Joseph C. Parish (183?-1890), aka Sealskin Joe, Joe Parrish — Pickpocket, Watch Stuffer, Bank Sneak
From Byrnes’ text:
DESCRIPTION. Forty-six years old in 1886. Born in Michigan. An artist by trade. Married. Stout build. Height, 5 feet 7 inches. Weight, 164 pounds. Hair black, mixed with gray; bluish-gray eyes; large and prominent features; dark complexion. Generally wears a full, dark-brown beard, cut short. High, retreating forehead. High cheek bones and narrow chin.
RECORD. Joe Parish is a Western pickpocket and general thief, and is one of the most celebrated criminals in America. He has been actively engaged in crooked work for the last twenty-five years, and if all his exploits were written up they would astonish the reader. In his time he is said to have had permission to work in many of the large cities in the West. He attempted to ply his vocation in New York City a few years ago, but was ordered to leave the city. Several Southern cities have suffered from his depredations.
He is said to have been with General Greenthal and his gang, who were arrested at Syracuse, N.Y., on March 11, 1877, for robbing a man at the railroad depot there out of $1,190, on March 1, 1877. Parish is well known in Chicago, Ill., where he has property and a wife and family of three girls and one boy. He at one time kept a large billiard parlor in Davenport, Iowa, but, being crooked, he was driven out of the town.
He was finally arrested in Chicago, Ill., on February 13, 1883, and delivered to the chief of police of Syracuse, N.Y. He was taken there, and sentenced to eight years in Auburn prison, N.Y., on April 29, 1883, for robbing one Delos S. Johnson, of Fabius, N.Y., on the Binghamton road. Parish’s picture is an excellent one, taken in May, 1883.
Joe Parish once claimed that “Parish” wasn’t his real name, and that even his wife and children weren’t aware of his real name. However, it was a name he early adopted and was known by all his life. One source said that his father was English and his mother French, and that he had been born and raised in Michigan, but none of that has been confirmed.
He first appeared in Detroit in the late 1850s. He was a sporting man, and in October, 1858 at London, Ontario, fought a boxing match against English lightweight Mike Trainor. Trainor was twenty pounds lighter, but a much more skilled fighter. They went nineteen rounds before Parish slipped to one knee and Trainor hit him, a disqualifying foul. Although Parish won the purse, he acknowledged Trainor as the better fighter, split the purse with him, and shared a tankard of ale afterwards.
By 1860 he had migrated to Chicago, his on-and-off home for the rest of his career. He had married an older English woman, Sarah E. Davis, who was said to weigh much control over Joe. In Chicago he gained a reputation as a pennyweight specializing in watches, i.e. a “watch-stuffer”, one who substitutes a cheap watch for a superior one.
He was also an aggressive, mob-style pickpocket, working with other men to jostle people in crowds: on streetcars, outside of theaters, and at baseball games. In the latter part of the 1860s, he worked with a pickpocket mob that traveled around the country, with partners Willy Best, Denny Hurley, Johnny Burke, Chicago Bob, and Tommy Maddox. They were working in New York when they interrupted their efforts to attend the Barney Aaron-Sam Collyer prizefight.
One doubtful tale told about Parish was that he was such a skilled pickpocket that he was hired by the French government during the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71 to steal papers carried by Prussian officers.
In November, 1874, Parish made an attempt to earn an honest living by opening a grand billiard room and saloon in Davenport, Iowa. However, within a few months, reporters from Chicago ran stories informing the citizens of staid Davenport of Parish’s background. He was forced to sell out and returned to Chicago.
In December, 1876, he was arrested for stealing sealskin sacques (light jackets) in Chicago, earning him the nickname, Sealskin Joe. Ironically, he was acquitted of that charge by proving that the garments belonged to his wife.
In early 1877, he joined Abraham Greenthal‘s mob of roving pickpockets, who used similar techniques to manhandle their victims. Several of them were arrested in upstate New York in March, 1877, including Parish and Greenthal. It was rumored that Parish informed against Greenthal, sending the later to prison.
Back in Chicago, Parish continued to pickpocket, but paid off so many detectives that he was never convicted. Instead, just to keep him off the streets, judges fined him for vagrancy.
Parish faced arrests in Omaha in 1878 and in Denver in 1879, but always seemed to merit a discharge; he soon gained a reputation as one who was always willing to “squeal” on his partners in order to save his own skin. Still, he found willing partners to sneak money from banks with Billy Burke and Eddie Guerin.
Finally, in April 1883, he was arrested in Syracuse for a train station pickpocket theft. He was convicted and then held in jail for sentencing, but realizing that he was facing a long sentence at Auburn State Prison, where a vengeful “General” Greenthal awaited him, Parish went raving mad and attempted to have poison smuggled to him so that he could commit suicide. The poison was intercepted, but his jailers wondered if it was all an act in order to be sent to the hospital, from which friends could help him escape.
Ruse or not, the judge did take mercy and gave him a generous sentence. Even so, Parish emerged from Auburn in September 1888, a broken man. He returned to Chicago and his family, who had done fine generating income from their property. Parish opened a small grocery store on the South Side to keep busy, but later in 1889 was committed to the Cook County Hospital for the Insane, where he passed away early in 1890.