Imagine: It’s a chilly Thursday evening in early November 1859. You’re a middle-aged man, a joiner by trade. You live in Brooklyn and don’t come to the city often because it means a nail-biting ferry ride, but tonight, with cash in your pocket ($8 to be exact), you feel optimistic.
As you stroll up Broadway you notice a young girl standing in the shadows. She beckons to you. You move close and she takes your hand. She leads you around the corner to a quiet, out of the way spot off Lafayette Place. All goes well until the girl’s hand makes it’s way to your pants pocket. She grabs your wallet and runs. Before you have time to recover your senses, there’s a man at your side. He’s short and stocky and has a head like a bull’s. In a heavy Irish brogue he loudly informs you that he’s a police detective. He demands to know what you were doing with the girl. Fear washes over you and words dry up in your mouth.
To your astonishment the bull-man grabs your watch and chain and pulls hard, yanking it off your belt. He turns to run, but an officer appears—a real one—and grabs the man, who reacts by pulling a revolver from his coat pocket. Another officer joins the first one; there’s a struggle. The two officers manage to disarm the bull-man and arrest him. Later they also arrest the young woman; She’s the fake detective’s partner.
The prisoners, James Brown, age 23, and the girl, who claimed her name was Margaret Clark but was known by the alias “Scotch Mag,” were held for trial in The Tombs. Their victim was reluctant to testify due to embarrassment. He gave a false name—“John Wilson”—because he did not want anyone back home to know what had happened. He didn’t have $1000 for bail required in order to be released, so he was held in the Home for Witnesses on White Street until the court hearings of the Brown and Scotch Mag.
Scotch Mag was found guilty and sent for a six-month sentence to Blackwell’s Island. James Brown was also found guilty, which earned him a year on The Island. Engravings of their rogues’ gallery photos were published in the National Police Gazette so that other men might not suffer the same fate as “Mr. Wilson.”
Featured photo: “Scotch Mag” from Rogues, a Study of Characters, Metropolitan Museum of Art