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Cheerful Yesterdays

Chapter XVIII — Some Genial Crooks

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Chapter XVIII
Some Genial Crooks

"The's as much human nature in some folks," says David Harum," as the's in others—if not more."For my part, I firmly believe "the's more."

And that belief was not disturbed even during those earlier years at the Bar when I had a large practice on the criminal side. I left that branch of work with genuine regret; or, perhaps, I should be speaking more correctly if I said that it left me. For once they notice that you are appearing in Court for banks and insurance companies and other like concerns of overpowering respectability, your criminal following become uneasy. A burglar not unnaturally resents his favourite Counsel fighting on the side of "vested interests"; it does not seem to him to be playing the game somehow: who drives fat oxen must himself be fat, he thinks; and he fears you have yourself become too respectable to have any real sympathy with his "profession." He does not know—how should he?— that you find the "perverse adventure" of crime much more interesting (if also less profitable) than advising on "cumulative preferential dividends" or the construction of charter parties. After all, bank page 254directors and shipping magnates are seldom really picturesque.

There are as nice distinctions in the criminal class as in any other section of society. Your nimble-witted "confidence-man," well dressed and well mannered, does not condescend to rob drunken men in dark alleyways—it simply "isn't done" in his set; nor does the "swell mobsman" or the scientific safe-breaker consort with sneak-thieves or ruffians of the pavement—they are "not his sort." The Lombroso theories are quite exploded; crime is sometimes, no doubt, a disease; but much more often it is a profession.

Apropos of theorists of the Lombroso School, we have in New Zealand a Prisons Board, a peripatetic committee which goes the round of the prisons and holds periodical "gaol deliveries." It was originally instituted to deal with prisoners who are serving "indeterminate sentences" or are undergoing a course of "reformative detention." Its function is to receive reports on the conduct of these men, to consider their petitions, and if they are deemed to be reformed enough, to release them either absolutely or upon conditions as to future behaviour.

The lay members of the Board are usually kind-hearted gentlemen whose benevolent instincts have not been checked—as mine, I fear, must have been—by rough-and-tumble experience in the police Courts and at the criminal Bar. That experience, let me make haste to say, did not entirely dull my perception of goodness in things evil; for I never knew a criminal who had not a better side, and many of them I found to be perversely likeable. But it is because of this, not in spite of it, that I page 255am a firm believer in punishment that is fixed and regulated—stern without being harsh and humane without being maudlin. And I rather think we shall find a safer guide in plain British fairness and common sense than in the sloppy sentimentalism exported by booster philanthropists from America.

I well remember one of the earlier members of the Prisons Board some years ago. He had read Lombroso (in a translation), and was, of course, a criminologist of the first water. Moreover, he was steeped in Yankee literature of "uplift"—that, I think, is what they call it. There was no copy of "Tom Jones" or "Tristram Shandy" on his bookshelves, nor even an "Oliver Twist." From such books even he might have learned something of life; but he thought them "coarse." Conspicuous on his shelves were the "complete works" of an American writer of the "Uplift" school—a gentleman called Elbert Hubbard—all very genteel and bound in suede covers. And what was worse, he had read them. But he was a kind soul and eminently "worthy."

An old hand—"Snowy" Smith, a burglar— had recently been sentenced at Dunedin to five years with hard labour for "assault causing actual bodily harm." He was interrupted one night when he was busily engaged in a dwelling-house in one of the suburbs; the owner of the house grappled with him, but "Snowy" drew off and delivered a blow on his head with a murderous-looking jemmy. The unfortunate man was unconscious for several days, but ultimately recovered. Most people thought five years, in the circumstances, a moderate sentence.

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The Lombroso enthusiast called some time later upon the Crown Prosecutor in Dunedin, the late Mr. J. F. M. Fraser, and reminded him of "Snowy," whom he had prosecuted.

"I have had several conversations with him in prison," said the visitor; "he has a beautiful mentality and has had a most uplifting influence on the other unfortunates who are his fellow-prisoners." (The italics, as they say, "are mine.")

"Snowy" had, in fact, in better days, been a "local preacher" of incredible piety and had apparently not yet lost his pulpiteering persuasiveness.

"If he has such an admirable influence on the other scoundrels," said Mr. Fraser dryly, "the longer he remains there the better."

"Ah—no! I am afraid there has been a grave miscarriage of justice—mistaken identity, he suggests; I feel his innocence could be established if only I could enlist your help——"

But this was really too much for Mr. Fraser. He telephoned the central police station and asked that à sergeant whom he named should be sent round to his office at once.

"Sergeant," said he, when the man arrived, "aren't you the officer who was in charge of 'Snowy' the burglar in the prison-van after he was sentenced?"

"I was, sir."

"Will you please tell this gentleman the words —the exact words—' Snowy' spoke to you in the van?"

The Sergeant grinned amiably.

"'My oath!" Snowy' said to me,' that was page break
O. T. J. Alpers From a caricature by Kennaway in the "Weekly Press,"' N. Z.[243

O. T. J. Alpers From a caricature by Kennaway in the "Weekly Press,"' N. Z.

page 257a bit of luck for me all right. If that —— hadn't had such a b——y thick skull, I might have swung for it."

Mr. Fraser bowed his visitor out.

But this is really a digression; for "Snowy" is not meant to be included in my list of "genial crooks."

Harold Watson and George Thomson—these were not, I fancy, their baptismal names—were two highly expert pick-pockets whom I was engaged to defend some years ago. They arrived in New Zealand from Australia in the month of August in time to work the many meetings of Racing and Trotting Clubs, and the many Agricultural and Pastoral Shows which are held in all parts of the Dominion between that date and Christmas time. They had the misfortune to be arrested during the great Racing Carnival in Christchurch in the second week in November, when "gallops" and "trots" are held on alternate days for a week or more, and the two great events of the year, the "New Zealand Cup" and the "New Zealand Trotting Cup," are run.

Between their arrival on August 7th and their arrest on November 11th they had banked in their joint names in the Bank of New Zealand just over £2,500—all done on the "hip" pocket. Racegoers in the Colonies are in the habit of carrying rolls of bank-notes in this pocket; for some extraordinary reason they think it the safest, though, as a matter of fact, it is the pocket the expert finds most easy to pick. Watson and Thomson explained their modus operandi to me: they would page 258join the queue at a "paying-out" window of a totalisator—the pari-mutuel machine in use on all our race-courses—or at the ticket office of a busy railway station or the stalls-door of a theatre. Selecting a man they thought a likely "mug," with probably a good wad of bank-notes in his pocket, they would get behind him in the queue. Thomson's part was usually to "shove" him, bringing pressure to bear on various points of his back and loins. This would cause no surprise in a jostling crowd, though perhaps some angry protest. Meantime, while the man's attention was thus distracted by Thomson's shoving, Watson would relieve him of his wad of bank-notes.

On the day of their arrest they had picked a "mug" badly; he looked a stupid, middle-aged farmer—a typical "hay-seed." He tried to grip Watson's hand and raised an outcry; and when the detective arrested the pair on a charge of stealing ten five-pound notes from the man, they found to their chagrin that he was not so simple as he looked —he had Written down the numbers of his bank-notes in a pocket-book before leaving home. I made them plead guilty—there wasn't a possible fight in it—and they each got two years with hard labour. A "restitution order" was made, of course, and they had to disgorge those ten bank-notes. But their other gains could not be identified, and were safe in the Bank—so they made £2,500 in three months' operations, and this, with interest at "fixed deposit" rates, would be available for them when they came out of prison.

Mrs. Watson, a very attractive-looking woman, came over from Sydney in response to a cable as page 259soon as they were arrested. She was a professional nurse, and always contrived to get a position in a hospital in the town where her husband happened to be "doing time." This, she explained, provided occupation for her mind and enabled her to see him on visiting days at the prison. When he was "resting" and spending his "winnings," they usually occupied a suite of rooms at one of the best hotels in Sydney, where no one dreamed of suspecting "Mr. Watson," still less his well-dressed and good-looking wife, of being connected with anything "on the cross."

One day when I had occasion to visit the prison I saw my clients in the exercise yard. Watson, I noticed, had two fingers of his right hand bandaged; he explained that he and Thomson had been "skylarking" in the prison-yard one day and he had sprained two fingers.

"You careless fellow," said I, "are your fingers insured?"

"No, by Jove," said Watson, "and now I come to think of it, I've heard that Paderewski is careful to have his hands insured; I must see to it as soon as I come out."

The day they were sentenced Watson did a very pretty piece of work in the cells adjoining the Court, where the prisoners sentenced each day are detained till "Black Maria"—the prison van— calls in the afternoon to take them "home." A bookmaker had that morning received a sentence of six months for illegal betting—his first—and was whining and snivelling, a procedure contrary to all rules of good manners among prisoners. His wife visited him and contrived, while the tactful page 260warder looked the other way, to slip a packet of twenty cigarettes into his pocket. After the door was bolted again he took one out and lit it—holding the packet in one hand while he struck a match with the other. But he omitted the courtesy of offering a "fag" to the other two occupants of the cell.

"Where are my cigarettes?" said the bookmaker angrily, suddenly missing the packet.

"I rather think you will find it in your mouth," said Watson, in his best drawl.

"You know quite well what I mean—I believe one of you stole the packet."

"Now, look here, my man," said Watson, "my friend here and I have quite enough to put up with from the Crown without suffering impertinence from you. We have just been sentenced to imprisonment for appropriating a few bank-notes, but we don't'pinch' cheap cigarettes. You had better feel for them in your hip-pocket."

"Of course," said Watson when telling me the story, "the cell was not well lighted, and the man was upset and nervous. But though I have extracted thousands in bank-notes from hip-pockets in every part of Australia, this is the first time I've managed to put a twenty-packet of cigarettes into a man's hip-pocket without his knowing it."

"German Charlie" was a burglar. But as Gaoler Geary said, "He is a gintlemanly burr-glar —if you understand me, sorr!" I confessed I didn't quite understand him, so he explained himself.

Charlie was about to be let out after a long term, and told me he wanted to "run straight" for a bit page 261—perhaps for good, if it didn't bore him. The difficulty was to find him a job that the police wouldn't "chivvy" him out of. I could give him temporary work myself looking after my horse and digging in the garden; but I lived at that time alone, with my old mother and one maid-servant. Suppose, some night when I was away from home, he got up to his old pranks? So I consulted Cleary.

"You need have no fear," said he. "You trust Charlie and be kind to him as you propose, and he'll never burgle you. I won't guarantee your nayboors, if they have anything worth burgling. But Charlie is a gintlemanly burr-glar, as I've said, and he'll play fair wid you, sorr!"

I rather fancy Cleary's high opinion of "German Charlie" was not entirely uninfluenced by a very pleasant compliment Charlie constantly paid him. Of twenty-odd years he had spent in the prisons of New Zealand, all but about two had been passed under Cleary's hospitable roof. Charlie first "lived with him" at Hokitika, on the West Coast of the South Island. But as Cleary was transferred on promotion to larger and larger towns, Charlie changed his "terrain" as it were, so that if he were captured by the enemy it should be in Cleary's territory. "Gaol," he said to me, "is a rotten place at the best of times; but it is at least bearable where old Cleary is boss."

I don't know how he came to be called "German Charlie," for he wasn't a German and his name wasn't Charlie. He was, truth to tell, a Dane, and that is why, no doubt, he did his business with me. But we were both, I hope, good patriots and took care never to disclaim the convenient fiction of page 262German nationality so long as Charlie remained in the profession. By the time the Great War came he was no longer "German Charlie"; his address was "Mr. John?, Sheepfarmer,?Bay." For, with the few pounds he earned in my employ, he paid his passage to Gisborne, on the East Coast of the North Island, where he was quite unknown. There, after a time, he married a half-caste Maori who brought him a handy farm for dowry; and he remained, as he proudly informed me, "on the straight for keeps."

Once only Charlie departed from his own proper line, burglary—and did a "stunt" in the character of a swell mobsman. A very flash American and his wife were staying at "Coker's," then the best hotel in Christchurch. There was much talk of their wealth and their wonderful diamonds which were paraded every night at dinner. They were reputed to be millionaire tourists—rumour is always disposed to make millionaires of travelling Americans; they were doing the "round-trip" and were on their way to Melbourne. Charlie was "resting" at this particular time; so he took up his quarters at Coker's, posing as a foreign swell of some sort— he spoke English with a slight accent and had excellent manners—and he allowed himself to be called "Count." He soon became acquainted with the Americans; they were delighted to find they were to be fellow-passengers with "the Count" on the steamer to Melbourne.

On the way over the jewellery, as Charlie politely phrased it, "changed hands." The Americans did not discover their loss till they got to their hotel in Melbourne, but by that time "the Count," in one page 263of his wonderful disguises, was a third-class passenger on the Sydney-bound express. He followed his usual tactics: doubled on his tracks and went straight back to Christchurch—the last place where the police would look for him. But he need not have worried himself: he wasn't "wanted" for those diamonds, for the Americans never even suspected their friend "the Count," who had doubtless left at once for Europe, as he had said was his intention.

But what to do with the "swag"? He carried the jewellery, or, rather, the diamonds which he had removed from their setting, in a leather belt about his waist. But he might be arrested any time for all he knew, and he dared not yet try to sell his treasure. One evening, when he was strolling about in the suburbs, he noticed the "skeleton" of a house. It had been partly erected—years ago apparently—for the timbers near the ground were green with moss and lichen, and the whole framework—there was nothing else—was grey with weathering. Here, he thought, would be a safe cache for a week or two. So that night with a hand-trowel he tunnelled under the concrete foundation for the central chimney—a most unlikely place to hunt for treasure, he thought— and there buried his belt. He passed the place several times a week—the spot remained undisturbed and all was safe.

Just at this time he had the misfortune to be arrested for an old offence, and got twelve months with his friend Cleary. When he came out, the house had been built! The long-interrupted building operations had been resumed, and a two-story "gentleman's villa residence" stood on the section, page 264with his precious belt buried under the drawing-room hearth! Luckily, the house was unoccupied and an agent's board notified that the place was "For Sale or To Let." He called next day on the agent, took a short lease "on behalf of a friend coming from the North Island," and paid a month's rent in advance. He got the keys for his "friend" to take possession. It was only a matter of an hour's work or so to rip up part of the flooring, open his tunnel under the concrete hearth and retrieve his belt. The diamonds were all there—intact.

At last he ventured to offer some of his diamonds to a "fence" whom he could trust. And then he got the shock of his life! The "fence" was a member of the Hebrew race, and anything he did not know about "stones" wasn't worth knowing. There could be no mistake—the "diamonds" were "fakes"—all of them and the lot wasn't worth the money he had paid as "rent in advance."

Charlie was still angry with "those swindling Americans" when he told me the story nearly a year afterwards. "But," I reminded him, "your patent of nobility—your 'Count'—'paste' too, wasn't it?" and then his sense of humour came to the rescue. "Besides, you know," I ventured to say, "it serves you right for not sticking to your trade."

"Yes," said Charlie, rather sadly, "I suppose it's a good motto—'Once a burglar always a burglar.'" And then, after a thoughtful pause, he added: "That is to say, of course, until you retire."

"Sammy" Haines was a horse-coper. Best of good fellows, he was honest in all things except page 265when it came to a horse deal. There he applied a special moral standard of his own, and was frankly a crook, but of all crooks the most genial. In my police-court days I often appeared for him to get him out of some scrape or other—usually without success.

He was a fine fighter, and loved the "game." When he wasn't hanging about "Tattersall's" passing off a spavined horse on an unsuspecting tenderfoot, you would be sure to find him at the "Sports Club" engaged in a "willing go" with the gloves on. Sammy, by the way, was graciously pleased to approve of me—especially after my return from a visit to Sydney in January 1909. I had gone to see Jack Johnson fight Tommy Burns for the world's belt, but I had not noised abroad this incident in my trip, for my clients were not all of Sammy's kidney; and I did not wish to hurt the feelings of those of them who, as good nonconformists, did not approve of prize-fights.

The friend who went over with me—Mr. J. P. Firth, Headmaster of Wellington College—was a tall, athletic-looking man: he stood 6 feet 4 inches in his socks and was apt to be conspicuous in a crowd. As we had paid five guineas each for our reserved seats, we had of course good places in the stadium—second row, I think. Immediately in front of us, I remember, sat Mr. Jack London, author, among other good things, of that excellent story "The Game." Beside him sat his wife, the only woman in a crowd of 26,000 men! Both were engaged to report the fight for U.S.A. newspapers.

I returned to Christchurch a month later, and the very morning I came back Sammy was in my page 266office, breathless with excitement and suppressed curiosity about something.

"My word!" he began, "I see you were at the fight."

I was utterly taken back: how in the world did he know?

"Why," he grinned, "half the town knows. The film was shown at the theatre here last week, and everybody spotted you—you and the "Long 'Un" right in front."

Moral! always dodge the camera man!

Among other habitués of Sammy's Sports Club was an Oxford man, with a "blue" to his credit— "Babe, B.A.," someone had nicknamed him in allusion to his cherub face. He was an assistant-master at a Public School, and it was well known among the "sports" that the Headmaster looked with stern disapproval on his association with them. But he, too, loved "the game," and could seldom keep away for long. As for Sammy, he was the staunch friend of this pleasant-mannered swell, one of the few men who could beat him in a bout, and he accorded "the Babe" a dog-like devotion.

Late one Saturday night "the Babe" was on his way home from a dinner where apparently things had been merry and bright. Truth to tell, he was himself a little the worse for wear. In the roadway, in front of an hotel he had to pass on his way to his rooms, a street fight was in progress among some roisterers of the baser sort. He never could resist a fight, so stopped to look on. The row, whatever it was, was certainly no business of his, but presently—he never quite knew why, but no page 267doubt because he was excited with the wine he had drunk—he found himself in a "mix-up" with a foul-mouthed fellow, and landed him one "on the point." The fellow dropped in the roadway like a felled ox, "outed" by the blow; and a police-whistle blew and some constables were heard running toward the scene. At that critical moment Sammy came along; he had an unerring "scent" for a fight, and was seldom far off when fists were in play. He took in the situation at a glance. If the "Babe" were involved with the police in a street-fight, there would be the deuce to pay and he would certainly lose his position.

"Run, man, run!" he whispered—" here come the cops"; and "the Babe," who had a pretty turn of speed, was well away before the police came up.

"Who struck that man?" asked a constable, pointing to the fellow on the ground who was just coming to.

"I did," said Sammy. "I am going to plead guilty."

He was there and then arrested, and further inquiry was stifled by his prompt admission of guilt. Had he been a first offender, a fine of forty shillings or a "fiver" at most would no doubt have met the case; but, alas! it was many years since poor Sammy had been a first offender, and next day a hard-hearted Magistrate gave him a month "without the option."

"The Babe," of course, wanted to intervene and take his own gruel; but Sammy would have none of such "damned nonsense." "A month!" said he scornfully. "What's that? I've done page 268as much before and will do it again—on m' head!"

Some years after he was in much more serious trouble—this time on his own account. It was he who struck the blow on this occasion, and again it landed "on the point"; but his antagonist fell with his head on the kerb-stone, fractured his skull, and, before morning, died in the public hospital. Sammy was duly committed for trial on a charge of manslaughter and realised the gravity of the situation. There was no defence I could suggest that had any foundation in law, or would make the least impression on a Judge; but fortunately it was the jury, not the Judge, I needed to bother about. The man Sammy had killed had called him by a word which, though used as a term of endearment in the navy and even regarded as a compliment in the army, if said "with a smile," is looked upon by civilians as the most opprobrious epithet one man can apply to another. So I set up the only defence possible—provocation and fair fight. Which of them, I asked the jury, if called by so foul a name would not have struck as shrewd a blow? And they answered my question with a verdict of "Not guilty." But I more than suspect that Sammy's popularity among the sports —possibly, too, the story of how he had once done "proxy" for his friend "the Babe"—had a good deal more to do with his acquittal than had my advocacy.

But he insisted, like the kind fellow he was, that it was all my work. A day or two after his acquittal he called at my office carrying a parcel under his arm.

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"I hear you've got a couple of boys," said he, "so I've brought along two pair of gloves for them."

"But, my dear fellow," I said, "the oldest is only seven and the youngest barely two."

"Never mind," said Sammy, "you can't put'em to the game too young. They'll stand up to it all right."

So even the sharp lesson he had received, and the fright he had been in, had not shaken his simple faith in "the Game."

Of all the genial crooks I came in contact with at the Bar, the most "genial," and I am afraid the most "crook," was my friend Parkinson; but he —well, he, I think, deserves a chapter to himself.