#146 Joseph Gorman

Joseph Patrick Gorman (1849-1903), aka Joe Gorman — Pickpocket

From Byrnes’s text:

DESCRIPTION. Thirty-seven years old in 1886. Born in New York. Married. Carpenter. Medium build. Height, 5 feet 8 inches. Weight, about 130 pounds. Sandy hair, blue eyes, small nose, thin face, light complexion. Has letter “J.” in India ink on left fore-arm; dot of ink on left hand.

RECORD. Joe Gorman is a very clever pickpocket. He generally does the work. He is well known in all the large cities of the Union, and is as likely to be found, with two or three other clever men, in Maine or California, as he is in New York, working the cars, fairs, conventions, or any crowded place. He comes of a family that is criminally inclined, as he has two brothers, Tom, a sneak and till-tapper, and John, a clever general thief. Joe was born in New York, and makes it his home. Although arrested several times of late years he has escaped State prison. He is one of the smartest pickpockets in America, and a man well worth knowing. He was sentenced to twenty years’ imprisonment in Auburn prison, from New York City, several years ago, for highway robbery, and was pardoned after serving six years. Gorman’s picture is a very good one, taken in September, 1885.

The full litany of Joe Gorman’s crimes is insignificant compared to the manner in which he lived his last fifteen or so years. He moved away from New York City to a corner of Coney Island, taking advantage of the protection offered to criminals by the corrupt kingpin of that resort, John Y. McKane. For several years Gorman was a special officer of the local police force, charged with spotting his former comrades and turning them away from the resort town.

Gorman’s life in Coney Island was immortalized by writer James Lauren Ford in an essay for Metropolitan Magazine, published in 1905. The title was “The Old ‘Crooks’ Colony of Coney Island,” and it may be the most beautiful piece of prose written about any of the Professional Criminals of America:

“Out on a desolate waste of sand, coarse grass and stunted trees, within sound of the ocean’s roar, and less than a quarter of a mile from the heart of that most boisterous and picturesque of watering places, Coney Island, there stands a weather-beaten cabin to which a kind of sentimental interest still attaches itself.

“For many years the Hermitage, as the old cabin was called, was the home of one Joe Gorman, famous in his day as a pickpocket, and of his wife, Mollie, the expert shoplifter. The pair had come down to Coney Island on the same wave of immigration that followed the late John Y. McKane’s offer of hospitality to such crooks as were willing to regard his domain as a place of residence rather than a field for the exercise of their professional skill.

“It was this invitation, coupled with the promise to get Joe employment on the detective force, that led the Gorman family to settle in a community that has always possessed a peculiar charm for New York ‘oldtimers’ of all sorts, and especially for those unfortunates who have foundered on the rocks of crime or dissipation or ill luck. And, having set up their household gods in the Hermitage, the Gormans soon made themselves the center of a society that was interesting and agreeable and, although broken down rather than opulent, not unlike in a moral sense that which the emigres from various metropolitan positions of trust have established in Montreal.

“For nearly half a century this old time colony of more or less incapacitated crooks, gamblers, prize-fighters and suspicious characters have found a haven of rest just beyond the merry-go-rounds, dancing pavilions and hot corn pops of this bizarre city by the sea. During all these years their proudest boast has been that not one of their number has ever been carried to the Potter’s Field. At all times and under all circumstances, Coney Island has buried its own dead, and the passing of each veteran is almost invariably followed by the passing of a hat among the survivors for the purchase of a sepulcher. On such occasions the contributions range from a ten dollar note tossed in by the well-to-do saloon keeper or racing man down to a dime or nickel offered by the human wreck who knows that his own turn is not far off; and when old Joe Gorman died there were flowers on the coffin lid and a few sincere tears as well, for Joe had been for nearly a quarter of a century a popular and noteworthy figure in the Island’s sin-stained colony.

“Long before the arrival of the Gormans, Coney Island had figured in the criminal history of New York. It was from its western shore that the murderer Sharkey, who escaped from the Tombs in woman’s clothes, embarked on the coasting vessel that bore him to Cuba. It was from the same beach that Tweed, who had lain hidden in Mike Norton’s old hotel for weeks after his escape from his Fifth Avenue house, was carried away one dark night and put aboard a sailing vessel bound for Porto Rico; and it is a matter of record that although scores of Coney Islanders were fully aware of Tweed’s presence on the island, not one of them betrayed him, for the great robber was a man entirely after their own hearts.

“These and many other stories of by gone days were staple topics of conversation whenever half a dozen kindred spirits, grown old and gray and poor in the paths of sin, were gathered together in Gorman’s little bar to talk over old times. To these the Hermitage was a convenient place of rendezvous, for very few of them cared to test their lungs or throw rings around canes, while scarcely one but had already been photographed-and that, too, at the cost of the city and not in a bathing suit. It was much pleasanter for these old-timers to fore gather on winter days and sit by the stove listening to the moaning of the wind across the marshes while they harked back to the days when crib-cracking was a learned profession and its votaries men of note, honored in bar-rooms and pointed out to strangers as they walked proudly down Broadway.

“It was whispered from time to time during the years that they passed within the walls of the Hermitage that neither Gorman nor his wife had entirely dissolved all connection with the vicarious profession which they adorned in their separate ways, but they had the virtue of charity, and it was they who came to the front when Kate Leary was about to be sent to the Almshouse and offered her a shelter for her remaining days.

“Kate Leary, known to the police and the members of her own profession, as ‘Red’ Kate, the shoplifter, had been in her day the nine days’ talk and heroine of New York, and was entitled, according to the philosophy of the Gormans, to a better ending than that of a common pauper. The devoted wife of ‘Red’ Leary, one of the most daring and skilful burglars of his time, she determined when he was shut up in Ludlow Street jail, that she would rescue him with her own hands. With this end in view she leased a tenement abutting on his cell and set about the task of digging through the two walls of brick and mortar that separated them. All day long she worked with her own hands and a rod of finely-tempered steel which she took from her husband’s collection of professional instruments; at night she carried out great bags filled with bits of mortar and broken brick, and threw them into lonely ash barrels. At length, after weeks of labor on her part, the morning came when ‘Red’ Leary failed to answer to the breakfast call. His cell was empty and the jagged hole through which he had been pulled was a mute witness as to the manner of his escape. By nightfall the town literally rang with ‘Red’ Kate Leary’s fame.

“But hers was not a profitable kind of renown, and when, many years afterwards, she came down to Coney Island on the same wave that brought Gorman and the rest of his fraternity, she found it a hard matter to make both ends meet. For a time she kept a little bar-room called the ‘Red Light,’ but at last ill health, ill fortune and a failing mind left her penniless, and it was only the charity of the Gormans that saved her from death in the workhouse and burial in the Potter’s Field.

“So at the last it was the Gormans who took her to their little cabin on the marsh, not fifty yards away from the spot where poor old Jennie Worrall, in her day one of New York’s favorite actresses, fell down in a drunken sleep, set fire to the dry grass with the stump of her cigarette and was burned to death. Here, in the Hermitage, the two wayworn sinners cared for the feeble, demented old woman, and here one blustering night, with the ocean wind sweeping cold and strong and damp across the marshes and round their lonely home, this one-time heroine breathed her last. Let us hope that in the book of the recording angel the deed has been entered to the credit of the two gray and grizzled law-breakers…

“…Mollie Gorman died many seasons past, and Joe, the old pickpocket, followed her two years ago, cared for by the charity of those who knew his history. He was greatly beloved by the children of the Island where his last years were spent. When he died the old-timers, remembering what he and Molly had done for Red Kate, the shoplifter, gave him a regular funeral that would have delighted his heart could he have seen it. They turned out, too, in full force for the ceremony and their children and grandchildren to whom he had been kind, strewed flowers on his last resting place and gave to his final passing a touch of homely tenderness that many a better and richer man might envy.”

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