#89 Frank McCoy

Frank McCoy (Abt. 1843-1905), aka Big Frank McCoy, Frank McDonald, Francis H. Carter — Bank Robber

From Byrnes’s 1886 edition:

DESCRIPTION. Forty-seven years old in 1886. Born in Troy, N.Y. Medium build. Cabinet-maker by trade. Married. Height, 5 feet 11 3/4 inches. Weight, 176 pounds. Dark-red hair, light-gray eyes, full face, sandy complexion, bald on front of head, dimple in point of chin. Has letters “F. M. C.” in India ink on right fore-arm, a cross and heart on left fore-arm. Generally wears long, heavy red whiskers and mustache.

RECORD. Frank McCoy, alias Big Frank, is a famous bank burglar, and a desperate criminal. He is one of the men who originated the “butcher-cart business,” robbing bank messengers and others in the street, and quickly making off with the plunder by jumping into a butcher cart or wagon.

He was arrested with Jimmy Hope, Ike Marsh, Jim Brady, George Bliss, and Tom McCormack, in Wilmington, Del., for an attempt to rob the National Bank of Delaware, on November 7, 1873. They were convicted on November 25, 1873, and sentenced to ten years’ imprisonment, one hour in the pillory, and forty lashes. McCoy and McCormack made their escape from New Castle jail, with tools furnished by Bill Robinson, alias Gopher Bill.

McCoy was associated with Jimmy Hope in the robbery of the Beneficial Savings Fund and other savings banks in Philadelphia, and several other robberies. He is said to have stolen over two million dollars during his criminal career. He is well known all over the United States, and is a treacherous criminal, as several officers can attest. He owes his nickname, “Big Frank,” to his stature.

He was arrested in June, 1876, near Suffolk, Va., a small town between Norfolk and Petersburg, in company of Tom McCormack and Gus Fisher, alias Sandford. A lot of burglars’ tools was found concealed near the railroad depot there, and suspicion pointed to them as the owners. The citizens armed themselves and tracked the burglars with bloodhounds to their tent, which they had pitched in a dismal swamp near the village. They were arrested, taken to the Suffolk jail, and chained to the floor. McCoy was shortly after returned to Delaware prison, from where he afterwards escaped. Fisher, alias Sandford, was sent to Oxford, N.J., and was tried for a burglary. McCormack managed to regain his liberty through his lawyer, in October, 1876.

McCoy was arrested again in New York City on August 12, 1878, charged with robbing C.H. Stone, the cashier of Hale’s piano-forte manufactory. The cashier was knocked down and robbed at the corner of Thirty-fourth Street and Ninth Avenue, New York City, on his return from the West Side Bank, on August 3, 1878. In this case McCoy was discharged, as Mr. Stone was unable to identify him.

McCoy was arrested again in New York City on April 12, 1881, charged with robbing Heaney’s pawnbroker’s establishment, on Atlantic Avenue, Brooklyn, on March 8, 1875, of $2,000 worth of jewelry, etc. He was arrested for this robbery in 1879, and upon an examination before Judge Terry, of Brooklyn, he was discharged. The grand jury afterwards indicted him, and he was arrested again as above, and committed to Raymond Street jail. He afterwards gave bail, and was released.

He was finally arrested again in New York City on May 26, 1885, on suspicion of being implicated in a conspiracy to rob the Butchers and Drovers’ Bank of New York City, in connection with one Gustave Kindt, alias French Gus, a notorious burglar and toolmaker. No case being made out against him, he was delivered to the Sheriff of Wilmington, Del., on November 6, 1885, and taken back to the jail that he had twice escaped from, to serve out the remainder of his ten years’ sentence.

McCoy has killed two men during his criminal career, one on the Bowery, New York, and another in a saloon in Philadelphia, Pa., some years ago. Frank’s picture was taken in August, 1878.

From Byrnes’s 1895 edition:

He was pardoned by Governor Reynolds of Delaware on November 18, 1892. His time would have expired in February, 1893. Since his release he has been trying to live honestly. He was employed in the pool-rooms in New York—when in existence—and on the race-tracks by book makers.

Big Frank McCoy had a rich criminal history long before Byrnes picks up his story, as can be seen from this summary from an 1885 New York Herald story:

The “West Garden National Bank” referred to in this article appears to be the Beneficial Savings Fund Bank, robbed in April 1869. Jimmy Hope was involved in this job, and helped return the plunder to the needy families whose savings were stolen.

The Wilmington, Delaware bank robbery debacle was one of the most notable crimes of the 1870s–not because it succeeded, but due to the fact that it involved five of the most skilled bank robbers of the era: Jimmy Hope, Frank McCoy, Jim Brady, George Bliss, and Tom McCormick–and that they were punished not only with imprisonment, but with a public flogging, followed by a daring escape.

McCoy was quickly recaptured, but escaped a second time. After being caught in a failed bank robbery in Suffolk, Virginia, McCoy was sent back to Delaware to serve out his sentence–and escaped a third time.

Despite being wanted in Delaware, McCoy lived openly in Long Island City, Queens, from 1881 to 1885, operating a pool hall. McCoy was far from remaining honest, though, as this story about how he and Red Leary stole $5000 by cheating a gambling hall attests:

In 1885, McCoy was arrested in New York on suspicion of planning a job with Gus Kindt; he was discharged by the court, but Inspector Byrnes conveniently chose to send him back to Delaware to serve out the sentence he had escaped from three times. McCoy later maintained that Byrnes did so to apply pressure on Jimmy Hope to cough up the bonds stolen from the Manhattan Savings Bank.

McCoy finally paid Delaware the time he owed, and was pardon by the Governor there in 1892.

McCoy died poor in Bellevue Hospital in 1905, but not before giving a few deathbed interviews to several New York newspapers. He regretted his life of crime and wished he had gone into politics instead. He recalled his adventures with Jimmy Hope fondly.

“I’ve never killed a man…,” Frank stated, “That thought is my one consolation.”

Perhaps what Frank meant to say was that he had never killed a man except that deserved it, for he had shot dead John Steiger in 1867 over the proceeds of a burglary they had committed; and also killed Philadelphia thief Patsey Williams in a saloon in 1870.


#141 Richard Morris

Richard Morris (Abt. 1844-19??), aka Big Dick, Charles Johnson, Richard Johnson, James Johnson, Charles Williams, James Williams, George W. Davis, John Sullivan, etc. – Pickpocket

From Byrnes’s text:

DESCRIPTION. Forty-two years old in 1886. Born in United States. Married. Carpenter. Medium build. Height, 5 feet 10 1/2 inches. Weight, 155 pounds. Brown hair, blue eyes, fair complexion. Generally wears a light-colored beard and mustache, inclined to be sandy.

RECORD. “Big Dick” is a well known New York pickpocket. He works with Charles Douglas, alias Curly Charley; Poodle Murphy (134), Shang Campbell (107), James Wilson, alias Pretty Jimmie (143), and all the other good New York men. He has traveled all over the United States, and is well known in all the principal cities. Morris formerly kept a drinking saloon in New York that was a resort for nearly all the pick- pockets in America, but business fell off and he went back to his old business again.

He was arrested in New York City, and sentenced to five years in Sing Sing prison, January 7, 1872, for larceny from the person, under the name of Richard Morris.

He was arrested again in Albany, N.Y., by New York officers, and brought to New York City, where he pleaded guilty to grand larceny, and was sentenced to one year in the penitentiary on August 10, 1885, for stealing a coat from Rogers, Peet & Co., some months previously. He gave bail in this case, which he forfeited, and was subsequently re-arrested as above. Morris’s picture is a good one, taken in October, 1877.

While Richard Morris’s origins, character, and fate remain obscure–and his career as a Bowery gang pickpocket was not particularly interesting–one episode in which he became the talk of New York’s entire underworld community occurred on August 11, 1879. On that day, through no fault of his own, Morris helped to make a public mockery of the entire King’s County (Brooklyn) Sheriff’s department.

Almost exactly one year earlier, in August 1878, a group of four notorious burglars had been caught while robbing the safe of a flour store in Brooklyn. They were: Billy Porter, Johnny Irving, Shang Draper, and John Wilbur (real name Gib Yost), each with long records, and all highly-skilled thieves. Billy Porter (real name William O’Brien) was one of Marm Mandelbaum’s favorite pet burglars–she called him “my most promising chick.” After being arraigned in police court, the four burglars were lodged in the Raymond Street jail to await trial. When transported between the court building and the jail, utmost security was used; the prisoners were handcuffed together; and a whole detail of sheriff deputies surrounded them.

The four burglars were afforded the best legal defense (likely funded by Marm Mandelbaum), and their trials were dragged out for over eight months. Billy Porter’s first trial resulted in a hung jury, and so he was tried again in May 1879. This time he was convicted, and returned to the Raymond Street jail to await his sentencing. Porter’s fate galvanized his supporters, and put fear into his partner Johnny Irving. Porter and Irving decided to try an escape, and found it surprisingly easy to do, for the guards had let down their vigilance. Porter and Irving had been given the freedom of the jail corridors, and noted the lax security around the building exits. They were able to walk through a kitchen door, across the open grounds of the nearby jail hospital, and then climbed over the short fence to the side street.

The effortless escape of Porter and Irving was denounced by Brooklyn and New York newspapers as a sign of mismanagement in the King’s County sheriff’s office, which spurred both the Brooklyn police and the sheriff to try to recapture the fugitives as quickly as possible. They had no leads until late July, when a New Jersey detective named Fred Whitehead noticed Marm Mandelbaum making several visits to an upscale hotel in Passaic; followed by visits made by “Mickey” Welch, a crook who was suspected in aiding Porter and Irving’s escape from jail. Through an informer, Whitehead learned that they were making arrangements for Porter and Irving to make the hotel their new headquarters. Staking out the hotel around the clock, he finally saw Porter arrive on July 14, 1879. Whitehead waited patiently, and was rewarded a week later when Irving also checked in.

He alerted the authorities in Brooklyn. Brooklyn Sheriff Riley arrived in Passaic with five of his deputies. Together with ten Passaic detectives and constables and Fred Whitehead, they had seventeen men surrounding the hotel. Sheriff Riley insisted that they hold off a day or two before arresting the pair, in hopes that other fugitive criminals might be joining them, and to verify their identities. Fred Whitehead seethed, thinking that they had Porter and Irving in a perfect trap. Meanwhile, the two thieves started keeping different schedules, and were rarely in the hotel together.

Finally, Riley declared they would raid the men’s rooms at four the next morning, when they were most like to be asleep. Porter and Irving were seen going to their rooms around midnight. The hotel proprietor, who may or may not have been bribed by Marm Mandelbaum, noticed several men lurking outside the hotel. The next thing the officers knew, Porter and Irving burst out of a side doorway and ran towards a back street. One man spotted then and chased them into a small alley, but Porter or Irving shot a pistol at him, just missing his head. They then ran into a back yard and jumped over a fence, and were not seen again. They had eluded all seventeen men.

This incident, too, made all the newspapers, further adding to the bumbling reputation of Sheriff Riley and his men. One of Riley’s deputies, Thomas Morris, felt sure that they might get another shot at capturing Porter and Irving if they kept an eye on Marm Mandelbaum, who no longer was making visits to Passaic, but instead kept close to her store at the corner of Clinton and Rivington streets in lower Manhattan. Accordingly, she was placed under constant surveillance. Through this watch they learned that Mandelbaum’s son was planning a huge picnic gathering at the Jones Wood Colosseum, a park and resort on the upper East side of Manhattan, known for hosting many large festivals.

Deputy Morris learned that Marm Mandelbaum was to be the central honoree of this celebration, and that all of her thieving proteges and their families were invited. He was convinced that Porter and Irving would not miss such an occasion, and was able to get a ticket to the picnic from an informer. After mingling with the merrymakers, Deputy Morris spotted four men at the makeshift bar tent; he identified them as Porter, Irving, and the two men who had helped them escape from jail: Johnny The Mick and Mickey Welch.

Morris ran to the nearest police precinct station and demanded to see the captain. He convinced the captain to call out every man available, and reserves, and to make a beeline to Jones Wood. There, the police surrounded the four men and took them to the precinct house, where the suspects gave suspected aliases and totally denied being any of the men being sought.

Eventually, several New York police detectives arrived and informed Deputy Morris that they had arrested the wrong men. The detectives recognized only one of the four that had been taken: his name was Richard Morris, a Bowery pickpocket. “Big Dick” was asked to explain why he was attending the Mandelbaum’s picnic. His answer was simple–he owned a bar just down the street from Marm Mandelbaum, and knew her as a local business owner.

Big Dick was let loose with apologies, while Deputy Sheriff Thomas Morris brought yet more shame to the reputation of Brooklyn’s law officers. Big Dick returned to his saloon to be hailed as the hero of the day.

Big Dick was active as late as 1903, when he was caught picking pockets at a fireman’s muster in Salem, Massachusetts.









#186 William Dougherty

William Dougherty (Abt. 1845-????), aka William Gleason, William Davis, Big Dock — Burglar, Pickpocket

From Byrnes’s text:

DESCRIPTION. Forty years old in 1886. Born in New York. Married. No trade. Stout build. Height, 5 feet 11 inches. Weight, about 180 pounds. Dark brown hair, dark eyes, dark complexion. Generally wears a brown mustache. Hair worn long and inclined to curl. He is a tall, fine-looking man. Dresses well.

RECORD. “Big Dock” is an old Eighth Ward New York pickpocket and sneak thief. He is well known in a number of the principal cities in the United States and Canada, and is an escaped prisoner from Sing Sing prison, New York. There is a standing reward of fifty dollars for any officer in the United States who arrests and holds him until the prison authorities can come for him. He is a big, desperate fellow, and requires watching before and after arrest. Dougherty has served terms in Sing Sing prison (New York), and in the penitentiary on Blackwell’s Island; also, in Canada. He is an associate of “Curly” Charley, “Big Dick” Morris (141), “Jimmy the Kid” (143), Freddie Louther (161), “Aleck the Milkman” (160), and several other first-class pickpockets.

He was arrested in New York City on October 7, 1875, for grand larceny and felonious assault. Mr. Joseph Wolf and his wife got on board of a Third Avenue car in Park Row, intending to go up-town. Before the car had proceeded far, his watch was torn from his pocket by Dougherty, who then jumped off the platform and ran away. Mr. Wolf gave chase to the fugitive, and overtook him in Nassau Street. The thief struck him a blow in the face, and continued his flight, still pursued by Mr. Wolf. The latter again overtook the runaway, in Theatre Alley, when Dougherty turned upon him, knocked him down, and while he was lying upon the ground fired a shot at him from a revolver. When Mr. Wolf came to his senses the thief was out of sight. An officer who was in the vicinity heard the shot, and arrived on the scene in time to pursue the culprit, whom he captured. Dougherty was tried, found guilty, and sentenced, on November 11, 1875, to ten years in State prison for the larceny, and five years for the assault, making fifteen years in all, by Recorder Hackett. He gave the name of William Gleason.

“Big Dock” escaped from Sing Sing prison on January 30, 1876, and is now wanted by the prison authorities. The white affair on his breast is a pocket-handkerchief which he placed there to hide a bloody shirt when his picture was taken. Dougherty’s picture is a good one, although taken fifteen years ago.

Dougherty was an accomplished burglar as well as pickpocket. In April 1872, he and another noted burglar/pickpocket, James Munday, were caught on the premises of Stewart & Corbett’s hobby-horse factory. Though one can easily imagine these villainous rustlers making their escape on hobby-horses, the drab reality is that they were after carpenter’s tools. Alternate reports of the same incident said the factory made pianos or chairs, and that a night watchman was bound, gagged, and tied up to a piano leg.

Dougherty was released on bail, which he jumped, reportedly fleeing to Boston. He got into trouble there, and spent much of 1872 and 1873 in the Massachusetts State Prison.

While still under indictment for that crime, two years later, in May 1874, Dougherty was back in New York City and was caught with “Albert Wilson alias Jim Wilson” while at a beer garden dividing the spoils of a burglary of a lace importer. [It is unclear if the partner was Jimmy Wilson the pickpocket; or Albert Wise alias Al. Wilson; or a different man].

For reasons unknown, Dougherty was able to escape the consequences of the 1872 robbery and the lace robbery, and was set at liberty. In August 1875 he was arrested for selling fine linen napkins (with the owner’s name embroidered on them) that had been reported stolen. Once again he avoided lockup, until two months later, when the street-car robbery described by Byrnes went awry.

Facing a fifteen year sentence in Sing Sing, Dougherty resolved to escape. In late March, 1876, he hid outside while his work crew returned to their cell block; and his cellmate answered roll call for him later that evening.

Dougherty’s escape came ten years before Inspector Byrnes wrote his book; and no word had been heard of “Big Dock” in the intervening years. Most people likely assumed he was dead, but Byrnes appeared to suspect otherwise.



#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.

#148 Thomas Burns

Thomas Burns (Abt. 1836-1895), aka Combo, Thomas Hamilton — Pickpocket, Stall

From Byrnes’s text:

DESCRIPTION Forty-nine years of age in 1886. Born in United States. Married. No trade. Medium build. Height, 5 feet 10 1/2 inches. Weight, 165 pounds. Black hair, brown eyes, dark complexion. Has scar on forehead; mole on right cheek. Generally wears a black beard, turning gray.

RECORD. “Combo” is a well known New York pickpocket. He works with “Jersey Jimmie” (145), “Nigger” Baker (195), “Curly Charley,” Dick Morris (141), “Aleck the Milkman” (160), and the best people in the cities he visits. He was considered second to none in the business; but of late years he has fallen back, and does only “stalling,” on account of his love for liquor. He is pretty well known in Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, Boston and Chicago, and, in fact, in almost all the large cities in the States.

He was arrested in New York City, for the larceny of a watch from one Lawson Valentine, on a Sixth Avenue horse-car, on February 8, 1875. He was tried, found guilty, and sentenced to four years in State prison, on March 9, 1875, under the name of Thomas Hamilton, by Judge Sutherland.

Combo was again arrested, at the Grand Central Railroad depot in New York City, on November 24, 1885, in an attempt to ply his vocation. He was sentenced to one year in the penitentiary on December 1, 1885, in the Court of Special Sessions, New York. Burns’s picture is an excellent one, taken in November, 1885.

Sometimes members of the underground fraternity of thieves would meet unexpectedly, as happened in the fall of 1872, in the Hudson County, New Jersey jailhouse in Jersey City, New Jersey.  Two veteran, hardened bank robbers, Ed. Johnson and Frank Dean, aka Dago Frank, were detained there so that they could testify on a sensational case of police corruption that implicated the city’s chief of police and senior detective. Johnson and Dean had been caught nearly a year earlier while attempting to break into the First National Bank of Jersey City. They had been working with two other seasoned pros, Dave Cummings and Moses Vogel.

Ed. Johnson was arrested under the alias Charles J. Proctor; Dean was jailed as Frank Denning. They were placed in separate cells in the first tier of the jailhouse, with an empty cell between them. Dave Cummings had escaped capture because he had been busy playing billiards while his partners did the hard work, but Cummings had vowed to spare no expense in getting Johnson and Dean out of jail.

One day, a new prisoner was escorted into the empty cell between Johnson and Dean. He was Thomas “Combo” Burns, age 36, a noted Bowery pickpocket. Burns may have recognized the two bank robbers, or, at the least, had heard of them. Burns frequented the same Lower Manhattan saloons as bank robbers and sneak thieves; he was even rumored to have played a role in one famous Philadelphia bank robbery of February 1871, the Kensington Savings Bank.

Burns could hear all the conversation that passed between Johnson and Dean, and in a way became their confidant.

Burns was visited in jail each week by his mother, who took the ferry over from New York. She brought him his favorite delicacies to make up for the drab jail meals. Johnson and Dean eyed Burns’s treats with envy, and asked Burns if they could arrange for his mother to bring them their favorite treats that their relatives in New York would bring to her. So soon all three men got an inspected parcel of goodies whenever Burn’s mother visited. Invariably, Johnson and Dean always received at least one can of peaches, their favorite.

On September 25th, Johnson and Dean had a visitor come. Combo Burns heard them whispering that something big was to happen on the next Saturday evening. That same day, Burn’s mother visited and once again brought food with her, including several cans of peaches. She gave cans to Johnson and Dean, but also gave one to Burns. Burns noticed that Johnson shook his can after receiving it. He shook his can, and heard a metallic click as he did so. He cut out one end of the can, but found only peaches. He then took off the other end and discovered a small flask filled with black powder.

It was then that Burns realized that Johnson and Dean had been collecting a store of gunpowder to use to bring down the rear wall of their cell and make a dash for freedom. Burns himself had no great motive to involve himself in a jailbreak; he was in on a charge of picking pockets, and might get acquitted–or, at worst, a light sentence. However, he likely did not even consider his own fate; what stirred his indignation was that Johnson and Dean used his mother as an unwilling accomplice. She was the go-between that had no idea what was in the cans of peaches.

Combo burns poured the gunpowder into his toilet pipe and started yelling at Johnson and Dean. They told him to pipe down, and then tried to bribe him to remain silent. Burns was having none of it. He called the guards and had them inspect the cells of Johnson and Dean, where matches, a fuse, and a rubber bag with five pounds of gunpowder were discovered. Their escape plan (doubtless coordinated by Dave Cummings) was foiled.

Do not come between an Irishman and his mother.

#29 Charles Wilson

Paul C. Wilson (Abt. 1852–????), aka Charles Wilson, Charles Wilks, Little Paul — Sneak thief, Shoplifter

From Byrnes’s text:

DESCRIPTION. Thirty-three years old in 1886. Stout build. Born in England. Not married. Height, 5 feet 2 3/4 inches. Weight, 140 pounds. Brown hair, gray eyes, round full face, light complexion. Whiskers, when grown, are a little sandy.

RECORD. “Little Paul” is quite a clever sneak and shoplifter. He was sent to State prison in New York City in January, 1878, and again on June 18, 1883, for four years, for larceny in the second degree, by Recorder Smyth.

On November 14, 1883, in company of Frank Harrison, alias Frank Reilly (79), he escaped from the mess-room at Sing Sing prison early in the morning, by sawing off the iron bars of a window and crawling into the yard; they then went to the west end of the prison wall, which projects over the Hudson River docks, and there, by means of a convenient float, reached the shore outside the prison wall, where they left their prison clothes and put on civilian’s attire, that had been “planted” there for them some time before.

Paul was re-arrested in New Orleans, La., on January 26, 1884, and returned to Sing Sing prison in February of that year. His full time will expire on June 17, 1887. His picture is a good one, taken in 1878.

Wilson was gifted with a third stint at Sing Sing in November 1893 for Grand Larceny and sentenced to three years and two months.

However, in Wilson’s case, his criminal career is far less interesting than the Gordian’s knot genealogy puzzle he left for future generations. Here are the clues:

  • Despite Byrnes’s assertion, there are multiple sources that place his birth year at around 1852 in Philadelphia, not England.
  • He had the letter “P” tattooed on his right arm. Both Byrnes and Sing Sing registers maintain that his real name was “Paul C. Wilson.”
  • His earliest Sing Sing record, from May 1874, offers his name as Charles Wilks, and his father’s name as James Wilks of Philadelphia (no specific address).
  • His 1883 Sing Sing record uses the name Charles Wilson, and he lists a sister: Mrs. Mary A. Lodge of 715 Sansom Street in Philadelphia.
  • His November 1893 Sing Sing record also uses Charles Wilson and lists a cousin, Mrs. C. R. Forepaugh of 303 N Fifth Street, Philadelphia.

And some items to ponder:

  • In 1883, the address 715 Sansom Street in Philadelphia included upstairs apartments: but also was home to the Miller & Sharkey Detective Agency.
  • There was a Mary A. Lodge living in Philadelphia in 1883, married to Louis Lodge. Mary’s maiden name was Farrell. Her paternal grandmother’s name was Mary Wilson. Mary had a brother, Joseph Farrell, born in 1852, whose fate can not be traced into the 1870s or beyond.
  • Mrs. Caroline R. Forepaugh married into the famous Forepaugh circus family. Her maiden name was Lachlan. Nothing can be traced beyond her mother and father’s names–making it possible to know the family names of any cousins.

While it’s fairly obvious that “Little Paul” came from Philadelphia; and used the names of real people as contacts; it also appears that he made something of a game out of hiding his identity.

#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.





#121 Mary Ann Watts

Mary Ann Watts (Abt. 1844-????), aka Mary Wilson, Mary Walker — Shoplifter, Pickpocket

From Byrnes’s text:

DESCRIPTION. Thirty-eight years old in 1886. Born in United States. Dressmaker. Medium build. Height, 5 feet 3 1/2 inches. Weight, about 145 pounds. Dark brown hair, hazel eyes, ruddy complexion. Coarse features.

RECORD. Mary Ann Watts is a well known New York female thief. She is considered a very clever woman, and is known in all the principal cities East and West. She is credited with having served one term in the House of Correction in Boston (Mass.), one in Chicago and Philadelphia, besides two terms in New York State prison and two in the penitentiary.

She was arrested in New York City under the name of Mary Wilson, pleaded guilty to an attempt at grand larceny, and was sentenced to two years and six months in State prison, by Recorder Hackett, on December 19, 1873.

She escaped shortly after, and was at large until her arrest in New York City again for shoplifting. In this case she was tried, found guilty, and sentenced to three years in State prison, by Judge Sutherland, on April 6, 1876.

After this last sentence expired she had to serve out about two years she owed on the previous sentence, making about five years in all. This is a clever woman, and well worth knowing. Her picture is a good one, although taken ten years ago.

Mary Ann Watts was the oldest daughter of English immigrants Isaiah and Emma Watts. Isaiah Watts was a respected, very successful “intelligence agent,” i.e. an employment agency specializing in placing servants in wealthy households. In the late 1860s, she became the partner of a shoplifter going by the name Wilson (James or Joe), and Mary Ann started using the name Mary Wilson. The man Wilson apparently died in prison; Mary Ann then associated herself with David H. Levitt, aka David Goldstein.

In December 1873, Mary Ann was caught shoplifting silks from a Manhattan store and sentenced to five years at Sing Sing. One night in early April 1874, Mary Ann became one of the  few women to escape from Sing Sing (Sophie Lyons was another, in December 1872). She was an assistant in the prison hospital, and therefore was free to walk the cell corridors until 8 PM. With a duplicate key, she opened a door to a laundry room and locked it behind her. She took a ladder that was there (used for washing windows) and carried it outside to the prison’s stone wall. The ladder reached about eight feet, tall enough for Mary Ann to grab the top edge of the wall and pull herself up and over. The warden later reported that “Daniel Levitt” (David H. Levitt) had been present when she first came to the prison; and had been seen just in the nearby village just a few days before her escape.

Collection of Shayne Davidson

A week later, the warden arrested two prison officers implicated in supplying Mary Ann the duplicate key. The same guards were responsible for aiding an earlier Sing Sing escape by James Brady and Bill Miller (the husband of Tilly Miller).

Mary Ann remained a fugitive for the next two years, during which she likely assisted David Levitt and Tilly Miller in a silk-smuggling operation at Niagara Falls, immediately after her escape from Sing Sing. Levitt was caught, but escaped a day later, assisted by a woman who was probably Mary Ann.

In April 1876, Mary Ann was arrested for shoplifting in New York City. She gave her name as Mary Walker, but the arresting detective recognized her as the fugitive from Sing Sing, Mary Ann Watts. In court, she was sentenced to finish her original term, and also another three years for her most recent shoplifting crime.

A year and a half into her return to Sing Sing, seventy-seven female convicts were transferred to Brooklyn’s Kings County Penitentiary via a ship taken down the Hudson. During the voyage, many of the women passed time by whistling a jig and dancing in the ship’s hold, but Mary Ann stood by silently. A guard point her out to a reporter from the Brooklyn Eagle who was along for the transfer.

“She stood leaning against the woodwork sullenly, would speak to no one, and took no notice either of the keepers or the convicts. ‘That woman was planning an escape,’ said Mr. Crummey. ‘She found out some time ago that she was to be removed down to Brooklyn, and she tried to smuggle a letter out to some of her friends in New York, but it was discovered. It informed them to be on the lookout for her when the boat landed and to try and effect her rescue. The matron told me about this, and I guess Watts knows it, and that’s the reason she’s so sulky. She’ll be one of the first to be locked up in the prison van. She threatened to cut Mrs. Hall to pieces one time at Sing Sing, and is one of the hardest of the whole crowd.'”

Mary Ann Watts served out her sentence. In 1895, Inspector Byrnes reported that she had reformed.






#30 David Goldstein

David H. Levitt (Abt. 1844-18??), aka Sheeny Dave, Daniel H. Levett/Leavitt/Lovett/Leavett, James Lewis, Louis Lewis, Herman Lewis, Louis/Lewis Ruebenstein, David Goldenberg — Smuggler, Sneak thief, Pickpocket

From Byrnes’s text:

DESCRIPTION. Forty-two years old in 1886. A Jew, born in Poland. Married. No trade. Stout build. Height, 5 feet 7 1/2 inches. Weight, 180 pounds. Dark complexion, black hair, dark eyes, cast in left eye. Black beard, when worn. Dresses well. Is very quick in his movements.

RECORD. “Sheeny Dave,” whose right name is David Levitt, is an old New York thief, and is pretty well known in all the principal cities of the United States. He has served time in State prison in a number of States.

He was arrested In Buffalo, N.Y., on January 26, 1878, in company of a man who reformed about six years ago, for shoplifting (working jewelry stores), and both sentenced to one year’s imprisonment in Auburn (N.Y.) prison.

When his time expired he was taken to Baltimore, Md., for a crime committed there, but was not convicted.

He was arrested again in New York City, under the name of James Lewis, on January 15, 1881, for the larceny of two pieces of blue silk from the store of Edward Freitman & Co., No. 473 Spring Street, valued at $140. For this offense, upon his plea of guilty, he was sentenced to two years and six months in State prison at Sing Sing, on April 12, 1881, by Judge Cowing.

He was arrested again in New York City on December 21, 1883, under the name of Samuel Newman, for the larceny of a diamond bracelet, valued at $500, from Kirkpatrick, the jeweler, on Broadway, New York. He was indicted by the Grand Jury on January 10, 1884, and forfeited his bail on January 15, 1884.

He was arrested again on September 30, 1884, in York County, Maine, for picking pockets, and sentenced to three years in prison at Alfred, Maine, under the name of Herman Lewis. For expiration of sentence, see commutation law of Maine. He is still a fugitive from justice, and is wanted in New York City. His picture is an excellent one, taken in January, 1878.

So successful was this felon in issuing aliases that his real name is only suspected to be David H. Levitt, determined by a consensus of arrest and prison records.

Dave’s traceable career begins in April 1874, when he and pickpocket Tilly Miller were caught on the Niagara Falls suspension bridge smuggling silks from Canada. He was taken to Rochester, New York, where he faced trial in a U. S. District Court and was sentenced to six months and a $500 fine, with the time to be served at the Monroe County Penitentiary. However, while waiting to be transported to the Penitentiary, he escaped from the Monroe County Jail with the help of a female accomplice, known on this occasion as “Julia Reilly”. Why Dave chose to be a fugitive rather than take a light sentence is a minor mystery.

Tilly Miller was separately detained. She had been in Canada after fleeing from New York authorities for her role in helping her husband, Billy Miller, escape from Sing Sing with the assistance of bribed guards. The other woman “Julia Reilly,” was likely Mary Ann Watts, a shoplifter that had taken up with Dave Levitt after the death of her common-law pickpocket husband, Joe Wilson. Mary Ann Watts had been residing in Sing Sing until March 1874 (just a month before the smuggling episode), when she escaped using the same accomplices that Tilly Miller had used to free her husband.

Dave Levitt enjoyed his freedom for over a year, probably in the company of his fellow fugitive, Mary Ann Watts. However, in November 1875, he was caught trying to sneak watches off a jeweler’s tray in New York City. He first gave his name as Louis Lewis, but was later recognized as the fugitive David H. Levitt. He was handed back over to U. S. Marshals, and was sent to Auburn prison to serve his time for smuggling.

After being released, Dave was on his own again (Mary Ann Watts had, in the meanwhile, been arrested and sent back to Sing Sing). Dave soon took a new mistress, known only as Teresa. He continued shoplifting from jewelry stores, making a successful raid in early January 1878, in Baltimore, Maryland. He sent the loot to Teresa in New York for safekeeping. In late January 1878, he was apprehended in Buffalo after sneaking valuables out of  a jewelry store and was sentenced to one year in Auburn State Prison.

While Dave was in Auburn, Teresa’s step-father stumbled across the hiding-place where she had stored the stolen valuables from Baltimore. He took the loot for himself; Teresa discovered it gone and confronted him, and another man overheard the argument and went to police. After interviewing all the participants, Baltimore officials now had the circumstantial evidence they needed to charge Dave with the robbery. After his time in Auburn expired, he was taken to Baltimore, but the case against him was weak enough to secure his acquittal.

He was caught shoplifting silk in New York City in January 1881, resulting in a two and a half year sentence in Sing Sing. Soon after getting out, he was caught again sneaking objects from a jewelry store in December 1883. He jumped his $500 bail and once more became a fugitive.

Dave then went to Maine, where he was arrested for picking pockets in September 1884. Consequently, he was sent to Maine’s state prison for a three year term.

In the late 1880s, Dave somehow resolved his debt to New York courts, but how this was done remains unknown. In the 1890s, he became a special detective hired, as Byrnes indicated in 1895, “by a major sea resort near New York City.” This was almost certainly John Y. McKane’s Coney Island police force, which was notorious for hiring ex-convicts.

A newspaper item from 1897 mentioned that Dave was no longer alive; the exact date of his death and the name he was using at the time are not known.

#103 Frank Woods

Frank Woods (Abt. 1846-????), aka Frank McKenna, Frank Wilson — House Thief

From Byrnes’s text:

DESCRIPTION. Thirty-five years old in 1886. Born in New York City. Single. No trade. Medium build. Height, 5 feet 6 inches. Weight, 135 pounds. Black hair, gray eyes, fair complexion. Has scar on left hand, near thumb joint. Has figures “25” in India ink on outside of left fore-arm.

RECORD. Woods is perhaps one of the smartest house thieves there is in this country. He confines himself to second-story work generally, and usually works wealthy manufacturing towns and summer resorts.

He was arrested in New York City on July 15, 1874, under the name of Frank McKenna, in company of William Johnson, charged with entering the house of J. A. Terhune, No. 416 West Twenty-eighth Street, by removing a panel of the basement door. The noise awakened the occupants of the house, who pursued them, and caused their arrest. Woods and Johnson both pleaded guilty to burglary in the third degree, and were each sentenced to State prison at Sing Sing for five years on August 4, 1874, by Recorder Hackett.

Woods escaped from Sing Sing on June 2, 1876, but was recaptured and returned to prison the same month.

He was arrested again in New York City on March 5, 1885, and delivered to the authorities of Pawtucket, R.I., charged with robbing the house of William Sayles, a wealthy manufacturer of that place. This robbery was what is called a second-story job. He was tried on July 3, 1885, and the jury disagreed. He was afterwards admitted to bail, an official becoming his bondsman, so as to insure his return in case any further evidence could be obtained against him. This was a lucky escape for him. Woods is well known in all the large Eastern cities. He has served time in State prisons in New York, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania, and is a very clever thief. Woods’ picture is a good one, taken in December, 1877.

Inspector Byrnes missed the opportunity to add more detail to Woods’s background and crimes, though perhaps he did not have those at hand. An 1876 article from the New York Sun informs us:

“Frank McKenna was the handsomest and most promising of the Sixteenth Ward youths ten years ago. He had received a collegiate education, and was a student for the ministry. His father was rich, and his home refined. Unluckily, some of his associates were evil minded, and they led him to drink, gamble, and the rest. By his father’s death he was made master of three dwellings in Seventeenth street, near Eighth avenue, and thereafter he squandered his patrimony. Then he became a burglar, known to the police as Frank Woods.”

Byrnes and the Sing Sing registers preferred the opposite: that his real name was woods, and McKenna an alias.

It was as “Frank Woods” that he was rumored to have been a member of the infamous 1873 “River Pirate” gang led by Patsey Conroy and Pugsey Hurley. If so, then Woods was one of the lucky couple of members of that gang that established alibis and escaped prosecution.

Woods escaped from Sing Sing in June 1876. Some sources state that he escaped twice, the first time in May of 1875; but these accounts confuse Frank with a man involved in that earlier attempt, Peter McKenna. The 1876 escape was nearly a carbon copy of the 1875 break: prisoners walking from the rock quarry passed nearby an arch that ran over nearby rail tracks between the prison and the Hudson River. They made a break from the guards and dropped onto the passing engine and coal tender. The New York Sun got the story of the engineer:


Woods was able to get across the river and evaded his pursuers. However, he was caught in St. Louis fairly quickly, and was returned to Sing Sing to serve out his sentence.

In Byrnes’s 1895 edition, he updated Frank Woods entry to inform the public that Woods was currently living in New York, and had reformed. If so, he might have started life under a new name, because there was never further mention of the thief, Frank Woods.