Peter Lake (1836-1913), aka Grand Central Pete — Bunco Steerer, Confidence Man
From Byrnes’s text:
DESCRIPTION. Forty-five years old in 1886. Born in United States. Stout build. Married. No trade. Height, 5 feet 7 inches. Weight, 165 pounds. Hair black, turning gray; dark hazel eyes, ruddy complexion, smooth face generally; sometimes wears a brown mustache.
RECORD. “Grand Central Pete” is one of the most celebrated and persistent banco steerers there is in America, “Hungry” Joe possibly excepted. Like all others of his class, he has been arrested in almost every city in the Union, but seldom convicted, for the reason that as soon as he falls into the hands of the police, his confederates give the victim back his money, and he is only too glad to make himself scarce.
He was arrested on March 9, 1877, in New York City, in company of another confidence man named Charles Johnson, better known as “Tip” Farrell, of Chicago, for swindling one John Slawson, the superintendent of the Star Silver Mining Company, of Idaho Territory, out of $100, at the banco game. Slawson was stopping at the St. Nicholas Hotel, and was met by Pete, who had a “sure thing” for him. Lake and Farrell pleaded guilty in the Court of General Sessions, and were sentenced to six months in the penitentiary on Blackwell’s Island, and fined $100 each, on March 15, 1877, by Judge Gildersleeve.
Pete Lake has been arrested at least fifty times since, but never convicted, for reasons above stated. He obtained his nickname through prowling around the Grand Central Railroad depot, in New York City. Pete’s picture is a good one, taken in March, 1877.
If you asked most people to conjure an image in their mind of an old con man nicknamed “Grand Central Pete,” they would likely picture a shabby man accosting commuters at Grand Central Station with a spiel as insincere as a used-car salesman. The reality was somewhat different. To begin with, Pete’s frequent locale was Grand Central Depot, the station house that preceded the construction of Grand Central Station (which opened just six months before Pete died, and long after he had reformed).
An 1885 article from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch tried to dissuade the public from other misconceptions:
“Don’t flatter yourself that you can tell a bunco man at first sight. Bunco men are not flashily dressed, beetle-browed and vulgar fellows who talk slang and use gambling terms. They dress richly, but in perfect taste, as a rule. So far as dress is concerned, you could not pick one out from a wealthy, cultivated merchant. They are generally good-looking, well-behaved men, whose chief stock in trade is their ability to make men have confidence in them and to loosen purse strings. A bunco man looks like a good, solid citizen, and the parson of your village is not half so nice in his conversation. The bunco man reads and travels, so that no matter what town or country you hail from, the chances are that he can tell you all about it and its population.
“In walking down Broadway you may meet this person somewhere between Fourteenth and Thirty-second streets:
You may think he is a banker. He may tell you that he is, but he isn’t. He is Peter Lake, “Grand Central Pete,” the bunco steerer. You needn’t open your eyes and say ‘Get out!’ ‘Grand Central Pete’ is one of the cleverest bunco men in the country, and it is very likely that he knows all about the place you hail from. Look out for him.
“Just before you meet ‘Pete’, some other man will seize you by the hand and look as if you were a long-lost debtor who had suddenly become rich. He will cry: ‘Why, hello, Mr. Blucher, how are the folks in Ironton?’ You will probably reply: ‘I am not Mr. Blucher and I don’t come from Ironton. I am John Broadgauge and I’m from Elmira.’ The man will raise his hat politely and say: ‘Dear me, what a likeness! I am afraid you will think me rude, sir; but I’m very sorry to have made a mistake and disturbed you.’ Then you will say, ‘Don’t mention it,’ and will go on rubbing your hands and thinking what exceedingly polite men New Yorkers are.
“Within a hundred yards you will meet ‘Pete.’ Of course, you won’t know that the other man has slipped into a hallway and held a brief but intelligent conversation with ‘Pete.’ When ‘Pete’ accosts you his face will light up with a smile of joyous recognition and he will take your hand with a firm and manly grasp, saying: ‘My dear Mr. Broadgauge, how on earth did you ever wander out of Elmira? Why, it wouldn’t surprise me to see your father here.’
“You will at once respond: ‘Well, I can’t quite place you, but I know your face.’ Of course you will, because it feels good to be greeted so warmly by such a substantial and well-dressed man. ‘Pete’ will ask about your family and you will tell him all about your family and everybody in Elmira. When you get down to the point where you call him ‘Pete’ by his first name, and when you have stretched your conscience sufficiently to tell him that, now you think of it, you remember him very well and that you have often heard your father speak of him, ‘Pete’ will tell you that he has just learned that he has won a prize in a lottery and he wants you, dear old fel, to go with him and see him scoop in his cash.
“Stranger, look at the expression in the right eye of the above portrait and you will know just how ‘Pete’ will beam upon you at the moment when he offers to share his luck with you.”
Pete’s last arrest came in New York City in 1907. The complainant whom he had tried to swindle took compassion and asked for Pete’s release, but the judge sent him to the city workhouse, an indignity to any career criminal. Following that episode, Pete was not heard from until his death in the summer of 1913. He was married more than once, but his last wife worked as a servant in homes out on Long Island or in the Catskills, so he was often alone, living on his pension as a former Union soldier.
Several untrue stories circulated about Pete. He was one of those to whom the quote “There’s a sucker born every minute,” was attributed, but a more definitive source was Pete’s frequent partner, Hungry Joe Lewis. Another specious anecdote about Pete appeared in the Saturday Evening Post and elsewhere, suggesting that he was so illiterate that he couldn’t tell the difference between $9000 and $9,000,000. It’s probably safe to say that few persons have ever been more aware of the value of money than Grand Central Pete.