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

A Slippery and Subtle Knave – The Bank Sneak.

Of the many forms of bank robbery, the bank sneak had the safest, easiest and most lucrative method of all.
July 31, 2012
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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 Slippery and Subtle Knave – The Bank Sneak. | Beauty as a Shield.

A Slippery and Subtle Knave – The Bank Sneak.

Bank Sneak Of the many forms of bank robbery, the bank sneak had the safest, easiest and most lucrative method of all.  Holdup men risked their lives and the lives of others by demanding money at the point of a gun. Bank burglars worked in large gangs, with elaborate plans that always involved the physical labor of cutting, pounding, prying or blasting to get though iron bars and steal vaults. But a skilled bank sneak just walked into a bank, took what he wanted and left.

Part confidence man, part shoplifter, the bank sneak would enter a bank as if he were a regular customer, look for an opportunity, and walk out with a stack of currency or bonds. They would usually work in pairs or groups of three. One or two would divert the attention of clerks and bank officers, while another would quickly snatch the goods and leave. It was not unusual for a bank sneak to leave with $10,000 more.

Bank sneaks were always well dressed. In the city, they appeared to be prosperous businessmen, in the country gentlemen farmers—the type of customer always welcome in a bank. When not in the bank they would frequent men’s clubs and hotel lobbies to learn what they could from real businessmen about bank policies and special interests of bank officers. When a sneak learned the hobby of a particular bank officer, he would study that topic then at the bank, engage the officer in conversation while a confederate grabbed the cash.

Extra Walter Sheridan

Sometimes they traveled with circuses. When the circus came to town and paraded down Main Street, sneaks would hit the banks and take what they could while all eyes were on the circus parade. Another ploy used was the “invalid customer.” A servant would come into a bank, ask for a bank officer by name, and say his master is an invalid in a carriage outside. He wants to discuss an investment but is unable to come into the bank. This was usually done during lunch hour when the bank is already understaffed. When the officer invariably leaves to talk to the invalid, the sneak makes off with the money.

Bank customers were targets as well. A trick known as the “drop game” involved secretly dropping a bill near a counter where a customer is counting his money. The sneak tells the customer that he dropped a bill, and while the customer bends over to pick it up the sneak takes a portion of the customer’s stack of bills.

Extra Horace Hovan

Bank sneaks always carried a large amount of money and when they were caught they could easily pay their bail and leave. It was just the cost of doing business. They were also very mobile. Two notable bank sneaks in the 1880s, Horace Hovan and Walter Sheridan were arrested in Toronto, Canada, and easily posted bail. Less than a month later they robbed a bank in Denver, Colorado. Sheridan was identified but escaped; Hovan was caught red-handed coming out of the bank vault with the loot. He very nearly talked himself out of an arrest, but ultimately Hovan left Denver by once again paying bail.

Chauncey Johnson Chauncey Johnson

One of the most remarkable bank thefts of all time was committed in the 1860s by veteran bank sneak, Chauncey Johnson. Johnson followed the president of a national bank in New York, who was carrying a package containing $125,000 in bonds, into his office. The president laid the package down on his desk and in the time it took him to hank up his coat, Johnson had taken the package and left the bank.

By the end of the century, the faces of notorious bank sneaks became well known to police and bankers and it became increasingly difficult for the sneaks to ply their trade. Banks began employing full-time guards and instituting security policies that essentially rendered the bank sneak a thing of the past.

 

 

 


Sources:

  • Byrnes, Thomas. Professional criminals of America. New York, N.Y: Cassel, 1886.
  • Eldridge, Benjamin P., and William B. Watts. Our rival, the rascal a faithful portrayal of the conflict between the criminals of this age and the defenders of society, the police. Boston, Mass.: Pemberton Pub. Co., 1897