#113 James Fitzgerald

Gilbert J. Fitzgerald (1856-1933), aka James Fitzgerald, The Kid, Red Fitz, J. S. Morrison — Bunco Steerer

From Byrnes’s text:

DESCRIPTION. Twenty-nine years old in 1886. Born in Washington, D.C. Slim build. Single. Height, 5 feet 7 inches. Weight, 130 pounds. Red hair, dark auburn eyes, sandy complexion, straight nose, beard red (when worn), hair very thick and coarse.

RECORD. “The Kid,” as he is called, is well known in New York, Boston and several other large cities, and is considered one of the cleverest men in the banco business. He generally worked with Johnny Norton (now dead). He and Norton were the two men that succeeded in obtaining $7,000 from Charles Francis Adams, in Boston, in 1882, by the banco game. “The Kid ” was arrested, tried,, convicted, and sentenced to five years in the Charlestown, Mass., State prison on June 23, 1882. His sentence will expire August 27, 1886. Norton escaped at the time and never was captured. He died in New York City in March, 1885. Fitzgerald’s picture is a good one, taken in October, 1881.

The few details known about Gilbert Fitzgerald’s career are fascinating, and leave one wishing more was known about his adventures as a con-man. Gilbert J. (middle name James, it can be assumed) Fitzgerald was born to Irish immigrants who had settled in Milwaukee. Gilbert’s father, Francis (Frank) was a thriving shoemaker. In the mid-1870s, when Gilbert reached adulthood, he was recommended by Senator Matthew Hale Carpenter to a position in the Government Printing Office in Washington, D. C. He helped in the printing of the Congressional Record. A later report from a Washington source recalled:

“He was known among his friends and acquaintances as ‘Reddy,’ a name applied to him perhaps on account of his fiery red hair. He was a jovial, quick-witted, devil-may-care fellow, and a good compositor. He was given to gambling, and most of his wages went into a faro-bank. He was small of stature but of good nerve, and was quite an athlete. While his disposition was the reverse of quarrelsome, yet he was quick to take up a quarrel of a friend, and generally came out winner, even when the odds were apparently much against him.”

By May, 1878 Fitzgerald had quit his government job and was found far from Washington, D.C.–he was arrested in Deadwood, South Dakota with three other men for running a bunco operation and swindling a man; but “The Kid” was released for lack of evidence. For a while, he made Denver his center of operations–at a time when Denver was the unofficial capital of con artists and grifters. It was said that one man who joined him there was George Ellwood, who later gained fame as “Gentleman George,” the creepily-polite burglar. The mentor of the gang appeared to be a bunco artist named Charley Miller.

Gilbert formed a new gang with Billy Harris and Johnny Norton, and headed to New Orleans in the fall of 1881. After New Orleans, Fitz was arrested in Jacksonville, Florida in January, 1882 for swindling a wealthy man from Maine, but was released. The gang headed north to Boston, where they happened upon the most prominent bunco victim in history: Charles Francis Adams–son of John Quincy Adams and grandson of John Adams; and himself a former Ambassador to Great Britain. In 1882, Charles Francis Adams was in his seventies, and was mostly retired from public life. Gilbert Fitzgerald was only twenty-six.

Immediately after swindling Adams out of a check for $17,500, Adams’ lawyer, his son, and a private detective tracked Fitzgerald down. Fitzgerald and Norton agreed to meet with them, since they were confident that Adams’ representatives would, in the end, honor the check and preserve the old diplomat’s reputation. Fitzgerald, using the alias “J. S. Morrison,” sauntered into the room, sat down, and opened with a statement: “Gentlemen, this is my business. My occupation is to allure elderly gentlemen of wealth into some den and extort money from them. I have been in this business for a great while. I have recently returned from Florida, where I have been absent the greater part of the winter, and have done a great deal of this sort of business with various Boston parties.”

Fitz then continued to explain that they had targeted Mr. Adams. They knew him by reputation to be wealthy and had made themselves familiar with his habits; the 28th day of March was the day Fitz had met Mr. Adams as he left his house on Mount Vernon street, and introduced himself as the son of an old friend of Mr. Adams; he accosted him very politely, requested permission to walk with him, and did walk with him, conversing with Adams on subject of interest to the old statesman. When they arrived at some point on Boylston street, Mr. Morrison (Fitz) suddenly changed the subject by producing a lottery ticket, and explained to Adams that he had won a prize on it, and would like to have Mr. Adams come inside the lottery office they were passing to help identify him.

Morrison went to the office cashier and received his cash prize and two tickets. Then Morrison called Adams’ attention to a very interesting and fascinating game which was going on, in which cards were laid out in a grid, with a very few blank spaces among the rows of cards. Upon using a ticket, a player was issued six cards with numbers on them. The player totaled the numbers of his cards, which corresponded to the position of a face-down card on the grid. Morrison and Adams each played their ticket, and Adams’ number total pointed to a card that, when turned over, revealed a prize of $2500. As a consequence of that win, Adams qualified to get two more tickets to play again, on condition that he put up a check for $250, 10% of his $2500 prize. That check was given by Adams. They played again with the result of another prize for Adams, this time $16,000. Adams wrote a check for $1600 to play again, and received additional tickets. After another win, Adams wrote a check for $17,500, and then received his cards. This time, the numbers totaled pointed not to a face-down card, but to a blank spot on the grid. Adams had lost.

Morrison (Fitz) had been playing and winning along with Adams, and also lost when Adams lost. Morrison then made a great act of being angry and distraught, saying that he had gambled away his savings. Adams was shocked to learn that they had been gambling, and insisted that he had never gambled in his life. However upset Adams was, Morrison played the victim even stronger, forcing Adams to console his new young acquaintance. Morrison accompanied Adams back to Adams’ house, and the old man went meekly inside.

Adams’ son and lawyer listened to the story in shock. They asked Fitz if the game had been fair. Fitz brushed the question away, “Oh, it was all a fraud, for that matter.” The lawyer of Mr. Adams exclaimed, “I don’t believe this. This can’t be the true story.” Fitzgerald gave him a pained look, and explained, “It was always so at the first in these cases; there was generally a struggle at the beginning, but these checks were always paid.”

If Fitzgerald had been less smug, perhaps the scam would have worked once again. But the Adams family united together and decided to bring the matter to the authorities. Fitzgerald was arrested and brought into a courtroom, where his nonchalant, smarmy attitude was noted by all. During the majority of the court testimony, he sat reading the morning newspaper. Fitzgerald and his attorney were confident that the whole confessional discussion that had taken place could not be used as evidence–but the judge ruled otherwise. Fitzgerald was found guilty and sentenced to five years in the Massachusetts State Prison.

After his release in the mid-1880s, a large gap in Fitzgerald’s activities occurred. One news item from 1893 suggested that he had been convicted of robbing residents of Monaco and the casino at Monte Carlo, but that may have been a different Fitzgerald.

In 1900, at age 44, he was in New York City and married a sixteen-year old girl from Massachusetts, Elizabeth Coleman. In census records, he listed his occupation as “traveling agent” (never a good sign!)

In 1915, Fitzgerald was arrested for being one of the operators of an elaborate “wireless wiretap” betting parlor con, first developed by Larry Summerfield and Timothy Oakes. Fitzgerald’s partners in this venture were Charles and Fred Gondorf; and Fitzgerald was sometimes introduced to others as “Harry Gondorf.” If the name sounds familiar, it is because that was the character name of the wireless wiretap operator (Paul Newman) in the movie The Sting: Henry Gondorff.

Fitzgerald was free by 1917. Over the next several years, he took several trips to Havana, which was then a resort for wealthy Americans. He died in Queens, New York at age 77.

 

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