#103 Frank Woods

Frank Woods (Abt. 1846-????), aka Frank McKenna, Frank Wilson — House Thief

From Byrnes’s text:

DESCRIPTION. Thirty-five years old in 1886. Born in New York City. Single. No trade. Medium build. Height, 5 feet 6 inches. Weight, 135 pounds. Black hair, gray eyes, fair complexion. Has scar on left hand, near thumb joint. Has figures “25” in India ink on outside of left fore-arm.

RECORD. Woods is perhaps one of the smartest house thieves there is in this country. He confines himself to second-story work generally, and usually works wealthy manufacturing towns and summer resorts.

He was arrested in New York City on July 15, 1874, under the name of Frank McKenna, in company of William Johnson, charged with entering the house of J. A. Terhune, No. 416 West Twenty-eighth Street, by removing a panel of the basement door. The noise awakened the occupants of the house, who pursued them, and caused their arrest. Woods and Johnson both pleaded guilty to burglary in the third degree, and were each sentenced to State prison at Sing Sing for five years on August 4, 1874, by Recorder Hackett.

Woods escaped from Sing Sing on June 2, 1876, but was recaptured and returned to prison the same month.

He was arrested again in New York City on March 5, 1885, and delivered to the authorities of Pawtucket, R.I., charged with robbing the house of William Sayles, a wealthy manufacturer of that place. This robbery was what is called a second-story job. He was tried on July 3, 1885, and the jury disagreed. He was afterwards admitted to bail, an official becoming his bondsman, so as to insure his return in case any further evidence could be obtained against him. This was a lucky escape for him. Woods is well known in all the large Eastern cities. He has served time in State prisons in New York, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania, and is a very clever thief. Woods’ picture is a good one, taken in December, 1877.

Inspector Byrnes missed the opportunity to add more detail to Woods’s background and crimes, though perhaps he did not have those at hand. An 1876 article from the New York Sun informs us:

“Frank McKenna was the handsomest and most promising of the Sixteenth Ward youths ten years ago. He had received a collegiate education, and was a student for the ministry. His father was rich, and his home refined. Unluckily, some of his associates were evil minded, and they led him to drink, gamble, and the rest. By his father’s death he was made master of three dwellings in Seventeenth street, near Eighth avenue, and thereafter he squandered his patrimony. Then he became a burglar, known to the police as Frank Woods.”

Byrnes and the Sing Sing registers preferred the opposite: that his real name was woods, and McKenna an alias.

It was as “Frank Woods” that he was rumored to have been a member of the infamous 1873 “River Pirate” gang led by Patsey Conroy and Pugsey Hurley. If so, then Woods was one of the lucky couple of members of that gang that established alibis and escaped prosecution.

Woods escaped from Sing Sing in June 1876. Some sources state that he escaped twice, the first time in May of 1875; but these accounts confuse Frank with a man involved in that earlier attempt, Peter McKenna. The 1876 escape was nearly a carbon copy of the 1875 break: prisoners walking from the rock quarry passed nearby an arch that ran over nearby rail tracks between the prison and the Hudson River. They made a break from the guards and dropped onto the passing engine and coal tender. The New York Sun got the story of the engineer:


Woods was able to get across the river and evaded his pursuers. However, he was caught in St. Louis fairly quickly, and was returned to Sing Sing to serve out his sentence.

In Byrnes’s 1895 edition, he updated Frank Woods entry to inform the public that Woods was currently living in New York, and had reformed. If so, he might have started life under a new name, because there was never further mention of the thief, Frank Woods.

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