No. 506
Crime, Eccentricity, and the Sporting Life in 19th Century America.
January 19, 2021

A Slippery and Subtle Knave – The Bank Sneak.

Of the many forms of bank robbery, the bank sneak had the safest, easiest and most lucrative method of all.
July 31, 2012
...
...

While I wouldn’t say it’s an everyday occurrence for someone to discover a corpse in a chimney, it has happened more often than you’d like to think.  The following story is one that puts a particularly gruesome twist on such tragedies.September 20, 1987, started out as a perfectly ordinary day of work at the Georgia-Pacific paper mill in Bellingham, Washington.  At around 5:21 a.m., employee Roy
More...
Strange Company - 1/18/2021

`
Surprising news broke tonight of the listing for sale of the popular bed & breakfast, open as a business for …

Continue reading

More...
Lizzie Borden: Warps and Wefts - 1/10/2021

Benjamin Eistenstat was born in Philadelphia in 1915, and the few biographies I found about him suggest that he spent much of his artistic career in Pennsylvania. But in 1950 he was in New York City—where he created this lithograph of a street scene in a very masculine Manhattan. Perhaps this view is of a […]
More...
Ephemeral New York - 1/18/2021
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 […]
More...
Executed Today - 11/13/2020
 The Hangman, a newspaper dedicated to the abolition of capital punishment, celebrated the commutation of Orrin DeWolf’s death sentence on September 9, 1845.Did this young, drunken, diseased, conniving, duplicitous, murderous, libertine deserve mercy? You decide: Orrin DeWolf. 
More...
Murder By Gaslight - 1/16/2021

Ripley's Believe It Or NotUnknown newspaper1937Jeff Smith collection (Click image to enlarge)     OAPY SMITH'S SKULL STRANGE MONUMENT TO "SOAPY" SMITH Famous Bad Man of the Klondike, Fashioned from natural rock 25 feet high. On Moore's old wharf, alongside the bay and the railroad dock in Skagway, Alaska is an impressive wall of solid granite that is home to one of the most unique art
More...
Soapy Smith's Soap Box - 1/14/2021
[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 […]
More...
Early American Crime - 2/7/2019
"Ten Minutes for Refreshments and Divorce!" | Happy New Year!

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.  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 the 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