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

Hungry Joe.

The conmen of New York City were noted for their colorful nicknames: "Paper Collar Joe", "Grand Central Pete" Jimmy "the Kid" and the greatest of all "Hungry Joe".
October 20, 2013
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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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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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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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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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[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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Hallow Eve Sports. | The Gloucester Sea Serpent

Hungry Joe.

Hungry Joe King of the Bunco Men

The conmen of New York City were noted for their colorful nicknames: “Paper Collar Joe" Bond, “Grand Central Pete" Lake, Jimmy “the Kid” Fitzgerald, and the greatest of all, “Hungry Joe” Lewis

Hungry Joe LewisHungry Joe Lewis
(Professional Criminals of America)

Joseph Lewis was given the sobriquet "Hungry Joe" for the soulful countenance he usually bore. An 1885 biography of Hungry Joe described it this way:

"His general expression, however, is one of a far-away, yearning sort, not exactly poetic, but sad and thoughtful, as though his mind was occupied with things outside of the usual frivolities of life."

This expression can be seen in Hungry Joe’s iconic mug shot in Inspector Byrnes’s Professional Criminals of America.

Hungry Joe was a bunco steerer (called “banco steerer” in New York and New England). He would quickly ingratiate himself to some stranger traveling through New York, gain his trust then lure him to some game or situation where the traveler would lose everything he had. Hungry Joe preferred preying on countrymen—farmers and other wealthy gentlemen unfamiliar with big city ways, who had come to town to sell crops or buy equipment.

Sometimes Joe would entice his mark to play banco, a rigged game involving dice or cards, in which early gains by the player quickly turned to enormous losses. The player would invariably pay to avoid publicity. Another scam he used was called the “envelope game.” The player pays ten dollars to select from a box full of envelopes. The envelope contains currency in amounts ranging from one to fifty dollars. The player can only bet his own money, not his winnings. In this game, the play is extended as long as possible and the player ultimately wins, only to find out later that he has traded his cash for envelopes full of counterfeit bills.

Other times Joe would introduce the mark to a beautiful woman with an endless supply of champagne. The mark would wake up the next day in a strange room with nothing left but an excruciating hangover. In at least one instance, Hungry Joe used this method to steal not only a farmer’s money but the crops he had come to town to sell.

Regardless of the game, the method of roping in the mark was always the same. An accomplice, known as a “feeler,” would identify a wealthy traveler then, through chance meetings and overheard conversations, gather as much information as he could about the man. The information would be related to Hungry Joe who, armed with this knowledge, would pretend to recognize the mark from his hometown. He would pose as the son of the man’s banker or another prominent citizen of his town, and the mark, pleased to be recognized by someone so worthy, would be open to whatever Hungry Joe proposed.

Hungry Joe Lewis

Hungry Joe’s most audacious score was fleecing Oscar Wilde out of $5,000 at a game of banco. During the English poet’s 1883 visit to New York City, Hungry Joe finagled an introduction and palled around with Wilde for a week, dining at New York’s finest hotels, before suggesting that they try a game. As everyone does, Oscar Wilde lost at banco and wrote Joe a check to cover his losses. The next day, realizing that he had been swindled, Wilde stopped payment on the check, but he did not press charges. The incident so impressed New York Police Inspector Thomas Byrnes that on a subsequent arrest he said to Hungry Joe,

“You are able to make a fortune honestly, for any man who has the ability to fool Oscar Wilde and to bunko him has ability not only to make a living honestly, but to make a fortune, and when you get out of your present strait I would advise you to turn your attention to something that is honest.”

Hungry Joe managed to avoid any major prison time until May 1885 when he was arrested for stealing $250 from an English tourist. He had lured Joseph Ramsden of Manchester into a game of three card monte and when Ramsden pulled out a roll of ten pound notes, Hungry Joe, in an uncharacteristic fit of impatience, grabbed the roll and ran. He was caught, arrested, and sentenced to four years in Sing Sing.

After serving his sentence, Hungry Joe Lewis allegedly took Inspector Byrnes’s advice and went straight, opening a laundry business.

 


Sources:

  • Asbury, Herbert. The Gangs of New York. New York: A. A. Knopf, 1928
  • Byrnes, Thomas. Professional Criminals of America. New York: Castle & Company,Ltd, 1886.
  • Sante, Luc. Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York . New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003.
  • Tousey, Frank. The Life of Hungry Joe. New York: Frank Tousey, 1885.
  • "Wise Oscar Wilde." The Morning Record, Meriden, CT, 20 Oct 1893.