#175 William Perry

William Perry (Abt. 1849-????), aka William Prentiss, Edward Perry, Charles Ewing, John Gray, George Graham — Pickpocket

From Byrnes’s text:

DESCRIPTION. Thirty-seven years old in 1886. Born in Virginia. Married. No trade. Slim build. Height, 5 feet 4 1/2 inches. Weight, 115 pounds. Light hair, gray eyes, light complexion. Generally has a clean-shaven face.

RECORD. Billy Perry is one of the most expert and successful professional thieves in America. He has been traveling around the country for years, generally working with a woman. He is well known in all the large cities, and is considered a first-class man.

Perry was arrested, and sentenced to three years in State prison, in Richmond, Va., in 1871, for picking pockets. He served two years in Sing Sing prison since.

On June 1, 1882, Eldridge G. Rideout, a publisher on Barclay Street, New York, was robbed of his gold watch at the South Ferry, New York. Perry was arrested, and recognized as the thief. Soon after his release on bail in this case he was arrested again, for robbing a man of a gold watch on one of the Coney Island boats. When Perry was brought to court in New York City he was discharged, because the crime with which he was charged had been committed out of the jurisdiction of the court. When Perry’s case, for stealing of Mr. Rideout’s watch, was set down for trial in the Court of General Sessions he had disappeared, and his bail was forfeited. He was re-arrested, bailed again, and when the case was set down again for trial the pickpocket could not be found.

Nothing was heard of him until the arrival of the survivors of the Greely Arctic expedition at Newburyport, Mass., on August 13, 1884, when he was arrested there, with a number of other professional thieves. Before the New York officers could reach Newburyport, Perry had been handed over to the Portsmouth (N. H.) authorities for a theft which he had committed there a few weeks before. On that charge he was sentenced to one year’s imprisonment in the Portsmouth jail on August 27, 1884. Perry’s sentence expired on August 27, 1885, when he was arrested, at the jail door, brought to New York City, committed to the Tombs prison on August 30, 1885, and subsequently discharged again on bail. Perry’s picture is an excellent one, taken in August, 1884.

Wherever crowds congregate, professional pickpockets can be expected to be found. This fact was quickly learned by police, and so by the 1870s, plains clothes detectives were routinely assigned to patrol train stations, ship docks, and holiday gatherings. Pickpockets realized that the authorities were sometimes less prepared for special events that drew crowds. Billy Perry made a practice of following these festivities–and of stealing one item only: men’s watches.

Only a few arrests are recorded about this time thief, but they convey a different way to look at history:

  • In 1871, Perry was arrested for stealing watches from visitors to Virginia’s State Agricultural Fair. Bynres and others stated that Perry came from Virginia, but some sources said he came from Detroit. Whatever the case, Perry would have quickly learned that people took money and timepieces to State fairs.
  • In 1875, Perry was arrested in New Orleans for lifting a timepiece two weeks before the annual Mardi Gras celebrations. 1875 marked the first year that Mardi Gras was recognized as an official state holiday in Louisiana.
  • In 1879, Billy was captured in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, on the occasion of General Ulysses S. Grant’s visit. In 1877, after stepping down from the Presidency, Grant had embarked on a 2 1/2 year world tour with his wife, where he met nearly every major world leader. When he returned to the United States in 1879, he then crossed the nation on a celebratory tour, and attracted vast crowds, parades, and innumerable dinners and speeches.
  • In August of 1883, Billy Perry was arrested for picking pockets at Coney Island. Coney Island was a routine hunting ground for pickpockets during the summer months, but August of 1883 was especially attractive: Buffalo Bill Cody would up his first season of touring his outdoor Wild West Show with a five-week stay at Coney Island.
  • A year later, in August 1884, Perry was arrested for stealing a watch from a man attending the reception for the rescued Lady Franklin Bay arctic expedition, led by Lt. Adolphus Greely. The expedition had been stranded for three years before a rescue fleet reached them. Only seven of twenty-five expedition members had survived. A huge homecoming parade was held for them in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, where Perry was tried and jailed.
  • In June 1887, Perry was apprehended picking pockets at the gala election celebration in Newport, Rhode Island–the first time in decades that Democrats had won the State elections.
  • In August 1887, Perry was jailed during the laying of the cornerstone of the Bennington Monument, which was being erected in commemoration of the Battle of Bennington during the Revolutionary War.

Billy Perry was jailed with another pickpocket. This other man was initially identified as William “Earsey” Peck. These two pickpockets escaped from the Bennington jail along with a local man (a rapist). Perry was captured in New York a couple of months later. No explanation was ever published, but at some point the authorities stopped mention of Peck as the second man and instead identified Michael “Pugsey” Hurley–who was sent to Vermont to stand trial.

The above events only represent the occasions when Billy Perry was arrested. What other historical events did he witness where he was not caught stealing timepieces?

In his 1895 edition, Byrnes indicates that Perry had reformed.


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