#195 Joseph Rickerman

Joseph Baker (Abt. 1847-19??), aka Nigger Baker, Joe Baker, George Baker, Thomas Baker, Lannon, Graham, Bartholomew Hayes, George R. Tate, George Lehman, George T. Bradford, etc.–Pickpocket, Green Goods Operator

From Byrnes’s text:

DESCRIPTION. Thirty-nine years old in 1886. Born in New York. Single. No trade. Medium build. Height, 5 feet 6 1/2 inches. Weight, 145 pounds. Black hair, hazel eyes, dark complexion. Generally wears a black mustache. Two vaccination marks on right arm.

RECORD. Joe Rickerman, alias “Nigger” Baker, so called on account of his very dark complexion, is a well known New York burglar and pickpocket. He is an associate of Will Kennedy, Joe Gorman (146), Big Jim Casey (91), “Poodle” Murphy (134), “Pretty” Jimmie (143), Jimmy Scraggins, and other well known New York thieves and pickpockets. He is pretty well known in all the Eastern cities, especially in Philadelphia and New York, where his picture is in the Rogues’ Gallery. He has served terms in prison in Philadelphia (Pa.), Sing Sing (N. Y.), and in the penitentiary on Blackwell’s Island, and is considered a very handy man with a set of tools.

Of late years Joe has been traveling through the country, “stalling” for a gang of pickpockets. He was arrested in New York City and sentenced to three years and six months in Sing Sing prison for burglary, on September 15, 1881. His sentence expired on July 15, 1884. Rickerman’s picture is a good one, taken in November, 1878.

Chief Inspector Byrnes made a misleading error in his entry on Joseph Rickerman/Baker: the man arrested and sent to Sing Sing on September 15, 1881, was not Rickerman/Baker, but a much younger man named Henry Baker, who was arrested in this instance under the name James Johnson. Henry Baker was born about 1862, making him fifteen years younger than Rickerson/Baker. This same Henry Baker was sent to Sing Sing in 1879, at age 17, under the name James Flynn.

The man that Byrnes was talking about and depicts in a photo was obviously older; but also even more difficult to trace than Henry Baker. “Rickerman” appears to have been a one-off alias, given at just one of his arrests. The press usually referred to him by his underworld nickname, Nigger Baker–a label meant to mock his dark complexion.

Without that one arrest date as a clue, there is little to go on to trace this man other than his nickname and the name Rickerman. A 1902 article on Baker claims that he was jailed in July 1868 under the name Richmond; and imprisoned again in 1874 and 1881; but none of these can be verified. The first documented presence of Baker can only be found in a round-up of 18 pickpockets working the New York City crowd during President Grant’s funeral in August 1885; among them was George alias “Nigger” Baker. Several additional arrests of Baker under that nickname for picking pockets occurred between 1885 and 1888.

In the 1890s, like several of the Bowery gang of pickpockets, Baker moved in to “green goods” operations, in which gullible “come-ons” were lured to trade their good money for loads of supposed high-quality counterfeit notes, which through sleight-of-hand turned out to be nothing more than satchels full of sawdust or plain paper.

Although law enforcement was often stymied in figuring out how to crack down on this devious confidence game, one man took it upon himself to lead the fight: Anthony Comstock. A Civil War Union army veteran with a strict puritan background, Comstock came to New York City in the early 1870s to work for the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA). Seeing firsthand the many immoral and corrupt influences that led young men astray, Comstock founded a reform organization called the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice.

Comstrock’s primary target was obscene printed materials. Though a prude, Comstock was a profoundly influential and effective campaigner. Just a year after arriving in New York, Comstock lent his name to a federal law, the Comstock Act of 1873, that made illegal the use of the U. S. Mail to deliver “obscene, lewd, or  lascivious” material. Comstock was quick to broaden his definition of these terms to anything pertaining to sex, including any mentions of abortion, birth control, or venereal disease. Anecdotes suggest the law was even applied to medical text books. Wielding popular support, Comstock was hired as a special investigator for the United States Postal Service.

Comstock took his role seriously, and cracked down on distributors of material he deemed unfit. In a narrow sense, his efforts yielded some good: he prosecuted medical quacks who preyed upon young, desperate women with worthless or dangerous solutions to their health issues. However, Comstock was anything but contained; he broadened his misuse of the mail to include gambling efforts–in the form of lottery tickets sold through the mail; and, eventually, to the circulars distributed by green goods operators.

By working closely with local law authorities, Comstock used the federal mail fraud act to attack green goods operators on two fronts, by cracking down both on the “writers” who sent out mass-mailed circulars; and on the backers and turners who actually executed the swindle of the victim. Through the 1880s and 1890s, Comstock’s efforts winnowed the ranks of New York’s green goods operators. One of the last, strongest operations were those of backer Mike Ryan, who, prior to 1894, counted on protection offered by his political and police associates. Ryan was finally jailed in 1896, having been brought before the reforming Lexow Committee a little while earlier, thanks to Comstock.

Comstock then sets his sights on the remaining members of Mike Ryan’s operation. At the head of the new gang was “George Lehman,” otherwise known as Nigger Baker. Baker had shifted the physical meeting place of the swindles to Allentown, Pennsylvania; though he was still headquartered in New York. Comstock’s indefatigable determination finally trapped Baker:

19010519newyorktimes

As mentioned in the above article, Comstock personally sat in on Baker’s trial, both as a witness and audience to the proceedings. True crime author Jay Robert Nash related a story of that scene that serves as a epitaph for Baker, alias George Lehman:

“Comstock delightedly sat day after day in court, reveling in his victory, until the con man was convicted for green goods swindles for the sixth time since 1896.

“’Why don’t you go straight when you get out, George?’ Comstock asked the prisoner before he was led away.

“’Don’t be silly,’ Lehman replied. ‘When you got a profession, you stick to it. It’s the only way to get ahead.’”

 

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