gave evidence that Jesse himself had started the fire. Officials then arrested Jesse and threw him in jail, too. At that point events spun out of control, and were later written up and printed as far away as Brooklyn:
Jesse W. Jennings was let out of jail on bond for the arson charge. In a civil action, he was forced to pay $1500 in damages. Nearly a year after these legal troubles, in February, 1881, four brick block buildings in South Bend, co-owned by Jesse, burnt down to the ground, resulting in a loss of $40,000. Jesse was re-arrested in May, 1881 for skipping out on his first bail bond a year earlier. He was able to once again buy his release on a $4000 bond, which people seemed to think he would also skip out on. They were right: in November, this second bond was forfeited. He had wasted $5500 to avoid facing charges.

Where Jesse was between early 1881 and March, 1883 is not known, but it’s likely that he opted to stay away from Indiana, perhaps permanently, taking his nest egg of gold coins with him.

And then he met the man known as “the Fagin of America,” the grifter, Pop White. And so, when the victimized Jesse explained events to police, he identified himself as “Jesse Williams” hailing from Orange County, New York–and not as Jesse W. Jennings of St Joseph County, Indiana. Now nearly out of cash, Jesse left Philadelphia with his $940 and went to stay with a nephew in Cleveland, Ohio. Inspector Byrnes and the eastern newspapers said the Jesse died of grief from being victimized. The Cleveland coroner, however, only found indications of heart disease.

After Pop White’s last jailing in early 1893, he ended his criminal career and retired to a flat in New York City. The Illustrated Police News reported that he lived quietly, and on pleasant days was seen strolling on Sixth Avenue with his small Scotch terrier. He was said to visit his old haunts in the Union Square neighborhood, “…and likes to tell the story of his life to anyone who will listen to it.” Those stories are lost.

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