#27 Frank Buck

Charles Taylor (Abt. 1843–????), aka George Rush, Frank Bailey, Frank Buck, Buck/Bucky/Buckey Taylor — Sneak thief

From Byrnes’s 1886 edition:

DESCRIPTION. Forty-four years old in 1886. Born in Philadelphia, Pa. Married. Engineer. Stout build. Height, 5 feet 5 inches. Weight, 150 pounds. Light hair, gray eyes, light complexion. Three India ink dots on left hand, one on right hand. Bald on front of head. Generally wears a light-colored mustache.

RECORD. “Buck” is a very clever bank sneak. He has been working with Horace Hovan, alias Little Horace (25), since 1881. He has also worked with Langdon W. Moore, alias Charley Adams (22), Johnny Price and other notorious bank sneaks.

“Buck” was arrested in June, 1881, at Philadelphia, Pa., with Horace Hovan (25), for the larceny of $10,950 in securities from a broker’s office in that city. He was convicted of burglary and sentenced to three years in the Eastern Penitentiary at Philadelphia with Hovan, on July 2, 1881. His time dated back to June 6, 1881. Hovan was pardoned.

Buck served his time, and afterwards joined Hovan in Washington, D.C., in May, 1884. They both traveled around the country and were arrested coming out of a bank in Boston on June 18, 1884, and their pictures taken for the Rogues’ Gallery.

Buck and Hovan went to Europe in the spring of 1885, and Buck returned alone the same fall, Horace having been arrested there and sentenced to three years’ imprisonment for the larceny of a package of money from a bank safe. Buck’s picture is an excellent one, taken in 1884.

From Byrnes’s 1895 edition:

Since 1885 he has spent a good deal of the time in Europe. Buck, Porter, Johnny Curtain and other fly American thieves have been engineered in Europe by Adam Worth (215), the American ex-thief, still under indictment in Boston for the famous Boylston bank robbery. Worth is a receiver of stolen goods in London, whose place is the rendezvous of all American thieves when they go to that city. He was formerly a bank burglar in this country, and has made a fortune out of his business.

Frank Buck, alias Bailey, alias Allen, etc., and Billy O’Brien, alias Porter, was arrested at London, Eng., on June 21, 1888, on an extradition warrant charging them with burglarizing a jewelry store on the Marionplatz, in Munchen, Germany, on April 29, 1888. It was alleged that property of the value of £50,000 was stolen.

Billy Porter was discharged from custody in London, on September 27, 1888. He proved that he was born on an English vessel, was an English subject, and therefore not extraditable. Buck was sentenced in this case to ten years imprisonment, and ten years loss of civil rights and police surveillance, by the Judge of the Circuit Court of Munchen, Bavaria, on September 22, 1889. He was delivered to the German authorities by England on October 10, 1888, and was in prison there until his trial in September, 1889.

Tracing Frank Buck’s origins takes one down a plausible, but by no means conclusive, path. On the other hand, tracing his fate from the point where he was imprisoned in Germany leads to an enormous red herring. That false trail can be blamed on certain law authorities and/or newspaper writers on the East Coast of America jumping to a conclusion based on one alias that was used by two different men, one of whom was Frank Buck: the alias was “Buck Taylor”.

In 1901, an employee of the Selby Smelter works in Contra Costa County, California, by the name of Jack Winters tunneled beneath the company’s office, removed a portion of brick floor, and drilled through the bottom of the office safe. Inside the safe were the latest finished products of the smelter: bars of gold bullion. Winters got away with $280,000 in gold–the largest gold robbery in California. Initially, authorities believed a whole gang of professional safe burglars was involved. Evidence led detectives to believe that it had been an inside job, and the trail led to Winters. When he was arrested, local authorities announced his capture, and sent out a bulletin listing Winters known aliases, one of which was “Buck Taylor.”

Newspapers in Boston were the first to print headlines claiming that Buck Taylor, aka Frank Buck, the famous burglar pal of Horace Hovan and Billy Porter, had almost pulled off a huge gold heist single-highhandedly. No one had heard of Frank Buck since he was thrown in a German prison in 1888, so it was possible that he had gone to California upon his release, gotten a job at the smelter, and then robbed it. Newspapers in New York and elsewhere in the northeast reprinted the story.

However, they overlooked the discrepancy in the men’s ages: Jack Winters was in his mid-thirties; Frank Buck, in 1901, would have been nearly sixty. The false story never would have been printed had they compared Frank Buck’s picture in Byrnes’s Professional Criminals of America (top, taken in 1884) with a picture of Jack Winters (bottom taken in 1901):

The truth is that no credible word about Frank Buck’s fate was ever published after he entered the German prison in 1889.

What of his origins? Byrnes states that Frank Buck came from Philadelphia; and the first arrest that Byrnes cites is from June, 1881, when he and Horace Hovan were nabbed for stealing bonds from a securities broker in Philadelphia. On this occasion, Buck gave the alias “George Rush,” but was recognized as an old Philadelphia burglar, “Bucky Taylor.” The Philadelphia Inquirer of June 4, 1881, recalled, “Taylor is the man who committed the $17,000 silk robbery at Benson’s and served a time for the offense.”

The robbery that the Inquirer was referring to took place in September, 1870 at the Besson & Son’s store in Philadelphia. Soon after the robbery, three men were arrested. One was the most notorious thief and gang leader in Philadelphia, Jimmy Logue. The other two men were named as Buck Taylor and Bill Price. Various newspaper accounts also offered Taylor’s name as Charles Taylor; and, indeed, that was the name he was imprisoned under at Eastern State Penitentiary for this crime.

This was not Charles Taylor’s first brush with crime. Philadelphia newspapers between 1865 and 1870 printed numerous items where Taylor was arrested for picking pockets and other forms of thievery.

However, there were several young men named Charles Taylor living in Philadelphia in the 1860s; so there the trail ends.

#169 John Curtin

John William Curtin (1849-????), aka John Prescott, John Colton, John Curtin, John Curten, Yankee Jack, John Roberts, Henry Reynolds, James Freeman, etc. — Sneak thief, jewel thief

Link to Byrnes’s entry for #169 John Curtin

John W. Curtain was born in 1849 in Massachusetts to Irish immigrant parents, John and Hannah (Anna) Curtain, the the third of their eight children and the first to be born in the United States. In various census records, the spelling of the family name is given as Curten/Curtin/Curtain. Byrnes and others used the more traditional Irish “Curtin” most frequently when naming this thief; but his Massachusetts birth record uses the spelling “Curtain.”

Curtin started stealing at an early age, and was specializing in jewelry robberies by the time he was twenty. In 1870, he was arrested and convicted for the September, 1869 robbery of the Fogg & Sawyer jewelry store in Boston. He was sent to the Massachusetts State Prison for an unknown term.
Freedom brought Curtin the opportunity for more work; he was successful enough to return to his family’s home in Cohoes, New York, and buy two cozy cottages for his relatives.

In August 1874, Curtin and an accomplice were caught switching diamonds rings in a jewelry store with cheap paste replicas. He gave the name James Freeman. After he was brought in and seated in a Philadelphia courtroom to face trial, he suddenly sprang up, leapt over several rows of benches, and jumped out of a window, sixteen feet above the street. He dashed off and lost his pursuers by ducking out the rear entrance of a hotel.

Five weeks later, Curtin resurfaced across the continent in San Francisco. He attempted to use the same technique to sneak a diamond ring from Anderson & Randolph’s jewelry store. Several days later, he was caught on the streets by famed San Francisco detective Isaiah W. Lees. Curtin was arraigned and held on $1600 bail. The bail money was sent east by New York’s leading fence, Marm Mandelbaum–an indication that Curtin was in the inner circle of New York’s thieving community. In return for her loss, Mandelbaum took over the mortgages of Curtin’s Cohoes cottages.

Curtin returned to New York, where he was quickly arrested and sent back to Philadelphia to stand trial again for his earlier transgressions there. This time, there was no escape, and he spent the next three years and six months in Eastern State Penitentiary.

Upon his release in 1878, Curtin returned to New York and lifted a package of jewelry and razors from the Taylor Brothers store. He escaped to Chicago, and was subsequently sought for a robbery there. Curtin returned to New York, only to be arrested. Facing prosecution in both Chicago and New York, Curtin chose to face the music in New York. He was sentenced to Sing Sing for a term of four and a half years under the name John Roberts.

The threat of prison was no deterrent to John Curtin. Upon his release from Sing Sing, he and partner Eddie McGee were arrested in a Philadelphia jewelry store, caught trying to substitute fake gold chains fro real ones. Curtin gave the name Henry Reynolds; he was not recognized as a repeat offender, and was given an extremely light sentence, just one year in Philadelphia’s Moyamensing jail. During this period, Curtin was rumored to have been supported by New York’s “boodle” alderman, Henry W. “Fritz” Jaehne, also known as one of the fences who filled the vacuum when Marm Mandelbaum was forced to leave the country.

McGee and Curtin, once they were freed in 1884, sailed for Europe. In Paris, Curtin was caught stealing and sentenced to four years in a French prison. However, he was able to get the sentence reduced, and was released in April, 1886. By May he was back in the United States, and while visiting his family in Cohoes, got into a fight with a policeman in Troy, New York. Before he could be detained for any older crimes, Curtin sailed across the ocean to England. There he planned to partner with a couple of his friends, Billy Porter and Frank Buck, to commit robberies organized by criminal mastermind Adam Worth.

However, before those plans could gel, Curtin followed his own agenda and was caught trying to sneak an envelope of diamonds out of a London jewelry store in June, 1886. While being conveyed to the police station, Curtin threw some papers out of the police wagon, which were picked up and found to have his real name and Cohoes address on them. Despite this, Curtin insisted his name was John Colton. He was sent to jail for a year and a half.

After he was let loose in 1888, Curtin went to Manchester, England, and was captured taking a bag of cash from a courier’s wagon outside a bank. He gave his name as John Randall, then changed it to John Prescott. During his trial, evidence from Chief Byrnes was submitted revealing the prisoner as John Curtin. This time, Curtin was put away for five years, to be followed by three years of police supervision.

Upon serving his term and being released in 1892, Curtin was given thieving assignments on the continent by the kingpin of thieves, Adam Worth. Curtin played a pivotal role in the downfall of Worth, a story that is told more completely in Ben Macintyre’s The Napoleon of Crime: The Life and Times of Adam Worth, Master Thief. In October, 1892, Curtin, Alonzo Henne, and Worth attempted a robbery in Belgium. It was rare for Worth to involve himself, and it ended disastrously for him: he was captured and jailed, while Curtin and Henne escaped.

Curtin returned to England and, as per Worth’s instructions, provided support to Worth’s wife. In fact, he did far more: he seduced her, spent all of Worth’s saving, and sold off his property. By the time she realized the full extent of his villainy and her complicity in it, she was driven to insanity and lodged in an asylum. Stuck in his Belgian prison, Adam Worth went into a rage when he learned of Curtin’s treachery.

However, Curtin’s flush times were short-lived. In 1893, he was picked up in London by police on two charges: one, of violating the terms of his parole; and secondly, he was wanted in Germany for a robbery committed in Frankfort. A revolver was found in his lodgings. Since Curtin was not a British citizen, it was decided to extradite him to Germany.

Nothing more was heard of Curtin until April 1902. An article appeared in one newspaper, the Washington Times, headlined simply “Johnny Curtin, Bank Sneak and Burglar.” The long article, taking up nearly a full column, detailed Curtin’s career, up until his arrest in 1886–but did not indicate any new information, or that he had recently died. There was no explanation as to why the item was now appearing.

Adam Worth, the criminal genius whom Curtin had destroyed, had died three months earlier, in January 1902, a few years after being freed from his Belgian prison. Did Worth, or Worth’s network of underworld friends, let Curtin’s treachery go unpunished?

#18 Charles Becker

John Charles Becker (1849-1916), aka Charlie Becker, Charley Becker, Dutchman Becker — Forger

Link to Byrnes’s entry on Charles Becker

John Charles Becker was not born in Germany, as Byrnes suggests, but in New York to parents who had long before arrived from Germany. His father, Valentin Becker, met and married Maria Margaretha Blinn in New York in 1838. John Charles was the fourth child born to the pair, arriving in 1849. Around 1856-7, the Becker clan (now numbering five offspring) moved to Chicago, but by 1865–with two more additions–they moved back to Brooklyn.

In his teens, John Charles (known to friends as Charlie) learned the printing trade and the process of lithography. He came in contact with another German lithographer living in New York, Clemenz Haering. Haering also operated a saloon on Stanton Street in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. In 1871, 21-year-old Charlie married Haering’s daughter, Anna C. Haering, then just 16 or 17 years old. Charlie was not a drinker–he avoided bad habits that might affect his penmanship–but he did enjoy rubbing shoulders with criminals. Charlie’s knowledge of printing, lithography, and bank forms made him a target for recruitment by these shady characters. Moreover, his father-in-law, Clemenz Haering, was not above engaging in a bit of forgery/counterfeiting.

In August 1872, Charlie joined with Joe Chapman, Joe Elliott (aka Frederick Elliott/Little Joe Reilly) and Carlo Sescovitch to rob the Third National Bank of Baltimore. They entered the bank at night and cracked open its vault, taking away cash, bonds, and blank bank forms, totaling between $200,000 and $300,000–an enormous sum for the period. Many of the bonds were registered bonds, which thieves usually ignored because their numbers can be traced. The theft of these bonds, along with the blank forms, indicated to detectives that the robbers had a forger among them that could use the forms and change the numbers on the bonds. Witnesses had seen men around the bank in the days before the robbery, and were able to give descriptions of them. From those descriptions, detectives thought they knew who to look for–but Chapman and the others could not be found anywhere.

There was no rational reason that Charlie Becker, with his unmatched handwriting and engraving skills, needed to be involved in the heist itself; like other “penman,” he could have stayed safely in a studio with his pens, brushes, and inks. But he seemed to enjoy the thrill of crime.

The four thieves had already left the country before police could make those identifications. However, they realized the danger of traveling with the stolen bonds. Before leaving on a steamer to Europe, the stack of bonds was left with Chapman’s wife, Lydia, who was unknown to authorities. She was under instructions to bring the bonds to England in a trunk once the waiting thieves sent her the signal.

One of the reasons that the series of events from 1872-1873 involving Becker, Chapman, Joe Elliott, Sescovitch, and Adam Worth is so compelling is that it involves so many classic crime story elements: a huge bank heist; partners who distrust one another; capture and imprisonment; treachery; a prison escape; kidnapping; romantic rivals; an unsolved murder; a theft of a classic artwork; a criminal mastermind…and baffled authorities.

One of those frustrated lawmen was Andrew Lewis Drummond, operative of the United States Secret Service, who was assigned the job of finding and stopping the Baltimore bank thieves–not so much for the sake of the stolen items themselves, but to prevent Becker from becoming the most dangerous forger in America. Years later (in 1908), Drummond wrote about his role in the story–which was to follow the trunk of bonds that was in the possession of Lydia Chapman:



Early in August, 1872, the Third National bank of Baltimore was robbed. The vault was blown at dead of night and between $200,000 and $300,000 taken. A large part of this sum was in coin and currency. The rest was in registered bonds and coupon bonds. The robbers escaped without leaving a clew of their identity.

Coupon bonds can be cashed at any bank as readily as one government note can be exchanged for another. Registered bonds cannot. Ordinary thieves therefore do not take bonds the numbers and the names of the owners of which are matters of record. Forgers are the exception. With their secret chemicals for removing printing and writing inks without leaving a stain that even a magnifying glass will show, they can make use of registered bonds. The fact that a large lumber of blank drafts and checks had been stolen also indicated that one of the robbers was an expert forger.

From these bare facts it soon developed that the robbers were Joe Elliot, Joe Chapman, Charlie Becker and a Russian. Becker was the forger — one of the best that the world ever produced. Careful search revealed their movements for several days preceding the robbery. It was even found that men answering their descriptions were seen near the bank on the day it was rifled. But when all these facts became known the earth seemed to have swallowed the men who were wanted.

More than a month passed and nothing was heard of them. On September 17, the chief of the Secret Service called me to his office. Beside him sat a man with a long white beard. The chief introduced him to me as Clement Herring, father of Charlie Becker’s wife.

“This man runs a saloon on Stanton street,” said the chief. “He expects his daughter and Mrs. Chapman to call on him tomorrow morning. Be on watch outside, and if they come he will signal you. He says they are going to leave for Europe in the afternoon, and that among their baggage will be a small red trunk containing the registered bonds stolen from the Third National. Mr. Herring thinks they will get the trunk either on Lexington avenue near Twenty-second street or on Eighth avenue near Forty-eighth street.

“Here’s what I want you to do. Once you get sight of these women, follow them wherever they go. If they get the red trunk, follow them on to the ship and learn the number of their stateroom and the names under which they depart — they are not going to use their own names. When you get these facts put them in this letter that I have written to the chief of police of Southampton, and give it to the purser on the ship, who will deliver it to an officer waiting at the pier on the other side. He will be notified that you are coming and will know what to do. Don’t arrest the women; don’t seize the trunk.”

At 8 o’clock the next morning I took up the watch in front of Herring’s saloon. I waited more than an hour before anything happened. Then a stylish carriage drove up. Two women alighted, and in the moment that elapsed before they descended the three steps that led to Herring’s basement saloon I took careful note of their appearance.

Each woman was apparently 30 years old and strikingly handsome. Both were gowned in the height of fashion. The blonde woman, who I afterward learned was Mrs. Becker, was a trifle shorter than her companion. Mrs. Chapman, who was a statuesque brunette of perhaps live feet eight or nine. Both women were wreathed in smiles and apparently radiantly happy. They were going to Europe to meet their husbands, and evidently the prospect pleased them.

Two or three times while they were inside I walked past the place and caught glimpses of them through the window. The two women seemed to be sipping at glasses of Rhine wine, while they talked to the gray whiskered man who sat on the other side of the table. Mrs. Becker did most of the talking. The lightheartedness that marked her manner in the street had departed. She spoke earnestly and seriously. The man listened, almost sadly.

While I was waiting I sent a newsboy to call a hack driver who had often driven me on business trips, and when, about 11 o’clock, the women left the saloon, I was ready to follow them. But I had not taken into account the possibility that the driver might not come with the accustomed cab. He didn’t. He came with what was the most fashionable turnout of the time — a Clarence coach, drawn by two horses. This fact is of importance only because the semicircular front of the coach was glass and I was dressed like a stevedore — slouch hat, blue shirt, rough trousers and no coat or waistcoat. I had contemplated the possibility that my work that day might take me along the docks, and had dressed accordingly.

However, there was nothing to do but to jump into the coach and tell the driver to follow the women wherever they went. They cut in and out through side streets and finally turned into Lexington avenue. I remember with what amazement I was stared at by others who drove fashionable carriages like my own. Behind the semicircle of glass I sat like the modern “demonstrator” in a show window — apparently a stevedore seeing the sights at $8 a day!

Near the corner of Twenty-second street — at the number at which the aged man had said they might get the red trunk — the carriage containing the women halted. As they alighted and went up the steps to the house I saw that they were again the happy, frolicsome women who were overjoyed at the prospect of seeing their husbands. All of the earnestness, and the seriousness with which they talked to Mrs. Becker’s sad eyed father had been swept away in a swirl of smiles.

Ten minutes after the door closed upon them a servant came out with some hand baggage. He placed it on the carriage at the driver’s feet and went back after some more. I watched carefully for the red trunk, but it did not come. In a few minutes the women appeared, still smiling. They entered their carriage and were driven up •Lexington avenue to Twenty-eighth street, then over to and up Broadway.

I followed along in my Clarence coach, keeping half a block behind them. They went straight up Broadway to Eighth avenue, and from there to the Forty-eighth street house that Herring had told me about. About an hour after they entered the premises the red trunk was brought out. A few minutes later the women followed.

Telling my driver to be sure not to lose them, I resumed my pursuit. They drove straight to Cortlandt street and, still secluded in their carriage, went on the ferry. I let a few teams get in after them and then drove on the boat.

 I knew they were headed for the Cunard piers at Jersey City, which at that time were just below the present slips of the Pennsylvania railroad. I also knew they had taken passage on the old sidewheel steamboat Cuba. So while we were crossing the river I left my carriage to look for the ship. To my amazement I saw that it was not at the pier. The next instant I saw it lying in the middle of the river. The tide had gone out at noon and the dock, not having been dredged as deeply as docks are now, the ship had gone out into the stream. Late passengers would be compelled to go out on a tender.

This was a possibility that I had not contemplated. It is comparatively easy to board a ship lying at her pier and almost impossible to get aboard a tender. While I was wondering what I should do, the ferry boat nosed her way into the slip and I was compelled to do something quickly. This is what I did:

I had worked my way among the teams up to a point perhaps 50 feet behind the vehicle in which were the two women. When their carriage drove off I followed it. When they alighted, I was almost beside them, and when their handbags were put off the carriage I grabbed two of them and made for the gangplank leading to the tender.

Fortunately the crew of the tender thought I was a stevedore, and the stevedores thought I belonged to the tender. So nobody molested me and I got aboard. As soon as I could I looked for the women and was rejoiced to find that they had taken seats at the opposite end of the boat. I kept away from them all the way over and proceeded them up the ladder to the ship. Once on board the Cuba, I contrived to get behind them in order to let them lead the way to the stateroom. They walked down the starboard side of the cabin to a point half way between the middle of the ship and the stern and then turned in to a little hall. I knew their stateroom could be only a few feet away, so I asked them if the baggage I carried belonged to them. They looked at it and replied that it did. I asked where I should put it and they led me to their staterooms, the numbers of which I  noted. Then I held up a handbag which bore the name of “Mrs. Bruce Cutting” and asked to which of the women it belonged. Mrs. Chapman replied that she was Mrs. Cutting. The other bag was marked “Mrs. Steward,” which Mrs. Becker told me was her name. Mrs. Chapman was evidently impressed with my desire to make no mistake in delivering their baggage, as she gave me a 25 cent tip.

This part of the work over, I went to the writing room and, in the letter written by the chief of the Secret Service to the chief of police of Southampton, filled in the names under which Mrs. Becker and Mrs. Chapman had departed, together with the number of their stateroom. Then I sought the purser and presented my letter of introduction.

“Did you get track of them?” he asked.

I replied that I had and gave him their names. He consulted his passenger list and ran his forefinger down the column of names.

“You’re right,” said he. “Here they are, and the number of their stateroom is the same that you gave to me.”

I handed him the chief’s letter to the Southampton chief, urged him to deliver it before the women could leave the ship, and went aboard the tender just as the Cuba was preparing to get under way.

The rest of this narrative had to do with events that took place in Europe. And it should be borne in mind that in following the women and the red trunk the purpose was twofold— first, to learn the whereabouts of the band that robbed the Third National bank of Baltimore; and, second, to nab Becker if he should attempt to alter and sell any of the registered bonds. The women had committed no crime — we could not prove guilty knowledge on their part concerning the contents of the trunk — therefore we had no occasion to arrest them. And there was nothing to be gained by seizing the trunk, since the payment on all of the stolen bonds had been stopped. We wanted only Becker and his band.

When the Cuba reached Southampton, an officer representing the chief of police was at the pier. He read the letter that was handed to him by the purser and followed the two women ‘when they left the ship. Half an hour later he was on the same train with them, bound for London, where they remained a night. The next morning they went to Paris. And the red trunk was among the baggage that followed them to the hotel at which they stopped in the French capital.

The Southampton detective engaged accommodations at the same place and for a week nothing of importance developed. The women, who seemed to be plentifully supplied with money, went out every morning, evidently intent upon replenishing their already large stock of finery. In the evenings they went to the theaters.

One morning the Southampton detective waited in vain to see them go out for their accustomed shopping tour. An hour after the time when they usually entered the carriage he began to be nervous. Finally he went to the clerk and, after having led up to the subject gradually, made some reference to the “beautiful English women” whose beauty had been the subject of considerable comment. The clerk didn’t know whom he meant. The detective had purposely misstated their nationality in order not to display a knowledge of them that they might regard as suspicious if it should come to their ears. But in a moment the clerk realized the detective’s mistake and said:

“Oh. you mean Mrs. Cutting and Mrs. Steward. But they are not English women; they are Americans. They left the city this morning.”

The closing sentence jarred the detective to his boot heels, but he controlled his emotions.

“Where had they gone?” Oh, the clerk did not know. They left after midnight and another clerk was on watch. But he might be able to find out.

In a little while the clerk imparted the information that to the best of his knowledge and belief the ladies had gone to Berlin. Strangely enough, the detective was to depart for the German capital the same evening. Perhaps he would be fortunate enough to go again to the same hotel with them.

At 5 o’clock in the afternoon, the detective, on his way to the train, stopped a moment at the clerk’s desk to bid him goodby. Pleasantries were exchanged, the two men had shaken hands, when the clerk hurled a parting bit of badinage.

“Too bad you will not meet the American ladles in Berlin.” he said. “They have gone to Genoa.”

The detective made enough inquiries to convince him that the information was undoubtedly correct and changed his own plans accordingly. On the way down to the Italian city he cudgeled his mind to determine how he should go about it to get track of his lost immigrants. They would reach Genoa several hours ahead of him and might even have sped on to another city before his arrival. There was only one chance by means of which he might get trace of them — the red trunk.

So when he reached Genoa he made anxious inquiries of the man who had charge of the baggage concerning two ladies whose present address he wished to learn. Speaking no Italian he had difficulty in making himself understood, but at last sought to identify his friends by explaining that among their baggage was a red trunk. The baggage hands were questioned, and at last a man was found who had sent the box that was covered with the hide of the brindle cow.

It had been transferred to the wharf of a steamship company that operated a line of boats between Genoa and Constantinople.

Again the detective resumed his travels, only to to find when he reached the city of the sultan that he had lost all track of the women. Nobody had seen the red trunk — nobody at any of the hotels had seen the women. And he was on the point of returning  to Southampton to report his failure when something happened.

Becker and Chapman were arrested by the Turkish authorities for selling forged bonds! Their trial brought their wives in public to their sides, and by shadowing them their new habitation was learned.

Becker and Chapman were quickly found guilty and sentenced to a long term of Imprisonment In Smyrna. The jail was a flimsy affair and in a few weeks they escaped. Simultaneously with their departure Mrs. Becker and Mrs. Chapman went to London, the detective following and tracking them to a boarding house in an obscure part of the city. Within a week their husbands joined them, together with the other two men who robbed the Third National bank of Baltimore, and within another week Mrs. Chapman was dead.

The cause of her death will perhaps never be known. The end came suddenly. It has always been supposed that she was poisoned by some member of the band.

After Mrs. Chapman’s death the party separated. Chapman came to the United States, robbed another bank, was caught, convicted and sentenced to twelve years’ imprisonment. Becker came to Brooklyn, where a policeman arrested him in the act of making the plates for a 1000 franc French note. The red trunk was never found.

Others may wonder, as I did at first, why Mrs. Becker’s father betrayed her husband to the secret service. I put the question to the man flatly.

“Charlie didn’t treat me right.” he said. “He and I were in on a counterfeiting deal one time and he got all the best of it. I never could bear a dishonest man. And. besides, I didn’t want my daughter to go to Europe to meet him.”

Byrnes’ 1886 profile of Becker took his career up to his imprisonment in the King’s County Penitentiary, from which he was freed in 1887. In 1892 he roamed the upper midwest and northeast with forging partners Richard Lennox, Joe English, and Robert Bowman. He and his team then went to California, where they were captured and tried. Charlie was sentenced to seven years in San Quentin, but with good behavior was released in 1903.


Upon his return to Brooklyn, there were rumors that the American Banking Association offered Becker an allowance just to help keep him honest. Towards the end of his life, he was employed by the Pinkerton’s as an informant patrolling racetracks. He and his with lived as John and Anna Becker in Brooklyn. He died of diabetes in September, 1916. His wife Anna Haering, ever loyal, died just a couple of weeks after Charlie. They are buried in Brooklyn’s Evergreen Cemetery.




#16 Frederick Elliott

Joe Elliott (1853-1892/3), aka Frederick Elliott Frederick Reilly, Joseph Reilly, Little Joe Elliott — Forger, Burglar

Link to Byrnes’s entry on Frederick “Little Joe” Elliot

Chief Byrnes’ account of Joe Elliott’s career is one of the longest in Professional Criminals of America, but even so, it only begins to convey the dramatic events surrounding the forging tour that went from America to London, to Turkey, and back in the mid 1870s. Byrnes elaborated on some of the details given under this entry elsewhere in his book, under the entry for Charlie Becker. In fact, Byrnes was unaware that that during that trip, Elliott was recruited by master criminal Adam Worth and that they perpetrated perhaps the most famous art robbery of the nineteenth century: the theft of Gainsborough’s painting The Duchess of Devonshire.


That story is told more completely in Ben Macintyre’s The Napoleon of Crime: The Life and Times of Adam Worth, Master Thief. Macintyre’s version focuses on Worth’s role, but lays out the exploits of Joe Elliott. Another (much earlier) writer, American journalist and author Jack Lait, also sensed that the narrative around these events was compelling. In 1919, he wrote a series of four long articles for the Chicago Tribune on the principal figures in these events: Little Joe Elliott; Joe Chapman and his wife Lydia; Charlie Becker; and Adam Worth. Unlike much of Lait’s other column writings, these articles were never reprinted in any of his books.

Lait was a feature writer, not a historical researcher, so there are factual errors in his account of Joe Elliott. And–unlike the Pinkertons, British police, and most written accounts–Lait accuses Elliott of the murder of Lydia Chapman, based on a rumor told to him by “a trustworthy thief.” Even so, in this one article Lait captures the narrative of Elliott’s life in a way that the dry recitation of his arrests and convictions can not. The result is a classic of American feature writing:

Little Joe: The Career of America’s Most Notorious Bank Robber (1919)  by Jack Lait

Fancy a lad, born in an alley back of a brickyard, of Irish immigrant parents; at 25 he is a man about town in New York, mingling with the bloods and dudes, actresses and rounders; he is a scintillating conversationalist; he is as well and as tastefully dressed as any man; he is chivalrous and courtly towards women; he never flashes extravagant sums of money, but he is plentifully supplied for all needs of this financially exacting existence. What would you say was this young fellow’s means of livelihood? What calling had be adopted to refine his manners?

The man is Frederick Reilly, and he is the most notorious bank robber in America, the most desperate safeblower on earth, the most daring forger of his time. His presentable features deck every rouges’ gallery over the civilized maps. He is known to the International police as Joe Reilly, as Little Joe, as Joe Elliott.

Little Joe is dead. Before his end he had punctuated one of the most varied and thrilling criminal careers ever compiled, had stolen millions, had married and lost and remarried, and again lost one of the most bewitching stage stars of his period, had rifled strong boxes in many states as well as in England, France, and Belgium, had flooded Turkey with spurious securities, and had escaped prison at Smyrna, had been held by Greek mountain banditti for ransom, had been loved by and had murdered the beautiful wife of one of his “pals,” had served more than a score of years behind bars, died a miserable wreck and a penniless pauper in a charity hospital ward. That man had lived!

As a boy he started shoplifting in his native town. Veteran crooks saw in him material for higher endeavors than counter snatching, and he was taken into a band of bank sneaks. His first undertaking in this art cost a private bank in Worcester, Mass., $20,000, which Little Joe ” hooked” with a long, slender wire that came out of his sleeve to a fish hook end, and which he slipped between the bars of the teller’s cage into the band of about twenty $1,000 currency notes while his associates distracted the man’s attention.

He dallied with this type of thievery for years, when he was at large, stole a lavish livelihood, and affected the bright lights of the rialtos for his divertissement. Leading players, sporting men of his generation, and the other celebrities of the bubble cafes were his cronies.

His bravado drew the attention of Charlie Becker—”the Dutchman,” he was called—the most expert forger that ever uttered a false instrument. Becker needed just such a man —one who looked above suspicion and one who had steel nerve—for a “layer down.” Becker could issue “dirty paper” without limit; his earning capacity was held down only to what could be negotiated. So he coupled up with Little Joe, to the great woe of many financial institutions.

Booth’s theater, in New York, had a saloon on the ground floor. It was owned by Ivan Siscovitch, a Russian forger, and was the forgers’ rendezvous, where men of that craft foregathered. Becker, Siscovitch, Elliott, Joe Chapman, and others “blew” to Turkey, where they cashed letters of credit purporting to have been sold by Coutts Bank, London. Adam Worth, the great thief, who with Elliott and “Junka” Phillips stole the Gainsborough painting in London, was the backer and steersman of the expedition. Worth, however, did not accompany it beyond Paris.

In Smyrna the gang was arrested, tried with Turkish justice, and sentenced to the world’s foulest prison. Worth hurried to Smyrna, and by devious devices procured the liberation through bribery of all except Chapman. The escaped convicts fled into Greece, where in savage mountain wilds all were seized by bandits, who chose Elliott as messenger and kept the others as hostages. Elliott traveled to London, where Worth gave him $10,000, the required sum, and Elliott returned, paid the kidnappers, and with his freed companions reached Paris. Elliott proceeded to London and there met Lydia Chapman, wife of the lone blackguard left at Smyrna.

Worth ordered Elliott, Becker, and Siscovitch to board at Mrs. Chapman’s, as he proposed to see her provided for. She was a woman of extraordinary beauty, and the physical bearing of a duchess, though she bad been an accomplice to the criminal enterprises of her husband, likewise a distingue individual, and others. Mrs. Chapman fell violently in love with Little Joe. Elliott, Becker, and Siscovitch left one night for the continent on a little junket into Berlin with “wrong” British government bonds. The following morning Mrs. Chapman died in convulsions, having been poisoned. Her jewelry and money had disappeared. Elliott, Becker, and Siscovitch returned and gave themselves up, all denying any knowledge of the tragedy. No one was convicted.

But I have it from a friend of Chapman’s,  a trustworthy thief, that Chapman, who tore his beard and mourned for years over his wife’s death, bought, many years later, in New York, the locket which his wife had worn; he bought it from my informant, who swore to him, as he did to me, that he had bought it from Little Joe Elliott.

That Elliott was not above such a deed is certain. Worth had his redeeming qualities —he loved his family and he “went the limit” for his accomplices; many other scalawags and thieves have strains of good motivations by some human impulses. But Elliott, except for his gentlemanly appearance and manners and, at times, fierce courage and spendthrift liberality, had no saving graces. The sign on his heart was the double cross, and before he died he attempted to sell out Worth, his friend. He betrayed Chapman after he had deserted him,  then murdered Chapman’s wife, who loved him, because he had tired of her–and robbed her before he left her to die.

The other storied romance of his life was not born of the sane love of a man—it was the frenzied passion of a maniac; and its queen, its fool, its victim, though its heroine, was the most beloved woman of her day in public life. Little Joe met Kate Castleton, the darling  of minstrelsy, when she was at the gateway of her vast popularity, playing her first protracted New York engagement. He courted her violently; madly, persistently; he smothered her with costly flowers, he showered her with diamond studded gifts, he lay in wait for her at the stage door after every performance, he sat alone in a stage box during every performance. And in brief time the little wicked fellow conquered her and and won her.


She knew what he was—or, as she thought, what he had been. Hundreds warned her against this smartly tailored thief with the engaging presence. But he promised her everything. And she went with him to the Little Church Around the Corner one evening after the performance. Her supporting company and a few chosen notables of the night life were witnesses. The wedding supper was at Delmonico’s, and the bride hectically happy. After a honeymoon tour of a month the pair went to live in handsome apartments on Twenty-first street.

Elliott was possessed of considerable money at that time, and he induced his bride to renounce the stage. All seemed serene until he was arrested for having passed a forged draft for $64,000 on the New York Life Insurance company. Sadly, the disillusioned wife returned to her footlights. She faced the public bravely–the public which knew her woes, for the newspapers rang with them. And the American audiences applauded.

While being taken to the Tombs from court, Elliott bowled his guard over and escaped. He was arrested again seven months later as party to a $3000 safe blowing in Boston, and was returned to New York and tried on the $64,000 job. Becker turned State’s evidence, procured immunity for himself, and Elliott went to Sing Sing for four years.

His wife’s love returned with his tribulations. She visited him whenever she was allowed to, and used every influence at her command to have Little Joe pardoned, but found it impossible. She was received by the governor and made a personal plea for a commutation, but failed.

On his release the dashing young swindler made renewed promises of honest behavior, and his brave wife believed him. But he grew jealous of her career, which she refused to again interrupt, and made himself so disagreeable that she was forced to divorce him. But within less than a year she married him once more. He then became her manager, and for three years conducted her tours in “Pop,” beginning with her huge success in that comedy at the old Bijou. But jealousy again possessed him. He disappeared,returned unexpectedly, met his wife leaving the theater in company with a young New York aristocrat, and fell upon her escort with a blackjack. Elliott felled him, then brutally kicked him, smashing his skull and nose. He escaped. Kate divorced him shortly afterward and married Harry Phillips, her manager in “Crazy Patch.”

Elliott, having alienated the tough thieves with whom he had operated, and having actually remained honest and remote from the haunts of criminals for some years, now “hooked up” with Gus Raymond and George Wilkes, forgers, and with them “took” a bank in Rochester for $2500. They arrived there while the town was alive with a race meeting. Wilkes prepared a draft as issued by the Bank of Montreal on the Bank of the Republic of New York. Elliott, under the name Edwardes, and Raymond, under the alias of James W. Conklin, each rented an office, and each engaged a clerk. Raymond opened an account at the Flour City National Bank; Elliott opened one at the Commercial National bank.

Elliott deposited the worthless “draft” and sent his clerk to Raymond with a check for $2500 to Raymond’s credit. Raymond sent his clerk to Elliott’s bank, had the check certified, then sent his clerk to his own bank and cashed the check. Two weeks later the trio turned up in Dayton, O., and attempted the same game with different names. They were arrested, and, as usual, made a scramble to sell each other for their own liberty. Elliott was “whipsawed” between the two and was about to be sentenced when he escaped. Later he was rearrested and sentenced to Sing Sing.

While there he sent for the Pinkertons and sought from them those influential factors a pardoning parole and a reward on representations that he could “turn up” the immortal Gainsborough painting. He glibly “squawked” against his old partner and benefactor, Worth, whose theft of the masterpiece had until then remained a mystery. He satisfied the detectives that Worth, Phillips, and Elliott himself had stolen the painting. But Little Joe did not know the whereabouts of the canvas, having accepted from Worth long before that a price for any equity that he might have in the stolen treasure by virtue of his participation in the burglary.

Elliott served his term. With new worthies he made up some presentable American railroad bonds and crossed to Amsterdam, where he and the gang were seized, but Elliott, by a master stroke of agility and desperation, contrived to destroy the evidence even as the clumsy Dutch police had them in hand. After a long trial the band was acquitted, but run out of the country.

Elliott dropped down to Paris, where he had figured in many atmospheric and daring bits of crooked business, not the least malodorous of which had been the episode at the American bar, where he had robbed a diamond merchant of $25,000 worth of gems in a satchel while Adam Worth was running the world famous establishment as monitor for its proprietor, his friend and fellow robber, “Piano Charlie” Bullard, who had been forced to fly France.

In Paris, Elliott became a gambler and a desperado. He frequented the gilded gaming palaces of the day and place, and, when “in luck,” won large stakes, and when “hoodooed” robbed the clubs at the point of a revolver. He was feared and fearless. Once he was arrested, but he broke the bastille and crippled the man who had testified against him with four bullets in a populous cafe, then bullied his way out in safety with the smoking weapon.

He returned to New York and called on the chief of detectives, Inspector Byrnes, pledging good behavior if the police would let him alone, and holding out that he intended to go into the theatrical business, having brought with him from Paris a young comedienne who had become the furore of French cabarets. Byrnes wished him luck and said he would be “decent” as long as Elliott remained decent.

The girl and Elliott were soon afterward arrested for fighting on the street, and she told a sensational and probably veracious tale of how Elliott had beaten and cowed her. A hint which she dropped to the police unwittingly convinced the Pinkertons that Elliott had again been involved in swindles, and a close watch was placed on him. He was followed out of the city and arrested with two old confederates after they had bilked a country bank. Strong pressure was brought by the Pinkertons and the New York police in the prosecution, and Elliott “went down” this time for fifteen years, his longest and last sentence.

His health broke after he served a fifth of this “stretch,” and he was pardoned to die. With scarcely a dollar, his eyes deeply sunken into his shapely head, the bristling, raven hair of old splotched with sickly gray, his small frame bent and weak, he staggered out. He was “picked up” in New York as a vagrant and sent to a public hospital, where he died, cursing Kate Castleton, who had loved him, and all the other friends whom he had wronged and outraged.