#70 Edward Lyons

Edward Lyons (Abt. 1839-1906?), aka Ned Lyons, Alexander Cummings — Sneak thief, pickpocket, bank robber, green goods operator

From Byrnes’s 1886 edition:

DESCRIPTION. Forty-seven years old in 1886. Born in England. Married. Stout build. Height, about 5 feet 8 inches. Weight, about 180 pounds. Hair inclined to be sandy. Wears it long, covering the ears, one of which (the left one) has the top off. Wears a very heavy reddish mustache. Bald on front of head, forming a high forehead.
RECORD. Ned Lyons was born in Manchester, England, in 1839; came to America in 1850. His father had hard work to make both ends meet and look after his children, and in consequence young Ned had things pretty much his own way. They lived in West Nineteenth Street, New York City, a neighborhood calculated to develop whatever latent powers Ned possessed. The civil war, with its attractions in the shape of bounties, etc., proved a bonanza while it lasted, and after that Ned loomed up more prominently under the tuition of Jimmy Hope (20). He was afterwards a partner of Hope’s, and was arrested several times, but never convicted.
In 1869 Lyons, Hope, Bliss, Shinborn, and others, robbed the Ocean Bank, of New York, of money and bonds amounting to over a million of dollars. The bank was situated on the corner of Fulton and Greenwich streets. A basement directly underneath was hired, ostensibly as an exchange. To this office tools were carried, and a partition erected, between which the burglars worked day and night, when opportunity served, cutting up through the stone floor of the bank, and gaining an entrance on Saturday night, after the janitor had left. To tear open the vaults was a task requiring time; but they operated so well, that on Monday morning the iron front door of the bank was found unlocked, the vault literally torn to pieces, and the floor strewn with the debris of tools, mortar, stone, bricks, bonds, and gold coin — the bonds being left behind as worthless, and the gold coin as too heavy.
A few years before this robbery Lyons married a young Jewess, named Sophie Elkins, alias Levy (128), protegee of Mrs. Mandlebaum. Her mania for stealing was so strong that when in Ned’s company in public she plied her vocation unknown to him, and would surprise him with watches, etc., which she had stolen. Ned expostulated, pleaded with, and threatened her, but without avail; and after the birth of her first child, George (who, by the way, has just finished his second term for burglary in the State Reformatory at Elmira, N.Y.), Ned purchased a farm on Long Island, and furnished a house with everything a woman could wish for, thinking her maternal instinct would restrain her monomania; yet within six months she returned to New York, placed her child out to nurse, and began her operations again, finally being detected and sentenced to Blackwell’s Island.
Early in the winter of 1870 Lyons, in connection with Jimmy Hope, George Bliss, Ira Kingsland, and a well known Trojan, rifled the safe of the Waterford (N.Y.) Bank, securing $150,000. Lyons, Kingsland and Bliss were arrested, and sentenced to Sing Sing prison. Hope was shortly after arrested for a bank robbery in Wyoming County, and sentenced to five years in State prison at Auburn, N.Y., on November 28, 1870. He escaped from there in January, 1873.
Lyons escaped from Sing Sing in a wagon on December 4, 1872. About two weeks after Ned’s escape (December 19, 1872), he, in company of another person, drove up in the night-time to the female prison that was then on the hill at Sing Sing. One of them, under pretense of bringing a basket of fruit to a sick prisoner, rang the bell; whereupon, by a pre-concerted arrangement, Sophie, his wife, who had been sent there on October 9, 1871, for five years, rushed out, jumped into the carriage, and was driven away.
They both went to Canada, where Ned robbed the safe of a pawnbroker, securing $20,000 in money and diamonds, and returned to New York, where their four children had been left — the eldest at school, the younger ones in an orphanage.
About this time (September, 1874) the bank at Wellsboro, Pa., was robbed. Lyons was strongly suspected of complicity, with George Mason and others, in this robbery. Although Sophie and Ned were escaped convicts, they succeeded in evading arrest for a long time.
Both of them were finally arrested at the Suffolk County (L.I.) Fair, at Riverhead, in the first week in October, 1876, detected in the act of picking pockets. Two weeks later he was tried in the Court of Sessions of Suffolk County, L.I., found guilty, and sentenced to three years and seven months in State prison, by Judge Barnard.
Sophie was discharged, re-arrested on October 29, 1876, by a detective, and returned to Sing Sing prison to finish out her time. Lyons had on his person when arrested at Riverhead $13,000 of good railroad bonds.
In 1869 Lyons had a street fight with the notorious Jimmy Haggerty, of Philadelphia (who was afterwards killed by Reddy the Blacksmith, in Eagan’s saloon, corner Houston Street and Broadway). During the melee Haggerty succeeded in biting off the greater portion of Lyons’ left ear.
On October 24, 1880, shortly after Ned’s release from prison, in a drunken altercation, he was shot at the Star and Garter saloon on Sixth Avenue, New York City, by Hamilton Brock, better known as “Ham Brock,” a Boston sporting man. Brock fired two shots, one striking Lyons in the jaw and the other in the body. Lyons was arrested again on July 31, 1881, in the act of breaking into the store of J. B. Johnson, at South Windham, Conn. He pleaded guilty in the Windam County Superior Court, on September 14, 1881, and was sentenced to three years in State prison at Wethersfield, Conn. At the time of his arrest in this case he was badly shot. That he is now alive, after having a hole put through his body, besides a ball in the back, embedded nine inches, seems almost a miracle.
Upon the expiration of Ned’s sentence in Connecticut, in April, 1884, he was rearrested, and taken to Springfield, Mass., to answer to an indictment charging him with a burglary at Palmer, Mass., on the night of July 27, 1881. Four days before he was shot at South Windham, Lyons, with two companions, entered the post-office and drug store of G. L. Hitchcock, and carried away the contents of the money-drawer and a quantity of gold pens, etc. They also took a safe out of the store, carried it a short distance out of the village, broke it open, and took some things valued at $350 from it. In this case Lyons was sentenced to three years in State prison on May 29, 1884. His picture was taken while he was asleep at the hospital in Connecticut, in 1881.
From Byrnes’s 1895 edition:
After Lyons’ release from the Massachusetts State Prison, he went West and was arrested at Kent, 0., on June 10, 1887, in company of Shang Campbell (see No. 107) and Ned Lyman (see No. 102), two other well-known eastern thieves, charged with robbing a passenger on a railway train near Kent, Portage Co., 0., on June 10, 1887. Lyons and Lyman were sentenced to five years imprisonment in the penitentiary at Columbus, 0., on September 4, I887. Shang Campbell gave bail and forfeited it. Since Lyons’ release he has been engaged in the “green goods” business, making his head quarters near Perth Amboy, N.J.

Nearly all of Ned Lyon’s criminal career took place within the epic melodrama that had at its center his one-time wife, Sophie Lyons. Her story, involving not only Ned, but her other erstwhile husbands: Maury Harris, Jim Brady and Billy Burke; not to mention other notable friends and lovers, involves a huge swath of American criminal history. She was more than a notable member of the underworld community, she was one of its foremost chroniclers.

Sophie never honestly told her own story, and her criminal reminiscences were only infrequently based on her own recollections, and otherwise relied on other sources (like Byrnes’s Professional Criminals of America), and a large dose of fabrication. A full, accurate, well-researched biography of Sophie’s life has never been published, but it may not be long before one appears.
Because any long-overdue study of Sophie Lyons will cover the major events of Ned’s criminal career–and Byrnes mentions most of them–put those aside and consider two parts of Ned’s life that are likely to defy definitive research: his origins and his death. According to different reports, Ned was born in America, Ireland, England, or Scotland; and grew up in New York City or Boston. Fortunately, starting in 1856, Lyons left a long trail of shoplifting and pickpocket arrests in Boston–which also point back to Lowell, Massachusetts, where a few articles believe Lyons was raised. He was often caught with a pal named Michael Sullivan. The 1850 census shows a boy Edward Lyons, 11, living in Lowell with his mother Bridget. Born were listed as having been born in Ireland.

By 1858, Lyons was moving between Boston and New York to avoid arrests, and had already served more than one term in Boston’s House of Corrections. When the Civil War broke out, he set aside his career as a pickpocket to join the more lucrative venture of army recruitment bounty fraud, joining other thieves who congregated at Robert “Whitey Bob” White’s saloon at 104 Prince Street. There Lyons was mentored by the likes of Tom Bigelow, Dan Barron, and Dan Noble. It was during this period–the end of 1864 and into 1865–that Lyons met Sophie, who had just given up on her short marriage to pickpocket Morris Harris.
Skipping ahead to Lyons’s sad final years, in October 1904 he was spotted by detectives on a street in Buffalo, New York, and arrested on suspicion. He said he had been living in Buffalo for the past six months. They held him until they sent out a notice to the Pinkerton agency and to major metropolitan police departments asking if he was currently wanted; but he was not, so he was released.
In January 1906, Lyons was arrested in Toronto, Ontario under the alias Alexander Cummings. He was accused by James Tierney of Brooklyn of working a “green goods” con, in which Lyons was well-versed. Ned had run a successful green goods operation out of Perth Amboy, New Jersey, in the mid 1890s, until its operations were exposed by New York’s Lexow Committee on corruption.
Once Toronto authorities had captured Lyons, Mr. Tierney came from Brooklyn to identify him as he languished in jail. When Tierney was shown into his cell, Lyons smiled, extended his hand, and said, “Shake with me.”
“Never. I could see you die in jail,” hissed Tierney, drawing back. “You know the turn you did me. I am only a poor man, drawing $14 a week, but I would go to the ends of the earth to see you punished.”
Lyons himself was likely poorer than his victim. His clothes were shabby; his hair was now snow white. He suffered the lingering effects of bullets left in his body, and years of wear from confinement in State prisons. Despite Tierney’s testimony, no evidence existed to convict Lyons, so he was discharged and told to leave the province in February 1906.
Less than a year later, in January 1907, a short notice in a Chicago paper mentioned that Lyons had passed away the previous year in New York’s Bellevue hospital and had been buried in a potter’s field. However, no death record dated 1906 has surfaced. There is a May 22, 1907 New York City death record for an Edward Lyons, but no confirmation that this was Ned.

#11 John Larney

John Larney (1836?-19??), aka Mollie or Molly Matches, et al. — Pickpocket, Bank Burglar

From Byrnes’s text:

DESCRIPTION. Forty-seven years old in 1886. Born in United States. Married. No trade. Stout build. Height, 5 feet 7 inches. Weight, 160 pounds. Brown hair, hazel eyes. Wears a No. 7 shoe, and generally wears a full dark beard. He has two upper teeth out on right side; also a small India-ink mark between thumb and forefinger of left hand. Straight nose. Part of an anchor on one arm.

RECORD. “Mollie Matches,” or John Larney, which is his right name, although a talented thief, was always an outspoken one. He makes his home in Cleveland, O.; wears fine clothes, which is his weakness; seldom indulges in liquor, never to excess; he has an aversion to tobacco. When he settled down in Cleveland, in 1875, he said he was going to live honestly if the police would let him. For some reason or another he failed to do so. The great fault with Mollie was the freedom with which he talked of his affairs, to which failing he ultimately owed his downfall.

The act that made Larney notorious and gave him his alias was on the occasion of a large celebration in New York City, when he was a boy. He disguised himself as a match girl, and, basket in hand, mingled with the crowds in the streets. Being slight in form and having delicate features, the boy had no difficulty in carrying out the deception. His day’s work, it is said, netted him over $2,000, and the nickname of “Mollie Matches.” During the war Mollie attained great eminence as a bounty jumper. He says that he enlisted in ninety-three Ohio, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and New York regiments.

Being of a frugal disposition, and having an eye to comfort in his old age, he invested in property in Toronto and Silver Creek, Canada, which he still holds under the name of John Dolan. Later he bought real estate in Cleveland, O. Mollie Matches has become pretty well known all over the United States. At the age of thirty-three years he had served eleven years in various reformatories and penal institutions, and was still indebted twelve years’ time to others from which he had escaped. He still owes six years to a Massachusetts State prison where he was sentenced to for seven years. He staid there just nine months; he had the freedom of the jail-yard on account of his eyesight failing him; he finally recovered his liberty and eyesight both.

About seven years after his escape he was again sent to the same prison, which was in Salem, and served a sixteen months’ sentence without being recognized. The adventures through which this man passed are wonderful. He is believed to have realized by his tricks about $150,000, a large portion of which he has paid out lately to lawyers. Mollie was convicted at Galesburg, Ill., for robbing the Farmers’ and Mechanics’ Bank of that city, and was sentenced to ten years in State prison at Joliet, Ill., on July 17, 1882. At a trial in Cleveland, O., on January 14, 1885, the above bank obtained a judgment of $12,000 against Mollie. An associate of his, Eddie Guerin, testified on this trial as follows:

“After I had concluded that the Galesburg Bank was an easy one to work, I sent for ‘Mollie Matches’ and two others. They agreed with me. One of them went to a neighboring town and hired a horse and wagon containing a large dry goods box. We hitched the team near the bank about noon. ‘Mollie’ watched the president and treasurer go out of the bank, and immediately entered it and went to the cashier and proceeded to buy a New York draft, with small silver, making much noise. Another man stood near by holding up a paper that screened the third man, who sneaked in and took $9,600 off the desk alongside the cashier, while Mollie was arguing with him about the draft. Mollie admitted to the cashier that he had made a mistake as to the amount of money he had with him, and gathering up what he had, said he would go for some more.”

Once outside, the ‘look-out,’ the sneak and Mollie (the ‘stall’) jumped into the wagon, and were driven by the fourth man to the railroad depot, and all escaped.

It was months afterwards that Mollie was arrested in Cincinnati, O., on December 21, 1881, and taken back to Galesburg for trial. His picture is a fair one, although a copy.

John Larney, known better as “Molly Matches,” was perhaps the most well-known American pickpocket of the nineteenth century. Chief Byrnes’ account of his career is basically correct, but four years earlier, in 1882, the Cleveland Leader published its own biographical account of Larney’s origins that is richer in detail (and likely more accurate):


John Larney/Mollie Matches. Illustration by David Birkey http://cargocollective.com/dbillustration

Following the Civil War (in which he admirably enlisted–by his count–93 times in order to receive the bounties), Larney settled in Cleveland, Ohio, and bought some property under the name John Dolan. He married a Cleveland woman, Mary Sullivan, in August 1866. He opened a saloon, but most of his income came from long-distance pickpocket tours. He knew every technique of working crowds, train stations, seaside resorts, fairs, passenger steamers…anyplace people jostled together. Often, Larney directed a team that worked in conjunction with one another: one creating a distraction, one stalling the victim with a bump or misdirection, another dipping into pockets or purses, and another cruising quickly past to take the purloined property from the “dip.” But in a pinch, Larney could work alone.

Chief Byrnes points out that Larney was a versatile criminal, as witnessed by his involvement in a robbery by sneak thieves of a bank in Galesburg, Illinois in July, 1879. The gang included Jimmy “Nosy Jones” Carroll (aka “Red-Headed Jimmy”), Patrick”Paddy” Guerin, and Billy Burke (a husband of Sophie Lyons). With the spoils, Larney bought property in Canada under the name “John Dolan,” and while there also decided to acquire a second wife, Catharine Flight.

During the period around 1879-1880, there’s an anecdote about Larney that demonstrates one of his talents:


Examples of the different looks of Molly Matches can be found in Grannan’s pocket guide to criminals:

Larney was tracked down for the Galesburg robbery in 1881–which precipitated his divorce from Mary Sullivan–and in 1882 was sent to Joliet on a ten-year sentence. With time reduced, he was freed in the fall of 1888.

He returned briefly to Cleveland before embarking on a pickpocket tour of Ontario with his friend Joe Dubuque. He was arrested in Toronto, but turned loose for lack of evidence. He returned to Ohio, only to be nabbed for plying his skills in Ashtabula County in mid-1889. That slip sent Larney to the Ohio State Penitentiary from 1889 to 1892.

After this release from prison, Larney returned to Ontario; in Toronto he was arrested for fleecing an English gentleman–not by picking his pockets–but by running a con game. Escaping a serious sentence, Larney invaded Vermont and was caught picking pockets in Burlington, Vermont, in 1894. This resulted in a prison term of four years.

Upon his release in 1898, Larney went back to Canada and was arrested for picking pockets; but while detained, officials there realized that the old bigamy charge against Larney had never been resolved, so he was sent to St.-Vincent-de-Paul Penitentiary on a seven-year sentence, which with reduced time allowed him freedom by 1904.

Molly Matches was now about sixty-eight years old; ten years earlier, authorities thought that he was too old to pick pockets. Nonetheless, Larney teamed up with an even older criminal, known by the aliases “W. H. Bankhard,” “Joseph Brown,” and “W. H. Brown,” and “William Phillips.” [None of these names match notorious criminals; could it have been the infamous Chicago pickpocket, Cabbage Ryan? Or Joe Dubuque?] They also recruited some younger accomplices, and set out on a pickpockets’ tour. They were arrested together in York, Pennsylvania; but were soon released.

The old pickpockets then traveled across the country to Southern California, with the object of hitting fairs, funerals, and passengers trains going up the Pacific coast. Starting around Christmas, 1904, along with two young assistants they were responsible for a string of reported robberies on passengers on trains and at streetcar depots between San Diego and Los Angeles. They were briefly detained, but on release hit the crowds at the funeral of Jane Lathrop Stanford.

The gang passed through San Francisco on their way to Portland, where the Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition was underway. Police now had matched the descriptions of the Los Angeles detainees and knew that Larney was leading the gang. Alerts appeared in papers in San Francisco, San Jose, Portland, and Tacoma. By the time the four men arrived in Tacoma, detectives were ready for them. They were arrested on suspicion, and the news was blared on page one:


Larney took the setback in stride, and appeared jaunty and healthy when posed for his picture, sporting a white goatee and a captain’s hat:


Larney, with or without his companions, left Tacoma and was back east by August, 1905. He was picked up by Philadelphia detectives who had chased him to Somers Point, near Atlantic City, New Jersey. That was his final known misadventure.