#89 Frank McCoy

Frank McCoy (Abt. 1843-1905), aka Big Frank McCoy, Frank McDonald, Francis H. Carter — Bank Robber

From Byrnes’s 1886 edition:

DESCRIPTION. Forty-seven years old in 1886. Born in Troy, N.Y. Medium build. Cabinet-maker by trade. Married. Height, 5 feet 11 3/4 inches. Weight, 176 pounds. Dark-red hair, light-gray eyes, full face, sandy complexion, bald on front of head, dimple in point of chin. Has letters “F. M. C.” in India ink on right fore-arm, a cross and heart on left fore-arm. Generally wears long, heavy red whiskers and mustache.

RECORD. Frank McCoy, alias Big Frank, is a famous bank burglar, and a desperate criminal. He is one of the men who originated the “butcher-cart business,” robbing bank messengers and others in the street, and quickly making off with the plunder by jumping into a butcher cart or wagon.

He was arrested with Jimmy Hope, Ike Marsh, Jim Brady, George Bliss, and Tom McCormack, in Wilmington, Del., for an attempt to rob the National Bank of Delaware, on November 7, 1873. They were convicted on November 25, 1873, and sentenced to ten years’ imprisonment, one hour in the pillory, and forty lashes. McCoy and McCormack made their escape from New Castle jail, with tools furnished by Bill Robinson, alias Gopher Bill.

McCoy was associated with Jimmy Hope in the robbery of the Beneficial Savings Fund and other savings banks in Philadelphia, and several other robberies. He is said to have stolen over two million dollars during his criminal career. He is well known all over the United States, and is a treacherous criminal, as several officers can attest. He owes his nickname, “Big Frank,” to his stature.

He was arrested in June, 1876, near Suffolk, Va., a small town between Norfolk and Petersburg, in company of Tom McCormack and Gus Fisher, alias Sandford. A lot of burglars’ tools was found concealed near the railroad depot there, and suspicion pointed to them as the owners. The citizens armed themselves and tracked the burglars with bloodhounds to their tent, which they had pitched in a dismal swamp near the village. They were arrested, taken to the Suffolk jail, and chained to the floor. McCoy was shortly after returned to Delaware prison, from where he afterwards escaped. Fisher, alias Sandford, was sent to Oxford, N.J., and was tried for a burglary. McCormack managed to regain his liberty through his lawyer, in October, 1876.

McCoy was arrested again in New York City on August 12, 1878, charged with robbing C.H. Stone, the cashier of Hale’s piano-forte manufactory. The cashier was knocked down and robbed at the corner of Thirty-fourth Street and Ninth Avenue, New York City, on his return from the West Side Bank, on August 3, 1878. In this case McCoy was discharged, as Mr. Stone was unable to identify him.

McCoy was arrested again in New York City on April 12, 1881, charged with robbing Heaney’s pawnbroker’s establishment, on Atlantic Avenue, Brooklyn, on March 8, 1875, of $2,000 worth of jewelry, etc. He was arrested for this robbery in 1879, and upon an examination before Judge Terry, of Brooklyn, he was discharged. The grand jury afterwards indicted him, and he was arrested again as above, and committed to Raymond Street jail. He afterwards gave bail, and was released.

He was finally arrested again in New York City on May 26, 1885, on suspicion of being implicated in a conspiracy to rob the Butchers and Drovers’ Bank of New York City, in connection with one Gustave Kindt, alias French Gus, a notorious burglar and toolmaker. No case being made out against him, he was delivered to the Sheriff of Wilmington, Del., on November 6, 1885, and taken back to the jail that he had twice escaped from, to serve out the remainder of his ten years’ sentence.

McCoy has killed two men during his criminal career, one on the Bowery, New York, and another in a saloon in Philadelphia, Pa., some years ago. Frank’s picture was taken in August, 1878.

From Byrnes’s 1895 edition:

He was pardoned by Governor Reynolds of Delaware on November 18, 1892. His time would have expired in February, 1893. Since his release he has been trying to live honestly. He was employed in the pool-rooms in New York—when in existence—and on the race-tracks by book makers.

Big Frank McCoy had a rich criminal history long before Byrnes picks up his story, as can be seen from this summary from an 1885 New York Herald story:

The “West Garden National Bank” referred to in this article appears to be the Beneficial Savings Fund Bank, robbed in April 1869. Jimmy Hope was involved in this job, and helped return the plunder to the needy families whose savings were stolen.

The Wilmington, Delaware bank robbery debacle was one of the most notable crimes of the 1870s–not because it succeeded, but due to the fact that it involved five of the most skilled bank robbers of the era: Jimmy Hope, Frank McCoy, Jim Brady, George Bliss, and Tom McCormick–and that they were punished not only with imprisonment, but with a public flogging, followed by a daring escape.

McCoy was quickly recaptured, but escaped a second time. After being caught in a failed bank robbery in Suffolk, Virginia, McCoy was sent back to Delaware to serve out his sentence–and escaped a third time.

Despite being wanted in Delaware, McCoy lived openly in Long Island City, Queens, from 1881 to 1885, operating a pool hall. McCoy was far from remaining honest, though, as this story about how he and Red Leary stole $5000 by cheating a gambling hall attests:

In 1885, McCoy was arrested in New York on suspicion of planning a job with Gus Kindt; he was discharged by the court, but Inspector Byrnes conveniently chose to send him back to Delaware to serve out the sentence he had escaped from three times. McCoy later maintained that Byrnes did so to apply pressure on Jimmy Hope to cough up the bonds stolen from the Manhattan Savings Bank.

McCoy finally paid Delaware the time he owed, and was pardon by the Governor there in 1892.

McCoy died poor in Bellevue Hospital in 1905, but not before giving a few deathbed interviews to several New York newspapers. He regretted his life of crime and wished he had gone into politics instead. He recalled his adventures with Jimmy Hope fondly.

“I’ve never killed a man…,” Frank stated, “That thought is my one consolation.”

Perhaps what Frank meant to say was that he had never killed a man except that deserved it, for he had shot dead John Steiger in 1867 over the proceeds of a burglary they had committed; and also killed Philadelphia thief Patsey Williams in a saloon in 1870.


#132 Kate Armstrong

Alias Kate Armstrong (Abt. 1841-19??), aka Sarah Williams, Catharine Armstrong, Mary Ann Dowd, Becky Stark, Annie Reilly, Mary/Rebecca Colson/Colston, Annie/Rebecca Lewis, Rebecca McNally, etc. — Pickpocket

From Byrnes’s text:

DESCRIPTION. Forty-five years old in 1886. Born in England. Married. Cook. Stout build. Height, 5 feet 2 1/2 inches. Weight, 200 pounds. Dark brown hair, hazel eyes, florid complexion. Wears gold eye-glasses. Has a large space between upper front teeth. Vaccination mark on left arm.

RECORD. Mary Ann Dowd (right name Catharine Armstrong) is a very clever woman. She was arrested in the spring of 1876, during Moody and Sankey’s revivals, in Madison Square Garden, in New York City, for picking a lady’s pocket, and sent to Sing Sing for two years.

She was arrested again in Providence, R.I., on May 14, 1878, and sentenced to two years in State prison in June of the same year, for picking a woman’s pocket on the street. After her time expired in Providence she went West, and visited Chicago (Ill.) and St. Louis. Mrs. Dowd generally works alone, and confines herself principally to opening hand-bags, or stealing them. Her operations have been greatly aided by her respectable appearance and her perfect self-control.

She was arrested in New York City on October 20, 1884, charged with the larceny of a diamond, sapphire and pearl bar-pin, valued at $250, from the jewelry store of Tiffany & Co., New York, on July 7, 1884. The pin was found on her person, with the diamond removed and a ruby set in its place. For this she was tried by a jury, convicted, and sentenced to five years in State prison. She obtained a new trial in this case, which resulted in her discharge by Judge Cowing, on December 18, 1884.

She was arrested again in Philadelphia, Pa., at Wanamaker’s grand depot, in company of Harry Busby (135), on November 3, 1885, for picking pockets. Busby was discharged and Mary Ann was convicted, and sentenced to two years and six months in the Eastern Penitentiary on November 11, 1885. Her sentence will expire on September 11, 1887. Mrs. Armstrong’s, or Dowd’s, picture is a good one, taken in November, 1885.

None of the names offered by the woman Byrnes declared as “Kate Armstrong” might have been her real name. She was arrested most frequently under two names that Byrnes never mentioned: Rebecca Stark and Rebecca Colston. Several sources do agree that she came from England in the early 1870s, and that she was a pastry cook by profession–when not picking pockets. She was first arrested in Boston in January 1873 under the name Sarah Williams, but was later released.

She next appeared as Mary Ann Dowd, picking pockets as New York’s Hippodrome in March of 1876 (as mentioned by Byrnes) and sentenced to two years in Sing Sing. Byrnes and other sources say that she was arrested in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1878 and jailed for another two years–but if that occurred, her sentence was likely much shorter, for in April of 1879 she was arrested in Boston under the name Rebecca McNally. She was discharged on this occasion, but late in 1879 was taken in Boston again as Ann Riley, alias McNally, and sentenced to one year in the House of Correction.

According to Byrnes, she spent the years between 1880 and 1884 in St. Louis and Chicago, but no accounts from those years have surfaced. In October 1884, she was caught picking pockets in New York at Tiffany’s, and was arrested under her old New York alias, Mary Ann Dowd. She was later discharged.

In November 1885, she was caught in Philadelphia working with an English pickpocket, “English Tom.” She now deployed the alias Catharine/Kate Armstrong, aka Carrie K. Saunders. She was sent to Eastern State Penitentiary for 18 months, but was released early–and was quickly rearrested in October 1886 at the Chester County (PA) Fair under the name Annie Riley, alias Rebecca McNally. However, she was returned to Eastern State Penitentiary as Catharine Armstrong. According to authorities there, she feigned madness, but dropped the act when it proved ineffective.

When released in May 1887, she went to Boston, and was taken in on suspicion as Ann Riley, aka Rebecca McNally. She was discharged and told to leave the city, but instead left the country heading to England. She later claimed to have attended Queen Victoria’s Jubilee celebrations, where she made a tidy profit.

She was rediscovered in Boston in September 1891 and arrested for her usual activities, after being identified as Ann Riley/Rebecca McNally/Kate Armstrong/May Ann Dowd/Rebecca Colston. She was punished with one year in the House of Correction. “Correction” was a misnomer, for she was caught in Boston in April 1892, jailed, released, and picked up again in December 1892. This time she was told to leave town.

She did leave Boston, but only for a little over a year. In April 1894 she returned and was arrested as Becky Stark, alias Colston, and was sentenced to six months in the House of Correction.

In May 1896, she reacquainted herself with New York city police. She was discharged, but not before biting the police photographer. Still, he was able to trick her into taking a photo while she was smiling. Her looks had changed little since she had posed eleven years earlier.

She was arrested twice in Boston in 1897; and once in Hoboken in 1898. By 1899 she had migrated to Brooklyn, where she was sent to the House of the Good Shepherd for six months for vagrancy and drunkenness.

In September, 1902, she wandered to Boston again, and was caught picking pockets. She was arrested and tried under the name Rebecca Stark. Once again she was sentenced to six months in the House of Correction. The Boston Globe concluded an item about this episode with as good an epitaph as any:

“When she heard the sentence, ‘Becky,’ who had played the part of a feeble old woman whose heart was nearly broken and was being misjudged, straightened up, wiped away the tears which she had forced to flow, and in a manner that showed that she was anything but spirit-broken, exclaimed, “Six months! For the Lord’s sake! Six months for that!’ The expression on her face clearly denoted satisfaction and surprise that the sentence was not twice as severe.”



#150 James Wells

James Wells (Abt. 1842–????), aka Funeral Wells, James Hayden — Pickpocket

From Byrnes’s 1886 edition:

DESCRIPTION. Forty-four years old in 1886. Born in United States. Married. No trade. Slim build. Height, 5 feet 9 1/2 inches. Weight, 145 pounds. Gray hair, gray eyes, light complexion. Generally wears a full beard, light color. His eyes are small, weak and sunken.

RECORD. “Funeral Wells” is an old and expert New York pickpocket. His particular line is picking pockets at a funeral, with a woman. The woman generally does the work and passes what she gets to Wells, who makes away with it, the woman remaining behind a little time to give him a chance to escape. Wells has served a term in Sing Sing prison and in the penitentiary on Blackwell’s Island, New York, and is known in all the principal cities.

He has been traveling through the country lately (1886) with Billy Peck (157), and Jimmy Murphy, two other New York pickpockets, working the fairs, churches, etc.

He was arrested in New York City on April 3, 1880, charged with having attempted to rob one Ambrose P. Beekman, a merchant, residing in Jersey City, N. J., while the latter was riding on a cross-town horse-car. The complainant was unable to identify him, and he was discharged.

Wells was arrested again in New York City, on June 19, 1885, under the name of James Hayden, in company of James McKitterick, alias “Oyster Jim,” and sentenced to three months each in the penitentiary, on June 30, 1885, in the Court of Special Sessions, for an assault with intent to steal as pickpockets.

[McKitterick is a hotel and sleeping-car thief, pickpocket, and banco man. His home is in Hudson, N.Y. He is a great fancier of dogs and fighting cocks. Sometimes he has a full beard, and again a smooth face; at other times, chin whiskers. He was arrested in Schenectady in 1883, tried in Albany for picking pockets, and settled the matter by paying a fine of $800. He has been the counsel and adviser of thieves for years, and has been what is termed a “steerer.” For a partner he has had James, alias “Shang” Campbell, Thomas Hammill, Funeral Wells, Peck, alias Peck’s Bad Boy, and others of note. He was arrested some years ago in Brooklyn, N.Y., for picking a man’s pocket. A Brooklyn judge who met him on the steamer for Florida identified him as his gentleman companion, and he was discharged. Soon after the close of the war, on the Mississippi he robbed a woman of $1,700. She demanded a search of all on the steamer. Jim had been so kind and attentive to her that he was not searched. A short time ago he was stakeholder for a dog fight in Boston to the amount of $300, and made off with the funds. He took $1,000 worth of bonds from a gentleman in Philadelphia in 1868. His first experience in the East was when the Ball robbery was committed in Holyoke, Mass. He was in it, and was the principal. He, with another, about two years ago, followed a well known lady of Springfield from New Haven to her home for the purpose of stealing her sealskin cloak. The theft was left to his partner, who failed for want of heart to do his work. This noted thief has been known in New York and all the principal cities of the United States under fifty different names. About two years ago, at Bridgeport, Conn., he was on a wharf to see an excursion party land from a steamboat. A man fell in the dock. A policeman standing on the edge of the wharf helped to get the man up. Jim, for fear he might fall into the dock again, kindly put his arms around him to hold him, and robbed him of his watch and eight dollars in money. In 1880, when the Armstrong walk occurred on the Manhattan Athletic grounds, New York City, Jimmy was stakeholder for $480 wagered on the event. Jimmy “welshed,” and the winners never saw the color of their money.]

Wells’s picture is an excellent one, taken in December, 1885.

From Byrnes’s 1895 edition:

Old Wells has been arrested a number of times all over the country since 1885. He is getting very old and feeble and is not able to do much except “Stalling” and “Moll buzzing.”

He was arrested in New York City on June 24, 1891, charged with stealing a pocket-book from a woman in St. John’s College at Fordham, N. Y. He plead guilty to this charge and was sentenced to one year in the penitentiary on July I, 1891, by Judge Cowing, Court of General Sessions.

Under the name of Alex P. Wells he was arrested in Union Square Park, New York City, on July 16, 1892, charged with the larceny of a watch from a man named Sippel. For this offense he was sentenced to two years and six months in State Prison, by Recorder Smyth.

Crime historians should take note: Byrnes’s 1895 addendum on Funeral Wells contains a big red herring. The “Alex P. Wells” sent to Sing Sing in 1892 was not James “Funeral” Wells, but a different man, Charles Henderson aka James Harris, who was making one of six or seven of his visits to Sing Sing. By comparison, Funeral Wells had a shorter criminal record, was three inches taller, and weighed thirty pounds less!

Another odd thing about Byrnes’s entry on Funeral Wells is that most of the print space is devoted not to Wells, but to his one-time partner, “Oyster Jim” McKitterick. Oyster Jim was more of an all-around thief than Funeral Wells, which Byrnes may have found more interesting.

The Sing Sing imprisonment mentioned by Byrnes occurred in May of 1865, following Wells’s arrest during the Abraham Lincoln funeral in New York (the funeral train went to many U.S. cities). One might even guess that this was the source of his nickname.

Between 1865 and 1885 there is a large gap in Wells’s career, which likely signifies numerous or long prison stays under undetected aliases. Newspaper items in 1885 mention that he had spent half his life in prisons.

Byrnes’s lack of exposition on Wells frustrated reviewers of his book. The New York Sun decided to rewrite Wells’s entry with more flourish:

“The solemn and sanctimonious-looking James Wells very appropriately makes a specialty of funerals. He can drop a tear over the deceased with a touching melancholy which goes straight to the heart, and at the same time grope pensively and unobtrusively in his neighbor’s pockets for any small articles or pocketbooks which they may have there. He is sometimes called ‘Mourner’ Wells, and he frequently works at funerals, with a woman for a confederate. The woman rifles pockets and nips off watches, which she passes to the dismal and respectable looking gentleman, who is apparently an entire stranger to her; and when he has got about all he can safely carry he quietly leaves, the confederate remaining behind to cover his retreat. Wells also works churches, church fairs, and other places where his pious visage is appropriate, and is altogether one of the most dangerous men in his way in the country.”

One of Wells’s last known exploits was to pick pockets at the commencement ceremonies and Golden Jubilee of St. John’s College (now Fordham University) in June 1891. For this crime, Wells was sent to Blackwell’s Island for a year.