Diamond Harry

Harry Ward and Fred Williams were arrested in Albany, New York, on suspicion of robbing a jewelry store on February 23, 1887, according to an article in the Boston Globe. The newspaper claimed the men were well-known thieves in Boston, and that they had also been “working the carnivals in Montreal,” presumably as pickpockets. Montreal, located in Quebec, is about 220 miles due north of Albany.

According to the back of his mugshot, Ward was also known as “Diamond Harry.” He and Williams were convicted of petit (petty) larceny and sentenced to a year each in the Albany County Penitentiary on March 8, 1887. It was the harshest sentence handed down that month.

The records of Harry Ward and Fred Williams (12th and 13th from the bottom of the page). (New York State Archives, Albany, New York)

Two and a half months later newspapers across America announced that a Black man named Harry Ward, alias “Diamond Harry,” had pawned a diamond ring valued at $1500 for $20 in Chicago. He was said to be wearing “an article of jewelry that contained seventy-two diamonds and another that contained sixty-one.” He hadn’t done anything illegal, but evidently the “gorgeousness of his personal adornments” aroused the interest of the police, and they arrested him.

The officers claimed the man was unable to tell them where he got his diamonds. They obtained a photo they thought was their suspect from a “New York publication.” It described him as a daring diamond robber who had worked in Brooklyn, Albany and Washington. Detectives from Washington went to Chicago to take the man into custody.

Did Harry Ward escape from prison in New York and make his way to Chicago? The answer is no—it would have been noted in his penitentiary record if he had. Ward served his full one-year sentence in Albany. In March 1888 the Boston Globe announced that a policeman who’d been searching for two Black men suspected of robbing two Harvard Square jewelry stores in January 1887, had “found” them at the Albany Penitentiary; the men he located were Ward and Williams.

Stereoview card photos of the Albany Penitentiary Yard, c. 1870-1900. (New York Public Library)

When their New York sentences were finished they were brought to Cambridge and charged with the thefts. The only link, if you want to call it that, to the crimes seems to be that they were two Black men who had prior convictions for petit larceny. They claimed they’d never been in Cambridge. White eyewitnesses claimed otherwise.

Both men were convicted and sent to prison in Massachusetts.

The man adorned with diamonds in Chicago turned out to be Charles Major. He admitted to stealing jewelry from his employer, a Mrs. Cheatham, and traveling to Chicago to sell it. He said the police had him confused with Harry Ward. He pleaded guilty to grand larceny and was sentenced to five years in the pen.

Nineteenth century mugshots of African-Americans are very rare. It seems that the prejudices permeating American society then extended to mugshots.

In his photo Harry looks cautiously off camera with an aura of confidence. Is that a diamond stickpin peeking out between the lapels of his jacket?

The back of the CDV provides a little more information. However with a fairly common name and without knowing his birthplace, I was unable to find out any more about Harry.

Featured photo: collection of the author. No reproduction without permission.

5 thoughts on “Diamond Harry

  1. Being African American, it would take nerve to stand out in any way. On one hand, dressing up, looking rich, the message would be: “Look at me! I’m successful.” On the other hand, police might assume, “He’s black and rich, he must be a criminal.”

    Liked by 4 people

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