#70 Edward Lyons

Edward Lyons (Abt. 1839-1906?), aka Ned Lyons, Alexander Cummings — Sneak thief, pickpocket, bank robber, green goods operator

From Byrnes’s 1886 edition:

DESCRIPTION. Forty-seven years old in 1886. Born in England. Married. Stout build. Height, about 5 feet 8 inches. Weight, about 180 pounds. Hair inclined to be sandy. Wears it long, covering the ears, one of which (the left one) has the top off. Wears a very heavy reddish mustache. Bald on front of head, forming a high forehead.
RECORD. Ned Lyons was born in Manchester, England, in 1839; came to America in 1850. His father had hard work to make both ends meet and look after his children, and in consequence young Ned had things pretty much his own way. They lived in West Nineteenth Street, New York City, a neighborhood calculated to develop whatever latent powers Ned possessed. The civil war, with its attractions in the shape of bounties, etc., proved a bonanza while it lasted, and after that Ned loomed up more prominently under the tuition of Jimmy Hope (20). He was afterwards a partner of Hope’s, and was arrested several times, but never convicted.
In 1869 Lyons, Hope, Bliss, Shinborn, and others, robbed the Ocean Bank, of New York, of money and bonds amounting to over a million of dollars. The bank was situated on the corner of Fulton and Greenwich streets. A basement directly underneath was hired, ostensibly as an exchange. To this office tools were carried, and a partition erected, between which the burglars worked day and night, when opportunity served, cutting up through the stone floor of the bank, and gaining an entrance on Saturday night, after the janitor had left. To tear open the vaults was a task requiring time; but they operated so well, that on Monday morning the iron front door of the bank was found unlocked, the vault literally torn to pieces, and the floor strewn with the debris of tools, mortar, stone, bricks, bonds, and gold coin — the bonds being left behind as worthless, and the gold coin as too heavy.
A few years before this robbery Lyons married a young Jewess, named Sophie Elkins, alias Levy (128), protegee of Mrs. Mandlebaum. Her mania for stealing was so strong that when in Ned’s company in public she plied her vocation unknown to him, and would surprise him with watches, etc., which she had stolen. Ned expostulated, pleaded with, and threatened her, but without avail; and after the birth of her first child, George (who, by the way, has just finished his second term for burglary in the State Reformatory at Elmira, N.Y.), Ned purchased a farm on Long Island, and furnished a house with everything a woman could wish for, thinking her maternal instinct would restrain her monomania; yet within six months she returned to New York, placed her child out to nurse, and began her operations again, finally being detected and sentenced to Blackwell’s Island.
Early in the winter of 1870 Lyons, in connection with Jimmy Hope, George Bliss, Ira Kingsland, and a well known Trojan, rifled the safe of the Waterford (N.Y.) Bank, securing $150,000. Lyons, Kingsland and Bliss were arrested, and sentenced to Sing Sing prison. Hope was shortly after arrested for a bank robbery in Wyoming County, and sentenced to five years in State prison at Auburn, N.Y., on November 28, 1870. He escaped from there in January, 1873.
Lyons escaped from Sing Sing in a wagon on December 4, 1872. About two weeks after Ned’s escape (December 19, 1872), he, in company of another person, drove up in the night-time to the female prison that was then on the hill at Sing Sing. One of them, under pretense of bringing a basket of fruit to a sick prisoner, rang the bell; whereupon, by a pre-concerted arrangement, Sophie, his wife, who had been sent there on October 9, 1871, for five years, rushed out, jumped into the carriage, and was driven away.
They both went to Canada, where Ned robbed the safe of a pawnbroker, securing $20,000 in money and diamonds, and returned to New York, where their four children had been left — the eldest at school, the younger ones in an orphanage.
About this time (September, 1874) the bank at Wellsboro, Pa., was robbed. Lyons was strongly suspected of complicity, with George Mason and others, in this robbery. Although Sophie and Ned were escaped convicts, they succeeded in evading arrest for a long time.
Both of them were finally arrested at the Suffolk County (L.I.) Fair, at Riverhead, in the first week in October, 1876, detected in the act of picking pockets. Two weeks later he was tried in the Court of Sessions of Suffolk County, L.I., found guilty, and sentenced to three years and seven months in State prison, by Judge Barnard.
Sophie was discharged, re-arrested on October 29, 1876, by a detective, and returned to Sing Sing prison to finish out her time. Lyons had on his person when arrested at Riverhead $13,000 of good railroad bonds.
In 1869 Lyons had a street fight with the notorious Jimmy Haggerty, of Philadelphia (who was afterwards killed by Reddy the Blacksmith, in Eagan’s saloon, corner Houston Street and Broadway). During the melee Haggerty succeeded in biting off the greater portion of Lyons’ left ear.
On October 24, 1880, shortly after Ned’s release from prison, in a drunken altercation, he was shot at the Star and Garter saloon on Sixth Avenue, New York City, by Hamilton Brock, better known as “Ham Brock,” a Boston sporting man. Brock fired two shots, one striking Lyons in the jaw and the other in the body. Lyons was arrested again on July 31, 1881, in the act of breaking into the store of J. B. Johnson, at South Windham, Conn. He pleaded guilty in the Windam County Superior Court, on September 14, 1881, and was sentenced to three years in State prison at Wethersfield, Conn. At the time of his arrest in this case he was badly shot. That he is now alive, after having a hole put through his body, besides a ball in the back, embedded nine inches, seems almost a miracle.
Upon the expiration of Ned’s sentence in Connecticut, in April, 1884, he was rearrested, and taken to Springfield, Mass., to answer to an indictment charging him with a burglary at Palmer, Mass., on the night of July 27, 1881. Four days before he was shot at South Windham, Lyons, with two companions, entered the post-office and drug store of G. L. Hitchcock, and carried away the contents of the money-drawer and a quantity of gold pens, etc. They also took a safe out of the store, carried it a short distance out of the village, broke it open, and took some things valued at $350 from it. In this case Lyons was sentenced to three years in State prison on May 29, 1884. His picture was taken while he was asleep at the hospital in Connecticut, in 1881.
From Byrnes’s 1895 edition:
After Lyons’ release from the Massachusetts State Prison, he went West and was arrested at Kent, 0., on June 10, 1887, in company of Shang Campbell (see No. 107) and Ned Lyman (see No. 102), two other well-known eastern thieves, charged with robbing a passenger on a railway train near Kent, Portage Co., 0., on June 10, 1887. Lyons and Lyman were sentenced to five years imprisonment in the penitentiary at Columbus, 0., on September 4, I887. Shang Campbell gave bail and forfeited it. Since Lyons’ release he has been engaged in the “green goods” business, making his head quarters near Perth Amboy, N.J.

Nearly all of Ned Lyon’s criminal career took place within the epic melodrama that had at its center his one-time wife, Sophie Lyons. Her story, involving not only Ned, but her other erstwhile husbands: Maury Harris, Jim Brady and Billy Burke; not to mention other notable friends and lovers, involves a huge swath of American criminal history. She was more than a notable member of the underworld community, she was one of its foremost chroniclers.

Sophie never honestly told her own story, and her criminal reminiscences were only infrequently based on her own recollections, and otherwise relied on other sources (like Byrnes’s Professional Criminals of America), and a large dose of fabrication. A full, accurate, well-researched biography of Sophie’s life has never been published, but it may not be long before one appears.
Because any long-overdue study of Sophie Lyons will cover the major events of Ned’s criminal career–and Byrnes mentions most of them–put those aside and consider two parts of Ned’s life that are likely to defy definitive research: his origins and his death. According to different reports, Ned was born in America, Ireland, England, or Scotland; and grew up in New York City or Boston. Fortunately, starting in 1856, Lyons left a long trail of shoplifting and pickpocket arrests in Boston–which also point back to Lowell, Massachusetts, where a few articles believe Lyons was raised. He was often caught with a pal named Michael Sullivan. The 1850 census shows a boy Edward Lyons, 11, living in Lowell with his mother Bridget. Born were listed as having been born in Ireland.

By 1858, Lyons was moving between Boston and New York to avoid arrests, and had already served more than one term in Boston’s House of Corrections. When the Civil War broke out, he set aside his career as a pickpocket to join the more lucrative venture of army recruitment bounty fraud, joining other thieves who congregated at Robert “Whitey Bob” White’s saloon at 104 Prince Street. There Lyons was mentored by the likes of Tom Bigelow, Dan Barron, and Dan Noble. It was during this period–the end of 1864 and into 1865–that Lyons met Sophie, who had just given up on her short marriage to pickpocket Morris Harris.
Skipping ahead to Lyons’s sad final years, in October 1904 he was spotted by detectives on a street in Buffalo, New York, and arrested on suspicion. He said he had been living in Buffalo for the past six months. They held him until they sent out a notice to the Pinkerton agency and to major metropolitan police departments asking if he was currently wanted; but he was not, so he was released.
In January 1906, Lyons was arrested in Toronto, Ontario under the alias Alexander Cummings. He was accused by James Tierney of Brooklyn of working a “green goods” con, in which Lyons was well-versed. Ned had run a successful green goods operation out of Perth Amboy, New Jersey, in the mid 1890s, until its operations were exposed by New York’s Lexow Committee on corruption.
Once Toronto authorities had captured Lyons, Mr. Tierney came from Brooklyn to identify him as he languished in jail. When Tierney was shown into his cell, Lyons smiled, extended his hand, and said, “Shake with me.”
“Never. I could see you die in jail,” hissed Tierney, drawing back. “You know the turn you did me. I am only a poor man, drawing $14 a week, but I would go to the ends of the earth to see you punished.”
Lyons himself was likely poorer than his victim. His clothes were shabby; his hair was now snow white. He suffered the lingering effects of bullets left in his body, and years of wear from confinement in State prisons. Despite Tierney’s testimony, no evidence existed to convict Lyons, so he was discharged and told to leave the province in February 1906.
Less than a year later, in January 1907, a short notice in a Chicago paper mentioned that Lyons had passed away the previous year in New York’s Bellevue hospital and had been buried in a potter’s field. However, no death record dated 1906 has surfaced. There is a May 22, 1907 New York City death record for an Edward Lyons, but no confirmation that this was Ned.

#195 Joseph Rickerman

Joseph Baker (Abt. 1847-19??), aka Nigger Baker, Joe Baker, George Baker, Thomas Baker, Lannon, Graham, Bartholomew Hayes, George R. Tate, George Lehman, George T. Bradford, etc.–Pickpocket, Green Goods Operator

From Byrnes’s text:

DESCRIPTION. Thirty-nine years old in 1886. Born in New York. Single. No trade. Medium build. Height, 5 feet 6 1/2 inches. Weight, 145 pounds. Black hair, hazel eyes, dark complexion. Generally wears a black mustache. Two vaccination marks on right arm.

RECORD. Joe Rickerman, alias “Nigger” Baker, so called on account of his very dark complexion, is a well known New York burglar and pickpocket. He is an associate of Will Kennedy, Joe Gorman (146), Big Jim Casey (91), “Poodle” Murphy (134), “Pretty” Jimmie (143), Jimmy Scraggins, and other well known New York thieves and pickpockets. He is pretty well known in all the Eastern cities, especially in Philadelphia and New York, where his picture is in the Rogues’ Gallery. He has served terms in prison in Philadelphia (Pa.), Sing Sing (N. Y.), and in the penitentiary on Blackwell’s Island, and is considered a very handy man with a set of tools.

Of late years Joe has been traveling through the country, “stalling” for a gang of pickpockets. He was arrested in New York City and sentenced to three years and six months in Sing Sing prison for burglary, on September 15, 1881. His sentence expired on July 15, 1884. Rickerman’s picture is a good one, taken in November, 1878.

Chief Inspector Byrnes made a misleading error in his entry on Joseph Rickerman/Baker: the man arrested and sent to Sing Sing on September 15, 1881, was not Rickerman/Baker, but a much younger man named Henry Baker, who was arrested in this instance under the name James Johnson. Henry Baker was born about 1862, making him fifteen years younger than Rickerson/Baker. This same Henry Baker was sent to Sing Sing in 1879, at age 17, under the name James Flynn.

The man that Byrnes was talking about and depicts in a photo was obviously older; but also even more difficult to trace than Henry Baker. “Rickerman” appears to have been a one-off alias, given at just one of his arrests. The press usually referred to him by his underworld nickname, Nigger Baker–a label meant to mock his dark complexion.

Without that one arrest date as a clue, there is little to go on to trace this man other than his nickname and the name Rickerman. A 1902 article on Baker claims that he was jailed in July 1868 under the name Richmond; and imprisoned again in 1874 and 1881; but none of these can be verified. The first documented presence of Baker can only be found in a round-up of 18 pickpockets working the New York City crowd during President Grant’s funeral in August 1885; among them was George alias “Nigger” Baker. Several additional arrests of Baker under that nickname for picking pockets occurred between 1885 and 1888.

In the 1890s, like several of the Bowery gang of pickpockets, Baker moved in to “green goods” operations, in which gullible “come-ons” were lured to trade their good money for loads of supposed high-quality counterfeit notes, which through sleight-of-hand turned out to be nothing more than satchels full of sawdust or plain paper.

Although law enforcement was often stymied in figuring out how to crack down on this devious confidence game, one man took it upon himself to lead the fight: Anthony Comstock. A Civil War Union army veteran with a strict puritan background, Comstock came to New York City in the early 1870s to work for the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA). Seeing firsthand the many immoral and corrupt influences that led young men astray, Comstock founded a reform organization called the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice.

Comstrock’s primary target was obscene printed materials. Though a prude, Comstock was a profoundly influential and effective campaigner. Just a year after arriving in New York, Comstock lent his name to a federal law, the Comstock Act of 1873, that made illegal the use of the U. S. Mail to deliver “obscene, lewd, or  lascivious” material. Comstock was quick to broaden his definition of these terms to anything pertaining to sex, including any mentions of abortion, birth control, or venereal disease. Anecdotes suggest the law was even applied to medical text books. Wielding popular support, Comstock was hired as a special investigator for the United States Postal Service.

Comstock took his role seriously, and cracked down on distributors of material he deemed unfit. In a narrow sense, his efforts yielded some good: he prosecuted medical quacks who preyed upon young, desperate women with worthless or dangerous solutions to their health issues. However, Comstock was anything but contained; he broadened his misuse of the mail to include gambling efforts–in the form of lottery tickets sold through the mail; and, eventually, to the circulars distributed by green goods operators.

By working closely with local law authorities, Comstock used the federal mail fraud act to attack green goods operators on two fronts, by cracking down both on the “writers” who sent out mass-mailed circulars; and on the backers and turners who actually executed the swindle of the victim. Through the 1880s and 1890s, Comstock’s efforts winnowed the ranks of New York’s green goods operators. One of the last, strongest operations were those of backer Mike Ryan, who, prior to 1894, counted on protection offered by his political and police associates. Ryan was finally jailed in 1896, having been brought before the reforming Lexow Committee a little while earlier, thanks to Comstock.

Comstock then sets his sights on the remaining members of Mike Ryan’s operation. At the head of the new gang was “George Lehman,” otherwise known as Nigger Baker. Baker had shifted the physical meeting place of the swindles to Allentown, Pennsylvania; though he was still headquartered in New York. Comstock’s indefatigable determination finally trapped Baker:


As mentioned in the above article, Comstock personally sat in on Baker’s trial, both as a witness and audience to the proceedings. True crime author Jay Robert Nash related a story of that scene that serves as a epitaph for Baker, alias George Lehman:

“Comstock delightedly sat day after day in court, reveling in his victory, until the con man was convicted for green goods swindles for the sixth time since 1896.

“’Why don’t you go straight when you get out, George?’ Comstock asked the prisoner before he was led away.

“’Don’t be silly,’ Lehman replied. ‘When you got a profession, you stick to it. It’s the only way to get ahead.’”