#141 Richard Morris

Richard Morris (Abt. 1844-19??), aka Big Dick, Charles Johnson, Richard Johnson, James Johnson, Charles Williams, James Williams, George W. Davis, John Sullivan, etc. – Pickpocket

From Byrnes’s text:

DESCRIPTION. Forty-two years old in 1886. Born in United States. Married. Carpenter. Medium build. Height, 5 feet 10 1/2 inches. Weight, 155 pounds. Brown hair, blue eyes, fair complexion. Generally wears a light-colored beard and mustache, inclined to be sandy.

RECORD. “Big Dick” is a well known New York pickpocket. He works with Charles Douglas, alias Curly Charley; Poodle Murphy (134), Shang Campbell (107), James Wilson, alias Pretty Jimmie (143), and all the other good New York men. He has traveled all over the United States, and is well known in all the principal cities. Morris formerly kept a drinking saloon in New York that was a resort for nearly all the pick- pockets in America, but business fell off and he went back to his old business again.

He was arrested in New York City, and sentenced to five years in Sing Sing prison, January 7, 1872, for larceny from the person, under the name of Richard Morris.

He was arrested again in Albany, N.Y., by New York officers, and brought to New York City, where he pleaded guilty to grand larceny, and was sentenced to one year in the penitentiary on August 10, 1885, for stealing a coat from Rogers, Peet & Co., some months previously. He gave bail in this case, which he forfeited, and was subsequently re-arrested as above. Morris’s picture is a good one, taken in October, 1877.

While Richard Morris’s origins, character, and fate remain obscure–and his career as a Bowery gang pickpocket was not particularly interesting–one episode in which he became the talk of New York’s entire underworld community occurred on August 11, 1879. On that day, through no fault of his own, Morris helped to make a public mockery of the entire King’s County (Brooklyn) Sheriff’s department.

Almost exactly one year earlier, in August 1878, a group of four notorious burglars had been caught while robbing the safe of a flour store in Brooklyn. They were: Billy Porter, Johnny Irving, Shang Draper, and John Wilbur (real name Gib Yost), each with long records, and all highly-skilled thieves. Billy Porter (real name William O’Brien) was one of Marm Mandelbaum’s favorite pet burglars–she called him “my most promising chick.” After being arraigned in police court, the four burglars were lodged in the Raymond Street jail to await trial. When transported between the court building and the jail, utmost security was used; the prisoners were handcuffed together; and a whole detail of sheriff deputies surrounded them.

The four burglars were afforded the best legal defense (likely funded by Marm Mandelbaum), and their trials were dragged out for over eight months. Billy Porter’s first trial resulted in a hung jury, and so he was tried again in May 1879. This time he was convicted, and returned to the Raymond Street jail to await his sentencing. Porter’s fate galvanized his supporters, and put fear into his partner Johnny Irving. Porter and Irving decided to try an escape, and found it surprisingly easy to do, for the guards had let down their vigilance. Porter and Irving had been given the freedom of the jail corridors, and noted the lax security around the building exits. They were able to walk through a kitchen door, across the open grounds of the nearby jail hospital, and then climbed over the short fence to the side street.

The effortless escape of Porter and Irving was denounced by Brooklyn and New York newspapers as a sign of mismanagement in the King’s County sheriff’s office, which spurred both the Brooklyn police and the sheriff to try to recapture the fugitives as quickly as possible. They had no leads until late July, when a New Jersey detective named Fred Whitehead noticed Marm Mandelbaum making several visits to an upscale hotel in Passaic; followed by visits made by “Mickey” Welch, a crook who was suspected in aiding Porter and Irving’s escape from jail. Through an informer, Whitehead learned that they were making arrangements for Porter and Irving to make the hotel their new headquarters. Staking out the hotel around the clock, he finally saw Porter arrive on July 14, 1879. Whitehead waited patiently, and was rewarded a week later when Irving also checked in.

He alerted the authorities in Brooklyn. Brooklyn Sheriff Riley arrived in Passaic with five of his deputies. Together with ten Passaic detectives and constables and Fred Whitehead, they had seventeen men surrounding the hotel. Sheriff Riley insisted that they hold off a day or two before arresting the pair, in hopes that other fugitive criminals might be joining them, and to verify their identities. Fred Whitehead seethed, thinking that they had Porter and Irving in a perfect trap. Meanwhile, the two thieves started keeping different schedules, and were rarely in the hotel together.

Finally, Riley declared they would raid the men’s rooms at four the next morning, when they were most like to be asleep. Porter and Irving were seen going to their rooms around midnight. The hotel proprietor, who may or may not have been bribed by Marm Mandelbaum, noticed several men lurking outside the hotel. The next thing the officers knew, Porter and Irving burst out of a side doorway and ran towards a back street. One man spotted then and chased them into a small alley, but Porter or Irving shot a pistol at him, just missing his head. They then ran into a back yard and jumped over a fence, and were not seen again. They had eluded all seventeen men.

This incident, too, made all the newspapers, further adding to the bumbling reputation of Sheriff Riley and his men. One of Riley’s deputies, Thomas Morris, felt sure that they might get another shot at capturing Porter and Irving if they kept an eye on Marm Mandelbaum, who no longer was making visits to Passaic, but instead kept close to her store at the corner of Clinton and Rivington streets in lower Manhattan. Accordingly, she was placed under constant surveillance. Through this watch they learned that Mandelbaum’s son was planning a huge picnic gathering at the Jones Wood Colosseum, a park and resort on the upper East side of Manhattan, known for hosting many large festivals.

Deputy Morris learned that Marm Mandelbaum was to be the central honoree of this celebration, and that all of her thieving proteges and their families were invited. He was convinced that Porter and Irving would not miss such an occasion, and was able to get a ticket to the picnic from an informer. After mingling with the merrymakers, Deputy Morris spotted four men at the makeshift bar tent; he identified them as Porter, Irving, and the two men who had helped them escape from jail: Johnny The Mick and Mickey Welch.

Morris ran to the nearest police precinct station and demanded to see the captain. He convinced the captain to call out every man available, and reserves, and to make a beeline to Jones Wood. There, the police surrounded the four men and took them to the precinct house, where the suspects gave suspected aliases and totally denied being any of the men being sought.

Eventually, several New York police detectives arrived and informed Deputy Morris that they had arrested the wrong men. The detectives recognized only one of the four that had been taken: his name was Richard Morris, a Bowery pickpocket. “Big Dick” was asked to explain why he was attending the Mandelbaum’s picnic. His answer was simple–he owned a bar just down the street from Marm Mandelbaum, and knew her as a local business owner.

Big Dick was let loose with apologies, while Deputy Sheriff Thomas Morris brought yet more shame to the reputation of Brooklyn’s law officers. Big Dick returned to his saloon to be hailed as the hero of the day.

Big Dick was active as late as 1903, when he was caught picking pockets at a fireman’s muster in Salem, Massachusetts.









#128 Sophie Lyons

Sophia Elkins-Levy (1847-1924), aka Sophie Lyons, Sophie Burke, Sophie Brady – Pickpocket, Moll

Link to Byrne’s text on #128 Sophie Lyons

The life story of Sophie Lyons–intricately connected to the careers of her other erstwhile husbands: Maury Harris, Ned Lyons, 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. Much was written about her long before her career was over, and those articles also were full of mistakes and untruths. Offered below is a typical example from a very atypical source (which makes it such an oddity): the lawyer who represented her in several early scrapes, William F. Howe, of the infamous firm Howe & Hummel.

It is a minor mystery why, in 1897, William F. Howe would have written this article (the first of two) on Sophie for the National Police Gazette. There were dozens of other criminals he could have written about–including his foremost client, Marm Mandelbaum–but Howe chose only to write about Sophie. A decade earlier, in 1888, he had written a book with Hummel about the New York underworld, Danger!: A True History of the Great City’s Wiles and Temptations, but it carefully avoided naming active professional criminals.

One might expect that Howe–a legal genius–would pen a dispassionate, clear-eyed history of Sophie, but instead he engaged in romantic myth-building as enthusiastically as any eager young yellow journalist. One of Sophie Lyons’s qualities was the ability to encourage in others the image of her as a bandit queen, born to be a thief, and not driven to thievery by necessity–and to ignore any pain she inflicted on victims of her crimes. William F. Howe’s puffery (based on anecdotes he heard, true or false) is a prime example:


“If ever there was a woman who was worthy of the title of high priestess of crime and queen of blackmailers, that woman is Sophie Lyons, who has made victims on two continents contribute to her purse; and who, perhaps with the exception of ‘Little Annie’ Reilly, has stolen more money than any other woman in the world. Thomas Byrnes, once Superintendent of Police of New York, says that she is the most expert and dangerous female crook he ever met, and her record shows that he knows what he is talking about.

“There is really no reason why Sophie Lyons should have been anything else than a thief, for her grandfather was one of the most daring cracksmen the sleuths of Scotland Yard ever had to deal with, and he gave them more trouble than any other lurcher who ever roamed London at night looking for a crib to open. Her mother was Sophie Elkins, as slick a shoplifter as ever dropped a bolt of silk into a bag, and her father was a blackmailer who could give points on trickery to any nobsman in the business. If that choice bunch wasn’t enough to put criminal blood into a woman, then nothing ever would. So you see that there was an excuse for her, and that, according to the law of heredity, it wasn’t really her fault that she became a crook. When she became a star in her chosen profession she reflected credit upon her parents.

“She was taken in hand when she was very young, and as she grew up it became very natural for her to look around for a ‘good thing.’ But there was something besides her cleverness which helped her, and that was nature. She was a pretty girl from the start, with big, gray, sympathetic eyes that could make anyone fall in love with them if she willed it, and as she grew into young womanhood she developed a figure that was superb in its wonderful loveliness. She was a woman to win a man’s heart and take his purse from under his very nose, but from the first she hated small purses. Sophie Lyons never lowered herself to petty larceny. She had been taught that it was infinitely easier to get away with a large bank roll than a few dollars, and she faithfully followed that teaching all her life.

“So to her parents and associates Sophie has always been a credit. And why wouldn’t she, when it is asserted that her parents burned her arms with hot irons to force her to steal. She learned the lesson better than they thought she would, and when she had no more to learn she began to teach others.

“She married a famous burglar–it is seldom that these women are really married–and she raised children for him. He was Ned Lyons. They had children and there is every reason to believe that Lyons was the father, for she was true to her crib-cracking spouse. As a result of the union there were two boys and two girls. The boys both became thieves, and the daughters were placed in a convent in Canada. She took great pride in her oldest son, George, who inherited the thieving instinct. He wasn’t as lucky in his operations as he might have been, and he died while serving a term in Auburn prison.

“But it will be better, perhaps, to begin at the beginning of the woman’s career–to begin, for instance, at her birth, and go with her through her calendar of crime. Everything can not be known, however, for Sophie has turned tricks which have never seen the light of day, and that, perhaps, is one of the reasons why she is worth $50,000 today.

“Forty-six years ago her father was in hiding from the detectives and her mother was in prison for shoplifting when she was born. She saw prison bars as soon as she opened her eyes, and it seemed to have been rather a pat introduction into the world for her. But she wasn’t really heard of until she was about twelve years old. Then she was caught picking a pocket. She was so young and she looked so innocent that the magistrate couldn’t believe her guilty, so he discharged her. But it didn’t stop her. She kept her hands in folks’ pockets with great success, for she had been made more shrewd by her first fail.

“At the extremely tender age of fifteen years she had her first love affair, and it is perhaps one of the most romantic affairs in the life of this remarkable woman. She went out walking on the avenue one fine afternoon looking for ‘graft.’ As usual, she was alone, for even at that tender age she made up her mind she could work better alone than with any ‘pals.’ She came to a street corner where a horse had fallen down and where a crowd had collected.

“She couldn’t have wished for anything better, and in a few minutes she was among the people, pushing and shoving with the rest, only she didn’t care a rap what all the excitement was about. All she was looking for was plunder. In a few minutes she had spotted a school boy of about seventeen years who wore a heavy gold watch chain on his vest. She edged her way over to him, and when she started back a few moments later she not only had his watch, but she had the chain, too. That was all she got that afternoon, and on her way home she looked at her booty. Upon the case of the watch was engraved the boy’s name and address, and for the first time in her life a great feeling of sympathy came over Sophie Levy for one of her victims. She remembered that the boy was very handsome, that he had big blue eyes and a manly way with him that appealed to her, and the result was that when she arrived home she said nothing about the watch, but kept it hidden in the bosom of her dress. She couldn’t get the boy’s face out of her mind, and it haunted her day and night, until finally she took to hanging about the house where he lived. One day, by accident, he met her on the avenue and he smiled on her.

“That is the way it began, and that is how they became acquainted. While they walked and talked she could feel his watch ticking against her breast, and it seemed to her as if everyone on the street could hear it.

“After that they had a great many meetings, and at last the boy became so infatuated with her that he wanted to marry her.

“She was willing, so he took her to the grand house where he lived so that he could introduce her to his father.

“‘What is your name?’ asked the old gentleman.

“‘Sophie Levy.’

“‘You’re a very nice little girl, but I think you’re too young to marry. Besides, when my son marries he shall marry his equal. Here is a present for you,’ and he held out a $10 bill. ‘Now run away home.’

“She took the money, threw it on the floor and trampled on it angrily. ‘I don’t want your money,’ she screamed, ‘and I’m going to marry your son just to spite you.’

“‘Come, come, none of that. You must go out of here and not raise any row.’

“He took her by the shoulders and began to push her towards the door, but she flew at him like a tigress. She fought him back to the center of the room and then she said: ‘I’ll go now because I am ready to go. Good bye.’ And she started out.

“She got $20 from a fence for the watch and chain and she was willing to get rid of it now her romance was over. But she had her revenge.

“Three times in as many weeks she picked the old gentleman’s pocket. Once she got his watch, twice she fished his purse out and then she wound up by nipping his diamond stud from his ample shirt front. In telling of this afterwards she said she ought to have stolen the old fellow’s clothes off his back for breaking up her first love affair. If she had married the swell kid Sophie Levy might today be a leader in a social set, instead of a woman who is constantly under the surveillance of the police.

“When she was seventeen years old she was a decided beauty, and it was then she met old Mother Mandelbaum, the notorious fence, who years later took refuge in Canada from the inquisitive police. Mother Mandelbaum had no use for anyone but a high-class crook, and when she took little Sophie Levy up it made her reputation at once. Levy was her name before she married Ned Lyons. The Mandelbaum woman put new ideas in her head.

“‘You are beautiful, my child,’ she said to her one day. ‘You ought to do very well. Men will like you and that is the best of all, for you can do with them as you please, and with your face it will not be necessary for you to nip their clocks–they will give you anything you want.’

“That set Sophie to thinking, and she concluded the old mother of crooks was right. So from that time on she began to play upon the sympathies of men, and it is on record that she was never once known to fail.

“She was in the hey-day of her youth and beauty when she met Ned Lyons, the man who was destined to become her husband–the man who stole millions and who eventually drifted into the worst kind of poverty; the man who was as handsome as an Adonis, but who lost his looks with his luck.

“Lyons’ father was an honest weaver, who came to New York with his family in 1850 from Manchester, England. The boy fell among among thieves and it wasn’t long before he was working with them and turning a trick as good as the best of them. At the beginning of the war he was a young man, handsome, daring and athletic, and he turned his talents to robbing drunken soldiers until the game became risky and then he became a full-fledged bounty jumper. It was his boast that he enlisted and deserted in New York alone eighteen times within one month. That was pretty fast moving, and so, in order to escape the bullets they generally throw into a captured bounty jumper, Lyons moved westward.

“He did not return east until 1866, and then it was known that he had turned off altogether about $150,000, most of which had gone into the faro bank, for which he was a good thing. But when he struck New York he was still ‘flush’ enough and was far from broke. With the rest of the criminal push he wandered to Mother Mandelbaum’s.

“One night he was sitting there when a handsome young woman came in. ‘Who’s the moll?’ he asked.

“‘Sophie Levy,’ was the answer.

“‘I think I’ll make a play for her,’ he remarked, as he walked over to where she was. He was introduced by Mrs. Mandelbaum and he began his courting by saying to her, ‘I rather like your looks. What do you think of me?'”






#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.

#115 Ellen Clegg

Ellen Maguire (Abt. 1845-????), aka Ellen Clegg, Mary Wilson, Mary Lane, Ellen Lee, Mary Gray, etc. — Pickpocket, Shoplifter

From Byrnes’s text:

DESCRIPTION. Forty-five years old in 1886. Born in United States. Lives in New York. Married. Stout build. Height, 5 feet 5 inches. Weight, 145 pounds. Brown hair, brown eyes, light complexion, big ears.

RECORD. Ellen Clegg is an old and expert pickpocket, shoplifter, and hand-bag opener. She was one of Mrs. Mandelbaum’s women, and is well known throughout the country. Her picture is in the Rogues’ Gallery in several of the large cities. She is a clever woman, and the wife of Old Jimmy Clegg, alias Bailey, alias Lee, alias Thomas, who was convicted and sentenced in Portsmouth, N.H., in April, 1882, for four years, for picking pockets.

This team has traveled through the country for years, and been arrested time and time again. Ellen was arrested in Boston, Mass., on December 6, 1876, in company of Tilly Miller, Black Lena, and four other notorious shoplifters, and her picture taken for the Rogues’ Gallery.

She was arrested again in Boston in 1878 for picking pockets, and sent to the House of Correction.

Again arrested in New York City on November 24, 1879, in company of Walter Price (197), under the name of Mary Gray, charged with shoplifting. (See record of No. 197.) She pleaded guilty, and was sentenced to three years in the penitentiary on Blackwell’s Island, N.Y., by Judge Gildersleeve, on December 16, 1879. Price went to State prison. Ellen’s time expired in this case on April 16, 1882.

She was arrested again in Boston on May 21, 1883, for shoplifting, and sentenced to one year in the House of Correction. Arrested again in Boston on December 22, 1885, and again sent to the House of Correction for one year. In this case Ellen was detected in the act of opening a lady’s hand-bag and attempting to remove a pocket-book. Her picture is a pretty good one, taken in 1876.

A few things can be said that can partially clear up the confusion over Ellen Clegg’s family. Byrne’s states that she was the wife of “Old Jimmy Clegg.” However, the Clegg she married was Alfred A. Clegg, alias James Bailey. Alfred Clegg came from a notorious family of pickpockets (father John Clegg, mother Susannah, from Yorkshire and Manchester respectively); brothers Alfred, James, and John Jr. came to America and thrived as pickpockets.

Ellen’s maiden name can only be found on documents relating to her children; and they are not consistent. Her son Charles’s baptismal record lists her maiden name as Maguire. The baptismal record of another son, George W. Clegg, gives a latin-ized rendering that is a letter soup: “Magrcis.” George’s Social Security application that came many decades later listed her surname as McInerney. The baptismal records are likely more accurate, so odds are her name was Maguire. Her given first name may have been Elenor; that was the name given to first child.

Ellen and Alfred Clegg had four children: Elenor Susannah (b. 1866), Alfred A. Jr. (b. 1868), George William (b. 1874), and Charles (b. 1878). They likely only spent a few years with their parents, who during these years made Boston their home. Ellen appears to have stopped using the name Clegg after the mid-1880s, preferring the alias Mary Lane.

As Byrnes notes, Ellen Clegg was said to be one of the favored proteges of Marm Mandelbaum. In 1916, during a period when there was a keen nostalgia for stories of the old crooks of the 1870s and 1880s, an anonymously-written feature article appeared in the New York Sun that tells a story of an adventure of Ellen Clegg’s that resulted in Marm Mandelbaum’s exile to Ontario. Some ancient anecdote might have inspired this story, but it is mainly a work of fiction. [As seen below it spells Mandelbaum as Mendelbaum]. Still, it illustrates how the professional criminals of the last decades of the nineteenth century captured the imagination of the public, and why they remain staples of popular culture:

Mother Mendelbaum and the Rawley Pearls: A Story of New York’s Most Notorious “Fence”

Some years ago there was an old woman known very widely as Mother Mendelbaum. Her photograph was in the rogue’s gallery at Police Headquarters, and her name off and on during each twenty-four hours was in the mouth of every detective between the Battery and the Golden Gate. Mother Mendelbaum was a “fence”–not a common, everyday pawn shop fence, but a national institution.

When a detective went out to get Mother Mendelbaum, as one did every little while, he made a lot of work for himself, but he did not get Mother Mendelbaum. Possibly he ended his quest by lying up in a hospital from a bullet wound and possibly he ended it by ending his career as a human being.

They used to say that the Czar of Russia was not so well guarded as Mother Mendelbaum. Perhaps that was so and perhaps it wasn’t. The fact remained, however, that year after year Mother Mendelbaum went on plying her trade and becoming richer and richer. In the course of time she turned the sixty year post and became so rich that her name was a byword in all the East Side–“Vy, he’s as rich as Mother Mendelbaum.”

One day three detectives whose names are as widely known now as the name of Mother Mendelbaum sat around a table in a Bowery saloon and complain in soft but strong accents that the profession was not what it once was; in short, they decided it was going to the dogs.

“Now, I’ll tell you what it is,” said one of these men, whose name shall be Jones, “there ain’t a criminal in New York that’s worth going after except one, and she’s a woman.”

“Who’s that?” said Squig.

The third detective, whose name may as well be Smith, glanced at Squig with a certain expression of contempt. Jones himself took the ragged end of a cigar from his mouth, spat upon the floor, and said with disgust, “Why you poor fish, wake up!”

A light of intelligence shone in Squig’s eyes. “Well if it’s Mother Mendelbaum you’re talking about, let me out right now. She ain’t a criminal, she’s a genius.”

Smith and Jones cast their eyes up and signified agreement. For the moment Squig had come out of water and was no longer a fish. There was no way of getting around the fact that Mother Mendelbaum was a genius. For a few minutes there was silence.

“Just the same,” Jones burst out finally, “there is only one criminal in New York who’s worth going after.”

“And getting you neck broke or your body punctured, eh?” said Smith.

“Quite right, my man,” rejoined Jones, “but think of the glory!”

“And I,” said Smith, who was not wholly wanting in a sense of the dramatic, “am the only man in New York who knows how to get her.”

That was the beginning of the last quest for Mother Mendelbaum, the most notorious fence New York has ever known. It was not, however, until six months after that the three detectives, Smith, Jones and Squig, had finally drawn their nets and were prepared to close in on the old woman.

Mother Mendelbaum’s shop was in Essex street. In the year 1880 there were still fashionable stores in Grand street, not far away, and it was not an uncommon occurrence for fashionably dressed women to wander into Mother Mendelbaum’s place. To judge by the window display she conducted a business in fine gowns, furs and rare silks. An interior inspection showed that she also dealt in costly Persian rugs, old silver, and bric-a-brac. For the theatrical trade she was also a jeweler. But there was no jewelry on display in Mother Mendelbaum’s store.

“Let me tell you, Ellen Clegg,” said Mother Mendelbaum one evening, “this is not a time to go to Boston. It is not a time to go anywhere–but to church.”

Ellen Clegg was about 40 years old, good looking, well-dressed, a woman of the world, one who could carry herself with ease in any place from a Bowery dance hall to an opera house. She was Irish, New York Irish, and as sharp as the tip of an Australian stock whip.

The two women were sitting alone in a little room just back of Mother Mendelbaum’s shop. It was a raw night outside and there was a roaring grate fire. Ellen Clegg was dressed in expensive clothes of the most recent style. Mother Mendelbaum wore her customary black silk gown and her wig of straight black hair parted in the middle and well-plastered down.

“And is it the cold weather,” rejoined Ellen Clegg, “that is giving you the chilblains, mother?”

“It is not the cold weather and you know it very well, Ellen; it’s the man who has been living beneath the lamppost on the corner for a month.”

Ellen Clegg laughed. It was a musical laugh. “Excuse me, mother, but can’t a poor beggar sell chestnuts on any corner within a mile without arousing your suspicions?”

“Not when it takes only half an eye to see that his whiskers are false and that he knows no more of roasting chestnuts than you do.”

“So that’s the game, is it?”

“It is,” said Mother Mendelbaum emphatically. “And I take it that you know me well enough to realize that I wouldn’t refuse all shipments and not take a chance on letting any one of my best men come here if there was not good reason.”

“But how about me, mother? I continue to come. Am I not one of your best women?”

A smile stole over the face of Mother Mendelbaum but did not soften its hard and cumming expression. “Yes, my dear, yes. But you’re in a class by yourself. You’re a sly one, Ellen, and so clever! And that is why you’ll give up this notion about the pearls in Boston and continue to say your prayers for a short time longer.”

“On the contrary,” said Ellen Clegg, rising, “that is why I shall not give up my notion. I’m here tonight to ask your blessing. I leave on the midnight train.”

“Impossible my dear, you would not think of it.”

Ellen Clegg picked up an exquisite sealskin coat and slipped it on. “Let me see,” said she. “This is Tuesday. You will receive on Thursday a little package by express. Do not refuse it, mother. It will contain the prettiest set of pearls even your old eyes ever looked upon.”

And with that Ellen Clegg walked out of the room into the shop and out of the shop into the street, where a poor man might have been seen selling chestnuts on the corner.

There was nothing in the figure of the chestnut man to arouse Ellen Clegg’s suspicions as she passed him and turned briskly toward the Bowery. It was a stooped figure, the figure of an old man, and it possessed the customary allotment of unalloyed dirt. But scarcely had Ellen turned her back on the chestnut man when he picked up his camp oven and hobbled feebly into the entrance of a tenement. A few moments later a tall and alert man stepped from that tenement to the sidewalk and walked hastily in the tracks of Ellen Clegg. A moment later another man appeared and turned in the same direction. On his heels came a third. They were Smith, Jones, and Squig. The chase had begun.

Mother Mendelbaum sat before the grate fire in her little sitting room mumbling unintelligible syllables to herself and slowly stirring a mug of ale with a hot poker. It was her notorious habit to sit before the grate fire and drink warm ale before retiring. Nobody knew Mother Mendelbaum better than Gen. Greenthal, that sly old crook, who frequently used the name of Myers on a check; and Gen. Greenthal has often testified to the mother’s habits.

But on this particular evening, the evening of the great adventure, Mother Mendelbaum was very nervous. It was a queer state for her, but there was something queer in the air, and, above all, there was something queer about the chestnut man on the corner which did not seem to permit the iron safe to rest as securely in the shadow as was usual.

Mother Mendelbaum tossed off the last of the ale and walked over to the safe. The combination twirled quickly back and forth between her gnarled old fingers. The tumblers clicked musically into place and the heavy door swung back. The mother reached in and drew forth a tray of sparkling diamonds, rubies, amethysts, turquoises, emeralds, and pearls that would have made the eyes of any Maiden Lane merchant dance with excitement. Long ago the settings had been dropped into the melting pot and had found their way to the Assay Office. the stones themselves had come from every center of wealth in the United States and Canada.

Second story men had risked their lives for them in San Francisco; shoplifters had gone after them in Chicago; notorious dips had snatched them in the opera jams in New York; Montreal, Quebec and Toronto had yielded up their share. And the collection was constantly changing. Year by year the old ones had gone and new ones had been added. Mother Mendelbaum bought them for a song from “her boys” and sold them at a thousand percent profit to any safe purchaser.

While mother was saying good night, as it were, to her choicest collection, Ellen Clegg was indulging in a little irritability toward Jennie, her maid. She lay on a sofa in the bedroom of her apartment watching Jennie place the wrong things in a neat leather bag.

“My dear,” said Ellen, “if your hands were as nimble as your eyes when the butcher calls you would not be doing this sort of thing.”

“Yes ma’am,” responded Jennie, who was a very trim little person, as was afterward recorded in its proper place.

“You would be wearing the most expensive clothes and going to the theater every night.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“And you would be spending the entr’actes in the dressing room, where nimble fingers are in demand.”

This was a bit beyond Jennie, but she replied with her usual formula. The little witticism as it appeared to be in Ellen’s eyes put her in a more affable humor. “And now,” said she, rising and speaking with mock seriousness, “for the great adventure. Did you put in my prayer book, Jennie? Then all is ready. My hat, dear, and a heavy veil. As the mother says, it is sometimes advisable to conceal one’s beauty.”

Ellen Clegg took a cab, a fact which, like the other facts in this story, has indebted the writer to George Dougherty, once, a Deputy Police Commissioner in this city. It might have been noticed that at the instant when she stepped into the cab three men stepped into another cab on the opposite side of the street. In a few minutes both cabs arrived at the station. A porter took Ellen Clegg’s bag. The three men, who were unencumbered by luggage, walked some distance behind her, chatting pleasantly among themselves.

“A ticket to Boston,” said Ellen to the ticket clerk.

“Round trip, madam?”

Ellen hesitated. “No, one way only, please.”

The three men were immediately behind her at the window. They also took tickets to Boston. There was the difference, however, that they purchased tickets back to New York.

One does not go to Chicago for the climate. Neither does one go to Boston for pleasure, especially from New York. It was by some such line of reasoning together with a pretty accurate though unsubstantial notion of Ellen Clegg’s means of livelihood that the three male travelers, to wit, Smith, Jones, and Squig,  arrived at the conclusion that business, big business, was at the other end of the line.

No sooner was Ellen Clegg comfortably seated in her section at one end of the car than the three detectives, who had engaged two sections at the other end, called for a deck of cards and played just one rubber. At the conclusion Smith and Jones went to bed in their section and Squig sat up in his. In due course Ellen retired, and in time dawn came. Later the Boston atmosphere was encountered and by noon a certain Boston hotel, which in those days was in high repute, housed four travelers from New York.

At precisely 2 o’clock in the afternoon a quietly though richly dressed woman stepped out of the elevator and into the hotel lobby. She waled quickly to the doors and out to the street. In one hand she carried a black leather handbag of rather large proportions for those days. In the other she had a black silk umbrella. Her gloves were of a light cream color, the shade of pearls.

She walked briskly along the sidewalk with the air of one who knew exactly where she was going and did not care to loiter on the way. Two men followed on the opposite side of the street. There was a puzzled expression on their faces. They had left a companion in the hotel lobby.

In 1880 there was a jewelry store in Boston which bore in a fashion the reputation that Tiffany’s enjoys today. A footman pushed open the swinging doors of this establishment and Ellen Clegg entered.

“What is it you wish, madam?” inquired an attendant who was standing just inside.

“I have heard,” she responded, “that you possess the Rawley pearls. I am a great fancier of pearls, and being here from New York should like to look at yours.”

At the mention of the Rawley pearls the eyes of the attendant moved instinctively to Ellen Clegg’s clothes. There was no doubt that she had the appearance of a woman of wealth. And there was in spite of Ellen Clegg’s underworld associations a mark of refinement in her features.

Instantly the attendant was all courtesy. He led the way to a counter in the center of the store. He himself stepped behind it and pushing back a sliding door reached into the case and drew forth the famous pearls. They were strung into a necklace.

Ellen Clegg placed her leather handbag well over to the rear edge of the counter. The umbrella she placed horizontally across the counter so that the handle remained close to her right hand and the steel end protruded just over the rear edge. The pearls were directly in front of her. Exactly on the other side was the attendant and at his left stood a clerk.

At the instant when this relative position of pearls, handbag and umbrella was established two men who had entered the store just behind Ellen Clegg approached a counter about twenty feet away, from which they were able to obtain an unobstructed view of Ellen Clegg, the pearls, and the two men behind the case. With a rapid sweep of her eyes Ellen Clegg saw them, saw everyone, in fact, in the store. There was a quick movement of her body, a movement of impatience. But immediately the two men became absorbed in the contents of the case before them and again Ellen Clegg glanced down at the pearls.

All this happened as things are thought and not as they are spoken.

“perhaps you know, madam,” the attendant was saying, “that the peculiar value of these pearls lies in their exact similarity.”

” I have heard so, ” said Ellen. As she spoke she reached forward with her right hand to pick up the necklace. But as her arm rose the umbrella, the handle of which had caught in the sleeve of her coat, swept to one side and carried with it the black leather handbag. It fell to the floor between the attendant and the clerk. Instinctively both of them stooped to pick it up.

Their heads disappeared beneath the counter. Ellen Glegg picked up the Rawley necklace with her left hand and dropped it into an ample pocket in the side of her sealskin coat. Simultaneously she opened her right hand, which had remained above the counter, and another necklace dropped onto the velvet pad. At that instant the attendant emerged with the handbag and placed it on the case. The clerk’s head bobbed up at the same moment.

“Thank you very much,” said Ellen Clegg, and picking up the pearls began to examine them closely. “They are exquisite stones,” she said.

Twenty feet away Smith nudged Jones and whispered “Well I’ll be damned!”

“Now, none of that,” responded Jones. “Just you keep your eyes on these beautiful watches.”

“Shall we take her now with the booty?” queried Smith.

“Look here,” said Jones. “What kind of a rube are you? Have we spent six months of our lives to get Ellen Clegg or to get Mother Mendelbaum? Now ease up and look careless.”

Smith did as he was told and both men waited somewhat breathlessly, wondering if the duplicate pearls would be detected. But both men knew in their hearts that they would not be, for Ellen Clegg was far too clever a woman to use imitation stones that would be told with anything but a microscope.

“Well of all the brass I ever saw!” burst out Smith, unable to contain himself. “The woman is looking over more of the stock.”

The attendant placed the duplicate necklace back in the case and drew forth other stones. Ellen Clegg stood there for ten minutes chatting pleasantly with him and inspecting various gems. Finally she was bowed out of the store and with her left hand resting lightly in her coat pocket began to retrace her steps to the hotel.

“Why it’s as simple as a dream after you know how to take hop,” said Squig after Ellen Clegg had been seen safely into the elevator and the three men were sitting together in the lobby. “This little bird will return to New York before nightfall and will take a cab directly from the station to Mother Mendelbaum to deliver the goods and collect her fee.”

“A very pretty idea,” said Smith, “but I’d rather let the mother have her liberty for a while longer and take Ellen while we’re sure on her.”

But Smith was overruled. While they were discussing the question, the elevator door opened and Ellen Clegg stepped out and walked to the cashier’s window. A bellboy was carrying her traveling bag. She paid her bill and was out of the hotel and in a cab before the three detectives fairly realized what was happening.

They dashed out of the seats simultaneously and ran to the street. There was not another cab in sight. “It looks as if we’ll have to hoof it and pretty fast, too,” said Squig.

Jones and Squig started to run and Smith stayed behind to pay a dinner bill that had not been settled. It was a good half mile to the station and Ellen Clegg’s cab traveled rapidly. Consequently the two men were breathing like a pair of porpoises when they walked into the waiting room a few seconds behind their bait and reached the ticket window just in time to hear Ellen saying pleasantly, “New York, please.”

The train left in five minutes, but the detectives were on it and so was Ellen Clegg.

“It’s my opinion,” said Squig as the two men settled back, “that we’re not making a howling success of this.”

“And why not?” asked Jones.

“Well, just between you and me that woman knows we’re shadowing her and has known it ever since we left New York.”

“if that’s the case,” replied Jones, “I’m no judge of the criminal love for detectives, for she looked square at me before hoisting the pearls and didn’t seem to care whether I saw her or not.”

Ellen Clegg retired early. Both detectives sat up all night unwilling to take even the slightest chance. They arrived in New York early in the forenoon and followed Ellen to her hotel. It was Thursday.

“So the daisy ain’t been to see Mother Mendelbaum yet?”

“Not so you could notice it,” replied Squig, who was not in the best of humor.

“I came by the mother’s on the way here,” said Smith, “thinking to find police headquarters moved down there. But I saw it hadn’t.”

“Did you see the old woman?” asked Jones.

“Couldn’t see through the shutters.”

“Through the shutters?” said Squig and Jones in one voice.

“The place was closed up tight.”

For a few minutes all three men puzzled over this situation.

“The place closed up,” said Squig finally, “and Ellen Clegg still here. Rather strange, but anyway we know where Ellen is and she’s sure to go to Mother Mandelbaum’s sooner or later.”

The day dragged on and night came. The three men took turns watching and sleeping. At 10 o’clock the next morning Squig went over to the mother’s place and found that the shutters were still up. It had come to have the appearance of an untenanted store.

The men became alarmed in earnest and one of them went down to headquarters to report to the chief for advice. In the course of an hour he came back with instructions to take Ellen Clegg and recover the necklace, and to let Mother Mendelbaum go for the present.

The prospect of real action was an unmistakable relief. Without a moment’s delay the three men filed from the hotel and ascended to Ellen Clegg’s apartment. Jones carried a warrant which had been secured a week before. They ranf the bell and Jennie opened the door. All three brushed roughly past her and into the sitting room. As they entered Ellen Clegg rose from a chair with an expression of infinite surprise.

“Sorry, Miss Clegg,” said Jones, “but the jig’s up. Hand over the pearls and put on your hat and coat.”

“You have made some mistake,” said Ellen without the least sign of excitement.

“Come now, ” Jones said, “there’s no use of a stall. We saw you hoist them up in Boston and we know you have them now. Here’s the warrant. You’re under arrest.”

They took Ellen Clegg to the Tombs and locked her up. She was beaten and she knew it. But they did not find the pearls. Two weeks later, when she had been assured of the mother’s safety, she confessed under the advice of counsel.

Immediately on reaching her room after taking the pearls she had wrapped them up in a small box brought along for the purpose and addressed them to Mother Mendelbaum with a special delivery stamp. Then she had summoned a bellboy and tipped him generously to drop the package in a letter box. In the package she had placed the following note:

‘Sorry to embarrass you, dear mother, but the bulls are on me. They are the usual dubs, however, and you will have plenty of time to run up to Canada for a visit. Anyway, dear mother, your temper needs a change of scene. Pretty pearls, aren’t they? –Ellen Clegg’

The package and note reached Mother Mendelbaum some time after Ellen’s arrival in New York and before Smith reached town. Her departure had undoubtedly been hurried, but she had taken time to empty her safe. For various reasons Mother Mendelbaum never returned to the United States but she lived to a ripe age in Canada and stirred her ale with a hot poker until the last.












#74 William O’Brien

William O’Brien (1850-1892), aka Billy Porter, Leslie L. Langdon, William Davis, William Morton, etc. — Bank robber, burglar

Link to Byrnes’s text for #74 William O’Brien


Billy Porter was one of the most celebrated criminals of the late 1870s and 1880s, with a career that coincided with the prime of Inspector Byrnes’s authority, though the two rarely intersected. Although a thief, Porter was admired by many for his fearlessness and willingness to stand up for his friends, as he did when thief John Walsh shot Porter’s friend and partner John Irving in Shang Draper’s saloon. Walsh also died of a bullet wound, and Porter was tried and acquitted for his killing; but nearly everyone believed that Porter was responsible.

Porter was also a great friend to the hero of the age, boxer John L. Sullivan. Sullivan had visited Billy in his cell when Billy had been jailed in the Kings County Penitentiary in the early 1880s. Porter later accompanied Sullivan as his guard during Sullivan’s legendary prizefight against Charley Mitchell in Chantilly, France in 1888. Porter hovered in Sullivan’s corner with revolvers in each of his coat pockets, which were later needed to clear the crowd so that he could help Sullivan evade the gendarmes that dispersed the gathering (after the match had been fought to a bloody draw).

Billy Porter was raised in Boston, but there are few anecdotes about his early years, other than this revealing item from an 1886 article in the Boston Globe:


For anyone who considers looking at the family history of criminals to be an idle waste of time, consider this: it was genealogical research that proved to be Billy Porter’s salvation; and then later led to the downfall that killed him. Therein lies a story.

In 1886, Porter traveled to Europe, where, under the direction of Adam Worth, he traveled from country to country pulling off large burglaries with other American thieves. In July 1888, Scotland Yard arrested Billy and Frank Buck on suspicion of a huge jewelry robbery committed in Munich. In their residence, authorities found some of the stolen German gems, as well as uncut diamonds. Buck and Porter were detained pending the arrival of extradition papers from Munich.

However, the small print of the extradition treaty that existed between Great Britain and Germany stipulated that British citizens were not subject to extradition. When the two thieves were called for their hearing in London, they made the claim that they were British subjects. Buck maintained that he was Canadian, but had little proof. However, Porter’s lawyer called Billy’s Irish uncle as a witness. The uncle swore that his sister (Billy’s mother) left for American right after her marriage, and had a son born at sea on a British vessel. A marriage and birth certificate were submitted in support of the story.

The chief magistrate of the police court hearing the case had heard similar claims before, and rejected their argument. Frank Buck was sent to Germany and was later sentenced to a ten-year term. Many newspapers in the United States reported that the claim of both of the thieves had been rejected, and assumed that Porter was shipped to Munich along with Frank Buck. However, Billy Porter appealed the magistrate’s decision; over a period of months Porter’s representatives made their case, and in the end he won his appeal and was freed.

Though he had lost one partner, Billy was eager to resume his career with another old friend, Horace Hovan. In 1890, Billy and Hovan were caught attempting a burglary in Bordeaux, France. Porter knew that if he was forced to serve a sentence in France, he would subsequently be taken to Germany to stand trial there. For the burglary in France, Porter was found guilty and given a light sentence: two years; still, because of the threat of then being taken to Germany, he appealed his French sentence. Billy appealed  on the basis of once again claiming to be a British subject, and submitting the same proofs that he had been born in the Atlantic Ocean on a British ship.

The French magistrate before whom Billy made his appeal listened to his argument, then offered his reaction. The judge conceded that there had been a mistake in Billy’s sentence of two years. But the mistake was in being too lenient. Instead, he ordered Porter to serve twenty years at the French penal colony on New Caledonia, off the coast of Australia.

This is one of the last anecdotes told about Billy Porter’s fate. Earlier reports suggested he had been freed in France, and was in hiding in London. One New York reporter swore that he had seen him on the streets of New York. A flurry of anonymous reports surfaced in August 1892 asserting that he had died in Bordeaux from heart disease. These seem to be the most credible accounts, though they are unclear as to whether he was serving a sentence or detained on an appeal of being transported to New Caledonia. Definitive proof of Billy’s death likely exists in French judicial files.





#90 Peter Ellis

Peter Ellis (Abt. 1844-1919), aka Banjo Pete, Long Pete, Luthey, Pete Emerson/Emmerson, John J. Smith, Jack Welch — Bank robber

From Byrnes’s text:

DESCRIPTION. Forty-one years old in 1886. Born in New York City. Slim build. Height, 5 feet 11 inches. Weight, 160 pounds. Light complexion, brown hair, stooped shoulders, thin face, high cheek bones, dark eyes. Generally wears a brown mustache.

RECORD. Banjo Pete, the name he is best known by (Peter Ellis being his right name), was formerly a minstrel, but drifted into crooked channels about eighteen years ago. He was considered a good man, and was generally sought for when a job of any magnitude was to be done. He was an intimate associate of all the great bank burglars in America.

He was arrested with Abe Coakley in Philadelphia, Pa., on April 28, 1880, charged with robbing the Manhattan Bank in New York City, on October 27, 1878. It was claimed that Emmerson was the man who carried out the tin boxes from the vault, and sorted the bonds, etc.; that Coakley was the man who wore the whiskers, and dusted off the shelves in the bank while Johnny Hope and his father were in the vault with Nugent; that Billy Kelly stood guard over the old janitor; and Johnny Dobbs, or Kerrigan, and Big John Tracy, who was a friend of Shevelin, the watchman of the bank, were supposed to be the men who planned the robbery; while Old Man Hope was the man who did the work. Johnny Hope (19) was convicted, and sentenced to twenty years in State prison for this robbery. Kerrigan, alias Johnny Dobbs, was arrested while negotiating one of the stolen bonds in Philadelphia, and was turned over to the Sheriff of Wethersfield, Conn., who took him back to Wethersfield prison, to serve out an unfinished term of seven years. John Nugent was tried and acquitted. Patrick Shevlin, the night-watchman, was used to convict the others, and was finally discharged. Jack Cannon was also arrested in Philadelphia trying to dispose of some of the stolen bonds, and was sentenced to fifteen years there. Old Man Hope (20) went to California, and was sentenced to seven years and six months for a burglary there.

Pete Emmerson was discharged from the Tombs, in the Manhattan Bank case, on October 4, 1880. He traveled through the country with John Nugent and Ned Farrell, a notorious butcher-cart thief, and was finally arrested in the Hoboken, N.J., Railroad depot, on Saturday, July 28, 1883, for an attempt to rob Thos. J. Smith, the cashier of the Orange, N.J., National Bank, of a package containing $10,000 in money. Nugent and Farrell were arrested also. They pleaded guilty and were sentenced to ten years in Trenton State prison, on July 30, 1883. Emmerson stood trial, was convicted,, and sentenced to ten years also, on October 30, 1883.

Emmerson’s picture is not a very good one, although recognizable. It was taken in 1880.

If Superintendent Thomas Byrnes had written his book about famous professional crimes rather than criminals, the October 27, 1878 robbery of the Manhattan Savings Institution would likely have been his centerpiece. Not only did it involve several of the most skilled, veteran thieves of the age, but the planning of the crime involved mastermind George Leslie, who was murdered before the attempt was finally made; and the consequences of the robbery had lasting effects on the careers of all involved. It was never fully revealed; and so it was talked about and rehashed for a generation.


Banjo Pete Ellis’s adult life centered around the Manhattan Savings Institution robbery, and he died an old man in the company of others involved in that crime. Byrnes was correct about Pete’s real name, but off the mark about his origins. He was born near Kennebunkport, Maine to Thomas and Sophia Ellis, who maintained a large family that dispersed during the Civil War years. Pete Ellis joined the 1st Maine Volunteers in 1864 as a sharpshooter, and saw nine months of action, rising from a private to a corporal.

After the war, Ellis gravitated toward Philadelphia and New York, and by all accounts he became a minstrel performer, eventually joining a famous minstrel act, Sam Devere’s company. There’s no evidence that Ellis ever rose to the level of being a billed name. Devere happened to have an apartment in New York next to the budding criminal genius, George L. Leslie, and the two often socialized together. It can be assumed that it was through Devere that Pete Ellis was introduced to George Leslie; and through Leslie, to Marm Mandelbaum and other veteran bank thieves, like Jimmy Hope and Abe Coakley.

Pete was said to have been in on the 1869 Ocean National Bank robbery in New York, organized by Leslie and Mark Shinburn, and executed by Jimmy Hope, Abe Coakley, Johnny Dobbs, Shang Draper, and Red Leary. Pete’s name was never associated with this crime until years later.

In Byrnes’ entry for thief Dave Cummings, Byrnes mentions that Banjo Pete and George Leslie joined Cummings for an 1873 robbery of a bank in Macon, Georgia; and that they were arrested in Washington, D.C. and forced to return the $50,000 taken. This event can not be found in any newspaper archives.

Pete and Abe Coakley were arrested by Byrnes in Philadelphia in April, 1880, for the Manhattan Savings Institution robbery of 1878. Byrnes had been under intense pressure to make more arrests in the case, and knowing that elements of the Philadelphia police were protecting Jimmy Hope, he took the drastic measure of making the arrest of Coakley and Ellis himself while in Philadelphia, accompanied by a local officer he trusted. Ellis was identified as the man who carried deposit boxes from the vault; though years later, Sophie Lyons wrote that Pete’s role had been to put on the fake whiskers and imitate the night watchman. When arrested, newspapers commented that Ellis had no known history. After being detained for five months in the Tombs (New York City’s Detention Center), Ellis was released.

According to Byrnes, Ellis committed a string of robberies between 1881 and 1883 with John Nugent (an ex-policeman also involved with the Manhattan Savings job) and Ned Farrelly. However, the only time he was caught was in July, 1883, when he, Nugent, and Farrelly attacked a bank cashier transporting a satchel of money while he was seating himself on a train in Hoboken, New Jersey.


Pete Ellis received ten years in New Jersey’s State Prison for this crime, and the public never heard from him again. After his release in the late 1890s, Pete returned to New York City and in 1898 married Jimmy Hope’s daughter, Ellen “Nellie” Hope. In 1900, he listed his occupation as “dry goods.” In 1910, he was an agent for the water company, and lived in the same house with Jimmy Hope’s sons, Johnny and Harry–a situation that continued for many years, until Pete’s death in 1919 at about 75 years of age. By that time, Pete had been the de facto leader of the Hope family for a dozen years, model citizens all.

#119 Lena Kleinschmidt

Magdalina/Madaleine Warner [or Levi] (Abt. 1830-????), aka Black Lena, Lena Kleinschmidt, Bertha Kleinschmidt, Bertha Kleinsmith, Betty Smith, Mary Morris — Shoplifter

From Byrnes’s text:
DESCRIPTION. Fifty-one years old in 1886. Born in Germany. Married. Housekeeper. Stout build. Height, about 5 feet 5 inches. Weight, about 150 pounds. Dark hair, dark eyes, dark complexion. Wrinkled face.
RECORD. Lena Kleinschmidt, or “Black Lena,” is a notorious shoplifter. She is well known from Maine to Chicago, and has been arrested and sent to prison several times, three times in New York City alone.
She was arrested in New York City, in company of Christene Mayer, alias Mary Scanlon, alias Kid Glove Rosey (118), on April 9, 1880, for the larceny of 108 yards of silk dressings, valued at $250, from the store of McCreery & Co., Broadway and Eleventh Street. The property was found on Lena; and other property, stolen from Le Boutillier Brothers, on Fourteenth Street, New York, was found on Rosey. Kleinschmidt gave $500 bail, and left the city, but was re-arrested and brought back, pleaded guilty, and was sentenced to four years and nine months in the penitentiary on Blackwell’s Island on April 30, 1880, by Recorder Smyth. Rosey was tried, convicted, and sentenced to five years, the same day. Lena’s picture is a good one, taken in April, 1880.
“Black Lena” Kleinschmidt (so-called for her typical dark garb and black hair) was famous for being one of Marm Mandelbaum’s favorite shoplifters (along with Sophie Lyons). Marm Mandelbaum and Lena likely came to New York from Germany within a year of one another, in 1850-51, if Lena’s account is to be believed. Lena said that she, at age 16, arrived on the same ship, the bark Salon, as her soon-to-be husband, Adolph Kleinschmidt. However, there is no woman on the passenger list that seems to fit that age; and in several later occasions, she indicated her birth year as 1829, not 1835.
Lena’s marriage record for her union with Adolph Kleinschmidt has not surfaced, though her 1867 divorce announcement was printed in the newspaper. Adolph was a peddler/tinsmith by profession, and apparently did not join Lena’s shoplifting outings. However, Adolph, Lena, and Marm Mandelbaum were all arrested together in Brooklyn in December, 1859 in a house full of stolen items. Lena’s shoplifting forages were already far-flung; two months earlier, in October 1859, she was taken by detectives from her property in Hackensack, New Jersey and sent to Chicago to face grand larceny charges. She escaped conviction in that instance, too.

An anecdote about Black Lena’s exploits in Hackensack was first related by Detective Phil Farley in his 1876 book, Criminals of America, and then reprinted many times: by NYPD Chief Walling in his book of reminiscences; by Herbert Asbury in Gangs of New York; and in a 1932 New Yorker feature article. These stories do not place Lena in Hackensack until 1863/64, which is at least five years off the mark. Also, the premise of these stories is that Lena had hoodwinked the whole town into believing her feigned respectability; in fact, she had been exposed as a notorious shoplifter in local newspapers by 1859, if not earlier.
Lena’s lifestyle wore on Adolph. In 1866, while Lena was out on a $2000 bail for shoplifting, and they had a dispute: she accused him of abuse; he accused her of running off to Charleston with a man named John Joseph Heinrich (likely a shoplifting partner of Lena’s). Adolph had the bondsman revoke her bail, and she was taken to New York City’s Tombs detention center. Following this misadventure, Adolph instituted divorce proceedings against Lena. The divorce was finalized in June 1867, but Adolph had already taken the liberty of marrying another woman in March, 1867.
In July, 1870 Magdalina Kleinschmidt remarried to John Schneider. Their marriage record gives a possible clue as to her birth name: Magdalina Warner, daughter of Georg and Rosina Warner. However, there is no corroborating evidence; and counter to this, other evidence exists suggesting her maiden name was Levy/Levi. By this time, Lena was known to be working with her alleged sister, Amelia Levy, who later became known as “Black Amelia.”

            “Black Lena” Kleinschmidt

In 1875, Lena and a young “English” (as opposed to German) shoplifter named Tilly Miller were arrested for shoplifting in Brooklyn and locked up in the Kings County jail. They were said to be working on behalf of a “male firm” of receivers, not Marm Mandelbaum. Before they could be examined by a grand jury, they were smuggled tools and a rope, and escaped from the jail. Aiding them was Charley Perle (husband of Augusta Harris of the Greenthal gang of fences) and John Nugent (perhaps the same man as husband #2, John Schneider). Brooklyn detectives chased them to Montreal and attempted to arrest them, but they refused to budge–no extradition treaty existed with Canada that covered larceny.
With Brooklyn and New York City detectives held at bay, Lena and Tilly Miller ventured into New York state on shoplifting visits. Meanwhile, Charley Perle and John Nugent were caught trying to sneak $1000 from a Canadian bank. John Nugent reportedly died after six months in prison.
In December 1876, Lena, Tilly Miller, and alleged sister Amelia were among a host of noted female shoplifters that convened in Boston, apparently drawn by assurances of a corrupt detective that they would be unmolested. Instead, Lena and Tilly were arrested and sent to Brooklyn to face charges they had escaped from more than a year earlier. In Brooklyn, they were sentenced to four and a half years in the penitentiary. Lena was released on bail pending an appeal of her conviction in August 1878 (an unusual occurrence); to everyone’s surprise, she showed up at her appeal, only to have it denied. However, the governor of New York pardoned her in December, 1879.

            “Black Amelia” Levy

Just four months later, Lena was caught shoplifting along with another infamous figure, Mary Scanlon, alias Kid Glove Rosie. Lena was sentenced to Blackwell Island for a term of four years and six months. She was released early for good behavior, and left the east coast for Chicago, where she teamed up with members of the Reinsch-Weir gang of shoplifters.
Lena Kleinschmidt was mentioned as being a sister of the matriarch of the Reinsch family of thieves, Henrietta Reinsch, whose maiden name was Levi/Levy. Another member of the Reinsch gang, the same generation as Henrietta, was Eva Geisler, whose maiden name was also Levi/Levy. Were the four professional shoplifters: Pauline Reinsch, Eva Geisler, Amelia Levy, and Bertha Kleinschmidt all sisters? It is a tempting theory, but not one without issue.
Amelia Levy’s ethnicity was often described as Jewish. Black Lena, too, was sometimes described as Jewish, but not as often. The Reinsch and Weir families were not Jewish; Pauline Reinsch was buried in a German Lutheran cemetery. In one interview, Black Lena recounts growing up in a German Catholic village, and feeling guilt from the presence of statues of Jesus. She also related that she had conversations with the prison priest. Possibly the four sisters named Levi/Levy came from a family that no longer identified as Jewish; but that in itself would be outside the norm.

The identification of Lena and Amelia–and other professional criminals–as Jews served as fodder for antisemitism.

Lena was arrested in Chicago along with Emma Weir (nee Reinsch) In November 1883; and again in December. Her trial was delayed, but in March 1884 she was sentenced to three years at Joliet for larceny. Another five years was tacked on later, which kept her in Joliet until July 1889. A month later, in August, she was caught again; and in October sentenced to another four years at Joliet.
She was free again–for just two weeks–in March 1893. Once again she was captured stealing items in a store accompanied by Emma Weir. She escaped conviction but was nabbed in both Milwaukee and St. Louis within a few months, paying fines to avoid jail.
By 1896, Black Lena was back in trouble in Chicago. She was arrested for shoplifting, assisted by Martin Weir. She plead guilty and was sentenced to three months in Cook County jail, while Martin was sent to Joliet.
Lena joined Martin in Joliet in 1897, after once again failing to control her habits. While there, she was interviewed by criminologist J. Sanderson Christison, and named simply as “Bertha.” That interview has been reprinted on the Historical Crime Detective site. She expresses contrition, and admits she can’t help herself.
Lena was released from Joliet in 1899. By 1901, a Chicago detective spoke of her being dead, but no record has yet surfaced of when or where that occurred.


#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?

#152 Abraham Greenthal / #153 Harris Greenthal

Abraham Greenthal (1822-1889), aka General Greenthal, Abraham Leslauer, Abraham Meyers; and Hirsch Harris (1824-1886), aka Herman Brown, Harris Greenthal, Herman Harris, Harris Meyer — Pickpockets

From Byrnes’s text on Abraham Greenthal:

DESCRIPTION. Sixty years old in 1886. Jew, born in Poland. Calls himself a German. Widower. No trade. Stout build. Height, 5 feet 8 inches. Weight, about 185 pounds. Dark hair, turning quite gray. Prominent nose-lines ; mole near one of them. Beard, when grown, is a sandy gray. Generally has a smooth face.

RECORD. “General” Greenthal is known all over the United States as the leader of the “Sheeny mob.” He is acknowledged to be one of the most expert pickpockets in America. His home is in the Tenth Ward in New York City, and he has been a thief and receiver of stolen goods for the last thirty years. He has served time in several prisons and penitentiaries, but has generally obtained his release before his sentence expired. He is a clever thief, and will fight when forced to. The “General” was arrested in Rochester, N.Y., on March 1, 1877, in company of his brother, Harris, and Samuel Casper, his son-in-law, for robbing a man (see record of No. 153), and sentenced on April 19, 1877, to twenty years in Auburn, N.Y., State prison. He was pardoned in the spring of 1884 by Governor Cleveland.

He was arrested again in Brooklyn, N.Y., on December 30, 1885, in company of Bendick Gaetz, alias “The Cockroach,” for robbing Robert B. Dibble, of Williamsburg, N.Y., of a pocket-book containing $795 in money, on a cross-town horse-car in that city. The “General” pleaded guilty to grand larceny in the second degree, on March 23, 1886, and was sentenced to five years in Crow Hill prison by Judge Moore, in the Brooklyn Court of Sessions. The “General” is an old friend of Mrs. Mandelbaum, who is now in Canada. Greenthal’s picture is a splendid one, taken in March, 1877.

From Byrnes’ text on Harris Greenthal:

DESCRIPTION. Fifty-eight years old in 1886. Jew, born in Poland. Married. No trade. Medium build. Height, 5 feet 5 inches. Weight, about 150 pounds. Brown curly hair, turning quite gray ; brown and gray whiskers, high forehead.

RECORD. Harris Greenthal, a brother of the “General” (152), is also an old New York thief and member of the “Sheeny gang” of pickpockets, who have been traveling through the country robbing people for a number of years. He resides in New York City, and is well known in all the principal cities in the United States and Canada. Harris Greenthal, alias Brown, the “General,” alias Meyers, and Samuel Casper, the “General’s” son-in-law, were arrested in Rochester, N.Y., on March 1, 1877, charged with robbing William Jinkson of $1,190 in money, at the Central Railroad depot. Jinkson was a farmer who sold his farm in Massachusetts, and with the proceeds had started West. The “Sheeny gang” had seen him showing his money in Albany, N.Y., and had followed him from that city. At the Central depot in Rochester they told him he would have to change cars. One of the trio took his valise, and the entire party entered another car. In jostling through the crowd the “General” relieved Jinkson of his pocket-book containing the money, which was in bills. They escaped, but were arrested about an hour afterwards. They were indicted, tried, and convicted. The “General,” alias Meyers, was sentenced on April 19, 1877, to twenty years at hard labor in Auburn, N.Y., State prison. Harris Greenthal, alias Brown, received a sentence of eighteen years, and Casper fifteen years. Harris and Casper were pardoned by Governor Cleveland in December, 1884, the “General” having been pardoned some months before. (See record of No. 84.) Harris’s picture is an excellent one, taken in March, 1877.

Several of the personages profiled in Byrnes’ Professional Criminals of America have been written about extensively, either through autobiographies, biographies, or essays: Sophie Lyons, Langdon Moore, Jim Brady, George W. Wilkes, etc. The blog entries composing this project are too abbreviated to match the historical details that exist in those studies. This inadequacy was never more evident than in the case of Abraham “General” Greenthal, the leader of the so-called “Sheeny Mob” (“sheeny” being a derogatory term for Jews, especially emigrant German Jews.)

                           Hirsch Harris

Greenthal’s entire criminal career, genealogy, and Prussian-Jewish origins have been documented by Edward David Luft in an essay of astounding scholarship, “Stop Thief! : The true story of Abraham Greenthal, king of the pickpockets in 19th century New York City, as revealed from contemporary sources.”  Luft’s essay is all the more impressive given the elusive clues available: Greenthal was an adopted alias, and was often misspelled in newspaper accounts: Grenthal, Gruenthal, Green, etc.; and it was sometimes dropped by Abraham and his family in favor of “Meyers/Myers” or variant spellings of an earlier established family name: Leslauer (found as “Leslan” “Leslau” “Leslie,” etc. in some newspaper records)

                 Abraham Greenthal

Greenthal and his gang of associates were pickpockets, sneak thieves, and fences. How extensive their network was is unknown, but the core of it consisted of Abraham, his wife, their daughters, and their husbands; and his brother Hirsch’s family. A leading figure of the gang, in addition to Abraham, was Hirsch’s daughter Augusta Harris, who acted as the main fence, or receiver, during the 1870s.

Little more can be added to Luft’s study of “General” Greenthal, but Luft mentions his brother, Hirsch Harris, very briefly. A few records exist for this man: his prison intake and discharge papers; the 1870 census, and the 1880 census. Unfortunately, after 1884, traces of his family disappear.

He was called “Hirsch Harris” by newspapers more frequently than any other name; but he was sent to Auburn prison in 1877 under the name Herman Brown. In the 1870 census, his name was transcribed (in an obvious error) as “Hanna Harris.” In 1880, he was listed as “Hermon Harris” (although he was actually still in Auburn at that point.) The family consisted of four girls: Augusta, Amalia, Hattie, and Lille; and a boy, Moses. Moses and Amalia were not listed with the family in 1880. Amalia was old enough to be out on her own, but perhaps Moses met an early death.

Augusta was described in several articles as the leader of the Greenthal mob’s fence operation, mentioned in the same breath with Marm Mandelbaum (whom one article suggests pushed Augusta out of business using her political connections). Augusta was married in the early 1870s to Charles “French Charley” Perle, a pickpocket and thief. However, the two had a falling out, and a newspapers suggested they were divorced (“out of the courts”) in 1876.

Newspapers also referred to a daughter Mary/Mollie, who may have been the same person listed in the 1870 census as Amalia. Mary/Mollie was said to have been the fiance of burglar Johnny McAlpine. Their romance would have been interrupted by McAlpine’s being sentenced to 20 years in Sing Sing in 1873.

Chief Byrnes, in his 1995 revised edition, suggests that Hirsch Harris died “within a few months” as his brother, in 1889; however, an earlier article on the conviction of Abraham in 1886 states that Hirsch (under the name Harris Meyer) died on March 31, 1886.

#116 Mary Holbrook

Mollie/Molly Holbrook (1838-?) aka Hoey/Hoy — Pickpocket, shoplifter

From Byrnes’s text:

DESCRIPTION. Forty-eight years old in 1886. Born in Ireland. Married. Housekeeper. Medium build. Height, 5 feet 2 inches. Weight, about 135 pounds. Light hair, blue eyes, light complexion. Shows her age.

RECORD. Mollie Holbrook was in early life a resident of the West End, in Boston, Mass. She is well known in Chicago and in all the principal cities of the United States. She has served terms in prison in Boston, Chicago, and New York, and is without doubt the most notorious and successful female thief in America. She is well known of late years as the wife of Jimmy Hoey, alias Orr, a negotiator of stolen property.

Mollie was formerly married to one George Holbrook, alias Buck Holbrook, a well known Chicago gambler and thief. He kept a sporting house in Chicago, also a road house on Randolph Street, over which Mollie presided. “Buck” was arrested for a bank robbery in Illinois in 1871, and sent to State prison. He was shot and killed while attempting to escape from there. He had dug up the floor of his cell and tunneled under the prison yard, and was in the act of crawling out of the hole outside the prison wall, when he was riddled with buckshot by a prison guard.

In January, 1872, Mollie was arrested in Chicago, on complaint of her landlady, who charged her with stealing forty dollars from her. Mollie deposited $1,200 in money as bail, and after her discharge she came to New York City, fell in with Jimmy Hoey, and married him. She was arrested in New York City for robbing a Western man in her house in Chicago of $25,000, on March 3, 1874, on a requisition from Illinois, and delivered to a detective of the Chicago police force. While at Hamilton, Canada, on their way back to Chicago, Mollie threw herself into the arms of a Canadian policeman and demanded protection. She had the officer arrested for attempting to kidnap her. They were taken before a magistrate and Mollie was discharged. The officer returned to Chicago, and lost his position for his bad judgment. Mollie was arrested again in New York City on the same complaint on July 16, 1874, and returned safely to Chicago, where she was sent to prison.

She was arrested in Boston, Mass., on April 17, 1878, for picking pockets, and gave the name of Mary Williams (which is supposed to be her maiden name). She was released on $1,000 bail, and forfeited it. She was arrested again in Boston on March 19, 1883, for picking pockets at Jordan & Marsh’s dry goods store. This time she gave the name of Mary Harvey, pleaded guilty, and was sentenced to one year in State prison, in April, 1883. After her sentence expired in Boston she was arrested coming out of the prison by New York officers, taken to that city, and sentenced to five years in the penitentiary on Blackwell’s Island, on March 3, 1884, for the larceny of a pocket-book from Catharine Curtis, some years before. This time Mollie gave the name of Lizzie Ellen Wiggins. After her conviction she gave the District Attorney of New York some information that led to the finding of a number of indictments against Mrs. Mandelbaum, who. fled to Canada. For this she was pardoned by Governor Cleveland on January 5, 1885.

Mollie was arrested again in Chicago, Ill., on September 25, 1885, charged with attempting to pick a lady’s pocket in Marshal Field’s store. She gave bail, and is now a fugitive from justice in Windsor, Canada. She occasionally pays Detroit a visit, where Jimmy Hoey is located. Mollie Holbrook is looked upon by her associates in crime as a woman that would sacrifice any one to save herself from prison. It is well known that this woman has been in the employ of the police in a number of large cities, and has furnished them with considerable information. Her husband, Jimmy Hoey, is an unprincipled scamp, and lives entirely upon the proceeds of his wife’s stealings, often selling the plunder and acting as a go-between for Mollie and receivers, of stolen goods, he of late years not having sufficient courage to steal. Mollie’s picture is an excellent one, taken in March, 1883.

Widely acknowledged as the most notorious female thief in America from the 1860s through the 1880s. She was known to the nation’s police departments mainly as a pickpocket and shoplifter, but began her traceable career as a Clark Street “panel-room” brothel madam in Chicago, where clients were robbed while they were distracted by an accomplice hiding behind a partition.


Holbrook’s origins are unknown, as is her real name. Byrnes states that her maiden name was Williams and that she came from Boston’s West End, but without more information, that would be impossible to verify. She only came to public notice once she moved to Chicago and took up with Buck Holbrook, a street-tough thief. She was arrested under the name Mollie Holbrook several times in Chicago between 1868-1869 for operating a disorderly house.

In August 1869 (not 1871, as Byrnes asserts), Buck Holbrook went with a few of his pals to rob banks in western Illinois, but were captured and jailed in the town of Hennepin. The jail building was not secure, but a guard had been hired and told to shoot first and ask questions later. Holbrook and two other men managed to get past the buildings walls, but were spotted by the guard, who opened fire with a double-barrel shotgun. Holbrook was hit and dead before he hit the ground, his head and torso struck by seventy-eight pieces of buckshot. One of the others stopped and surrendered; the third was recaptured the next day.

Mollie came down from Chicago to retrieve the body of Holbrook, horribly disfigured. In Hennepin, she told those gathered around the body, “We all know that Buck was not on the square; but he was always a good and kind man to me.”  Which is about as good an elegy that someone like Buck deserved. Mollie gave Holbrook a fine funeral in Chicago, attended by over a hundred of the city’s thieves, roughs, and prostitutes.

Mollie then took up with one James “Jimmy” Hoye, with whom she worked as a pickpocket. Hoye served as the “moll buzzer,” following Mollie into crowds and taking the goods that Mollie lifted as soon as the act was done–so that Mollie would never be caught with the evidence. She was arrested in New York State by a Chicago detective Ed Miller in early 1874; he foolishly attempted to bring her back via the Grand Trunk Railroad which runs partly through Canada. In Kingston, Ontario, she leapt off the train and sought protection from the police. Ed Miller had no requisition papers, so the Canadian official refused to hand her over. She later contrived to escape across the river to the United States. A few months later, former-Detective Miller–in an effort to regain his job– brought a woman to Chicago from Troy, New York, that he claimed was Mollie Holbrook–but was proven wrong.

By the early 1880s, Mary was working northeast cities as a pickpocket. She was arrested several times in Boston and New York, but either jumped bail or got off through the talents of her New York lawyers, Howe & Hummel. She took her stolen goods to the infamous New York fence, Marm Mandelbaum. In 1884 she was rearrested on one of the old charges and sentenced to five years at the prison on Blackwell’s island. During her court appearances, she appealed once more to Mandelbaum to provide legal assistance, but it was not forthcoming. Mollie took revenge by negotiating with New York’s District Attorney to offer testimony against Mrs. Mandelbaum–it was due to this pressure that Marm Mandelbaum was forced out of New York and retired to Hamilton, Ontario. According to the New York Times, Mollie also offered the DA information on Chief Byrnes extra-legal arrangements.


In September 1886, Mollie and Hoey were arrested in Cleveland, Ohio. Mollie was placed in the county jail. Using a pair of scissors and a hairpin, Mollie and an 18-year-old young male prisoner were able to remove a section of wall bricks and crawl to freedom; this occurred just days after the sheriff had boasted that no one had escaped from his jail.

After 1886, traces of Mollie Holbrook disappear. Rumors suggested that she and James Hoey left the United States and went to Europe.