#39 Robert Bowman

Robert Gillman Stockton (Abt. 1841-????), aka Robert Bowman, J.C. Hale, J. C. Bowman, George Munroe, J. C. Hogan — Thief, Forger

From Byrnes’s text:

DESCRIPTION. Forty-six years old in 1886. Height, 5 feet 9 1/2 inches. Gray eyes, gray whiskers and mustache. Complexion medium. Stooped shoulders. Looks hump-backed. High forehead. Bald on front of head. Scars on bridge of nose, back of neck, and between the shoulder-blades. Born in New York. Weight, 140 pounds.

RECORD. Bowman was an associate of Wm. H. Lyman, a notorious forger, who died in prison in 1883. Both of them were sent to Clinton prison, New York State, for four years and six months in August, 1878, for forgeries committed in Catskill, N.Y. Bowman and Lyman were again arrested at Hudson, N.Y., on September 16, 1881, and taken to Fitchburg, Mass., where they were sentenced to prison for three years for forging drafts on the American Express Company, at that place. They were also charged with raising drafts that were drawn by the National Bank of St. Albans, Vt., on the Park Bank of New York City. Also with forging a draft, on September 5, 1881, on Clipperly, Cole & Haslehurst, Troy bankers. When arrested $1,200 in money was found on them.

Bowman was arrested again in Chicago, Ill., on January 14, 1886. About January 6, 1886, a man giving the name of J. F. Hall, presented to the Floyd County Savings Bank, of Charles City, Iowa, a draft payable to himself, purporting to have been drawn by the First National Bank of Joliet, Ill. Hall also had a letter of introduction from the Joliet bank; the draft was deposited to his credit, and on January 9, 1886, he wrote to the Floyd County Bank from Chicago, enclosing his receipt for the draft, and asking that the money be sent to him by the United States Express. It was sent, and when Hall called for it he was arrested and recognized as Bowman. One of the detectives went to Fort Wayne, Ind., where Hall had lived, and captured the latter’s valise, in which was found a large number of counterfeit checks and certificates. It was estimated that Bowman and his gang had defrauded the banks in the western country out of $50,000.

Bowman’s case in Chicago, Ill., was nolle prosequi, by Judge Rogers, on June 1, 1886, because the State’s attorney was unable to obtain sufficient evidence to convict him of the forgeries committed there. He was discharged, and immediately re-arrested and taken to Vermont, where he was committed for trial, charged with having committed forgeries on the First National Bank of Brandon, Vt., the Vermont National Bank, the Rutland County National Bank, of Rutland, Vt., and the Farmers and Mechanics’ Bank of Burlington, Vt. These forgeries were committed in 1881, by Bowman and Ned Lyman, and amounted in the aggregate to $30,000. Bowman’s picture is a good one, taken in 1886.

There are many curiosities and inconsistencies in the career of forger Robert Bowman, starting with his real name and origins. So much printed about Bowman was wrong or unsubstantiated, it is difficult to say much about his life prior to 1877, when he was arrested with penman William H. Lyman for forgeries committed in Catskill, New York.

Bowman shared a background that led to his association with counterfeiter and burglar Gilbert “Gib” Yost. Yost had once been an Erie Canal boatman, as Bowman was said to have been. Yost peddled counterfeit currency at stops along the canal, but soon graduated to burglary work. He rubbed shoulders with the famous New York burglars of the 1870s, in particular Billy Porter and Johnny Irving. [Several articles on Bowman refer to the notorious burglars known to Yost and Bowman were “James Barnes” and “Alexander McGregor,” two names with no other underworld credentials.] When not working with burglars, Yost returned to his home in Fonda, New York.


Meanwhile, Bowman likely met penman/swindler William H. Lyman in Auburn prison in the late 1860s/early 1870s. Lyman and Bowman, along with another man named John Fraley (or Freeleigh) from Fonda, New York, committed a series of forgeries at Catskill, New York in June, 1877. After they were arrested, it was said that Gib Yost tried to break them out by smuggling tools to Bowman, but that they were discovered under his cell mattress. They were finally tried in August, 1878 and found guilty. Both Lyman and Bowman were sent to Clinton State Prison in Dannemora, New York on sentences of four and a half years each.

They were released in August, 1881–and then in the space of twenty days committed check forgeries at banks in Troy, New York; Fitchburg, Massachusetts; and several in southern Vermont. They were arrested in Hudson, New York; at first that were taken to Fitchburg to be prosecuted, but it was decided that there was a better case at Troy. In September, 1881 they were convicted and sent back to Clinton State Prison for another four and a half years. William H. Lyman died behind bars in November, 1883. Robert Bowman was discharged on December 3, 1884.

Between 1884 and early 1886, Bowman was rumored to have accompanied George Wade Wilkes and Frederick “Little Joe” Elliott on a check forging tour of the upper Midwest and Pacific coast. Bowman’s role was to serve as the middleman between the penman and the check passers. Wilkes and Elliott were arrested in March, 1886.

Robert Bowman was arrested in Chicago in June, 1886 on charges of check forging. However, the evidence against him in this case was weak, and the judge threw out the case. Pinkerton detectives immediately took him into custody and conveyed him to Vermont, to face charges on the forgery cases from 1881. Bowman was convicted on those charges in March 1887 and sentenced to four years in the Vermont State Prison.

After he got out from Vermont, Bowman joined a check forging team that included Richard “Big Dick” Lennox, Joe English, Charles Becker, Richard Davis, and Daniel Beneycke.To quote from Byrnes’s 1895 edition:

“They began operations in 1892 at Minneapolis, and worked in Duluth and St. Joseph. They became alarmed and went to Europe, and remained there until the fall of 1893, when they returned and went to Providence, R. I., where they raised two checks of $14 and $18, to $1,400 and $1,800, and passed them on the Industrial Trust Co., and the Merchants’ National Bank. Their custom is to remain in a place just long enough to raise and pass two or three checks, and being successful in Providence, they went to Boston, thence to Buffalo, Cincinnati, New Orleans, back to Philadelphia, and then to Milwaukee, where the police “ got on to their little game,” and drove them out of the town. The swindlers then fled to Albany, N. Y., where Becker and English left Lennox and Beaumann [Bowman] and went toward Boston.”

Between 1893 and 1896, one by one, members of this gang were captured and jailed. In 1894, reports about Bowman presented a conundrum. In early June, an elderly check forger was arrested in Des Moines, Iowa, and gave the name “James Wilson.” He was tried, found guilty, and sent to prison on a twelve-year sentence. The Illustrated Police News confidently reported that this man was none other than Robert Bowman, but in reality it was Joe English.

Then, in August 1894, Boston detectives arrested a man who gave his name as “Alfred G. Highton” for presenting forged altered checks. The police authorities, as well as the local Pinkerton representative, positively identified Highton as Robert Bowman. They were later proven wrong: Highton was the man’s name, though he was a notorious confidence man and floater of worthless checks.

Bowman, it appears, was still raking in money with master forgers Charles Becker and James Cregan–until those two were arrested in the summer of 1896. Bowman, instead of working to gain the freedom of his companions, fled to England with a reported $1,000,000 of the gang’s earnings. For a while, he lived comfortably in the southwest suburbs of London and operated pubs, but lost nearly all his money through mismanagement or bad habits.

Bowman then started to write letters from England to William and Robert Pinkerton; in the 1880s, he had agreed to be an inside informer for the Pinkertons, but fed them bad information. William and Robert believed that Bowman wrote from England to see if it would be safe for him to return to America, but the Pinkertons held a grudge against him for his treachery, and instead urged British officials to keep a close watch on Bowman.

Bowman was desperate to get back in the game, and decided to come back to the United States in 1904, when Charles Becker got out of prison in California. William Pinkerton got wind of the return and said, “If there is any way in God’s world to get him in the penitentiary, I would like to do it. I never knew a more contemptible, dirty thief.” Bowman approached Becker once Becker returned to New York, but Becker had no interest in further forgeries. Where Bowman turned after his rejection is unknown.


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