#143 James Wilson

James P. Wilson (Abt. 1844-19??), aka Pretty Jimmy, James Watson, James Anderson — Pickpocket, Green Goods operator

From Byrnes’s text:

DESCRIPTION. Forty-two years old in 1886. Born in United States, Married. No trade. Medium build. Height, 5 feet 6 inches. Weight, 155 pounds. Brown hair, hazel eyes, florid complexion. Has the following India ink marks on his person: a woman, in short dress, in red and blue ink, with bow and staff in hand, on right arm; another woman, in short dress, holding in her left hand a flag, on which is a skull and crossbones, on left arm; anchor on back of left hand; a shield between thumb and forefinger of left hand.

RECORD. “Pretty Jimmie” is an old New York pickpocket, and partner of Terrence, alias Poodle Murphy (134). He was arrested in Montreal, Canada, during the Marquis of Lome celebration, with a gang of American pickpockets, from whom a box of stolen watches was taken. He was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment there.

He was arrested again in New York City, and pleaded guilty to an attempt at larceny from the person of Stephen B. Brague, and sentenced to one year in State prison, on July 12, 1875, by Judge Sutherland, under the name of James Anderson.

Since 1876 Wilson and Murphy have robbed more people than any other four men in America. He was finally arrested in Philadelphia, Pa., on January 16, 1885, with Poodle Murphy (134), charged with robbing one Shadrach Raleigh, of Delaware, of $526 in money and $3,300 in notes, etc., on a Columbia Avenue horse-car, on December 24, 1884. He was tried, convicted, and sentenced to two years and six months in the Eastern Penitentiary, on March 16, 1885. Murphy, his partner, who did the work, was sentenced to three years. There were four other charges against this team, which were not tried. His picture is a good one, taken in January, 1885.

Few clues exist that point to the origins and final fate of Pretty Jimmy Wilson, but his career centered around the East Side of Manhattan; and later in life, the Stuyvesant Heights section of Brooklyn. Wilson may have once been a handsome boy, but as he aged, his hair thinned and he cultivated an enormous walrus mustache that covered his mouth, so that in adulthood the “Pretty Jimmy” name was a mockery. His tattoos were more elaborate than most criminals’, so he may have been a sailor at one time–or at least a river pirate.

As Byrnes indicates, he was a senior member of the Bowery pickpocket gang led by Poodle Murphy. Murphy eventually branched out to be a major operator of the “Green Goods” confidence game. Not long afterwards, Pretty Jimmy also shifted his efforts in that direction, though it is not clear whether he was still partnering with Murphy.

In 1906, when Jimmy was over 60 years old, federal Post Office Inspectors had him arraigned of charges of conspiracy to commit fraud via the mails. Two months later, the Washington Post published a long article (abridged here) mentioning that arrest under the headline “Green Goods Game is Melting Away Into the Misty Distance of the ‘Con Man’s’ Golden Age.” It offered a detailed overview of how that con game had evolved:

“According to the police and the post-office inspectors, the green goods game is one of the few new things under the sun. It only came into being, they say, around the year 1870.

“To make the man swindled an intending criminal himself by inducing him to buy supposed counterfeit money to pass on to his neighbors was the essence of the new scheme. And it was not long in developing into one of the most lucrative and persistent swindles ever known.

“The most striking feature of the business during its early years was the ease with which its victims were swindled. There were no postal regulations then to prevent the operators from using the mails, and it was almost impossible to punish them under State laws. In consequence, the business progressed with an old-fashioned simplicity, grimly amusing to contemplate from a viewpoint twenty-five years distant.

“The circulars advertising for sale counterfeit money, not to be distinguished from the genuine, were simply dumped into the mails by the hundred. The addresses of the leading lights of hamlets and towns not-too-distant from New York were bought by brokers, who then, as now, did a regular business in procuring them from patent medicine houses and other mail-order concerns.

Collection of Shayne Davidson

“Then thirty circulars out of a hundred, as against twelve today, elicited replies. To these a second circular was mailed, enclosing a sample of the alleged counterfeit money, invariably a genuine $1 bill, with a recommendation that the customer test it on his friends and make sure that ‘it is as good as the genuine.’ He could buy counterfeit money just as good as that, $3000 worth for $500, $7000 worth for $750, and so on. Then all that remained for the victim was to come to New York and be robbed. [Usually by a sleight-of-hand substitution of a satchel full of real money for an identical satchel full of plain paper or sawdust.]

“Not only ignorant country bumpkins, but intelligent men in every walk of life bit at the hook of the green goods men…the annual income of ten groups of them, operating from New York in the early 80’s, has been estimated by the police at upwards of $900,000…

“Then, about 1886, came the passage of the Federal enactment making use of the mails with intent to defraud an offense punishable by eighteen months in jail and $100 fine; likewise, by giving the Postmaster General the power to issue  fraud orders. This was the first real blow, and up to a few years ago the only effective one, that had ever been struck at the game.

“For a time it made all the operators practically give up business…The real effect of the new Federal law..was merely to invent a more ingenious scheme than ever. The chief new feature of the game was the use of the telegraph. This new feature was simply to arrange that the come-on should send his answers to the swindlers by wire instead of by mail.


“The other radical improvement over the old scheme provided for a division of labor. Instead of being worked by one man or group of men in the good old fashion, the new scheme fell into the hands of two different parties of operators, quite unconnected, and headed by two men called in the parlance of the underworld the writer and the backer.

“The writer first got up the circulars and sent them out by the hundred. He kept the venal telegraph operators on his payroll to receive the telegrams from the victims. He arranged with other tools to get these dispatches, with the steerers to meet the victims. With that, his part of the game was finished. The backer now took hold.

“He was the man who provided the roll of from $2000 to $10,000 in good greenbacks used as a bait. He hired the turner, the man to whom another steerer, also hired by him, brought the victim from the writer’s steerer to be swindled. The backer likewise hired the ringer who affected the rapid substitution of the green paper for the good money, if that was done, in the turning joint. He also engaged the tailers, who kept watch outside the turning joint while the victim was being fleeced, and the one who put him on a through train for home afterward.

“Say the come-on was robbed of $1000. Half went to the writer, half to the backer. The backer paid a good rent for the turning joint, gave the turner who did the actual swindle a quarter of his pile, and his steerer, tailers, and ringer $5 or $10 each. The writer gave his telegraph operator $25 a month right along, and the steerers, usually broken-down crooks like the turner’s minor assistants, $5 apiece.

“Thus writers and backers each made from $340 to $375 on the turn without coming anywhere near the reach of the arm of the law themselves. Both kept out of sight at all stages of the swindle”

The only way that authorities could crack down on the practice was by attacking the practice from two directions. Undercover policemen were used to reply to the circulars and get as far as meeting the turner. They then arrested the turner (and, if lucky, the ringer, tailer, or steerer) and confiscated the roll of genuine money, dealing the backer a blow far greater than the profit he might have received.  To get to the writers, however, authorities had to track down the corrupt telegraph operators. From them, they could identify the address or person to whom the telegrams were delivered–and from that person, identify the writer.

Pretty Jimmy Wilson was caught three times: in 1903 he was caught as a writer, traced to the address of a saloon where he telegraph messages were dropped. In 1905 he was captured as a turner; and in 1906 he was found with evidence suggesting he was playing both roles, exposing himself to more risk–perhaps more desperate for money. After serving a sentence of two and a half years, he was freed in the fall of 1908. Without an income or savings, Jimmy reverted to picking pockets. He tried his luck on a subway car, but when a victim felt his hand, other passengers leapt in to hold him. Unlike a streetcar where he might jump off, Jimmy had no avenue of escape on the subway–a contrivance that was just four years old. He was sent to the workhouse and was not heard from again.

Pretty Jimmy had tried to adapt his practices to a changing world, but was a step behind.





One thought on “#143 James Wilson

  1. I have an engraving of “Pretty Jimmy” from Grannon’s Pocket Gallery (1892). I’m in the process of photographing it and can send you a copy if you want-it’s different than the Byrnes photo. There’s a good description of the Green Goods game from George Appo in “A Pickpocket’s Tale.” I believe Appo was a stearer.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s