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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 1840s, the Police Gazette wrote that Bristol Bill the thief was “the most notorious bank robber and burglar of our time”.
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 into an aristocratic family, the son of an MP for Bristol. When Bill was in his second year at Eton College, his family adopted a 16-year-old orphaned daughter of a poor clergyman. Bill was the handsomest of men, nearly 6 feet tall, with brown eyes and a broad forehead. Before long, he seduced the young woman and got her pregnant. His father was so indignant when he learned of the delicate condition of the young woman that he beat his son until he threw her out of his house. His father sent Bill back to Eton, but Bill soon tracked down his love and they both ran away 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 band called the Blue Boys. The Blue Boys were so successful at robbing and robbing banks that they soon made Bill their leader. This went on for half a dozen years until Bill amassed approximately $200,000. With his new riches and the police hot on his heels, Bill abandoned his wife and son and headed for Liverpool, where he hoped to board a ship to America. But a certain London policeman was on his trail and arrested Bill in Liverpool. This same policeman would pay for a large part of Bill’s life across 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 turning 10, Bill escaped by swimming four miles to an American whaler. He first landed in Bedford, Massachusetts, but then went to New York City, where at that time nearly all professional thieves were of British origin. Bill’s mission was to hook up with a robbery ring that called itself “the most extensive association of thieves, forgers and swindlers the western world has ever seen.” The London contingent consisted of “cross men” (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 shadowy figure named Samuel Drury, known as a banker and financier, but in reality he was a renowned counterfeiter and fencer of stolen goods. Whatever his band stole, Drury would buy and sell, and keep the main part himself.
Bill met a girl named Catherine Davenport who was an expert thief and pickpocket, but also worked for Drury as a “koneyacker” or passer of counterfeit cash. Davenport informed Drury that the famous Bristol Bill was in New York City and wanted to join his operation. When Bill first met Drury, he thought he looked familiar.
“Have you ever been a policeman in London?” Bill asked Drury. Drury admitted that he was. “I knew it,” said Bill. “You’re the same dog that tracked me down in Liverpool and pinched me for 14 years.”
Drury told Bill that he was caught stealing and had to leave London for New York. Drury said to Bill, “If you have a grudge against me, you must forget it. I can make you a fortune in this country.”
Bill worked with Drury and his crew for four years, robbing banks, valuables and jewelry from several states, as far away as 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 burglar’s tools, and he was the best basket maker in all of America. He once escaped from prison with a key he made from silver oak. Another time he opened the door of his cell with a key he made from a piece of stove pipe. Bill’s biggest heist was the heist of the boat “The Clinton”. After opening the ship’s safe with a key he had made from a wax impression, Bill made off with $32,000 in cash. He kept $10,000 for himself and sold the rest to Drury for $7,000, which Drury gradually removed from a bank he had in New York State.
By 1849, Bill had earned over $400,000 in the United States, which he spent mostly on these three “wives,” one in Manhattan, one in Brooklyn, and one in New Jersey. The three women were fast friends, and usually accompanied Bill on his robberies outside the city; one posing as his wife and the other two as his sisters. There is no record of how he picked and chose which woman played which role for each occasion.
Living an exuberant life, Bill thought it was finally time to get revenge on Drury. Bill knew that Drury had bombed the house of a lawyer with whom he had fallen out. No longer needing Drury as a fence, at the request of the Police Gazette, Bill provided information to the police about Drury’s involvement with the explosion. While Drury and his son, along with Tu-Ull Thompson, were in jail awaiting trial, police raided Drury’s Astoria mansion and found counterfeit license plates and thousands of dollars in counterfeit cash.
For his help in nailing Drury, the New York City police gave Bill a pass. Knowing that New York City wasn’t safe for him, Bill traveled to Vermont with his current squeeze, a former opera singer known only as “Gookin’ Peg.” He was also accompanied by a forger named Christian Meadows and a London thief named English Jim. They rented a cottage in Groton near the Canadian border and prepared to do what they did best. Acting on information provided by the New York Herald and the Police Gazette, the Vermont police raided the house in the spring of 1850. They found Bill’s home-made burglary tools, a counterfeit machine, and freshly minted bills. Also, there were several diagrams of the banks that Bill planned to rob.
Faced with insurmountable evidence, Bill and Meadows were arrested. English Jim was not at the cabin when the police arrived, and for some reason “Gookin’ Peg” 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 disappeared from the American crime scene. Some said he returned to London. Others said he died broke in America.
While in prison, Bristol-Bill the Bulgar confided to other inmates that the biggest mistake he ever made was inventing a lock that couldn’t be picked in his early days as a locksmith in London, which sold widely in the United States. He said there were many times he found his invention in bank vaults and front doors of homes, making his mission to break in, break in and steal nearly impossible .
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