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King of Heists: The Sensational Bank Robbery of 1878 That Shocked America

King of Heists: The Sensational Bank Robbery of 1878 That Shocked America

3.5 47
by J. North Conway

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King of Heists is a spellbinding and unprecedented account of the greatest bank robbery in American history, which took place on October 27, 1878, when thieves broke into the Manhattan Savings Institution and stole nearly $3 million-around $50 million in today's terms. Bring the Gilded Age to life, J. North Conway tells the story of those who plotted and carried


King of Heists is a spellbinding and unprecedented account of the greatest bank robbery in American history, which took place on October 27, 1878, when thieves broke into the Manhattan Savings Institution and stole nearly $3 million-around $50 million in today's terms. Bring the Gilded Age to life, J. North Conway tells the story of those who plotted and carried out this infamous robbery - including criminal mastermind George Leonidas Leslie, a society architect and ladies' man whose double life led him to be dubbed the "King of the Bank robbers"- and of how they did it, and how they were tracked down and captured.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Conway (American Literacy) relates the engrossing tale of "the greatest bank robbery in American history." The central figure is architect George Leslie, who was 27 when he arrived in Manhattan in 1869 seeking success and adventure. With impeccable manners and good looks, Leslie led a double life, inserting himself into the Gilded Age city's most elite circles, while assembling a gang of "the cleverest criminals in New York City's underworld" to carry out a series of bank robberies. His biggest was the October 27, 1878, theft from the Manhattan Savings Institution of some $3 million in cash and securities (the equivalent of $50 million today). Conway skillfully paints a backdrop of fierce and flamboyant personalities who paraded across the Gilded Age, from Brooklyn Bridge engineer John Roebling to Marm Mandelbaum, "queen of the criminals." The author overstates his claim to be following in John Dos Passos's footsteps in quoting real newspaper headlines and stories of the period as well as song lyrics, but he capably recounts his story against a background of glitter and greed. (Aug.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
From the Publisher
“Engrossing . . . Conway skillfully paints a backdrop of fierce and flamboyant personalities who paraded across the Gilded Age, from Brooklyn Bridge engineer John Roebling to Marm Mandelbaum, ‘queen of the criminals.’ . . . [H]e capably recounts his story against a background of glitter and greed.”—Publishers Weekly “...a page-turning account of one of the most brazen crimes of our time.” —Reader’s Digest "Conway, a college prof and ex-newspaper man, covers this ancient tale in a way that makes it feel like a hot news story." - New York Post

Product Details

Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.20(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.10(d)

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The Sensational Bank Robbery of 1878 That Shocked America

The Lyons Press

Copyright © 2009 J. North Conway
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-59921-538-9

Chapter One

Delmonico's-New York City, 1869

What is the chief end of man?-to get rich. In what way?-dishonestly if we can; honestly if we must. -MARK TWAIN, AMERICAN HUMORIST AND AUTHOR (THE GILDED AGE, 1873)

Some things never change.

Good looks, nice clothes, and fine manners will take you far, and George Leslie knew that these and other qualities he possessed would take him exactly where he wanted to go. Life had been pretty much a la carte for twenty-seven-year-old George Leslie. He could afford to pick and choose what he wanted depending upon his appetite. Now, he was hungry for a tasty slice of New York City, with a side of easy money.

In 1869, Leslie had just arrived in New York City from Cincinnati. Most of his possessions were still in transit. He set up residency, at least for the time being, at the exclusive Fifth Avenue Hotel. He only knew a handful of people in New York, and one of them was civil engineer John Roebling. Not long after settling in, Roebling invited him to dinner at the exclusive Delmonico's restaurant. * * *

The war was never far from George Leslie's mind. How could it be? The bloodiest conflict in the country's history had come to an end just four years ago, and the wounds were still fresh, for both North and South. Close to three and a half million men had fought in the Civil War, and nearly 700,000, both Union and Confederate troops, had died. A million more were maimed or wounded. Although George Leslie wasn't one of them, it wasn't luck that had saved him.

The specter of the war he had not fought in plagued him, followed him everywhere, weighing him down like a great albatross hung around his neck. It drove him from his comfortable home in Cincinnati and his successful architectural business, even from the woman he was once engaged to marry. It followed him everywhere, even to New York City, where Leslie hoped to lose himself in the anonymity of the great burgeoning metropolis. But the ghosts of the war were everywhere, a constant reminder for him-not of what he had done during the war, but of what he hadn't.

On every New York City street corner he saw them: tragic young men and boys, begging on the streets, wearing their tattered Union army coats, some sporting medals hanging from faded ribbons on their lapels, a constant reminder of his own imperfection. Their gaunt faces and hollow eyes were grim souvenirs of the horror of the past conflagration. Some wore black patches where an eye had once been, or had a folded coat sleeve tacked to their shoulder where there had once been an arm. Some hobbled on makeshift crutches to support themselves, a leg missing, a foot gone. Others were mere shells of their former selves, lying in the gutter holding out tin cups. Their bodies, minds, and hearts were scarred forever. These horrific casualties proliferated the city's landscape, bearing witness for all to see of the costs of this Great War to preserve the Union. Leslie could not escape them, not even on the busy, crowded streets of New York City.

The Civil War had taken a terrible toll on the country's psyche as well as its people. Men and women, fathers and sons, brothers and sisters, women and children-all had suffered through the four bloodiest years in American history. Even four years after the war's end, the deep wounds inflicted on the country and its people had not healed.

Leslie's home state, Ohio, had provided a quarter-million able-bodied men as soldiers and military officers during the war; only the states of New York and Pennsylvania had provided more troops. His own hometown of Cincinnati had been a major source of supplies and troops for the Union Army. Several leading generals hailed from the Buckeye State, including President Ulysses S. Grant, William Sherman, and Phil Sheridan. Grant, the "Hero of Appomattox," born in Point Pleasant, Ohio (not far from where Leslie had grown up), had been elected President of the United States in a landslide victory in 1868. At the outset of the war in 1861, thousands of young men from Cincinnati had flocked to military service, but Leslie wasn't one of them. His father had seen to that, buying Leslie's way out of the draft.

Even tucked away at the University of Cincinnati, where he had studied architecture and graduated as an honors student, Leslie wasn't able to escape the scandal that swirled around him. In 1863, at the height of the war, George Leslie was twenty-one years old, a prime candidate for the draft. Hundreds of young men from his hometown were either being drafted to fight in the Union cause or signing up to serve. The Union Conscription Act of 1863, drastically unpopular and a source of riots across the country, called for all able-bodied males between the ages of twenty and forty-five to be drafted into military service. However, it included a provision that allowed wealthy men to pay $300 to buy their way out of service, or to hire a substitute soldier to go in their place.

Leslie's father had paid the $300 outright for George's release from military service-and George had been paying for it ever since. It was a perfectly legal but a highly unpopular course of action, and one that many did not forget after the war ended. Wealthy young men like George Leslie could not have been thought less of; they were considered worse than deserters. Although deserting during wartime was punishable by death, people could at least understand it. The horrors of war could make a young man do just about anything. At the very least, being a deserter meant a man had at least served, at least faced the enemy, even if he chose to run away ... whereas young men like Leslie were thought to have run away before the first shot had even been fired.

After the war was over, Leslie found himself in the unpopular position of facing ridicule and scorn from many in Cincinnati despite his lofty social standing. There was open hostility toward him, and he was ostracized by many Cincinnati families and former friends who had served or lost someone dear in battle. Their resentment overwhelmed him.

He wanted to start over.

After graduating from the University of Cincinnati, Leslie had been engaged to marry a fragile, beautiful young woman who came from a prosperous Cincinnati family. She was a shy, quiet young woman who wrote poetry, read books, pressed flowers for a hobby, and taught Sunday school. Her father had made a fortune during the war, supplying shovels to the Union Army. After the war, his business continued to flourish when he was contracted to provide shovels for the building of the country's transcontinental railroad. They had their whole life before them.

Her father was a Lincoln Republican and his brother served as a major general during the war. The brother was best known for ordering the raid that became famous as the Great Locomotive Chase. The Chase, sometimes known as Andrews's Raid, was a Union military raid in northern Georgia in 1862. Twenty-two volunteers from Ohio regiments stole a Confederate train, trying to disrupt rail service that ran from Atlanta, Georgia, to Chattanooga, Tennessee. They hoped to burn bridges and dynamite train tunnels along the way. After infiltrating Confederate lines and hijacking a train, they were pursued by other locomotives before finally being captured and imprisoned. Several of them were executed as spies. Some managed to escape back to their regiment. Several of the surviving members of Andrews's Raiders became the first recipients of the Medal of Honor.

It was with a certain degree of trepidation that her father gave his blessing for his daughter's marriage to Leslie. Leslie did, after all, come from a well-to-do family. His father was a successful brewer in Toledo, Ohio. He was well educated, independently wealthy, and ran his own successful architectural firm in Cincinnati. Still, despite his many attributes, there were reservations, mostly because Leslie had bought his way out of the draft. Ohioans did not look kindly on men who paid their way out of the army-not when so many of their young men had died while trying to preserve the Union. Her father was somewhat inclined to overlook it, for the most part, although there remained a nagging doubt about the character of his soon-to-be son-in-law.

Everything was going as planned and would have culminated in a grand wedding and reception sometime in May of 1867, if it were not for the return of Jacob Parrot, a former suitor. At the outbreak of the war, Parrot had volunteered as a private in the 33rd Ohio Infantry, and had also volunteered to take part in the daring train raid in Georgia. He had been one of the lucky ones. He and fourteen others managed to escape, but only six, including Parrot, reached their regiment safely. In 1863, Jacob Parrot became the first recipient of the Union War Department's Medal of Honor. He was a hero, and his return to Cincinnati spelled an end to George Leslie's upcoming nuptials. Within months of Parrot's return, the engagement was broken off and Leslie was banished from his fiancée's household. She ended up marrying Parrot, the war hero.

Leslie knew he could never escape his past transgressions-at least, not while living in Cincinnati. After the death of both his parents in 1867, he sold the family home, closed his architectural firm, packed up everything, and fled to the anonymity that he believed New York City would afford him.

Leslie was twenty-seven years old when he arrived in New York City in the winter of 1869. New York was a bustling metropolis, bursting at the seams with opportunities. Fortunes were being made in oil, banking, railroads, and communications. Important and exciting things were happening. Leslie wanted to shake off his old life and become part of it all. He was not interested in reestablishing his architectural career. For reasons that were not clear to him at the time, he had set his sights on becoming something and someone entirely different. This much he did know: Whatever he ended up pursuing, he wanted no part of his past interfering with his future there in New York City. And he knew he wanted a chance to make what he called "easy money." For George Leslie, there was no easier way of making money than stealing it.

All the respectable things of the world-position, education, and wealth-didn't mean a thing to him anymore. They had all come easily to him and had ultimately gotten him nowhere. What he wanted now was what he'd never had in his life-mystery and adventure. He could never have found them in Cincinnati, and decided he would look for them in New York City.

* * *

Delmonico's smelled of charcoal and smoke. The aroma of sizzling beef and boiling potatoes filled up the dining room. A thick cloud of cigar smoke hung like an incoming storm cloud over the noisy patrons. There was the clink of wineglasses and the clatter of plates and silverware. A steady din of modulated conversation was sporadically interrupted by the occasional shriek of laughter. Waiters dressed in white waistcoats and equally white gloves moved like choreographed dancers through the noisy, smoke-filled restaurant, balancing trays filled with food and expensive bottles of wine.

The prices of the famed cuisine at Delmonico's restaurant were sufficiently high to discourage anyone but the very wealthy from patronizing it. It was New York City's most renowned culinary spot. Located in a converted mansion at the corner of Fifth Avenue and Fourteenth Street, a block from Union Square, it was the most luxurious restaurant in the city. It had a café and an elaborate dining room on the first floor. Upstairs was a spacious and lavish ballroom and a score of private dining rooms where many select social functions and private dinners were held. It catered to the city's wealthy upper classes, indulging every culinary whim of its affluent patrons.

The restaurant was started by Giovanni and Pietro Delmonico (John and Peter) in 1837 and soon became known as the country's first fine dining establishment. After Giovanni's death, his son, Lorenzo, joined his uncle in managing the operation. After moving its location several times throughout the city, Delmonico's moved to a refurbished Union Square mansion in 1862. It was the first four-star restaurant in the country, and a gathering place for most of New York City's fashionable elite, from politicians (including the infamous Boss Tweed and his archrival Samuel Tilden) and writers (such as Mark Twain and Ambrose Pierce) to wealthy businessmen, including Wall Street speculator "Jubilee" Jim Fisk and international banker, August Belmont.

It was one of the first stops on George Leslie's New York City itinerary.

* * *

... members of the Delmonico family of restaurateurs ... were found at their ... rendezvous of gastronomes on Fifth Avenue ... A steady stream of celebrities-social, plutocratic, artistic, journalistic, legal and every other shade of professional gentlemen ... poured through the door of the café, a salon of almost Saracenic splendor and sauntered in and out ... all over the beautiful building ... There is now no restaurant in Paris, or London or Vienna which can compete with our Delmonico's in the excellence and variety of its fare ... -New York Tribune (1869)

* * *

Leslie had been the sharpshooting champion of the University of Cincinnati, but the recognition meant very little to him. He had never truly cared for guns. He was not a Union sharpshooter during the war, which might have earned him some modicum of respect and admiration. If he had been, he could have justifiably placed his medals for bravery or sharpshooting, if he had earned them, right next to his university sharpshooting trophy. Then all of it might have meant something.

It was his father's idea for him to join the rifle club at school, and with the help of a private tutor (hired by his father), George learned to shoot both pistols and rifles expertly. Despite all the drudgery of it and the lack of any meaningful recognition, it produced a certain undeniable inner confidence, knowing he could shoot the lights out of anything or anyone, at practically any reasonable distance, with either hand, if he needed to. This skill might have served him well if he had been in the Wild West, but he wasn't. He had lived in Cincinnati, and now, New York City, and it was 1869. Things were more civilized, at least among the more respectable denizens of the great metropolis-or at least they appeared to be. Leslie had little reason to use this acquired skill. Perhaps it was the mere knowledge of this hidden talent that gave him a sense of superiority.

George Leslie was a tall, handsome man-lean, fit, and muscular. Some might have called him rugged were it not for his exquisite taste in clothes. He wore the finest suits money could buy. Since coming to New York, he had purchased several frock coats, vests, and trousers from Brooks Brothers, where everyone who was anyone bought their apparel. He was clean-shaven, with a cleft in his strong chin. His complexion was clear and genial, his wide brown eyes, sincere and bright. With his dashing good looks and dress, impeccable manners, and outgoing personality, Leslie had very little trouble ingratiating himself with New York City's social elite.

There was an apparent air of superiority that emanated from him. It was not the expensive clothes he wore, or his education, or his personal wealth that gave off this initial impression to others. It was something about the way he cocked his head back and to one side, appearing to look down his nose through his spectacles that made him appear judgmental, if not downright superior. He had started wearing glasses after graduating because the close, meticulous work at his drafting table had taken a toll on his otherwise perfect eyesight. He might not have had good eyesight, but George knew he had vision. He saw everything, including his future, clear as a bell.

His propensity to cock his head and, with a penetrating stare through his glasses, appear to weigh someone's every word made him appear to be judging whether the speaker truly had anything worthwhile to say. This was unnerving for some, who likely misconstrued it as arrogance or conceit. It wasn't. It was an overt mannerism that was initially unnerving but was soon forgotten and forgiven within the continuum of Leslie's all-encompassing persona of exquisite charm, astonishing good looks, and impeccable manners. There wasn't the slightest bit of etiquette that escaped him, from the gentlemanly habit of bowing slightly when introduced, to waiting until everyone else was seated before seating himself. He lit cigarettes and cigars for companions and guests, and poured wine for tasting. He opened doors and held chairs for ladies, and he would rise from his seat when anyone (except, of course, the help) joined his company. He was gracious and charming to everyone he came in contact with.


Excerpted from KING of HEISTS by J. NORTH CONWAY Copyright © 2009 by J. North Conway. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

J. North Conway is the author of King of Heists: The Sensational Bank Robbery of 1878 That Shocked America and eight other nonfiction books. He has been a daily newspaper reporter and editor, and a columnist and feature writer for the Providence Journal and Bostonia, the alumni publication of Boston University. He has worked as an editor/writer for the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the second oldest international learned society in the country. He teaches at the University of Massachusetts in Dartmouth and Bristol Community College in Fall River, Massachusetts. He previously taught at Boston University, Northeastern University, and Fisher College. He lives in Assonet, Massachusetts.

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King of Heists 3.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 47 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Conway is right about Yale and the combination lock. I go to MIT. He's on record. It's a shame people are allowed to spout off things here without knowing anything. I suggest whoever posted this read a book or try not playing one-up-manship with a real author/reseracher. "Linus Yale Jr. (1821-1868) American, Linus Yale Jr. was an mechanical engineer and lock manufacturer who patented a cylinder pin-tumbler lock in 1861. Yale invented the modern combination lock in 1862. "
grumpydan More than 1 year ago
"King of Heists" by J. North Conway is the story of one George Leslie, America's greatest bank robber. It is more than then just his life in the latter part of the 19th century, but a glimpse of what New York City and America was like during the Gilded Age. As a person fascinated with the early days of New York, I found this book to be quite informative. It is an enjoyable read for history fans.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A fun, off-the-beaten path story that talks about something the average reader may not necessarily think of right away when looking for a good historical book. Not earth-shattering historically, but the characters defined in the book come to life and make this worth a look. A bit of irony follows the story in regards to the denouement, which unfortunately takes a bit of the edge and excitement off, but it would be fun to see this made into a movie. Better to see something new than another gangster movie about Dillinger and the like.
pplayerp More than 1 year ago
there is a story here, but this book does not tell it well at all!! Editing is sloppy (mispelled words etc.) The book is heavily "padded" with constant reduntantcys and repetition is so constant is is annoying. I would not reccomend this book to anyone!!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
If all history were this interesting, kids would pay attention. Read this!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Really excited to read more on this topic. Book was good enough to capture my interest but it was so poorly written that I had a difficult time finishing it.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A good history of the event and time peroid.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Further editting could be done. Much redundancy but i enjoyed the storyline.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
History comes to life in this book, and unfortunately the descriptions of the Gilded Age sound far too much like situations found today. Highly recommended!
PCOK More than 1 year ago
enjoyable reading
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