He’s one of the most down-and-out looking individuals in the St. Louis Rogues’ Gallery. His jacket is far too large for him, his shirt collar looks grimy, and his hair is disheveled. His misshapen hat sits on a nearby table, and the expression on his face is one of deep sadness. The arresting officer’s notes on the back of his 1867 rogues’ gallery photo describe him as “John Manly Thief. Pickpocket 17 years old.” But there’s far more to the story.
According to census records, John Manley was about 20 years old at the time this photo was taken. Because the person pictured here looks quite young, it’s more likely that he’s James Manley, John’s younger brother. James was only about 14 years old in 1867.
The two brothers and their sister, Julia, had extensive dealings with St. Louis law enforcement over many decades—a situation that may have been avoided if not for a tragic accident. On February 10, 1858, the Manleys’ father, an Irish immigrant, was killed while working on a railroad construction crew east of St. Louis.
Left without a breadwinner, the Manley family went from being working poor to a state of direst poverty. Life was so hard that their destitute mother was forced to send her three children to live in the St. Louis House of Refuge.
Child inmates at the House of Refuge slept on straw mattresses at night and spent just three hours a day in school. The rest of their time was spent caning chairs and making shoes that were sold for a profit in town. A grim description of the institution comes from the 1878 book A Tour of St. Louis: Or, The Inside Life of a Great City:
The St. Louis House of Refuge, situated in the southern part of the city, strictly speaking, is a prison for the detention of juvenile offenders. Its discipline is that of a prison, and in all features of its operation it is distinctly a penitentiary for the detention and correction of youthful criminals.
The Manley children came home in 1860, but in April 1861, James was labeled “incorrigible” and returned to the House of Refuge. The following year he was sent to live with a tailor in Chamois, Missouri, 100 miles west of St. Louis. Authorities likely hoped he’d fare better far away from the evils of the big city, but the country air wasn’t for James. He soon found himself back in St. Louis.
By 1866 young James was on his third stay at the House of Refuge, this time as punishment for a petty larceny conviction. He was supposed to live there until he turned 21, but soon after his arrival he escaped.
Around the time his photo was taken for the rogues’ gallery—March 13, 1867—James was in serious legal trouble: He and two companions had been charged with assault and battery. (Whether James was convicted in the case couldn’t be verified.)
In December 1869, James was jailed for grand larceny in St. Louis because he was unable to pay his $1,500 bail. He was found guilty, and the judge sentenced him to the Missouri State Penitentiary in Jefferson City. Seventeen-year-old James entered the prison on January 29, 1870, and spent the next 18 months there. The system of leasing prisoners to businessmen, providing free labor in exchange for financial support of the prison, hadn’t yet been abolished, so he may have worked on prison building projects or even outside the prison walls until he was pardoned by the governor and released on August 3, 1871.
After a quiet couple of years, James attracted news coverage in September 1874 for trying to jump ahead of others waiting in line to cast ballots in a St. Louis election. When a police officer intervened, James tore off the man’s coat and punched him, at which point he was taken into custody. The following year, James was stabbed twice during a nighttime scuffle at Broadway and O’Fallon Streets. His wounds were serious but not life threatening.
By the 1880s, James and his brother had both found honest work as telegraph linemen. Then in 1888, James was elected constable of St. Louis’s sixth ward and tasked with serving summonses for court appearances. It seemed like his life was taking a prosperous turn, but while serving clothing-store proprietor Martin Monti with an eviction summons, James apparently couldn’t stop himself from stealing $75 and other property belonging to Monti. He was convicted of embezzlement—a decision he appealed—but the conviction was upheld. So in November 1891, James headed to the Missouri State Penitentiary again, where he remained until his release in January 1893. In May 1903, James and three other men were arrested and charged with shooting craps behind a saloon on North Broadway. This was his final record of criminal behavior.
Ten years later, James found himself at the St. Louis City Infirmary, a hospital for the indigent located on Arsenal Street. By this point he was the last surviving member of his family. His mother had died in 1885, and his brother had passed in 1903. It’s possible his sister was still alive, but she disappeared from records after the 1880 census.
James spent his final moments at the infirmary, evidently all alone, dying of a lung ailment just two months shy of his 60th birthday.
Featured photo: Quarter-plate tintype of James Manley, March 1867. Missouri Historical Society Collections.