#203 Albert Wise

Albert Wise (Abt. 1843-19??), aka Jacob Sondheim, Sheeny Al, Jew Al, A. H. Loudon, Al Wilson, Albert Simpson, Charles H. Whittemore, Albert Williams, James T. Watson, Adolph Gephart, Edward Pinter, Arnold Metzany, Emile Hemlin, Otto Henry, etc. — Pickpocket, sneak thief, confidence man

Link to Byrnes’s entry for #203 Albert Wise

Al Wise is credited with originating an astoundingly lucrative “big con” called by various names, including The Alchemist, The Philosopher’s Stone, and Gold Sweating. While it is likely the game was not created by Wise, he became its most famous and successful practitioner. As the names above implied, Wise played the role of a scientist who had perfected a chemical reaction capable of adding a third or a half to a given weight of gold. His victims supplied him with piles of gold, rumored to be as much as $200,000 at a time.

Al Wise started as a much humbler crook: a pickpocket and sneak thief, working on teams with others of that ilk, and disposing of some of the loot through the New York fence, Marm Mandelbaum. He was romantically involved with Black Amelia, sister of Black Lena, at some point in the 1860s and 1870s, but by the mid 1880s had fallen out both with her and with (exiled in Ontario) Marm Mandelbaum.

Byrnes alludes to the reports that Wise’s 1882-1883 arrest and conviction in Buffalo was contentious. In a letter sent to the Pinkerton Agency in 1886, Wise claimed that Mandelbaum, Black Lena and Black Amelia, and New York Detectives had conspired to frame him for the Buffalo check forgeries, fearing that he was about to inform on them. However, at his trial, he had a parade of witnesses claim he was in New York City at the time of the forgeries; but wrote to the Pinkertons saying he had been in St. Catherine’s, Ontario. Wise said the forgeries were done by George Wade Wilkes’ gang. Another rumor–which has the scent of credibility–is that Wise was fingered by a partner in the forging scheme, who was upset that Wise had not given him a fair share. Wise was capable of passing forged papers; he had done so in Boston in 1875.

Wise was arrested in Boston in 1880 for that 1875 forgery. With him at the time was a con man identified as his brother, but named G. H. Simpson. Simpson was also arrested, but not for forgery–Simpson was nabbed for running the Alchemist con game.


Wise was in jail for the Buffalo forgeries from 1883 to 1886. During that time, in 1884, the Alchemist con was run (unsuccessfully) by a man named Ettlinger in Cincinnati.

It was only in the late 1880s that Wise, now free from prison, was identified as the man running the Alchemist con. He did so first in New York City; then in Baltimore, bringing in $100,000. From Baltimore, Wise headed across the Atlantic to Europe, emerging as “Dr. Edward Pinter.” This was when Wise made his most famous sting. He was rumored to have swindled members of the Rothschild family; the Duke of Cambridge; and King George of Greece–but none of these instances are backed up with facts. However, one rumored con appears to be more believable. It was later described by the New York Herald:

“In July of this year [1891] Edward Streeter, a well-known Bond street jeweler, was summoned to Claridge’s by the Duke of Edinburgh [Prince Alfred, second son of Queen Victoria] to meet Count Kearney and the American Chemist, Dr. Pinter. The Duke told Streeter, in strict confidence, that Dr. Pinter had made one of the most wonderful discoveries of the age, in that he was able by means of a chemical process known only to him to add from one-third to one-half to the weight of gold. Dr. Pinter had performed this feat in the presence of the Count and himself, the Duke said, having on three different occasions melted a sovereign in his crucible, adding a powder to it, and producing a lump of gold that weighed each time one-third more than the original metal, that had been found genuine by competent assayers. [Hint: the mystery powder was gold dust]

“Further, the Duke informed Streeter, the Count and himself had agreed to hand over £40,000 in gold to Dr. Pinter, which he was to increase in weight, the three to divide the additional value equally, but that the doctor had insisted that he first make another test in the presence of some skilled metallurgist. The Duke had selected Streeter to serve in that capacity.

“Streeter was a hard-headed person. While he was flattered by the mark of confidence that a member of the royal family had placed in him, he was aware that some mischief was afoot, and, in violation of his oath of secrecy, for which he may be pardoned, he proceeded from Claridge’s hotel direct to Scotland Yard, after making arrangements with the eminent chemist for a test of his discovery the following day. The jeweler told the story of the scheme for the augmentation of the bulk of gold to Inspector Littlechild.

“”Does this Dr. Pinter wear side whiskers?’ the inspector asked.

“‘Yes, he does. Why do you ask?'” responded Streeter.

“”Because I have just received a letter from Detective Golden of the New York police, telling me to be on the lookout for this very man,’ said Littlechild. ‘He has been operating the same game in the United States.’

“The inspector produced Golden’s letter, which had contained a photograph of Al that was at once identified by the jeweler as the counterfeit presentment of the self-styled Dr. Pinter. It did not take long to plan a trap for the eminent chemist, though neither the Duke nor the Count was let into the secret. The next afternoon, when Dr. Pinter came to make his test in Streeter’s workshop, in the rear of the great establishment in Bond street, two detectives were concealed in the room. The Duke of Edinburgh, as it happened, was detained at home by a rather severe illness, but his friend Count Kearney and the chemist drove up to Streeter’s together in a smart brougham. Dr. Pinter was allowed to put 10 sovereigns into a crucible with his marvelous powder, and then the detectives stepped out from their place of concealment and arrested him.

“And now Scotland Yard was in a predicament. If Al was brought to trial the name of the Duke of Edinburgh would be involved, and it is no part of English policy to make a member of the royal family a butt for ridicule. Consequently, Sondheim [Al Wise], under the name of Edward Pinter, was allowed to plead guilty to an attempt to swindle Streeter and was given three months’ imprisonment. He laughed when sentence was pronounced. Count Kearney seemed tremendously shocked when he was told of the previous career of his dear friend, and he left England soon after the other’s arrest.

“To explain the opportune arrival of Golden’s letter it is necessary to go back a year or more in Sondheim’s career. He had been sentenced to five years in Auburn prison in 1883 for swindling the Merchants Bank of Buffalo, and had spent some time in Germany and Austria growing his whiskers, playing many kinds of confidence games, picking pockets and robbing shopkeepers after his release. He returned to New York in the spring of 1890, however, wearing German clothes, a German hat and German shoes, and with a German accent, although he could speak English perfectly. He put up at the Morton House, where he soon became known as Prof. Albert Wise, scientist, late of Heidelberg University.

“Although a man of learning, the professor was also a convivial person, and he soon became on intimate terms with Messrs. Shook and Collier, who spent much of their time in the Morton House, next door the the Union Square theater. Indeed, the hotel was then under Shook’s management. They found the German professor an entertaining companion and also a profound philosopher, and gradually he let them into the secret of a discovery he had made that would revolutionize the wealth of the world–a chemical process for increasing the bulk of gold! Finally he rented the basement of a house in Great Jones street between Lafayette place and the Bowery and demonstrated to their satisfaction that he could do what he said he could.

“Anyone who ever knew ‘Shed’ Shook and Jim Collier will admit that they were as shrewd men of the world as New York has ever produced. Nevertheless, they were completely carried away by the promise of enormous wealth that Professor Wise’s discovery offered, and they raised $5000 between them, which they brought in gold to the Great Jones street basement and deposited in the vat of chemicals that the German scientist had installed there. He informed them that it would take two or three weeks for the process of augmentation to be completed, and a padlock was placed upon the door of the basement and the key given to Shook.

“Shook and Collier hobnobbed daily with Prof. Wise in the Morton House until 24 hours before it had been decided to unlock the basement door and take out and weigh the gold, and then the scientist disappeared from the hotel, leaving his baggage behind him. Hence the two investors unlocked the door in Great Jones street and let the supposed chemicals out of the vat by themselves, only to ascertain that the $5000 in gold had vanished. They found evidence that someone had entered the place by a rear window and knew that it could have been none other than the German professor.”

In 1903, Al Wise was caught picking pockets in Urbana, Ohio, and was sentenced to five years in prison under the name Otto Henry. While in the State Prison, Wise contributed stories about his adventures to the Ohio Penitentiary News, a prisoner newspaper. Unfortunately, runs of the paper from those years have not survived. About the same time, a Cincinnati newspaper started printing short stories written by “O. Henry,” and some people guessed that Al Wise was the author. [He wasn’t; but another former convict, William Sydney Porter, was].

Upon his release, Al Wise indicated he had had enough of America, and told people he was going to back to Germany. He was not heard from again.




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