Moll Buzzing

Moll Buzzing

A lady slipped on the pavement in a street in Philadelphia and was aided to arise by a very polite gentleman. She thanked him kindly and was struck by his handsome eyes, which haunted her until she missed her pocket-book and discovered through the police that a noted pickpocket known as “Baltimore Pat” was their owner, and that his attentions were part of his daily duty of “buzzing.”

The Wilmington Daily Herald (Wilmington, North Carolina), January 31, 1860

Imagine her embarrassment, not to mention discomfort, when she lost her footing and fell to the ground on a busy city street. Like every well-off woman in 1860, she wore a tight corset and an unwieldy hoop skirt. How did she get up without entirely losing her dignity?

Godey-april-1861

1861 day dresses, Godey’s Lady’s Book

Her tears were on the verge of overflowing when a young man came to her rescue. He leaned down and offered her his arm. She gratefully accepted and he easily pulled her to her feet. He smiled at her and asked if she was all right. With a blush she answered that she was fine. He nodded his hat, wished her a good day and vanished into the crowded street. She brushed off her skirts, reinstated her dignity and continued to her destination.

She arrived at the shop and selected an item to purchase but she couldn’t find her purse anywhere. Embarrassed, she left and went to the police station where she reported that her purse had been stolen. The police told her that she’d been “moll-buzzed” and showed her some photos in their rogues’ gallery. Suddenly it dawned on her why the striking-looking man had been so helpful. She pointed to a photo labeled “John William, alias Baltimore Pat.”

Pickpockets who specialized in preying on women were called “moll-buzzers.” Baltimore Pat’s good looks no doubt helped him professionally. Numerous articles describing his thievery and arrests appeared in newspapers between 1857 and 1862.

John Williams aka Baltimore Pat arrested as pickpocket - Newspap

— The Daily Exchange, Baltimore, Maryland, April 4, 1860

If a female victim was not available he was willing to prey on men. One Saturday night in 1862 he picked the pocket of a Baltimore merchant, B. J. Sutton, to the tune of $1,240 ($30,956 in 2018).

The arrests didn’t slow him down. He worked on trains and streetcars — a pickpocket’s paradise — where people were crowded together affording plentiful opportunity for stealthy theft. Allan Pinkerton warned about moll-buzzers in his 1884 book Thirty Years a Detective.

The scene is an ordinary street car, and the seats are all occupied. The thief enters and at once takes up his position immediately in front of the lady, with one hand he grasps the strap hanging from the roof, and the other hand is seemingly thrust into his coat pocket. I say seemingly, for really the hand of the thief is thrust through his coat, the end of which is resting carelessly on the pocket of the lady. With the hand which is pushed through his coat, the thief quietly pulls up the edge of the overskirt worn by the lady, little by little, so he can reach the pocket…and then catching hold of the pocket-book, he draws it up and into his own pocket and then steps away.

His photograph ended up in a police rogues’ gallery, likely in Baltimore or Philadelphia. Whether it helped end his pickpocketing is a matter of conjecture.

Featured photo: “John William, al Baltimore Pat, Pick pocket” from Rogues, A Study of Characters by Samuel G. Szabó. Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

 

Arresting Elizabeth Wohlman

Arresting Elizabeth Wohlman

AFFIRMED.—The case of the state vs. Elizabeth Wohlman, for grand larceny, was affirmed in the Supreme Court yesterday, and the defendant committed to the County Jail for safe keeping until such time as it is convenient to take her to the Penitentiary. The defendant, together with Catharine Martin and Augusta Goetz, living in Belleville, came to this city on the 8th of November 1861, and visited many stores for the ostensible purpose of purchasing goods. They visited the jewelry stores of Cappel, Crane, Jackard, (sic) and others, and the hat and fur store of Mr. Gray. From each of these stores they stole jewelry, and were detected in the store of Eugene Jaccard, in the act of putting some jewelry in the basket which one of them carried.

Daily Missouri Republican (St. Louis), April 27, 1864

Her hair is oiled, parted in the middle, and worn close to her head in a tight bun. One hand peeks out from a heavy, striped shawl that’s draped across her shoulders and pinned over a knotted scarf around her neck. From her pierced ears hang beautiful earrings, possibly made of gold. Yet something is off about the photo. The woman’s expression is worried and frightened, even a touch angry, and one of her eyes seems to stare directly at the viewer, while the other gazes disconcertingly off camera.

Elizabeth back photo

Back of Wohlman ambrotype, which reads: Mrs. Wohlman-Shop Lifter, 29-years of age-5 foot 6 inches-Brown hair and-Gray eyes, German-Lucker. Missouri Historical Society Collections.

Her name was Elizabeth Wohlman, and it’s no surprise she looks unhappy. Shortly before her likeness was captured, she and several family members were arrested at gunpoint outside of Eugene Jaccard & Co., a luxury goods store near the St. Louis riverfront. After being unceremoniously hauled off to the city jail and searched by police officers on that fateful day in November 1861, Wohlman was charged with shoplifting.

This extraordinarily detailed image exists because the St. Louis Police Department began taking photographs of suspects and criminals for the purpose of identification in October 1857. The portraits were hung in a public place in the police station, and citizens were encouraged to walk through and examine what soon became known as the “rogues’ gallery.” Many other American cities followed St. Louis’s lead and started rogues’ galleries of their own, but few of those photographs still exist today.

St. Louis jail

St. Louis City Jail, located at the southeast corner of Sixth and Chestnut, 1850. Daguerreotype by Thomas Easterly. Missouri Historical Society Collections.

A group of nearly 200 photos from the first 10 years of the St. Louis rogues’ gallery miraculously survived and was donated to the Missouri Historical Society by the police department in 1953. Several of the images, including the ambrotype of Wohlman, are identified with handwritten notes on the reverse side.

I discovered the collection while searching for mid-19th-century photos of “typical” German immigrants living in St. Louis, with the goal of getting a better understanding of what my ancestors, who immigrated to St. Louis during that period, looked like. The rogues’ gallery, which includes the likenesses of immigrants and native-born Americans, fascinated me, so I decided to research all the identified people using genealogical resources.

Elizabeth Wohlman is special for several reasons. She’s one of only three women in the collection and the only woman identified by name. Additionally, few women anywhere were photographed for rogues’ galleries because mid-19th-century Americans found it difficult to accept the idea that women committed crimes. This makes Wohlman’s photo exceptionally rare.

There’s more to know about Wohlman’s life, her crime, and the price she paid for it, along with many others whose photos were taken for the “illustrious collection,” as one St. Louis newspaper described it. Grab a copy of Captured and Exposed to begin exploring their stories on your favorite eBook device, then head to the Missouri History Museum to see their portraits on display once again (September 22, 2018 – March 10, 2019) in the new Atrium exhibit, The St. Louis Rogues’ Gallery.

Featured photo: Sixth-plate ambrotype of Elizabeth Wohlman, November 1861. Missouri Historical Society Collections.

Two Chucks Make One

Two Chucks Make One

Pickpockets Arrested…The Mayor has also received information that two men, named John North, Jr., alias Smith, alias Musgrave, alias “Big Chucks,” and John Thompson, alias “Little Chucks,” professional pickpockets, were in the city, loitering and sleeping about the Neptune engine house. They were also arrested and committed thirty days each for vagrancy. On the person of “Little Chucks” was found a small memorandum book, in which he had a list of the county fairs in Ohio, where he proposed to follow his calling.

Pittsburgh Daily Post (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania), September 6, 1858

The arrest in Pittsburgh of two men dubbed with the “Chucks” moniker was reported as far away Washington, D.C., where they were described as “two noted Philadelphia pickpockets.” Evidently the men planned to visit county fairs in the mid west — fertile hunting grounds for prospective victims with full pocket books and distracted brains.

The following year John Keeley, better known as “Little Chucks” was arrested in Philadelphia after he was chased from a church building by a police officer. He was sent to jail for vagrancy and attempted pickpocketing. He was also accused of “riot and malicious mischief.” Less than two months later, Thomas W. North, also known as “Big Chucks,” was arrested in Baltimore, along with another man, for knocking down and robbing Gibson M. Nelson. Mr. Nelson subsequently died as a result of the injuries he sustained during the robbery.

John North, alias Keely, was arrested in March 1861, in Camden, New Jersey, for pickpocketing. Only a few days previously he had been released after a two year stay in Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary for the same offense. The news report about his release mentioned that he was also called “Little Chucks.”

Smart nineteenth century criminals kept police busy with a bewildering array of aliases and nicknames. “Big Chucks” was called John or Thomas North, or John Smith or John Musgrave. “Little Chucks” was known by the first name John and the surnames North, Thompson or Keeley. Several newspapers reported that “Big Chucks”and “Little Chucks” were two criminals who often worked together.

Were the Chucks actually two men, as the newspapers claimed? Photographic evidence argues for a different conclusion.

big chucks backCrudely scratched in the metal plate on the reverse of an ambrotype photograph from the St. Louis Rogues’ Gallery are the words “Big Chucks alias Daly.” The photo is undated but it was likely made around 1860. A photograph made by Samuel G. Szabó shows a man identified as “John McNauth alias Keely alias little Chucks Pick Pocket.” Szabó was a Hungarian photographer who traveled around America photographing rogues’ galleries in various police departments, including those in St. Louis, Philadelphia and Baltimore, between 1857 and 1861. His reasons for doing this are unknown, however he compiled an album of prints from his negatives. The album survived and was donated to The Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2005.

I’m convinced that the man wearing the fabulous top hat in the Met photo is the same man, shown hatless, in the St. Louis photo. It’s possible they were brothers who had remarkably similar hair and facial features but if so, it’s likely that detail would have been commented on in the news, but it wasn’t.

Why was it reported that “Big Chucks” and “Little Chucks” were two people? Like any accomplished criminal, he wanted to keep the police guessing about his identity. If they thought they were chasing not one man but two it was all the more confusing! So he varied his moniker and, when he worked with another pickpocket, suggested to the partner that he also use one of the “Chucks” sobriquets. As long as he wasn’t photographed, who would ever know?

Once police got his photograph and circulated it around, the game was up. This was precisely the reason rogues’ galleries were started in St. Louis and New York City and were soon in popular demand in other large American cities.

Who was he really? Based on most of his aliases he was probably Irish or the child of Irish immigrants, but we’ll never know for sure.

Featured photos: “Big Chucks,” Missouri History Museum, and “Little Chucks,” The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Prison for Boots

Prison for Boots

Note: This story is excerpted from my book, Captured and Exposed: The First Police Rogues’ Gallery in America.

On April 12, 1859, seven cases of kip (work) boots from Biggs, Staples & Co. were loaded onto the wagon of Andrew McCullough in Canton, Missouri, near the Mississippi River in the northeastern part of the state. McCullough was taking the load west to Edina, Missouri. Because the 38-mile trip would take him more than a day, he stopped overnight at the home of a friend named John Fisher. Before retiring for the night, McCullough went out to check his wagon and cover it with a sheet — at that time all was well.

The following morning, one of Fisher’s neighbors discovered a box of boots sitting by the road some distance from the wagon. Several pairs were missing from the box, including two sets, sizes eight and nine, in which one boot had been removed from each pair. Fisher headed to town to find the boots’ owner, James Biggs, and report the theft to him. On the way he noticed two men wearing new kip boots and immediately suspected them of having tampered with the box and removed the boots. A small posse was formed to hunt for the suspects, who were soon located not far from town.

Nineteen-year-old Richard Shannon was found wearing the incriminating mismatched boots. His companion, James Ford, an older, larger man, was also shod in new boots made by Biggs, Staples & Co. Shannon gave himself up, but Ford pulled out his revolver. One of the men in the posse fired shots in response. No one was injured, but Ford temporarily escaped. He was soon recaptured, and both he and Shannon were tried and convicted of grand larceny for the theft of the entire case of 12 pairs of boots, valued at $48 — despite the fact that no witness saw either man remove the case from McCullough’s wagon. (The lesser charge of petty larceny might have applied if the men had been accused of stealing only the boots they were wearing.) Both men were sentenced to two years at the Missouri State Penitentiary, however, Ford escaped from jail while awaiting transfer to Jefferson City and was never recaptured.

Richard Shannon back

Reverse side of Shannon’s rogues’ gallery photo. Collection of the Missouri History Museum.

Shannon served his full sentence, beginning on September 22, 1859. The date on his St. Louis rogues’ gallery photo — August 9, 1858 — may be incorrect because it’s nine months prior to the date of the crime. In his photo, the auburn-haired Shannon wears the wrinkled, lightweight jacket of a laborer. With his tousled hair; young face; and rosy, hand-tinted cheeks, he looks like the last person one would expect to see headed to a prison where 12-hour days of hard labor, crowded cells, poor food, and inmate whippings were the norm.

Born in 1839 in the town of Galena in northern Illinois, Richard Emmet Shannon was the third of ten children belonging to Irish immigrants Thomas and Mary Shannon. Prior to his arrest, Richard Shannon worked as a raftsman, bringing logs that were tied together as rafts down the Mississippi River to the sawmills. Of the identified individuals in the Rogues’ Gallery Collection about whom information was found, Shannon is one of only two people who didn’t commit their alleged crimes in St. Louis.

George_Caleb_Bingham_-_Raftsmen_Playing_Cards

“Raftsmen Playing Cards,” 1847 painting by George Caleb Bingham. Collection of the St. Louis Art Museum.

In October 1861, two weeks after his release from the Missouri State Penitentiary, Shannon enlisted in the 2nd Kansas Cavalry, serving as a private in Company I during the Civil War until his muster-out on May 25, 1862. He enlisted in the 3rd Cavalry, Company H in Vallejo, California, in July 1870. At the time of his enlistment, Shannon worked as a stonecutter (perhaps this occupation was inspired by his father, who worked as a stonemason). He deserted his company on January 11, 1872, and managed to avoid being captured. By the late 1870s he resided in San Francisco, where he worked at cutting and shaping stone.

Shannon was familiar not only with stone masonry but also with horses, a fact that led him to try his hand at entrepreneurship. In May 1882 the federal government issued him a patent for a rein holder — a mechanism he invented for securing the reins of a carriage’s horse to keep them from getting tangled with the horse’s feet. This was the second such device Shannon submitted for a patent, stating in his application: “My present invention is an improvement upon my former one.” It’s unknown whether either of Shannon’s rein-holder designs was ever manufactured.

In July 1885, Shannon visited Chicago and spoke at a strike of the Chicago West Division Railway Company, where newspapers covering the event intriguingly described him as a “labor agitator from the Pacific coast.”

Details about the later life and death of raftsman, Civil War veteran, stonemason, inventor, labor agitator, and ex-convict Richard Shannon are likely lost to history.

Featured photo: Richard E. Shannon, 1859 rogues’ gallery photo (ambrotype). Collection of the Missouri History Museum.