Michael Kurtz (1846-1904), aka Sheeny Mike, Michael Sheehan, James Morgan, Charley Miller, etc. — Burglar, Safe-Blower
Chief Byrnes did a good job of summarizing “Sheeny Mike” Kurtz’s major crimes from 1877 forward. An April, 1876 article from the New York Times gives a better idea of his activities up to that point (which Byrnes might have wished to overlook):
Byrnes updated his entry on Kurtz in his 1895 edition, which is included in the linked page above. Kurtz was not a major criminal after 1895; he was arrested a few times in the late 1890s for small thefts, and was typically released for lack of evidence.
The nickname “Sheeny” is an ethnic slur. In the 1890s, there was another criminal, a confidence man named Max Cohen, who was also given the nickname “Sheeny Mike.” Doubtless it was applied to others, as well. Michael Kurtz slyly turned the slur on its head by often giving the alias when arrested of “Michael Sheehan.”
It would be fascinating to learn more details of Kurtz’s years as a Florida orange grower. Byrnes mentions that Kurtz had a wife at this time, but the only official marriage record for Kurtz dates from 1892–years after his Florida adventures. Did he have any children from this earlier liaison?
Chief Byrnes and others who wrote about Kurtz’s career agree that his most audacious crime was the Marks jewelry store robbery in Troy, New York in February, 1884. At the time it occurred, few details were published about that crime. However, many years later (in 1912), a post-humus publication of a serialized book by Philadelphia thief Edward W. Dunlap devoted a chapter to this robbery [Dunlap himself had died in 1906]. Dunlap, from the Philadelphia area, was not a reliable source about New York criminals. In his retelling of the Troy jewelry robbery, he portrays Kurtz as an extraordinarily cunning thief who used a trick worthy of a magician. It sounds outlandish enough to be true:
Chapter XX: The Robbery of the Jewelry Store of Marks & Son, at Troy, N.Y.
The method adopted to rob this establishment was of the most ingenious and original description. The robbery was effected in February, 1884, and the men that did the work were Billy Porter, Sheeny Mike and Jimmy Irvin[g], who was afterward killed by Porter. [Note: Dunlap is wrong on this point–Jimmy Irving was killed by John Walsh in Shang Draper’s saloon in October, 1883, months before the Troy robbery. Billy Porter was present and killed Walsh. As Chief Byrnes indicates, the third man in the Troy jewelry robbery was likely Joe Dubuque, not Jimmy Irving. Dunlap does mention further down that Dubuque was involved.]
The jewelry store was situated at the busiest part of the main street of Troy, and its proprietors believed it to be burglar-proof. It was a large double store, having showcases on each side. This establishment contained valuables to an extent that would not seem probable in such a small city. Between the two counters, at the rear of the store, was a railing, and about six or eight feet back of this railing and against the wall stood a large Hall safe. The office of the firm was at a room at the rear of the store, and this room was protected by heavy iron shutters and an iron door. The safe contained the valuables of the firm during the night.
The younger of the brothers always saw to it that the goods were placed in the safe personally at night. He alone knew the combination; consequently he himself always unlocked the safe in the morning. When all was ready to close the store for the night, a large locomotive headlight, containing a big reflector, was placed on the end of one of the counters. This was not an oil lamp, but was supplied with gas from a nearby burner. The light was reflected directly upon the safe, and the back of the store was in gloom; but the big safe stood out clearly exhibited by the beams of light from the lamp and was distinctly visible from the street. The outside watchman, a most faithful man, made his rounds every half hour, and at each round he would look through one of the glass windows, would see the safe, and would then, of course, believe everything to be right. One would suppose that it would be impossible to beat a safe that was so protected, yet it was beaten in a very few minutes, and the watchman knew nothing until the next morning.
Both Porter and Mike visited the store several times, and at each visit made a trivial purchase. They were thus able to get an accurate mental picture of the safe, its size, its color, the plates upon it, the exact position of the handle, knob, etc. On a piece of heavy canvas the ingenious Sheeny Mike painted an excellent representation of a safe. This canvas was taken to a French locksmith and toolmaker in New York City, and he made a mount for the canvas so that it could be put together in a few minutes. This pretended safe had real handles and knobs, which were to be placed on the outside once it was set up.
It was quite certain that the store could not be entered from the rear; the only way to enter it was by the roof. A store three or four doors below was “cracked” from the rear. The burglars went to the roof, and from there passed to the roof of the Marks store and entered through a trapdoor. After an entrance had been made, the tools and the dummy safe were carried in.
Porter and Mike were to do the actual work; Irvin was the outside man. Just a few minutes before the watchman came around Irvin would tap upon the window so the inside men could hear, and they would at once set up the dummy. It was agreed that in case the watchman should give trouble, Irvin was to convey information by rapping loudly upon the door, or, at least, making a loud noise in the street.
Nothing took place to disturb the work. As soon as the watchman departed the frame was taken down and work was begun anew. The safe was beaten by smashing the knob and driving in the spindle. This so disarranged the lock that a simple haul at the handle would open the doors. This old way of beating a safe is no longer possible. The makers now know too much and have provided against it. After the safe was beaten Mike took down the framework and closed up the smashed safe, and the robbers went away, taking the counterfeit safe along with them [except one piece; see below]. During the remainder of the night the watchman passed and re-passed, and every time he looked in he saw the safe, apparently as it should be, and went comfortably on his way.
This job netted about $40,000, mostly in diamonds and precious stones. The pluder was taken to a roadhouse about four miles below Albany, kept by Joe Dubuque, an all-around sport and a clever man. I do not know how or where the swag was disposed of. Shortly afterward Porter went to England. Mike went to Florida and bought an Orange grove.
Billy Pinkerton had been put on this case. He made some very correct inferences from a study of the big plate of the fake safe, which had been left behind by accident. Pinkerton learned that both Porter and Mike had been at the roadhouse below Albany before the robbery, and again afterward; so he procured warrants for them and made every effort to locate them, but was unsuccessful. Eighteen months after the robbery Porter returned to New York and was arrested by central office detectives, who, of course, knew that he was wanted. The Pinkertons were so convinced of the rottenness of the New York force that they watched the place of Porter’s confinement so that if he should be turned out they would be able to pinch him again right away. He was turned over to the authorities of Troy, where he was indicted, tried, convicted and sentenced to ten years in Dannemora prison. Mike was located in Florida, was brought back and received a similar sentence.
As a matter of fact, the evidence upon which they were convicted was of the flimsiest sort. There was no evidence at all, except that they had been at the roadhouse before and after the robbery; but, as they were crooks and good burglars, it was decided that they must be guilty. Sheeny Mike’s case was appealed at once. In about six months it was heard by the supreme court, and Mike was discharged. Porter remained in prison about three months after Mike was liberated, when he also was set free by order of the supreme court.
I knew Sheeny Mike well. He was one of the greatest crooks of the country. He never beat a bank, but his peculiar graft was store safes, and many a one of them he opened. He made money rapidly, and spent it freely. He was a short, slender man, and at the time of committing the Marks robbery was about 35 years of age. With his clear-cut features, large nose and high forehead he had an intellectual and scholarly appearance. A book could be written about this remarkable Jew’s career. He had a taste for jewelry and a knowledge of silk and fabrics. He was not only a master in executing a robbery, but also an artist in planning one. He died a few months ago [Dunlap was writing in 1904-05], leaving a widow and three children [no records have been found of children], with not a cent to support them.
I have not seen Porter for a long time and have no notion what has become of him. He was undoubtedly a first-class man. When Porter, Mike, Irvin, and Pat the Mick were together it was a wonderful combination and was very hard to beat.