Byrnes’s text: #18 Charles Becker

Link to REVISED entry on #18 Charles Becker

DESCRIPTION. Thirty-eight years old in 1886. Born in Germany. Trade, engraver. Stout build. Height, 5 feet 6 inches. Weight, 170 pounds. Iron-gray hair, hazel eyes, light complexion. Generally wears a brown mustache.

RECORD. Charley Becker is a native of Wurtemberg, Germany, but came to America when a mere lad, and learned the engraver’s trade. His expertness as an engraver led him to associate with George Engles, George Wilkes, and other celebrated forgers and counterfeiters, and he soon became their most valuable ally. He first came into notoriety through his connection with the robbery of the Third National Bank of Baltimore, Md., in August, 1872. He fled to Europe with Joe Elliott, alias Little Joe, where they met Joe Chapman, Ivan Siscovitch, a Russian, and others, and at once started in to flood Turkey with forged sight drafts. All hands were arrested, convicted, and sentenced to three years and six months each in prison at Smyrna, in Turkey.

Becker, Elliott, and Siscovitch made their escape, went to Europe, and lived a while with Joe Chapman’s wife in London. One day Mrs. Chapman, who knew their secrets, was found dead. All her money and jewelry was missing. Siscovitch was suspected for the murder, and left at once for America. Becker and Elliott also arrived in America in July, 1876. Siscovitch opened a saloon under Booth’s Theatre, New York, which was the headquarters of nearly all the forgers in this country at that time.

Becker, Joe Elliott, alias Little Joe, and Clement Herring, Becker’s father-in-law, were arrested in New York City on April 10, 1877, for the $64,000 forgery on the Union Trust Company of New York. Elliot was convicted on Becker’s testimony, who turned State’s evidence to save himself. Becker and George Engles were arrested again on January 1, 1881, on suspicion of being engaged in a scheme with George Wilkes and others, then under arrest in Florence, Italy, to issue large quantities of forged mercantile paper in Europe. They were turned over to the United States authorities upon an application of the Vice-Consul of Italy, and were confined in Ludlow Street jail to await an application for their extradition, which was not granted. They were both discharged by Commissioner Osborn in the United States Court on January 5, 1881.

Becker and one Nathan Marks were arrested in Brooklyn, N.Y., on September 16, 1881, charged with counterfeiting a 1,000-franc note of the Bank of France. They lay in Raymond Street jail until October 3, 1881, when they were bailed by Justice Pratt, of Brooklyn, in the sum of $20,000. Becker was finally convicted and sentenced to six years and six months in the Kings County Penitentiary, December 14, 1881, for the 1,000-franc note forgery, by Judge Moore.

Becker, Elliott, and Chapman, after many professional exploits in America, England, and on the Continent, either tired of Europe, or else, having worked the European field to a perilous extent, sallied into Turkey. They did not counterfeit Turkish money, because it isn’t worth counterfeiting. Money that takes a hatful to pay for a drink is too debased for imitative genius to trifle with. Instead, the trio posed as travelers and victimized local banks with letters of credit, endorsed by somebody with a solid financial standing, and made encouraging progress until brought up with a round turn in Smyrna. Here they were locked up and convicted, getting three and a half years apiece. The following is a detailed account of Becker’s escape from the Constantinople concierge, in company of Joe Elliott and Siscovitch, obtained from Becker while confined in Kings County, N.Y., Penitentiary, on March 19, 1886, by a reporter, in presence of the warden:

Becker said, “The jail at Smyrna hadn’t anything but mud walls, and we’d have left it quick enough if we’d cared to. It was the country, not the jail, that held us. We couldn’t get out of the country. The authorities, lacking confidence in the jail, shipped us to Constantinople, where we were put into a prison of the old-fashioned sort, with walls four feet in thickness, solid cell doors and cast steel grate-bars an inch and a half square, and of this seclusion we soon tired. It chanced on the day we were convicted in Smyrna that Carlo Siscovitch was gathered in at Constantinople for working the very same game. Funny, wasn’t it, that there should have been another American in the same line? If he’d read the papers he’d have known that the art had ceased to be popular in Turkey, but he didn’t. The result was that we fell into each other’s company. When we got tired we began planning to get out.

And let me say here that the story about Chapman’s wife coming to our aid and we going off leaving her husband inside was all wrong, as well as the yarn that Elliott had murdered her because she made him trouble later in London; all wrong, the whole.”

Here Mr. Becker paused to chuckle intensely, and proceeded: “It wasn’t Chapman’s wife at all that came to our help, but it was the wife of Siscovitch. The ‘Dago?’ well, I never heard him called that. They call all Italians and Portuguese that, though, and he, in my opinion, was born in Trieste, or some Austro-Italian town. I knew him then as Howard Adams, or Charles Adams, something of the sort with an Adams in it, and as an American. His wife came and helped us out. It took a month, almost, before we could fix things. Did we leave Chapman inside? We did. There was good reason for it. He gave us away three times, and as we wanted to get out we didn’t include him in the fourth attempt.

The cell doors locked with top and bottom bolts, and though each had its key, there was a general key that fitted all of them. A key like that was useful, and it was by a mere accident that we got one. It happened one day that the prison marshal–they don’t have wardens there–came rushing in to have a prisoner sign some papers, and rushed out again, leaving his key sticking in the keyhole. It wasn’t very long before we had an impression of it, and it was back in the lock again.”

Here Mr. Becker’s emotions quite mastered him, and the innocent reporter’s query as to where he got his wax, added to his merriment until he was forced to extract a handkerchief from the basement of his zebra trousers and mildly smother himself. Then he explained kindly that wax wasn’t at all necessary, for soap or bread or anything soft that could hold together would answer just as well. Casually remarking that the prison was stronger than the Flatbush article, Mr. Becker continued: “After getting the shape of the key we had Mrs. Siscovitch bring us two blank keys, some little files, Turkish caps and three lanterns. She smuggled them in. You see you’ve got to carry a lantern if you’re going to travel in Constantinople. The streets are dark. Chapman, Elliott and I were in one cell. Siscovitch was in with some sailors around the corner of the corridor. I was the last man to be shut up at night. So when we were all ready, and had put enough rope where it was wanted, I slipped around and unlocked the door of Siscovitch’s apartment and then went back to be locked up. About midnight when the guards were snoring, he gets out and in turn unlocks our door. Chapman was asleep. Did we wake him? Not much. He’d have hollered murder if we had. We went out and steered at once for the store-room where our clothes were piled away–put there you know when we went in. We broke open the store-room, got our things, and then found our way into the yard and sized up the prison wall. It was forty-two feet high, but fortunately there was a grating over the arching of the gate and our rope was ready. We boosted little Elliott up on the arch way, and as luck would have it he stepped on the wire of the prison bell leading into the room where the keeper’s head clerk slept, and set it to jingling in a way that froze us stiff. The jig looked up if ever it did. We’d had lots of fun with that bell. The wire ran under the cell window on its way, and we used to hitch a bent pin to a string and fooled him many times by setting her to going.”

Here Mr. Becker’s emotions again brought salt water to his eyes, as his memory bore him back to the clanging bell and the deceived and wrathful Ottoman officeholder. When he overcame them he went on: “It was lucky we had fooled him in that way so often. If the bell woke him up he concluded it was another joke and went to sleep again. We waited fifteen minutes for somebody to come and catch us, and then went at it again. The rope was weighted with a piece of wood, and we threw it over the wall to catch it at the grating, and by fastening it there were able to climb to the top. There was enough rope beside the loop to reach to the ground, and down it we scrambled to run into more trouble. We woke up right away about sixty Mohammedan dogs, who had been snoozing peacefully in the shadow of the wall. I never heard curs bark louder; but they brought no one. Sliding down the rope Elliott dropped the matches and we couldn’t light the lanterns. All three of us got down on the ground and hunted. By-and-by we found one brimstone splinter, and lighted up. The dogs stopped howling then. They do not howl at people who are properly illuminated, and we traveled on to find the apartments which Mrs. Siscovitch had engaged.

While hunting around we heard the rapping of watchmen’s night sticks and dropped into an all night cafe filled with Greeks, where a band was playing, had some coffee, and stayed until morning. Half-a-dozen of the watch came in, but they did not know us. We were pretty well disguised and topped off with fezzes. Finally we got settled with Mrs. Siscovitch, but one day she glanced out of the window and saw the cavasse or interpreter from the American consulate, and the porter who had brought her baggage to the place, staring straight at the house; then we knew they were after us, and didn’t wait five minutes. We went out and hired a cab, not knowing which way to go, but telling the man to take us toward the English Cemetery. There we stopped at a cafe, and were sitting about our wine wondering what had better next be done, when a man came up who had seen Siscovitch tried. He knew us!”

Here Mr. Becker looked grateful, and professing not to know the obliging gentleman’s name continued: “He took us to his home and took care of us for two months. I sent Elliott to England after some money I had there, and when it came we went to London also. We made our friend a good present and he saw us safe over the border.”

The warden asked what inducement this man, presumably a Greek, had for his extraordinary benevolence. Mr. Becker said he didn’t know, but guessed he did it out of natural sympathy. They promised him a good present, though, and gave it to him. That was all. With a confidence in humanity shaken by five years of prison care, the warden shook his head, but Becker only smiled and began to wind up his story:

“Mrs. Siscovitch was arrested and held a while, but got off and rejoined her husband in London. I gave them funds to get to America and supposed they had gone; hoped so, for I did not like the fellow. Both Elliott and I went to board with Mrs. Chapman. I’d known her for years, and Elliott had left his things with her before going into the Orient. Didn’t she feel mad at our leaving her husband in the crib? Not at all. She knew what he was; he’d no courage. His giving us away was to earn commutation time.

Now about the story of her murder: I hadn’t been there long before who should turn up but Siscovitch and his wife, seeking lodgings, with a letter of introduction to Mrs. Chapman from an American friend. I left them. I didn’t trust him. Elliott had left before. He was somewhere in Germany and I in Paris, two months afterward, when we heard she was killed, and both came right back to London to testify if need be. When the jury found that she might have died of heart disease, and that if poisoned there was no sign of it, we came back to America, and I guess my story from that time on is pretty well known.”

Again Mr. Becker chuckled softly to say: “Do I think she was murdered? I hardly know. Where was Siscovitch? Well, he left her house either the day before or ten minutes before she died. I shall always think he took her jewels and perhaps more. She had plenty of money in the house and some in the Post-office Bank. I know this, for I paid her eighty pounds, Elliott as much more, and she had two other gentlemen boarders. She often offered to help me out if I needed it. What makes me think he took her jewelry is that a friend of mine met him a year or so later in the Bowery, New York, loaded down with rings and pins. I doubt if she was murdered, though. She’d suffered from heart disease for years, and if she was murdered, the doctors said at the inquest, she couldn’t have lived twenty-four hours longer, any way.”

Since Becker’s confinement in the Kings County (N.Y.) Penitentiary he has made a bold but unsuccessful attempt to escape. See records of No. i6 and George Wilkes. Becker’s picture is a good one, taken in 1877.