True Crime and Crime-fighters in History

Highlighting some of our faves here at Misterio….


1. Petty Larceny

Photo from Professional Criminals of America, 1886.

Sophie Lyons (1848-1924):  Thief, Pickpocket, Confidence Woman:

She started early in her life of crime.  Her father was a safe-cracker, her mother a shoplifter, and Sophie carried on the family business.  By one account, she was caught stealing when she was 3, although there’s not enough corroborating evidence to say for sure.  Certainly, she was arrested for shoplifting at age 12, married a fellow pickpocket, Ned Lyons, who later became known as “King of Bank Robbers,” at age 16, and was imprisoned multiple times.   Once, her husband (who had just escaped from prison) managed to disguise himself and break her out of Sing Sing.  After time spent in France, a return to New York, more arrests and near-arrests, Sophie Lyons retired from criminal life and turned benefactor, even writing a tell-all book, entitled: Why Crime Does Not Pay. Nothing could be further from the truth.  At the time, she was worth half a million dollars in real estate alone, and the book, of course, was making money, too.  

One last ironic note – here’s an incident near the end of her life.  Call it poetic justice, if you will:

For more on shoplifters, check out this post.

2. Bank Robbers

Billy the Kid (not the one you think):

Source for above: Professional Criminals of America, vol 3 (1886)

It’s easy to see from the above picture how Billy Burke got his “kid” appellation. Most of us have socks that are older-looking.  The Old-West-gunfighting Billy the Kid with whom we’re all familiar was Henry McCarty, who was born a year after Burke (1859). Although nearly the same age, the two men inhabited different worlds, with Burke being a city boy and McCarty a ranch-hand.

The chronicle accompanying the photo calls Burke the “nerviest bank sneak in the profession.”  He typically worked with a couple of accomplices: one to distract the bank teller (asking for change, or whatnot) and one to drive the getaway vehicle (“carriage” doesn’t sound very fast, but hey, you work with what you have).  While the bank teller had the safe open and was busy getting change for Burke’s accomplice, Burke would run in, grab stacks of money from the safe, and escape with his accomplices.  He was caught a number of times (once he took off his clothes and hid under a woman’s bed in a nearby house), and was in and out of prisons in cities throughout the country, with a long line of warrants waiting for his release from whatever prison he was in at the time.  Strangely, sometimes he would manage to get released on bail; and then of course would promptly jump bail and take up bank robbing in another part of the country, until he was caught again.  Not a great candidate for rehabilitation.

John Clare, alias Gilmore:

Ever read Conan Doyle’s “The Red-Headed League”?  If so, you have an idea of Clare’s best-known bank robbery attempt.  In June of 1874, Clare purchased a drinking and billiard saloon which adjoined the New York Savings Bank, on the corner of Eighth Ave and Fourteenth St.  Over the following two months, it seemed business as usual while Clare and his confederates broke through basement walls and removed bricks.

Finally, two officers on the beat heard muffled hammering and correctly surmised that the bank vault was being broken into.  They summoned more policemen and surrounded the building.  Upon capturing the gang, the police found that the robbers had been very close to succeeding, having made it through to the outer wall of the vault. Clare, the ringleader, managed to escape during the commotion, and eluded the authorities for nearly two years before he was caught and sentenced to four years and six months in the New York state prison.  Two good sources for this incident: NYT, March 28, 1896: “Capture of a Bank Robber” and Professional Criminals of America, vol 3, 1886.

3. Counterfeiter/Forgers

William Brockway:

Brockway is the most famous of all the 19thc counterfeiters, as his career lasted 50 years, and many of his counterfeit bills were difficult for even experts to spot.  He was an engraver by profession, and had studied chemistry at Yale, which provided him with important skills in electrolysis (referred to as “electroptyping” at the time) – the transfer of images to metal plates.  The description in Professional Criminals of America states:  “An account of all his transactions would fill this book.” (98).  Even when he was caught, there were times when he could turn things his way, such as the immunity deal he made with the U.S. government:

New York Times, Dec 3, 1880

There were other occasions, of course, when Brockway actually served jail time.  Despite such setbacks, Brockway lived and died a wealthy man.

To learn more about Brockway, check out The American Numismatic Society‘s page, and the following NYT articles about a later case against him:

“Forger Brockway Held” Aug 21, 1895
“An Important Witness in the Trial of Counterfeit Brockway” Feb 19, 1896
“Ten Years for W.E. Brockway” March 8, 1896



So, who ya gonna call when these sneak-thieves, pickpockets, and forgers (oh my!) are on the loose?

1. The local police

Ever wonder how the police came into existence?  Of course, it differs with each country…in England, the year 1829 was key.

The Metropolitan Police Act of 1829

Manchester Police, 1880s, from

Sir Robert Peel, Home Secretary in the British Cabinet and a Tory, brought about a number of reforms in the area of criminal law and the gaol system, but it was the Metropolitan Police Act in 1829 that was most far-reaching and controversial at the time.  For the first time in Britain’s history, the Act established an organized police force in London, with 17 divisions of 4 inspectors each, its central base at Scotland Yard, under the purview of the Home Secretary.  (The Detective division was formed in 1842).

The early names for these policemen – “Bobbies” and “Peelers” – derived from the man who passed the reform.  They carried truncheons as their only protection, and dressed in blue uniforms (similar to the color of the Royal Navy uniform) with long tail coats and top hats ( says that the top hats came in handy as stepping stools for policmen to stand on and look over walls).

However, the idea of a government-instituted police force made people nervous.  It was an alien concept, in an age of  Bow Street Runners and local constables (poorly-paid and barely trained), hired individually by each town, walking a beat.  What if the government started using this new police force to get rid of its political enemies, or to spy on honest citizens?

But people also knew that their options were few.  The Industrial Revolution was crowding London quickly, and with more people came more crime.  Constables were notoriously unreliable, preferring to drink in a sheltered corner on a cold night, go to sleep, or visit a prostitute.  Even if every constable was reliable, there still weren’t enough of them.

Although it took a while for the general population to accept police (who were often jeered in public), the police force worked well in suppressing riots and bringing down crime in the areas they were allowed to go, driving crime, in a way, out into the neighboring boroughs, which experienced an increase (later Municipal Acts were instituted to address this problem).

One significant black eye for the police, however, came in 1888: Jack the Ripper.

Punch cartoon by John Tenniel, Sept 22, 1888. Wikimedia Commons.

Want more info?

Text of the 1829 Act

Metropolitan Police Act of 1829 (Wikipedia)

History of the Metropolitan Police

Crime, Punishment, and Protest Through Time, c. 1450-2004

The Metropolitan Police

2. The Secret Service

Secret Service website

The Secret Service, originally a division of the Department of the Treasury, was formed in 1865 for the express purpose of cracking down on counterfeiters.  At the end of the Civil War, one-third of printed money was counterfeit.  It wasn’t until 1901, after President McKinley’s assassination, that the Secret Service took on the additional mission of protecting the President.  Ironically, the signed paperwork creating the agency was on Abraham Lincoln’s desk the night he was assassinated.

Before 1862, banks printed their own money, so it was relatively easy for counterfeiters to make forgeries, when so many different bills were circulating.  The Legal Tender Act of 1862 was the first time there would be federal standard-issue “greenbacks” taking the place of individual bank currency.  Even so, counterfeiters kept the agents hopping, as Brockway’s bio (above) reveals.  Agents kept detailed records, including mug shots, of known counterfeiters, and tracked them closely:

courtesy of Secret Service, via American Numismatic Society’s website

3. The FBI

The agency dates back to 1908. Prior to that date, the U.S. Attorney General had periodically assigned individuals to conduct “special” investigations. Thus, they were called “special agents.” To this day, an FBI agent has the title of Special Agent.

In 1908, then Attorney General Charles Bonaparte reorganized these agents, plus several newly hired investigators and bank examiners, into a “special agent force,” which was dubbed the Bureau of Investigation.

badges1935In 1933, the agency was renamed the Division of Investigation, and in 1935, it was renamed again as the Federal Bureau of Investigation. New badges were designed as a result of the name change, and that badge design is still in use today.

Another interesting tidbit–the badge numbers are recycled. When an agent retires, his badge number is reissued to a new recruit.

The Hoover Reign

J. Edgar Hoover was named interim director in 1924, at the tender age of 29, and was made director the following year. He continued in that role for 48 years until his death in 1972, serving under eight U. S. Presidents.

640px-Hoover-JEdgar-LOC pub domain 1961Just before his death, and even more so after it, J. Edgar Hoover became a very controversial figure. It came to light that he had used unauthorized wiretaps and other illegal means to amass information about political leaders and private citizens whom he deemed subversive.

In addition to the illegal wiretaps, his pet project, the covert program called COINTELPRO (Counter Intelligence Program) infiltrated organizations and they were not above planting bogus evidence of wrongdoing and spreading false rumors.

One of Hoover’s most notorious acts was to instruct an FBI agent to write and send an anonymous letter to Martin Luther King, Jr. The letter was supposedly from a disgruntled follower who had discovered King was having extramarital affairs and threatened to expose all if King did not commit suicide.

Letter to King

In 1971, shortly before Hoover’s death, the activities of COINTELPRO came to light and the program was ended.

From the 1940’s on, rumors flew that Hoover was gay and that he and his assistant, Clyde Tolson, were lovers. This may have been the case, but many historians and biographers believe the claim that he was seen cross-dressing at gay parties to be false. The source of this rumor has been deemed unreliable, and such indiscreet behavior would have been out of character for this man who used scandal and rumors to ruin others on a regular basis.

Hoover and assistant Clyde Tolson, circa 1939

Hoover and assistant Clyde Tolson, circa 1939

Nonetheless, the belief that Hoover was a cross-dresser persists today. Which is a scary reminder of how easily misinformation can become solidified in the minds of the American people.

Despite Hoover’s massive overstepping of authority, he is credited with turning the FBI into a premier law enforcement organization. He modernized police investigation and forensic techniques and established a centralized fingerprint database.

For more true crime/crime-fighter posts, see Thrills and Chills and The History of Mystery.

Have a favorite criminal or crime-fighting team you’d like us to feature? Let us know in the comments below!