About Born Crooked
The Pinkerton Detective Agency, it was said, would “follow even the slightest clues for years, and, almost without exception” would find a criminal and bring him to justice.
Born Crooked is the true story of the nineteenth-century forgers —“the most expert band of criminals at that line of work known to the authorities”—who gave the newly emerging Pinkerton Agency a run for its money. You’ll learn what sent these men back to a life of crime over and over, how law enforcement continued to stay on their trail, and how Robert and William Pinkerton, the famous brothers who ran the Pinkerton Agency during the late 1800s, finally brought them down for good.
“History is above all else a good story. In Born Crooked, Kim Wittel tells a very good story in a captivating style. Both the heroes and the villains come to life. You’ll be amazed at the importance of the Pinkerton Detective Agency in America as our country emerges as a world power in the early 20th century. Lovers of mysteries and lovers of history will find this book to be a gem.”
—Dr. Dennis Denenberg, author of 50 American Heroes Every Kid Should Meet
published by Second Lock Press in November 2017
Cast of Characters
Born Crooked is the story of Charlie Becker, along with a loosely woven gang of thieves and forgers, who for decades kept law enforcement busy on both sides of the Atlantic. It was during the second half of his criminal career that Charlie and a small group of confederates managed to confound the newly emerging Pinkerton Detective Agency, prompting changes in the monetary and banking systems of the United States. Before they were finally brought down by the Pinkertons, this gang was considered “the most clever combination of bank swindlers of modern days,” and was thought to have swindled banks in the United States out of more than $1,500,000 during the time they worked together. Here’s an introduction to the key players.
William Pinkerton (d. 1923)
Principal of Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency
Robert Pinkerton (d. 1907)
Principal of Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency
The Law Will Follow
“Vice may triumph for a time, crime may flaunt its victories in the face of honest toilers, but in the end the law will follow the wrong-doer to a bitter fate, and dishonor and punishment will be the portion of those who sin.” —Allan Pinkerton
“This is my ambition – to stand at the head of my profession, to have every police force of civilized countries on the watch for me – and to outwit them…. You’ll find ten bold fellows in every million… who dare to step out and do things, who dare to set at defiance all things – including your laws. I am one of them….”
—Charlie Becker, San Francisco Examiner, “Charles Becker, Prince of Forgers, Steps Out of Prison a Free Man.” Sept 28, 1903
“While touring over the country it was necessary for me to …. drive across country about fifteen miles. I took a team, drove it myself, and a windstorm came up, causing me to lose my way. There were no fences nor anything to indicate a highway, and I was very much alarmed for fear I should be compelled to spend the night in a storm on the prairie…. While lost out there in the country, a feeling came over me that I wished I was engaged in some more reputable business, but it didn’t last long….”
—Richard Lenox, Sioux City Times, “Sent Up For Four Years.” July 6, 1897
From His Toes Up
“In regard to Goodwin, alias English Bill, you can not say anything too mean against him. He is a thief from his toes up. It is stated in regard to him, that he never ate his breakfast until he had stolen the price of it.”
—William Pinkerton in a letter to Robert Pinkerton 7/16/1888
A Hard Rascal
“Bob is a hard old rascal and I see he is getting ready to go out on the road again. Well if he comes to America I hope he will go where I can get my clutches on him, and if I do, the memory of the past will come back to him good and strong. I would not want anything better than to see him get a dose of about 20 years, and he will get it, if I can go after him. He fooled me once, but he never will again.”
—William Pinkerton in a letter to Robert Pinkerton 1/12/1901
An early arrest
“When I was a small boy a friend of mine gave me a counterfeit fifty-dollar bill. It was lying around among his things and I put it in my pocket to carry, just as you would any other curiosity… Some years afterward…I happened to be in Chicago, far away from home, and my hotel bill was in arrears. I had lost my money – no matter how. The clerk became importunate and asked me to pay. I showed him my counterfeit bill. ‘I will after I get this changed in the morning,’ said I. The clerk reached out and took it from me, as much by force as anything –he possibly suspected it anyway. He…eventually called in an officer and had me arrested for passing a counterfeit bill.”
—Frank Seaver quoted in the San Francisco Examiner, “Honesty Is Best, But It’s Harder.” April 19, 1896
“In 1885, McCluskey was part of an infamous foiled plot to rob a department of the U.S. Treasury on the occasion of Grover Cleveland’s first inauguration. He and several other veteran bank sneak thieves knew that a celebration was to take place and arranged for a brass band to play. They planned to take advantage of the opportunity when employees’ attention would be diverted by the music to sneak behind the iron grill where the money was kept, and take as much as they could. Unfortunately, McCluskey’s weakness for liquor led him the night before the planned robbery to end up in the company of several Pinkerton operatives who were in Washington for the inauguration, to whom he confided about the excitement planned for the next day. The agents purportedly locked McCluskey in his hotel room, and the next day the Pinkerton force was represented in abundance at the ceremony, and the plot foiled.”
—C.M. Weber in a letter to William Pinkerton March 25, 1896
“At the corner of Broad and Market Streets, the detectives made their move. Becker, as was his custom, was taken peacefully, but Creegan put up a fight and attempted, unsuccessfully, to escape. When searched, Creegan was found to have $2,345 on his person, bills of $100, and one for $1000 being found sewed inside his clothes. On seeing these bills found on his partner, Becker coolly commented: ‘There goes the [boodle].’”
—Pinkerton National Detective Agency History – Forgers.
Second Lock Press
“It happened one day that the prison marshal…came rushing in to have a prisoner sign some papers, and rushed out again, leaving his key sticking in the keyhole. It wasn’t very long before we had an impression of it, and it was back in the lock again…. About midnight…we went out and steered at once for the storeroom where our clothes were piled away. We broke open the storeroom, got our things and then found our way into the yard and sized up the prison wall. It was forty-two feet high but…our rope was ready. [It] was weighted with a piece of wood and we threw it over the wall to catch it at the grating and by fastening it there were able to climb to the top.”
—Charlie Becker, Brooklyn Eagle, “Little Elliott.” March 30, 1886
About Kim Wittel
When she discovered that one of her relatives in the nineteenth century was a notorious swindler, known far and wide to law enforcement, Kim Wittel had to find out more.
A native of Lancaster County, and ninth-generation Lancastrian, she has written two previous books, Wurtenberg to Warwick: the Wittel Family of Lancaster County, and Grand Opera in Grand Style: the Lancaster Opera Company Celebrates 50 Years. She holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and is passionate about researching and recording family and community history. Kim lives with her husband in Lancaster.
If you have any questions about the book, bulk purchasing, speaking engagements, or would like to be added to my mailing list, simply use this contact form to reach Kim Wittel directly. It goes to an inbox that is checked regularly, so you can expect a speedy reply. Don’t forget to do the simple math problem when submitting (this tells us that you’re a real person).