The Counterfeiting Couple

The Counterfeiting Couple

Counterfeiting is a serious crime in America, but it’s nowhere near the problem it was in the nineteenth century. According to the National Archives, in the years after the Civil War, between one-third and one-half of all currency that changed hands in the United States was counterfeit. That’s an astonishing statistic! Imagine how you’d feel if there were a 50% chance you’d be given fake money in your change when you went shopping.

The United States Secret Service was born out of the need for a federal law enforcement agency to combat this rampant counterfeiting. Andrew L. Drummond was an early Secret Service detective who later became an author. One of the stories in his 1909 book, “True Detective Stories,” was about his arrest of a counterfeiter named Cooper Wiltsey:

A big powerful man, he had about as wicked eyes as I ever saw in any human being. Men generally hated him. Such women as he met invariably liked him. He was about fifty years old, but the sprinkling of gray in his hair did not handicap him. Always there was some woman to be found who would swear that Cooper Wiltsey was all right.

Drummond sounds a little envious of Wiltsey’s success with the ladies, doesn’t he?

At any rate, in 1878 Drummond got word that Wiltsey was running a counterfeiting operation out of a house in Philadelphia. He worked with the local police to investigate and they located the house where they believed Wiltsey was making counterfeit coins in a room on the second floor. He gave a dramatic description in his book of the scene that unfolded the night the couple was arrested:

As I burst into the room my eye quickly caught two figures—that of a woman standing as if she were cast in bronze and that of Wiltsey leaping at me with a fifteen inch stiletto-like carving knife clasped in his hand. I leveled my revolver at his head and told him to stop or I would kill him. He stopped. As I called, Wiltsey’s eyes shifted from me to the head of the stairs.

Wiltsey book

Thinking he had the situation under control, Drummond foolishly put his gun in his pocket and grabbed Wiltsey’s wrist. But Wiltsey refused to give up the knife and tried to cut Drummond’s fingers with it. Fortunately for the detective, his police back up appeared at that moment with their guns drawn. Wiltsey dropped the knife.

Wiltsey and his partner, Sarah Page, were in the process of melting a mixture of tin and antimony and pouring it into molds when they were arrrested. After the metal cooled and was removed from the molds, they planned to use an electric battery to add a thin layer of silver-plating to the fake coins. One silver dollar had enough silver in it to plate five hundred of the coins. Each “dollar” would be sold for between 25 and 35 cents.

Wiltsey was convicted of counterfeiting. Page was acquitted.

The Times of Philadelphia claimed that Sarah Page was Wiltsey’s mistress. But based on genealogical records, it seems more likely that she was his wife.

Cooper Wiltsey was born in New Jersey in 1833. In 1853 he and his wife Sarah had their first child, Benjamin. By 1864 they’d added another five children to their family. Wiltsey served in the 24th New Jersey Infantry during Civil War, achieving the rank of 2nd lieutenant.

The big surprise is that Wiltsey, the future counterfeiter, was employed as a constable in Gloucester City in 1870.

In 1882 Sarah listed herself as “widow of Cooper” in the Camden City Directory, but this was a little face-saving fib. Her husband was still alive and serving his sentence at the New Jersey State Prison in Trenton. By 1885 Wiltsey was back at home with Sarah and the kids, according to the New Jersey State Census. By 1891 he had his own restaurant in Gloucester City.

Sarah Wiltsey died in 1902. Cooper passed away “after a lingering illness” in May 1904. Both are buried in Gloucester City’s Cedar Grove Cemetery.

The perplexing question is why the Wiltseys, who appeared to be upstanding citizens, decided to become counterfeiters. Possibly enforcing the law somehow enticed Wiltsey into breaking it. As to his great success with the ladies, it seems that Drummond took some artistic license with his story, because Wiltsey seems to have been more of a family man than a Casanova.

Featured photos: Sarah Page, CDV mugshot from the National Archives Collection and Cooper Wiltsey, photo from the Vancouver Daily World, December 26, 1908

Growing Up among the Rogues

Growing Up among the Rogues

He’s one of the most down-and-out looking individuals in the St. Louis Rogues’ Gallery. His jacket is far too large for him, his shirt collar looks grimy, and his hair is disheveled. His misshapen hat sits on a nearby table, and the expression on his face is one of deep sadness. The arresting officer’s notes on the back of his 1867 rogues’ gallery photo describe him as “John Manly Thief. Pickpocket 17 years old.” But there’s far more to the story.

According to census records, John Manley was about 20 years old at the time this photo was taken. Because the person pictured here looks quite young, it’s more likely that he’s James Manley, John’s younger brother. James was only about 14 years old in 1867.

The two brothers and their sister, Julia, had extensive dealings with St. Louis law enforcement over many decades—a situation that may have been avoided if not for a tragic accident. On February 10, 1858, the Manleys’ father, an Irish immigrant, was killed while working on a railroad construction crew east of St. Louis.

Left without a breadwinner, the Manley family went from being working poor to a state of direst poverty. Life was so hard that their destitute mother was forced to send her three children to live in the St. Louis House of Refuge.

 

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The House of Refuge at 3300 Osage St., March 1894. Photo by A. J. O’Reilly. Missouri Historical Society Collections.

Child inmates at the House of Refuge slept on straw mattresses at night and spent just three hours a day in school. The rest of their time was spent caning chairs and making shoes that were sold for a profit in town. A grim description of the institution comes from the 1878 book A Tour of St. Louis: Or, The Inside Life of a Great City:

The St. Louis House of Refuge, situated in the southern part of the city, strictly speaking, is a prison for the detention of juvenile offenders. Its discipline is that of a prison, and in all features of its operation it is distinctly a penitentiary for the detention and correction of youthful criminals.

The Manley children came home in 1860, but in April 1861, James was labeled “incorrigible” and returned to the House of Refuge. The following year he was sent to live with a tailor in Chamois, Missouri, 100 miles west of St. Louis. Authorities likely hoped he’d fare better far away from the evils of the big city, but the country air wasn’t for James. He soon found himself back in St. Louis.

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Record of James Manley’s first admittance to the House of Refuge on February 24, 1860, at just 8 years old (sixth from top). Missouri Historical Society Collections.

By 1866 young James was on his third stay at the House of Refuge, this time as punishment for a petty larceny conviction. He was supposed to live there until he turned 21, but soon after his arrival he escaped.

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Entry in the Criminal Court of Corrections record book, issue 1, regarding James Manley, November 1866. Courtesy of Shayne Davidson.

Around the time his photo was taken for the rogues’ gallery—March 13, 1867—James was in serious legal trouble: He and two companions had been charged with assault and battery. (Whether James was convicted in the case couldn’t be verified.)

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The back side of the rogues’ gallery photo. Police misidentified James as his brother John.

In December 1869, James was jailed for grand larceny in St. Louis because he was unable to pay his $1,500 bail. He was found guilty, and the judge sentenced him to the Missouri State Penitentiary in Jefferson City. Seventeen-year-old James entered the prison on January 29, 1870, and spent the next 18 months there. The system of leasing prisoners to businessmen, providing free labor in exchange for financial support of the prison, hadn’t yet been abolished, so he may have worked on prison building projects or even outside the prison walls until he was pardoned by the governor and released on August 3, 1871.

After a quiet couple of years, James attracted news coverage in September 1874 for trying to jump ahead of others waiting in line to cast ballots in a St. Louis election. When a police officer intervened, James tore off the man’s coat and punched him, at which point he was taken into custody. The following year, James was stabbed twice during a nighttime scuffle at Broadway and O’Fallon Streets. His wounds were serious but not life threatening.

By the 1880s, James and his brother had both found honest work as telegraph linemen. Then in 1888, James was elected constable of St. Louis’s sixth ward and tasked with serving summonses for court appearances. It seemed like his life was taking a prosperous turn, but while serving clothing-store proprietor Martin Monti with an eviction summons, James apparently couldn’t stop himself from stealing $75 and other property belonging to Monti. He was convicted of embezzlement—a decision he appealed—but the conviction was upheld. So in November 1891, James headed to the Missouri State Penitentiary again, where he remained until his release in January 1893. In May 1903, James and three other men were arrested and charged with shooting craps behind a saloon on North Broadway. This was his final record of criminal behavior.

Ten years later, James found himself at the St. Louis City Infirmary, a hospital for the indigent located on Arsenal Street. By this point he was the last surviving member of his family. His mother had died in 1885, and his brother had passed in 1903. It’s possible his sister was still alive, but she disappeared from records after the 1880 census.

James spent his final moments at the infirmary, evidently all alone, dying of a lung ailment just two months shy of his 60th birthday.

Featured photo: Quarter-plate tintype of James Manley, March 1867. Missouri Historical Society Collections.

Murder in Sacramento

Murder in Sacramento

He came up to the room. He had the clothes on his arm. He said that he beat a woman on L street out of them, and finally said he got them off Mrs. Gibson. He said he got her drunk and that he “croaked” her. I do not understand what croaked means. He never told me what it meant. He told me he killed the woman, and that the d — old — would not tell any tales on him. I put the clothes on the bed and afterwards on the rocking-chair. They lay there till the next day. There was a watch and a gold locket among the jewelry. The locket was of a small size and carved. I believe the dresses were all wrapped up in one when he brought them in. The jewelry was in the pockets.

— Testimony of Carrie Spencer, San Francisco Chronicle, March 16, 1873

After Charles Mortimer was arrested for the brutal murder of Mary Shaw Gibson, the Sacramento police took a photograph of him. That photo, along with a rogues’ gallery photo of Mortimer taken sometime before the murder, may be the earliest example of the police using photography to help convict a criminal suspect.

Carrie Spencer_flatOn the morning of September 20, 1872, a passerby discovered the body of Mrs. Gibson at her Sacramento business. Mrs. Gibson, a 45-year-old widow from Ireland, sold groceries and liquor from the front room of her property on Jibboom Street and lived in the back room. Her head was lying in a pool of blood from a deep knife wound to her neck that had severed her jugular vein. She was fully clothed and there were signs that she had put up a fierce struggle with her assailants, because reddish-brown hairs were found tightly clenched in her hand. The police believed she had pulled the hairs from the beard of her attacker during the deadly assault. Cash had been taken from the dead woman’s pocket and clothing and jewelry were missing from her room. A glass of beer on the bedside table was taken as evidence and later found to contain strychnine.

Suspicion quickly focused on an ex-convict named Charles Mortimer and his prostitute “moll,” Carrie Spencer. The pair had been seen drinking in Mrs. Gibson’s establishment on the day of the murder. Dresses and jewelry belonging to the dead woman were found in the couple’s room at the Mechanic’s Exchange Hotel and Mrs. Gibson’s ring was found in Charles’ possession. Charles claimed he purchased Mrs. Gibson’s belongings from a man named “George.”

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Mechanic’s Exchange Hotel, undated photo, Library of Congress

Most damning of all, Charles had a fresh injury to his face and he was missing some of his whiskers. He’d been to the local barber to get his beard trimmed to try and make the missing facial hair less noticeable. Police also found a partially empty packet of strychnine powder in his pocket.

The couple was arrested for the murder and photographed by the police. A comparison of a pre-murder photo of Charles to one taken shortly after the murder clearly shows that he normally sported a beard and it had recently been shaved off. His facial hair was described as being reddish-brown in color.

Charles Mortimer was born Charles Flinn in 1834 in Vermont. He was the eldest of five brothers. His family moved to Lynn, Massachusetts, when he was still a child. By the time he was 14 he was in the state reform school in Worcester, where he was described as “idle and dissolute.” He moved west around 1860 and served a one-year sentence at San Quentin Prison in 1862 for a robbery he committed in San Francisco.

Another arrest for assault and robbery followed in 1864. At that time Charles claimed to have reformed and offered to show the police where he buried some stolen loot in exchange for leniency. While pointing out the spot to an officer, who bent down to get a better look, Charles knocked him over the head, grabbed his gun and beat him with it until he thought the man was dead, then made his escape. (The officer eventually recovered). The following year he teamed up with another escaped convict and committed a series of robberies under the name George Foster. These crimes landed him back at San Quentin for a seven-year stretch. Shortly after he was released, in 1872, he met Carrie at a dance hall in San Francisco.

In order to save her own skin, Carrie became the chief witness against Charles at the murder trial. He threatened to kill her if she testified against him, but she had little choice but to cooperate with police if she wanted to avoid being charged as an accessory. She pinned the blame squarely on him, claiming that she knew nothing about Mrs. Gibson’s murder until afterwards, when he showed up at their room with the cash, clothing and jewelry.

Charles was convicted and sentenced to hang. After his conviction he told his version of the story to the press in exchange for money to pay his lawyers. He admitted that he hit Mrs. Gibson with a beer mug, cutting her face and causing her to fall over, but it was Carrie, he insisted, who dealt the deathblow by cutting her throat while he held down the victim’s hands.

A month before the execution date an armed stranger tried to enter the Sacramento Jail, where Charles was being held, in the middle of the night. He was shot and killed by the officer guarding the jail entrance. The man was William John Flinn, Charles’ younger brother. Though he hadn’t seen his brother for many years, William traveled more than 3,000 miles from his home in Massachusetts to Sacramento, hoping to rescue Charles from the gallows.

Charles feigned insanity after the death of his brother but it didn’t help his cause. He was hanged on May 15, 1873. It took him 13 minutes to die. He was buried in the Sacramento City Cemetery, near the brother who died trying to save him.

Carrie returned to her previous pimp, James Willis, and resumed her career as a prostitute. In September 1873 she was arrested in Sacramento for trying to entice a young girl into a “house of ill fame.” Later that year, Carrie and James, who had been convicted of vagrancy and asked to leave the city, boarded a train to Stockton. They were seen in San Francisco, where it was reported that James was fined $300 for violently assaulting an African American woman after she refused his offer of drugged beer.

Mrs. Gibson’s family initially was unable to locate her will and were uncertain about how to divide her $13,000 fortune. Her will was finally found in March 1874 among a pile of papers taken from her house. Rather than leaving her estate to all six of her siblings, she left it only to the ones who had followed her instructions and immigrated with her to California, cutting out those who had remained in Ireland.

Featured photo: Charles Mortimer, before and after the murder of Mary Gibson, courtesy of Graham Pilecki.

Photo of Carrie Spencer, courtesy of Graham Pilecki.

Stealing Butter

Stealing Butter

James Gaffney was arrested yesterday for the larceny of a tub of butter valued at $10, the property of Mr. George Plummer.

Boston Post, June 4, 1875

The alleged butter heist was part of a list of “Criminal Matters” reported by the Boston newspaper. The crimes, all thefts of various kinds, ranged from Frenchman Henry Mauthe’s forgery of a $650 note that he sold to another man for $519, with the second man then selling it to a third man for $620, to James’s comparatively modest theft of Mr. Plummer’s butter.

James must have been desperate to steal butter, or perhaps it was a crime of opportunity. Given its value — $10 — it would have been quite a large quantity of butter. It’s likely he intended to sell it and pocket the cash.

James Gaffney_backThree years later a man named James Gaffney was arrested for a brass knuckle assault on Richard Dailey in Lynn, Massachusetts. The assault occurred while James was out on bail for breaking and entering a Sagamore Street saloon. The assault charges were dropped after Richard refused to testify and told the court he had no memory of the attack.

These crimes all occurred in or near Boston, but it’s impossible to know whether the same James Gaffney was responsible for all of them.

The mugshot photo of James is a tintype — a photo made on a thin metal plate. That’s surprising because most police departments had switched to carte de visite — albumen prints on paper — for their rogues’ galleries by the 1870s, if not earlier. The tintype is in a paper sleeve with James’s name and information about his crime — “larceny of money from a dwelling house” — faintly written in pencil on the back. He’s a thin young man, about 20 years old, with blue eyes, large hands and a steely stare.

Gorman_markedThe tintype of James was paired by an eBay seller with a tintype of a man named Gorman, identified as a “Salem thief” on the front of the photo sleeve. Salem is a city north of Boston that was made famous by its 17th century witch trials. Nothing is written on the back of the photo sleeve and no information about the single-named Gorman was located. Both Gorman (assuming it was his last name) and Gaffney are Irish surnames and there were plenty of poor Irish immigrants in living in Massachusetts in the nineteenth century.

A small pair of rogues’ gallery tintypes is what remains — evidence of past misdeeds and misfortunes.

Featured photo: rogues’ gallery tintype of James Gaffney, circa 1870s. Collection of the author.