William T. Soby (1849-????), aka William Burke, William Brady, William Baker, William Brown — Thief, Abuser
From Byrnes’s text:
DESCRIPTION. Forty-six years old in 1886. Born in United States. Medium build. Married. Barkeeper. Height, 5 feet 8 1/2 inches. Weight, 148 pounds. Black hair, gray eyes, dark complexion. Has letters ” W. S.” and coat of arms in India ink on left fore-arm. Generally wears a brown mustache.
RECORD. Beatty was arrested in New York City and sentenced to three years and six months in Sing Sing prison, on April 8, 1875, for burglary, under the name of William Brown. He was arrested in company of Andy Hess, another New York burglar, who gave the name of Alfred Brown, for a silk burglary in the Eighth Ward, New York City.
He was arrested again in New York City on May 18, 1878, for the larceny of $57 from a poor woman named Brady, who lived at No. 214 East Thirty-eighth Street, New York. He was committed for trial by Judge Wandell, but discharged by the District Attorney on a promise to return some stolen property to one Mr. St. John which he never did.
He is a mean thief, and is called by other thieves a “squealer.” He is well known in New York, Boston and Albany, and other Eastern cities. His picture is a good one, taken in February, 1878.
William Soby’s criminal career dates back to the late 1860s. A jimmy he used in a burglary at that time was added to the police museum collected by New York City District Attorney Oakey Hall. Byrnes correctly notes his 1875 arrest, which placed him into Sing Sing for the next three years. The 1875 Sing Sing register, which named him as William Brown, indicated that he claimed a wife, Emma H. Brown. Whether she existed, or was merely a girlfriend, is unknown.
Upon his release in 1878, Soby embarked on a notable year. In May, he entered a house on Thirty-Eighth Street in New York City on the pretense of visiting a friend; but being left alone in the parlor, he saw $57 left out on a table and snatched it, then ran out the door. He was later apprehended. The deal that Byrnes suggests was offered by the District Attorney for dropping charges against Soby depended on Soby’s willingness to testify against burglar Joseph Ottenburg in another case.
In early November 1878, a crime occurred that knocked the previous week’s headlines concerning the Manhattan Savings Institution robbery off front pages. Though the largest bank robbery in American history was still an unsolved mystery–one that would hound Byrnes’s reputation for many years–the events of the next week would tax his abilities even further. The body of A. T. Stewart, the founder of one of the largest department stores in America, had been stolen from its grave in a small churchyard in New York. Stewart had been dead over two years, and his body had been placed in an underground family crypt.
Grave desecration in the 19th century was a highly inflammatory outrage, particularly if–as seemed to be the case–it was done to take the remains hostage for a ransom. With virtually no physical clues left at the scene and no witnesses, Inspector Byrnes was left with only one tool: street informants–and that resource had already been leaned on heavily the past week to find the Manhattan Savings robbers. Some flimsy, misinterpreted gossip led Byrnes to arrest two men: Henry Vreeland and his friend, William Burke, aka Baker, Brady, Brown, i.e. William Soby.
While less devious suspects would have stammered to proclaim their innocence, Soby saw this as an opportunity: at the least, he could get out of whatever deals he had made during the summer with the District Attorney; but even better, he could make Inspector Byrnes look like a clueless fool.
The story of how Soby and Vreeland led Inspector Byrnes (and the citizens of Chatham, New Jersey) on a wild goose chase has been recently retold by author J. North Conway in Bag of Bones: The Sensational Grave Robbery of the Merchant Prince of Manhattan. After wasting Byrnes’s time for a crucial couple of weeks, the pair finally admitted they knew nothing about the crime. Ransom demands were sent to the police–but from many different sources, confusing them, and likely causing them to miss the opportunity to deal with the real grave robbers. The next year, a set of remains was eventually returned to Stewart’s widow, but whether they were A. T. Stewart’s bones is a matter of debate.
During the time that Soby was being held for his supposed involvement in the Stewart desecration, Soby’s alleged wife arranged to be interviewed by the New York Herald, in order to tell her story and to give a more sympathetic sketch of Soby himself. The resulting long article published by the Herald, titled “A Cracksman’s Bride: Sad History of the Wife of William Burke,” is an absolute classic example of the overworked, maudlin, human tragedy feature journalism that typified New York’s great newspapers. [Follow link to see the full clipping.] In this article, she was named “Ella,” and told an amazing story of her own history.
Soby himself must have been touched by her story. Upon his release by the police, he formally married her; her real name was Julia Maria Bernard. Julia worked hard to reform Soby from his criminal habits. He became a sewing machine salesman. He joined the William Mission in 1880, and became the superintendent of its Sunday school. He later joined the Peter Dwyer Mission and was instructed as a lecturer by Bob Hart and Patrick Goff (himself an ex-fire company official and ex-convict.)
However, Soby’s worst traits soon resurfaced. One evening in June, 1884, he stumbled home drunk after two a.m., falling over a chair and upsetting a table. Julia lit a lamp, and Soby took off his coat and fumbled at his collar. “Julie,” he said, “shere’s a knot ‘ner k-k-k’ar butt’n. Take it off, liker goo’ girl.” Mrs. Soby took off his collar and lifted the table upright. Soby leaned over to take off his shoes, lost his balance, and rolled on the floor.
“Julie,” he slurred, “shere’s knot ‘ner shoe string. Take off my shoes.” “I’ll take off no man’s shoes,” she replied indignantly. “Take them off yourself.”
“A’right,” Soby replied. “Don’t want to quarrel.” He took off his shoes, then used them to beat his wife. Hours later she went to the police and filed assault charges against him. He was held for trial.
Less than a month later, Soby and his new ex-convict friend, Patrick Goff, were arrested for stealing coats at a tavern. They were sent to Blackwell’s Island Penitentiary for one year. When he was released he did not return to Julia. They spotted each other on the street on day in 1888, after three years of not having seen each other. He found out where she was now living and tried to get in her room. The next day, she filed charges of abandonment against him and had him arrested. While he was locked up, a police detective investigated other outstanding charges against Soby, and Julia was never bothered by him again.
His fate from that point is unknown.