James Campbell (Abt. 1844-19??), aka Shang Campbell, James Morgan, George Wilson, James Williams, James Bell, George Jones — Masked burglar, Pickpocket
Inspector Byrnes, in his two editions, offered a fairly complete record of Shang Campbell’s known crimes, but several small mysteries about the man remain. Campbell’s age, early history, and real name remain in doubt. When sent to Sing Sing in 1903, he claimed to be 71 years old (birth year 1832); but newspaper accounts from his other crimes put his birth year at around 1850. Byrnes is probably closer to the mark, indicating Campbell was born around 1844.
By his own account, Campbell’s mother died when he was young, and at age 12 he was sent north of New York City sixty miles to a farm in Orange County, New York. He said he lived there for four years, then came back to the city. Campbell told a story that his first brush with the law was an injustice–that he was hanging out on a corner with some other youths, and the police rounded up everyone and charged them with a robbery. Campbell stated that he went to the reformatory for two years, having done nothing wrong.
Byrnes says that Campbell was involved in a warehouse robbery in lower Manhattan and was sent to Sing Sing for five years; but the Sing Sing registers can not confirm this. Depending on Campbell’s real age, both of these stories could be true–but Campbell’s verifiable criminal record does not start until 1873.
Campbell gained infamy as one of the gang of masked burglars that raided houses along the Hudson River in the fall of 1873. They were known as the “Masked Eleven” or the “Rochelle Pirates.” This gang of thieves entered the residence of a wealthy farmer, Abram Post, near Embogcht (Inbocht) Bay on the Hudson River, south of Catskill, New York. Similar raids were made against the homes of J. P. Emmet in New Rochelle, New York; and W. K. Soutter on Staten Island. The gang was said to use George Milliard’s saloon to plan its raids, and included Johnny Dobbs, Dan Kelly, Pugsey Hurley, Patsy Conroy, Larry Griffin, Dennis Brady, John Burns. All were arrested except Dobbs and Campbell. They fled south to Key West, Florida.
Dobbs and Campbell intended to get to Cuba, but on the way stopped in Key West, partied heavily, and started bragging about their exploits. They were arrested by the Key West sheriff and thrown in jail while their backgrounds were investigated. Campbell escaped, but was recaptured and returned to New York.
Once he was released, Campbell joined a gang of pickpockets that toured the States and Canada for several years. He was arrested in Worcester, Massachusetts in October 1884, and let out of a $3000 bail, which was forfeited. In 1887, he, along with Ned Lyons and Ned Lyman, were caught picking pockets in Kent, Ohio. Campbell was let out on bail and jumped again.
Byrnes relates Campbell’s drawn-out legal hassles in Boston from 1891 through 1893, when we was tried and convicted for a bank sneak robbery. He appealed his conviction three times, but ultimately was sentenced to four years in prison.
Upon his release, Campbell returned to New York to resume his streetcar pick pocket activities under his abbreviated name, James Bell. When arrested in 1901 under the alias George Jones, it was reported that his wife had recently died–but that he had deceived her for thirty years as to the nature of his business, explaining his prison terms as foreign business trips. He seemed to be able to maintain a middle-class household from his earnings, and police complimented his “beautiful system.”
Whatever system he had failed in February 1903, when he was sent to Sing sing for five years for picking pockets. He was later transferred to Clinton Prison in Dannemora, and was released in September 1906, a withered, gray-haired man.