Trenton Al

Trenton Al

He was known as “Trenton Al”, “French Al” and “Albert St. Claire.” His real name was Francis Alphonse Voullaire. His crimes were mostly of the white-collar variety — embezzlement, bribery, forgery, passing worthless checks — Al didn’t like to get his hands dirty. Held as prisoner #209 by the Jersey City Police, his measurements and mugshots were taken on October 5, 1901. Though he was five feet eight inches tall, his derby hat, worn high on his head, made him look taller.

The youngest son of a wealthy family, Al was born in 1863 in St. Louis, Missouri. His father, Seymour Voullaire, was a successful criminal attorney. However wealth does not necessarily buy happiness and his parents’ marriage was extraordinarily stormy. His mother, Ann Catherine — known as “Kitty” — was said to be very appealing to the opposite sex; at any rate she took a lot of lovers. After trying to kill one of Kitty’s lovers in a pistol duel — in which he was injured — Seymour had enough. Despite being Catholic, in 1867 he and Kitty divorced. While Al was still a child, another of his mother’s lovers murdered her second husband in an effort to secure the lady for himself. (The man was convicted of the crime and sentenced to death).

One would think that was enough drama for a lifetime, but no! In 1883 another lover of Kitty’s, Horace Shepard, suffering from depression and remorse over his relationship with Kitty, murdered her and then turned the gun on himself. It was quite a scandal — the two lovers were found in dead in bed in their fashionable New York City rooms. He left a note saying they would be “happier in death.”

Al married young and, unlike his parents, he stayed married. His wife, Annie, raised their six children while he cheated on her with a series of floozies, some of whom were involved in his illegal exploits.

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Sing Sing Prison Admission Register for Alphonse Voullaire. New York State Archives.

He was well educated and had honest employment, often as a bookkeeper or clerk, but Al’s penchant for criminal activities inevitably got him into trouble. A forgery conviction in 1892 landed him in Sing Sing Prison for two years. Following his release from prison, he was arrested for writing bad checks. Then he compounded the problem by trying to bribe officials to get out of jail.

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Bertillon Card of Alphonse Voullaire (back). Collection of the author.

In 1902, claiming to be a major player in New York City criminal circles, Al persuaded a New York Herald newspaper reporter to help him to pull off some robberies and sell the proceeds to fences. The idea was that they would bribe NYPD detectives to look the other way, proving the detectives’ complicity in the crimes. The reporter would get a great story and Al would get some of the loot. The plan backfired when detectives (possibly tipped-off by the paper) arrested Al and his reporter colleague instead of taking bribes. The absence of listings for him in city directories between 1902 and 1908 may indicate Al served another stint in prison for the Herald debacle.

After 1908 Al went by his given name — Francis — and worked as a self-employed “traffic expert” in New Jersey, where he lived with his long-suffering wife and children. It’s hard to say what a traffic expert did back then and it’s impossible to know if “Trenton Al,” whose life certainly started out badly, left the bad life completely behind.

Featured image: Bertillon Card of Alphonse Voullaire (front). Collection of the author.

Nemo Takes his Poison

Nemo Takes his Poison

A few days before Christmas 1898 a young man wandered into the Greenville Police Station in Jersey City, New Jersey. Though he was sober and appeared to be in his right mind, he told the officers that he could not remember his name or anything about his past. For the time being he was kept at the jail and his description was placed in local newspapers, including those in New York City, in the expectation that someone would read about him and come forward to identify him. Until his name could be established he was dubbed “Mr. Nemo.”

The chief of the Jersey City police made efforts to assist the young fellow by dictating letters for him to write in hopes that he would recall his name when he got to the end and signed the letter. Mr. Nemo came up with a few names but, upon investigation, none of them turned out to be him.

Meanwhile, the roommate of a man named Harold Carpenter had gone missing. Quite a lot of Harold’s clothing was missing too, including several overcoats that he really couldn’t be without since the weather was getting chilly. Harold, the steward of a yacht owned by a wealthy lawyer, lived at Mills House No. 1, an inexpensive residential hotel for working men in New York City’s Greenwich Village. Mills House No. 1 opened in 1897 and was the brainchild of architect Ernest Flagg and philanthropist Darius Ogden Mills. The aim was to empower the residents and discourage them from getting involved in “undesirable” (i.e. criminal) activity.

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“Evening in one of the courts in the Mills House, no. 1.” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1902.

Harold read the description of Mr. Nemo in the paper. It sounded quite a lot like his missing roommate, Harry Litchfield. In fact he sounded so much like Harry that Harold went to Jersey City to inquire about Mr. Nemo, who had been moved from the police station to the hospital.

When confronted with Harold, Mr. Nemo claimed he had never seen him before, but Harold recognized him — he was his missing roommate, Harry Litchfield. The police chief had accompanied Harold to the hospital and he used a new-fangled device called a telephone to speak to someone at Mills House and get a description of Harold’s roommate. Harry’s description matched Mr. Nemo ‘to a T!’

The jig was up. Harry fell to the floor, writhed around as if in an epileptic seizure. Once the writhing stopped he looked up and said “Why hello Harold! What are you doing here?” Harry’s memory had miraculously returned! Harold replied that he was there to get his clothing back.

The mystery of why Harry, after stealing his roommate’s clothing, had appeared at a New Jersey police station claiming to have lost his memory was never solved. It’s possible he wanted to try out his skills as a con man.

An investigation of Harry revealed that the clothing theft was not his first foray crime. He’d stolen a watch in Boston a month earlier, but his lawyer had taken an interest in him and managed to get him a suspended sentence. However that was not all Harry had done.

The previous year he had worked as the bookkeeper and temporary treasurer for a Boston auction company. One of his duties was to attend auctions and handle the cash paid in when the auction was over. In September 1897 one of the auctions Harry worked made $1000. He took put the money in a bag, took it to the office, place the bag in the vault and then told his employers he needed to go out for a breath of fresh air. However the money was not in the bag—it was hidden in his coat and he walked out with it.

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Hotel Touraine main dining room in Boston, Massachusetts. The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1899.

He proceeded to the luxurious Hotel Touraine, booked a room and began entertaining friends. He entertained many, many friends, including a number of stylishly dressed young ladies. One evening Harry and his friends ran up a bill of over $100 in the hotel’s dining room. Harry tried to pay with a check which the manager, who had become suspicious, refused to accept. The police were called and Harry was arrested, identified, and then tried and convicted of embezzlement. He served nine months in the Concord Reformatory in Massachusetts.

Harry was philosophical about life and crime. Regarding his embezzlement arrest, he commented: “A man’s an idiot to work for $12 for a week and be held responsible for thousands. The man who employs such a man is a bigger idiot. I took the stuff, took my chances, was caught red-handed, and here I am. I have had my fun, and I will take my dose of poison without a murmur.”

Featured photo: Harry A. Litchfield, carte de visite mugshot taken Sept. 27, 1897 in Boston, Massachusetts. Collection of the author.