#148 Thomas Burns

Thomas Burns (Abt. 1836-1895), aka Combo, Thomas Hamilton — Pickpocket, Stall

From Byrnes’s text:

DESCRIPTION Forty-nine years of age in 1886. Born in United States. Married. No trade. Medium build. Height, 5 feet 10 1/2 inches. Weight, 165 pounds. Black hair, brown eyes, dark complexion. Has scar on forehead; mole on right cheek. Generally wears a black beard, turning gray.

RECORD. “Combo” is a well known New York pickpocket. He works with “Jersey Jimmie” (145), “Nigger” Baker (195), “Curly Charley,” Dick Morris (141), “Aleck the Milkman” (160), and the best people in the cities he visits. He was considered second to none in the business; but of late years he has fallen back, and does only “stalling,” on account of his love for liquor. He is pretty well known in Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, Boston and Chicago, and, in fact, in almost all the large cities in the States.

He was arrested in New York City, for the larceny of a watch from one Lawson Valentine, on a Sixth Avenue horse-car, on February 8, 1875. He was tried, found guilty, and sentenced to four years in State prison, on March 9, 1875, under the name of Thomas Hamilton, by Judge Sutherland.

Combo was again arrested, at the Grand Central Railroad depot in New York City, on November 24, 1885, in an attempt to ply his vocation. He was sentenced to one year in the penitentiary on December 1, 1885, in the Court of Special Sessions, New York. Burns’s picture is an excellent one, taken in November, 1885.

Sometimes members of the underground fraternity of thieves would meet unexpectedly, as happened in the fall of 1872, in the Hudson County, New Jersey jailhouse in Jersey City, New Jersey.  Two veteran, hardened bank robbers, Ed. Johnson and Frank Dean, aka Dago Frank, were detained there so that they could testify on a sensational case of police corruption that implicated the city’s chief of police and senior detective. Johnson and Dean had been caught nearly a year earlier while attempting to break into the First National Bank of Jersey City. They had been working with two other seasoned pros, Dave Cummings and Moses Vogel.

Ed. Johnson was arrested under the alias Charles J. Proctor; Dean was jailed as Frank Denning. They were placed in separate cells in the first tier of the jailhouse, with an empty cell between them. Dave Cummings had escaped capture because he had been busy playing billiards while his partners did the hard work, but Cummings had vowed to spare no expense in getting Johnson and Dean out of jail.

One day, a new prisoner was escorted into the empty cell between Johnson and Dean. He was Thomas “Combo” Burns, age 36, a noted Bowery pickpocket. Burns may have recognized the two bank robbers, or, at the least, had heard of them. Burns frequented the same Lower Manhattan saloons as bank robbers and sneak thieves; he was even rumored to have played a role in one famous Philadelphia bank robbery of February 1871, the Kensington Savings Bank.

Burns could hear all the conversation that passed between Johnson and Dean, and in a way became their confidant.

Burns was visited in jail each week by his mother, who took the ferry over from New York. She brought him his favorite delicacies to make up for the drab jail meals. Johnson and Dean eyed Burns’s treats with envy, and asked Burns if they could arrange for his mother to bring them their favorite treats that their relatives in New York would bring to her. So soon all three men got an inspected parcel of goodies whenever Burn’s mother visited. Invariably, Johnson and Dean always received at least one can of peaches, their favorite.

On September 25th, Johnson and Dean had a visitor come. Combo Burns heard them whispering that something big was to happen on the next Saturday evening. That same day, Burn’s mother visited and once again brought food with her, including several cans of peaches. She gave cans to Johnson and Dean, but also gave one to Burns. Burns noticed that Johnson shook his can after receiving it. He shook his can, and heard a metallic click as he did so. He cut out one end of the can, but found only peaches. He then took off the other end and discovered a small flask filled with black powder.

It was then that Burns realized that Johnson and Dean had been collecting a store of gunpowder to use to bring down the rear wall of their cell and make a dash for freedom. Burns himself had no great motive to involve himself in a jailbreak; he was in on a charge of picking pockets, and might get acquitted–or, at worst, a light sentence. However, he likely did not even consider his own fate; what stirred his indignation was that Johnson and Dean used his mother as an unwilling accomplice. She was the go-between that had no idea what was in the cans of peaches.

Combo burns poured the gunpowder into his toilet pipe and started yelling at Johnson and Dean. They told him to pipe down, and then tried to bribe him to remain silent. Burns was having none of it. He called the guards and had them inspect the cells of Johnson and Dean, where matches, a fuse, and a rubber bag with five pounds of gunpowder were discovered. Their escape plan (doubtless coordinated by Dave Cummings) was foiled.

Do not come between an Irishman and his mother.

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