No. 522
Crime, Eccentricity, and the Sporting Life in 19th Century America.
May 17, 2021

A Slippery and Subtle Knave – The Bank Sneak.

July 31, 2012
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The following tale comes from that classic collection of mostly first-hand accounts of supernatural encounters, "Lord Halifax's Ghost Book."  It was related to Lord Halifax in 1920 by his nephew, Charles Dundas.  Dundas had recently heard the tale from a renowned Royal Air Force pilot named Edward Villiers.  (Later Sir Edward Villiers.)  It is one of the briefest stories in the "Ghost Book," but
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Strange Company - 5/17/2021

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LOOK OUT FOR "SOAPY" SMITHSt. Louis DispatchSeptember 23, 1897(Click image to enlarge) e reported himself in good health and money."   New information showing that Soapy Smith did go to St. Louis to check up on his ailing wife, Mary, after leaving Skagway.  Below is the transcription of the article from the St. Louis Dispatch, September 23, 1897. LOOK OUT FOR “SOAPY” SMITH ― The Smooth Man
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Soapy Smith's Soap Box - 5/11/2021

Born in 1870 and completed 13 years later (at a cost of $15 million and with more than 20 worker deaths), the Brooklyn Bridge is marking its 138th birthday this week. What better way to honor an icon than with a brilliant lithograph produced by a Pearl Street publisher depicting the fireworks, ship parade, and […]
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Ephemeral New York - 5/17/2021
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
The crack of gunfire startled the residents of 88 Merrimack Street, a boarding house in Lowell, Massachusetts, around 10:00, the night of  August 31, 1876. The boarders rushed to Lulu Martin’s room on the third floor, where the shot was fired. The door was locked; they heard a man inside shouting, “Go for the police! She has shot me! I will hold her! Break open the door!”A group of men broke in
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Murder By Gaslight - 5/15/2021

Along with Bertie Whitehead, Abby’s half-sister, May 13th was also the birthday of Helen Craig, famous stage actress best-remembered for Johnny Belinda. Helen Craig, who played Abby in The Legend of Lizzie Borden was born May 13, 1912, a month after Titanic sank. Helen Craig was not a great beauty by Hollywood standards, but a very fine actress. https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0185871/?ref_=fn_al_nm_1 Her portrayal of Abby Borden as a mean, greedy glutton, more than any other thing, has affected the way most people think of Abby Borden. Sadly it was not an accurate portrayal. Helen did some television in her later career, most notably The Waltons. She died in New York City in 1986. She was married to stage and film actor John Beal who played Dr. Bowen in Legend of Lizzie Borden. They are seen together in the publicity photo below.
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Lizzie Borden: Warps and Wefts - 5/13/2021
[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
The Two Paths in Life. | A Slippery and Subtle Knave – The Bank Sneak.

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.  [more] 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 he 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