John Francis Aborn (1857-1932), aka Frank Aborn/Auburn/Auborn, John F. Austin — Seducer, Hotel thief, Theater ticket swindler, Process Server
From Byrnes’s 1886 edition:
DESCRIPTION. Twenty-six years old in 1886. Born in United States. Medium build. Single. Height, 5 feet 5 inches. Weight, 120 pounds. Brown hair, gray eyes, dark complexion. No trade. Has busts of boy and girl, and two hearts with words “You and me” on them, in India ink, on right fore-arm.
RECORD. Auburn is quite a clever boarding-house thief, but does not confine himself to that work entirely. He is well known in New York and Boston.
He was arrested in New York City on November 1, 1883, for petty larceny from a boarding-house, and convicted and sentenced to five days in the Tombs prison on November 28, 1883, by Judge Gildersleeve, in the Court of General Sessions. His light sentence was the result of the intercession of some good people, and on account of its being his first appearance in court.
He was arrested again in Boston, Mass., on April 28, 1884, in company of Joseph W. Harris, alias Wm. J. Johnson, for picking pockets in the churches of that city. He was tried, convicted, and sentenced to four years in Concord prison on May 16, 1884. His time will expire in November, 1887. Auburn’s picture is a good one, taken in 1884.
From Byrnes’s 1895 edition:
He is said to be the son of a wealthy widow who lives in the vicinity of New York. He earned some fame as a process server by putting on a district messenger’s uniform and serving a summons on the late Jay Gould, in 1891.
He was arrested again in New York City on January 18, 1893, charged with forgery. He plead guilty to petty larceny, and was sent to the penitentiary on February 7, 1893, by Judge Cowing, Court of General Sessions, under name of John F. Auburn.
Sentenced again to one year penitentiary on July 5, 1894, for forgery, from the Court of General Sessions, New York City, under the name of Frank Auburn.
John F. “Frank” Aborn was a much more fascinating character than Inspector Byrnes conveys, owing not only to actions that took place after Byrnes published his 1886 edition, but also to pre-1886 incidents that Byrnes failed to mention. Aborn’s parents were respectable, but not rich. His father George was a seaman, and the family lived in Sag Harbor, Long Island, a whaling port.
Frank left home at age 20 and went to Philadelphia, gaining employment with a cigar manufacturer. He was said to spend all his earnings on fashionable clothing; and was flirtatious with young women to an extreme. His hometown newspaper in Sag Harbor printed an announcement in April 1879 to the effect that he had married Sadie M. Brown in Philadelphia. The marriage, if it existed, was either quickly annulled or dissolved.
Frank rebounded quickly, wooing another young woman before being beaten up by her betrothed; he was put under bonds (a restraining order) to stay away from her.
Back in New York city by April 1880 (a year after his marriage to Sadie Brown), Frank met 16-year-old Bertha Potigney-Meurisse, the daughter of a flower importer, at a church fair. She had just left a boarding school, and was dazzled by Frank’s attentions. He convinced her to elope; the pair showed up at a church and were interviewed by a veteran minister, who sent the young woman home and then visited her family the next day. Her father was outraged. Though Frank was forbidden to communicate with Bertha, the two found a way to exchange letters, in which they addressed each other as “husband” and “wife.” Alarmed, her father took Frank to court and once again he was placed under a restraining order.
Frank began moving from one Manhattan boarding house to another, often leaving his bill unpaid. He made friends with the scion of a wealthy family, Mason P. Helmbold, who had just returned from Europe. The two young men started to make a habit of ordering goods without paying for them, arranging for their delivery to their soon-to-be-abandoned boarding house. Helmbold was caught and persecuted, but blamed Frank Aborn for corrupting him. [It should be noted that Helmbold went on to have a long career as a forger.]
Frank traveled to Boston, where he continued his new habit of cheating boarding houses by not paying his bill. Once caught, he was sentenced to nine months in Boston’s House of Corrections.
In November 1883 Frank was back in New York and was caught stealing valuables from a fellow-boarder’s room. Several character witnesses came forth on his behalf, and he was given a slap on the wrist: five days in the Tombs, the city jail. The court was unaware of his Boston hijinks.
Frank next returned to Boston, and tried his hand at picking pockets, working the crowd at a church funeral service with another very amateur pickpocket. Apprehended again, he was sentenced to four years in the Concord, Massachusetts prison.
After his release in 1887, Frank returned to New York. He presented a bogus check, which resulted in a short sentence at the Elmira Reformatory. Considering that Frank was now thirty years old and an ex-convict, this was a pittance of a punishment; the court was obviously unaware of his record in Massachusetts.
After the reformatory doors were opened for his exit, Frank opted to stay in Elmira and take a job in a clothing store. He claimed to be a Yale graduate and a Boston newspaper correspondent who was sent to Elmira to cover the New York State Fair; and he sought a temporary job to fill his spare time. While in Elmira, Frank found a new focus for one of his trademark romantic onslaughts, Miss Catherine Dee. They were married in October 1888 and moved back to New York.
Frank had acquired a new means of gaining cash: conning theatergoers and theater employees for free tickets and passes, and then reselling them. One complaint was lodged against him in September 1889, but he was given nothing more than a reprimand. However, when he continued the practice, he was arrested once more in January 1890. These arrests did not go unnoticed in his wife’s home town of Elmira. There, the newspaper branded him a scoundrel; and moreover accused him of physically abusing his new bride before their honeymoon period was hardly begun. The Elmira opera house also recalled his habit of cadging passes.
It was later in 1890 that Frank Aborn stumbled onto a vocation in which his talent for sneakiness, deception, lying, and disguise transformed him into something akin to a hero. He became a process server, i.e. a messenger tasked with putting a court order directly into the hands of a defendant in a lawsuit.
Frank quickly gained renown for his cleverness in tracking down his elusive targets. None was more difficult than robber-baron Jay Gould, but Frank Aborn was up to the task:
Newspapers around the country started running stories about the famous and infamous public figures that Aborn was able to confront with papers: one of the four nearly identical Rich sisters, who lived together; Cornelius Vanderbilt’s attorney, Chauncey Depew; Police Commissioner Charles MacLean; the trustees of the Standard Oil Trust, including William Rockefeller, actress Lillian Russell, etc. Aborn found himself sought out by New York’s leading law firms.
However, his worst habits had not died out. In January 1893, and again in July 1894 he was caught trying to obtain free passes at different theaters, and was jailed in each instance. While he was in jail between 1894 and 1895, his mother passed away. Upon his release, Aborn showed up in Sag Harbor and had the local paper print an item to the effect that he had been in South America when his mother had died.
The next year, 1896, Aborn’s wife Catherine passed away. These two deaths seem to have sobered Frank’s impulses. He resumed his career as a sought-after process server and collection agent.
Frank remarried in 1898, and over the next decade had six daughters. He served process papers on behalf of many lawyers and city departments, including the New York Police Department. He was put on the payroll of the City Tenement Commission, and spent his last decade as a deputy commissioner.