#165 James Burns

James Burns (abt. 1842-1887), aka Big Jim Burns, James Boyle, John Bowen, John Hawkins, John Ashton, etc. — Bank sneak thief

From Byrnes’s text:

DESCRIPTION. Forty-six years old in 1886. Born in Boston, Mass. Single. No trade. A large, well-built man. Height, 5 feet 8 1/2 inches. Weight, about 200 pounds. Brown hair, dark hazel eyes, dark complexion. Has fine spots of India ink between thumb and forefinger of left hand. Generally wears a sandy-brown mustache and whiskers.

RECORD. Jim Burns, alias Big Jim, is a celebrated bank sneak, burglar and forger. He is a native of Boston, Mass., and is called by the fraternity “The Prince of Thieves,” on account of his great liberality with his money, and the many charitable acts performed by him. It is a well known fact that he has always contributed to the support of the wives and families of his associates whenever they were in trouble.

Some years ago, after a large and successful bank sneak robbery. Burns, and the others who were with him, returned to New York and went to their usual rendezvous, a saloon corner of Fourth Street and Broadway, New York, kept by one Dick Piatt. The entire party imbibed quite freely and Burns fell asleep. When he awoke he found that he had been robbed of his portion of the plunder. On being informed by one of his companions who had done it, Burns said, “It was hard, that after doing a lot of work, and getting a good lump of money, to have an associate rob me. He can’t be much good, and will die in the gutter.” The fact is, that about one week after the occurrence the party referred to was walking down Broadway and was stricken with paralysis, fell into the gutter, and died before any assistance could be rendered him.

Burns was connected with all of the most celebrated criminals in this country, and took part in a large number of the most prominent bank robberies. Owing to his genial good-nature he never was able to save a dollar. He has served terms in prison in Sing Sing, New York, and Boston, Mass., and is well known all over America and Europe.

He was arrested in New York City on March 11, 1878, for the larceny of a carriage clock, valued at $52, from Howard, Sanger & Co., Broadway and Grand Street. He was released on $500 bail, and when his case was called for trial he failed to appear. He was arrested again in New York City on December 17, 1878, for attempting to rescue “Red” Leary from a private detective. He was indicted, and again admitted to bail.

While at large, he was arrested with George Carson (3) for the larceny of $12,000 in money from the Government Printing Office, in Washington, D. C. No case being made out against them, they were discharged on July 1, 1879, by Commissioner Deuel, at Washington.

Burns was arrested upon his discharge on a bench warrant in the old clock case, brought to New York City, tried, convicted of grand larceny, and sentenced to three years and six months in Sing Sing prison, on July 11, 1879, by Judge Cowing.

He made his escape from Raymond Street jail in Brooklyn, N.Y., on Friday night, July 31, 1883, where he was confined for the larceny of a package containing $3,000 in money from the desk of the postmaster of Brooklyn, N.Y.

After his escape he went to London, England, and from there to Paris, where he devoted his talents to picking pockets, and had to leave there to keep out of the clutches of the police. When next heard from he was in Stockholm, Sweden, with Billy Flynn, alias Connolly, and Bill Baker, alias Langford, where the party obtained about eighteen hundred kroners from a bank in that city. They were arrested for the robbery, but having no evidence against them a charge of vagrancy was preferred, and they were imprisoned for six months as vagrants.

A few months after their time expired they went to Hamburg, Germany, where, on June 22, 1885, they succeeded in robbing the Vereins Bank of 200,000 marks, about $44,000. On July 15, 1885, the bank offered a reward of 10,000 marks, about $2,200, for them. They were all arrested in London, England, in the latter part of July, 1885, and returned to Paris, France, they having been tried, convicted and sentenced to one year’s imprisonment each for an offense committed in that city. According to French law, any person may be tried convicted, and sentenced for an offense during his absence. After their sentence expires they will be taken to Hamburg for trial for the larceny of the 200,000 marks. Burns’s picture is an excellent one, taken in 1882.

One can tell from the phrases used in Byrnes’s summary of Big Jim Burns’ career that he had an appreciation of the scoundrel, who, like Big Jim’s “pal” Horace Hovan, loved to steal for the fun of it. The team of Rufe Minor, Hovan, Burns, and George Carson was likely the most potent collection of criminal talent of the nineteenth century.

Though Byrnes does an adequate job of retelling Big Jim’s brief career, he missed a choice anecdote or two. In March of 1879, Big Jim went out partying in Manhattan with Tom McCormick, the famous bank thief. This was during the era when one of the great sporting (and gambling) crazes was walking (pedestrian) races. Once they were stumbling drunk, Big Jim and McCormick went into the spacious Coleman House hotel, which had corridors linked in a giant square, and decided to have their own pedestrian race. When the hotel clerk and porter tried to stop their shenanigans, a fight ensued. Somehow, a plate glass window worth $150 was broken. The two thieves were arrested, and luckily were not under indictments at the time.

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The Coleman House hotel, as it appears today

In August, 1887, Big Jim was over one year into his five year sentence for robbing a bank in Hamburg, Germany. A delegation from the Philadelphia Society for the Amelioration of Prisons happened to be in that city and visited the prison where Burns was incarcerated. Upon learning that Burns was there, a Philadelphia lawyer who knew him was granted permission to visit the prisoner. Burns asked the lawyer for news of Philadelphia, as he had been in Europe for the past two years, and held the Quaker City in fond regard.

Their discussion turned toward the great financial institutions of the city, and in the course of their talk the lawyer mentioned that the Drexel bank had moved into a new building at Fifth and Chestnut Streets. Big Jim was thunderstruck. Fighting to contain his pain, the thief finally explained his consternation”

“I don’t mind telling you,” said Mr. Burns, after the first burst of his grief had subsided, “that ever since 1878 we have had our eye on that drawer in the bond counter. The bank, as you know, was on the west side of Third Street, between Chestnut and Market Streets. The counter that curved around the left wall as you entered was the bond counter. Between it and the door, near the left wall, was a writing stand. The clerk in charge of the bond counter kept the securities, during business hours, in a wide wooden drawer, which ran the full depth of the counter, and the end of which consequently would be at ten or twelve inches, at the farthest, from the chest of any one standing in the open space in front of the counter. Nothing but a few inches of deal [pine] or mahogany would separate such a person from hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of securities.

Burn drew a map for his guest:



“Our plan was this: One of us would go into the bank after business hours some day, when the clerks had gone and the valuables had all been removed to the Safe Deposit Company [the doors and lobby of the bank still being open, but all the counters closed for business]. He would saunter in among the scrub-women, who would be washing up the floor, as if to write a hasty letter on the writing stand. The others would, as they readily might, have followed him in, and began writing and arranging business papers in a hurried way. Such a proceeding would not have been unusual. While the ‘stalls’ were thus engaged the active member of the party, who would have on a large cloak, under which he carried a brace and bit, with an attachment of a peculiar character, would stand immediately in front of the end of the wooden drawer, bore a hole through the end of the wooden drawer, noiselessly, with a fine steel bit which cut little dust, and by means of a peculiar attachment of which I have spoken would simultaneously with the boring cut through the counter and drawer until a circular section some eight inches in diameter was entirely excised and ready for removal. All this would be the work of not more than five minutes. Traces of the cutting would then be obliterated by the use of a little walnut putty, and one after another the ‘mob’ would saunter out and disperse.

“When the bank opened the next morning there would be nothing suspicious in the appearance of the drawer. The securities would be replaced in it as usual. During the busiest hour of the day we would go in again. One of us would engage the bond clerk on a matter of business at a point along the counter some distance from the drawer. The man with the cloak would have had no trouble in pushing in the circular section of both counter and drawer and drawing through, in a moment, a handsome package of bonds.”

At that point, Burns cast his gaze around his cell. Without prompting, he launched into detailed explanations of two other American banks which had not yet been robbed, and also drew floor maps of how their cashier counters were laid out, and how they could be surreptitiously attacked by a bold team of sneak thieves. Burns seemed not to realize that he was explaining these plans to a lawyer–and that Burns was not his client, and that their conversation was not bound by confidentiality.

Burns concluded his monologue wistfully, “And while there’s life there’s hope. Two and a half years (remaining until his release from Hamburg) isn’t so long.”

Three months later, Big Jim Burns fell seriously ill, and died in the prison in December, 1887.

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