#145 James Johnson

James Johnson (1844-19??), aka Jersey Jimmy/Jimmie, James Eagan – Pickpocket, Saloon Owner

From Byrnes’s text:

DESCRIPTION. Forty-two years old in 1886. Born in New York. Married. No trade. Stout build. Height, 5 feet 4 1/2 inches. Weight, 170 pounds. Dark brown hair, gray eyes, florid complexion. Whiskers, when worn, are light brown.

RECORD. “Jersey Jimmie” is one of the luckiest thieves in America. He is known from Maine to California, and has had the good fortune to escape State prison many a time. He works with Joe Gorman (146), Boston (144), Curly Charley, Big Dick (141), and nearly all the Bowery “mob” of New York, where he makes his home. He was arrested in New York City, and sentenced to six months in the penitentiary on Blackwell’s Island, under the name of James Johnson, on April 22, 1869, for an attempt to pick pockets. He was sentenced again to one year in the penitentiary on Blackwell’s Island, on February 7, 1878, for picking pockets, and pardoned by Governor Robinson on May 8, 1878. Since then he has been arrested in almost every city in the Union, but his usual good luck stands to him, and he succeeds in obtaining his discharge. Johnson’s picture is an excellent one, taken in August, 1885.

Jimmy Johnson had a long career as a pickpocket, starting in the mid-1860s. In 1865, he saw his older brother John confront a Jersey City detective on a Manhattan street, only to be shot dead. From that point forward, he never trusted law officials, and they sometimes harassed him for no other cause than his (well-deserved) reputation.

However, Jimmy’s impact on society was not so much found in his petty crimes as it was in his management of an infamous dive, Jersey Jimmy’s. The site of his saloon was relocated a few times, but settled at First Street and the Bowery. Jimmy ran his saloon for nearly thirty years (excepting his jail sentences, when he handed off the day-to-day management to others.)

“Jersey Jimmy’s” thrived as an all-night dive through the 1890s and early 1900s, thanks to loopholes in a poorly-conceived blue law, the Raines Law. Reformers believed that an early-closing time imposed on bars and saloons would curb many ills, but ran into the resistance from the many legitimate uptown hotels that catered to tourists and business travelers–their lounges were an important source of income. Therefore the Raines Law carved out an exception for establishments that offered both rooms and food to their clients. Realizing this loophole, all-night saloons set aside a few rooms on an upstairs floor–and the bare minimum of food offerings. The rooms usually went unused–or were used for activities other than sleeping. These joints became known as “Raines-Law Hotels,” and Jersey Jimmy’s was the prime example.

In December, 1896, the New York World took readers into Jersey Jimmy’s dive, which resembled a stage set for The Iceman Cometh:

“A Night at Jersey Jimmy’s : New York’s Most Notorious Pickpocket Manages a Raines-Law Hotel at No. 14 First Street

“Jersey Jimmy,” whose real name is James Johnson, first opened his new Raines-law hotel about four months ago. It is true the license for the place is not in his name, but Jimmy boldly told the detectives of Capt. Herlihy’s command when they visited the place a few nights ago that he was the manager and proposed to be such.

“Jersey Jimmy’s” place is at No. 14 First street, just a few doors east of the Bowery. It is a small place, but Jimmy is evidently doing a thriving business. There is a little bar and back room where there a number of tables and chairs. The rear is very dark, so that people passing on the street cannot see the faces of Jimmy’s guests.

“There is a large sign on the mirror directly behind the bar which reads “Jimmy’s.” Jimmy is evidently anxious that all hands know that he is the boss of a saloon on the east side.

“Jimmy is at his hotel every night. He was there last night when a World reporter and a World artist called. It was shortly before 1 a.m. He was doing a rousing business. Jimmy was behind the bar in a corner near the front window–a short, undersized man about fifty-five years old, his face seamed with hard lines. From his position he could command a full view of all that occurred in the back room, and at the same time not be seen by any stranger who entered unless he chose to come to the front. Although there is a bartender, when a bill is to be charged by one of the customers then Jimmy step up and makes the necessary change. Jimmy’s is not a trusting disposition.

“Jimmy has always been considered one of the most daring pickpockets and all-around thieves in the country. He makes it a specialty to rob women. He goes to church now and then to commit a robbery, but principally he does his business on the street cars…

“Jersey Jimmy has a new barkeeper. His old one is in trouble just now. He was known to police as ‘Humpback Tommie’ Martin, a former convict, whose picture is in the Rogues’ Gallery. Martin was arrested in Long Island City some weeks ago and Jimmy had to look about for a substitute.


“Among the most welcome of the friends of Jersey Jimmy is Ike Vail, the most noted confidence man of the country. He may be found there almost any night.

“Then there is Jersey Jimmy’s old friend, ‘Pete’ Smith, also a former convict. Pete’s specialty is till-tapping. Another guest is known to the police as ‘Roaring Bill.’ His real name is William Wright. He is called ‘Roaring Bill’ because, the police say, he roars like a lion when under the influence of liquor.

“Some years ago ‘Roaring Bill’ went to Albany and there stole the coat of an assemblyman. Bill was tried, convicted, and sent to State Prison for ten years.

“Then there are ‘Mat’ Downey, a former convict and expert pickpocket; ‘Hank’ Vreeland, a former convict and pickpocket; his partner ‘Jim’ Davis, who is also a pickpocket and served time; ‘Red’ Farrell; William Schafer, alias ‘Horseface;’ ‘Joe’ Gorman; ‘Pete’ Berman; and ‘Johnnie’ Gorman.
“Among the other men known to the police who frequent ‘Jersey Jimmy’s’ place are Charles Backus, alias ‘Old’ Backus, the bunco man and former convict; ‘Dick’ Morris alias ‘Broken-nose Dick,’ another confidence man; Mike Donovan, alias ‘Wreck,’ a notorious highwayman; ‘Joe’ Morton, alias ‘Lover Joe,’ a former convict and expert shoplifter; ‘Reddie’ Galligan, another old timer and a jail bird; ‘Teddy’ Kelly, alias ‘Little Kelly,” whose picture is in the Rogues’ Gallery, and who, according to the records, has been in State Prison for picking pockets. Also may be found in Jimmy’s ‘Ed’ Tully, alias ‘Broken-nose Tully,’ a former convict and pickpocket, whose picture is in the Rogues’ Gallery, and ‘Jimmy’ Harris, the burglar.

“An occasional visitor at Jimmy’s was William Johnson, alias ‘The Count.” His absence is mourned. Jimmy says his hard luck details are not known, but the Count appears to be detained in Philadelphia because of [being found with] too great a quantity of a base-born shopkeeper’s ware.

“There was a reception at Jimmy’s last week. There was an affair in honor of Max Davis, alias “The Rabbi.” Max is a burglar by profession. Unlike the Count, Max is said to be in good luck, for he has just returned after a prolonged visit to Sing Sing.

“Lizzie Peck, the notorious badger woman and thief, is also a friend and admirer of Jersey Jimmy, and visits his new Raines law saloon.

“Jersey Jimmy does not like Capt. Herlihy. The old pickpocket says the Captain is down on him. When Jimmy first opened his place he gave a concert, that is, he had a violin player in the place. When Capt. Herlihy heard of this he told the former convict that he would close his place if he did not stop playing music [as stipulated by the Raines definition of a hotel.]

“‘We are only playing a little sacred music,’ said Jimmy.

“‘I am the Captain,’ said Capt. Herlihy, ‘and there is going to be no music in your place or in any other place in this precinct, unless the mayor grants you a concert license.’

“Jimmy has not applied for one yet. He probably would have done so if there was just as little difficulty experienced in obtaining a license from the mayor as there is from the Excise Commissioner [for a liquor license.]

Jersey Jimmy’s had a reputation as more than just a gathering place for colorful characters. Several young prostitutes, after two years or so on the street, committed suicide inside or just outside Jimmy’s doors. Visiting sailors and tourists were given knockout drops and rolled. In 1958, writer Gay Talese interviewed a 93-year-old former bare-knuckle fighter, who told an anecdote about cadavers being carried into the saloon from a wake, and when Jimmy called for the bill and asked who was paying, all those at the bar pointed to the man with his head down on a table.

2 thoughts on “#145 James Johnson

  1. Just don’t allow any stranger to offer you a drink; don’t speak ill of any boxers or politicians; hold on to your wallet; and don’t leave alone (unless you’re armed).


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