Silent Phil

Silent Phil

With a crisp straw boater sitting squarely on his head, the young man doesn’t look like a hardened criminal. His clothes are clean and neat. The American flag pin on his label showed off his support for the American troops fighting in the Spanish-American War when his mug shot photos were taken.

His unflinching gaze is perhaps not entirely honest but would you have guessed he’d end up devoting his entire life to crime?

He was baptized Pierre Phillipe Lambellé in 1878 in Quebec, Canada, the son of Philippe Lambellé and Philomène Bidegaré. His father, a stonecutter, was born in Belgium and his mother hailed from Canada. Philippe senior moved his family to Chicago around 1880. In America the family’s surname was Anglicized to Lambele. It’s not clear if Phillipe senior died or if he abandoned his family (no death record exists). Either way, by 1900 Philomène was living in the 18th ward of Chicago and taking in boarders to support herself and her five children.

Phil Lambele_back_low

The information (reverse) side of Philip Lambele’s rogues’ gallery card.

Philip’s mugshots were taken on July 28, 1898, after he was arrested as a shoplifter and sneak thief (a thief who shunned violence) in New York City when he was 21 years old. He told the police his surname was Ganset and said he made his living as an actor. In a way this was true, because occasions arose in the course of his work when he’d be caught in the act. A convincing story, combined with clean-cut looks and nice clothes (not to mention the pin), went a long way towards convincing bank officials that he’d made an honest mistake when he pocketed the cash lying on the counter as he walked by.

753px-Grand_Central_Station,_New_York_c._1902

Grand Central Station, c. 1902

Charges were not pressed against him in 1898, but his photo remained in the New York City Rogues’ Gallery. It came back to haunt him after he stole two large rolls of cash totaling $10,000 (over $300,000 current value) from a bank in Boston the following year. He got away, but witnesses had seen him. The Boston police phoned his description to police in other large cities.

In New York City an officer, Alphonse Rheaume, was dispatched to Grand Central to wait for the Boston train. When it arrived no one was allowed to get off until Rheaume had a chance to walk through each car and take a careful look at the passengers.

Rheaume thought he recognized one passenger, partly from the description, but also because he had a great memory for faces and was pretty sure he’d seen the young man in a recent line up at Police Headquarters. He later told a reporter for the New York Times that he wasn’t sure he had the Boston robber, but “when he tried to get away, I knew he’d been up to something, and I thought I would just take him in for luck.” Philip flashed the cash and offered it all to Rheaume if he’d let him go. Rheaume declined the offer, arrested him and took him to the Tombs.

The story of Philip’s arrest was published widely in the press. People were divided as to what was more amazing: that Rheaume located Philip based on a vague description or that he didn’t take the bribe. But Rheaume was an honest cop (something of a rarity in New York of that era). He commented that if Philip had played it smarter and gone someplace other than New York, he likely would never have been caught.

Drawing of Lambele - Newspapers.com

Drawing based on Philip’s mug shot that was published in the Boston Globe after his 1899 arrest in New York.

Philip’s record stretched back to 1894, when he was arrested in Chicago, his home base, for larceny. He was arrested there again for larceny in 1895. Neither of the early charges stuck, but his luck ran out when Rheaume spotted him on the train. He pleaded guilty to the Boston bank robbery under an alias, George Shea, and spent the next two years in the Massachusetts State Prison.

Free again in 1902, Philip stole a tray of diamond jewelry valued at $3,300 from a store in Brooklyn. Believing he was a paying customer, the store’s owner had offered him assistance and got a good look at him. Five weeks later the owner identified him from his rogues’ gallery photos. By then Philip was in Chicago, where, under name Philip Bailey, he was under arrest for a theft of $8000 of unset diamonds from a firm in Jeweler’s Row. Neither of the charges held up in court and he was soon on the loose again.

In March 1903 Philip was one of several men involved in a brawl in a Chicago saloon that led to the death of a man named William Tracey. The police showed up at his apartment, but he managed to escape by jumping out of a third floor window. The police gave chase and caught him. There wasn’t much evidence in the case, and in the end no one was charged with Tracey’s death.

In May he tried to rob a jewelry store in Newark, New Jersey but was caught after a sharp-eyed office boy saw him surreptitiously entering the store’s vault and alerted his boss. Since nothing was stolen, no charges were filed against him.

A serious setback came in September 1903, when he tried to rake up a pile of bills, using a bent wire from an umbrella, at the Germania National Bank in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He was discovered in flagrante delicto and captured after a hot chase. Even though the robbery was unsuccessful, the Milwaukee authorities were not as inclined to be lenient as their brethren in bigger cities. Under the alias George P. Johnson, he was sentenced to 15-years in the state pen. In 1908, while he was serving his sentence, his mother died.

Barnum & Bailey circus ad. Lambele was strong man - Newspapers.c

Newspaper ad for the circus in which Philip performed as a “strongman.”

He was released in 1912. Now 34 years old, Philip had spent more than half of his adult life in prison. He joined the Barnum & Bailey circus as a strongman. The circus went to Fort Wayne, Indiana, where he met a beautiful 18-year-old named Mary May Van Wormer.

Mary grew up in a law-abiding family with two parents, two sisters and a brother. Her father, Arba, was a machinist and pattern maker. He was also an inventor who had filed patents for several devices, including a shutter for movie projectors.

In July 1912, after a very brief courtship, the couple tied the knot. On the marriage license Philip claimed his name was Stavors B. Erieg. He immediately tried to skip out on his hotel bill.

The following year he unsuccessfully attempted his umbrella wire trick at a bank in Toledo, Ohio. He was arrested under the name James Donovan Evans, but he avoided a conviction. A couple of years later he did a short stint in the Detroit House of Correction for Grand Larceny.

In 1916 he and Mary were both arrested in St. Louis, Missouri after he tried to shoplift a silk coat from a department store. They told the police their names were Thomas and Mary Stewart. Mary later changed her story, claiming her name was Ruth Strong. Mary’s family found out about their arrests and her mother, Jessie, went to St. Louis to plead with authorities to release her daughter. She also tried, unsuccessfully, to convince Mary to divorce Philip.

The couple returned to Indiana and bought a 20-acre farm northwest of Goshen, but they had no intention of farming. They chose the residence for its remote location, one that allowed them to come and go as they pleased. Ironically Philip began using his real name locally because he’d never been convicted of a crime under that name.

Tommy O'Connor - Newspapers.com

“Terrible” Tommy O’Connor’s mugshots, c. 1921

In December 1921 Tommy O’Connor, an old pal from Chicago, escaped from the Cook County jail while awaiting execution by hanging for the murder of police officer Patrick O’Neill. O’Connor headed to Philip’s farm, where his friend took him in and let him to hide out. Under an assumed name Philip introduced O’Connor to the locals as a business associate. When the Lambeles were away from the farm for a few weeks, O’Connor hunkered down in the cellar with only Philip’s pet crow for company. Meanwhile police continued the manhunt for him all over America.

Philip was arrested and charged with the theft of cancelled postage stamps from a Cincinnati, Ohio business in May 1922. He told police his name was Dr. Philip Kolb. He claimed to be a graduate of the University of Chicago and an inventor, taking credit for his father-in-law’s motion picture shutter. Hoping for a light sentence, he insisted he’d never been in trouble with the law before. The police didn’t believe him. They dubbed him “Silent Phil” and showed him some of his old mugshots, but he still he denied it. When they announced their intention to fingerprint him, he broke down. He admitted he’d been arrested 15 times, served jail and penitentiary sentences around the country, used countless aliases and had a criminal record that stretched back almost 30 years.

At her husband’s arraignment Mary sobbed and refused to talk about her family, but the press figured out their names and reported that they lived in Fort Wayne. It was also reported that the couple had one child, however no record of this child’s existence could be found.

Philip put up the farm as bail. He and Mary fled the state as soon as he was released.

In February he was arrested at his hotel in Louisville, Kentucky for forging and cashing stolen express money orders worth $350. With his hair now prematurely white and sporting a Vandyke-style beard, he didn’t resemble the mugshots from his youth. The Louisville police checked his fingerprints and discovered there was a warrant out for his arrest (under the name William Bailey) for robbing a Chicago bank of $12,000 worth of traveler’s checks the previous June. Mary was also taken into custody and charged with disorderly conduct. The Lambeles were carrying hypodermic needles when they were arrested and morphine was later discovered in their hotel room. Apparently they were morphine addicts and had been using the drug for some time.

As an officer escorted him to the cells, Philip grabbed the policeman’s gun and shot himself in the head. He died early the next morning at the Louisville City Hospital.

Mary’s family arrived in Louisville. They paid her fine and she was released from jail. They took her and Philip’s body back to Fort Wayne. Her brother Albert told the press that Philip was a salesman of “unimpeachable character.” However after his death, the police announced that he was wanted for forgery in cities as far away as Boston and Atlanta.

A few months after Philip’s death, Mary opened a letter mailed to him from Buenos Aires. The anonymous writer stated that Tommy O’Connor was alive and well and operating a roadhouse in that city. O’Connor’s gallows sentence stayed on the books until the 1950s, but he was never recaptured.

The Van Wormer family experienced an enormous amount of tragedy in the years after Philip’s suicide. Mary’s younger sister Eula died of kidney disease in November 1923, leaving three young daughters behind. Albert was shot and killed by his wife in 1933 when he attacked her in a drunken rage. Her sister Ruthie died of complications stemming from morphine addiction in 1936, shortly after divorcing her drug addicted, petty-criminal husband.

Finally life became too much for Mary. In 1944 she committed suicide by consuming bichloride of mercury.

14 thoughts on “Silent Phil

    • Thank you, Jim! It must have been so difficult for crooks to keep all their aliases straight! Phil had at least 20 that I ran across while doing research for this post. I wonder if he relaxed when he began using his real name? Or did it make him nervous that his true identity might be discovered?

      Liked by 1 person

      • That’s interesting! Albert married his wife, Nellie, when she was still in high school. They were not allowed to marry in her home state of Ohio so they went to Kentucky to tie the knot. Sadly their son, Allison Van Wormer, was in the house when his mother shot his father. He later became a Baptist minister.

        Liked by 1 person

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