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The Day They Caught 'Red' Leary

This article appeared in the Dayton Daily News, February 18, 1934


By Howard Burba


     The recent roundup of John Dillinger and his gang in a southwestern city offered Miami valley residents a live topic of conversation, since it was in Dayton that the big, bad wolf of the bandit world was captured following his escape from the Indiana penitentiary.  His capture in Dayton and subsequent release from the Lima jail following the murder there of Sheriff Jesse Sarber really marked Dillinger’s advent into the limelight as a public enemy.

     While Dillinger’s arrest, and his numerous colorful escapades immediately following it, provided first-page stories as thrilling as anything the old west ever furnished in its wildest days of stage holdups and bank robberies, it was not without a parallel in local history.  In many ways the arrest of Dillinger reminded old-timers of the Miami valley of the day still another nationally-known bad man was picked up here, a man whose police record was fully as long, and his criminal career equally as lurid, as that of Dillinger.  That man was “Red” Leary.

     Leary was the nation’s leading bad man of the ’seventies. Older citizens recall how they used to pick up their daily paper and find a new bank robbery or train holdup credited to him, and how he smilingly eluded his pursuers only to turn up in a distant state to add still another chapter to his active criminal career.  They likewise recall that day back in 1874 when he ran afoul of Dayton police, just as John Dillinger did 60 years later.

     While “Red” Leary’s name was familiar all over America, it was not until along in October, 1874, that Dayton was included in his operations.  Even then it was hard for local citizens to realize they had actually been entertaining for three whole days the high mogul of the worst gang of pickpockets that ever operated in America.

     Like those of his kind in more modern times, “Red” Leary kept posted on those events throughout the country which were most apt to draw large audiences.  With his gang headquarters established in New York city, Leary maintained close touch with leading members of the underworld in every part of the country, and directed personally such forages into the interior as promised “easy picking.”

     It was but natural, therefore, that his eyes should turn toward Dayton on the occasion of the great horse race in this city on Oct. 2, 1874, when “Goldsmith Maid” set a new world record amid the cheers and huzzahs of the largest crowd ever assembled in the city up to that time.

     “Red” and his picked henchmen were early on the scene.  They were equally prompt in opening operations for, according to the files of old Dayton newspapers, the greatest orgy of pocket-picking the city has ever known started with the very opening day of the Southern Ohio fair.  We read this colorful description of it in a paper of Oct. 8, 1874.

     “As usual on such occasions the great gathering of people assembled at the Southern Ohio fair attracted to the city a mob of thieves of all kinds who plied their vocation successfully, in securing and getting away with a considerable amount of booty.

     “The pickpockets were the most successful operators.  Every day on the fairgrounds, especially among immense crowds which surrounded the race track on Friday, the light-fingered gentry succeeded in getting in their work and relieving many unsuspecting people of their watches, pocketbooks and other valuables.  Hundreds of cases of this species of robbery were reported and notwithstanding the vigilance of police very few arrests of the operators were made.

     “This class of thieves are adept at their business.  They operate in ‘gangs’ or ‘mobs’ and if the fellow who snatches your watch or your pocketbook from your pocket is arrested a moment afterward he shows up clean hands, having passed his plunder to an accomplice.  A number of the victims of these expert thieves were ladies who carelessly exposed watches and jewelry, or carried their portemonnaies in their pockets.  It is said that a gang of expert ‘molls’ –female thieves, in the thieves’ vocabulary--who came here from abroad worked Exposition hall and succeeded in relieving a number of ladies of their valuables.

     “A large number of empty pocketbooks were found strewn about the fairgrounds Saturday morning, which had been rifled of their contents and thrown away by the thieves.  At the Union depot Saturday over 50 ‘skinned leathers,’ as empty pocketbooks are called in their parlance, were found scattered about, showing that these sharp operators had played their game successfully on the passengers crowding the outgoing trains in the evening.

     “Several residences were entered during the daytime, while families were absent, and robbed of valuables.  The rooms of some of the guests at some of the principle hotels were invaded and valuables carried off.  In most cases the thieves escaped detection.

     “There was no lack of vigilance on the part of the police, but it is almost impossible with any ordinary amount of force, in so immense a crowd, to detect the expert operators who perpetrate these robberies. The extent of their operations was no greater where similar crowds congregate.

     “When Messrs. VanAusdal and Herman were removing their goods, which they had on exhibition at the fair, they found deposited in a roll of carpet 21 pocketbooks, purses and portemonnaies, which had been rifled of their contents by the pickpockets who infested the Exposition hall during the fair.  The piece of carpet had been set aside in a corner of the hall, and had been rolled up as a cylinder with a hole in the center, which the thieves found to be a convenient receptacle for the pocketbooks they had stolen, after they had extracted the money from them.

     “Mr. Barry Kerfoot, who discovered the stolen pocketbooks, looked through them all expecting to find something indicating the owners, but the thieves had pretty effectually cleaned them out.  One contained a silver five-cent piece, in Canadian money.  In another was a small German silver piece, and in still others a small amount of change, amounting in all to 17c.  One lady called at the store yesterday and identified her purse which had been extracted from her pocket, with a small amount of money.  Other evidence of the depredation of thieves was found scattered about Exposition hall.  It is said that the principal operators in this department were women, and they plied their trade successfully, most of their victims being ladies who exposed their jewelry and other valuables without suspecting the danger they incurred of losing them.”

     Police were actively engaged in rounding up members of the light–fingered gentry during the week.  But it was not until late on Friday, at the very close of “Goldsmith Maid’s” remarkable performance and almost before the echoes of the shouting at the fairground had died down that they were rewarded.  Then Detective William Hatfield and Patrolman Pat Hughes, whose son, Walter Hushes, served so admirably as head of the local detective bureau in later years, spotted a man at the depot whom they recognized from police photographs, as “Red” Leary.  He had just bought a ticket to New York city and was awaiting a train which would take him there.

     Aware that he had been recognized, Leary attempted a getaway.  He quickly started shoving his way through the waiting crowd of passengers on the platform and, hurrying across the tracks, dodged in between two coaches standing on a siding.  Hughes reached him first, and was first to receive a blow squarely on the nose. He measured his length on the ground, but was quickly on his feet, this time set to go into action.  By that time Hatfield had reached the scene, and quickly covered Leary with his gun.  But Hughes was not satisfied to let the affray wind up so happily.  He wanted revenge for that sore nose, so he pounced on Leary with his bare fists and gave the bandit king what undoubtedly must have been the worst beating he ever received.

     Leary was hauled to the station house and the next day he appeared in court.  One of his eyes was frescoed as badly as the one he had given Pat Hughes.  Leary was eloquent when he faced the local judge, and since the police lacked legal proof that he had actually been engaged in either picking pockets or directing the work of the gang which had been doing so, he was released and ordered to get out of Dayton and stay out.  This he did, but not until he had demonstrated his remarkable personality by actually winning the friendship of Hughes, and receiving that noted old police officer’s smile as he stepped on a train at the depot.

     When Leary was locked in the station house to await arraignment the following morning, it was to greet a “full house.”  Determined to smash the pocket-picking ring at all costs, police had arrested every suspicious character to be found on the streets.  Twenty-seven suspects were thrown into the old city prison, and while there was never any doubt that members of the “Red” Leary gang were among them, there was no apparent recognition of the gang chief when he was locked up.  A close watch was kept by the turnkey to see if Leary would identify any of the men, but he was too wise for that.  As a result all those under arrest escaped trial, attempts to have them identified by their victims failing in every instance.

     They scattered like chaff before the wind the moment they left the presence of the police judge, and by evening the city was again free of their kind.  Local police were breathing easier once again, when into police headquarters walked Detective Hatfield with an attractive young woman whom he introduced to chief William Shoemaker as “Red” Leary’s wife.  This she vehemently denied.

     Hatfield explained that he had been vigilant at the depot, endeavoring to see that home-going fair visitors got out of town without being “touched” when he espied the woman in the act of lifting a watch from a man’s pocket.  She caught the eyes of Hatfield upon her and intuition seemed to tell her he was a police officer.  In a flash she had dropped the watch, had stooped to recover it, and passed it back to her intended victim with a gracious smile, explaining that he had apparently dropped it.

     The ruse didn’t work.  Hatfield nabbed her, and began questioning her.  She strenuously denied that she was Leary’s wife, though a search through police records at headquarters brought forth a description of the real Mrs. Kate Leary that was sufficient to make her identification possible.  She was placed in city prison and, refusing to be searched, put Chief Shoemaker in a momentary quandary as to what action to take along this line.  He finally called in a woman residing on Sixth st., and while she made a pretense of searching the stranger, she admitted to the police afterward that she was so excited, and so greatly in fear of the prisoner, that she really didn’t do a very good job.

     The next morning when arraigned “Red Kate,” as she had become known to the police, was represented by high-priced local counsel, and escaped with a fine of $50 and costs.  She was glad to bid Dayton adieu, and as far as known gave this city a wide berth ever after.

     Commenting on her activities at a later date, the New York World said: “Leary’s wife, Kate, was perhaps the most expert pickpocket on earth and the queen of shoplifters.  She was known to New York police as Kate Gorman, alias “Red Kate.”  Her intimates called her Mrs. Kate Leary.  She was a small woman, with a good figure, and coarse features.  While she was not engaged in picking pockets in the company of Sophia Levy, her associate in the profession, she ran a roadhouse in Red Hook which was the rendezvous of metropolitan thieves.”

     It was not long until Dayton heard from “Red” Leary for a second time.  It was in connection with one of the most spectacular bank robberies ever recorded in this country.  Associating himself with “Chain” Draper, head of a gang of burglars, Leary helped to plunder the vaults of the Northampton, Mass., bank of cash and securities to the value of $720,000.  After a series of escapes Leary was finally captured and taken to Northampton for trial.  In March of 1881 he was discharged from custody, the grand jury having failed to indict him.  Most of the stolen bonds, which had been located in London, England, were returned to the bank before Leary was captured.

     A few weeks later, or on the night of April 21, 1888, to be exact, Leary turned up at Jacquin’s restaurant, in the old Knickerbocker cottage on sixth av., New York.  Billy Train, a three-card-monte man, was one of the party of several accompanying him.  During the meal a few sharp words passed between Leary and Train, and for a moment the people at the adjoining tables feared a sanguinary encounter.  But the affair was smoothed over for the moment.

     The dinner partaken of, Leary lighted a cigar and with the members of his party, all of them bearing police records ranging from pocketpicking to bank and train robbery, walked out onto the sidewalk. There the argument between Leary and Train was renewed and the former, finding a loose brick lying near the curb, seized it and threw it violently at Train.  The latter not to be outdone, picked it up from where it had fallen when it struck the side of the building nearby, and with equal violence hurled it back at Leary.

     Strange as it may seem to those accustomed to pistol duels between members of the underworld, this brick fight was far more effective.  The missile thrown by Train struck Leary squarely in the back of the neck as he turned in an attempt to dodge it.  He went down as lifeless as though he had been shot through the heart—and he didn’t get up to renew the fight.  He was carried back into the restaurant and a physician hastily summoned.  When he arrived and made an examination it was to find that the brick had shattered Leary’s vertebrae at the base of the skull.  He lived but a few moments after receiving the blow, thus carrying out the prediction of police officers all over the country that when he did meet death it would be while he had his boots on.

     But no one ever predicted, nor did anyone who had followed the career of the most spectacular gangster of his day even dream that the bold, bad gunman would meet death in a manner so prosaic.  It would not have been surprising to read that “Red” Leary had been riddled with bullets while measuring his aim with that of a police officer.  But it didn’t sound exactly right to pick up a paper and read that “Red” Leary had been killed with a brick.