#60 John O’Neil

W. J. McNeill (Abt. 1841-????), aka John Hughes, William H. Thompson, John O’Neil, David W. Engle, Jason Smith, Thomas O’Donnell, etc. — Pawn Ticket Swindler

From Byrnes’s text:

DESCRIPTION. Forty-five years old in 1886. Born in Ireland. Slim build. Painter by trade. Height, 5 feet 8 inches. Weight, about 140 pounds. Dark hair, turning gray; light eyes, dark complexion, cast in one eye. His hand is drawn up from a gunshot wound, and he is paralyzed on one side of his body, drawing one leg somewhat after him.

RECORD. John O’Neil, alias Hughes, alias Jason Smith, has a method of working which is entirely his own. Whenever a robbery or burglary has been committed, the victim receives a poorly spelled and written note from O’Neil, stating that “although he is a thief, so help his God he had nothing to do with the burglary” of your residence, or whatever it may be — he has, however, pawn tickets representing the property stolen, which he will sell you. An interview is arranged, and during the conversation he remembers a few descriptions that you give of your property, and says that he has pawn tickets representing so-and-so. “Why did you not bring them with you?” is the question naturally asked. “Oh, no; I did not know whether I could trust you or not.” Being assured that he can, another meeting is arranged for the purpose of going and redeeming the property, which is done in the following manner: a cab is hired, “as he is a thief, and it would not be safe for you to be seen walking with him,” and both are driven to the pawnbroker’s shop, which always has two entrances. Before the cab arrives at the place, he will say, “It will cost so much to redeem the goods,” showing you the tickets and counting the amounts up, “give me the money, you remain in the cab at the door, and I will go in and redeem them, and bring them to you, when you can pay me for my tickets.” He enters the pawnshop and passes out the other door, and you, after waiting some time in the cab, realize that you have been swindled, enter the place, but fail to find your man.

O’Neil was arrested at Staten Island, N.Y., by the police and brought to New York City on April 4, 1879, under the name of John Hughes, charged with swindling one Zophar D. Mills out of $172, as above described. O’Neil represented that he had pawn tickets, for seven pieces of silk stolen from Mr. Mills on November 30, 1878. O’Neil, alias Hughes, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to three years in State prison in this case on April 23, 1879, by Judge Cowing, in the Court of General Sessions, New York City.

He was arrested again in New York City, under the name of John O’Neil, on September 12, 1885, for swindling several people in the same way. This time he also pleaded guilty, and was sentenced to one year in State prison on September 17, 1885, by Judge Cowing, in the same court. Several of O’Neil’s victims refused to prosecute him on account of his infirmities, and the fact that he had served twelve years of the last fifteen of his life in prison. O’Neil’s picture is an excellent one, taken in 1870.

One might think that if a name was tattooed on a man’s body, it would be a clue to his identity. The only problem is that in 1874, Sing Sing examiners saw that tattoo as “W. J. McNeill”; and a different Sing Sing recorder saw the tattoo in 1879 as “W. J. O’Neille.” Byrnes stated his name as John O’Neil only because that was the alias employed by this swindler in 1885, the last arrest known.

McNeill/O’Neil was first caught employing a variation of the robbery-victim swindle on several New Yorkers in May 1874. As Byrnes indicates, he found his targets by perusing the classified notices that recent robbery victims posted seeking the return of their valuables. In this instance, he used the alias William H. Thompson–but unlike later, there was no mention of pawn tickets. He was tried, convicted, and sentenced to five years in Sing Sing for conspiracy to commit grand larceny.

In April 1879, police captured him again, this time for attempting to break into hotel rooms. His alias this time was John Hughes. He was returned to Sing Sing for three years.

In March of 1885, he was arrested for once again suggesting that he could arrange the return of stolen goods, and as the go-between he would exchange pawn tickets for cash. This time he employed the alias Thomas O’Donnell. However, for some reason, the prosecution failed to find him guilty (perhaps, as Byrnes suggests, out of pity for his physical disabilities?)

Six months later, in September 1885, he was caught playing the more elaborate pawn ticket swindle described by Byrnes. Although many victims came forth, and McNeill/O’Neil was recognized as a repeat felon, his punishment only amounted to three months at Blackwell’s Island Penitentiary (not one year in State Prison, as Byrnes wrote).

The pattern of McNeill/O’Neill’s peculiar swindle disappeared after this 1885 arrest.



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