Monday, March 1, 2010

King of Heists

Subtitled The Sensational Bank Robbery of 1878 That Shocked America, this 2009 book by J. North Conway (ISBN 978-1-59921-538-9) makes me wonder if Glen Larson knew of George Leslie, who was known as the "King of Bank Robbers" and was never caught.

Leslie has some similarities with Heyes: a talent for planning elaborate robberies that did not involve explosives; an aptitude for figuring out how to crack a safe; an aversion to violence; a taste for the finer things in life, including the ladies. He was an architect with a university degree from Ohio who, for some unknown reason, decided to go to New York City and become a bank robber. He worked with a self-picked gang and moved seamlessly between the criminal underworld and the upper crust society of New York.

Leslie planned and carried out robberies up and down the East Coast and throughout America as far west as California. It took him three years to plan the robbery of the Manhattan Savings Bank, which netted $2,747,000--according to the author, equivalent to about $50 million today. This of course, brings to mind the scene in The Man Who Broke the Bank at Red Gap, where Kid and Heyes discuss how they will be hunted with more enthusiasm now that they've carried out the most successful robbery west of the Mississippi. But the amount of that robbery, $80,000 in cash and $500,000 in negotiable bonds, pales in comparison.

A couple more ASJ connections: On P. 155, it's stated that "Leslie had always relied on the notion that the public didn't care about bank robberies, since it was only the wealthy who suffered." That's exactly what Roger Davis says in his intro as the opening credits roll! And, on P. 157, two men who committed a bank robbery in Massachusetts and another who'd robbed a bank in Ohio were sentenced to twenty years in state penitentiaries. So Heyes and Curry were correct in saying that's what they faced if they were ever caught and convicted.

King of Heists describes, in great detail, life in the Gilded Age. The book begins with background information about Leslie and then moves on to his life in New York City. It explains how, without any contacts, he met not only rich society folk but also the woman who would help and support him in his criminal enterprises, known as Marm Mandelbaum.

The author vividly recreates the world of the latter part of the 19th century, and it is fascinating. He explains the economic forces of the day, the corruption and greed that permeated New York City politics, the machinations of the robber barons, the lives of the teeming masses in city tenements, the workings of the gangs of New York, and the methods of the police and Pinkertons, all in prose that reads like a suspense novel.

Many of the major bank heists that Leslie was involved in--he was responsible for over one hundred robberies--are described in intricate detail and provide excellent source material for writing fanfiction. What makes this book even more interesting are the numerous period newspaper articles interspersed throughout, which create a "you are there" atmosphere for readers. Even though the setting is not the Old West, King of Heists is a must-read for anyone who wants to know more about the time period of ASJ or about robbing banks in the late 1800s.

1879 article from The New York Times about the robbery (contains spoilers):