His Final Walk

His Final Walk

FASCI TO DIE IN THE SAME WAY AS TWO PALS

 

BELLEFONTE, PA., Dec. 26.— Like John Torti and Tony Burchanti, two of his companions in the Laurel Line robbery and murder near Scranton on July 30, 1923, Paul Fasci will go to his death in the electric chair at Rockview prison Monday morning at 7 o’clock without benefit of clergy.

— The Scranton Republican (Scranton, Pennsylvania), December 27, 1926

Edward Murphy, a salesman for an oil company, was in the wrong place at the wrong time when five men held up the Laurel Line train during its morning run between Moosic and Avoca, Pennsylvania. P.J. Durkin, the motorman, Arch Henshall, the paymaster for the West End Coal Company and another passenger, Philip Scribner, were also shot. All three eventually recovered from their wounds, however Edward, who was reading the morning paper when he was hit with a stray bullet, died instantly.

The bandits grabbed the coal company’s $70,125 payroll cash and headed to their getaway car. Police had little to go in to solve the case, and for a time it seemed as if the men had pulled off the perfect train robbery.

Fasci news photo

1921 police photo (bottom) showing three of the five men (1,2 & 5) suspected of being the Laurel Line train robbers.

After interviewing witnesses, detectives believed that three of the five gang members were in a police photo photograph of a five Italian men taken in 1921. The men in the photo had been arrested in a high-powered car several days after an attempted bank robbery in New Castle, Pennsylvania. None of them could be linked with that holdup attempt, but the photo remained in police criminal identification files.

Paul Fasci_back

Back side of the 1921 photo. John Torti (#5) is identified even though he was cropped out of the photo.

The search was on for three of the men in the photo: Tony Burchanti, Paul Fasci and John Torti.

Tony and John had been employees of the West End Coal Company, the target of the Laurel Line robbery. They quit their jobs shortly before the robbery and never collected their pay.

The trail of the Laurel Line bandits went cold until March 26, 1924, when a gang attempted to rob the $400,00 payroll of the Carnegie Steel Company in Pittsburgh. The job had a similar M.O. to the Laurel Line heist and Tony was arrested for the attempted robbery.

Next police located John, along with “Big Jack” Stummy and Michael Bassi, in Tiltonsville, Ohio, where the men had gone to pick up their mail. A shootout ensued in which “Big Jack” was killed. John tried unsuccessfully to kill himself and was taken into custody. Michael escaped.

Michael was later arrested in Cambria County, Pennsylvania, for another robbery of a coal company payroll in which a messenger died. He was convicted of first-degree murder and executed at Rockview prison.

Tony and John were convicted of the murder of Edward Murphy and executed in the electric chair at Rockview on June 1, 1925.

Also pictured in the 1921 photo was Paul Fasci. Police believed Paul was the fifth and final suspect in the Laurel Line robbery. Detectives finally located him in a gambling dive in Chicago in February 1925. He was returned to Pennsylvania, where he was tried and convicted of Edward’s murder in early 1926.

Paul told prison officials he didn’t want a priest with him when he went to the death chamber two days after Christmas in 1926. He was resigned to his fate and said goodbye to his brother, Orlando, on Christmas Day. Orlando had fought hard to have Paul’s case reopened but he’d been unsuccessful.

Paul spent his last day on earth alone in his Rockview death house cell with a guard stationed nearby. His hair had already been closely shaved. A plain white shirt, trousers with a slit up one leg and a pair of carpet slippers were laid out, ready for his final walk.

He ate a hearty breakfast and died insisting he was an innocent man.

Featured photo: 1921 police photo of Tony Burchanti (#1), Paul Fasci (#2) and two men not involved in the Laurel Line heist. John Torti (#5) was cropped off the photo. Collection of the author.

Irresistible Appeal

Irresistible Appeal

Boise, Idaho.—Lyda Southard, Idaho’s notorious husband poisoner who is charged with having caused the death of seven persons, has not lost her irresistible appeal for men after nearly 10 years spent behind the gray stone wall of the Idaho State Penitentiary. Her recent escape proves that.

 

Love for the “Woman Blue Beard” nearly two years ago led a prison guard, Jack Watkins, to carry a gas pipe ladder into the yard of the women’s prison, across a driveway from the main prison which houses the male prisoners, and bury it in the flower bed.

 

Love for the modern Lucretia Borgia led an ex-convict, David Minton, who was pardoned scarcely three weeks before, to risk his newly regained freedom by assisting her to escape.

Sedalia Weekly Democrat (Sedalia, Missouri), May 22, 1931

It was only a slight exaggeration to claim that Lyda Southard caused the deaths of seven people. The body count was actually six, including four of Lyda’s husbands, her only child, a tiny daughter, and one brother-in-law.

She was born Lyda May Trueblood on October 16, 1892, in the small town of Keytesville, Missouri. In 1912 she married Robert Dooley in Twin Falls, Idaho. Their baby, Lorraine, was born the following year.

Edward Dooley, Robert’s brother, lived with the couple. Edward fell ill and died in 1915. Robert and Lorraine soon followed Edward to the grave. The deaths were said to be due to food poisoning or some common contagious illness — no one looked too closely in those days. Robert and Lyda received the cash from Edward’s life insurance policy, and Lyda got that, along with the money from Robert’s policy after his death. The amount wasn’t large — a couple thousand dollars total.

The baby wasn’t insured, but she was a burden and wouldn’t help Lyda snag another husband, so apparently she had to go too.

A slight, perky woman with dark, curly hair, blue eyes, and a ready smile, Lyda was no a great beauty but she had a pleasant face and a talent for attracting men. After her brother-in-law, first husband and baby died, she acquired three more husbands in rapid succession. Each one died of supposed “natural causes,” and each left Lyda a tidy life insurance settlement. Red flags didn’t go up until Edward Meyer, a previously healthy 35-year-old Twin Falls ranch foreman, died three weeks after his marriage to Lyda in 1920.

Lyda news editorial

Tongues began to wag when Lyda collected the insurance money, sold her property and left town shortly after putting Edward into the ground. Twin Falls Sheriff, E.R. Sherman, assigned his deputy, Virgil “Val” Ormsby, to investigate Edward’s death. Ormsby’s search led to one of Lyda’s homes and a basement full of flypaper coated with arsenic. The bodies of Lyda’s husbands and her brother-in-law and child were exhumed and autopsied. All the adults’ bodies were all found to contain arsenic.

The police hunt was on for the one person connected to all the men, now presumed to be murder victims — Lyda Trueblood Dooley McHaffie Lewis Meyer. By the time she was located she had added another husband to her list.

She was found in Honolulu, Hawaii, at the side of husband number five, Paul Southard. She had tried and failed to get Paul, a Naval Officer, to take out life insurance on himself with his blushing new bride as the beneficiary.

Lyda_Southard mugshotProfessing her innocence, she agreed to return to Idaho, where she was tried and found guilty of murder in the second degree for the death her fourth husband, Edward Meyer. Prosecutors also submitted evidence that Lyda killed the other men using tea and lemonade laced with arsenic. Sentenced to 14 years to life, off to the Idaho State Penitentiary Lyda went. Paul Southard filed for divorce.

For the next ten years, Lyda sat in prison, planning her next adventure. On a moonlit night in May 1931, she cut the bars on her cell window using a saw provided by Jack Watkins, a prison guard who’d become smitten with her. (Jack died before her escape, presumably of natural causes). A ladder, buried earlier near the prison wall by Jack, allowed Lyda to scale the 16-foot wall, and a rope, made of torn blankets tied to heavy flower boxes, helped her reach the ground on the other side. There she leaped into the waiting arms of David Minton, an ex-con who’d recently been released from the same penitentiary. David had fallen in love with “Mrs. Bluebeard” and risked his newly gained freedom to break her out of prison. He had a car waiting nearby and the pair sped away.

 

The romance with David didn’t last long (though he survived it and was eventually arrested for his part in Lyda’s escape). She remained free for the next 15 months, during which time she married her sixth husband, Harry Whitlock, in Denver. But by July 1932, Harry had gotten wise to Lyda’s identity and, perhaps worried for his own safety, he turned her in. He arranged to have her go to a post office in Topeka, Kansas, where police were waiting — they sent her back to the penitentiary. Harry applied for the $500 reward offered for his wife’s arrest.

Before she returned to prison, a reporter asked Lyda how she’d been so successful at getting men to marry her. A smile played at her lips as she replied, “I don’t care to answer that.” The reporter persisted. He wanted to know if she confessed to murdering any of her husbands at her trial. “No,” was her answer. “Did you ever feel as if you wanted to?” wondered the reporter. “No, I never felt I was guilty,” was Lyda’s cleverly worded response.

She was given a six-month probationary release from the penitentiary on October 2, 1941, and moved to Oregon to live with a sister. Her full pardon came a year and a half later. It was rumored that Lyda married for a seventh time in the 1940s. If true, her husband was a brave man.

In 1958 Lyda, aged 65, collapsed on a city street in Salt Lake City, Utah. Ten minutes later she was dead of a heart attack.

Featured photos: Left: News photo of Lyda Trueblood, taken before her trial in Twin Falls, Idaho, October 6, 1921. Right: News photo of Lyda with her captors, Deputy Sheriff Val Ormsby, rear left, and Sheriff E.R. Sherman, rear right, same date and location.

 

Checkered Career

Checkered Career

Arraigned in police court yesterday before magistrate P.J. McNamara, George Kelly, 27, of Wilkes-Barre, was held in $500 bail on a charge of larceny, while a woman, who describes herself as Dorothy, his wife, 22, was held under a similar bond as accessory.

 

The woman has had a rather picturesque career, according to her story to Superintendent of Police M.J. McHugh. She says she ran away from home, lured by the glamor of the stage, when only fifteen years of age. She started out as a chorus girl, drifted into the carnival field in the role of fortune teller, then cowgirl with a wild west show, later into vaudeville, and most recently into burlesque. Her mother, she says, is the owner of a store in Wilkes-Barre.

 

The couple were (sic) arrested here for the theft of a dress from the Jordan & Plottle store on Wyoming avenue.

The Scranton Republican (Scranton, Pennsylvania), October 26, 1923

Burlesque dancer 1920s

Burlesque dancer, 1920s.

Did Dorothy want a new dress for her burlesque routine or did she need something valuable to pawn or resell? One minute she and her friend George were discussing what to buy at an upscale Scranton ladies clothing shop and the next minute they were gone, taking an expensive dress with them but omitting to pay for it. The shop clerk immediately noticed the dress was missing and called the police.

Police quickly arrested Dorothy and George. Their refusal to tell detectives where they lived made the authorities think they had more stolen loot at their house. Add to that the fact that George had a police record — he’d been arrested a few months earlier on suspicion of burglary. The police decided he was not involved in the burglaries, but he was told to get out of Scranton — an order he’d ignored.

In her mugshots Dorothy looks more amused than worried about the situation she found herself in. Maybe she’d been arrested before and figured it was no big deal.

Dorothy Kelly_back_marked

Whether or not the couple was actually husband and wife or just shoplifting cronies couldn’t be determined. Young Dorothy had a checkered career after running away from home at a tender age. She started out as a chorus girl and things went downhill from there, to the point that she was doing semi-nude “burlesque” dancing for a living by the time she and George were arrested.

George pleaded guilty to larceny and receiving the following month. The case against Dorothy was dropped but there’s no doubt that the judge ordered her to get out of town. If she had any sense she complied.

Featured photos: Front of Dorothy Kelly’s 1923 Bertillon card. Collection of the author.

The Veiled Man

The Veiled Man

Ernest Long, marine engineer, who was arrested last Monday night on a charge of masquerading as a woman on the street, figured as a defendant in two court actions yesterday.

 

He appeared in Police Judge D.S. O’Brien’s court to answer to the masquerading charge, where he entered a plea of guilty.

 

The costume which Long wore at the time of his arrest was produced in court. It consisted of frilly lingerie, spiderweb silk stockings, fancy pumps and other feminine attire.

 

Judge O’Brien continued the case until next Wednesday to gave (sic) Dr. O’Neill further time for observations.

 

Mrs. Lulu Long, the engineer’s wife, made him a defendant in divorce proceedings in the superior court yesterday afternoon, alleging cruelty.

San Francisco Chronicle, March 25, 1922

Ernest Long was arrested on March 21, 1922, in San Francisco for dressing in “women’s garb” and for carrying a concealed weapon — a revolver — that police found on him. At the time of his arrest Ernest worked as a marine engineer on the steamship “Rose City,” which traveled between San Francisco and Portland.

Ernest Long passport photo

Ernest’s wife, Lulu, told police he awakened her in the middle of the night and forced her to help him dress in women’s clothes, then instructed her to go back to bed. Lulu also claimed that Ernest had been dressing as a woman for the past seven years, since their marriage in 1915, and that he only owned one suit of men’s clothing.

“I’m trying to hook up with a vaudeville circuit,” he explained. “But I’m not ready yet. I wouldn’t want any publicity right now.” Seems like an odd comment from a man who spent his life working in male-dominated jobs, including as a machinist, engineer, plumber and sailor.

Unfortunately he got plenty of publicity, when articles about his arrest appeared in newspapers around California and in his native town of Portland, Oregon.

Why was Ernest arrested? In 1863 a law was passed in San Francisco making it a criminal offense for a person to appear in public in “dress not belonging to his or her sex.” The law would remain in place until 1974. San Francisco was not alone — many other American cities also passed laws prohibiting cross-dressing.

 

cross dresser group

Men arrested in 1927 in Los Angeles for cross-dressing. Jesse Brown Cook scrapbook.

Ernest was born into an extremely unusual family. His father, Pon Long, was Chinese and his mother, Selina, was born in England. The couple met in 1877 when Selina worked as a teacher in a private Chinese school in San Francisco. Pon, described as a lawyer and merchant, had immigrated to America in 1869. The couple managed somehow to get a marriage license, despite the anti-miscegenation law in California prohibiting marriage between people of different races. Their marriage, described in the news as a “strange affinity,” shocked San Franciscans.

The Long family spent the next 12 years in Portland, Oregon, where they were tolerated despite the law there against interracial marriage. In 1889, when Ernest was an infant, Pon, Selina and their six children sailed to China. A seventh child, Mabel, was born in Hong Kong in 1892. The family spent years dividing their time between China and America. The children, including Ernest, identified as Caucasian on census and passport documents.

The San Francisco police photographed Ernest in full gear for use as evidence in court, even though the clothes he wore when arrested were submitted as evidence. Unusually for police suspect photos, he looks relaxed, pleased and dreamy-eyed. His legs in their “spiderweb silk stockings” appear heavy and masculine, but his feet are surprisingly petite. It’s probable that he saw bound feet on girls and women while he lived in China. He may have hoped to emulate the look, considered a mark of beauty in China and also thought to be a sexual stimulant for a woman’s male partner.

The 1922 arrest wreaked havoc on Ernest and his family. Lulu filed for divorce and later deserted him, taking their three children with her. However the couple reunited and had five more children, though ultimately, they divorced in the early 1940s.

Ernest died in San Diego, California, 55 years after his arrest for “masquerading as a woman.”

Featured photos: Ernest Long, Mar. 21/22, Jesse Brown Cook Scrapbooks Documenting San Francisco History and Law Enforcement, ca. 1895-1936. Collection of the UC Berkeley, Bancroft Library.

Also shown: Ernest Long, 1917 passport photo.

 

 

Life Savings Larceny

Life Savings Larceny

It is a grave error for magistrate and justices of the peace to permit pickpockets [to] escape conviction. What is worse, such leniency is frequently due to the influence of the pickpockets with the minor judiciary who discharge them.

— Judge John Monaghan, quoted in The Philadelphia Inquirer, August 5, 1920

Trifim Trochuk, a 37-year-old Russian immigrant, got on the Second Street trolley to ride to Philadelphia’s Washington Avenue Wharf on July 17, 1920. At the wharf he planned to board the steamship Haverford to sail back to his Russian homeland. He’d worked for the last six years as a dishwasher in a restaurant in order to save up enough money to return to Russia and bring his wife and children to America. His life savings, $867 in dollars and 600 Russian rubles, was in his hip pocket.

A young woman boarded the trolley and Trifim generously got up to give her his seat. As he did so, a man who had boarded with the woman jostled him and Trifim felt a hand reach into his hip pocket. He checked his pocket and panicked when he realized his money was gone. He shouted that he’d been robbed, then he noticed a roll of banknotes in the lap of the woman to whom he’d given his seat. She was trying to hide the notes with her handkerchief.

Ida Weiner_back_marked

Back side of Ida’s Bertillon card.

The man and woman, Harry Stoll, alias Dahl or Goodman, and Ida Wergna, alias Weiner, were arrested on suspicion of being pickpockets when the trolley reached its stop. The couple denied knowing each other, however they were tried together two weeks later. After one “stubborn juror,” who thought he needed to ask more questions and hear more witnesses, was convinced to change his vote, Harry and Ida were convicted of grand larceny.

There’s no record of whether or not Trifim got his money back.

Harry boasted of being arrested multiple times in New York and Philadelphia for pickpocketing, claiming he’d never been convicted. Not so lucky this time, he was sentenced to a minimum of two years at the infamous Eastern State Penitentiary by Judge Monaghan. Ida, who confessed to the judge about her role in the crime, was sentenced to eighteen months in Moyamensing Prison.

TrifimAccording to Trifim’s 1942 naturalization record, he never made the trip back to Russia where his four children still lived. Trifim’s wife, Uliana, died in Russia and he never remarried.

Featured photo: Bertillon card of Ida Wergna. Collection of the author.

Naturalization record of Trofim Trochuk: Massachusetts, State and Federal Naturalization Records, 1798-1950.

Gangster Undressed

Gangster Undressed

We still didn’t think we had anything but a crazy drunk and both of us took him out to the car. He was dressed in his underwear and shoes only, with an expensive fur coat over them. I made the crack about being a drugstore cowboy when we were taking him out.

 

Kast went in to call headquarters and I stayed with DeVol. I figured I would have no trouble in handling him. But just as Kast stepped out, DeVol dove for me in the back seat and got both hands around my throat. I grappled with him and he sank his teeth into my left wrist and hand. I kicked the door open and dragged him out onto the pavement.

 

We rolled there for a second and then DeVol broke away and started to run across the street. I caught up to him and hit him over the head with the butt of my gun. Kast had heard the commotion and came running out and also hit DeVol.

 

He didn’t attempt to escape again and in a few minutes several other squads arrived and they found the bank loot and guns in the apartment. It was not until then we realized what sort of criminal we had been fighting with.

— Patrolman George Hammergren, The Minneapolis Star, December 19, 1932

St. Paul Policeman George Hammergren and his partner, Officer Kast, had arrested one of the most wanted criminals of their day. Lawrence DeVol was the look out man during a holdup of the Third Northwestern National Bank in Minneapolis by the Barker-Karpis gang on December 16, 1932. The gang escaped with $22,00 in cash and $92,00 in bonds. Lawrence shot and killed two police officers during the getaway.

Holed up in a rented St. Paul apartment with a bandit pal after the heist, Lawrence went out on the evening of December 18, 1932, dressed only in underpants and a coat. (In search of cigs, booze, drugs or all three?) When he returned he got confused and banged on the wrong apartment door, demanding to be let in. The man who lived in the apartment had no idea who he was and told him to “get going.” Lawrence wandered down the hall and returned to the apartment, waving his revolver. Peeking through the safety chain and seeing the gun, the man became alarmed, slammed the door and called police. Meanwhile Lawrence wandered off, found the correct apartment and entered, leaving the door ajar.

Officers Hammergren and Kast arrived at the apartment building for what they thought would be a straightforward nuisance call. They located the open apartment door, went in and found a man getting dressed. They asked him where the man with the “rod” was. He pointed to the bedroom, stating, “He’s been drinking and got a little boisterous, but he hasn’t got a rod of any kind.” Hammergren went into the bedroom and found Lawrence, clad only in his underpants, pointing a gun at him. Hammergren grabbed both Lawrence’s hands but was unable to get the gun from him. He yelled for Kast and the three scuffled, eventually extracting the gun from Lawrence. Figuring him to be “just a crazy drunk” they didn’t bother to handcuff him before taking him outside and putting him in the squad car. Meanwhile the other man escaped.

Born on November 17, 1903 in Belpre, Ohio, Lawrence was the middle of three sons of Helem and Emma (Shanks) DeVol. On his father’s side the family traced their ancestry back to Plymouth Colony and the Mayflower. Helem moved his family moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma when Lawrence was six. He found work in the oil fields and he died there in 1917.

Criminal history file: Barton, Leonard.

Mugshot, age 24

Lawrence got his start in crime at a tender age and by the time he turned 11, he was labeled “incorrigible” and was sent to reform school in Oklahoma. His brothers, Albert and Clarence, also joined  the criminal ranks, but it was Lawrence who evolved into a big-time gangster and garnered most of the headlines. By the time he reached his late twenties, Lawrence had a rap sheet that included numerous convictions for grand larceny and burglary. He’d served multiple prison terms, accumulated 17 aliases and was wanted by police in ten states.

He became acquainted with gangster Alvin “Creepy” Karpis at the State Industrial Reformatory in Hutchinson, Kansas, in 1928. Together the pair escaped in 1929 and pulled off several robberies. They were later arrested in Kansas City, where Lawrence was able to post bail and skip town, leaving Creepy behind. He carried out another string of heists that culminated in the fatal shooting a police officer in Kirksville, Missouri. He also managed to escape custody there, but in addition to robbery he was now wanted for murder, and not just any murder, but the murder of a cop.

Lawrence headed to St. Paul, Minnesota, where he hooked up with his old pal, Creepy (who apparently had forgiven him for the earlier ditch), and Creepy’s friends Fred and Arthur “Doc” Barker, along with members of their gang. The men pulled off bank robberies in Minnesota, Kansas and North Dakota before going to Minneapolis for the December 16th robbery.

Hammergen and his partner, Kast, were lucky that, when they captured Lawrence that cold night in December, he was out of his head with drink. In full control of his senses there’s no doubt he wouldn’t have hesitated to shoot them.

DeVol_ducks_photoBleary-eyed, with his face scuffed and still wearing only his fur coat and (presumably) underpants and shoes, his mugshots were taken that night at the St. Paul police station. Two days later the Minneapolis police photographed a cleaned up and far-from-contrite-looking Lawrence after he’d been charged with bank robbery and murder. He’s still wearing his beloved fur coat, but this time he’s also sporting a suit, tie and hat. On his way into Minneapolis city hall, a news photographer got a double exposure photo of DeVol, who was apparently still edgy after his capture in St. Paul, causing him to jump when the photographer’s flashbulb went off.

Criminal history file: Barton, Leonard.

Mugshots taken on December 20, 1932 in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

He pleaded guilty to the murder of policemen Ira Evans and Leo Gorsky and was given a life sentence. First sent to the Stillwater penitentiary, he was moved to the St. Peter Hospital for the Criminally Insane on December 27, 1935 — it turned out to be a late Christmas gift of sorts for Lawrence.

Psychiatrists St. Peter’s described him as suffering from a mania called “Dementia Praecox Catatonia.” The condition was characterized, they claimed, by “unbalanced judgment, delusions, hallucinations, alternating apathy and indifference, and tremendous and often violent excitement. The victim’s memory remains good, however, and he does not lose the capacity to understand situations an act.” The second sentence should have been a warning to anyone familiar with Lawrence and his criminal history.

Unlike his psychiatrists, Lawrence understood perfectly the opportunity that was presented to him and he wasted no time in taking advantage of it. He organized a successful escape from the hospital, along with fifteen other dangerous criminals, the following July.

Criminal history file: Barton, Leonard.

A nationwide search wound up in Enid, Oklahoma, when police officers located him in a tavern on July 7, 1936. Asked to accompany them back to the station for questioning, he said, “Let me finish drinking my beer.” While draining the mug with one hand, he pulled out his gun with the other and opened fire, wounding one officer and killing the other. Though he fled the scene, this time there would be no getaway. With more Enid officers in hot pursuit, Lawrence James DeVol was shot nine times and killed a few blocks from the tavern where he enjoyed his final beer.

Featured photo: mugshots of Lawrence DeVol taken December 18, 1932. Collection of the author.

Additional mugshots and news photo of St. Peter’s Hospital escaped men from the collection of the Minnesota Historical Society.

Crooks’ Books

Crooks’ Books

The engagement of an internationally known woman criminal to marry the internationally noted criminologist, whose inspiration she was in the preparation of a book on the famous women criminals of all time, was announced today.

 

May Vivienne Churchill, known to the police of three continents as “Chicago May” Churchill, assisted and inspired Netley Lucas, English Criminologist, in the preparation of his book, “Ladies of the Underworld.”

The Baltimore Sun, January 4, 1928

During the early 20th century it was all the rage for reformed crooks (or those who claimed to be “ex”) to publish books about their felonious exploits. The notorious “Chicago May” was supposedly the inspiration for Netley Lucas’ 1927 book “Ladies of the Underworld: The Beautiful, the Damned and Those Who Get Away with It.” May’s own memoir, written with professional help, titled “Chicago May: Her Story by the Queen of Crooks” rolled out in 1928.

It’s not surprising that Netley and Chicago May cooked up a scheme to shock polite society while simultaneously promoting their books. As champagne corks popped in celebration of the New Year, 25-year-old Netley, and May, the queen blackmailer old enough to be his mother, announced their intention to wed. They hoped a photograph showing the two of them cozying up on a loveseat would convince readers that their wedding plans were legit. In reality it was a publicity stunt.

Netley Lucas mugNetley was not, in fact, a “noted criminologist.” He was an English con man who began his life of crime at the tender age of 14 when he adopted the persona of a wounded serviceman, claiming to have fought in a World War I battle. Gaining the sympathy of London society, he was able to open credit accounts with various businesses until the deception was uncovered and he was sent to reform school. He quickly escaped and was on the make again, posing as a gentleman. Arrested for false pretenses and check fraud, back to the Borstal went young Netley. There “he had associated with every form of crook and confidence trickster imaginable.” It was perfect schooling for a boy with his predilections and talents.

In 1924, at the tender age of 21, Netley, who claimed to have turned over a new leaf, found his “true calling” as a writer. His memoir, “The Autobiography of a Crook,” was published in 1925. It became a bestseller and over the next few years he wrote biographies of members of various European royal family members and well-known public figures.

Netley’s biographies were fabricated. Even his own memoir turned out to have been ghost written. The book about the exploits of lady criminals was likely also a pack of lies.

Chicago May mugChicago May was born Mary Anne Duignan in 1871 in Ireland. She stole her family’s life savings, in 1890, and used it to immigrate to England, then America. May worked as a prostitute in New York City. Next she moved to Chicago during the World’s Fair, in 1893, where she teamed up with another prostitute to rob clients — one did the robbing while the gent was “distracted” by the other. She also became adept at the “badger game,” a con in which married men were lured into sexually compromising situations, then blackmailed.

May and CharlieMay became romantically involved with the noted criminal Eddie Guerin and they traveled to Europe. (Not one to be outshone, Eddie published his autobiography in 1928). She and Eddie planned the robbery of an American Express office in Paris, but plans went awry and they ended up in prison. The pair reunited in London (May was released, Eddie escaped) where their relationship turned ugly and May took up with another crook named Robert Considine, alias Charlie Smith. An argument between the three, involving Eddie’s threats to slash May’s face, led to Eddie being shot in the foot. May and Charlie were convicted of attempted murder and sent to English prisons in 1907.

Her criminal heyday in the past, May returned to the United States after her 1917 prison release. She landed in Detroit, where, desperate for money, she worked as a common prostitute. May hoped her memoir would help her get back on her feet financially.

Though the engagement to Netley was bogus, May did plan to get married — to her old love and fellow crook, Robert. However she was taken ill before the nuptials could occur and she died in a Philadelphia hospital on May 30, 1929. At least 15 of her 57 years on earth had been spent in a prison cell.

Netley fared even worse than May. In 1931 he was convicted of trying to sell a fake biography of Queen Alexandra and sentenced to 18 months hard labor. The notoriety brought an end to his writing career and he spiraled into alcoholism. He was found dead in 1940, aged 37, in the partly burnt out living room of a house in Surry, England. No one mourned his passing.

They say what goes around comes around, so it seems fitting that crook books are back in style. Biographies of both Netley Lucas and Chicago May have been published in recent years.

Featured photo: news photo of Netley Lucas and Chicago May, announcing their engagement to be married on January 4, 1928. Collection of the author.

Other photos: Netley’s mugshot, Police Gazette, July 18, 1924; May’s mugshot, date and location unknown; May and Robert, The Evening Journal, Wilmington, Delaware, May 30, 1929.