No. 521
Crime, Eccentricity, and the Sporting Life in 19th Century America.
May 10, 2021

Bank Heist

April 3, 2011
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Margery WrenUnder normal circumstances, one would expect that anyone who knew they were about to die as the result of a brutal attack would spend every bit of their remaining strength towards bring their murderer to justice.  However, the following case proved to be very far from normal.  An old woman’s murder, which, at first, seemed fairly simple and straightforward, soon took a puzzling turn
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Strange Company - 5/10/2021

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"Your Aunt Emmie Lu died"Artifact #84-LetterJeff Smith Collection     mma Lu "Emmie" Smith(Abt. 1867 - May 3, 1915)   My great-grandaunt, Emma Lu Smith, the oldest sister of Jefferson Randolph "Soapy" Smith, was born in Coweta County, Georgia around 1867. She was ten years old when her mother passed away in Round Rock, Texas in 1877.(l to r) Emma Lu, Maurice Gregory Moriarty, Eva
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Soapy Smith's Soap Box - 5/4/2021

A few weeks ago, Ephemeral New York put together a post about the former Czech neighborhood once centered around 72nd Street between First and Second Avenues on the Upper East Side. The post generated many comments, with readers either reminiscing about a vanished enclave they remember well or wishing Manhattan still had pockets of ethnic […]
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Ephemeral New York - 5/9/2021
Youth With Executioner by Nuremberg native Albrecht Dürer … although it’s dated to 1493, which was during a period of several years when Dürer worked abroad. November 13 [1617]. Burnt alive here a miller of Manberna, who however was lately engaged as a carrier of wine, because he and his brother, with the help of […]
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Executed Today - 11/13/2020
8-year-old Alice Sterling disappeared from the steps in front of her father’s Boston barbershop the afternoon of April 10, 1895. The three-day search for Alice ended at a shallow grave in the floor of a nearby barn. Angus Gilbert, a friend of the Sterling family especially fond of little Alice, lived in a room above the barn. Gilbert was charged with her
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Murder By Gaslight - 5/8/2021

With the advent of AI imaging now found on My Heritage and elsewhere, and free programs which will colorize old photographs, clearer details are being revealed every day. In this famous crime scene photograph of Abby Borden, the bed was removed so that Mr. Walsh, the hired photographer, could get a full body view of Abby Borden. With new techniques in cleaning up old photos, colorizing them and sharpening the details, now the sewing machine in the northwest corner of the room comes into sharper view as well as the tapestry folding camp chair. The two perfume bottles on the dresser, a vase and a framed photo can be readily seen as well as Mr. Walsh’s camera in the mirror as it stands in the doorway. The colorizing method also tinted the carpet maroon, which indeed was the color of the carpet in the guest room. But most astonishing is the dark pool of bloodstain around the head of Abby Borden which, with amplifying the contrast, shows very plainly. The bureau wood tone and burled wood panels appear clearly as well as the drawer pulls. The pattern on the carpet is somewhat distorted and elongated but the pattern is very plain to see. You can even see where the carpet has been patched in against the right wall. The sewing machine still has its cover in place which would hint at Abby never living long enough to run up those pillowcases and you can see her sewing basket on the bureau opened up. The folding camp chair has been moved from above her head, leaning against the wall to its position in this photo. Abby Borden herself was moved at least once before this photo was taken, Dr. Bowen having turned her over after the body was found around 11:35 a.m. This is a sample of a 1890 Singer machine with the cover which closely matches the one we see in this photo.
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Lizzie Borden: Warps and Wefts - 5/6/2021
[Editor’s note: Guest writer, Peter Dickson, lives in West Sussex, England and has been working with microfilm copies of The Duncan Campbell Papers from the State Library of NSW, Sydney, Australia. The following are some of his analyses of what he has discovered from reading these papers. Dickson has contributed many transcriptions to the Jamaica Family […]
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Early American Crime - 2/7/2019
A Woman Whipping Her Husband | "Assisted Emigrant"

Bank Heist

Professional Thief

New York, New York, October 27, 1878 – The manager of the Manhattan Savings Institution found the vault in disarray the morning of October 27, 1878, and nearly $3 million in currency and securities was missing. In real dollars, it remains the largest bank robbery in history. The heist was tightly scripted and well-rehearsed; in timing and precision of execution, the robbery was the equal of a Broadway performance. And, like many great theatrical productions, there was as much drama in the wings as on the stage.

mother-mandelbaum Frederika "Marm" Mandelbaum

The manager of this production was Frederika Mandelbaum—better known as “Marm”—who, in 1878, was the most successful fence in New York City. Marm Mandelbaum –5 foot 3, weighing 300 pounds—ran a dry goods store on Clinton Street and had warehouses full of stolen merchandise throughout the city. She had a hand nearly every major crime in Manhattan. She also ran a Faginesque school for child pickpockets. To keep her operations functioning she made regular payments to Tammany Hall and to policemen at every level.

Marm Mandelbaum was also famous for her dinner parties where politicians and other prominent New Yorkers would hobnob with equally prominent members of the underworld. It was at one such soiree in 1869 that she met George Leonidas Leslie, the future star of the Manhattan Savings Institution robbery.

Leslie was the son of a wealthy Cincinnati brewer—he was charming, handsome, well-educated and had moved to New York with the express purpose of becoming a bank robber. He was a trained architect, adept at engineering and invention; he was a perfectionist who believed he had the tools and methods to turn bank robbery into a gentleman’s profession.

Marm Mandelbaum was charmed by Leslie and impressed with his approach to bank robbery. She was especially intrigued by a safecracking tool he had invented. He called it “the little joker”—it was a metal disk that, when placed behind the dial of a combination lock, would record the numbers of the combination. Although Leslie had never robbed a bank in his life, and his plan involved breaking into a bank twice—first to plant the little joker, then to reap the combination and open the vault—she gave him seed money and provided him with a gang.

Shang_Draper

Shang Draper

The gang consisted of hard core criminals, different from Leslie in every way. It included Shang Draper, saloon owner, and thief who earned the name “Shang” by his practice of shanghaiing sailors. He was also a noted conman, specializing in the sexual blackmail of the badger game. The muscle of the gang was Red Leary, who stood six foot four and had a hair trigger temper. While Leslie’s plan explicitly avoided violence, it didn’t hurt to have some intimidation, if only to keep the gang in line.

Their first target was Ocean National Bank in Manhattan. Shang Draper and the rest of the gang wanted to go in and dynamite the vault but that was not Leslie’s style. Leslie took three month to plan the robbery, using one of Marm’s warehouses to build a duplicate vault room for practice. He deposited his own money in the bank which provided him with an excuse to visit it frequently and become familiar with the setup and routine. He arranged to have one of Marm’s people, a young pickpocket named Johnny Irving, hired to sweep the bank after hours, and he rented an office directly above the bank. The heist ran like clockwork. The gang left with $800,000.

This became the template for a series of bank robberies planned by George Leslie and executed by Marm’s gang throughout America. Leslie left no clues and managed to remain unconnected to any of them. He maintained an image as a refined man-about-town associating with known criminals only during jobs or at Marm’s dinner parties.

Northampton-National-Bank

Northampton National Bank

By the end of the 1870s George Leslie was planning his final job, robbing the Manhattan Savings Institution, but his plans were complicated by the failure of two other robberies. In 1876 he devised a plan for robbing the Northampton Bank in Northampton, Massachusetts. Leslie did not accompany the gang and they changed the plan. Instead of using the little joker, they roughed up a cashier to get the combination—violating Leslie’s edict against violence. Though they made off with $1.6 million in cash, bonds, and securities, most of the loot consisted of non-negotiable securities, virtually worthless to the thieves. 

Leslie made sure he participated in the next robbery, the Dexter Savings Bank in Dexter, Maine, but it ended badly as well. Their inside man James Barron had a change of heart and would not let them into the vault. When Leary and Draper pistol whipped Barron he revealed that the vault was on a time lock and it would not open until the morning. They left with only$600 and James Barron died the next morning.

Now the charge against them would be murder. The gang members grew suspicious of each other, fearing if anyone were captured he would inform on the rest. To make matters worse, Leslie had been having affairs with Babe Draper and Kate Leary, the wives of Shang Draper and Red Leary. Leslie no longer trusted Marm Mandelbaum’s men and he was secretly shopping the Manhattan Savings plan to her chief competition, Traveling Mike Grady.

MSI

Manhattan Savings Institution

Leslie had been planning the Manhattan Savings job for three years—his inside man, Pat Shevlin had been working there that long. As all of Leslie’s robberies it had intricately planned and well-rehearsed but the vault was complicated and took three break-ins with his usual gang to get the combination.  When he had the combination, Leslie convinced the gang to wait and break in a fourth time when there was sure to be more money in the vault. But he was planning to finish the job with another gang.

Travelling Mike Grady would supply that gang. Grady also provided a bodyguard, Johnny “The Mick” Walsh, because of Leslie’s fear of Marm Maldelbaum’s men. The fears were not unfounded.  Shang Draper had found a camel hair shawl that Leslie had given Babe and traced it to its source. On May 29, 1878, while drinking in a Brooklyn saloon, Leslie was handed a note from Babe Draper.  It said that Shang had found out about their affair and was looking for Leslie. She wanted Leslie to take her out of the city and gave an address to meet. Leslie told Johnny Walsh to stay behind while he took care of some business. It was the last time Walsh ever saw Leslie.

On June 4, 1878 George Leslie’s body was found at the foot of Tramp’s Rock, three miles outside of Yonkers, New York. He had been shot twice, once in the heart and once in the head. With the body was a small pearl-handled, two-shot pistol. It was a gun that Leslie had given Babe Draper for protection.

The Manhattan Savings Institution was robbed on October 27, 1878 by the original gang, now headed by Shang Draper, using George Leslie’s plan.  The take was $2,747,700, however, as in the Northampton robbery, most of that amount was in non-negotiable securities. The net amount to the robbers was about $12,000. Without Leslie’s guidance they overlooked sacks of currency that were also in the vault, and made off with worthless paper.

MSI

Pat Shevlin had been promised $250,000 for his part in the robbery; he was given $1,200. Shevlin was not a professional criminal and it was not hard for New York City Police Detective Thomas Byrnes to obtain a confession from him and to get him to finger the rest of the gang.  Jimmy Hope, William Kelly, and Banjo Pete Emerson were arrested for the robbery. Draper, Leary and the rest had already been arrested on other burglary charges.  The police had everyone involved except George Leslie and Marm Mandelbaum.

Though he managed to keep a low profile during his career, after his death George Leslie was acknowledged by the police and the underworld alike as the “King of Bank Robbers.” One estimate said that 80% of all successful bank robberies in America between 1869 and 1878 were carried out by George Leslie. Though he did not live to see it, the Manhattan Savings Institution heist would be his masterpiece.
 

 

 

 


Sources:

  • Conway, J. North. King of heists: the sensational bank robbery of 1878 that shocked America. Guilford, Conn.: Lyons Press, 2009.
  • Pinkerton, Allan. Professional thieves and the detective: with a sketch by the author how he became a detective etc.. Repr. of the 1881.
  • Walling, George W., and A. Kaufmann. Recollections of a New York chief of police an official record of thirty-eight years as patrolman, detective, captain, inspector, and chief of the New York police. Denver: Specially issued for the benefit of the Denver Police Mutual Aid Fund, 1890.

City Bank Robbery


The Audacity of a Professional Thief.