John Thompson Irving (Abt. 1835-1922), aka Old Jack, John Irwin, John Thompson, George Mason — Burglar
From Byrnes’ text:
DESCRIPTION. Forty-eight years old in 1886. Born in New York. Married. Medium build. Height, 5 feet 4 inches. Weight, about 130 pounds. Gray hair; generally wears a gray mustache. He shows his age on account of his long prison life, but is still capable of doing a good job.
RECORD. “Old Jack,” as he is called, is one of the most celebrated criminals in America. He was born and brought up in the Fourth Ward of New York City, and has, for some offense or other, served time in State prisons from Maine to California.
He created considerable excitement in the early part of 1873, while under arrest for burglary in San Francisco, Cal., by declaring himself the murderer of Benjamin Nathan, who was killed at his residence in Twenty-third Street, New York City, on Friday morning, July 29, 1870. He was brought from California on an indictment charging him with burglarizing the jewelry store of Henry A. Casperfeldt, at No. 206 Chatham Street, on June 1, 1873, and stealing therefrom eighty-seven silver watches, four gold watches, and a number of gold and precious stone rings. Irving and another man rented a room at No. 3 Doyer Street, and forced an entrance into the store from the rear. After his return from California he was confined in the Tombs prison, and while there, on November 22, 1873, he made another statement in which he alleged that he was one of the burglars who robbed Nathan’s house, and offered to tell who it was that killed the banker. The matter was thoroughly investigated by the authorities, who concluded that Irving was only trying to avoid the consequences of the two burglaries he was indicted for. He was therefore placed on trial in the Court of General Sessions, in New York City, on December 8, 1873, and found guilty of the Casperfeldt burglary, and also for another one, committed in the Fifth Ward. He was sentenced to five years on the first charge and two years and six months on the second one, making seven years and six months in all.
Irving, some years ago, was shot while escaping from a bonded warehouse in Brooklyn, N. Y., and believing himself about to die, betrayed his comrades. He recovered from his wounds, and was discharged from custody. After that, in company with others, he attempted to rob Simpson’s pawnshop, in the Bowery, New York City. The burglars hired a suite of rooms in the adjoining house, and drilled through the walls into the vault. The plot was discovered by the police, who, however, were unable to capture them, as the cracksmen were frightened away by a party living in the house.
He was arrested again in New York City on April 26, 1881, under the name of George Mason, in company of another notorious thief named John Jennings, alias Connors, alias “Liverpool Jack,” in the act of robbing the tea store of Gerhard Overhaus. No. 219 Grand Street. They were both committed in $3,000 bail for trial by Justice Wandell. Both pleaded guilty to burglary in the third degree, in the Court of General Sessions, and were sentenced to two years and six months in the penitentiary, on May 10, 1881, by Judge Gildersleeve.
Irving was arrested again in New York City on suspicion of burglary, on April 22, 1886. The complainant failed to identify him, and he was discharged. He is now at large. Irving’s picture resembles him to-day, although taken some fifteen years ago.
The burglar, John T. Irving, lied about himself too often for his own good. He also suffered somewhat from being confused with two other men far apart on the spectrum of society: John T. Irving, Jr., the nephew of writer Washington Irving and son of Judge John T. Irving, Sr.; and Johnny Irving, a much more celebrated bank robber and member of the Dutch Mob gang. The latter Irving, Johnny, was killed by another crook in Shang Draper’s saloon in 1883, and therefore is only mentioned briefly in Byrnes’ book.
Byrnes’s account of John T. Irving’s criminal resume is a bit disjointed. In proper order:
- Around 1864, Irving was arrested for burglary and sent to Sing Sing for five or six years. While there, he wrote the the New York District Attorney and offered information about those involved in the murder of a policeman. Detectives were sent to interview Irving, but it turned out he had no credible information, and the detectives concluded he was fishing for a pardon.
- In January, 1870, the premises of Barton & Co. on Beekman Street in New York City were burgled of property valued at $1400, mostly cutlery and pistols. The thieves were discovered to be Patrick McDermott, James Clarke, William Pierce, Richard “Dickie” Moore, Charles Carr, and John Thompson [Irving]. Thompson was released for lack of evidence.
- In May, 1870 he was caught in possession of burglar’s tools, but was again released. Irving later confessed that he and Carr had broken in the premises of Robert Green & Co., pawnbrokers, of the Bowery, on May 18th, but were frustrated by the safe.
- In July of the same year, 1870, Irving and Charles Carr were arrested for the burglary of a store on Lispenard Street in New York; they were found with the stolen goods in Hoboken, New Jersey. Carr was convicted and sent to prison, while Irving was released on bail, which was forfeited.
- On January 1, 1871, Irving and his partners attempted to rob the safe of Arbuckle & Co’s coffee and spice mill in Brooklyn. They were caught in the act, and while attempting to flee, Irving was shot in the shoulder.
- The surgeon couldn’t extract the ball from Irving’s shoulder, and he was not given good odds of survival. Under these circumstances, he gave police the names of his accomplices. For this information, he was kept in a lightly-guarded cell at Raymond Street in Brooklyn. Within four weeks, he reconsidered his position and was able to break out of jail. Most blamed lax security, while the jailers blamed Irving’s visitors.
- Irving laid low from January, 1871 until June, 1873. On the first on June, the jewelry store of Henry Casperfeld of 206 Chatham Street was robbed of dozens of watches and other jewelry. Fearing arrest, both for this robbery and past ones for which he was wanted, Irving lit out for California.
- Irving must have taken the new transcontinental railroad, for he arrived in Sacramento on around June 25th. Three weeks on the run, separated from his wife and daughter by 2000 miles, broke Irving’s resolve. He approached a police officer in Sacramento and confessed to the robbery of Casperfeld and also to the May, 1870 Bowery robbery. Sacramento authorities wired New York, but Chief Matsell had no interest in laying out the expense of retrieving Irving, and so told them to cut him loose. Irving tried walking east to Auburn, California, thirty miles from Sacramento, to present the same confession. There, he was held for another couple of weeks, before being cut loose once again.
- Irving backtracked west, past Sacramento, and arrived in San Francisco in late August, 1873. He signed on as a crew member of the British merchant ship, Coulnakyle, but before the ship left port, Irving went to the San Francisco police and confessed to the July 28, 1870 murder of Jewish financier Benjamin Nathan–a highly publicized murder that had gone unsolved for three years, and carried a reward of $50,000 to whoever captured the murderer. San Francisco police at first thought him insane, and subjected him to questioning by a lunacy panel.
- At first, Irving confessed to being the murderer, but later changed his story to assert that he was one of three burglars who had entered Nathan’s home, in a plot set up by Nathan’s son and housekeeper. Irving knew many details of the murder–many of which had been publicized years earlier. He also provided a few details that had not been publicized; but also offered many particulars that were demonstrably wrong. New York authorities believed Irving was either trying to get a free ride east or immunity from his past burglaries, or both.
- Irving also told San Francisco authorities that he was a relative of the great writer, Washington Irving. The claim was easily debunked in New York.
- Public pressure finally forced Chief Matsell to have Irving brought back to New York, where it some became apparent that he had nothing of substance to offer about the Nathan murder. Irving was tried in November for the Casperfeld robbery and was found guilty. He immediately went to trial for the May, 1870 pawnbroker robbery, and was convicted again. His total sentence was seven and a half years.
- Not long after his release from prison, Irving was arrested for the robbery of a tea store in late April, 1881. This resulted in Irving’s being sent to the penitentiary for two years.
- In March, 1884, Irving was caught with three others in Lawrence, Massachusetts, as they were planning a robbery there.
- He was arrested in New York in 1886 on suspicion, but was released for lack of evidence.
- Finally, in December he was picked up for the robbery of a grocery store in Long Island City in October, 1888. However, testifying in his defense were Charles Stewart of the School of Industry and J. Ward Childs of the Bowery Mission, a famous refuge in the middle of a depraved neighborhood. They swore that Irving had been sleeping in hallways and begging for bread, and was making a genuine effort to reform.
Even in 1895, Chief Byrnes was still skeptical that Irving had given up burglary, but his 1888 arrest was his last brush with police. Irving went on to live a long life in Brooklyn and Queens, for many years working as a janitor at the Queens Library.