Hard Truth and Hard Time

Hard Truth and Hard Time

When George Brown, who said he was a resident of New York state, pleaded guilty before Judge Jones last week to stealing the automobile of controller Paul J. Schmidt, he said he was never in trouble before, and was sentenced to three years in the county jail. The judge promised to be lenient with Brown if he told the truth. On investigation the judge learns that Brown was convicted of stealing an automobile in New York state and sentenced to five years in Auburn prison, and that he escaped from that institution. Brown was confronted with the proofs by Judge Jones today and informed that his sentence would be changed from the county jail to the penitentiary. He was convicted in New York state under the name of Irving Barber.

Pittston Gazette (Pittston, Pennsylvania), February 15, 1922

Irving Barber_back_markedHis first mistake was to steal the Ford Touring car of the newly elected Controller of Luzerne County. His second mistake was to lie to the judge about his criminal past. The mistakes compounded to send Irving Barber, alias George Brown, a 26-year-old apprentice carpenter, to the Eastern State Penitentiary for his third prison stretch on February 21, 1922.

Ultimately Irving admitted to the judge that he’d stolen five automobiles, various license plates and a bankbook. And he confessed to forging checks. It also came to light that he’d recently escaped from Auburn prison, where he’d been serving a five-year term for grand larceny. As a teenager he’d been an inmate of the Elmira Reformatory in New York.

Eastern State, or ESP, the prison in Philadelphia that Irving would call home for the next five to ten years was one of the oldest and most well known in the United States. ESP opened in 1829 and was designed around the Quaker idea of the “separate system” in which prisoners spent their days and nights in isolation to silently reflect upon the crimes they had committed. By contrast, Auburn, the New York prison from which Irving escaped, functioned under a system (aptly named the “Auburn system”) that forced prisoners to work together in silence, move in lockstep and avert their eyes from other prisoners and guards. Unlike at ESP, inmates who broke the rules in the Auburn system received harsh physical punishment.

Due to overcrowding the solitary system was abandoned at ESP in 1913 and from then on brutality towards inmates became the preferred method of control. Guards doused unruly prisoners with freezing water during the winter, strapped them into tight restraints for long periods of time and subjected the most intractable prisoners to prolonged periods of solitary confinement in a dark, underground pit with little food. If Irving didn’t cooperate he might have experienced some of those punishments.

ESP mugbook

Eastern State Penitentiary mug book page. Collection of ESP

Mugshots taken at ESP from the early 20th century to the late 1920s are easy to spot because in the side view the prisoner’s head is always held with a large clamp and the prisoner number, stamped on a tablet with rounded edges, hangs from the prisoner’s collar from an S-shaped wire.

Irving became ESP prisoner # C-1367 and he looks to have been stoic about his fate. It’s likely he realized that, unlike at Auburn, escape was unlikely. Assuming he served his maximum sentence of ten years, Irving might have crossed paths with Al Capone, who briefly entered ESP in 1929 as prisoner #C-3327. The celebrity prisoner got a nice cushy cell complete with oriental rugs and a radio, but Irving’s cell would have been one of the more usual kinds.

a-standard-cell

Modern photo of a cell at ESP

Irving made Pennsylvania his permanent home after he was released from prison. Under his alias — George Brown — he went straight, got married and raised a family. He died of a stroke in 1960.

ESP closed in 1971, however if you want to vicariously experience the sensation of being imprisoned there, it’s open for tours.

Featured photos: 1922 ESP prisoner card of Irving Barber. Collection of the author.

Alias Dorsey Doyle

Alias Dorsey Doyle

When a federal census worker counted his family in 1880, George J. Doyle was just one of the thousands of children of Irish immigrants living in the poverty-stricken Five Points section of lower Manhattan. Along with his father and four siblings, George lived in a tenement at 86 Mulberry Street that housed 19 families — 68 souls total — all of them with Irish roots. The building would have had six or seven apartments, no indoor plumbing and was less than a block from Mulberry Bend — one of the most dangerous areas in the slum-infested Five Points. In 1880 George, who was soon to be known by the nickname “Dorsey,” was 14. He and his younger sister, Katie, were still in school while the rest of the family worked at low-paying jobs.

By 1880 Dorsey Doyle was likely already sharpening his skills as a pickpocket and readying himself for life as a gang member and career criminal.

Dorsey Doyle prison record

Description of George J. “Dorsey” Doyle, New York Sing Sing Prison Admission Register. New York State Archives; Albany, New York; Box 8; Vol. 23.

In 1887, when he was 21, Dorsey pleaded guilty to robbing a man of his watch and chain on the Manhattan side of the Brooklyn Bridge. He was sentenced to two years and three months in Sing Sing Prison. The prison entry for him lists six scars — most of them on his face, a testament to a life of violence despite his youth. Sing Sing was known for whippings, solitary confinement, poor rations and mandating total silence from its inmates. Education and rehabilitation for prisoners was decades in the future and many tried to escape, attempted suicide or went insane. Dorsey survived his stint there and emerged from Sing Sing a full-blown, hardened criminal.

Dorsey was a member of the Whyos, a gang of Five Points Irish mobsters that hit its peak in the late 1870s and 1880s. While earlier New York criminal gangs spent much of their time fighting each other, the Whyos had a more entrepreneurial focus to their activities. They were, of course, involved in general thuggery, but they added extortion, prostitution and murder for hire to their menu of criminal activities. The Whyos were described to have a price list for the criminal services they offered, ranging from $1 (punching) to $100 and up for “doing the big job” (aka murder). By 1888, four of the Whyos members had been convicted of murder and hanged at the Tombs jail in lower Manhattan.

After his release from Sing Sing, Dorsey branched out from New York City. In 1893 he earned a three-year stay for grand larceny at the infamous Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia. (Al Capone did a year there in 1929.) By 1895 Dorsey’s flourishing career earned him spot #521 in the second edition of Chief Inspector Thomas Byrnes’ book, Professional Criminals of America. Byrnes described Dorsey as “well known throughout the eastern country, as he follows the races, fairs, etc.”

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Dorsey Doyle, May 1887; Professional Criminals Of America (1895) by Thomas Byrnes.

After an unsuccessful attempt at robbing a passenger of a gold watch and chain on a Broadway cable car in New York City in 1898, (Dorsey shot at a pursuing policeman and the cop eventually caught him) he received his second sojourn at Sing Sing. Shortly after his release from prison, he and three other men were observed trying to pick pockets on an electric car in Manhattan. A mad chase by police ensued, during which he jumped off the moving car and was the only man captured. He was convicted of attempted grand larceny and sentenced to Sing Sing for the third time!

At the turn of the twentieth century, with his Whyos pals dead or in prison, and with a face that was well known to the New York police, Dorsey moved west. In 1908 he and a colleague were arrested for lifting a diamond stud off a man who was boarding a train in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. He was arrested a few years later in Pittsburgh. At that time a newspaper described him as “John Dempsey, alias Dorsey Doyle, aged 50, of Toledo.” He was one of a “mob” of clever pickpockets, all of them younger men.

Fifty is ancient for a pickpocket, a skill necessitating quick reactions, nimble fingers and fast feet. Dorsey didn’t appear in the news after his Pittsburgh arrest, so he perhaps he retired from crime and led a quiet, law-abiding life in Ohio. The days of the Irish gangs of New York were long gone, and no one, not even a notorious criminal, wanted to risk a fourth stretch in Sing Sing.

Featured photo: Dorsey Doyle, carte de visite mugshot, by John Rosch , circa 1892. Collection of the author.