No. 583
Crime, Eccentricity, and the Sporting Life in 19th Century America.
November 30, 2022

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
...
...

Fifteen-year-old Jody Randall of Long Beach, California, was in most ways a typical suburban teenager.  The one thing that set her apart was a passion for antiques which was unusual for someone of her youth.  As a result of spending all her available free time (and her parents’ money) on her hobby, she eventually amassed some impressive pieces, including a doll collection noteworthy enough to
More...
Strange Company - 11/28/2022
`
Shell and Pea Game on the Trail"Sketched from life by M. W. Newberry"San Francisco ChronicleApril 10, 1898(Click image to enlarge)    UNKO MEN AND THEIR TRICKS      A wonderfully detailed description of the modus operandi of Soapy Smith's three shell and pea manipulators along the Chilkoot and White Pass trails. Witnessed and reported by Joseph D. Barry, and published in the San Francisco
More...
Soapy Smith's Soap Box - 11/21/2022
Working as a domestic servant in 19th century New York City had plenty of challenges. Sure, servants received room and board in addition to their wages, and they usually had at least Sunday afternoon off. But living in another family’s home was isolating and lonely—particularly if you didn’t speak English or weren’t accustomed to urban […]
More...
Ephemeral New York - 11/28/2022
On this date in 2002, Pakistani Mir Aimal Kansi, Kasi, or Qazi was executed by lethal injection in Virginia, U.S.A. “Real angry with the policy of the U.S. government in the Middle East, particularly toward the Palestinian people,”* Qazi on January 25, 1993 revenged himself on Central Intelligence Agency commuters queued for a left turn […]
More...
Executed Today - 11/14/2022
Museum of the City of New YorkWilliam Howe and Abraham Hummel were the most successful criminal lawyers in Gilded Age New York. With a combination of skill, showmanship, and unethical practices, they defended most of the city’s significant criminals and many of its murderers. Whether they won or lost, Howe and Hummel made every trial sensational. Here are a few of the many accused murderers
More...
Murder By Gaslight - 11/26/2022
Wishing you a happy and bountiful Thanksgiving Day! Lizzie is thankful for turkey and all the trimmings – and no mutton broth in sight!
More...
Lizzie Borden: Warps and Wefts - 11/22/2022
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: […]
More...
Early American Crime - 12/17/2021
Hallow Eve Sports. | Puck's Family Temperance Primer.

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.