#62 John Mahaney

John Mahaney (1844-19??), aka Jack Sheppard, John H. Matthews, James Wilson, John Mahoney, etc. — Thief, Escape Artist

Link to Byrnes’s entry for #62 John Mahaney

John Mahaney would have been a much more notorious criminal, had he not been saddled with the nickname “Jack Sheppard,” in honor of the 18th-century English thief. That original Jack Sheppard had started his thieving career in 1723, and was arrested and imprisoned five times in 1724 before being held and executed. Since his death, many thieves in England and America were called the “new Jack Sheppard,” but with John Mahaney, the name stuck throughout a career spanning sixty years–long after the American public had lost memory of the original Jack Sheppard.

Mahaney was first jailed years before the Civil War started; he was last jailed (as far as is known) in 1915, as a member of a ring of auto thieves. Most of his adult life was spent in various prisons, but he still committed a remarkable number of crimes.

Moreover, more anecdotes exist concerning Mahaney’s youthful exploits than any other criminal in Chief Byrnes’s book. Mahaney’s childhood was both appalling and enthralling. He related his career to a reporter from the New York Sun shortly before escaping from the Central Station of the New York Police Department in April 1872 [Note: ethnic slurs made by the reporter have been edited out]:

“This notorious criminal, whose exploits have almost surpassed those of Jack Sheppard, was born in this city of Irish parents in the year 1844. Jack’s father died when Jack was quite young. Jack’s early care and training devolved upon his mother. He was sent to school, but proved such a mischievous urchin that he received more floggings than any other boy in his class. On a certain occasion Jack says one of the schoolboys played a trick on the master. Jack was suspected. He and three other boys were made to kneel down and were allowed 15 minutes in which to confess the deed. Jack was really innocent, but one of the boys promised to give him a tin box with six cents in it to say that he had done it. He got a severe flogging, but never got the box nor the pennies. He ran away from this school so often that his mother sent him to a boarding-school at Jamaica, L.I.

“The teacher at this school had a son about twenty years old. This young man and Jack became chums, and any mischief that was done was invariably laid at Jack’s door. While attending this school Jack manifested the old disposition to play hookey. The master made him wear nothing but a frock, which gave him the appearance of a girl. One day Jack got out of a window, and, catching hold of the gutter on the roof, worked his way to the room containing his clothes. He then swung himself into the room, and, dressing himself, escaped from the school and returned home, only to be taken back the next day by his mother.

“One day Jack stole some gunpowder. He put it into a large ink bottle, then put a piece of lighted paper into the bottle and stood over it, expecting it to burn like a Fourth of July blue light. The powder exploded the bottle, and a piece of glass was driven into his leg. He was crippled from the effects for a long while, and carries the mark to this day.

“On another occasion he took a loaded rifle from the teacher’s closet. Holding it above his head he pulled the trigger. The recoil stretched him on the floor. The slug went through the ceiling floor overhead, and in close proximity to the servant girl, who was making the beds in the rooms upstairs.

“Jack was so wild that his mother took him home and sent him to a private school near his residence. He played truant so often that his mother, acting under the advice of friends, sent him to the House of Refuge, at that time located in Twenty-Third street. When Jack entered that institution he was a wild but innocent boy. He remained there but nine months. During that time he was forced to associate with boys from eight to twenty, chiefly from the Five Points, Water street, and the slums of New York City. Among the inmates of the House of Refuge at that time was Jerry O’Brien, who was executed in 1868. When Jack left that institution he had become schooled in every kind of wickedness. He was taken home, and placed in the Juvenile asylum, under the care of Dr. Russ. From there Jack ran away so often that they placed shackles on his legs; but he managed to saw them off with table knives, which he would nick like a saw. One night he made his escape, but was recaptured and taken back. Dr. Russ then put a chain around his waist, and attached it to another boy. One day Jack took the boy on his back and started for the city, but was recaptured.

“He became a constant visitor at the theaters, with which he was so infatuated that he resorted to thieving and dishonesty to obtain the means requisite to gratify his passion. He usually slept in hay barges and wagons, and would steal all day to raise “pit money.” One night his mother found him snugly stowed away in a dry-goods case on the sidewalk. He was taken home and supplied with a new suit of clothes. He was at home but a short while when the temptation to visit the theater came over him, and he ran away and returned to the Five Points. Being well-dressed and smart-looking for a boy his age, he was picked up by a notorious thief and villain known as “Italian Dave.” Jack was known as Dave’s “kid.” Every morning Dave and his pal would go down to rob the large stores which were just opening. While Dave would buttonhole the porter, Jack would sneak into the store and help himself to the valuables. The afternoons would be devoted to robbing dwellings in the upper part of the city.

“Sometimes Dave would take Jack with him to the Battery, where he would waylay gentlemen who were wending their way to the Brooklyn ferryboat. Jack’s part of the job was to go through their pockets and take all the valuables from their persons. For the work he performed he was remunerated with a few shillings.

“One night Dave armed himself with a long knife, and started across the street to a den to kill another thief, who it seems had done him some injury. Dave was drunk, and while reeling across the street was set upon and beaten with clubs until he was almost dead. The following night Jack was arrested while at the National Theater by a detective who had been hired by his mother to hunt him up. Jack, while on the road home, told the detective all that he had done, and instead of being taken home, was taken to the station house. He was afterward taken in custody by three officers, who wanted him to show them the thieves’ den. With a revolver at his head, Jack led the way through an old building in the Five Points. The house was searched and a large quantity of jewelry found. The receiver was arrested, and Jack put in the House of Detention as a witness. Jack was an unwilling witness, and one night set fire to his bed and escaped during the confusion. He then made his way to Newark, where he robbed a jewelry story of six gold watches, which he sold for $15.

“After this robbery he returned to New York, where he was arrested and confined in the Tombs. One day he picked the lock of his cell and got out in the hallway. Being small, he crawled through the bars of the window facing Franklin street. He went home, and his mother dressed him in his sister’s clothes, and sent him to a relative who lived on Ling Island. He remained there but a few months. One day, being sent on an errand, he broke into a house and stole the silverware. He was caught with the plunder, but managed to escape. He next went to Jersey City. While there he was arrested and committed to jail. He made his escape and returned to New York, where, after committing a series of crimes extending over a period of two years, he was finally arrested and sentenced to Sing Sing for two years [age 16, year 1860]. At the State Prison he was confined in a cell with an old criminal who initiated him into the mysteries of a “cross life.” On leaving Sing Sing he returned to his wicked career, and was arrested for robbing a gentleman on Grand street. For this he got off with six months in the penitentiary [Blackwell’s Island].

“While there he attempted to escape, but fell on an iron picket fence. One of the spikes passed through his right wrist, and in the fall he broke his arm and sprained his ankle. He was found in this condition by the guard and taken to the hospital. Before he had thoroughly recovered he escaped from the hospital and went to New Orleans. That city did not offer a good field for his peculiar line of business, and he returned to New York after a stay of only three weeks. One morning after his return he stole a case of silks and was arrested. The informant in this case was known as Morris. Morris gave the information to Captain (later Superintendent) Jordan, and a watch was set on the house in which the goods were concealed. Jack was arrested while examining his booty.

“In order to get rid of this charge, Jack enlisted [in the Union Army] and was sent to camp on Riker’s Island [then a boot camp for new enlistees]. While there he picked a man’s pocket of $100. Capt. George Washburn, now captain of police, was provost marshal of Riker’s Island. He suspected Jack, and tied him up until he confessed where the money was hidden. A short time after this occurrence Jack escaped from the island. He was recaptured and sent to Castle Williams on Governor’s Island [a garrison and prison]. From there he made an unsuccessful attempt to escape, but was caught and tied up by the thumbs as punishment.

“He was subsequently sent [on active duty] to Alexandria, and from there to the front. Jack, while at Brandy Station [Battle of Brandy Station, Virginia, June 9, 1863], about seventy miles south of Alexandria, took an observation of the state of the army, and not being favorably impressed with the condition of things, managed to elude the guards and escape. He hid himself in a car containing the bodies of embalmed soldiers, and arrived safe at Alexandria at two o’clock the following morning. He tried to escape from Alexandria, but was picked up by one of the night patrols and was placed in jail. While in jail his head was shaved. The next day Jack broke out of the jail. He tied a silk handkerchief around his head and started for New York City, where he arrived without further molestation [at age 19].

“After leading a life of dissipation and crime for a long time, he was arrested again for burglary. He was convicted and sentenced to Sing Sing for four years and six months. He had been in State Prison but a few weeks when he escaped through the roof. He was re-arrested on the same day on the Harlem railroad, twelve miles from the prison. His captor started with him to the city to have him remanded to Sing Sing. Jack had made up his mind to run any risk to escape. While passing through Thirty-fourth street tunnel, he suddenly struck the constable between the eyes, then jumped from the train and escaped. Jack then made the acquaintance of some safe operators and went with them for a few weeks, until one of the party was arrested. While operating on a safe, the store was surrounded, and the burglars were fired upon by the night watchman. One of the burglars was captured, tried, convicted, and sentenced to Sing Sing for three years.

“After this, Jack went to Boston. While there he stole $6000 worth of goods, which he expressed to New York to dispose of. While on his way to this city [New York] he was arrested and remanded to Sing Sing. The authorities of the prison then put a ball and chain on his left leg and kept him sitting in the prison hall under the eye of the keeper. When Jack had worn his jewelry about five months he became tired of it. One day he asked the warden to remove the shackles and let him go work in the shops. ‘I could take them off myself if I wanted to,’ said Jack, ‘but if you will take them off for me, I promise you I will not attempt to escape.’

“The warden laughed at the idea. On the following day Jack managed to get an old coat and the keeper’s spectacles. He played sick and remained in his cell. While the rest of the prisoners were at dinner, he took the ball and chain off and walked to the end of the shoe shop where the contractor had his horse in the stable. He harnessed the horse to a light wagon, and got through just as the convicts were leaving the mess-room for their shops. Jack put on the spectacles, wrapped the horse blanket around his prison pants, jumped into the wagon, and started. He had to pass about twenty guards armed with muskets, and was discovered before he got half way. The guards opened a fusillade on him, but he whipped up his horse and escaped without a scratch. He rode about seven miles, when he let the horse go, and entered a barn where he concealed himself in a haystack. While in the barn, a gentleman drove in with a horse and sleigh, which he left in the barn. Scarcely had the owner of the sleigh left when Jack jumped into the vehicle and started for New York. He reached the city on the following morning. From New York he went to Boston, and thence, in company with a notorious criminal, to Philadelphia. In the later city his companion committed a crime, and the house where they were concealed was surrounded by police. Jack escaped by jumping from a second-story window.
“He returned to Boston and stole $3500 worth of broadcloth, which he expressed to New York. Jack started to follow the goods, but was arrested at Yonkers by Detective Baker, and taken back to Boston. He was tried, convicted, and sentenced to the Charlestown State prison for five years [in April 1866, when he was 22]. While there he made three ineffectual attempts to escape, and finally concluded to serve his time out. At the expiration of his term of service he went out West and remained quiet until recently.”

The writers of this Sun article were not aware that after Jack was discharged from Massachusetts in January 1871, he returned to New York and in March, 1871, married shoplifter Ellen Rodda, alias Ellen Darrigan. He then went to Illinois, but was hardly quiet. He was arrested in that state and sentenced to four years in Joliet State Prison, and returned to New York in the spring of 1875.

This summary has covered only the first twenty years of Jack’s sixty-year long career, but should suggest the pattern of the remainder his resume. John Mahaney put the original Jack Sheppard to shame.

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