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A Swell Thief Part 3

A Swell Thief Part 3

By hayburn33


“Not now, George.” William Thorburn gave an impatient cluck as he contemplated the little, weaseled man on the stairs below him. “Dinner time is over. I’m going back to work.”
“I won’t keep you but a moment.”
“I’ve no loose change on me, George.”
“No….no, I’m not asking for anything. Look.”
George Calver held up a piece of paper. Thorburn glanced at it, then sharply drew in his breath.
“That’s a ten pound note. Where did you get it?”
“Is it genuine, Willie. Examine it closely and tell me if it’s real or a fake.”
Thorburn took the note, held it up to the light, felt the texture of the paper, turned it over and held it up to the light again. It was a Bank of England and quite new.
“Aye,” he finally confirmed. “It would appear to be genuine. How did you come by it, George?”
There was concern in the question. The little man might be scruffy, erratic and irritating, but Thorburn had known him for sixteen years. Known him when he was a respectable straw hat maker in a comfortable position. They had been friends and friends should stick together through thick and thin. Since Calver had lost his business, a combination of ill-luck and bad investment, the friendship had been sorely tried, but Thorburn was reluctant to bring even more woe onto Calver's head.
“There’s more. Look.”
Six additional ten pound notes were produced from Calver’s pockets. They were all Bank of England and all new. Now Thorburn was really worried. His friend earned a pittance carrying placarded boards around the city streets.
“What have you been up to, George? Where did you get seventy pounds?”
“Found it. At the Mound. I was walking there and saw a package on the ground.” He held up the notes, a broad grin on his face. “Genuine, you say.”
“Aye, I reckon so.”
“Do me a favour, Willie.”
“What’s that?”
“Keep them for me until we see if they’re advertised for. I live in a common lodging house. It wouldn’t be safe to keep them there.”
“Please, Willie. This is a small fortune. I don’t want to lose it all. You can keep it safe. I’ll call tomorrow and we can see what’s what and decide what to do.”
“I left the notes in the pocket of my coat,” William Thorburn stated. “And did not examine them after getting them to keep. On the following morning Calver called at my place of business and asked me if I had seen the notes advertised for. I told him I had not. He said he had seen the Scotsman advertising sheet, but had not noticed them advertised for. In Thursday’s Scotsman there was a long account regarding the apprehension of a man and woman in Edinburgh for hotel robberies and from what was stated I thought the foresaid money had to do with the case, more especially as when Calver called in the morning he asked to see the Scotsman and on being shown one turned to and read the paragraph relating to the apprehension of said man and woman.”
The underlining is to be seen in the precognition revealing the importance of that information to the prosecution. Thorburn had become really alarmed by now and suggested the money should be taken to the office of the Chief Constable, William Henderson.
“Calver seemed to be against doing this and in consequence I refused to give him up the money. He called in the afternoon and by then seemed inclined to give it up, but I thought I would wait till next day in case an advertisement was in Friday’s paper.”
Thorburn gave Calver the notes the following day on the express understanding that he was to take them to the police office and hand them over to Mr. Henderson.
“I’ll do that, Willie. Let the police take care of them. That’s best.” Calver took hold of the notes, but Thorburn held on to them. “You can trust me, Willie. The police. Best idea. Get the money off my hands.”
Thorburn looked doubtful. “Perhaps I should come with you.”
“No, Willie….no. You’ve got a business to run; jobs to do. No point in you wasting your time going to the police station with me.”
“I am very busy.” Thorburn reluctantly released the notes.
“You get on with your work, Willie.” Calver stuffed the money into his pocket. “You can rely on me.”
Later that day, William Thorburn’s brother, Peter, who lived in the same house and knew about the money, saw Calver in the company of another man. Both were the worse for drink and Calver was waving a £5 note around
“[It was] of a Scotch bank……I did not speak to him. At the time I thought he had been paid a reward for returning the notes.”
The other man was William Albert, a street porter who had known Calver for twenty-eight years.
“I met him outside my house……I asked him if he was in for a tasty. He replied yes and the two of us went to Stewarts Public House near by and into a room. A man, Telford, but whose first name I do not know, went into the pub also. He was not in our company before going in, but followed us across the road. Two other men came in after us. I do not know them.
“I went to the bar for a gill of whisky. I paid for it with a £1 note and took the whisky back to the room. The other three men were there and another gill was got, paid for with a £1 Scotch note. I can’t tell who put down the note, nor who picked up the change. Calver left after getting his share of the liquor and I followed him.
“He then told me that he had got some money from a friend in America and that he wished to get some clothes and asked me to go with him. He went to the tailor’s shop in the High Street where he purchased a suit and underclothing. He took some of the things away with him, intending to go to Nicolson Square for a bath.
“He owed me £4 and I asked if he wasn’t going to pay me. He said that he would and took out a £5 note and flourished it. We had been drinking together in different pubs and latterly he became very noisy. I was so disgusted with him that I left him and was not again in his company. He didn’t pay me the £4 and I got no money from him.”
Calver became so noisy, in fact, that he drew the attention of the police and was arrested. Unable to give a satisfactory explanation for the money in his possession he found himself charged with theft.
“I’ve never stolen a penny in all my life,” Calver protested. “I might be down on my luck, but I’m an honest man. You can ask anyone.”
“Are you telling me you earned this money by the sweat of your brow?” His inquisitor sounded sceptical.
“No.” Calver looked sheepish. “I found it.”
“Yeh….really. Wednesday it was. On the Mound, opposite the Savings Bank. After three o’clock. Saw the Chief Constable, didn’t I? He was coming up with a lady. I thought maybe it was his wife. I was going down and they were coming up. Two minutes after they passed I saw a package on the ground. I picked it up, opened it and found money.”
“How much?”
“Seven £10 Bank of England notes. Consecutive numbers.”
“What were they?”
“Not sure. Can’t remember now. All six figures. The notes were new and never been used, I should say.”
“Did you see the woman drop the notes?”
“No. Saw them lying there after she’d gone, that’s all.”
"What did you do after that?”
“Showed them to a friend of mine, William Albert. He said it would be best to sell them and get clean money.”
“Why wouldn’t this be clean?”
“I don’t know, do I? Willie thought it would be a good idea, that’s all.”
“But you’re an honest man. Never stolen a penny. Why didn’t you bring the money straight to us?”
Calver looked flustered. “I…..I wasn’t thinking straight. Haven’t had so much money in my hand for longer than I can remember.”
“So William Albert suggested you change it to get rid of the evidence.”
“Well…..I wouldn’t put it quite like that.”
“How would you put it?”
“New notes…..bit conspicuous….I….I….I don’t know. I was confused, I tell you. Couldn’t believe my luck.”
“So you changed the money.”
“Yeh. In a pub at the corner of Beaumont Place. Willie took me to three men; strangers to me. One of them bought the notes from me.”
“For a commission, I expect.”
“Too true.” Calver sounded aggrieved. “He was supposed to have given me fifty-five pounds, but I only got thirty-five. Dangerous for him, he said. Anyway, thirty-five pounds was better than a smack in the eye. After that I got drunk and… know the rest.”
Calver made a formal statement, but his accusation of being aided by William Albert was repudiated by that individual.
“I have now had the man Calver apprehended, judicially examined and committed for trial,” wrote the Edinburgh Procurator Fiscal to the Crown Agent on 18th September.
In a further communication three weeks later, the PF revealed that “Calver was only apprehended and put under charge after conversation with Crown Counsel, not with a view to his being ultimately tried for the theft of the notes found to be appropriated by him, but in order that his evidence as a witness might be secured at the trial of James Lyon, there being a danger of his being put out of the way. He is very hard up, and [if] offered a small bribe he would be got to leave the city…….I think it extremely advisable, in the circumstances of the case, that he should not be liberated…….until after the trial of the accused Lyon.”


James Lyon was taken back to Inveraray where he was questioned by George Campion, an Advocate and Sheriff Substitute of Argyll. The accused declared he was married and his wife was with him.
“Her name is Elizabeth Lyon, but her maiden name I decline to tell.….I have only been in Scotland a short time……I have no business or profession, but speculate on the Bourse. I have money of my own and as I am an invalid I move about from place to place. My father also supplies me with money if I require it. Naturally I decline to give his address at the moment.”
Lyon stated that he used the pincers for curling his beard and admitted being at the Alexandra Hotel in Oban “for a short time – half a day or so, but I do not know the date”.
A few days later, the 23rd August, Lyon was examined again, but said he had nothing to add. “I hope to be able, on a future occasion, to specify where I obtained the money found in my possession – a total of £169. I have an open bank account in London with Gilling & Co. American Exchange. One of my letters of credit is granted by them and it is for £700.
“After leaving the Alexandra Hotel I went to the Western Hotel in Oban. I heard nothing of a loss of money there on the morning I left. I was also at the Lochawe Hotel. I remember chatting with a man, a casual acquaintance, whose name I do not know, on a Sunday. I met the man at the Dalmally Hotel and he might have been present when I had some refreshment. The landlord kindly drove us back.”
“Do you mean yourself and the casual acquaintance?” enquired George Campion.
“No, I mean my wife and myself,” replied Lyon. He stood up, as if to terminate the interview. “I really feel that I’ve answered enough questions and refuse to say any more without a solicitor. I know nothing of these thefts from the hotels and that’s all I’m prepared to say.”
At a later examination he admitted seeing Joseph Dowling before “and in many places”.
“In Edinburgh?”
“Yes, but this is a serious charge and although I have nothing to conceal, I am unwilling to answer any question except under advice. I have nothing more to say except that I am totally innocent of the charge and have no connection with it whatever.”
All Lyon’s possessions had been thoroughly examined and amongst them was a letter from the District Attorney’s Office in Boston. The find provoked some most revealing information.

From: Sam G. Adams To: Colin McKay,,
Superintendent of Police, Chief Constable,
Boston. Argyll.

20th September 1883

Please excuse my seeming negligence in the case of James E. Lyon. The information has just come to hand.
About ten years since he, with another thief, was arrested in the city of Hartford, Connecticut, for the larceny of a travelling bag, but previous to the trial they broke jail and both escaped. Subsequently the other was arrested, served his time in prison and afterwards died.
Lyon went to Europe where he has been travelling from one place to another. He is said to be the most successful thief now at work and has the reputation of having stolen larger sums of money and diamonds and sent them home, but cannot vouch for that.
He was here about a year ago and while here bought a letter of credit from the banking house of Kidder, Peabody & Co. His father was sick and employed the Mr. Adams spoken of (in the District Attorney’s letter) to go to Connecticut and see if the old case could not be settled, so that [his son] could come home and stay with him; the result of his mission you know by his letter.
The wonder is that [Lyon] could run such a rig and for so long a time and not have been detected.
I hope you will be able to convict him and keep him away from here, for if we should arraign him he probably would not get more than two years.

Upon receiving the letter from Boston, the Procurator Fiscal in Inveraray became nervous and wrote a memo. “As accused appears once before to have broken out of prison and is so thoroughly expert at lock picking, I think it might be well that he should be removed from this prison as soon as convenient as I have no great opinion as to its security.”
The Boston letter also prompted more enquiries to America, this time to, most arguably, the most famous private detective agency in the world.
Around 1850 – 52 (the actual date is in dispute) a young ex-patriot Scot started the North-Western Detective Agency in Chicago. The emblem of the company was a wide-awake human eye, with the words We Never Sleep. Within a fairly short time the firm became known as Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency.
Allan Pinkerton, the founder quickly realised the value of daguerrotype portraits for identifying and tracing wanted criminals. He began to build an impressive Rogues Gallery of mugshots and created an efficient system of criminal records. It is not surprising, therefore, that Pinkerton’s was able to make a quick response when sent a photograph of James Lyon.

From: W. A. Pinkerton, To: Wm. Henderson,
Chicago. Chief of Police,
3rd October 1883

I am in receipt of yours enclosing picture of James Edward Lyon. I identified the picture at once as that of Jimmy Lyons, one of the most noted hotel thieves in this country and a man who has practised his craft from one end of the United States to the other; and who, for the last four or five years, has been residing in Europe and is said to be very successful and has accumulated a very large sum of money. I enclose a copy of a picture taken from the rogue’s gallery in my possession and made in this country about four years ago. He has been regarded for many years as one of the cleverest workmen we ever had. If you have him where he can be convicted you have a good man.
He comes originally from Boston, Mass., or in that vicinity and is well known to the police in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago and New Orleans as a professional thief. He has been convicted and served two terms of imprisonment in New York and Philadelphia. He is also a pal of Tom Leonards, who is now doing 5 years time in the State of Pennsylvania in this country. This is about all I can tell you concerning him.

It was more than enough for the Lord Advocate who decided he had enough to go to trial. Strictly speaking the case should have been dealt with by the West Circuit Court at Inveraray, but the Procurator Fiscal’s nervousness about security prompted a move to Edinburgh. On 17th October the Prison Commissioners instructed the Governor of Edinburgh Prison to send officers to Inveraray as soon as possible “with a view to the safe arrival of the prisoners”.
On the evening of 20th October 1883, a relieved Alexander Robertson, Governor of the prison at Inveraray, wrote in his journal: “I went to Dalmally today at 10.20am, along with the officers sent from Edinburgh Prison to remove three prisoners, Lyon, Dowling and Thorpe, from there to the latter place and saw them safely on to the train and arrived here again at 6.20pm.”


8 York Buildings,

12th November 1883


I have respectfully to request that you will grant me permission to visit my brother, Mr. James E. Lyon, in the Calton Prison on Saturday first. My brother is to be tried on the Monday following, and as it is possible I may not have an opportunity of seeing him again for some time, I am anxious to have an interview with him on Saturday in order that I may take any message or communication from him to his father, and get his final instructions regarding all business to be done here relative to his property, settling his accounts etc.
Your granting this request will confer a favor on
Your obedient Servant,
Thos. F. Lyon
PS. Please address c/o McCaskie & Hutton (as above)

The conciliatory tone of the letter betrays a man who had previously proved to be arrogant and pushy, demanding to see his brother several times a day. The authorities had allowed him one previous visit, “in presence of an officer and with due precautions that nothing is allowed to be handed from one to the other without the knowledge and consent of the Governor of the prison”.
On Monday, 19th November 1883 at the High Court in Edinburgh, James Edward Lyon, Eliza Thorpe and Joseph Dowling were tried for Theft, by Opening Lockfast Places; As also, Reset of Theft.
The evidence presented, particularly against the two men, was overwhelming. There were eighty-five witnesses for the prosecution listed, whilst Lyon offered up only one for the defence, a hairdresser from Edinburgh.
The Reset charge against George Calver had been dropped to enable him to give evidence about picking up the money allegedly discarded by Eliza Thorpe whilst she was being escorted through the streets of Edinburgh. However, there was great confusion about the number of the notes, which had since passed through various hands and it proved impossible to trace the bank notes back to Braemar.
The deliberations of the fifteen man jury were short and conclusive. James Edward Lyon was found Guilty of Theft by Opening Lockfast Places; Joseph Dowling Guilty of Reset, whilst a verdict of Not Guilty was recorded for Eliza Thorpe.
Lyon was sentenced to seven years Penal Servitude, which at this time, meant removal to a convict prison in England. Dowling was given twelve months imprisonment and was sent to Perth Prison where he became just another number: 6/886.
As for Eliza Thorpe, she wanted to get far away from the nightmare as quickly as possible. The day after her trial, McCaskie & Hutton requested the Crown Agent to deliver Eliza’s effects to her because she was “anxious of proceeding immediately to London to her friends there”.
At the same time, Thomas Francis Lyon was looking after his brother’s interests by requesting that “the money, letter of credit, jewellery, clothing and the whole effects belonging to J.E. Lyon [now] in the hands of the Crown authorities” should be delivered to him. He had come from America to superintend his brother’s trial and was “desirous of returning home with as little delay as possible”.
There was, in fact, a great deal of concern about the prisoners’ effects, especially those of James Lyon.

From: Procurator Fiscal, Argyll. To: Crown Agent

24th November 1883

With reference to the prisoner, Lyon, it is absolutely necessary for me to take some steps to avoid responsibility in the matter as the amount of money in my possession belonging to the prisoner is considerable and his clothing is of some value. The clothing will be virtually destroyed by the end of his period of imprisonment and if the money is left in the form it is at present the prisoner, on his liberation, might claim interest from me on the amount, and whether he would be entitled to it or not, he might put me to great trouble and expense in the matter. This prisoner was apprehended at the instance of an officer from Argyllshire for a crime for which he was convicted, and I have little doubt but that he will look to the Argyllshire authorities as the persons responsible for his property and will therefore be obliged by having Crown Counsel’s instructions as to what ought to be done.

Before releasing anything to T.F. Lyon, the Advocate Depute wanted to see a power of attorney and this was duly shown to him, witnessed by George Hutton, Solicitor and James Cannon, a Warder in the Calton Prison.
Amongst his possessions, Lyon had a letter of credit from a Boston bank for £800. One hundred of this was used by McCaskie & Hutton for his defence. There was also a considerable sum of money, jewellery and a packet of diamonds sent from America. The Inveraray Procurator Fiscal had no doubt they were the results of theft, but had no means of proving it. Everything was eventually handed over to Lyon’s brother.
Appended to a memo regarding the prisoners’ effects is a note in James Lyon’s hand-writing. “…..I am especially anxious that the trunk and articles of clothing and otherwise belonging Eliza Thorpe should be at once delivered up so that she may proceed to London”.
The final act of the drama, or more strictly, the epilogue, was pure comedy. George Calver went to the Procurator Fiscal in Edinburgh and requested the return of all the money found on him. There was a debate about whose money it was.
“As I understand, the money found on Calver was not proved to have any connection with the thefts charged against the accused, nor the female prisoner proved to have dropped any money at all. If this be so, the money found on Calver could belong neither to the owner of the stolen property nor to the female accused and probably Calver is the only person who can show a right to get it.”
He did!!

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13 Jul, 2011
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