#56 George F. Affleck

George Afflick (Abt 1847-19??), aka Charles W. Affleck, George H. Holt, George Adams, George Davis, George E. Wilson, Kid Affleck, etc. — Confidence man

From Byrnes’s text:
DESCRIPTION. Thirty-eight years old in 1886. Stout build. Height, 5 feet 7 inches. Weight, about 150 pounds. Born in United States. Married. Says he is a shoemaker. Dark hair, light blue eyes. Dark, sallow complexion. Wears light-colored mustache. Has a scar on his left cheek.
RECORD. Kid Affleck is a noted confidence man, having been arrested in several Eastern cities. His favorite hunting-ground was along the docks in New York City, where he was arrested several times, plying his vocation. He is also well known in Boston, Mass., and Providence, R.I., where he has worked around the railroad depots and steamboat landings with Plinn White (now dead), Dave Swain, and his old partner, Allen. He has served time in prison in Boston, Philadelphia, and New York, other than what is mentioned below. He cannot be called a first-class man, still he manages to obtain considerable money.
His victims are usually old men. He works generally with Old Man Allen (alias Pop White).
Affleck was arrested in New York City on March 7, 1883, with Old Man Allen, who gave the name of James Adams, charged with robbing an old man named Jesse Williams, at the Broad Street Railroad depot in Philadelphia, of a satchel containing $7,000, on March 5, 1883. Shortly after this robbery Affleck’s wife, Carrie, deposited $1,000 in two New York Savings banks — $500 in each. This was part of the stolen money. He was delivered to the Philadelphia officers, and taken there, where, by an extraordinary turn of luck, he got off with a sentence of eight months in the Eastern Penitentiary on March 30, 1883. Williams, who was robbed by Affleck, recovered about $1,000 of his $7,000, and made his way to South Bend, Ind., his old home, where he died of grief on October 29, 1883, having lost all he had saved for the last twenty years.
Affleck was arrested again in Central Park, New York City, on Sunday, March 21, 1886, and gave the name of George E. Wilson. He was in company of James Morgan, alias Harris, another notorious confidence man. They were charged with swindling Christopher Lieh, of Brush Station, Weld County, Col., out of sixty dollars, by the confidence game. They both pleaded guilty, and were sentenced to two years and six months each in State prison on March 24, 1886, by Judge Gildersleeve, in the Court of General Sessions, New York City.
This clever rogue has been traveling around the country for some time, swindling people, and the community is well rid of him. His picture is a good one, taken in 1883.
George Afflick’s nickname, “Kid,” was given to him by the men with whom he first worked: Chicago Police detectives. In 1862, at age 14 or 15, Affleck had been recruited from the streets to help the police:
By 1866, when he was still 18 or 19, the “Kid” was hailed as “Detective George Afflick” and was credited with tracking down burglars and street fighters. Then, in 1867, at age 20, he left Chicago and headed east to New York City.
George got married to a girl from Canada, Carrie Durick, and by 1870 had a son, Charles. The 1870 census listed his vocation as “ticket agent,” but George later admitted that he turned to crime as soon as he left Chicago. George was sharp enough and experienced enough to choose the avenue of crime he could follow, and opted for confidence work, which often targeted the weakness certain men had for greed and arrogance.
George often worked the passenger terminals of the docks of eastern cities with older, more experienced con artists, like James “Pop” White, Hod Bacon, and the swindler, Plinn White.
One of George’s big scores was the 1883 theft of a $7000 bag of gold coins from an Indiana farmer, Jesse W. Jennings (who, no one realized, was running from his own legal problems). The story of that incident is related in the entry for James White.
Though careful, George was outwitted by the New York Police. The New York Times described both the crime and its undoing:
When arrested and brought to the Central Station, George was interviewed by detectives and asked what his business was. “I steal for a living,” answered George. He was sent to Sing Sing as a consequence of this arrest.
In 1904, after an arrest in Baltimore, Afflick was sent to prison for two years in Maryland. He and a partner had worked the same con as described above. In 1907, he was caught in Brooklyn, once again playing a con game that preyed upon departing ship passengers.

By that time, police detectives were surprised that an old man of 60-years was still up to his old tricks. George had little to lose: his son was grown and earning his own honest living; and his two daughters had died as young adults.

#12 Edward Rice

Ed Rice (18??-19??), aka Albert C. Moore, William H. Moore, J. B. Brown, “Big Rice,” etc. — Sneak thief, stall, confidence man

From Byrnes’ text:

DESCRIPTION. Forty-eight years old in 1886. Stout build. Height, 5 feet 10 inches. Weighty about 180 pounds. A fine, large, well-built man. Very gentlemanly appearance. Born in United States. Married. Brown hair, light brown beard, light complexion.

RECORD. Big Rice, as he is familiarly called, is well known in all the principal cities in the United States. He is a very clever general thief, a good “stall,” confidence man and “pennyweight” and hotel worker. He has traveled from the Atlantic to the Pacific at the expense of others, and has served at least twenty years in State prison during his life, ten years of which was in one sentence. Rice, in 1870, was implicated in a bank robbery in Halifax, N.S., with Horace Hovan and another man; the latter two were arrested, and Rice escaped and finally sent back the $20,000 stolen from the bank vault, and Hovan and the other man were discharged.

Rice was arrested in New York City, on April 24, 1878, for complicity in the robbery of the National Bank of Cambridgeport, Mass., which occurred in September, 1877. He gave the name of Albert C. Moore. He was discharged in New York City on April 31, 1878, the Governor of Massachusetts refusing to grant a requisition for him. He was immediately arrested by the Sheriff of New York on a civil process, the bank having commenced a civil action against him for the recovery of the money stolen from the bank, about $12,000. On May 8, 1878, Judge Pratt, of Brooklyn, N.Y., vacated the order of arrest and removed the attachment off his house on Thirteenth Street, Brooklyn, N.Y., and he was discharged. He was at once arrested on a requisition from Massachusetts, one having been obtained during his confinement on the civil charge, and he was taken to Cambridgeport, Mass., for trial, which never came off, on account of there not being sufficient evidence to convict him. Rice was also charged with robbing the Lechmere National Bank of East Cambridge of $50,000, on Saturday, March 16, 1878. When arrested he had in his possession a number of United States bonds of $1,000, and a bogus check for $850.

Ed. Rice, Joe Dubuque, and a party named Frank Stewart were arrested in Rochester, N.Y., on April 29, 1881, by officers from Detroit, Mich., charged with having early in April, 1881, stolen $728 worth of diamonds and jewelry from a jewelry store in that city. They were also charged with the larceny of $5,000 in money from the banking-house of Fisher, Preston & Co., of that city, in July, 1880. Rice was taken back to Detroit on a requisition, when an additional charge was made against him of complicity in the robbery of the First National Bank. He was bailed out in September, 1881, and forfeited it.

He was re-arrested in Syracuse, N.Y., in July, 1885, and taken back to Detroit, and in an effort to save himself from punishment in this case, he accused one Joseph Harris, who was keeping a saloon in Chicago, of it. Harris was arrested in Chicago, on July 29, 1885, and taken to Detroit for trial. Rice was discharged after an examination by a magistrate on September 1, 1885. He was arrested again on a requisition from Ohio the same day, but discharged in a few days on a writ of habeas corpus. Rice was arrested again in Boston, Mass., on June 11, 1886, where he had just arrived from Canada, and delivered to the Cincinnati police authorities, who wanted him for a burglary committed in that city in the fall of 1883. Paddy Guerin, who was with him in this burglary, was arrested and sentenced to four years in State prison. Rice’s picture is a very good one.

Chief Byrnes’ recital of “Big Rice’s” career refers again (as he did with Horace Hovan) to the Halifax bank robbery; but once again gives the incorrect date of 1870. That robbery took place in July, 1876. Byrnes (and other sources) also mention that Rice had been imprisoned twice before 1878, and that one of those was a ten-year sentence (presumably in New York State). However, all facts about those imprisonments–and everything else before 1876–remain a mystery. Likewise, Ed’s real name is a cipher. On several occasions he gave variations of the name Moore: Albert C. Moore, Edward Moore, William H. Moore, etc.; but at Sing Sing they believed his real name to be Edward C. Rice. He left a long trail under the name Edward Rice, including many years’ residence in Detroit, Michigan.


In 1880, Ed told the census he was 33 years old (born abt. 1847); but at his sentencing in 1897, he claimed to be 63 (born abt. 1836). On two separate occasions he said he was born in Ohio (Hamilton County) to parents who had come from Virginia. In 1880, he lived in Detroit with a 28-year-old wife, Kate, from Massachusetts. In 1896, the Detroit Free Press noted that he was stopping in town briefly to attend to his daughter’s grave at Elmwood Cemetery–but no Rice or Moore girl who had died in that decade can be found. So while there are many clues that a genealogist can trace, so far none have led to a firmer identification.

Rice and his wife lived in Detroit (and likely also had a place across the river in Ontario) from about 1879-1889, about the same period when several other professional criminal were living there: Tom Bigelow, Louise Jourdan (Farley), Sophie Lyons, Billy Burke, etc. The community of crooks in residence was large enough–and familiar with each other enough–to enforce a code among themselves not to commit any heavy crime in that city. If they did, chances are that one or more of them would be arrested upon suspicion, and perhaps even railroaded on a conviction.

The Detroit Free Press noted this peculiar truce:


After the publication of Chief Byrnes’s book in 1886; and in conjunction with much more securely designed bank lobbies and procedures, “sneak thieves” like Rice, Billy Burke, Horace Hovan, Rufus Minor, George Carson, etc. found it much hard to work in the United States. Ed. Rice made forays into Canada; and with Horace Hovan made a thieves’ tour of Europe in the early 1890s.

In 1897, he attempted to pass a forged check in New York for little more than pocket change, and was tried and sentenced to Sing Sing for ten years (as a repeat offender). Upon his release, Rice scrounged for a living. He went to Chicago and took an honest, though disreputable job–as a scab driver during a teamsters strike.


In 1913, Rice and his lifelong friend Horace Hovan decided to make one last thieving tour of Europe. Rice was in his seventies, and Hovan in his sixties. Their adventure ended predictably:



Ed. Rice’s fate following the arrest in Munich is not known.

#10 Isaac Vail

Isaac S. Vail (1835-1905), aka Old Ike — Confidence Man, Pickpocket

From Byrnes’ text:

DESCRIPTION. Fifty-one years old in 1886. Born in United States. Married. Slim build. Height, 5 feet 11 inches. Weight, 178 pounds. Gray hair, brown eyes, light complexion, gray whiskers. Generally wears a goatee. A tall, thin, gentlemanly-looking man.

RECORD. Ike Vail is well known from Maine to California. Of late years he has confined himself to the eastern cities, and the confidence man may be seen almost any morning around railroad depots or steamboat landings in search of victims. He has done service in several prisons, and his history would fill an ordinary-sized book. I will simply give one or two of his later convictions, to assist in convicting him should he fall into the meshes of the law again.

Vail was arrested in New York City on February 20, 1880, for swindling one Levi P. Thompson, a Justice of Peace of Evensville, Minn., out of $60, by the confidence game. He pleaded guilty in this case, in the Court of General Sessions, New York City, and was sentenced to eighteen months in State prison by Judge Cowing, on February 26, 1880. Vail was arrested several times afterwards in Boston, New York, and other cities, and again in New York City on August 30, 1885, for attempting to ply his vocation on the steamer Glasgow, lying at Pier 20, North River. For this offense he was sentenced to six months in the penitentiary on Blackwell’s Island, on a complaint of vagrancy, as he had obtained no money from his victim. He was, however, discharged by Judge Van Brunt in the Supreme Court, on a writ on September 4, 1885. Vail’s picture is an excellent one, taken in 1880.

Isaac S. Vail was born on September 20, 1835, to a successful farming family, his parents being Joseph and Sarah Ann Vail of Hughsonville, New York (near Fishkill in Dutchess County). According to Isaac, he left home at age fifteen because his father refused to send him to school. Isaac drifted west across the state to Niagara Falls, where he found work as a hostler (stable lad) of the Table Rock House, which overlooked the Horseshoe Falls. One night in January, 1856, when he was twenty years old, Isaac went out drinking with some friends. They journeyed from tavern to tavern, getting increasingly drunk. On their return to the stable bunk office, he and his two companions started to argue; one of then, John Ryan, attacked Vail. Vail grabbed a stick and beat Ryan off, cracking his skull. Ryan died from the injury.

Vail was not convicted of murder, having acted in self-defense; but he did lose his job, and later found work as a railroad brakeman. He came into contact with men leading transient life-styles, one of whom he named as Old John King, “the founder of modern swindling.” [Either’s King’s fame was very limited, or Vail chose to assign this as an alias–other references to a famed confidence man named John King have not been found.] From “Old John King”, Isaac Vail learned the various scams used by confidence men of that time. By the mid-1860s, Isaac Vail started to be recognized as a professional con artist.


By later standards, Ike Vail was a grifter–a practitioner of “small cons,” meant to separate the victim from his ready cash quickly; and requiring no skilled partners or no partners at all. In a pinch, he would cut to the chase and simply pickpocket his victim. Over the decades from the 1860s through the 1880s, Ike was credited with inventing many standard scams, including: “the lottery game,” “the checks game,” “the send game,” and “the prize package”; all of these were forerunners of the “gold brick” and “green goods” games that dominated the 1880s and 1890s.

In 1888, the New York World published an account of one of Ike’s scams and his arrest that typified his modus operandi:


The same characteristics that helped to hoodwink his victims: his fine dress, tall frame, and well-spoken diction–also served to stand out his presence to police. In 1903, at age 67, he complained to an interviewer:

“It’s an easy thing for young fellows starting in to graft as compared to the old timers. Nobody knows them as professionals and if they are caught at all, they stand a good show of beating the case. Of course, practice in any profession makes perfect, but what is the use of it when you face gets to be  as well-known as the Astor House or any other old landmark?…with the years, my circle of acquaintances has gradually widened until now you can find my photograph in nearly every city from Maine to ‘Frisco. I’m an easy mark for the cops once they get my description,  because of the two moles between my eyebrows. There’s no way of disguising them and they seem to grow more prominent every year. Another thing: while my appearance is in my favor among strangers in New York or Boston, I am too distinguished in appearance not to attract attention in most other towns.

“Another thing: there’s more science in graft now than there used to be, and we old fellows are behind the times. The young men have new schemes that are more attractive than anything we can offer…The young men have the nerve and the confidence, that have grown weaker in the old men with every arrest and prison sentence. Many of their schemes are so clever that the law can’t touch them, and they generally work in bunches.”

It is startling to hear a con-man speak the word “confidence” in relation to the attitude of the swindler, not the credulity of the victim–and moreover to admit that he, as an aging confidence artist, had lost some of that quality.

Two years later, in 1905, Ike had lost the ability to support himself, and asked a nephew living in the Bronx for shelter. Ike died in his nephew’s house, and his body was conveyed back to Dutchess County. Isaac S. Vail was buried in the same plot as his parents, and his name appears on the same memorial stone alongside the father that spurned his son’s desire to be educated.


#100 Edward Lillie

Edward Lilly (Abt. 1822-1894), aka Big Ned Lilly, Ed Lillie, Joseph Morgan, Edward Walsh, etc. — Sneak Thief, Confidence Man

From Byrnes’s text:

DESCRIPTION. Sixty-five years old in 1886. Born in United States. Sailmaker. Married. Slim build. Height, 6 feet i inch. Weight, 166 pounds. Black hair, turning quite gray; gray eyes. Wears a gray chin whisker. Has a sloop and owl in India ink on right arm ; spots of ink on left arm.

RECORD. Ed. Lillie is one of the most notorious confidence operators in America. He does not confine himself to that particular branch of the business, as he has done service for forgery and robbing boarding-houses. He is known in a number of the large cities of the United States and Canada, and is considered a very clever man.

He was arrested in New York City on November 25, 1876, under the name of James H. Potter, charged with purchasing from George C. Flint, of West Fourteenth Street, New York City, $600 worth of furniture, and giving him in payment therefor a worthless check for $750 on the National Bank of Newburg, N.Y. The bank’s certification on the check was forged, and he received $150 in change. In this case Lillie pleaded guilty, and was sentenced to two years and six months in State prison, on February 2, 1877, by Judge Gildersleeve.

He was arrested again in New York City on July 28, 1879, in company of one John Hill, alias Dave Mooney (173), charged by Mrs. Lydell, who kept a boarding-houSe at No. 46 South Washington Square, with entering the room of one of her boarders and stealing $575 in money, three watches, two chains, and a locket, altogether valued at $1,000. In this case he was discharged for lack of evidence. Lillie was arrested again on board of a Galveston steamer, lying at the dock in New York City, on January 9, 1881, charged with obtaining $50 from Miguel S. Thimon, a Texan, by the confidence game. In this case Lillie was sentenced to two years and six months in State prison, on January 12, 1881, by Judge Cowing.

He was again arrested plying his vocation along the river front in New York, in June, 1884, and sentenced to six months in the penitentiary, charged with vagrancy. He obtained a writ, and was discharged by Judge Lawrence, of the Supreme Court, on June 13. 1884. He fell into the hands of the police again in New York City, on February 27, 1885, charged by Benjamin Freer, of Gardiner, Ulster County, N. Y., with swindling him out of $250 in money. One David Johnson, of Catasauqua, Pa., also charged him with swindling him out of 102 English sovereigns on January 2, 1885, on board of an Anchor Line steamer, while lying at the dock in New York City. Johnson was on his way to Europe. Lillie was tried for swindling Johnson, and sentenced to five years in State prison on March 9, 1885, by Recorder Smyth, in the Court of General Sessions. Lillie’s picture is an excellent one, taken in November, 1876.

As per usual, Byrnes recites a criminal record starting in the late 1870s; but Ed Lilly was one of the oldest criminals in Byrnes’s book, and had already had a long career by that time. In fact, even by 1858, he was described as an extensive operator of confidence games in New York, Philadelphia, and other large cities. His origins are not known, but he likely came from New York City or Boston. As a young man he learned an honest trade–sailmaking.

In 1858, Lilly was arrested in New York for swindling a man via a con known as the “patent safe game.” [Note: in some instances this small patent safe was called a “little joker”; but “little joker” was a term also used for the object hidden under a shell in the shell game; and later, a device used to crack combination locks.] In this operation, Lilly would make the acquaintance of the victim, and then both he and the victim would happen meet a total stranger (who in actuality was an accomplice of Lilly). The stranger would show them a new small safe he had invented with a hidden chamber, inside of which was an object. While the stranger was (supposedly) distracted, Lilly would sneak the object out of the chamber in view of the victim, then would bet the stranger that the object was no longer in the safe. Lilly would then ask the victim for a loan to cover the sure bet. The victim would supply the loan. Then the stranger would open the safe and (via a trick mechanism in the safe) find that the object (actually its double) was there, losing the bet. Lilly would pretend bafflement, and would promise to meet the victim later to pay back the loan for the lost bet. In this instance the victim went to the police. Lilly was convicted and sent to Sing Sing for two years.


Upon his release, Lilly was arrested in 1860 for burglary, but escaped conviction. At the onset of the Civil War, Lilly moved to Washington, DC, and opened up a canvas tent and flag store–his skills as a sailmaker were now in high demand, as the War required huge amounts of canvas camp goods. As busy as he was, Lilly was often mentioned in the Washington newspapers for getting into fights in gambling houses, carrying concealed weapons, intoxication, and attending prize fights.

It was while in Washington that Lilly proved he had a heart. He became upset over a lost dog:


He had even named the dog for his favorite gambling game, Faro. Lilly seemed less attached to his female companions: including Kate Walsh, Sarah Hart, and Margaret Lilly–the last of whom ditched Ned Lilly in favor of the affections of fence Moses Erich (to mention just two of Mag Lilly’s several notorious male companions).

In 1870, Ed Lilly was arrested in Syracuse, accused by one of his victims. Police there confiscated Lilly’s baggage, and found some fascinating items:


During the 1870s, Lilly added forged checks and counterfeit bonds to his kit, a risky choice, in that being caught with those subjected him to the risk of additional charges. It was on a charge of Forgery that he was convicted in New York in 1877 and sent to Sing Sing under the alias James H. Potter, the crime that Byrnes first recites in Lilly’s history.

As Byrnes recounts, Lilly was sent to Sing Sing two more times, in 1881 and 1885. In 1889, Lilly was arrested with bogus bonds in his possession at the Hoboken ferry terminal, and was consequently sent to the Hudson County Penitentiary (Snake Hill) for six months.

In 1894, Lilly checked into a Baltimore boarding house under the name “Alexander Stewart.” He was found one morning in his room, asphyxiated by gas escaping from an unlit lamp. He would have died anonymously, had it not been for the distinctive tattoos that he, like many criminals, bore on his body: in his case a sailing ship and an owl. Those features had been recorded several times in Sing Sing, and were recognized by New York officials.





#8 Walter Sheridan

Walter Sheridan (Abt. 1833-1890), aka William A. Stoneford, Charles H. Ralston, Walter A. Stewart, William Holcomb, Doc Dash, Charles H. Keene, etc. — Horse thief, con man, bank sneak thief, counterfeiter, forger

From Byrnes’ text:

DESCRIPTION. Fifty-five years old in 1886. Born in New Orleans, La. Married. No trade. Height, 5 feet 7 inches. Weight, about 165 pounds. Light brown hair, dark eyes, Roman nose, square chin. Generally wears blonde whiskers. He is a good-looking man, and assumes a dignified appearance.

RECORD. Walter Sheridan is an accomplished thief, a daring forger, bank sneak, hotel thief, pennyweight-worker and counterfeiter. He is also one of the most notorious criminals in America. Among his aliases are Stewart, John Holcom, Chas. Ralston, Walter Stanton, Charles H. Keene, etc. When a boy, Sheridan drifted into crime and made his appearance in Western Missouri as a horse thief. He finally became an accomplished general thief and confidence man, but made a specialty of sneaking banks. In 1858 he was arrested with Joe Moran, a noted Western sneak thief and burglar, for robbing a bank in Chicago, Ill., and was sentenced to five years in the Alton, Ill., penitentiary, which time he served. He was afterwards concerned in the robbery of the First National Bank of Springfield, Ill., with Charley Hicks and Philly Phearson (5). Sheridan engaged the teller. Hicks staid outside, and Phearson crawled through a window and obtained $35,000 from the bank vault. Hicks was arrested and sentenced to eight years in Joliet prison. Philly Phearson escaped and went to Europe. Sheridan was arrested in Toledo, O., shortly afterwards with $22,000 in money on him. He was tried for this offense but acquitted.

He next appeared in a “sneak job” in Baltimore, Md., in June, 1870, where he and confederates secured $50,000 in securities from the Maryland Fire Insurance Company. After this he secured $37,000 in bonds from the Mechanics’ Bank of Scranton, Pa. He was also implicated and obtained his share of $20,000 stolen from the Savings and Loan Bank of Cleveland, O., in 1870. He was arrested in this case, but secured his release by the legal technicalities of the law. Sheridan’s most important work was in the hypothecation of $100,000 in forged bonds of the Buffalo, New York and Erie Railroad Company to the New York Indemnity and Warehouse Company, in 1873, for which he obtained $84,000 in good hard cash. It took months to effect this loan. He took desk room in a broker’s office on the lower part of Broadway, New York, representing himself as a returned Californian of ample means. He speculated in grain, became a member of the Produce Exchange, under the name of Charles Ralston, and secured advances on cargoes of grain. He gained the confidence of the President of the Indemnity and Warehouse.

Walter Sheridan is among the handful of the most infamous criminals profiled by Chief Byrnes.  He was often successful, and tried his hand at many different types of crimes. The accounts of Walter Sheridan’s origins are fairly consistent: he came from a respectable family in Kentucky; was sent to New Orleans for his education; went astray, and, in the late 1850s, was known as a horse thief in central Missouri. Unfortunately, none of this can be verified–not even his supposed full name: Walter (Cartman or Eastman) Sheridan.


Several more complete accounts of Sheridan’s criminal career have been written, most recently by Jay Robert Nash in his Great Pictorial History of World Crime. However, the most succinct summary appeared in the St. Louis Post Dispatch of January 22, 1890, on the occasion of Sheridan’s death:


The identity of Sheridan’s wife and son Walter (who claimed his body from the coroners in Montreal) have defied solving. The body was said to have been taken back to Baltimore, but no burial records have been found.


#4 William Vosburg

William H. Vosburgh (1827-1904) alias “Foxy” “Old Bill” — Bank thief, burglar, confidence man

From Byrnes’s text:

DESCRIPTION. Fifty-seven years old in 1886. Born in United States. Can read and write. Married. Stout build. Height, 5 feet 10 inches. Weight, 170 pounds. Hair, dark, mixed with gray. Gray eyes. Light complexion. Generally has a smooth-shaven face.

RECORD. Vosburg is one of the oldest and most expert bank sneaks and “stalls” in America, and has spent the best portion of his life in State prisons. He was formerly one of Dan Noble’s gang, and was concerned with him in the Lord bond robbery in March, 1886, and the larceny of a tin box containing a large amount of bonds from the office of the Royal Insurance Company in Wall Street, New York, several years ago.

Vosburg was arrested in New York City on April 2, 1877, for the Gracie King robbery, at the corner of William and Pine streets. He had just returned from serving five years in Sing Sing prison. In this case he was discharged. On April 20, 1877, he was again arrested in New York City, and sent to Boston, Mass., for the larceny of $8,000 in bonds from a man in that city. He obtained a writ in New York, but was finally sent to Boston, where they failed to convict him.

On June 10, 1878, he was arrested in New York City, charged with grand larceny. On this complaint he was tried, found guilty, and sentenced to fifteen months in the penitentiary, by Recorder Hackett, on December 28, 1878. He did not serve his full time, for on May 3, 1879, he was again arrested in New York City, with one John O’Brien, alias Dempsey, for an attempt at burglary at 406 Sixth Avenue. In this case he was admitted to bail in $1,000 by the District Attorney, on May 17, 1879. The case never was tried, for on September 23, 1879, he was again arrested, with Jimmy Brown, at Brewster’s Station, New York, on the Harlem Railroad, for burglary of the post-office and bank. For this he was tried, convicted, and sentenced to four years in State prison at Sing Sing, on February 19, 1880, under the name of William Pond, by Judge Wright, at Carmel, New York. Brown never was tried.

After his release he claimed to be playing cards for a living, when in fact he was running around the country “stalling” for thieves. He was arrested in Washington, D.C, on March 4, 1885, at President Cleveland’s inauguration, for picking pockets. Through the influence of some friends this case never went to trial. He then started through the country with Johnny Jourdan (83), Philly Phearson (5), and Johnny Carroll, alias The Kid (192). On April 1, 1885, the party tried to rob a man in a bank at Rochester, N.Y., but failed. They followed him to a hotel, and while he was in the water-closet handled him roughly and took a pocket-book from him, but not the book with the money in it. Phearson and Carroll escaped, and Vosburg and Jourdan were arrested, and sentenced to two years and six months each for assault in the second degree, by Judge John S. Morgan, on June 15, 1885, at Rochester, N.Y. Vosburg’s picture is a good one, taken in March, 1885.

No less an authority than the New York Times labeled Bill Vosburgh (often spelled Vosburg, as Byrnes did) “the Father of Modern Criminals.” Typically, Byrnes’s recitation of Vosburgh’s career begins in 1877, but he was active close to thirty years earlier. He was a bank sneak, but also a pickpocket, burglar, and con-artist.

Byrnes did not reveal any of Vosburgh’s fascinating family connections. Vosburgh was born in Albany New York to a prominent family; it was said his grandfather fought in the Revolution; his father in the War of 1812, and that his uncle was Albany’s Postmaster. These figures were never named, but an educated guess is that his uncle was Isaac W. Vosburgh, son of William Vosburgh and Mary McDonald.

More interesting are Old Bill’s in-laws. He married Mary Ann Sturge, the daughter of an old English pickpocket and thief, Bill Sturge. Mary Ann had a sister, Rebecca “Becky” Sturge, who married twice. Her first marriage was to Daniel “Dad” Cunningham, a small, short-tempered fighter and gambler. A year after Cunningham died, Becky remarried to Langdon W. Moore, aka Charley Adams, one of the most famous bank robbers of the nineteenth century.

Vosburgh was also mentioned as being a brother-in-law to bank thief Preston Hovan (brother of Horace Hovan). However, it has not yet been discovered how they were related–or whether these sources just confused Preston Hovan with Langdon Moore due to an alias they both used, Charles Adams.

One of Bill Vosburgh’s daughters (Emma or Rebecca) married sneak thief Harry Russell, who ran in the same gang of 1890s post office thieves with George Carson and Joe Killoran.

In the late 1890s, Vosburgh enjoyed regaling reporters with the exploits of his criminal career, noting the crimes that were now too old to prosecute; ones for which he had been acquitted; and ones that sent him to prison–but avoiding mention of the successful crimes that might still incriminate him, such as his tutelage of pickpocket George Appo (subject of Timothy Gilfoyle’s book, A Pickpocket’s Tale )

He told a story of becoming a criminal after taking a packet of money he was entrusted to deliver and losing it at an Albany gambling resort; in desperation he sought help from a known thief, Flemming, who used Vosburgh to help rob a grocery store owner. They then partnered to rob “every grocery store in Albany.”

However, Vosburgh never told reporters about his more infamous adventures with Flemming–robbing the family vault of the Van Rensselaer family for silver buried with the corpses.

See Paula Lemire’s account, “The Night In Question Was Dark and Slightly Stormy.

Vosburgh then went with his new pals to New Orleans, and once there began to specialize in robbing the staterooms of Mississippi riverboats [there was good reason why Herman Melville set his novel The Confidence Man on a riverboat–they were magnets for thieves.]

By 1857, Vosburgh’s name appeared in the National Police Gazette as a known criminal. In the early 1860s he was said to be a member of Dan Noble’s gang of bank sneak thieves. He was implicated in 1866’s infamous Rufus Lord bond robbery (in Byrnes’s book, the year of this is incorrectly given as 1886), but never arrested; the same year he was also implicated in the robbery of the Royal Insurance Company on Wall Street; both of these heists were said to be directed by Dan Noble.

In 1873, Vosburgh was caught trying to rob a diamond broker of Springfield, Massachusetts. He was convicted and sent to prison, then released in early 1877. In April of that year he was arrested for stealing bonds from Gracie King, but was discharged for lack of evidence. A few days later he was arrested in Boston for stealing $8000 in bonds, but was tried and acquitted.


He was again arrested in New York for Grand Larceny in June, 1878; and was sentenced to 15 months in prison. Vosburgh spent the years 1880-1884 in Sing Sing under the name William Pond for the robbery of the post office and bank at Brewster’s Station, New York.

A few months after his release, he was caught as a pickpocket in the crowd during Grover Cleveland’s inauguration in March, 1885. He was released, but was discovered the next month in Rochester, New York, attempting to rob a man leaving a bank. At that time he was touring with Johnny Jourdan, Philly Pearson, and Johnny “The Kid” Carroll. Vosburgh was convicted and served a term in Rochester until 1888.

From 1888-1895, Vosburgh tutored pickpockets and acted as a “steerer” for con-artists running the “green goods” scam, in which yokels visiting the city were convinced to buy a large stack of counterfeit bills, thinking they could multiply their investment ten-fold.


In November, 1895, Bill was picked up for fleecing a Nebraska farming visiting New York out of $500 in a “green goods” scam. However, he made a deal with the city District Attorney Goff to testify in a case against the New York City Sheriff, Tamsen, alleging that Tamsen mismanaged his jail. Vosburgh took the stand and told several amusing stories about visiting his son-in-law, Harry Russell, in Tamsen’s jail and bringing him 3 revolvers and a bottle of whiskey. Russell and two of his post-office robbery gang accomplices escaped from the jail. Many newspapers criticized Goff for accepting Vosburgh’s questionable testimony.

Vosburgh died in April, 1904. Some accounts said he was buried in Bronx’s Greenwood cemetery; others in Brooklyn’s Woodlawn; neither cemetery has him listed in their online burials database.