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 pickpocketing 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.

 

The Death of Hannah Toppin

The Death of Hannah Toppin

Yesterday afternoon, Lieut. Spear, of the Tenth Police District, received an anonymous letter stating that the body of a young lady was lying in a house in Jefferson Street, below Second, and intimating that the death was caused by vio’ence.

Public Ledger (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), March 8, 1859

Hannah Jane Toppin’s body lay on a bed in a third floor room in Martha Hudson’s Philadelphia home. She suffered for days before finally dying on March 7, 1859 — her nineteenth birthday.

Martha knew Hannah’s death would not stay a secret for long. She packed her bags and was out the door of her Jefferson Street row house a few hours after the young girl took her last breath.

The following day Hannah’s father, Henry Toppin, went to the Hudson home after he heard a rumor that his missing daughter had died there. He identified the body as Hannah’s and the police were called. They arrested John Hudson but could not locate his wife.

Hannah was a first generation child of Irish immigrants. Her father worked as a weaver. Hannah and her three brothers attended school as youngsters, but once they reached their teen years they worked to help with the family finances.

Hannah worked in a hat store on Second Street where she met a mechanic named Robert Dunlap. They began spending time together and soon Hannah feared the worst — that she was enceinte. She hid her fears from her parents but confessed her worries to a cousin. Unable to keep the secret, the cousin soon spilled the beans to Hannah’s parents.

Henry and Jane Toppin informed their only daughter that they knew her secret. Hannah told them she had a plan to visit Mrs. Hudson’s herb shop, where she’d heard she could get a natural remedy to end her pregnancy.

Her parents forbade her to leave the house but two weeks later she was gone. She spent the next four weeks at Martha Hudson’s house.

Dr. S. P. Brown performed a postmortem exam on Hannah’s body. He testified at the inquest that the membrane around Hannah’s bowels had been perforated by an instrument and was “highly inflamed.” Her death was the result of peritonitis due to the perforation of her bowel. Jane Fletcher, a woman who lived with the Hudsons and who nursed Hannah before she died, testified that her death was slow and agonizing.

Dr. Brown also stated that Hannah was not pregnant when she died. Whether she’d had a miscarriage earlier or whether the pregnancy had been a false alarm was unknown, however Dr. Brown stated that, in his opinion, Hannah was mistaken in thinking she was pregnant.

The inquest verdict was that Martha Hudson caused Hannah’s death while trying to induce an abortion. John Hudson and Robert Dunlap were held as accessories before the fact. Martha, however, was still missing.

In late March a New York City policeman saw a woman leave a dry-goods store “laboring under great excitement.” He thought she might be a shoplifter so he followed her to a house on West Thirty-First Street and spoke to the man who rented her a room there. The man told the officer that her name was Mrs. Brown and that she was in “great disquietude due to family difficulties.” The officer told him to keep an eye on her and left. Later he read in a newspaper about the death of Hannah Toppin and the search for Martha Hudson. He thought “Mrs. Brown” might be Martha Hudson, so he returned to the house and spoke to her. She confessed to being the wanted woman.

Martha was returned to Philadelphia where she was held on a charge of murder in the second degree, meaning intentional murder without premeditation, but with malice aforethought.

At the trial Dr. D. S. Brown (not the Dr. Brown who performed the postmortem) testified that Martha called on him two days before Hannah died and begged him to come and see Hannah. At first he refused but eventually he agreed. Hannah told the doctor that Mrs. Hudson had operated on her because a drunken woman hit her in the stomach. She said Mrs. Hudson had been very kind to her. Dr. Brown testified that her condition seemed to have improved when he saw her the next morning. The following night she died.

Martha’s attorney presented no defense. She was convicted of second-degree murder on May 3, 1859. She was sentenced to seven years imprisonment in the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia.

Featured photo: “Mrs. Hudson, Abortionist” from Rogues, A Study of Characters by Samuel G. Szabó. Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The Lady Swindles

The Lady Swindles

Mme. La Touche, the female Napoleon of Wall Street, who discovered a new system of finance that was based on the most profound and logical principles, is a martyr to the cause. She still remains in a dungeon cell in the Jefferson Market Police Court building, not one friend having come forward with the required real estate security for $2,500 bail, which is demanded as a condition of her release. And there, it is said, she is likely to remain until her trial in the Court of the General Sessions.

— The Evening World (New York City), December 10, 1887

Madame La Touche was born Marion Gratz in New Brunswick, Canada in 1846. The 19th century was a time when women criminals were rare and crime was primarily the domain of men. In 1886, when NYPD Chief Inspector Thomas Byrnes published his book, Professional Criminals of America, only 18 ladies made the cut out of 204 rogues and Madame La Touche was not one of the chosen damsels. However Byrnes included her — she was criminal #345 — in the 1895 edition of his book.

In addition to being a female crook there was another feature that set Marion apart. In her long history as a swindler she never stole from men, at least not directly — instead she preyed solely on her own sex.

By 1873 she’d made her way to America and started her criminal career in Boston. She worked under the name Marion L. Dow, but no Mr. Dow was ever located by authorities. According to Byrnes, Marion enticed wealthy society ladies into her “coils by exciting their speculative proclivities.” She’d paint a “glowing picture of the facility with which the husbands of her intended victims acquired large sums of money through stock speculation.” After persuading the ladies to invest their own money with her, she disappeared with the cash.

Marion L. Dow_our rival the rascal

Marion (possibly a personal photo) from the book Our Rival the Rascal

“Marion L. Dow can probably boast of having assumed more names and characters than any other woman who has not been a professional actress,” wrote Boston police officers Benjamin Eldridge and William Watts in their 1897 book, Our Rival the RascalNo doubt they were relieved when, in 1880, things got too hot for Marion on their turf and she headed to fresher fields in New York City.

By means of fake investment bureaus, Marion swindled wealthy Gotham gals to the tune of $40,000. Moving on to Philadelphia, she took lavish apartments and outfitted herself in expensive clothes and jewelry. As an enticement to invest with her, she guaranteed her clients against loss of their investment in exchange for half of their profits. The money rolled in until the ruse was discovered and she spent four months in Philly’s Moyamensing prison.

After her release from prison she met and married a Pennsylvania-born forger and swindler named Royal La Touche. (The name was not an alias — it really was Royal La Touche). It turned out that Royal was already married to two other women besides Marion! Before the couple had much time to enjoy their wedded bliss he was sent to Sing Sing to serve a three-year term for bigamy.

Marion spent no time crying over Royal’s fate. Using a new alias, “Carrie R. Morse,” she returned to New York City and went right back to her old tricks. She opened a bogus brokerage office at 47 West Thirty-seventh Street and hired a woman who was required to pay $600 for the privilege of having the job. When the company proved to be a scam, “Carrie” was arrested in 1884. One of her victims told of how she sold her shoe store in order to invest and had been forced to put her four children in a poor house after losing her life savings. It took two trials but Marion was convicted of obtaining money through false pretenses and sentenced to four months in prison.

A sensible person wouldn’t risk another arrest in New York City, but Marion wasn’t sensible. In 1887 she took a partner in crime, Sophie Lyons, a notorious pickpocket, shoplifter and bank robber, and embarked on her most audacious scam. She called it the “New York Women’s Banking and Investment Company.” Marion promised clients $50 a month in income if they would invest $300 in her company. This time women from all walks of life were encouraged to participate.

The lease of the building on West Twenty-third Street and refurbishments, including a fake vault, to make it look like a real bank were done on credit. Stock certificates were printed in rainbow colors, because, according to Sophie, ladies appreciated color and preferred to select their stocks based on their favorite hues. Marion set Sophie up in a luxurious apartment and furnished her with expensive jewelry and a lavish wardrobe. Posing as “Celia Rigsby,” a woman made wealthy through her dealings with Madame La Touche, Sophie was the honey that lured the flies in.

When the scam was uncovered, Sophie scarpered back to her home base in Detroit, but Marion was arrested and housed in the “dungeon cell” at Jefferson Market Court in Greenwich Village. Financial crimes, then as now, are laborious and difficult to prove. When only one of the defrauded women was willing to testify against her, the D.A. dropped the charges for lack of evidence. Marion was free again.

After Royal was released from Sing Sing he and Marion reunited and lived together until his death around 1915. Sophie Lyons wrote in her 1913 memoir, Why Crime Does Not Pay, that her old pal “Carrie” had retired from crime and died penniless, but Marion was still very much still alive and swindling when the book came out. She continued her stock swindles, was frequently arrested and served three more terms in prison during the first three decades of the 20th century.

Marion at 85

Her final arrest came in the summer of 1931. Marion, by then an 85-year-old widow, who was, according to one news report, “hard of hearing, but retains that look of guileless sincerity which charmed money of out investors’ pockets almost fifty years ago.” Despite the recent stock market crash, her victim, a Harlem rooming house owner named Edna Mattice, gave Marion $300 to invest because Marion claimed to have confidential information from a high honcho on Wall Street. Mrs. Mattice said Marion was “always reading market reports” and she spoke “with awe-inspiring glibness and authority upon financial matters.”

Marion might have spent the rest of her life in a Harlem prison as a habitual criminal, but authorities hoped to find a way to be lenient due to her age. Help came from unexpected quarters — the Salvation Army! A spokeswoman for the charity said it was “deeply interested in Mrs. La Touche’s case, and if the court would permit, it would undertake to look after her for the rest of her life.” The judge agreed to the plan.

During the 1931 holiday season, people on the streets of Harlem likely had no idea that the hunched old lady ringing the bell by a red kettle and asking for their spare coins was the greatest lady swindler of the 19th century.

Featured image: reproduction of CDV mug shot of Marion L. Dow from “Professional Criminals of America” by Thomas Byrnes, 1895.

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.

She Resisted

She Resisted

Alleged Shoplifters Held

Two women, both of whom are suspected of being professional shoplifters, were arraigned at the Central Police Court yesterday. The defendants said their names were Annie Mitchell and Ellen Joyce, but they refused to tell the magistrate where they lived. Detectives Swan and Knox of Marks Brothers’ Store arrested the women on Monday after they had, it is alleged, stolen several pairs of gloves and a silk skirt. They were held in $600 bail for trial.

The Philadelphia Inquirer, January 24, 1900

The news article supplies only a dash of information, however the remarkable photo of Ella Joyce, taken on January 22, 1900 when she was arrested, speaks volumes. She resisted having her picture made, so the arresting officers held her hair and chin to get a clear picture. Even then, Ella closed her eyes and stuck out her tongue to make sure to ruin the photo. Perhaps it was her comment on the police and their practice of photographing people who hadn’t been charged with wrongdoing, much less found guilty of a crime.

Ella Joyce_back_lowresThe back of Ella’s CDV card provides a few personal details. She was 27 years old, slender and tall — almost 5’8” — with black hair, blue eyes and a medium complexion. She was born in Meadville, Pennsylvania. She had a small scar above her right eyebrow and another on her right thumb. She worked as a domestic. Her Bertillon measurements were recorded on a separate piece of paper that was glued to the CDV.

When the federal census was taken on June 9, 1900, six months after her arrest, there was only one young woman named Ella Joyce living in Philadelphia. Ellen “Ella” O’Donnell Joyce was a married woman who lived with her husband, William, in East Germantown in the northwest section of the city. They’d been married four years and had no children. William worked as a gardener and Ella was a housewife. Both were American-born children of Irish immigrant parents.

There was no follow-up in the newspapers about the shoplifting case of Ella and her pal Annie. Marks Brothers, the store where Ella was arrested, was founded as a millinery shop and was well-known for its women’s goods. The store opened at the southwest corner of Eighth and Arch Street in the 1860s and the building was reconstructed after a fire in 1889. It closed for reorganization in 1902 and reopened at a different location in 1904.

Marks Brothers Store

Marks Brothers, undated photo by Frank H. Taylor, Free Library of Philadelphia

Officer Knox, one of the policemen who arrested Ella, was temporarily kicked off the force, in 1905, after he “got in trouble at a picnic.” Officer William Swan, the other policemen involved in Ella’s arrest, worked as a detective assigned to keep an eye on the Marks Brothers store between 1895 and 1902. The Philadelphia Inquirer is full of stories of Officer Swan’s exploits, such as the time he nabbed Samuel Hoffman, a boy still in knee breeches, for stealing the pocketbook of Mrs. Huldah Katz. A few months later he detained Mrs. Maud French and Mrs. Alice Incas for shoplifting coats and shoes. Both women had babies in their arms at the time. The young, the old and the female comprised the majority of those Officer Swan arrested at Marks Brothers.

Marks Brothers, unable to compete with larger stores in the vicinity of its new location, closed its doors forever in 1909.

Ella and William continued to live in the same East Germantown tenement and were still childless when a census worker recorded them in 1910. William was employed as a steamfitter and Ella was without a profession. On September 13, 1911 — the day before her 38th birthday — Ella died at home of cirrhosis of the liver and exhaustion.

It was a cold day in late January 1900, and Ella Joyce needed a pair of gloves and she wanted a silk skirt, but she couldn’t afford either. Or maybe it was a misunderstanding and she intended to pay. Though we’ll never know exactly what she was thinking when her mug shot was taken, as a piece of photographic history, it is priceless.

Featured photo: Ella Joyce’s CDV mugshot, 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.