#74 William O’Brien

William O’Brien (1850-1892), aka Billy Porter, Leslie L. Langdon, William Davis, William Morton, etc. — Bank robber, burglar

Link to Byrnes’s text for #74 William O’Brien

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Billy Porter was one of the most celebrated criminals of the late 1870s and 1880s, with a career that coincided with the prime of Inspector Byrnes’s authority, though the two rarely intersected. Although a thief, Porter was admired by many for his fearlessness and willingness to stand up for his friends, as he did when thief John Walsh shot Porter’s friend and partner John Irving in Shang Draper’s saloon. Walsh also died of a bullet wound, and Porter was tried and acquitted for his killing; but nearly everyone believed that Porter was responsible.

Porter was also a great friend to the hero of the age, boxer John L. Sullivan. Sullivan had visited Billy in his cell when Billy had been jailed in the Kings County Penitentiary in the early 1880s. Porter later accompanied Sullivan as his guard during Sullivan’s legendary prizefight against Charley Mitchell in Chantilly, France in 1888. Porter hovered in Sullivan’s corner with revolvers in each of his coat pockets, which were later needed to clear the crowd so that he could help Sullivan evade the gendarmes that dispersed the gathering (after the match had been fought to a bloody draw).

Billy Porter was raised in Boston, but there are few anecdotes about his early years, other than this revealing item from an 1886 article in the Boston Globe:

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For anyone who considers looking at the family history of criminals to be an idle waste of time, consider this: it was genealogical research that proved to be Billy Porter’s salvation; and then later led to the downfall that killed him. Therein lies a story.

In 1886, Porter traveled to Europe, where, under the direction of Adam Worth, he traveled from country to country pulling off large burglaries with other American thieves. In July 1888, Scotland Yard arrested Billy and Frank Buck on suspicion of a huge jewelry robbery committed in Munich. In their residence, authorities found some of the stolen German gems, as well as uncut diamonds. Buck and Porter were detained pending the arrival of extradition papers from Munich.

However, the small print of the extradition treaty that existed between Great Britain and Germany stipulated that British citizens were not subject to extradition. When the two thieves were called for their hearing in London, they made the claim that they were British subjects. Buck maintained that he was Canadian, but had little proof. However, Porter’s lawyer called Billy’s Irish uncle as a witness. The uncle swore that his sister (Billy’s mother) left for American right after her marriage, and had a son born at sea on a British vessel. A marriage and birth certificate were submitted in support of the story.

The chief magistrate of the police court hearing the case had heard similar claims before, and rejected their argument. Frank Buck was sent to Germany and was later sentenced to a ten-year term. Many newspapers in the United States reported that the claim of both of the thieves had been rejected, and assumed that Porter was shipped to Munich along with Frank Buck. However, Billy Porter appealed the magistrate’s decision; over a period of months Porter’s representatives made their case, and in the end he won his appeal and was freed.

Though he had lost one partner, Billy was eager to resume his career with another old friend, Horace Hovan. In 1890, Billy and Hovan were caught attempting a burglary in Bordeaux, France. Porter knew that if he was forced to serve a sentence in France, he would subsequently be taken to Germany to stand trial there. For the burglary in France, Porter was found guilty and given a light sentence: two years; still, because of the threat of then being taken to Germany, he appealed his French sentence. Billy appealed  on the basis of once again claiming to be a British subject, and submitting the same proofs that he had been born in the Atlantic Ocean on a British ship.

The French magistrate before whom Billy made his appeal listened to his argument, then offered his reaction. The judge conceded that there had been a mistake in Billy’s sentence of two years. But the mistake was in being too lenient. Instead, he ordered Porter to serve twenty years at the French penal colony on New Caledonia, off the coast of Australia.

This is one of the last anecdotes told about Billy Porter’s fate. Earlier reports suggested he had been freed in France, and was in hiding in London. One New York reporter swore that he had seen him on the streets of New York. A flurry of anonymous reports surfaced in August 1892 asserting that he had died in Bordeaux from heart disease. These seem to be the most credible accounts, though they are unclear as to whether he was serving a sentence or detained on an appeal of being transported to New Caledonia. Definitive proof of Billy’s death likely exists in French judicial files.

 

 

 

 

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