Easy Money

The High Society Bank Robber of the 1800s

He was wealthy, a member of New York City society, and a patron of the arts. And he was also the secret mastermind behind the biggest bank heists of his day.

Emil Lendof/The Daily Beast

On the morning of October 27, 1878, when bankers at the Manhattan Savings Institution, located at the corner of Bleecker Street and Broadway in New York City, opened their doors for business, they discovered, to their horror, the bank had been broken into over the weekend and the bank vault emptied of cash and securities. It seemed impossible since the bank was known as one of the securest in the country. Still, it was true. Thieves had broken in and stolen nearly $3 million. Based on current monetary standards, the Manhattan bank heist amounts to approximately $65 million today, far surpassing any previous robberies. According to bank examiners, the exact amount the robbers stole was $2,747,700, nearly $2.5 million of which was in stocks and bonds. The New York Times hailed it as “the most sensational in the history of bank robberies in this country.”

What made the robbery more incredible than just the amount stolen was that the bank was one of the largest and most imposing in the world. The Manhattan Savings Institution was not just a bank, it was a depository for the money, jewelry, securities, and other valuables of some of the most prominent and wealthy citizens of New York City, among them Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, Jay Gould, James Fisk Jr., and Cornelius Vanderbilt. It was a ponderous labyrinth of bolts, locks, and steel doors, making it an almost impregnable fortress.

It took criminal mastermind, George Leslie, three years to plan the robbery down to the minutest detail. Leslie, a dashing, handsome, University of Cincinnati-educated architect, who came to New York City in 1869, was dubbed, “The King of Bank Robbers” by New York City police, newspaper reporters, and underworld figures, although they didn’t know his true identity until after his death. According to law enforcement authorities, from 1869 through 1878 Leslie was responsible for more than 80 percent of all the bank robberies in the country, either by planning the robberies or carrying them out himself. Despite his reputation, Leslie was never apprehended and never spent a day of his life in jail. Ultimately, it was Leslie’s roving eye, not his criminal exploits that led to his downfall.

Leslie was responsible for the three biggest bank heists of the day. Besides the Manhattan bank job, he was responsible for the 1869 Ocean National Bank robbery in New York City that netted thieves $800,000, then considered the largest theft of the era, and the 1876 Northampton Bank robbery in Massachusetts, where a record-breaking $1.6 million in cash and securities were stolen. Not a shot was fired in any of his robberies. Not a single person injured. Not a stick of dynamite used. And not one bit of property destroyed. Nothing like it had ever been pulled off in the annals of New York City crime. It was all done with Leslie’s characteristic finesse. Even the city newspapers gave credit to the culprits: “A masterful bank job pulled off by one very special bank robber,” the New York Herald reported following the Manhattan robbery.

Twenty-seven-year-old George Leslie arrived in New York City in 1869, a successful architect. With his good looks, education, and fine manners, he ingratiated himself into New York City’s high society, became a patron of the arts, attended the opera, and was invited to only the best New York City parties. But Leslie led a double life. Despite being able to slip seamlessly through the many layers of New York City’s high society, no one ever suspected he was the same man known as “The King of Bank Robbers.”

Before leaving Cincinnati, Leslie told friends he wanted to make some “easy money” in New York City. Leslie had no intention of resuming his architectural career, and had no interest becoming a Wall Street investor, although he had a small family fortune to play with. Coming to New York City, leaving behind old friends and family (his mother and father had both died, and he had no siblings), shedding the baggage of his past, Leslie set his sights on a life of crime. He intended to make his “easy money” by becoming a bank robber—but not just any old run-of-the-mill bank robber. He wanted to be the best, the most successful, and the richest.

If ever there was a place to begin a criminal career, New York City was it. A would-be bank robber like Leslie couldn’t have been better situated. The wealthiest men and women in the country made New York City their home, which meant they kept their money, jewels, stocks, and other valuables in local banks, which seemed to stand on every street corner of the city. There had to be millions of dollars just sitting there, waiting for the right kind of criminal visionary to come along and make an unlawful withdrawal. George Leslie intended to be that man.

It was the Civil War that drove Leslie from his Cincinnati home to the bustling metropolis of New York City. The bloodiest conflict in the country’s history had come to an end just four years prior to his arrival in the city, and the wounds were still fresh for both the North and South. Close to three and a half million men fought in the war, and nearly 700,000, both Union and Confederate troops, died. A million more were maimed or wounded. Although George Leslie wasn’t one of them, it wasn’t luck that had saved him; it was money—his father’s money.

Men and women, fathers and sons, brothers and sisters, women and children—all suffered through the four bloodiest years in American history. Leslie’s home state of Ohio provided a quarter-million able-bodied men as soldiers and military officers during the war. Thousands of young men from Cincinnati flocked to Union military service at the outset of the war in 1861 or were drafted, but Leslie wasn’t one of them. There was a provision in the Union Conscription Act of 1863 that allowed wealthy men to pay $300 to buy their way out of service. Leslie’s father, who was a prosperous Cincinnati brewer, paid the money to keep his son out of harm’s way. Although it was perfectly legal, it became a highly unpopular course of action, and one that many did not forget after the war ended. Wealthy young men like George Leslie were considered worse than deserters. After the war was over, Leslie found himself facing public scorn, hostility, and ostracism from many Cincinnati families and former friends who had served or lost someone in battle. Their resentment overwhelmed him. He wanted to start over in a new place where no one knew him or his history. New York City was the perfect spot to lose his past and reinvent himself.

All of Leslie’s bank jobs were arduous undertakings. He would meticulously survey the building’s layout by frequenting the bank and sometimes depositing his own money there so as not to arouse suspicion. Then, using his training and talent as an architect, he would draw up blueprints. Inside an abandoned warehouse, he would build a replica of the bank vault, where he would rehearse the robbery with his handpicked gang for months, with each member responsible for a specific function, at a specific time. The entire team studied the blueprints and drilled on the step-by-step process they would follow during the robbery. Leslie timed each of the steps to ensure split second precision. Timing was everything, as far as he was concerned. He had his team practice the bank heist over and over, throwing in various possibilities and forecasting alternative measures. He even had the gang rehearse their movements in the dark, in case something happened to the lighting inside the bank. No one had ever gone to the extent Leslie did in planning a robbery.

Leslie always carried out his big heists on the weekends when the banks were closed for business, and, hopefully, bank officials and authorities wouldn’t discover the robbery until the following Monday morning. This would give his gang plenty of time to rob the bank and make their getaway.

Prior to Leslie’s emergence into the crime world, burglars used dynamite to blow open bank vaults. But, the robbers often blew up more than just the door. Hundreds of times, robbers used too much dynamite and ended up blowing up all the cash, securities, and other valuables inside—or worse, themselves. Plus, the blast from the dynamite drew attention and caused panic, leading to many a failed robbery attempt.

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Besides his obsessive preparations, Leslie introduced another tool to the bank-robbing trade —“the little joker.” Credit for the invention of the gadget goes to another New York City criminal, Max Shinburn, but Leslie was responsible for perfecting its use. The “little joker” was a small tin wheel with a wire attached to it, which fit inside the combination of any bank safe. All a thief had to do was take off the dial knob on the safe and place the little joker on inside of it. Then, after carefully replacing the knob, it could be left there undetected. When bank officials next opened the safe,the little joker, still concealed under the safe’s knob, would record where the tumblers stopped by making a series of deep cuts on the tin wheel. The deepest cuts in the wheel showed the numbers of the combination. Although it wouldn’t record their exact order, it would only be a matter of trying several different combinations before the safe would open wide.

Using the device did require a robber to break into a bank twice—once to place the contraption inside the dial of the vault, and a second time to retrieve it. Not many robbers had the aptitude or patience to perform such a tricky endeavor. It took a special, meticulous kind of person to accomplish the undertaking, someone with brains, patience, and nerves of steel. George Leslie was that person. Although time-consuming, “the little joker” eliminated the need to use dynamite to blow open a safe and the need for the usual long and laborious safecracking techniques used by many robbers—turning the dial this way and that, listening with a stethoscope to determine the right sequence of combination clicks. Leslie sometimes broke into a bank two or three times in order to place and retrieve his “little joker” without ever once being caught. His usual trick: bribing the night watchman to let him into the bank. On several occasions, he also changed tactics and deposited a considerable sum of his own money in his targeted bank to become a valued customer, and then he convinced the bank to hire one of his cronies as a watchman.

Leslie intended the Manhattan robbery to be the final jewel in his crown as “King of the Bank Robbers.” He would have enough money from the robbery to quit the criminal business, move out west, and once again make a new name for himself. His wife had absconded to Philadelphia to wait for him, and all the plans were in place for their escape.

But Leslie had one Achilles heel: women. Known as a ladies’ man, he engaged in a slew of romantic liaisons with women from both sides of the tracks —high society and criminals. He wasn’t particularly discerning, nor was he discriminating when it came to single or married women.

In May 1878, five months before Leslie planned to rob the Manhattan Savings Institution, he stopped at Murphy’s Saloon in Brooklyn. Someone in the saloon approached him and handed him a note. He recognized the handwriting as that of Babe Draper, the 21-year old wife of one of his gang members, Shang Draper, an infamous criminal and thug. Leslie had been secretly carrying on an affair with Babe. In the note, Babe asked to see Leslie one last time before he left New York City forever. Leslie couldn’t resist. He left the bar to have one final rendezvous.

On June 4, 1878, Leslie’s body was discovered at the foot of Tramp’s Rock, in Mott’s Woods, three miles from Yonkers. His body was partly decomposed and lying under some bushes. He had been shot twice, once in the heart and once in the head. The murder of George Leslie, who was just 40 years old, was never officially solved, although police investigators surmised that he had been lured to his death by Babe Draper and killed by her husband, who had found out about the illicit affair. The King of Bank Robbers, the man responsible for carrying out or masterminding the robbery of millions of dollars, was buried in a $10 pauper’s grave in the Cypress Hill Cemetery. Only his criminal cohorts knew who he was since none of his high society friends ever dreamed someone like him would be murdered in such a violent way, and no one had access to his money to give him a nicer burial. Not long after Leslie’s body was discovered, Babe Draper’s body was found in the waters near the Brooklyn Bridge, her throat slit.

On October 27, 1878, five months after Leslie’s murder, his gang, including Shang Draper, broke in and robbed the Manhattan Savings Institution. One of the largest investigations in New York City police annals began immediately following the heist, and slowly, one by one, the men who robbed the Manhattan Savings Institution were tracked down and brought to justice—all except George Leslie. Through a series of informants, mostly criminal underlings who were jealous of Leslie’s success, police were able to identify Leslie as the ring-leader. They were later able to connect Leslie to most of the bank robberies throughout the country. Since a bulk of the loot stolen from the Manhattan Savings Institution was in the form of certificates that the robbers were unable to spend, most of the loot was returned to the bank. Only a mere $15,000 in cash from the haul was never recovered.

Leslie, the architect from Cincinnati, who had been looking to make some “easy money,” had pulled off the biggest bank heist in history, but he never lived to see it. Easy money was harder to come by than he thought.

Based on the book King of Heists by J. North Conway, Globe Pequot, 2009.