Preview a few sections of the book! The table of contents on the right shows all the chapters included in Born Crooked, as well as a few that are linked—you can peruse those here.
It was just a small article in a small-town paper.
A Noted Swindler Dead
Richard Lenox, a native of Mt. Joy, died in the Milwaukee house of correction, where he was serving a term for numerous swindling transactions he had engaged in in the West….Lenox was known to all the prominent detectives of the country, and when they did capture him he gave them a struggle to overpower him. He has spent half his life in jail.
I had been researching my mother’s ancestors off and on for some years, trying to discover what had happened to my great-great grandfather’s family. My great-grandmother, who lived a long life and was full of stories about her own growing-up years, always said that her father never knew what happened to his four brothers and sisters. For some reason I was troubled by the thought, and began to investigate in my spare time. This was before the explosion of the internet and its amazing array of genealogical information, so I did a little bit here, a little bit there, and gradually pieced together the sad story of a civil war soldier who died far from home, leaving five small, orphaned children who were split up, never to be together again. As I worked to fill in the family story, I became aware that the soldier had a brother who also had disappeared. It was while I was working on something completely different that I ran across the article about Richard Lenox. I had a feeling I had found my man.
Not only had Lenox spent half his life in jail, he was associated with some of the most notorious forgers and confidence men of the nineteenth century, finally becoming a part of an infamous gang that operated all over the world and kept the famed Pinkerton Detective Agency going in circles in the 1890s. The story I uncovered is about these men: their methods, their technical brilliance and their amazing willingness to risk capture for the thrill of the challenge. But it’s also about changes in the monetary and banking systems of the United States that came about because of the ease with which the men were able to work their schemes. And it’s about William and Robert Pinkerton, the brothers whose name became synonymous with great detective work. The Agency founded by their father, Allan Pinkerton, changed the way policing and detective work was done in America. The Pinkerton Detective Agency was at the forefront of innovating how businesses formed alliances to fight crime, and in the age of rapidly changing communication capability, was the first nationwide crime-fighting force. The Pinkertons also helped to change the way our culture thought about criminal behavior, and how we addressed it. From the beginning, they focused on the rehabilitation of offenders after their debt was paid to society, and did everything they possibly could to help them re-integrate into the community. Their written communications with and about some of the principal characters in the story, which are found primarily in Part 4, are indicative of their concern for the men after their release from prison. It could be said that the Pinkerton brothers ran the original offender reentry program.
When I started my journey and discovered that the historical files of the Pinkerton Detective Agency were given to the Library of Congress in the year 2000, I thought that, perhaps, I might find something about Lenox and his life of crime. And I did! I found an incredible story full of colorful characters, backed up by a vast trove of Agency reports, newspaper articles from across the country, copious letters between Robert and William Pinkerton and to their agents in various places, and letters between the brothers and the men they tried to keep on the straight and narrow. The latter were of tremendous value to me as I sought to discover how these men operated, and why they went back, over and over again, to the life of crime that had such a hold on them.
Without the primary sources of letters and Agency reports, I would have had to rely on the journalism of the late nineteenth century. The sensationalist press was rampant, and even the best of newspapers often relied on whatever information they had, picking it up from another news outlet, until the story became an example of the “whisper down the lane” game. Hyperbole was common, and names, dates and details were often conflated to a degree that made any given article suspicious and certainly not a good source for the facts. But the newspaper articles usually pointed me in the right direction, and the Pinkerton Agency files provided the details and helped me verify the facts. I used only the fraction of the material in this vast collection that pertained to the story I wanted to tell. There are still many, many stories there to be found and told!
One of the things that is problematic in using nineteenth century sources is the lack of standardization of proper names. Not only did multiple journalistic sources spell an individual’s name differently, but the name was often spelled several different ways within the same article. There were also different spellings of a name from primary document to primary document, and because the spelling of a name was simply not as important to people at the time, different branches of a family spelled their surname differently. Unless it is used in a direct quote, I have chosen to use the form of each person’s name that was most often used in official documents, and that the person used most commonly in their lifetime. To reduce confusion for the reader, I have also not used any of the aliases that were employed by the characters in the telling of the story, again unless used in a direct quote. Each of them had aliases galore – some that they themselves used, some that were used by their partners, and some that were used by law enforcement. I have included a listing of common aliases that I found for the primary characters, although there were undoubtedly more.
That “noted swindler” that I set out to find led me to much more than I could have anticipated. The story I found was part of a much bigger story, one that captured my attention and imagination, as I hope it will capture yours.
A Very Funny Incident
“Big Dick” Lenox, as he was now called by law enforcement, and “One-armed Palmer” were sentenced on September 6, 1877, in Fulton County, Illinois for swindling three banks in Canton and Bushnell. Originally sentenced to two and a half years in the Joliet, Illinois penitentiary, Lenox was transferred to the Chester, Illinois, penitentiary on March 21, 1878. He learned to be a “first-class stone-cutter and marble cutter” during his time there, although he also spent a lot of his time in planning and attempting ways to escape.
Lenox was discharged from the Chester Penitentiary on October 21, 1879. Apparently Haley was released around the same time, as they both re-appeared in Philadelphia within a few months, where they took up with other local small-time swindlers. Bank forgeries that bore the modus operandi of Lenox and Haley were reported in Montreal, Canada, and several Pennsylvania towns. The group narrowly escaped capture after cheating banks in Emlenton and Edinburg, Pennsylvania in early 1880 before traveling west to try their luck in a new place, outside of Wichita, Kansas.
The two men arrived in Cowley County, Kansas early that spring and established themselves as a man of great wealth (Lenox) looking for a suitable location to establish his crippled brother (Haley) in the stock business. Just as they had done in Canton, Illinois, the men spent money freely and quickly gathered a group of friends and acquaintances around them. They cashed several genuine drafts, of small amount, which gained the confidence of their new friends. Once the drafts were proven to be good and the new friends convinced, they moved in for the kill. After cashing large drafts at Kohn Brothers & Levi, Woodman & Son, and a third bank in Arkansas City, they skipped town sometime in April, 1880.
Lenox made his way back to Philadelphia, where he continued to work with whomever he could convince to help him operate his latest schemes. In October he was behind a plan with a William Phelan, to fleece a bank in York, Pennsylvania. Phelan, a small-town crook who was arrested in October in Philadelphia, admitted to his thievery when brought to trial the next January, but swore “he wouldn’t have done it if it hadn’t been for Dick.” Lenox, he said, “pressed him into it” while they were in town for the York Fair. The two of them had been traveling around central Pennsylvania looking for opportunities, he said, and he had no idea that Lenox was a forger. Phelan was found guilty of the crime, but, of course, Lenox was nowhere to be found.
In the meantime, Kansas authorities had sent out pictures of Lenox and Haley to law enforcement around the country. As fortune would have it, one of the Cowley County “friends” that was duped by Lenox and Haley, a traveling salesman by the name of George Lun, saw Lenox on a March day in Chicago in 1881, and knowing that he was wanted for the crimes in Kansas, notified the Chicago Police. They, in turn arrested Lenox, who was traveling under the name of H.R. LeClair, and notified Cowley County’s sheriff, A.T. Shenneman, who made a quick trip to Chicago where Lun was able to identify Lenox. Sheriff Shenneman arrested Lenox on March 27, 1881, and the two of them boarded the next train south.
Seventy-five miles from Kansas City, Lenox proved true to his reputation for recklessness, and audacity, and escaped from custody, jumping off the moving train, in handcuffs, and disappearing. Fortunately for Shenneman, he had removed the contents of Lenox’s pockets earlier, which included a letter written in a feminine hand from Canton, Illinois and signed, “S.” When he arrived back in Kansas, he immediately contacted the police in Canton and learned that Lenox’s sister, Sarah, lived in that place and that Lenox was in the habit of visiting her regularly. Soon the Canton postmaster, the marshal of the town and the county sheriff were on the lookout.
Finally, on the night of June 16, 1881, their vigilance paid off. Lenox was seen by the town’s night watch driving into Canton. He had been hiding out of town during the daylight, it seemed, and coming in to visit Sarah only after dark. That night, they were ready for him and Lenox was captured. The county sheriff telegraphed Shenneman, who started at once for Illinois. Lenox managed to retain legal counsel immediately, probably through his family connections, and habeas corpus proceedings were already in progress when Shenneman arrived the next morning. But the Kansas sheriff was ready, and grabbed the prisoner as soon as he was discharged by the judge. Fighting a local mob that tried to save Lenox, the sheriff managed to slip him into a wagon behind “the fastest team that could be procured,” and raced to a train station twenty miles away, where they got on board and finally finished the trip that had begun in March. “This Lennix [sic] proves to be one of the most wily and successful counterfeiters in America,” The Winfield (KS) Courier crowed, and “[he] finally got a sheriff after him who never gives up and will keep his eye on him to prevent him from escaping again.”
* * *
With Lenox safely ensconced in the Cowley County jail, Shenneman set his sights on finding George Haley, who was still on the run. After tracking his route through several states, the sheriff caught up with Haley in Watertown, Wisconsin, in mid-July, where he was operating under the name of Jacob Gross. Shenneman arrested Haley and returned with him to Kansas, where he was jailed in Wichita. On August 12th, Haley managed to work the bars of his cell’s window out of their sockets and crawl out of the jail. He was quickly found and returned, but the next day, Saturday August 13, was released after a habeas corpus ruling. Again, Sheriff Shenneman was ready and re-arrested him, taking him to the Cowley County jail in Winfield on the 15th. There he stayed while the sheriff awaited extradition papers from Pennsylvania, where authorities were waiting to charge him with the 1880 swindles in Emlenton and Edinburg.
On August 20th, Shenneman escorted George Haley 1350 miles back to Pennsylvania, where a $100 reward had been offered for his arrest. Knowing that Haley was charged with swindling both the Emlenton Bank and the Clarion County bank at Edinburg, Shenneman, described as “a quiet, unassuming gentleman,” was determined to see justice done in these small Pennsylvania towns as well as his own.
While the sheriff was searching for Haley, Lenox waited for his trial and cooled his heels in the Cowley County Jail. Never an easy prisoner, “Big Dick” at least kept his warders entertained. On July 28 the Winfield Courier reported “a very funny incident” at the jail. Sheriff Shenneman wanted a photograph taken of Lenox, but Lenox was not cooperative. The sheriff went to get the blacksmith, to have Lenox’s irons removed so he could have the photo taken, regardless. When they returned to the jail they found Lenox “minus his flowing burnsides and clean shaven. Upon investigation it was found that he had broken the lamp chimney and had shaved himself with the pieces of glass.” The picture, needless to say, was taken anyway. In any case, with the figure of a woman and the name “Sallie” tattooed on right arm, and the figures of a man and woman beside a weeping willow on his left, Lenox was pretty easily identified.
* * *
On November 21, 1881, Lenox was brought to trial where he was convicted of second degree forgery. Not yet fifty years old, Lenox was sentenced to seven years in the Kansas State Penitentiary and so began his third, and to date longest stint in prison. Although he was still a large man, at nearly six feet tall and weighing 175 pounds, his dark hair was beginning to show gray and his collection of scars bore witness to the hard life he had chosen.
Some Nefarious Work
Too Smart By Half
The Rope Was Ready
The $64,000 Question
Forgery Par Excellence
Not a Particle of Evidence
The Family Bible
A Good and Plausible Talker
A Free and Easy Sort of Fellow
Canal Boat Men
He Didn’t Get Far
Busy in the Heartland
A Desperate Man
Working Against Old Friends
The Ablest Professional Forger in the World
The Work of An Artist
There Goes the Boodle
A Difficult Man to Keep Behind Bars
Out of Business
Driven to the Wall
A Grand Old Rascal
List of Illustrations
About the Author