Pickpockets Arrested…The Mayor has also received information that two men, named John North, Jr., alias Smith, alias Musgrave, alias “Big Chucks,” and John Thompson, alias “Little Chucks,” professional pickpockets, were in the city, loitering and sleeping about the Neptune engine house. They were also arrested and committed thirty days each for vagrancy. On the person of “Little Chucks” was found a small memorandum book, in which he had a list of the county fairs in Ohio, where he proposed to follow his calling.
— Pittsburgh Daily Post (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania), September 6, 1858
The arrest in Pittsburgh of two men dubbed with the “Chucks” moniker was reported as far away Washington, D.C., where they were described as “two noted Philadelphia pickpockets.” Evidently the men planned to visit county fairs in the mid west — fertile hunting grounds for prospective victims with full pocket books and distracted brains.
The following year John Keeley, better known as “Little Chucks” was arrested in Philadelphia after he was chased from a church building by a police officer. He was sent to jail for vagrancy and attempted pickpocketing. He was also accused of “riot and malicious mischief.” Less than two months later, Thomas W. North, also known as “Big Chucks,” was arrested in Baltimore, along with another man, for knocking down and robbing Gibson M. Nelson. Mr. Nelson subsequently died as a result of the injuries he sustained during the robbery.
John North, alias Keely, was arrested in March 1861, in Camden, New Jersey, for pickpocketing. Only a few days previously he had been released after a two year stay in Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary for the same offense. The news report about his release mentioned that he was also called “Little Chucks.”
Smart nineteenth century criminals kept police busy with a bewildering array of aliases and nicknames. “Big Chucks” was called John or Thomas North, or John Smith or John Musgrave. “Little Chucks” was known by the first name John and the surnames North, Thompson or Keeley. Several newspapers reported that “Big Chucks”and “Little Chucks” were two criminals who often worked together.
Were the Chucks actually two men, as the newspapers claimed? Photographic evidence argues for a different conclusion.
Crudely scratched in the metal plate on the reverse of an ambrotype photograph from the St. Louis Rogues’ Gallery are the words “Big Chucks alias Daly.” The photo is undated but it was likely made around 1860. A photograph made by Samuel G. Szabó shows a man identified as “John McNauth alias Keely alias little Chucks Pick Pocket.” Szabó was a Hungarian photographer who traveled around America photographing rogues’ galleries in various police departments, including those in St. Louis, Philadelphia and Baltimore, between 1857 and 1861. His reasons for doing this are unknown, however he compiled an album of prints from his negatives. The album survived and was donated to The Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2005.
I’m convinced that the man wearing the fabulous top hat in the Met photo is the same man, shown hatless, in the St. Louis photo. It’s possible they were brothers who had remarkably similar hair and facial features but if so, it’s likely that detail would have been commented on in the news, but it wasn’t.
Why was it reported that “Big Chucks” and “Little Chucks” were two people? Like any accomplished criminal, he wanted to keep the police guessing about his identity. If they thought they were chasing not one man but two it was all the more confusing! So he varied his moniker and, when he worked with another pickpocket, suggested to the partner that he also use one of the “Chucks” sobriquets. As long as he wasn’t photographed, who would ever know?
Once police got his photograph and circulated it around, the game was up. This was precisely the reason rogues’ galleries were started in St. Louis and New York City and were soon in popular demand in other large American cities.
Who was he really? Based on most of his aliases he was probably Irish or the child of Irish immigrants, but we’ll never know for sure.
Featured photos: “Big Chucks,” Missouri History Museum, and “Little Chucks,” The Metropolitan Museum of Art.