The Bank Robber and the Baronet

Harry Featherstone started his bank robbery career in his late teens. By the time he was 22, he had served time in Indiana’s state prison for safe robbery and in the Illinois State Penitentiary for burglary.

Harry was born “Henry Featherstonhaugh” and was named for his grandfather. In England, where Grandpa Henry was born, the surname is pronounced “Fanshaw.” With a name that was confusing to pronounce and even harder to spell, Harry shortened it to Featherstone. His friends jokingly nicknamed him “Feathers,” so it’s safe to assume he pronounced his name like it’s spelled.

Harry hit his stride in 1891, when he and three companions—Charles Mullen, Frank Bennett and John Corbett—committed an armed robbery of the Merchant’s Bank on the south side of Chicago. The gang pulled the heist in broad daylight during the lunch hour. As a getaway vehicle, they left a stolen horse and cart outside the bank. (Motor cars would not be invented for another decade.) They whipped the horse so hard during their escape that they had to switch to another horse mid-getaway. This brief delay gave the police the chance to catch up with them. All four men were arrested and convicted of the robbery. As the gunman, Harry received the longest prison sentence—ten years.

Harry was a big man: almost six feet tall and 180 lbs of solid muscle. Between robberies and prison stints, he worked as a bartender, bouncer and boxer. It was said of Harry that he never backed down from a fight.

The only son in his family, he was born in December 1869 in Oswego, New York. His grandfather was born in England around 1818 and immigrated to Canada as a young man. He married an Irish girl, Mary Ann Lee, in Quebec, and the couple’s first child—Harry’s dad, John—was born in there. Soon the family moved to Oswego, on Lake Ontario, where the maritime industry was booming. Henry and John earned their livings on ships—Henry as a sea captain and John as a sailor and ship’s carpenter.

Harry Featherstone’s 1891 CDV mugshot (front and back). (author’s collection)

The governor of Illinois paroled Harry from prison in 1895 and he returned to Chicago. The following year he was arrested for an armed robbery of the Western Foundry, but the charges didn’t stick. Another arrest for armed robbery came in 1897. Harry jumped his bail and fled to Iowa.

A scandal erupted when Captain Luke Colleran, CPD chief of detectives, informed Iowa law enforcement that Harry wasn’t wanted in the Windy City. Colleran later tried to claim this was an administrative error, but he’d made several such blunders and an investigation determined that Colleran was derelict of duty; He was fired from his job.

Harry was returned to Chicago, where he was convicted of armed robbery and sent back to the penitentiary in Joliet.

Fresh out of prison, Harry joined friends at a saloon on Wabash to herald in the New Year in 1910. When the bartender came to their table to take drink orders, Harry pulled out his revolver and ordered him to turn over all the cash in his register, along with his diamond ring. He did as he was told, then fled to safety behind a set of swinging doors. Harry fired three shots at the man’s back and ran outside.

A patrolman saw him heading down Michigan Avenue and gave chase. Harry turned and fired, but missed. The patrolman fired back. His second shot hit Harry in the back and brought him down. He was taken to a hospital, where he died of his injuries the next day. Witnesses exonerated the officer from any wrongdoing in his death.

After Harry died, his sister, Emma, gave an interview to the press in which she claimed their family was descended from English nobility:

My grandfather, Henry Bardiff Featherstone, was the nephew and heir of the last baron of one of the oldest families in Essex, England. A young daughter of an English neighbor had been picked out for him to wed, but he followed the dictation of his heart, ran away, and married a poor Irish girl named Lee. For this he was disinherited. He came to America, settling in Oswego, N.Y., and became moderately wealthy.

Twenty years ago we learned that the last Lord Featherstonhaugh was dead and we were heirs to a portion of his estate. My grandfather went back to England to claim the estate, but found his younger brother, Wallace, and sister, Emma, against him, and he was unable to establish his proofs. They received most of the money and the rest went to the crown. My father was the rightful heir, and after him my brother, Harry.

It made for great news copy, but was it true? Was an American bank robber a descendant of nobility and the heir to a fortune in England?

The baronet in question, Sir Henry Fetherstonhaugh, was born in 1754 at Uppark House, in Sussex (not Essex) England. His father, Sir Matthew Fetherstonhaugh, died when he was young and his mother never managed to get her son under control. As a young man Sir Harry had a well-deserved reputation as a spendthrift and playboy. He threw hedonistic parties at Uppark. One of his lovers, Emma Hart, was said to have danced naked on the dining room table during a particularly wild stag party. (Emma eventually married Sir William Hamilton and later became the mistress of Lord Nelson.)

In 1825, when he was 71, Sir Harry threw convention to the wind when he married 20-year-old Mary Ann Bullock, his head dairy maid. According to legend, it was Mary Ann’s wonderful singing voice that caught Sir Harry’s attention. “Don’t answer me now. But if you will have me, cut a slice out of the leg of mutton that is coming up for my dinner today,” he said when he secretly asked for her hand in wedlock.

Sir Harry and Mary Ann had no children and he left his entire estate to her when he died in 1846 at the ripe old age of 91. Mary Ann invited her sister, Frances, to come and live with her at Uppark after her husband died. When Mary Ann died in 1874, she left the estate to Frances.

Harry Featherstone and his possible ancestor, Sir Henry Fetherstonhaugh in a painting by Pompeo Batoni. (National Trust, Uppark)

Was Emma’s story true? The devil, as they say, is in the details. Frances did try to find a “suitable blood relation” of Sir Harry’s to leave the property to, but her quest was unsuccessful. Sir Harry was an only child, so he did not have a nephew. However, a family history website for the Featherstone family surname lists Sir Harry’s father, Sir Matthew, as having two brothers, Utrick and Henry. If Harry’s grandfather was the grandson or great grandson of one of these uncles, it’s possible that our American bank robber was an heir to Uppark and the Fetherstonhaugh fortune.

Perhaps the loss of his fortune was what hardened Harry’s heart and set him down the road to a life of crime. Above is his mugshot, taken when he was 22, next to a painting of Sir Harry at about the same age. I think there’s a family resemblance. What do you think?

Photo of Luke Colleran via Find-A-Grave; Illustrations of the Merchant’s Bank robbers from the Sioux City Journal, Jan. 17, 1891.

3 thoughts on “The Bank Robber and the Baronet

    1. That’s a great question, Jim. Since Colleran was a side story to that of Harry Featherstone, I did not check into it in detail, but I think that information could be found in new articles. I don’t know if you looked at his Find-A-Grave page, but he was killed in a car accident.

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