The Counterfeiting Couple

The Counterfeiting Couple

Counterfeiting is a serious crime in America, but it’s nowhere near the problem it was in the nineteenth century. According to the National Archives, in the years after the Civil War, between one-third and one-half of all currency that changed hands in the United States was counterfeit. That’s an astonishing statistic! Imagine how you’d feel if there were a 50% chance you’d be given fake money in your change when you went shopping.

The United States Secret Service was born out of the need for a federal law enforcement agency to combat this rampant counterfeiting. Andrew L. Drummond was an early Secret Service detective who later became an author. One of the stories in his 1909 book, “True Detective Stories,” was about his arrest of a counterfeiter named Cooper Wiltsey:

A big powerful man, he had about as wicked eyes as I ever saw in any human being. Men generally hated him. Such women as he met invariably liked him. He was about fifty years old, but the sprinkling of gray in his hair did not handicap him. Always there was some woman to be found who would swear that Cooper Wiltsey was all right.

Drummond sounds a little envious of Wiltsey’s success with the ladies, doesn’t he?

At any rate, in 1878 Drummond got word that Wiltsey was running a counterfeiting operation out of a house in Philadelphia. He worked with the local police to investigate and they located the house where they believed Wiltsey was making counterfeit coins in a room on the second floor. He gave a dramatic description in his book of the scene that unfolded the night the couple was arrested:

As I burst into the room my eye quickly caught two figures—that of a woman standing as if she were cast in bronze and that of Wiltsey leaping at me with a fifteen inch stiletto-like carving knife clasped in his hand. I leveled my revolver at his head and told him to stop or I would kill him. He stopped. As I called, Wiltsey’s eyes shifted from me to the head of the stairs.

Wiltsey book

Thinking he had the situation under control, Drummond foolishly put his gun in his pocket and grabbed Wiltsey’s wrist. But Wiltsey refused to give up the knife and tried to cut Drummond’s fingers with it. Fortunately for the detective, his police back up appeared at that moment with their guns drawn. Wiltsey dropped the knife.

Wiltsey and his partner, Sarah Page, were in the process of melting a mixture of tin and antimony and pouring it into molds when they were arrrested. After the metal cooled and was removed from the molds, they planned to use an electric battery to add a thin layer of silver-plating to the fake coins. One silver dollar had enough silver in it to plate five hundred of the coins. Each “dollar” would be sold for between 25 and 35 cents.

Wiltsey was convicted of counterfeiting. Page was acquitted.

The Times of Philadelphia claimed that Sarah Page was Wiltsey’s mistress. But based on genealogical records, it seems more likely that she was his wife.

Cooper Wiltsey was born in New Jersey in 1833. In 1853 he and his wife Sarah had their first child, Benjamin. By 1864 they’d added another five children to their family. Wiltsey served in the 24th New Jersey Infantry during Civil War, achieving the rank of 2nd lieutenant.

The big surprise is that Wiltsey, the future counterfeiter, was employed as a constable in Gloucester City in 1870.

In 1882 Sarah listed herself as “widow of Cooper” in the Camden City Directory, but this was a little face-saving fib. Her husband was still alive and serving his sentence at the New Jersey State Prison in Trenton. By 1885 Wiltsey was back at home with Sarah and the kids, according to the New Jersey State Census. By 1891 he had his own restaurant in Gloucester City.

Sarah Wiltsey died in 1902. Cooper passed away “after a lingering illness” in May 1904. Both are buried in Gloucester City’s Cedar Grove Cemetery.

The perplexing question is why the Wiltseys, who appeared to be upstanding citizens, decided to become counterfeiters. Possibly enforcing the law somehow enticed Wiltsey into breaking it. As to his great success with the ladies, it seems that Drummond took some artistic license with his story, because Wiltsey seems to have been more of a family man than a Casanova.

Featured photos: Sarah Page, CDV mugshot from the National Archives Collection and Cooper Wiltsey, photo from the Vancouver Daily World, December 26, 1908

Moll Buzzing

Moll Buzzing

A lady slipped on the pavement in a street in Philadelphia and was aided to arise by a very polite gentleman. She thanked him kindly and was struck by his handsome eyes, which haunted her until she missed her pocket-book and discovered through the police that a noted pickpocket known as “Baltimore Pat” was their owner, and that his attentions were part of his daily duty of “buzzing.”

The Wilmington Daily Herald (Wilmington, North Carolina), January 31, 1860

Imagine her embarrassment, not to mention discomfort, when she lost her footing and fell to the ground on a busy city street. Like every well-off woman in 1860, she wore a tight corset and an unwieldy hoop skirt. How did she get up without entirely losing her dignity?

Godey-april-1861

1861 day dresses, Godey’s Lady’s Book

Her tears were on the verge of overflowing when a young man came to her rescue. He leaned down and offered her his arm. She gratefully accepted and he easily pulled her to her feet. He smiled at her and asked if she was all right. With a blush she answered that she was fine. He nodded his hat, wished her a good day and vanished into the crowded street. She brushed off her skirts, reinstated her dignity and continued to her destination.

She arrived at the shop and selected an item to purchase but she couldn’t find her purse anywhere. Embarrassed, she left and went to the police station where she reported that her purse had been stolen. The police told her that she’d been “moll-buzzed” and showed her some photos in their rogues’ gallery. Suddenly it dawned on her why the striking-looking man had been so helpful. She pointed to a photo labeled “John William, alias Baltimore Pat.”

Pickpockets who specialized in preying on women were called “moll-buzzers.” Baltimore Pat’s good looks no doubt helped him professionally. Numerous articles describing his thievery and arrests appeared in newspapers between 1857 and 1862.

John Williams aka Baltimore Pat arrested as pickpocket - Newspap

— The Daily Exchange, Baltimore, Maryland, April 4, 1860

If a female victim was not available he was willing to prey on men. One Saturday night in 1862 he picked the pocket of a Baltimore merchant, B. J. Sutton, to the tune of $1,240 ($30,956 in 2018).

The arrests didn’t slow him down. He worked on trains and streetcars — a pickpocket’s paradise — where people were crowded together affording plentiful opportunity for stealthy theft. Allan Pinkerton warned about moll-buzzers in his 1884 book Thirty Years a Detective.

The scene is an ordinary street car, and the seats are all occupied. The thief enters and at once takes up his position immediately in front of the lady, with one hand he grasps the strap hanging from the roof, and the other hand is seemingly thrust into his coat pocket. I say seemingly, for really the hand of the thief is thrust through his coat, the end of which is resting carelessly on the pocket of the lady. With the hand which is pushed through his coat, the thief quietly pulls up the edge of the overskirt worn by the lady, little by little, so he can reach the pocket…and then catching hold of the pocket-book, he draws it up and into his own pocket and then steps away.

His photograph ended up in a police rogues’ gallery, likely in Baltimore or Philadelphia. Whether it helped end his career as a pickpocket is a matter of conjecture.

Featured photo: “John William, al Baltimore Pat, Pick pocket” from Rogues, A Study of Characters by Samuel G. Szabó. Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

 

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.

The Prizefighter’s Wife

The Prizefighter’s Wife

A number of fur dealers who were robbed during the winter appeared at Central Station today in an effort to identify Mrs. Ethel Goodwin, divorced wife of Abe Attell, the former boxer, and five men who are under arrest on suspicion of having been concerned in thefts of furs worth $3,000,000.

The Evening Public Ledger (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), March 21, 1922

Police Lieutenant Carlin pounded on the door of a room at Philadelphia’s swanky Majestic Hotel. Ethel Attell, the room’s occupant, refused to open it. She claimed she was only wearing a negligee and that she needed to speak to her lawyer first. The lieutenant prevailed and the door swung open. Inside he found Ethel with a man named Frank Lewis. Both were suspected of being involved in a recent spate of fur robberies from wholesale fur dealers in the city. Frank put up a fight and was knocked out by the lieutenant.

Hotel-Majestic.5-Lobby

Ethel Goodwin_back_marked

In order to protect her identity she gave the police an alias, Ethel Goodwin. She was immediately unmasked and her real name, Ethel Attell, was published in news reports of her arrest. Reporters realized she was the ex-wife of “The Little Hebrew” Abe Attell, the retired prizefighter who’d recently been accused of fixing the 1919 World Series. Sporting a pearl necklace, fur coat and a hat covered in fake grapes, Ethel’s mugshots were snapped by the police.

She was suspected of providing stolen burglar alarm wiring diagrams for several wholesale fur companies to a gang of thieves. The police foiled the gang’s recent plans to rob an Arch Street fur warehouse. After their arrests they gave up Ethel’s name and address.

This was the second time in three months that Ethel had been in legal hot water. In December 1921 she and two male accomplices — small-time thugs with multiple aliases — were arrested on suspicion of stealing 1.5 million dollars worth of cancelled Liberty Bonds, chemically altering them to remove the cancellation marks and trying to resell them. Ethel was caught trying to pass one of the bonds at a Seventh Avenue deli in New York City. She claimed she’d paid $300 for the $500 bond, having bought it innocently from an actor friend who’d fallen on hard times. She also told police she was 27 years old when she was actually 37. A full opium kit was found in Ethel’s upper west side apartment after her arrest.

Elizabeth Egan and Abe Attell were childhood sweethearts. They were married in 1907, at the height of his boxing career, in Santa Ana, California. At some point shortly after her marriage, Elizabeth decided she preferred the rhyming cadence of “Ethel Attell,” so she changed her first name.

Abe and EthelAbe lost his featherweight title in 1912 and the marriage spiraled into quarrels over Ethel’s spending on clothes and jewelry and Abe’s losses at gambling. Fortunately the couple had no children, but the quarter million dollars Abe had made in the ring had all been squandered. A few days before Christmas in 1914, Ethel was forced to flee from her husband’s wrath. She left their Chicago hotel room half naked and all her jewelry remained behind. With the marriage in tatters, Ethel filed for divorce, charging cruelty. She demanded $200 monthly alimony from Abe’s earnings in vaudeville, a career path he’d switched to after his days as a pugilist ended. She also wanted her jewelry back. The divorce was finalized in 1915.

By 1922 Abe had emerged from a cloud of suspicion after charges against him related to the series fix — the Black Sox Scandal — were dropped due to insufficient evidence, though he almost certainly was involved. By the time Ethel was in legal trouble Abe was the co-owner of a shoe store, The Ming Toy Bootery, which specialized in novelty footwear for celebrities, located in Manhattan’s theater district.

Ethel either got lucky or she hired one of her ex-husband’s mobster lawyers. At any rate she wasn’t charged with wrongdoing in the Liberty Bond or the fur theft cases. She wisely kept a low profile after that. She died in 1966. True to form, her tombstone lopped eight years off her age.

Featured photos: Ethell Attell, 1922 mugshots. Collection of the author.

Two Chucks Make One

Two Chucks Make One

Pickpockets Arrested…The Mayor has also received information that two men, named John North, Jr., alias Smith, alias Musgrave, alias “Big Chucks,” and John Thompson, alias “Little Chucks,” professional pickpockets, were in the city, loitering and sleeping about the Neptune engine house. They were also arrested and committed thirty days each for vagrancy. On the person of “Little Chucks” was found a small memorandum book, in which he had a list of the county fairs in Ohio, where he proposed to follow his calling.

Pittsburgh Daily Post (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania), September 6, 1858

The arrest in Pittsburgh of two men dubbed with the “Chucks” moniker was reported as far away Washington, D.C., where they were described as “two noted Philadelphia pickpockets.” Evidently the men planned to visit county fairs in the mid west — fertile hunting grounds for prospective victims with full pocket books and distracted brains.

The following year John Keeley, better known as “Little Chucks” was arrested in Philadelphia after he was chased from a church building by a police officer. He was sent to jail for vagrancy and attempted pickpocketing. He was also accused of “riot and malicious mischief.” Less than two months later, Thomas W. North, also known as “Big Chucks,” was arrested in Baltimore, along with another man, for knocking down and robbing Gibson M. Nelson. Mr. Nelson subsequently died as a result of the injuries he sustained during the robbery.

John North, alias Keely, was arrested in March 1861, in Camden, New Jersey, for pickpocketing. Only a few days previously he had been released after a two year stay in Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary for the same offense. The news report about his release mentioned that he was also called “Little Chucks.”

Smart nineteenth century criminals kept police busy with a bewildering array of aliases and nicknames. “Big Chucks” was called John or Thomas North, or John Smith or John Musgrave. “Little Chucks” was known by the first name John and the surnames North, Thompson or Keeley. Several newspapers reported that “Big Chucks”and “Little Chucks” were two criminals who often worked together.

Were the Chucks actually two men, as the newspapers claimed? Photographic evidence argues for a different conclusion.

big chucks backCrudely scratched in the metal plate on the reverse of an ambrotype photograph from the St. Louis Rogues’ Gallery are the words “Big Chucks alias Daly.” The photo is undated but it was likely made around 1860. A photograph made by Samuel G. Szabó shows a man identified as “John McNauth alias Keely alias little Chucks Pick Pocket.” Szabó was a Hungarian photographer who traveled around America photographing rogues’ galleries in various police departments, including those in St. Louis, Philadelphia and Baltimore, between 1857 and 1861. His reasons for doing this are unknown, however he compiled an album of prints from his negatives. The album survived and was donated to The Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2005.

I’m convinced that the man wearing the fabulous top hat in the Met photo is the same man, shown hatless, in the St. Louis photo. It’s possible they were brothers who had remarkably similar hair and facial features but if so, it’s likely that detail would have been commented on in the news, but it wasn’t.

Why was it reported that “Big Chucks” and “Little Chucks” were two people? Like any accomplished criminal, he wanted to keep the police guessing about his identity. If they thought they were chasing not one man but two it was all the more confusing! So he varied his moniker and, when he worked with another pickpocket, suggested to the partner that he also use one of the “Chucks” sobriquets. As long as he wasn’t photographed, who would ever know?

Once police got his photograph and circulated it around, the game was up. This was precisely the reason rogues’ galleries were started in St. Louis and New York City and were soon in popular demand in other large American cities.

Who was he really? Based on most of his aliases he was probably Irish or the child of Irish immigrants, but we’ll never know for sure.

Featured photos: “Big Chucks,” Missouri History Museum, and “Little Chucks,” The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Cupid Pleaded

Cupid Pleaded

Joseph Kanefsky_back_markedPauline Wernovsky had been waiting a long time to marry her sweetheart. In fact she’d been waiting two and a half years for her fiancée, Joseph Kanefsky, to get out of Holmesburg Prison in Philadelphia and he’d finally been released after serving time for burglary. But on January 20, 1937, he and two prisoners and their girlfriends were charged with smuggling narcotics into the prison. Instead of marrying Pauline it looked like Kanefsky was headed back to the slammer.

Judge Parry, however, was sympathetic to Pauline plight. The persuasive young woman told him she would personally make sure her fiancée stayed straight, so he allowed Kanefsky to sign a $2000 bond, gave him two years probation and the couple were married before a magistrate then and there. As one newspaper put it, “Cupid pleaded successfully in Philadelphia Quarter Sessions Court for Joseph Kanefsky.”

The other four people arrested for dope smuggling were convicted of the charge.

Kanefsky, alias Joe Neff, has a self-assured look in his mugshot. His stylish hat is tipped at a rakish angle and his yellow-blue eyes have an intense gaze. He has just a hint of a smile playing on his lips. It’s as though he already knows that his pretty, dark-haired girlfriend is going to play the judge for a chump — his freedom to follow.

Two and a half years later, in September 1939, Pauline and Joe were in front of a different judge, charged with illegal possession and use of narcotics. They were arrested while sitting in an automobile parked on a Philadelphia street and detectives testified they found a hypodermic needle and morphine in the car. Having previously played Joe’s “get out of jail free” card, both were sentenced to the Philadelphia House of Correction.

In May 1944 Kanefsky was in trouble again when he was caught trying to use prescription blanks stolen from a South Philadelphia physician’s office to obtain narcotics. He was charged with forgery and drug addiction.

Joe’s final reported arrest came on September 21, 1951 in New York City.

The detectives said they had spent some time watching him stroll along Broadway looking for customers. They said that when he was arrested a man who was walking along with him escaped.

The Philadelphia Inquirer, September 22, 1951

Detectives found $329, a capsule of opium and 15 envelopes of heroin in Joseph Kanefsky’s pockets. He was charged him with possession and suspicion of selling illegal drugs.

Featured photo: Philadelphia Bureau of Police mugshot of Joseph Kanefsky taken on January 20, 1937. Collection of the author.