#108 James Lee

James Lee [Kohln/Kohlen/Kölhen] (Abt. 1841-1904), aka B. Sharp, August Ortman, C. M. Tingle, Charles H. Ray, Frank Bell, David Cartwright, Morris Fleckenger – Custom House Officer Swindler

From Byrnes’s text:
DESCRIPTION. Forty-five years old in 1886. Born in United States. No trade. Single. Stout build. Height, 5 feet 9 3/4 inches. Weight, 175 pounds. Hair sandy, eyes gray, sandy complexion, reddish-brown mustache. Has a naval coat-of-arms, anchor and eagle, in India ink, on right arm.
RECORD. James Lee was evidently in the government employ, so well is he posted in custom-house matters.
He was arrested in New York City on April 23, 1882, charged by Mrs. C. F. Chillas, of Livingston Place, with defrauding her and thirty others out of $9.98. Lee claimed to be a custom-house collector, and would collect this amount and give the parties an order on the custom-house stores for a package which he claimed was consigned to them from Europe. In this case Lee was sentenced to two years and six months in State prison on May 5, 1882, by Judge Gildersleeve. His sentence expired on May 5, 1884.
He was arrested again in Baltimore, Md., on September 17, 1884, charged with swindling eight persons in that city under similar circumstances. In several instances Lee sat at the piano and played “Nearer, my God, to Thee,” while the ladies left the parlor to procure the money for him. He was again sentenced to three years in State prison on October 15, 1884. His sentence will expire April 14, 1887. Lee’s picture is an excellent one, taken in April, 1882.

Lee is first found in New York City in 1871, as a cited example of a rare species, a Tammany Hall Republican. Tammany Hall was the Democratic political machine that dominated New York City politics, but Lee was given a patronage job as a Custom House officer. Items in the New York Times suggest that he resigned from the Custom House to become a “henchman” of Police Commissioner Henry Smith. After Smith left his position as head of the police, reports began to surface about a swindler misusing the badge of a custom house officer: he would accost travelers disembarking from a ship with their baggage and demand that their baggage be surrendered to be taken away to be reinspected; and would inform the owners that they could call at the Custom House to retrieve their belongings. Of course, the baggage was never seen again.

By 1879, he swept through Brooklyn, going to targeted homes and informing the residents that packages from overseas were being held at the Custom House for them, but that duty taxes were owed. He often received about $10 per victim from this ruse. In 1881, he used his badge to impress a Brooklyn Customs officer coming from work; Lee claimed he was a ranking Customs House Inspector from Washington, D.C., and that many officers in Brooklyn would soon be laid off. Over drinks in a bar, Lee would suggest that he could use his influence to save the jobs; and incidentally, he needed a temporary small loan of $10. Lee was arrested and spent two years in the Kings County Penitentiary.
In August 1881, Lee flashed his badge at the New York residence of Surgeon-General William Hammond, with urgent news that First Lady Garfield insisted he come at once to Washington to take over care of the mortally wounded President. While breathlessly delivering this news to Hammond in the doctor’s study, Lee asked the doctor for a glass of bromide. Apparently, Lee’s plan was to steal valuables from the study while Hammond retrieved the glass, but Hammond never left Lee alone in the study.
In addition to using his Custom House badge, Lee’s other trick was to go to a new city and claim that he was a writer from a leading New York newspaper, and would appreciate if local theater managers and rail ticket offices could “accommodate” his needs for gratis services.
Back in New York in 1882, Lee went back to bullying residents in their homes over unclaimed packages from the Continent. This time, he was arrested by Byrnes and his detectives, after first giving aliases of “B. Sharp” and “Frank Bell.” Byrnes discovered that he had bilked as many as twenty people with the fake bills of laden between mid-1881 and April, 1882. James Lee was sent to Sing Sing to serve two and a half years, commuted to May, 1884.
As Byrnes indicates, upon his release, Lee went to Baltimore and played the same game, resulting in his arrest and imprisonment in Maryland. Once he regained his freedom in 1887, he moved to Milwaukee and added a new twist to his game; now he used bogus telegrams to inform people that packages awaited them. In September, 1887 he was caught at this practice and sentenced to 18 months in Milwaukee’s House of Corrections.
Undaunted, Lee merely slipped down to Chicago after his confinement in Milwaukee ended. He victimized many well-to-do residents there with his routine, which cleverly included approached newly-married rich women, suggesting a gift of vases was being sent to them from Europe. Thinking it to be another wedding gift, the women would gladly pay the duties on the receipt Lee handed them. Lee was arrested, but later released after his victims failed to positively identify him.
Lee next went to Cincinnati, Ohio, and posed as August Ortman. After playing his con on many people, he was finally capture. Interviewed, he gave this account: “I served in the Eighty-Seventh, New York, in the Twenty-Fifth, New York, and in the Fourth, New Hampshire. I was in the Union army for four years and was made a sergeant. For sixteen years I lived the life of a sailor. I was a custom house inspector in New York under the late ex-President Arthur for three years and nine months.”
Inspector Byrnes cited the above in his 1895 edition, but it’s likely a fabric of lies. Lee spent only a few months in 1871 as a Customs House inspector, not years–and not during President Arthur’s tenure. He could not have served in the Civil War and have spent sixteen years as a sailor–he had been thieving continuously since 1871.
Moreover, his name was not Ortman. When sent to Sing Sing in 1882, he listed a family contact: a brother-in-law, Louis Bickel of Alton, Illinois. Bickel’s wife was Mary, nee Maria Norberta Kohln, according to her son’s birth record. A baptism record from Germany exists for a female with the same birth date from the same village, with the name Maria Josepha Kölhen. In both cases, these records may have been transcribed in error or based on phonetic spellings; but the family name was likely Kohln/Kohlen/Kölhen (which perhaps was Byrnes source for saying one of Lee’s aliases was “Coleman,” an alias that never appeared in print.)
After serving time in Ohio, Lee gravitated back to Chicago, keeping his last alias, August Ortman. He left the world with a mystery as his legacy:
Lee’s murder was never solved.

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