Joseph Elzas (1854–19??), aka Hungry Joe Lewis, Francis J. Alvany, Henry F. Post, W. C. Howard, Joseph Abzes/Elsas, etc. — Bunco steerer
Hungry Joe Lewis was one of the most celebrated criminals in Inspector Byrnes’s collection. Among his accomplishments, he was credited with (nearly) swindling Oscar Wilde; and of coining the phrase “There’s a sucker born every minute.” He can be found in any history of swindlers and con men, and has an extensive entry in Wikipedia. He had the distinction of being the only member of Byrnes’s Rogues Gallery that was profiled in a dime novel (which is little more than a tissue of fabrications and imagined dialogues):
Hungry Joe was known as a bunco operator as early as 1875, in Chicago. An 1888 article from the Chicago Tribune included some credible insights:
The same article explains that Hungry Joe acquired his nickname from his prodigious appetite: “When he was in Chicago it was nothing unusual for him to go into Billy Boyle’s a half dozen times a day and each time eat a hearty meal. Paddy Ryan says he has seen Joe eat a double porterhouse steak, a whole chicken, and a full portion of ham and eggs in a single night, and when Mike McDonald ran a gambling house over ‘The Store,’ Joe is said to have eaten an entire luncheon that had been prepared for thirty men. These and even worse stories are related about his gluttonous appetite by the men about town.”
Hungry Joe and Grand Central Pete Lake were the nation’s acknowledged best bunco steerers, though Joe was known to be less patient with his victims. This led to his downfall, resulting in an 1885 arrest and imprisonment in New York, after he simply grabbed a wad of cash out of the hands of his English victim.
It was Joe’s 1888 arrest in Baltimore that turned him bitter. Though he pleaded guilty at the time, after he was sentenced to nine years in prison he complained that he had been railroaded–and blamed Inspector Byrnes:
“Byrnes has a grudge against me which dates back some years. It was on account of some money matters. I had made some $15,000 in Chicago–but never mind that. If I was disposed to tell all I knew the public would have less confidence in Inspector Byrnes. If he had received all he deserves, he, and not I, would today be serving time. He made his reputation by sending John Hope to prison for twenty years for robbing the Manhattan Bank, and I know that Hope is innocent of that crime. It has long been Tom Byrnes’ aim to do me, and this was his opportunity. It was he who prevented me from engaging in a legitimate business…I had been offered $25,000 to go into the bookmaking business, but Byrnes stepped in and broke me up. He pulled me down at every turn.”
In most published accounts of Hungry Joe’s life, it will note that he died on March 22, 1902, as reported in many newspapers. A few newspapers, like the New York Sun, reserved some skepticism:
However, the Baltimore Sun correctly identified the rumor to be untrue:
The Baltimore Sun also ran a second article, six years later, in 1908, saying that Joe was still very much alive, and had been living honestly for the past six years. In this second article, the paper gave his name as Joseph Abzes–in the 1902 article, they used the spelling Elsas. The Sun was very close: Hungry Joe was born in Baltimore in 1854 as Joseph Elzas, son of Lewis and Emma Elzas. The Elzas family moved to Chicago in the late 1860s or early 1870s, where Joe started his criminal career.
Joe’s resurrection was confirmed by his old friends in New York in 1908 when they spotted him on Broadway. Joe had a personality quirk that made him immediately recognizable: he refused to walk close to building lines on a sidewalk, instead always walking on the outside curb–and detoured his stride far away from the mouths of alleyways.