#96 William J. Johnson

Joseph W. Harris (Abt. 1857-????), aka William J. Johnson – Pickpocket, Swindler

From Byrnes’s text:

DESCRIPTION. Twenty-nine years old in 1886. Born in United States. Single. Printer. Well built. Height, 5 feet 10 inches. Weight, 180 pounds. Brown hair, brown eyes, dark complexion; generally wears a brown mustache. Has scar over left eye; dot of India ink on left hand. Claims to have been born in Philadelphia.

RECORD. Johnson, or Harris, is a clever pickpocket and boarding-house thief. He is well known in New York and Boston, Mass., and other cities, and is an associate of Frank Auburn, alias Austin (46), with whom he has been working in several of the Eastern cities. He was arrested in Boston, Mass., on April 28, 1884, in company of Auburn, charged with picking pockets in the churches in that city, tried, convicted, and sentenced to three years in State prison at Concord, Mass., on May 16, 1884. His sentence will expire on December 23, 1886. His picture is an excellent one, taken in April, 1884.

Though Byrnes contended that Harris was “well-known in New York and Boston, Mass., and other cities,” no arrests other than the one mentioned by Byrnes can be found.

What is true is that Harris was a partner of John Francis Aborn, aka Frank Auburn, the ever-fascinating swindler/process server. Harris appears to be another pal of Aborn’s in the mold of Mason Helmborn, i.e. Harris came from a respectable family, had a little money, and was easily cajoled into going on a swindling and pickpocket spree. This matches the impression that was conveyed by Boston newspapers:


Harris’s bright-eyed appearance in his arrest photograph does not suggest a man that has ever seen the inside of a prison. Instead of meriting a separate profile in Byrnes’s book, it might have been more appropriate for Harris to be given a brief mention in a longer entry for Aborn, alias Frank Auburn.



#59 Charles McLaughlin

Edward McLean (Abt. 1833-19??), aka Eddy McLean, Charles McLean, Charles McLaughlin, Charles J. Lambert, A. C. Johnson, T. W. Seaman, C. H. Davis, Edward McLane, etc. — Sneak thief, Hotel thief, Cabin thief

From Byrnes’s text:

DESCRIPTION. Fifty years old in 1886. Stands his age well. Born in Troy, N.Y. Is a saddler by trade. Well built. Height, 5 feet 7 1/2 inches. Weight, 160 pounds. Brown hair. Wears full, dark, sandy whiskers and mustache, turning gray. He has quite a respectable appearance, and is a good talker.

RECORD. McLaughlin is one of the cleverest hotel workers in the country, and is said to be the son of a planter in Louisiana. He was a book-keeper, but lost everything during our civil war and became a hotel thief.

On April 3, 1875, he robbed a room in the Westminster Hotel in New York City of a watch and chain and some diamonds and money. As he was leaving the hotel with his booty, his victim came downstairs and reported his loss to the clerk, who followed McLaughlin and had him arrested, and found the property upon his person. McLaughlin was tried, convicted, and sentenced to three years in Sing Sing prison for this robbery. It is said that the day he was sentenced his father was shot and killed by negroes in Grant Parish, La.

He was convicted and sent to prison in Quebec, Canada, for a hotel robbery in January, 1881.

He was arrested again in New York City on June 10, 1884, for entering three rooms in the Rossmore Hotel. A full set of hotel-workers’ tools was found on his person at the time of his arrest. He had robbed two rooms in this house some time before and secured $400 in money and two watches. In this case McLaughlin pleaded guilty to burglary, and was sentenced, under the name of Chas. J. Lambert, to two years in the penitentiary on Blackwell’s Island, in the Court of General Sessions in New York City, on June 25, 1884, by Judge Gildersleeve. His sentence expired February 24, 1886. McLaughlin’s picture is a fair one, taken in 1875. He looks much older now.

When Edward McLean was arrested in New York in April 1875, the newspapers were full of reports concerning a Supreme Court case relating to the Colfax Massacre, an outrage that had occurred in Grant Parish, Louisiana, in which three white men and about 150 black men were killed. During the time he was jailed, McLean linked his background to this bloody event. McLean never offered any details that could not have been picked up from New York newspaper; and the none of the three white men that died in the Colfax Massacre had names that matched McLean (or his aliases). McLean apparently believed that the story would gain him sympathy.

McLean was, instead, a long-time New York City resident, who began his career as a sneak thief in the early 1870s, along with Joe Howard, aka Joe Killoran. He soon became known as an accomplished hotel thief, but always had an eye for jewelry. After the Sing Sing sentence that followed his April 1875 arrest, McLean next was heard from in 1881 in New York, when he was suspected of stealing stones from Levy & Picard, Jewelers. While released on bail he went to Boston and snatched a handful of diamonds from Henry Morse, jeweler.

It appears this resulted in jail time in Massachusetts, because McLean wasn’t heard from again until the 1884 hotel robberies mentioned by Byrnes. These resulted in a two year sentence on Blackwell’s Island.

McLean spent over a dozen years robbing hotel rooms and passenger ship cabins from the late 1880s through the early 1900s, moving between Europe and America. In July 1890, he was arrested in London under the name Charles McLean and sentenced to six months in Clerkenwell Prison.

In 1892 he was captured in Paris as Edward McLean and sent to a prison for six months.

In August 1893, he was caught in Brussels, Belgium and lost another six months of freedom. In 1894, as George Hamilton, he was found robbing in Southhampton, England, and given three months. He returned to Belgium in September 1895 and was nabbed again, and sentenced to one year.  In January 1898, he was briefly detained in Frankfort, Germany.

McLean arrived back on the east coast of the United States shortly afterward, eluding authorities in Philadelphia and Washington DC before being stopped in Baltimore. There, he was sentenced to three years as Charles McLaughlin alias Charles H. Davis.

With time reduced, McLean was out of prison by 1900 and returned to England, where he was captured robbing rooms in York in July. He was sentenced to three years in prison, then issued a ticket to leave the country. It was suggested that this trip to England had been made in the company of a gang led by his old pal Joe Howard, aka Killoran. McLean was arrested on suspicion as soon as his ship docked in Brooklyn. He was then photographed, and the grainy picture appeared in newspapers:

Not much was heard from him until 1907, when once again he was arrested on suspicion in New York City in the aftermath of robbery at the Hotel Astor. McLean denied any involvement: “I never robbed a woman in this country,” he explained. “They haven’t anything worth while. Outside of the Astors and the Vanderbilts, there are not ten women who have $30,000 worth of jewelry. I have robbed all over the world, I will admit, but I will attempt no crime in this country.”

McLean died poor in New York City on January 24, 1909. His death was recorded under the spelling Edward McLane.




#46 Frank Auburn

John Francis Aborn (1857-1932), aka Frank Aborn/Auburn/Auborn, John F. Austin — Seducer, Hotel thief, Theater ticket swindler, Process Server

From Byrnes’s 1886 edition:

DESCRIPTION. Twenty-six years old in 1886. Born in United States. Medium build. Single. Height, 5 feet 5 inches. Weight, 120 pounds. Brown hair, gray eyes, dark complexion. No trade. Has busts of boy and girl, and two hearts with words “You and me” on them, in India ink, on right fore-arm.

RECORD. Auburn is quite a clever boarding-house thief, but does not confine himself to that work entirely. He is well known in New York and Boston.

He was arrested in New York City on November 1, 1883, for petty larceny from a boarding-house, and convicted and sentenced to five days in the Tombs prison on November 28, 1883, by Judge Gildersleeve, in the Court of General Sessions. His light sentence was the result of the intercession of some good people, and on account of its being his first appearance in court.

He was arrested again in Boston, Mass., on April 28, 1884, in company of Joseph W. Harris, alias Wm. J. Johnson, for picking pockets in the churches of that city. He was tried, convicted, and sentenced to four years in Concord prison on May 16, 1884. His time will expire in November, 1887. Auburn’s picture is a good one, taken in 1884.

From Byrnes’s 1895 edition:

He is said to be the son of a wealthy widow who lives in the vicinity of New York. He earned some fame as a process server by putting on a district messenger’s uniform and serving a summons on the late Jay Gould, in 1891.

He was arrested again in New York City on January 18, 1893, charged with forgery. He plead guilty to petty larceny, and was sent to the penitentiary on February 7, 1893, by Judge Cowing, Court of General Sessions, under name of John F. Auburn.

Sentenced again to one year penitentiary on July 5, 1894, for forgery, from the Court of General Sessions, New York City, under the name of Frank Auburn.

John F. “Frank” Aborn was a much more fascinating character than Inspector Byrnes conveys, owing not only to actions that took place after Byrnes published his 1886 edition, but also to pre-1886 incidents that Byrnes failed to mention. Aborn’s parents were respectable, but not rich. His father George was a seaman, and the family lived in Sag Harbor, Long Island, a whaling port.

Frank left home at age 20 and went to Philadelphia, gaining employment with a cigar manufacturer. He was said to spend all his earnings on fashionable clothing; and was flirtatious with young women to an extreme. His hometown newspaper in Sag Harbor printed an announcement in April 1879 to the effect that he had married Sadie M. Brown in Philadelphia. The marriage, if it existed, was either quickly annulled or dissolved.

Frank rebounded quickly, wooing another young woman before being beaten up by her betrothed; he was put under bonds (a restraining order) to stay away from her.

Back in New York city by April 1880 (a year after his marriage to Sadie Brown), Frank met 16-year-old Bertha Potigney-Meurisse, the daughter of a flower importer, at a church fair. She had just left a boarding school, and was dazzled by Frank’s attentions. He convinced her to elope; the pair showed up at a church and were interviewed by a veteran minister, who sent the young woman home and then visited her family the next day. Her father was outraged. Though Frank was forbidden to communicate with Bertha, the two found a way to exchange letters, in which they addressed each other as “husband” and “wife.” Alarmed, her father took Frank to court and once again he was placed under a restraining order.

Frank began moving from one Manhattan boarding house to another, often leaving his bill unpaid. He made friends with the scion of a wealthy family, Mason P. Helmbold, who had just returned from Europe. The two young men started to make a habit of ordering goods without paying for them, arranging for their delivery to their soon-to-be-abandoned boarding house. Helmbold was caught and persecuted, but blamed Frank Aborn for corrupting him. [It should be noted that Helmbold went on to have a long career as a forger.]

Frank traveled to Boston, where he continued his new habit of cheating boarding houses by not paying his bill. Once caught, he was sentenced to nine months in Boston’s House of Corrections.

In November 1883 Frank was back in New York and was caught stealing valuables from a fellow-boarder’s room. Several character witnesses came forth on his behalf, and he was given a slap on the wrist: five days in the Tombs, the city jail. The court was unaware of his Boston hijinks.

Frank next returned to Boston, and tried his hand at picking pockets, working the crowd at a church funeral service with another very amateur pickpocket. Apprehended again, he was sentenced to four years in the Concord, Massachusetts prison.

After his release in 1887, Frank returned to New York. He presented a bogus check, which resulted in a short sentence at the Elmira Reformatory. Considering that Frank was now thirty years old and an ex-convict, this was a pittance of a punishment; the court was obviously unaware of his record in Massachusetts.

After the reformatory doors were opened for his exit, Frank opted to stay in Elmira and take a job in a clothing store. He claimed to be a Yale graduate and a Boston newspaper correspondent who was sent to Elmira to cover the New York State Fair; and he sought a temporary job to fill his spare time. While in Elmira, Frank found a new focus for one of his trademark romantic onslaughts, Miss Catherine Dee. They were married in October 1888 and moved back to New York.

Frank had acquired a new means of gaining cash: conning theatergoers and theater employees for free tickets and passes, and then reselling them. One complaint was lodged against him in September 1889, but he was given nothing more than a reprimand. However, when he continued the practice, he was arrested once more in January 1890. These arrests did not go unnoticed in his wife’s home town of Elmira. There, the newspaper branded him a scoundrel; and moreover accused him of physically abusing his new bride before their honeymoon period was hardly begun. The Elmira opera house also recalled his habit of cadging passes.

It was later in 1890 that Frank Aborn stumbled onto a vocation in which his talent for sneakiness, deception, lying, and disguise transformed him into something akin to a hero. He became a process server, i.e. a messenger tasked with putting a court order directly into the hands of a defendant in a lawsuit.

Frank quickly gained renown for his cleverness in tracking down his elusive targets. None was more difficult than robber-baron Jay Gould, but Frank Aborn was up to the task:

Newspapers around the country started running stories about the famous and infamous public figures that Aborn was able to confront with papers: one of the four nearly identical Rich sisters, who lived together; Cornelius Vanderbilt’s attorney, Chauncey Depew; Police Commissioner Charles MacLean; the trustees of the Standard Oil Trust, including William Rockefeller, actress Lillian Russell, etc. Aborn found himself sought out by New York’s leading law firms.

However, his worst habits had not died out. In January 1893, and again in July 1894 he was caught trying to obtain free passes at different theaters, and was jailed in each instance. While he was in jail between 1894 and 1895, his mother passed away. Upon his release, Aborn showed up in Sag Harbor and had the local paper print an item to the effect that he had been in South America when his mother had died.

The next year, 1896, Aborn’s wife Catherine passed away. These two deaths seem to have sobered Frank’s impulses. He resumed his career as a sought-after process server and collection agent.

Frank remarried in 1898, and over the next decade had six daughters. He served process papers on behalf of many lawyers and city departments, including the New York Police Department. He was put on the payroll of the City Tenement Commission, and spent his last decade as a deputy commissioner.





#60 John O’Neil

W. J. McNeill (Abt. 1841-????), aka John Hughes, William H. Thompson, John O’Neil, David W. Engle, Jason Smith, Thomas O’Donnell, etc. — Pawn Ticket Swindler

From Byrnes’s text:

DESCRIPTION. Forty-five years old in 1886. Born in Ireland. Slim build. Painter by trade. Height, 5 feet 8 inches. Weight, about 140 pounds. Dark hair, turning gray; light eyes, dark complexion, cast in one eye. His hand is drawn up from a gunshot wound, and he is paralyzed on one side of his body, drawing one leg somewhat after him.

RECORD. John O’Neil, alias Hughes, alias Jason Smith, has a method of working which is entirely his own. Whenever a robbery or burglary has been committed, the victim receives a poorly spelled and written note from O’Neil, stating that “although he is a thief, so help his God he had nothing to do with the burglary” of your residence, or whatever it may be — he has, however, pawn tickets representing the property stolen, which he will sell you. An interview is arranged, and during the conversation he remembers a few descriptions that you give of your property, and says that he has pawn tickets representing so-and-so. “Why did you not bring them with you?” is the question naturally asked. “Oh, no; I did not know whether I could trust you or not.” Being assured that he can, another meeting is arranged for the purpose of going and redeeming the property, which is done in the following manner: a cab is hired, “as he is a thief, and it would not be safe for you to be seen walking with him,” and both are driven to the pawnbroker’s shop, which always has two entrances. Before the cab arrives at the place, he will say, “It will cost so much to redeem the goods,” showing you the tickets and counting the amounts up, “give me the money, you remain in the cab at the door, and I will go in and redeem them, and bring them to you, when you can pay me for my tickets.” He enters the pawnshop and passes out the other door, and you, after waiting some time in the cab, realize that you have been swindled, enter the place, but fail to find your man.

O’Neil was arrested at Staten Island, N.Y., by the police and brought to New York City on April 4, 1879, under the name of John Hughes, charged with swindling one Zophar D. Mills out of $172, as above described. O’Neil represented that he had pawn tickets, for seven pieces of silk stolen from Mr. Mills on November 30, 1878. O’Neil, alias Hughes, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to three years in State prison in this case on April 23, 1879, by Judge Cowing, in the Court of General Sessions, New York City.

He was arrested again in New York City, under the name of John O’Neil, on September 12, 1885, for swindling several people in the same way. This time he also pleaded guilty, and was sentenced to one year in State prison on September 17, 1885, by Judge Cowing, in the same court. Several of O’Neil’s victims refused to prosecute him on account of his infirmities, and the fact that he had served twelve years of the last fifteen of his life in prison. O’Neil’s picture is an excellent one, taken in 1870.

One might think that if a name was tattooed on a man’s body, it would be a clue to his identity. The only problem is that in 1874, Sing Sing examiners saw that tattoo as “W. J. McNeill”; and a different Sing Sing recorder saw the tattoo in 1879 as “W. J. O’Neille.” Byrnes stated his name as John O’Neil only because that was the alias employed by this swindler in 1885, the last arrest known.

McNeill/O’Neil was first caught employing a variation of the robbery-victim swindle on several New Yorkers in May 1874. As Byrnes indicates, he found his targets by perusing the classified notices that recent robbery victims posted seeking the return of their valuables. In this instance, he used the alias William H. Thompson–but unlike later, there was no mention of pawn tickets. He was tried, convicted, and sentenced to five years in Sing Sing for conspiracy to commit grand larceny.

In April 1879, police captured him again, this time for attempting to break into hotel rooms. His alias this time was John Hughes. He was returned to Sing Sing for three years.

In March of 1885, he was arrested for once again suggesting that he could arrange the return of stolen goods, and as the go-between he would exchange pawn tickets for cash. This time he employed the alias Thomas O’Donnell. However, for some reason, the prosecution failed to find him guilty (perhaps, as Byrnes suggests, out of pity for his physical disabilities?)

Six months later, in September 1885, he was caught playing the more elaborate pawn ticket swindle described by Byrnes. Although many victims came forth, and McNeill/O’Neil was recognized as a repeat felon, his punishment only amounted to three months at Blackwell’s Island Penitentiary (not one year in State Prison, as Byrnes wrote).

The pattern of McNeill/O’Neill’s peculiar swindle disappeared after this 1885 arrest.



#53 William Miller

William Augustus Meeker (1847-1886), aka William Miller, Billy Miller — Hotel thief

From Byrnes’s text:

DESCRIPTION. Forty years old in 1886. Born in United States. Married. No trade. Stout build. Height, 5 feet 6 1/2 inches. Weight, 140 pounds Brown hair, brown eyes, sallow complexion. Generally wears a brown mustache.

RECORD. Miller is a professional hotel and boarding-house sneak. He has served ten years in Sing Sing prison, independently of the sentence below, for robbing a boarding-house in Clinton Place, in New York City.

He escaped from Sing Sing prison with Big Jim Brady the burglar, in 1873, by bribing a keeper with $1,000. The keeper was afterwards sent to prison himself for letting them escape. Miller was recaptured, and returned to Sing Sing, where he served his time out.

This is a very clever man, and well worth knowing. He was arrested again in New York City on October 28, 1879, on suspicion of robbing the room of one M. Vanderkeep, a Spanish cotton merchant, who was stopping at the New York Hotel. The room was entered on October 26, 1879, and diamonds and jewelry valued at $2,500 were carried away. In this case he could not be identified.

At the time of his arrest there was found upon his person a watch and some Canada money, which, it was ascertained, were stolen from a gentleman’s room in the Cosmopolitan Hotel, corner of Chambers Street and West Broadway, New York City, a few nights previous to his arrest. For this last offense he was held for trial, and finally pleaded guilty, and was sentenced to ten years in State prison again on November 7, 1879. His sentence expired May 6, 1886. Miller’s picture is an excellent one, taken in October, 1879.

Billy Miller was an undistinguished hotel thief mainly notable for one event: an October, 1873, escape from Sing Sing accompanied by James Brady and assisted by Billy’s wife, Tilly Miller. Big Jim Brady (aka Albany Jim) was one of the greatest thieves of his era, but was not given a profile in Byrnes’s book–probably because there was no good photograph in Byrnes’s Rogues Gallery. Tilly Miller was the equal to any of the great female shoplifters of her time; and had engineered more than one jail escape. She, too, was never given her own profile by Byrnes, likely for the same reason.

Billy married Philadelphia-native Tilly (Matilda Ann) Myers when she was 27 and he was 21. He had already been married once; he already had a reputation as a gambler in New York City. A month after their marriage, in October 1870, Billy was caught burgling and sentenced to ten years in Sing Sing. From the day he entered prison, Tilly began planning on how to help him escape.

Meanwhile, in the spring of 1871, James Brady had been caught in a botched jewelry theft in New York City. He was sentenced to five years in Sing Sing, but was later transferred to Auburn. There, Brady conspired with Jimmy Hope and Dan Noble to make an escape. They chiseled a hole around a water-wheel shaft that ran through the prison wall, and slipped out unnoticed in January 1873. In May of that year, New York detectives spotted him in the office of a bond-forging suspect, and were able to retake him, along with evidence of recent burglaries. He was sentenced to three and a half years in Sing Sing, and would need to return to Auburn after that.

[Note: For an overview of Brady’s remarkable career, read Laurence P. Gooley’s four-part article from Adirondack Almanac (2013) ]

And so, by late May 1873, both Billy Miller and Big Jim Brady were languishing in Sing Sing; but Tilly Miller was ready to break them out.

Billy had been assigned duty as a waiter to other prisoners who slaved over the prison’s limekiln, which produced quicklime (used for cement, plastering, laundry, etc). In that job, Billy got to stand around and gab with the guards. He approached one of the newer guards, John Outhouse, and, after getting to know him, suggested that Outhouse help him escape. Outhouse refused. Billy then suggested to Outhouse that he knew of a bank that could be easily robbed, and which had a safe containing $100,000; and that if Outhouse helped Billy to escape, Billy would rob the bank and give half the proceeds to Outhouse. The guard perhaps knew that Billy was just a hotel thief, not a bank robber, and still refused to help him.

Billy then told Outhouse that he had a friend in the prison–Big Jim Brady–who would give Outhouse $2000 up front for a few small favors: first, Outhouse was to fill a small tin box with a mixture of beeswax and oil, and then give it to another guard, William Many. Once Many returned the tin to him, Outhouse was to take it and a letter to Tilly Miller. Later, he would meet Tilly at the Sing Sing depot and take her to the limekiln station when it was deserted, so that she could hide a bundle there for Billy.

Outhouse at last agreed to the plan, and purchased the tin and beeswax at a local general store. He gave it to the other guard, William Many, who made an impression in the wax of the key which opened cell doors in Corridor 19, where Brady and Miller were kept. Many returned the tin to Outhouse, who gave it to Tilly. Tilly went to a locksmith in New York City, John Steurer, who made a duplicate key from the wax impression. Steurer also made a small jackscrew that could pry open bars and a lever to work it.

Tilly then met Outhouse who took her to the limekiln to plant the tools for Billy. The key she slipped to him during one of her visits to see him. Billy later gave the key to Jim Brady. Tilly’s last chore was to plant a bundle of clothes wrapped in newspaper near the limekiln’s woodpile, which could be reached from the Hudson via a rowboat.

One night in October 1873, Brady and Miller then made dummy figures of themselves that they placed under the blankets in their cell bunks. Brady unlocked his cell door, then walked over to Billy’s cell and let him out. Billy used the jackscrew to pry open the window bars in the gallery, and they slipped out onto the grounds. From there they went to the lumber pile, retrieved the clothes left there, and waited for a rowboat.

Though their escape plan worked perfectly, Billy Miller and Jim Brady’s triumph was short-lived: Billy was recaptured several weeks later; and Brady was caught a month later in Wilmington, Delaware,  with a bank-robbery gang that included Jimmy Hope,  Ike Marsh, Tom McCormick, and George Bliss.

Though Tilly Miller and James Brady went on to several more adventures in their separate careers, Billy Miller served out his ten-year term and was released in 1879. Just a few weeks after his discharge, he was arrested again for hotel thefts in New York City. His sentence: another ten years in Sing Sing. Billy was pardoned in April 1886 for medical reasons, went home to Newark, New Jersey, and died a few days later.





#76 Billy Forrester

Alexander McClymont (1838-1912), aka Billy Forrester,  Frank Livingston, Frank Howard, Conrad Foltz, etc. — Thief, Burglar

Link to Byrnes’s text for #76 Billy Forrester

The story of Billy Forrester’s career is filled with misinformation: false stories of his origins; crimes that he likely did not commit; aliases which he may or may have not used; how he escaped prisons; women he married; and when and how he came to an end. The worst mistake occurred when New York detectives (before Byrnes’s time) accepted the word of a convict-informer and started a manhunt for Forrester, believing him to be the murderer of financier Benjamin Nathan. For many years, Forrester found himself branded as a killer, despite the fact that he proved he was in the South at the time when the burglary at Nathan’s mansion occurred.

When Billy realized that he was about to be railroaded for murder in 1872, he explained his history to the New York Herald: his name was Alexander McClymont, he was born in Glasgow, and served for a long period in the U. S. Navy, starting as a messenger boy in 1852.  [As late as 1907 or 08, Forrester was still trying to get past pay due to him, and in fact thought he was was owed decades of pay, since he had never been formally discharged. Detective William Pinkerton tried to dissuade Billy of that claim, reminding Billy that he had deserted.]

In 1872, Allan Pinkerton gave the Chicago Tribune an account of Forrester’s history, most of which can be verified from 1868 on. Forrester himself had once indicated he had been in Joliet from 1863-1867, but if so, must have been under a different name:


For the act of interceding, “The.” Allen was dragged through court proceedings for six months.

Pinkerton’s account continues on, but skips over an embarrassing episode. From New York, Billy went to Boston, where he romanced a young girl, Elizabeth Dudley, the daughter of a respected liquor merchant from a venerable family, James Winthrop Dudley. They eloped and were married in Portsmouth, New Hampshire in October 1869. [Though there are hints he had been married to others earlier.] “Lizzie” Dudley later claimed she only knew Forrester to be a gambler, but it is more likely that both she and her father knew exactly how Forrester earned his living. Forrester was arrested in Boston in November 1869, discharged, and then rearrested by detectives who had learned about the requisition issued for his return to Illinois. In December, he was put on a train to New York, linked to a detective by a cord. They got off for a drink in New Haven, and Forrester managed to cut the cord and escaped.

Two months later, Forrester and a gang tried a bank robbery in Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania. Before they could crack the safe, they were spotted and had to flee. Billy headed to Pittsburgh, where he was seen by a Pinkerton operative and captured. In March, 1870, he was taken first to Philadelphia to face charges for the Wilkes Barre robbery attempt; while being measured at the station house there, he fled, wearing nothing but his underwear.

In April, Billy and his bride Lizzie Dudley were reunited in Baltimore. The Baltimore police learned of his presence in the city, and the couple were forced to flee south, taking a ship to Key West, then to Havana, and finally to New Orleans, arriving in early June 1870. New Orleans police had already been warned to lookout for Forrester, and he was soon arrested in mid-June, 1870. However, no requisition was yet in hand from Illinois, and so he was released on a writ of habeas corpus.

Billy lived in New Orleans without further harassment for a couple of months, during which time he was seen by many people. Meanwhile, in New York City, financier Benjamin Nathan was killed in his home during a bungled burglary on July 28, 1870.

After a gap of activity in the late summer and fall of 1870, Billy returned to New Orleans in December to coordinate the robbery of Scooler’s jewelry store, which took place on the night of Dec. 31, 1870-Jan. 1, 1871. While Billy was enjoying the spoils from this job, his one-time partner in the failed Wilkes Barre bank robbery, George Ellis, informed police from his cell in Sing Sing that Billy was responsible for the Nathan murder. This kicked off a nationwide manhunt.

He was run to earth in Washington, D. C. in September 1872 and taken by train to New York. There he was interrogated, and proved his alibi to the grudging satisfaction of prosecutors. The Pinkertons and others had been hoping to collect a $50,000 reward for Nathan’s killer, but instead were forced to send Billy back to Joliet to serve out his term.

Billy was freed in January 1880 and drifted to Philadelphia, where he was frequently seen in the new high-end saloon run by the Brotherton brothers, who themselves had recently been released from San Quentin. In April 1881, Forrester was captured during a house burglary in Philadelphia, resulting in his trial, conviction, and sentencing to Eastern State Penitentiary for five years. His term ended there in November 1885.

Byrnes picks up Billy’s history in his 1895 edition:

Shortly after Forrester‘s release from the Eastern Penitentiary, at Philadelphia, Pa. (in November, 1885), he was arrested at Richmond, Va., as Frank Renfrew, charged with breaking into the residence of one A. L. Lee. He was indicted for burglary and carrying burglars’ tools. While in jail awaiting trial he escaped, and the next heard from him was his arrest at Chester, Pa., in 1887, under the name of James Robinson, for safe breaking and shooting at a police officer.

He was convicted at Media, Pa., and sentenced to four years in the Eastern Penitentiary, at Philadelphia, Pa. He was released from there on March 20, 1891, re-arrested, taken to Richmond Va., where he plead guilty to having burglars’ tools in his possession, and was sentenced to five years in the penitentiary on April 9, 1891. Forrester’s time expired at Richmond, Va., on August 17, 1895.

It should be noted that while Billy was devoting time to prison in Philadelphia and Richmond between 1885 and 1895, another criminal who took the alias “Billy Forrester” was active in Denver, Butte, and Chicago. His specialty was safe-cracking.

After Billy got out of prison in Richmond in 1895, he was taken in Washington, D. C. and held to account for a robbery there. He was sentenced to ten years, to be served in Albany County Penitentiary in New York.

Gaining his freedom in 1902, Billy went to New York City and lived for awhile with an old friend, Dan Noble. Flat broke, he approached the Pinkerton Agency in New York and asked for a loan to tide him over until he gained employment. They offered him a small amount in cash, and tried to recruit him as an informer. He declined.

He was never heard from again, until 1909, when he went to Buffalo to meet William A. Pinkerton. Though he tried to press Pinkerton to support his claim to back pay from the Navy, in truth he seemed just pleased to talk to his old adversary.

Billy was then working as a facilities superintendent for “a major Catholic institution near Niagara Falls,” described as a large monastery. This almost certain refers to the Mount Carmel monastery in Niagara Falls, Ontario. Billy managed a staff of seven there, working from 1903 until his death in 1912.













#125 Tillie Pheiffer

Tillie Pheiffer (Abt. 1850-????), aka Kate/Catherine Collins, Tillie Miller, Maria Pfeiffer, etc. — Hotel thief, house thief

From Byrnes’s text:

DESCRIPTION. Thirty-six years old in 1886. Born in France. Servant, Married. Slim build. Height, 5 feet 3 inches. Weight, 128 pounds. Dark brown hair, hazel eyes, dark complexion. Mole on the right side of the nose under the eye.

RECORD. Tillie Pheiffer, or Martin, is a notorious house and hotel sneak thief. She sometimes hires out as a servant and robs her employers; but her specialty is to enter a hotel or flat, and wander up through the house until she finds a room door open, when she enters and secures whatever is handy and decamps. She is known in New York City, Brooklyn, Paterson, N.J., and Baltimore, Md., where she also served a term in prison. She is said to have kept a road-house near Paterson, N.J., some years ago.

Tillie was arrested in New York City a few years ago, endeavoring to rob the Berkeley Flats, on the corner of Ninth Street and Fifth Avenue, and sentenced to one year in the penitentiary, but subsequently released on habeas corpus proceedings in 1879.

She was arrested in Brooklyn, N.Y., disposing of a stolen watch in a pawnbroker’s shop. When arrested, she drew a revolver and attempted to shoot the officer. For this she was sentenced to one year in the penitentiary there.

She was arrested again in New York City on June 15, 1881, taken to police headquarters and searched. There was found upon her person four pocket-books, which contained money and jewelry. In one of them there was $10 in money, a gold hairpin and earrings, and the address of Miss Jennie Yeamans, of East Ninth Street, New York City, who testified that her rooms had been entered by a sneak thief during her absence, and the property stolen. Two other parties appeared against her and testified that she had robbed them also. Tillie pleaded guilty in this case, and was sentenced to one year in the penitentiary on Blackwell’s Island, on June 23, 1881, by Judge Cowing.

She was arrested again in New York City on June 19, 1882, for entering the apartments of Annie E. Tool, No. 151 Avenue B, and stealing a gold watch and chain and a pair of diamond earrings valued at $300. For this she was sentenced to eighteen months in the penitentiary on June 26, 1882, by Judge Gildersleeve. Her picture is a fair one, taken in June, 1882.

Inspector Byrnes offers many clues to this female criminal in his entry, which requires much unpacking. Byrnes’s references to a jailing in Maryland; Tillie’s operating a road-house in Paterson, N.J.; and the robbery in the Berkeley Flats apartments have no traceable sources. That is regrettable, because the remaining facts–as presented by Byrnes–offer little insight on Tillie’s background and fate.

The March, 1878 Brooklyn arrest referred to by Byrnes was made on a woman using the name Maria Pfeifer/Pfeiffer. While being captured, she pulled a gun and attempted to shoot Detective David H. Corwin. After appearing in court and hearing her sentence (three and a half years in the penitentiary), Maria broke down; she later tried to poison herself with laudanum. At the time of her arrest, a man appeared claiming to be her husband, and explained that he was a “Nevada speculator” who had only been in the city for four months, and that he never suspected his wife was committing these crimes. However, Mr. Pfeiffer never reappeared at her later trial.

In June 1881, while attempting to rob the hotel room of actress Jennie Yeamans, Tillie was captured under the name Kate/Catherine Collins, alias Pheiffer. She was described as an old-time thief, who had been previously jailed not only in Brooklyn, but also in New York.

Finally, the June 1882 arrest in the apartment of Mrs. Toale (not Tool), took place under the name she offered as “Tilly Miller.” In this instance, there was no mention of the name Pfeifer or Collins. In fact, none of these three incidents (1878, 1881 and 1882) mentioned the names Byrnes suggested, “Tillie Pheiffer”; or the name under Byrnes’s photograph of her, “Tilly Martin.”

It so happens that “Tilly Miller” was the name of a notorious female shoplifter and thief, Matilda Ann Myers, best known as a partner of Black Lena Kleinschmidt, and also wife of hotel thief and shoplifter Billy Miller. Given these relationships alone, it is a minor mystery why Byrnes did not include a separate entry for “Tilly Miller.”

Was Maria Pfeiffer/Kate Collins the same woman as the infamous Tilly Miller? Probably not, based on an age difference; and the fact that Tilly Miller was know to have been born in Philadelphia to a German family.

#99 David Swain

David Swain (Abt. 1844-19??), aka Old Dave, James A. Robbins, James A. Roberts, James G. Allison — Swindler, bunco steerer

From Byrnes’s text:

DESCRIPTION. Forty-two years old in 1886. Born in New York City. Stout build. Height, 5 feet 9 inches. Weight, 180 pounds. Light brown hair, blue eyes. Ruddy complexion. Wears full sandy beard and mustache. Married. Scar on forehead over left eye. Part of an anchor in India ink on right fore-arm.

RECORD. Swain is one of the sharpest, meanest, and most dangerous confidence men in the business. He has no favorites, and would rob a friend or a poor emigrant as soon as a party with means. He may be found around railroad depots or steamboat landings, and is well known in all the Eastern cities, especially Boston, Mass., where, it is said, he has a mortgage on the Eastern Railroad depot.

Swain was arrested in New York City on July 17, 1873, for grand larceny from one Edward Steinhofer, of Brooklyn. He was committed to the Tombs prison on July 18, 1873, but was shortly afterwards delivered over to the Albany, N.Y., police authorities, and taken there upon an old charge. He was convicted and sentenced to three years in the Albany Penitentiary, at the Court of Quarter Sessions, in Albany, on September 20, 1873. His time expired in March, 1876.

Swain passed considerable of his time in and around Boston, Mass., when out of prison, and has fleeced many a poor victim there. In August, 1883, he robbed two poor Nova Scotians, man and wife, out of $150 in gold, all the money they had saved for years. He was finally arrested in Boston, Mass., on December 12, 1884, for robbing the Nova Scotians, whose name was Taylor. He lay in jail there until May 23, 1885, when he was brought to court, where he pleaded guilty to the charge, and was sentenced to two years in the House of Correction.

Swain has been working these last few years with George Gifford, who was arrested in Brooklyn, N.Y., on March 15, 1886, for swindling one John Reilly by the confidence game, and sentenced to four years in the Kings County Penitentiary on April 30, 1886. He has also served a term in Boston, Mass., for the same offense. Young Gifford is the son of Harry Gifford, a very clever old confidence man, who died a short time ago. Swain’s picture is a good one, taken in 1881.

David Swain’s criminal career dates back to, at the least, August 1868, when he (along with a partner) was caught at a New York  railroad depot using the old gold brick swindle. In 1872, Swain’s name was invoked as the man engaged to burglar Ed. Johnson’s sister. Johnson, Dave Cummings, and Mose Vogel had been arrested for a bank robbery attempt in Jersey City, New Jersey, and while in jail implicated Jersey City’s Chief of Police and a detective as being in on the robbery. Johnson’s highly amusing testimony mentioned his sister and Swain.

As Byrnes mentions, Swain was arrested the next year for a swindle in Albany, and was sentenced in September of 1873. About six months after getting out of prison in New York, Swain was caught robbing a hotel room in Philadelphia. He was sentenced in thirteen months in Eastern State Penitentiary.

Swain was known to have worked at various times with George Gifford; George Affleck; and Walking Joe Prior.

In 1881, he showed up in Boston, but was arrested on suspicion and told to leave town. Byrnes recounts what happened to Old Dave when he ignored that warning–he was arrested in Boston in 1884 and was shuttled between jail and prison until 1887.

In 1892, Dave was caught pulling swindles on travelers at a rail depot in Chicago.

An article written in 1905 by the Columbus, Ohio Chief of Police described Dave as now being a dangerous bunco operator. In 1909, Dave was detained in Montreal, Quebec for vagrancy–an offense often used to get pickpockets and swindlers off the streets.

A David Swain died on Staten Island in 1914 that might have been Old Dave, but there is no definite evidence linking this Swain (and his family) to the notorious con man.

#45 Edward Sturgess

Edward Hoyt (Abt. 1851-????), aka Edward Sturges/Sturgess, John Burke — Thief

From Byrnes’s text:

DESCRIPTION. Thirty-six years old in 1886. Slim build. Claims to have been born in Havana, Cuba. Married. No trade. Height, 5 feet 9 1/2 inches. Weight, 137 pounds. Brown hair, blue eyes, light complexion. Full, light-colored whiskers and mustache. Two dots of India ink on left fore-arm.

RECORD. Sturgess is a very clever hotel worker, well known in most of the large cities in the United States. He was at one time a pickpocket, but now confines himself to hotel work. He was sentenced to three years and six months in State prison in New York City, on February 20, 1871, for larceny from the person, under the name of Edward Hoyt. He was was again sentenced in New York City on June 2, 1873, to three years in State prison, under the name of Edward Sturgess, for a hotel robbery. While confined in prison in 1873, Sturgess escaped in a swill barrel, but was recaptured the same day and taken back. Nothing has been heard of him lately, having gone West in October, 1877, when he escaped from an officer in New York City, who was arresting him for forfeiting his bail in an old case. His picture is an excellent one, taken in 1877.

Hoyt/Sturges/Burke hid his identity much too skillfully to be traced by family; and also changed his name with each crime, so very little of his criminal career outside of Byrnes’s reporting is known. In Byrnes’s 1895 edition, he refers to one further crime committed under the alias John Burke: he was arrested in Baltimore and in Washington D.C. with George Carson and Joseph McCloskey, for till tapping.

However, as a legacy, Hoyt/Sturgess/Burke left behind an anecdote about an attempted escape from Sing Sing that deserves retelling:


#50 David Cummings

David Cronin (1847-????), aka Little Dave Cummings, J. H. Smith, James Hogan, Harry Smithson, etc. — Sneak thief

Link to Byrnes’s text for #50 David Cummings

Inspector Byrnes not only devoted several pages to Dave Cummings, he also presented information about Dave’s early career that had never been published before 1886, and relating crimes far from New York. Byrnes undoubtedly received most of this information from the Pinkerton Detective Agency, which had been tracking Cummings long before he showed his face in New York City.

There is one egregious error in Byrnes’s entry on Cummings: the robbery of Scooler’s jewelry store in New Orleans took place on the night of Dec. 31, 1870-Jan. 1, 1871. This robbery continued to generate headlines for many months, for two different reasons. First, it was suspected that Billy Forrester was among the gang that did the job–and Forrester was the prime suspect in the murder of financier Benjamin Nathan in July of 1870. Secondly, at about 6:00AM on the morning of Jan 1., a fire broke out on one docked steamboat at New Orleans, which spread to four other ships, destroying them all. There were persistent rumors that the fire had been started by the gang to occupy the police while they made their getaway. However, it does not make a great deal of sense that this would be done hours after the heist was completed; or that the fire would get so out of control from one start point.

The Scooler’s robbery had another detail of interest: as reported by Byrnes, Cummings used the trick of fooling a watchman on street patrol by moving a dummy facade of a safe in front of a window, so that the burglars could work on the real safe without being seen. The same trick was later attributed to Mike Kurtz in an 1884 jewelry store robbery in Troy, New York.

Byrnes (or rather, the Pinkerton Agency) was likely correct that Cummings’ real last name was Cronin. Chicago newspapers indicated that Cummings had been there as a youth; and there is an 1860 Census entry for a “David Cronan” (a common variant spelling of Cronin) born in 1847, and no entries for any David Cummings living in Chicago that was close to the same age. Cummings had initials tattooed on his arm, “D. C.”

Cummings worked with many of the best bank thieves of his era. However, it is doubtful that any criminal of his generation could equal the year that Cummings had in 1881–Byrnes’s information from 1881 bears repeating:

  • In January, 1881, he was arrested at the Sinclair House, New York City, a porter having caught him coming out of the room of a son of United States Senator Pinchback’s, with a full outfit of tools and some valuables of the guests. He was committed, obtained bail, and again went into hiding. [Byrnes later suggested that Cummings was able to get out on bail after playing sick–he ate brick dust while in the Tombs, and spit it up, suggesting that he was coughing blood.]
  • His next appearance was at Philadelphia, where he formed a partnership with Walter Sheridan, Joe McClusky, and other noted bank sneaks. Their first robbery was that of a diamond broker on Chestnut Street, near Twelfth, where Cummings and Sheridan engaged the attention of the clerk, and McCluskey secured about $6,000 worth of diamonds.
  • In May, 1881, Sheridan, Dave, and Jack Duffy made a trip to Baltimore, where they ran across a traveling salesman of the jewelry house of Enos, Richardson & Co., of Maiden Lane, New York. They followed him to the Clarendon Hotel, where they watched till he went to dinner, entered his room and stole his entire stock, valued at $15,000. The chase becoming hot for Cummings, he finally returned the proceeds of the robbery, and received $2,500 for it.
  • He then started for the Pacific slope with Old Jimmy Hope and Big Tom Bigelow, and after looking about, these enterprising burglars concluded to rob Sauthers & Co.’s Bank, a Hebrew institution, where there was $600,000. They again put into operation their favorite tactics of securing a vacant room over the vault. They had tunneled through four layers of brick and several tiers of railroad iron, when the chief of detectives learned they were in the city. He took possession of several offices in the vicinity of the bank with his men, and about 10:30 p. m., on the night of June 27, 1881, he made a raid on them. He found Jimmy Hope at work. Cummings heard them coming and ran to the roof, crawled through the scuttle, and running over the tops of several buildings, finally descended through a vacant store, and was once more at large. Bigelow, who was supposed to have been working inside with Hope, in some manner escaped also.
  • Cummings left his trail at every hotel where he stopped, in Southern California, New Mexico, Denver, Col.; and at a small town, twenty miles from Denver, he robbed a well known Chicago liquor dealer, named Al. Arundel, of $1,400 in money, a $500 watch, and a $400 diamond stud.
  • He then paid a flying visit to Chicago, then to Saint Joseph, Mo., from there to St. Paul, then to Oshkosh, Wis. where he was arrested under the name of J. H. Smith, for robbing a Chicago salesman of his watch, diamond pin, and $200 in money, at the Tremont Hotel in that town. Dave pleaded guilty and was sentenced to three years in State prison there on September 14, 1881.

Cummings career following his release from the Wisconsin State Prison was much more dismal. He went to England, and with Rufe Minor started to plan hotel thefts. However, they were advised against targeting hotels, as security in England was tighter than in the United States. Cummings ignored that advice, and for his trouble was arrested and imprisoned for five years.

He returned to the United States and was arrested for possession of burglar’s tools in New York City in February 1891. He was sentenced to five years in Sing Sing under the name Patrick Robertson.

Cummings was released in September 1894. From that point, little is known of his fate. A 1905 item in the National Police Gazette implied that he was alive and had moved to the Pacific Coast.

In 1912, newspaper columnist Henry C. Terry devoted one of his “Parallel Stories of Famous Crimes” columns to the foiled 1872 Jersey City bank robbery attempt, in which Cummings escaped arrest. Terry’s approach is interesting: he first lets one of the criminals tell his story; then lets one of the police detectives give his view of events: