No. 653
Crime, Eccentricity, and the Sporting Life in 19th Century America.
May 27, 2024

The Swindling Beggar

July 11, 2011
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The archives of the Humble Oil & Refining Company are about the last place where you’d expect to run across a first-rate poltergeist account, but it just goes to show that we live in a funny old world.  In 1948, a folklorist and historian was browsing through the company’s papers when he came across a letter that had absolutely nothing to do with oil.  It read:Jan [illegible] '
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Strange Company - 5/27/2024
Included in yesterday’s trip to Fall River was a stop at Miss Lizzie’s Coffee shop and a visit to the cellar to see the scene of the tragic demise of the second Mrs. Lawdwick Borden and two of the three little children in 1848. I have been writing about this sad tale since 2010 and had made a previous trip to the cellar some years ago but was unable to get to the spot where the incident occured to get a clear photograph.  The tale of Eliza Borden is a very sad, but not uncommon story of post partum depression with a heartrending end. You feel this as you stand in the dark space behind the chimney where Eliza ended her life with a straight razor after dropping 6 month old Holder and his 3 year old sister Eliza Ann into the cellar cistern. Over the years I have found other similar cases, often involving wells and cisterns, and drownings of children followed by suicides of the mothers. These photos show the chimney, cistern pipe, back wall, dirt and brick floor, original floorboards forming the cellar ceiling and what appears to be an original door. To be in the place where this happened is a sobering experience. My thanks to Joe Pereira for allowing us to see and record the place where this sad occurrence unfolded in 1848. R.I.P. Holder, Eliza and Eliza Ann Borden. Visit our Articles section above for more on this story. The coffee shop has won its suit to retain its name and has plans to expand into the shop next door and extend its menu in the near future.
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Lizzie Borden: Warps and Wefts - 2/12/2024
When these photos from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York were taken at Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery at the end of May in 1899, Memorial Day didn’t exist. “Decoration Day,” however, was an established holiday celebrated every May 30. The idea was to visit the final resting places of thousands of […]
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Ephemeral New York - 5/27/2024
An article I recently wrote for the British online magazine, New Politic, is now available online. The article, “The Criminal Origins of the United States of America,” is about British convict transportation to America, which took place between the years 1718 and 1775, and is the subject of my book, Bound with an Iron Chain: […]
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Early American Crime - 12/17/2021
John Wesley Elkins.11-year-old John Wesley Elkins was slight of stature—four feet eight inches tall, weighing 73 pounds. He was intelligent and well-spoken, and he had never caused trouble until the day he murdered his parents. At 2:00 am, on July 24, 1889, while his parents were sleeping in their Iowa farmhouse, he shot his father in the head and then beat his mother to death with a club.
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Murder By Gaslight - 5/25/2024
CHIEF OF CONSThe Morning Times(Cripple Creek, Colorado)February 15, 1896Courtesy of Mitch Morrissey ig Ed Burns robs a dying man?      Mitch Morrissey, a Facebook friend and historian for the Denver District Attorney’s Office, found and published an interesting newspaper piece on "Big Ed" Burns, one of the most notorious characters in the West. Burns was a confidence man and
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Soapy Smith's Soap Box - 4/2/2024
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 … Continue reading
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Executed Today - 11/13/2020
The Old Shell Game | Recruiting For Sin's Army

The Swindling Beggar

Blind Beggar

Boston, 1894 - The 1890s were golden years for begging. Economic times were hard and no one was doing well, but those who were physically unable to work had very few options but begging. They would beg on street corners or go from house to house asking for help. It was also a generous and trusting time; the disabled, deformed, and impaired were a reminder that things could be worse. Nearly everyone could spare a few coins for the less fortunate. But begging had become so lucrative in major cities that most beggars were actually able-bodied swindlers.[more]

They usually worked in small groups that would meet after a day’s begging to pool their money and divide it up at some pre-agreed rate. The group would have one leader who would take a small amount from each day’s take and maintain a cash reserve to be used to pay bail and fines, and to tide them over when donations were scarce. Each morning they would dress up to appear in distress, wrapping bloodstained bandages around their bodies, or painting scars and lacerations on their skin, or building up the inside of one shoe to force them to limp.

Each man would take a section of the city beg there until he became too familiar on the street to make any more money or he was driven off by the police. Often the men would sell pencils or other cheap knick knacks to make arrest for vagrancy less likely. They would sometimes hand out pre-printed cards, with verses such as this, to stimulate giving::

A Cripple’s Appeal

Don’t cast this from you, reader,
But read my story through;
I, like many other unfortunates,
Must ask the aid of you.
Misfortune has befallen me,
Like many more before,
My appeal, I wish to tell you,
Is to keep hunger from the door,

'Frisco-Slim</p

One band of swindlers well known the Boston Police was led by a man known as Frisco Slim. Even nickname was a fraud; weighing over 200 pounds he was anything but slim. Frisco Slim had lost a finger at some point in his life, possibly in a brawl while gambling. He would augment this disability by treating the skin of his arm with a chemical to simulate a bad burn, giving the impression that he had been the victim of a debilitating accident. Frisco Slim had two lieutenants named English Harry and Sheeny Si. Though they were professional beggars like Frisco Slim, they all claimed to have regular occupations when questioned by police. Slim was a painter, Harry a bartender, and Si a railroad brakeman. They kept a dirty tenement room in Boston’s West End, furnished only with filthy mattresses and vermin haunted blankets.

English-Harry

They were always on the lookout for new gang members, especially young people who proved to be the best earners. In 1894 Frisco Slim came across a young orphan boy from Connecticut who was traveling alone. Enticed by promises of making up to ten dollars a day doing nothing, the boy followed Slim back to the room the gang’s West End room. They put his arm in a plaster cast, gave him the nickname, Kid Johnson, and sent him out to beg.

Kid Johnson proved to be a prodigious earner, but his career of begging in Boston was not long lived. Sometime during the winter of 1894-1895, the Boston Police raided Frisco Slim’s lair, arresting Slim, English Harry, Sheeny Si, and several other members of the gang, including Kid Johnson.

Sheeny-Si

The hardened criminals were put in jail, but police held out hope that young Kid Johnson could be reformed. They took pains to find him a good job as a clerk with opportunity for advancement. He tried it for a while, but Kid Johnson soon bolted. He left behind a letter thanking his friends at the police department for their kindly care and regretting that their hope in him had been disappointed. He was already hooked on the easy life and left Boston to join the knights of the road.

 

 

 

 

 

 


Sources:

  • 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
  • Riis, Jacob A.. How the other half lives; studies among the tenements of New York.. New York: Charles Scribners's Sons, 1890