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.

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.

Alias Dorsey Doyle

Alias Dorsey Doyle

When a federal census worker counted his family in 1880, George J. Doyle lived with his widowed father, John, and four siblings in the poverty-stricken Five Points section of lower Manhattan. The Doyle family’s tenement, located at 86 Mulberry Street, housed 19 families, 68 souls total, all with Irish roots. The building probably 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. George, 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.

At the age of 14 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 a requirement of total silence from inmates. Rehabilitation for prisoners was decades in the future and many tried to escape, attempted suicide or went insane. Dorsey 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 most of their time fighting each other, the Whyos had the entrepreneurial spirit. Naturally they were involved in general thuggery, but they added extortion, prostitution and murder for hire to their menu of criminal activities. They were rumored to have a price list for the criminal services they supplied, ranging from $1 (punching) to $100 and up (“doing the big job”). 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 and, in 1893, earned a three-year stay for grand larceny at the infamous Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia. (Al Capone did a year at “ESP” in 1929.) By 1895 Dorsey’s flourishing career earned him spot #521 in Chief Inspector Thomas Byrnes new edition of his book, Professional Criminals of America. Byrnes described him 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, in 1898, at robbing a passenger of a gold watch and chain on a Broadway cable car in New York City (Dorsey shot at the policeman who eventually caught him) he received a second sojourn at Sing Sing. Shortly after his second release from Sing Sing, 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 was arrested with another man for lifting a diamond stud off a man boarding a train in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. When he was arrested in Pittsburgh in 1915, the 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 than Dorsey.

Fifty is ancient for a pickpocket — a skill necessitating quick reactions, nimble fingers and fast feet. Dorsey was never mentioned in the news after 1915, so he may have retired from crime and led a quiet, law-abiding life in Ohio. The days of the Irish gangs of New York were, after all, long gone, and no one, even a notorious criminal, wanted to risk a fourth stretch in Sing Sing.

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