Peter Ellis (Abt. 1844-1919), aka Banjo Pete, Long Pete, Luthey, Pete Emerson/Emmerson, John J. Smith, Jack Welch — Bank robber
From Byrnes’ text:
DESCRIPTION. Forty-one years old in 1886. Born in New York City. Slim build. Height, 5 feet 11 inches. Weight, 160 pounds. Light complexion, brown hair, stooped shoulders, thin face, high cheek bones, dark eyes. Generally wears a brown mustache.
RECORD. Banjo Pete, the name he is best known by (Peter Ellis being his right name), was formerly a minstrel, but drifted into crooked channels about eighteen years ago. He was considered a good man, and was generally sought for when a job of any magnitude was to be done. He was an intimate associate of all the great bank burglars in America.
He was arrested with Abe Coakley in Philadelphia, Pa., on April 28, 1880, charged with robbing the Manhattan Bank in New York City, on October 27, 1878. It was claimed that Emmerson was the man who carried out the tin boxes from the vault, and sorted the bonds, etc.; that Coakley was the man who wore the whiskers, and dusted off the shelves in the bank while Johnny Hope and his father were in the vault with Nugent; that Billy Kelly stood guard over the old janitor; and Johnny Dobbs, or Kerrigan, and Big John Tracy, who was a friend of Shevelin, the watchman of the bank, were supposed to be the men who planned the robbery; while Old Man Hope was the man who did the work. Johnny Hope (19) was convicted, and sentenced to twenty years in State prison for this robbery. Kerrigan, alias Johnny Dobbs, was arrested while negotiating one of the stolen bonds in Philadelphia, and was turned over to the Sheriff of Wethersfield, Conn., who took him back to Wethersfield prison, to serve out an unfinished term of seven years. John Nugent was tried and acquitted. Patrick Shevlin, the night-watchman, was used to convict the others, and was finally discharged. Jack Cannon was also arrested in Philadelphia trying to dispose of some of the stolen bonds, and was sentenced to fifteen years there. Old Man Hope (20) went to California, and was sentenced to seven years and six months for a burglary there.
Pete Emmerson was discharged from the Tombs, in the Manhattan Bank case, on October 4, 1880. He traveled through the country with John Nugent and Ned Farrell, a notorious butcher-cart thief, and was finally arrested in the Hoboken, N.J., Railroad depot, on Saturday, July 28, 1883, for an attempt to rob Thos. J. Smith, the cashier of the Orange, N.J., National Bank, of a package containing $10,000 in money. Nugent and Farrell were arrested also. They pleaded guilty and were sentenced to ten years in Trenton State prison, on July 30, 1883. Emmerson stood trial, was convicted,, and sentenced to ten years also, on October 30, 1883.
Emmerson’s picture is not a very good one, although recognizable. It was taken in 1880.
If Superintendent Thomas Byrnes had written his book about famous professional crimes rather than criminals, the October 27, 1878 robbery of the Manhattan Savings Institution would likely have been his centerpiece. Not only did it involve several of the most skilled, veteran thieves of the age, but the planning of the crime involved mastermind George Leslie, who was murdered before the attempt was finally made; and the consequences of the robbery had lasting effects on the careers of all involved. It was never fully revealed; and so it was talked about and rehashed for a generation.
Banjo Pete Ellis’s adult life centered around the Manhattan Savings Institution robbery, and he died an old man in the company of others involved in that crime. Byrnes was correct about Pete’s real name, but off the mark about his origins. He was born near Kennebunkport, Maine to Thomas and Sophia Ellis, who maintained a large family that dispersed during the Civil War years. Pete Ellis joined the 1st Maine Volunteers in 1864 as a sharpshooter, and saw nine months of action, rising from a private to a corporal.
After the war, Ellis gravitated toward Philadelphia and New York, and by all accounts he became a minstrel performer, eventually joining a famous minstrel act, Sam Devere’s company. There’s no evidence that Ellis ever rose to the level of being a billed name. Devere happened to have an apartment in New York next to the budding criminal genius, George L. Leslie, and the two often socialized together. It can be assumed that it was through Devere that Pete Ellis was introduced to George Leslie; and through Leslie, to Marm Mandelbaum and other veteran bank thieves, like Jimmy Hope and Abe Coakley.
Pete was said to have been in on the 1869 Ocean National Bank robbery in New York, organized by Leslie and Mark Shinburn, and executed by Jimmy Hope, Abe Coakley, Johnny Dobbs, Shang Draper, and Red Leary. Pete’s name was never associated with this crime until years later.
In Byrnes’ entry for thief Dave Cummings, Byrnes mentions that Banjo Pete and George Leslie joined Cummings for an 1873 robbery of a bank in Macon, Georgia; and that they were arrested in Washington, D.C. and forced to return the $50,000 taken. This event can not be found in any newspaper archives.
Pete and Abe Coakley were arrested by Byrnes in Philadelphia in April, 1880, for the Manhattan Savings Institution robbery of 1878. Byrnes had been under intense pressure to make more arrests in the case, and knowing that elements of the Philadelphia police were protecting Jimmy Hope, he took the drastic measure of making the arrest of Coakley and Ellis himself while in Philadelphia, accompanied by a local officer he trusted. Ellis was identified as the man who carried deposit boxes from the vault; though years later, Sophie Lyons wrote that Pete’s role had been to put on the fake whiskers and imitate the night watchman. When arrested, newspapers commented that Ellis had no known history. After being detained for five months in the Tombs (New York City’s Detention Center), Ellis was released.
According to Byrnes, Ellis committed a string of robberies between 1881 and 1883 with John Nugent (an ex-policeman also involved with the Manhattan Savings job) and Ned Farrelly. However, the only time he was caught was in July, 1883, when he, Nugent, and Farrelly attacked a bank cashier transporting a satchel of money while he was seating himself on a train in Hoboken, New Jersey.
Pete Ellis received ten years in New Jersey’s State Prison for this crime, and the public never heard from him again. After his release in the late 1890s, Pete returned to New York City and in 1898 married Jimmy Hope’s daughter, Ellen “Nellie” Hope. In 1900, he listed his occupation as “dry goods.” In 1910, he was an agent for the water company, and lived in the same house with Jimmy Hope’s sons, Johnny and Harry–a situation that continued for many years, until Pete’s death in 1919 at about 75 years of age. By that time, Pete had been the de facto leader of the Hope family for a dozen years, model citizens all.