#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.





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