#113 James Fitzgerald

Gilbert J. Fitzgerald (1856-1933), aka James Fitzgerald, The Kid, Red Fitz, J. S. Morrison — Bunco Steerer

From Byrnes’s text:

DESCRIPTION. Twenty-nine years old in 1886. Born in Washington, D.C. Slim build. Single. Height, 5 feet 7 inches. Weight, 130 pounds. Red hair, dark auburn eyes, sandy complexion, straight nose, beard red (when worn), hair very thick and coarse.

RECORD. “The Kid,” as he is called, is well known in New York, Boston and several other large cities, and is considered one of the cleverest men in the banco business. He generally worked with Johnny Norton (now dead). He and Norton were the two men that succeeded in obtaining $7,000 from Charles Francis Adams, in Boston, in 1882, by the banco game. “The Kid ” was arrested, tried,, convicted, and sentenced to five years in the Charlestown, Mass., State prison on June 23, 1882. His sentence will expire August 27, 1886. Norton escaped at the time and never was captured. He died in New York City in March, 1885. Fitzgerald’s picture is a good one, taken in October, 1881.

The few details known about Gilbert Fitzgerald’s career are fascinating, and leave one wishing more was known about his adventures as a con-man. Gilbert J. (middle name James, it can be assumed) Fitzgerald was born to Irish immigrants who had settled in Milwaukee. Gilbert’s father, Francis (Frank) was a thriving shoemaker. In the mid-1870s, when Gilbert reached adulthood, he was recommended by Senator Matthew Hale Carpenter to a position in the Government Printing Office in Washington, D. C. He helped in the printing of the Congressional Record. A later report from a Washington source recalled:

“He was known among his friends and acquaintances as ‘Reddy,’ a name applied to him perhaps on account of his fiery red hair. He was a jovial, quick-witted, devil-may-care fellow, and a good compositor. He was given to gambling, and most of his wages went into a faro-bank. He was small of stature but of good nerve, and was quite an athlete. While his disposition was the reverse of quarrelsome, yet he was quick to take up a quarrel of a friend, and generally came out winner, even when the odds were apparently much against him.”

By May, 1878 Fitzgerald had quit his government job and was found far from Washington, D.C.–he was arrested in Deadwood, South Dakota with three other men for running a bunco operation and swindling a man; but “The Kid” was released for lack of evidence. For a while, he made Denver his center of operations–at a time when Denver was the unofficial capital of con artists and grifters. It was said that one man who joined him there was George Ellwood, who later gained fame as “Gentleman George,” the creepily-polite burglar. The mentor of the gang appeared to be a bunco artist named Charley Miller.

Gilbert formed a new gang with Billy Harris and Johnny Norton, and headed to New Orleans in the fall of 1881. After New Orleans, Fitz was arrested in Jacksonville, Florida in January, 1882 for swindling a wealthy man from Maine, but was released. The gang headed north to Boston, where they happened upon the most prominent bunco victim in history: Charles Francis Adams–son of John Quincy Adams and grandson of John Adams; and himself a former Ambassador to Great Britain. In 1882, Charles Francis Adams was in his seventies, and was mostly retired from public life. Gilbert Fitzgerald was only twenty-six.

Immediately after swindling Adams out of a check for $17,500, Adams’ lawyer, his son, and a private detective tracked Fitzgerald down. Fitzgerald and Norton agreed to meet with them, since they were confident that Adams’ representatives would, in the end, honor the check and preserve the old diplomat’s reputation. Fitzgerald, using the alias “J. S. Morrison,” sauntered into the room, sat down, and opened with a statement: “Gentlemen, this is my business. My occupation is to allure elderly gentlemen of wealth into some den and extort money from them. I have been in this business for a great while. I have recently returned from Florida, where I have been absent the greater part of the winter, and have done a great deal of this sort of business with various Boston parties.”

Fitz then continued to explain that they had targeted Mr. Adams. They knew him by reputation to be wealthy and had made themselves familiar with his habits; the 28th day of March was the day Fitz had met Mr. Adams as he left his house on Mount Vernon street, and introduced himself as the son of an old friend of Mr. Adams; he accosted him very politely, requested permission to walk with him, and did walk with him, conversing with Adams on subject of interest to the old statesman. When they arrived at some point on Boylston street, Mr. Morrison (Fitz) suddenly changed the subject by producing a lottery ticket, and explained to Adams that he had won a prize on it, and would like to have Mr. Adams come inside the lottery office they were passing to help identify him.

Morrison went to the office cashier and received his cash prize and two tickets. Then Morrison called Adams’ attention to a very interesting and fascinating game which was going on, in which cards were laid out in a grid, with a very few blank spaces among the rows of cards. Upon using a ticket, a player was issued six cards with numbers on them. The player totaled the numbers of his cards, which corresponded to the position of a face-down card on the grid. Morrison and Adams each played their ticket, and Adams’ number total pointed to a card that, when turned over, revealed a prize of $2500. As a consequence of that win, Adams qualified to get two more tickets to play again, on condition that he put up a check for $250, 10% of his $2500 prize. That check was given by Adams. They played again with the result of another prize for Adams, this time $16,000. Adams wrote a check for $1600 to play again, and received additional tickets. After another win, Adams wrote a check for $17,500, and then received his cards. This time, the numbers totaled pointed not to a face-down card, but to a blank spot on the grid. Adams had lost.

Morrison (Fitz) had been playing and winning along with Adams, and also lost when Adams lost. Morrison then made a great act of being angry and distraught, saying that he had gambled away his savings. Adams was shocked to learn that they had been gambling, and insisted that he had never gambled in his life. However upset Adams was, Morrison played the victim even stronger, forcing Adams to console his new young acquaintance. Morrison accompanied Adams back to Adams’ house, and the old man went meekly inside.

Adams’ son and lawyer listened to the story in shock. They asked Fitz if the game had been fair. Fitz brushed the question away, “Oh, it was all a fraud, for that matter.” The lawyer of Mr. Adams exclaimed, “I don’t believe this. This can’t be the true story.” Fitzgerald gave him a pained look, and explained, “It was always so at the first in these cases; there was generally a struggle at the beginning, but these checks were always paid.”

If Fitzgerald had been less smug, perhaps the scam would have worked once again. But the Adams family united together and decided to bring the matter to the authorities. Fitzgerald was arrested and brought into a courtroom, where his nonchalant, smarmy attitude was noted by all. During the majority of the court testimony, he sat reading the morning newspaper. Fitzgerald and his attorney were confident that the whole confessional discussion that had taken place could not be used as evidence–but the judge ruled otherwise. Fitzgerald was found guilty and sentenced to five years in the Massachusetts State Prison.

After his release in the mid-1880s, a large gap in Fitzgerald’s activities occurred. One news item from 1893 suggested that he had been convicted of robbing residents of Monaco and the casino at Monte Carlo, but that may have been a different Fitzgerald.

In 1900, at age 44, he was in New York City and married a sixteen-year old girl from Massachusetts, Elizabeth Coleman. In census records, he listed his occupation as “traveling agent” (never a good sign!)

In 1915, Fitzgerald was arrested for being one of the operators of an elaborate “wireless wiretap” betting parlor con, first developed by Larry Summerfield and Timothy Oakes. Fitzgerald’s partners in this venture were Charles and Fred Gondorf; and Fitzgerald was sometimes introduced to others as “Harry Gondorf.” If the name sounds familiar, it is because that was the character name of the wireless wiretap operator (Paul Newman) in the movie The Sting: Henry Gondorff.

Fitzgerald was free by 1917. Over the next several years, he took several trips to Havana, which was then a resort for wealthy Americans. He died in Queens, New York at age 77.

 

#136 Timothy Oats

Timothy Oakes (1848-1907), aka Tim Oates/Oats, Timothy Ryan, Timothy Clark, Charles Oats, Thomas Bradley, etc. — Pickpocket, Till Tapper, Badger-Puller, Con Man

From Byrnes’s text:

DESCRIPTION. Thirty-six years old in 1886. Born in United States. Married. Speculator. Stout build. Height, 5 feet 8 1/2 inches. Weight, 198 pounds. Sandy hair, blue eyes, sandy complexion. Generally wears a light-colored mustache.

RECORD. Tim Oats is an old New York panel thief and pickpocket. He was arrested in New York City in 1874, with his wife Addie Clark, charged with robbing a man by the panel game. They escaped conviction on account of the complainant’s departure from the city.

He was arrested again in New York City, under the name of Timothy Ryan, charged with robbing William Vogel, on July 30, 1875, of a diamond stud valued at $200, while riding on an East Broadway railroad car. He was tried, convicted and sentenced to four years in Sing Sing prison, on September 17, 1875, by Recorder Hackett.

Tim was arrested again in New York City, under the name of Timothy Clark, on January 11, 1879, in company of James Moran, whose name is Tommy Matthews (156), charged with robbing a man named Michael Jobin, of Mount Vernon, N. Y., of $200, on a Third Avenue horse-car. Both were committed in default of $5,000 bail for trial by Judge Murray. They pleaded guilty to larceny from the person and were sentenced to two years in the penitentiary on February 6, 1879, by Judge Gildersleeve.

Tim Oats, Theodore Wiley (171) and William Brown, alias Wm. H. Russell, alias “The Student,” were arrested at Syracuse, N. Y., on January 4, 1883, charged with grand larceny. They stole a tin cash-box from behind a saloon bar, containing $250, the property of Seiter Brothers, No. 99 North Salina Street, Syracuse. Two other people were with the above party but escaped. Oats played the “fit act” in the back room, kicking over chairs and tables. The proprietor and all the parties in the store ran into the back room to help the “poor fellow,” when one of the party sneaked behind the bar and stole the cash-box. Tim Oats gave the name of Charles Oats, pleaded guilty, and was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment in Auburn State prison, on March 1, 1883. His sentence expired November 1, 1885. “The.” Wiley gave the name of George Davis, alias George Marsh, and was tried and convicted also. (See No. 171.) Brown, alias Russell, alias “The Student,” pleaded guilty in this case and was sentenced to five years in Auburn prison, on March 1, 1883. Oats’s picture is a very good one, taken in January, 1879.

Timothy Oakes died in 1907 under his real name, but for most of his life he was known as Tim Oates/Oats. He married Ada Clark when both were 20 or younger. Addie was his partner in crime through the early 1870s, and likely is the same woman later identified as his wife in the 1880s and 1890s, Alice Oates.

Tim made his name as a New York pickpocket, but was involved off-and-on between 1874 and the late 1890s as a panel-thief/badger game operator. Panel thieves hid behind a curtain or thin partition in a room in which a co-conspirator woman has lured a man into a sexual tryst. In some cases, the robbery occurs during sex with a prostitute, by sneaking wallet contents from the man’s discarded clothes. Tim Oats preferred to interrupt the scene before any physical intimacy took place by stampeding through the door as an enraged husband. He then would threaten violence on his pretend wife, and the victim was supposed to smooth things over by offering money to stop any beating. This variation was known as the badger game.

Panel thieves were sometimes found in brothels, but that soon gave a bad reputation to those businesses. Panel thieves and badger games were much more effective when the premises were rented on a short-term basis; and when the woman lured the victim through an impromptu meeting. The woman usually presented herself as high society: elegantly dressed, wearing expensive jewelry, well-spoken, etc. The victims were targeted as being wealthy, respectable men–and unlikely to be armed or pugnacious.

Following his 1870s arrests for picking pockets (listed by Byrnes), in early 1882, Tim Oats tried operating a saloon in Philadelphia. A Philadelphia detective made a deal with Tim to protect a badger-game operation run by Tim, but reneged on the deal and arrested Addie. Tim got his revenge by selling the saloon and testifying against the detective on corruption charges.

Byrnes got some facts wrong about Tim’s 1883 arrest in Syracuse: he was sentenced April 1, 1883, and was only given two years, regaining his freedom long before November 1885; in fact, he was picked up and later released for picking pockets in Philadelphia in September, 1885. The 1883 arrest helped Timothy Oats to get credit for the “Fainting-Fit” deception, practiced mainly in saloons, where an accomplice feigning a fainting or epileptic fit distracts the counter man or bartender, leaving the sneak thief easy access to the till.

Byrnes does not mention in his book Tim’s next vocation, but in newspaper interviews, he suggested that he devised a con in which he advertised for tutors to be assigned to jobs in other cities, and took deposits from his applicants to assure their position. Then he would disappear with the deposits.

One of the women he interviewed was Jennie McLean, from Passaic, New Jersey, who was so charming that she was able to turn the tables and get a loan of $25.00 from Tim. Time recognized talent, and this was the supposed start of his badger game operation. He employed Jennie, Mamie St. Charles, Kitty Hester, Louise Loflin, and “Essie” to bait targeted men. They were all described as pretty, intelligent, and criminally clever. Tim paid them a weekly salary and assigned them different territories in Manhattan.
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By late 1888, Tim Oats had a virtual monopoly on the badger-game business in New York. However, by 1889 authorities finally recognized all his women and their methods, and Tim left New York for Cincinnati. After a year or so in that city, they returned to New York.

Rather than trust another team of sometimes rebellious female recruits, this time Tim relied on the charms of two women: his wife, Alice Oates, aka Addie Clark or Anna Davis; and her alledged sister Jenny Jones, aka English Jen (who was perhaps, Jennie McLean). As muscle, Tim employed William Ferguson, aka Billy Devere, Joe “Jimmy” Walsh, and Mike McCarthy, aka Wreck Donovan. The gang was arrested in New York in November, 1891, but none of their victims appeared to press charges. Still, authorities convinced them to leave town.

At that point, the gang split up. There may have been a marital split-up between Tim and his wife. Alice Oates and William Ferguson went on to Boston and then to Washington, D. C. to ply their badger game. Tim Oates opted to go to England with a man named William Shaw and two women, one of whom was likely English Jen and the other Rachel Hurd, the wife of forger Charles Fisher. In England, Tim went by the name Thomas Bradley, and his associate sailed by as James Bradley. Within a short time, the two men argued, and Tim assaulted his partner. Tim was charged with this attack and sent to jail for two years.

In 1895, Tim returned to the United States, and was soon back in the badger-game business in Washington, D.C. and in New York, teaming up with some of his former gang.
Late in the 1890s, Tim Oakes teamed up with Larry Summerfield to create several “big cons,” elaborately scripted con games targeting rich men, and involving teams of role-players. One con involved selling a huge number of Standard Oil stocks that were supposedly being hoarded by an old miser in England.

But undoubtedly the most famous “big con” developed by Summerfield and Oakes was the “wireless wiretap,” in which a team of con artists set up what was supposed to have been an illegal wiretap that obtained horse race results before they were received by bookies. The victims of the con were gamblers who believed that they had advance knowledge of the race results; therefore these victims could never complain about their losses without admitting that they themselves had tried to cheat. If this sounds familiar, it’s because it’s the plot of the Robert Redford/Paul Newman movie, The Sting. Some sources, like the New York Times, gave most of the credit for the invention of this con to Oakes.
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In August, 1905, New York police got wind that a “wireless wiretap” con was being run in the Tenderloin district, and raided the lair. They were surprised to find such an operation being run, since Larry Summerfield was already behind bars in Sing Sing, but they found the rest of his gang–including Tim Oakes.

Two years later, in September 1907, the New York Times announced that Tim Oakes had died at the Ward’s Island Asylum for the Insane, where he had been incarcerated for over two years.