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Mobsters in America – Bristol Bill The Burglar – The Most Celebrated Bank Robber of the 1840’s
He escaped from a British prison in Australia and made his way to New York City. In the 1940s the Police Gazette wrote that Bristol Bill the Burglar was “the most celebrated bank robber and burglar of our time”.
The London police knew his name but never revealed it, but we do know the following about Bristol-Bill. He was born in the early 1800s to an aristocratic family, the son of a Member of Parliament from Bristol. When Bill was in his second year at Eton College, his family adopted the 16-year-old orphaned daughter of a poor clergyman. Bill was the handsomest of the men, almost 6 feet tall, with big brown eyes and a broad forehead. In no time he seduced the young girl and got her pregnant. His father was so enraged when he found out about the young girl’s delicate condition, he beat his son to a pulp, then kicked the girl out of his house. His father sent Bill back to Eton, but Bill soon found his love and they both fled to London.
The boy was born, and to pay the bills, Bill got a job at a local locksmith. Soon Bill was so adept at making keys, locks and tools that he began selling his wares to a London gang called the Blue Boys. The Blue Boys are so successful in burglaries and bank robberies that they soon make Bill their leader. It took half a dozen years until Bill amassed about $200,000. With his newfound wealth, and the police hot on his heels, Bill abandoned his wife and child and headed for Liverpool, where he hoped to jump on a ship to America. But a certain London policeman was on his trail, and he arrested Bill in Liverpool. That cop will pay a large part of Bill’s life on the other side of the pond.
After his arrest, Bill’s money was confiscated and he was sentenced to 14 years in a penal colony in Botany Bay, Australia. After serving 10 years, Bill escaped by swimming four miles to an American whaler. He first landed in Bedford, Massachusetts, but then he made his way to New York City, where at the time almost all professional thieves were of British descent. Bill’s mission was to hook up with a robbery gang that has been called “the most extensive association of burglars, forgers and swindlers the western world has ever seen.” The London team consisted of well-known “cutters” (a London term for thieves), such as Billy Fish, Billy Hoppy, “Cupid” Downer, Bill Parkinson, Bob Whelan, Jim Honeyman and Dick Collard. They were joined by two New Yorkers, Joe Ashley and “One Eye” Thompson.
The mastermind of the operation was a shady character named Samuel Drury, who was known as a banker and financier, but was in fact a notorious counterfeiter, and fence of stolen goods. What his gang plundered, Drury would buy and sell, keeping the main part for himself.
Bill met a girl named Kathryn Davenport, who was an expert thief and pickpocket, but she also worked for Drury as a “connieker,” or counterfeit cash passer. Davenport informed Drury that the famous Bristol Bill was in New York City, and that he wanted to join their operation. When Bill first met Drury, he thought he looked familiar.
“Were you ever a policeman in London?” Bill asked Drury. Drury admitted that he did. “I knew it,” said Bill. “You’re the same hound that followed me to Liverpool and made me pinch for 14 years.”
Drury told Bill that he was caught stealing himself and had to leave London for New York. Drury said to Bill, “If you have any grudge against me, you must forget it. I can make you a fortune in this country.”
Bill worked with Drury and his team for four whole years, robbing banks, valuables and jewelry from different states, all the way to New Orleans. He even traveled to Montreal to steal a large amount of silver plate from the home of the Governor General of Canada. Bill’s specialty was making his own hacking tools, and he was the best lock picker in the entire United States. He once escaped from prison with a key he made from silver oak. Another time he opened his cabin door with a key he fashioned from a piece of stove pipe. Bill’s biggest heist was the heist of the barge “The Clinton”. After opening the ship’s safe with a key he made from a wax print, Bill walked away with $32,000 in cash. He kept $10,000 for himself and sold the rest to Drury for $7,000, which Drury slowly liquidated from a bank he owned in upstate New York.
By 1849, Bill had earned more than $400,000 in America, which he spent mostly on his three “wives,” one in Manhattan, one in Brooklyn, and one in New Jersey. The three women were fast friends, and they usually accompanied Bill on out-of-town robberies; One pretends to be his wife and the other two to his sisters. There is no record of how he picked and chose which lady to fill which role for each separate occasion.
Living the abundant life, Bill thought it was finally time to get revenge on Drury. Bill knew Drury had bombed the house of a lawyer he had a falling out with. Bill no longer needed Drury as a fence, at the request of the police newspaper, gave information to the police about Drury’s involvement in the explosion. While Drury and his son, along with one-eyed Thompson, were in jail awaiting trial, police raided Drury’s Astoria mansion and found fake plates and thousands of dollars in counterfeit cash.
For his help with the Drury nail, the NYPD gave Bill a pass. Knowing that New York City is not safe for him, Bill travels to Vermont with his current crush, a former opera singer known only as “Gookin’ Peg.” He was also accompanied by a forger named Christian Meadows and a London crook named Jim English. They rented a cottage in Groton, near the Canadian border and prepared to do what they do best. Vermont police raided the cottage in the spring of 1850, based on information provided by the New York Herald and Police Gazette. They found Bill’s homemade hacking tools, a counterfeit machine and fresh bills. Additionally, there were several diagrams of banks Bill planned to rob.
Faced with insurmountable evidence, Bill and Meadows were arrested. English Jim was not at the cottage when the police arrived, and for some reason “Peg Gookin” was not charged. Bill and Meadows were sentenced to ten years in Windsor State Prison. When Bill was released, he was almost 60 years old, and he disappeared from the American crime scene. Some said he had returned to London. Others said he died broke in America.
While he was in prison, Bristol-Bill the Bulger admitted to fellow inmates that the biggest mistake he had made in his life was inventing an unpickable lock in his early locksmith days in London, which was widely sold in the United States. According to him, there were many times when he came across his invention on bank vaults and the front doors of houses, which made the task of breaking in, entering and stealing almost impossible.
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