No. 526
Crime, Eccentricity, and the Sporting Life in 19th Century America.
June 21, 2021

A Slippery and Subtle Knave – The Bank Sneak.

July 31, 2012
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"Louisville Courier-Journal," May 8, 1881, via Newspapers.comWhen I started this blog, I hoped to focus on the smaller, obscure stories from the past--the long-forgotten bits of random oddities that, when taken together, show just what a strange world we live in.  In short, the "uncommon" is really quite commonplace.One such story is the death of one otherwise completely unmemorable young man. 
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An Ordnance to Cover the Defective Points.Denver Tribune-RepublicanMay 14, 1885(Click image to enlarge)   n order to cover such cases as "Soapy" Smith, the arrest of whom for violating the lottery ordinance"  Note how bad the Xerox copy at the top is. This was shared to my father, by his brother (my uncle) Joseph Jefferson Smith​ (1909-1977). Obviously, the copiers at the time did not do
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Soapy Smith's Soap Box - 6/13/2021

When railroad baron H.H. Cook decided to build himself a New York City mansion, he didn’t try to squeeze into a plot of land on Fifth Avenue in the 50s—an area that had been colonized by several Vanderbilt heirs and other Gilded Age moneymakers. Instead, he went to the then-hinterlands of Manhattan, purchasing the entire […]
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Ephemeral New York - 6/20/2021
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 […]
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Parental hostility drove Fanny Madison out of her home and into the arms of her cousin, Thomas Cluverius. It was not a wise decision.Read the full story here: Kissing Cousins.                                             Pictures from Illustrated Police News, May 2, 1885.
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Murder By Gaslight - 6/19/2021

Producer-director Ric Rebelo has today, in memory of LeeAnn Wilber, former co-owner of the Lizzie Borden Bed & Breakfast, released this award-winning film for public view on Youtube. This was filmed in 2010, some of the participants in the production are no longer with us today. What was recorded in 2010 has not changed much today in 2021, only intensified in fascination.
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[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 […]
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Early American Crime - 2/7/2019
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