Living La Belle Vie

Living La Belle Vie

At Paris on Wednesday M. Bordeaux, the examining magistrate, committed the defaulting bank clerk Gallay, the woman Merelli, and the man Lerendu for trial before the Assize Court. Gallay will be indicted for forgery and embezzlement and the woman Merelli for complicity in the two forgeries alleged to have been committed by Gallay, which enabled him to embezzle the sum of 350,000 francs. Merelli is also accused of receiving stolen property. The man Lerendu will be indicted for having received 15,000 francs, remitted by Gallay on the promise that he would assist in committing the forgeries.

The Guardian (London, England), December 1, 1905

With her high starched collar and prim lace shawl over a plain gingham dress she looks every bit like a sweet country girl. Her apparent lack of makeup and nascent unibrow complete the wholesome picture.

[Album of Paris Crime Scenes]

He looks like a dapper professor or businessman, with his pince-nez, dark suit coat and staid plaid vest. Only his handlebar mustache hints at a wilder side to his personality.

Don’t believe your eyes because Jean Gallay, the man in the photo, was a brazen thief who stole an enormous sum of money from the bank where he worked. The woman, Valentine Merelli, was his mistress who aided him in concealing the thefts and fled with him to Brazil. Both were married to other people when they met and fell in love (at least he fell for her). The pair sailed off into the sunset aboard a luxurious yacht, guzzling champagne all the way.

Jean was a well-educated man who spoke German and English in addition to his native French. He’d worked for the Paris police prior to taking a job as a bank clerk at the Comptoir d’escompte de Paris, where he realized the record keeping system at the bank had some loopholes ripe for exploitation.

In 1904 he began to transfer small sums of money belonging to the bank’s clients to the bank’s branch offices. Next he withdrew the money using documents he’d forged. When he wasn’t caught he increased the amounts he stole.

He moved his family to the country and adopted a false persona — he became the Baron de Gravald, a wealthy, unmarried man about town. Wearing an old straw hat and tired coat to his clerk’s job during the day, he transformed himself in the evenings with a fashionable dinner coat, tailored shirt and diamond-studded platinum cuff links. A silk top hat and monocle completed the Baron’s aristocratic look.

On one evening out on the town the Baron met Valentine Merelli and fell head over heels for her.

Valentine Darbour was a convent-educated girl from the countryside. She got married young to a printer named Sohet but soon tired of her monotonous, middle-class life, so she left her husband, took some of her dowry cash and moved to Paris. She adopted the stage name “Valentine Merelli” and tried to develop a stage career but she had no talent for acting or singing. Soon her money ran out and she was forced to search for a man to support her — ideally a rich one.

Jean seemed to be the answer to Valentine’s prayers. He set her up in an apartment in the Rue Gustave Flaubert. To finance their stays in expensive hotels, meals in the best restaurants and trips to the opera he embezzled ever-larger sums of money from the bank. He knew that the thefts would be discovered eventually, so he asked a fellow employee, Lerendu, to help him cover up the losses in the books.

As the summer of 1905 unfolded, Jean knew that the day of reckoning, when the bank uncovered his fraud, was drawing near. He and his ladylove needed to get out of Paris and run as far away from Europe as it was possible to go. Knowing they would likely be caught if they went by rail they hatched a plan to travel by boat to Brazil.

With the $200,000 (over $5,500,000 in today’s dollars) that remained of the stolen loot, they traveled to Le Havre, a port city in northwestern France. There Jean chartered a British steam yacht, Catarina, for three months and hired a crew of 20 men, along with a physician and a maid, Marie Audot, for Valentine.

[Album of Paris Crime Scenes]

The couple outfitted themselves for the voyage with 28 hats, 37 evening dresses, 40 suits, 50 pairs of knickers, 40 pairs of shoes, 22 corsets and many boxes of champagne and liquors. It took 86 bags and trunks to hold it all. Valentine directed the loading of the booty onto the yacht. For three days before Catarina set sail the crew was not allowed to go on shore and an aura of mystery surrounded the plans for the voyage.

On August 3rd the couple’s luxuriously appointed dreamboat left for the coastal city of Bahia in Brazil.

Meanwhile back in Paris the bank finally looked over its books, discovered the missing funds and tied the theft to their absent employee. They notified the police and provided them with a photograph of the unassuming clerk.

The detective in charge of the case figured the couple would try to escape by boat. He tracked Jean and his mistress to Le Havre, where he showed Jean’s photo to the yacht rental companies in town. He soon discovered which yacht Jean hired, but the boat had already left port. He got the yacht’s itinerary and alerted the Bahia police to keep a watch for her at the port. To guarantee that there was no confusion he provided the police in Brazil with a photo of Jean.

When Catarina made port in Bahia, the police went aboard and arrested Jean, Valentine and Marie. They were extradited, under guard, back to France. The boat’s crew was reportedly quite unhappy because, with champagne flowing every evening and the baron handing out cigars to all and sundry, they’d never enjoyed a trip more.

Jean was convicted and served part of his seven-year sentence at Devil’s Island, an infamous French penal colony in Guiana that was, ironically, located just north of Brazil. “They are taking me away from France but the hope of returning again will sustain me,” he commented before he left. He got his wish when he was transferred to Melun Prison in France. He was released in 1912 after serving five years.

Valentine1

Since Jean had started embezzling money before he met Valentine, the jury gave her the benefit of the doubt and decided that she was unaware of how he’d obtained his wealth. They acquitted her of the charges but her husband divorced her.

After her trial ended she had a brief fling with the kind of fame she’d previously longed for when she was photographed for a series of postcards. When people realized that she was no great beauty and that she still couldn’t sing, her star plummeted and she faded from the limelight.

The maid, Marie, wasn’t charged with any crime. She sold her story to the press.

Jean and Valentine’s mugshots, along with those of the maid and Jean’s co-worker, Lerendu, were collected by the father of the modern mugshot, Alphonse Bertillon, in an album of Paris Crime Scenes compiled during the early 20th century. The album, which includes some gruesome photos of Parisian murder victims, was donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City in 2001. “Made as part of an archive rather than as art, these postmortem portraits, recorded in the deadpan style of a police report, nonetheless retain an unsettling potency,” notes the Met’s catalog.

Featured photo: “La Merelli,” mugshot taken October 9, 1905. Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The Trouble with Harry

The Trouble with Harry

Harry Vining, alias Edward Brooks, 19 years old, of 1 Harvard ct., Brookline, was arrested last evening by Inspectors Pierce and McGarr last evening on the charge of uttering forged checks. He was held on a warrant issued by the lower court, but the police have also an indictment warrant containing two similar counts. It is said he is also wanted in Brookline.

— The Boston Daily Globe, December 26, 1905

It didn’t make for happy family holidays when Harry Lewis Vining was charged with three counts of check fraud the day after Christmas in 1905. Despite his youth, Harry had managed to pull off “numerous forgeries” of checks for almost a year, until he was finally caught in mid-December. He forged the signatures of a variety of real people on the checks and each check was made out to one of his aliases. Oddly, all the checks were for the same dollar amount — $29.

Harry was the younger of two children born to a Civil War veteran from Maine, John Q. A. Vining, and his wife, Julia Merrey Vining. John Vining worked as a carpenter and moved his family from Maine to Massachusetts by 1886, the year Harry was born. John and Julia were in their late forties when their only son entered the world. Bernice Snow, Harry’s sister, was almost 20 years older than her brother and had been a widow for seven years when her brother’s legal woes began.

Harry’s mother and sister showed up in court at his sentencing and turned on the water works — big time. Their show of emotion, along with the family’s “character and respectability” and the defendant’s boyish charm, softened the judge’s resolve. “Vining, my first intention was to send you to state prison, but I do not think you fully realize what you have done,” said Judge DeCourcy. Instead he sent Harry to the Concord Reformatory with a warning: if he got arrested again he would cool his heels in a Massachusetts state prison for a very long time. This explains why, when Harry got up to his little tricks again, he was in California — about as far from Massachusetts as someone could go in the United States.

Bimini_Hot_Springs,_Los_Angeles,_Cal._(cropped)

Bimini Bath House, circa 1920. William H. Hannon Library.

On November 29, 1907 Harry strolled into the Bimini Baths, just west of downtown Los Angeles. He claimed to be an officer of the law and wore a deputy sheriff’s star to prove it. He removed his clothing, put on a bathing suit and headed off for a pleasant soak in the warm waters of the natural hot springs that supplied the popular bathing resort.

Harry 1907 prison

Folsom Prison Inmate photographs, California State Archives.

When Harry left the baths — clean, refreshed and relaxed — he couldn’t find his clothes anywhere. That was because J. N. Gunnett, the bathhouse watchman, recognized Harry when he came in. After Harry went into the baths Gunnett collected his clothes, locked them up and called the police.

Not only was Harry’s deputy’s star fake, he’d passed a bad check at the Bimini several weeks earlier, so Gunnett was ordered to keep a sharp eye out for him.

The officers arrested him and gave him his clothes back so he could get dressed, then they took him to jail. The Los Angeles Police knew him as “William Howard” and wanted him for passing 15-20 forged checks, some of which he’d tendered as payment at local saloons.

This time when Harry showed up in court, his female relatives were not in attendance sobbing their eyes out. He received a three-year prison sentence to Folsom State Prison, northeast of Sacramento. Officials did not know Harry’s real name at this point so he was sent to prison as “William Howard.” He claimed to work as a set painter for the theater — his occupation in the prison register was “scenic artist.”

After Harry was released from Folsom, on April 19, 1910, he wisely left Los Angeles and headed north to San Francisco. In September he “kited” a bogus check there to pay for groceries and he wasn’t caught until the following February. When he pleaded guilty to that crime he falsely claimed to be the son of Edward Payson Vining, the former Freight Traffic Manager for the Union Pacific Railway Company. Vining was also from Massachusetts and he was a well-known author. Though they shared a surname, his family was no relation to Harry’s family. If Harry thought this would cause the judge to give him a lighter sentence, he was mistaken.

Harry L. Vining in stripes_marked

Harry Vining in Folsom stripes. Collection of the author.

At this point officials knew his true name and that he had a previous record. His sentence was harsh — Harry got another five years at Folsom. Four aliases were also listed in the prison register for him — William Crawford, William Howland, William Howard and William Madison. Prison officials wanted to make sure they’d know him if he were arrested again under one of his aliases. He served three years and seven months and was discharged on September 25, 1914.

After Harry was freed from Folsom he moved to Eureka, California, where he married a woman named Beulah and worked as mechanic and “car operator” according to the 1917 city directory.

The film business, which got established in California around 1919, with its glamour and “get rich quick” mentality, might have drawn Harry back to the southern end of the state, perhaps to try his hand as a scenic artist for films.

It’s likely Harry died in Los Angeles in 1933 and was buried in the Hollywood Forever Cemetery — it sounds like a place he’d want to be buried. However absolute proof that it’s “my” Harry in that grave eludes me.

Note: I am indebted to my vintage photography collector friends, Ron and Fawn, for connecting me with three of the mugshots of Harry L. Vining that appear in this post. The photos inspired me to find out more about Harry’s life and crimes, and they’re a bit of a mystery themselves. Fawn discovered them in a Michigan antique mall, where they were displayed together in a frame. (Strange — why frame mugshots?) It appears that they were cut from an official Folsom prisoner photo album and repasted into another photo album, then later cut out of the album and framed.

Featured photos: Harry L. Vining’s mugshots from his 1911 incarceration at Folsom State Prison. Collection of the author.

Finding Beverly

Finding Beverly

Five members of a ring alleged to have passed at least $200,000 in stolen forged checks in the last two years were in custody Friday while a sixth person was sought.

Chicago Tribune, August 20, 1960

A gang of forgers from the south side of Chicago worked a lucrative check fraud for a couple of years, beginning in 1958. First they stole blank checks from small businesses, mostly gas stations. Next they stole customer information file cards from chain stores, such as Sears and Woolworth’s, made copies of the cards and returned them the same day. Then the blank checks were filled in with the customer information from the stolen cards and cashed at the chain stores and currency exchanges in the suburbs west of the city.

It worked because store managers didn’t necessarily require I.D. to cash checks for regular customers and there were no computers to verify credentials. But it took nerve and some acting skills.

the forgery gang

The gang consisted of a Patrick “Black Pat” Iannino, a chaffeur, and his girlfriend, Salline Carroll, a dancer, along with Frank Simmons, John Sellinger, Robert McAffee and Beverly Drake. All were described in the newspapers as narcotics addicts. In addition to feeding their drug habits they used the money they stole “living it up, wearing silk suits, driving large cars, etc.” according to one news account.

Paul NeweyTheir lavish lifestyle aroused the suspicions of Paul Newey. Paul, the son of Assyrian immigrants to the United States, was born in 1914 in Minneapolis. He earned a law degree and then applied to work for the FBI, but they wouldn’t hire him due to his “ethnic appearance.” Instead Paul went to work for the Cook County State’s Attorney in 1957. “He was the most persistent investigator I’ve ever known,” said former Chicago Daily News criminal courts reporter Ed Baumann. “He was like a bulldog; he didn’t give up. He pursued things even when he didn’t have to.”

As the summer of 1960 waned, Paul and his team kept the gang under surveilance. “It’s unusual for narcotics addicts to have that kind of money,” he said, “so we started watching them on the assumption they were peddling dope. It was only last week when we made the arrests that we discovered the true source of their income.”

The five gang members Paul’s team arrested — Pat, Salline, Frank, John and Robert — signed statements admitting their guilt in the thefts.

Beverly Drake was the one that got away, or at least she was the one Paul couldn’t locate in August 1960. I can’t say for certain that her mugshot is from her arrest for the check forgery scam, because if she was eventually caught it wasn’t reported in the newspapers. There’s no information on the back of the photo other than her name and F/W/. However the photo is from that time frame and it came from a group of mugshots taken in Chicago.

With her short platinum blond hair and pretty features Beverly looks to me like the doppelgänger of actress Shelley Winters. Whereas Shelley usually played an edgy dame whose mouth got her into trouble, Beverly looks clean cut, trustworthy and only mildly annoyed to have her mugshot taken. It seems plausible that honest-looking Beverly was the gang member who did most of check cashing. Was she a “dope addict?” Only the slight circles under her eyes hint at a darker side to her life.

I don’t know if Paul Newey, who died in 2001, ever found Beverly. I found her with the help of John Van Noate. John is a vintage photography collector and dealer and he picked up Beverly’s mugshot for me at a photo show I couldn’t attend. If you’re looking for interesting vintage photos for your collection you might want to get in touch with him.

Featured photo: Beverly Drake, undated mugshot. Collection of the author.

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.

Voullaire Sing Sing

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.

Alphonse Voullaire_back_marked

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.