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.

 

 

 

 

 

Francis Schlatter & Hankie Panky

Francis Schlatter & Hankie Panky

Televangelists and their “healing” product scams have a history stretching far back in time. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, driven by news of events described as miracles, thousands of people lost money to clever con men (and occasionally women) posing as “divine healers.” One phony man of the cloth, going by the name Reverend Francis Schlatter, claimed to be able to cure the sick using handkerchiefs that he’d blessed. Send him your hard-earned cash, along with a handkerchief, and he’d bless it and return to you a “divine handkerchief” capable of healing whatever ailed you.

His name was as bogus as his handkerchiefs — he was born in 1838 in Switzerland and his real name was reported to be either Jacob Kunze or James Dowie. The original Francis Schlatter was an Alsatian cobbler and immigrant to the United States who, in 1894, felt the call of God in Denver, Colorado. Francis traveled around the west for two years, drawing huge crowds and supposedly healing the sick by clasping his hands together. He took no money for his services. He vanished mysteriously in Mexico and was presumed dead in 1896, though his body was never found.

real Frsncis Schlatter

Francis Schlatter, the healer, c. 1895. Collection of the Library of Congress.

The absence of Francis’s body created an irresistible opportunity for con men and imposters began popping up immediately after he disappeared. Since it wasn’t illegal in most places in the United States to use a different name from the one you were given at birth, the copycat Francis Schlatters simply started using that name, claiming they were the “real” healer who hadn’t actually died.

Kunze/Dowie partnered with a younger man named August Schrader around 1908. Styling themselves as “King” Francis and “Prince” August, the pair traveled around America and Canada organizing churches — they weren’t picky about the denomination — and officiating at weddings and funerals. They also offered prayer for a fee and the blessed cure-all hankies, sent through the mail.

Schrader and Schlatter

August Shrader (left) and his partner, “Francis Schlatter” (right). The Oakland Tribune, Oakland, California, February 6, 1917, page 18.

They set up shop in Oakland, California, by 1910, but were asked to leave when people complained that their morals were “not conducive to the best interests of the neighborhoods where they carried on their practice.” Next they landed in Los Angeles (city of all things fake) and established their “Baptist Church, Inc.” — described as a cult — at a property they purchased in Hollywood. Garbed in long black robes, with flowing hair, thick beards and high silk hats, they attracted attention wherever they went.

It was the handkerchief scam that finally brought the pair down. Many of the people who sent money for handkerchiefs complained that they didn’t work. No one was cured of being blind or deaf (and certainly not of being dumb). In June 1916, postal inspectors arrested the men in New York and returned them to Los Angeles for indictment. The charge: conspiracy to use the mails to defraud.

Francis Schlatter handkechiefs

News photograph dated July 18, 1918. Collection of the author.

They signed over their Hollywood property to the lawyer who represented them at trial. August, aged 49, died of pneumonia before the trial finished and was given a pauper’s burial. “Francis” declined the offer to officiate at the funeral of his friend and business partner.

He was convicted of the mail fraud charge and sent to McNeil Island Federal Penitentiary in Washington State, arriving on March 18, 1917, where he was booked into the prison as “Francis Schlatter.” It was unusual but he was allowed to wear his silk top hat in both his mugshots. (Normally the side view would be hatless.) His booking card notes that he had lost almost all his teeth and was less than five feet tall. He was released from prison on June 1, 1918.

On October 16, 1922, a man going by the name “Francis Schlatter” was discovered dead in a cheap rooming house in St. Louis, Missouri. Many newspapers reported that this was the man who’d been imprisoned at McNeil Island for mail fraud. But was it?

Francis Schlatter obit

The Topeka Daily Capital, Topeka, Kansas, October 25, 1922, page 15.

The informant on the man’s death certificate was Luverna Schlatter, who’d been contacted because she was thought to be the ex-wife of the dead man. Luverna was divorced from a different “divine healer” going by the name Francis Schlatter. However the body of the man who died in St. Louis in 1922 was not buried in Miamisburg, Ohio, as stated on the death certificate. In a bizarre twist, the body went unburied. On May 7, 1945, it was discovered in the basement of a St. Louis funeral home.

One plausible scenario is that Luverna, who lived in Chicago, went to St. Louis and discovered that the corpse awaiting her there was not that of her ex-husband, but belonged to the man who’d been incarcerated at McNeil Island, so she left without it. The death in 1922 of the fake Francis Schlatter is as much a mystery as the death of the man he spent years impersonating.

Featured photos: Francis Schlatter, McNeil Island Federal Penitentiary. Collection of the National Archives at Seattle, Washington, record group 129.

Iron Foot

Iron Foot

He was a harmless-looking old man with a long white beard. He wore a big metal shoe on one foot due to a birth defect or injury that made one of his legs shorter than the other. Possibly he was a man of mixed race, but no one was really sure about that.

However there was no doubt about the fact that he could charm you with his non-stop patter, telling you how much he enjoyed playing cards, though he claimed he frequently lost at the games. Why not try a hand of euchre, poker or even bunco with him?

And so it would begin with the bunco man known as Iron Foot Johnson and his mark. The mark is about to lose a bundle, though he’s convinced of the inevitability of his success. And that, of course, is what a good con man does — he lulls his victim into the certainty  of easy money; then he goes in for the kill.

Iron Foot Johnson road the rails, primarily in the northwestern United States, playing rigged card games with suckers and cheating them out of their cash. He usually had a shill or two with him who helped bring the mark into the game by convincing him that old Iron Foot would be easily taken. His disability was a blessing because it made him seem vulnerable and easy. At the last minute, through some trickery or slight–of-hand, Iron Foot would end up with the winning hand, against all odds, and the mark’s money would quickly disappear into Iron Foot’s jacket.

In the situation described below, he was playing in a Montana saloon, but his modus operandi was same.

The crime for which he is at present in trouble is similar to those which the police say he has been engaged in for a long time. The stealing is committed in a card game, and, although the trick is an old one it seldom fails of success, as the victim is led into the trap by the prospect of making money, even though it be acquired dishonestly.

The Evening Star, Washington D.C., February 14, 1890

In his youth, Iron Foot tried to cheat the government out of an enormous sum of money concerning “illegal Alabama claims.” The affair was exposed when an accomplice and Johnson got into an argument that ended with Johnson assaulting his accomplice; the incensed accomplice tipped off authorities about the plan.

James McCormick_marked

James McCormick, carte de visite mugshot showing front and back of the card. Collection of the author.

Iron Foot’s rogues’ gallery photograph, a carte-de-visite, was taken in May of 1898 when he was working with fellow bunco man James McCormick, alias Howard. The two were arrested in Mankato, Minnesota, for buncoing an “aged stranger out of $100.” The disposition of the case was not reported.

Iron Foot Johnson, whose real name was either George A. Wright or Charles Johnson, was criminally active until at least 1904 when it was reported by the Cincinnati Enquirer that another expert card shark, Robert Murphy, was “mugged” (confused) with Johnson. Murphy had been cheating people who were riding on the train to the World’s Fair in St. Louis.

Featured image: “Iron Foot” Johnson, carte de visite mugshot (front and back). Collection of the author.