#151 Oscar Burns

Oscar Burns (Abt. 1843-????), aka Willis Homer, John L. Harley — Store thief

From Byrnes’s text:

DESCRIPTION. Thirty-six years old in 1886. Born in United States. Married. Cigar maker. Stout build. Height, 5 feet 7 inches. Weight, 162 pounds. Dark brown hair, brown eyes, dark complexion, heavy nose-lines. Generally wears a heavy brown mustache. Looks like a man that dissipates. Has a pearl in his right eye.

RECORD. Oscar Burns is well known all over the United States. He is known out West as a “stall” and “hoister”—a Western term for a shoplifter. He works with Jim Barton, who is well known in Boston and Medford, Mass. They were both arrested in Springfield, Mass., for burglary. Burns gave bail, which was forfeited, and Barton was discharged from custody in February, 1881.

Burns was arrested again in New York City, on December 23, 1881, for a burglary committed in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He was delivered to the Michigan officers, taken there, and pleaded guilty to the crime, and was sentenced to ten years in State prison on December 29, 1881, by Judge Parrish, of Grand Rapids, Michigan. See Michigan Commutation Law for expiration of sentence. Burns’s picture is an excellent one, taken in Buffalo, N.Y.

Oscar Burns, according to information compiled on him by Pinkerton detectives, was much older and had a much longer criminal record than Thomas Byrnes suspected. During the Civil War, Burns was convicted of forging government vouchers in Tennessee and jailed there, and was wanted in Indiana for the same crime. By 1865, Burns had migrated to Chicago and was arrested for larceny.

In 1868, Burns, under the alias Willis Homer, was discovered stealing from a till of a butcher shop in Kalamazoo, Michigan, after distracting citizens by setting a fire. While awaiting trial, he broke out of the county jail and fled to Windsor, Ontario. While in Canada, he worked as a railroad brakeman, but shortly afterwards set fire a railroad warehouse. He was convicted and sent to the provincial prison in Kingston. Either his sentence was short, or he escaped, and fled back across to Detroit. In Detroit he joined a gang of thieves, but was finally caught in December, 1872 for a boarding house robbery.

Oscar resurfaced in Chicago in 1877, where he joined a ring of burglars and fences led by George Eager. When detectives began to round up that ring, Burns was among those captured and offered testimony against Eager, escaping prosecution. He continued to commit burglaries in Chicago with some other young thieves, including Joseph Cook (George S. Havill). However, Burns had made enemies by “squealing” in Chicago, and decided to look for greener pastures.

He headed to Cincinnati with two partners, and committed a burglary of a fur warehouse. He and his partners were arrested. While detained in Cincinnati, other prisoners there offered testimony against Burns (giving him a taste of his own medicine), but it wasn’t enough to convict him.

Burns headed east, stopping at Fort Wayne, Indiana; Grand Rapids, Michigan; and later in Springfield, Massachusetts, to commit warehouse burglaries. He was picked up by Inspector Byrnes’s men in New York City in 1881 and delivered to Michigan authorities.

In December, 1881, Burns was sentenced to ten years’ hard labor at the Ionia State Reformatory. Burns proved to be a model prisoner, and earned a sentence commuted to June, 1889–and was released fours months early in February, to allow him to plant a crop on a truck farm.

Burns’s reform appears to have been real. Byrnes had no update on him by 1895; and his name never surfaced in newspapers after 1889.

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