No. 650
Crime, Eccentricity, and the Sporting Life in 19th Century America.
April 18, 2024

A Slippery and Subtle Knave – The Bank Sneak.

July 31, 2012
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Via Newspapers.comAs I believe I’ve mentioned before, I have a particular fondness for obscure, unimportant, but intriguing little mysteries.  One such example appeared in the “London Morning Chronicle,” April 21, 1809:Nevis, Feb. 7, 1809.“Dear Sir,"I beg leave to mention the following circumstances, and leave to your better judgment the propriety of making the same public.-- "About a
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Strange Company - 4/17/2024
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
How many ways are there to style a subway entrance sign? In New York City, dozens of designs and typefaces are used across the subway system—often with no rhyme or reason. Take this gold and white sign on William Street. It’s for a side entrance/exit for the Fulton Street station, affixed to a 20th century […]
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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
 Samuel Smith and his wife Emma appeared to the world as a happy and affectionate young couple. She was pretty and vivacious with a dazzling wardrobe, and he was energetic with a winning personality. But beneath the surface was a hidden turmoil that did not come to light until Emma was found dead in their apartment, her head blown apart by a shotgun blast, and Samuel nowhere to be found.Read
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Murder By Gaslight - 4/13/2024
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 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