#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.

#99 David Swain

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

From Byrnes’s text:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#50 David Cummings

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

Link to Byrnes’s text for #50 David Cummings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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