Joe Bruno on the Mob – Bristol Bill The Burglar – The Most Celebrated Bank Robber and Burglar of the 1840’s
He escaped from a British prison in Australia and made his way to New York City. In the 1840’s, the Police Gazette wrote that Bristol Bill the Burglar was “the most celebrated bank robber and burglar of our time.”
The London police knew his name but they never revealed it, but we do know the following about Bristol Bill. He was born in the early 1800 to an aristocratic family, the son of a Bristol MP. When Bristol Bill was in his second year at Eton College, his family adopted a 16-year old orphaned daughter of a poor cleric. Bristol Bill was the handsomest of men, almost 6 feet tall, with piecing brown eyes and a broad forehead. In no time, he seduced the young girl and got her pregnant. His father was so outraged when he found out about the young girl’s delicate condition, he beat his son to a pulp, then banished the girl from his home. His father sent Bristol Bill back to Eton, but Bristol Bill soon located his love and they both absconded to London.
The child was born, and to pay the bills, Bristol Bill got job in a local locksmith. Soon Bristol Bill was so adept at key, lock and tool making, he started selling his wares to a London Gang called the Blue Boys. The Blue Boys were so successful at burglarizing and bank robbing, they soon make Bristol Bill their leader. This went on for half a dozen years until Bristol Bill accumulated approximately 200,000 dollars. With his newfound riches, and with the police nipping at his heels, Bristol Bill abandoned his wife and child, and headed to Liverpool, where he hoped to hop a ship to America. But a certain London policeman was on his trail, and he arrested Bristol Bill in Liverpool. This same policeman would pay a big part in Bristol Bill’s life on the other side of the Pond.
After his arrest, Bristol Bill’s money was confiscated and he was sentenced to 14 years in prison at a penal colony in Botany Bay, Australia. After serving 10 years, Bristol Bill escaped by swimming four miles to an American whaler. He first landed in Bedford, Massachusetts, but then he made his way to New York City, where at the time almost all the professional thieves were of British extraction. Bristol Bill’s mission was to hook up with a robbery gang that was called “the most extensive association of burglars, counterfeiters, and swindlers that the Western world has ever seen.” The London contingent consisted of such noted “crossmen” (a London term for thieves), as Billy Fish, Billy Hoppy, “Cupid” Downer, Bill Parkinson, Bob Whelan, Jim Honeyman and Dick Collard. They were joined by two New Yorkers, Joe Ashley and “One-eye” Thompson.
The brains of the operation was a shady character named Samuel Drury, who was known as a banker and a financier, but was in fact a counterfeiter of great renown, and a fence of stolen goods. Whatever his gang robbed, Drury would buy and sell, and keep the major portion himself.
Bristol Bill met a girl named Catherine Davenport, who was an expert sneak-thief and pickpocket, but she also worked for Drury as a “koneyacker,” or a passer of counterfeit cash. Davenport informed Drury that the famous Bristol Bill was in New York City, and that he wanted to join their operation. When Bristol Bill first met Drury, he thought he looked familiar.
“Were you ever a policeman in London?” Bristol Bill asked Drury. Drury admitted he was. “I knew it,” Bristol Bill said. “You’re the same hound that tracked me to Liverpool and had me pinched for 14 years.”
Drury told Bristol Bill that he was caught stealing himself and had to leave London for New York City. Drury told Bristol Bill, “If you have any grudge against me, you must forget it. I can make you a fortune in this country.”
Bristol Bill worked with Drury and his crew for a full four years, robbing banks, valuables and jewelry from various states, as far away as New Orleans. He even traveled to Montreal to steal a large quantity of silver plate from the home of the Governor-General of Canada. Bristol Bill’s specialty was making his own burglary tools, and he was the best lock-picker in the entire United States. He once escaped from jail with a key he made from silver oak. Another time he opened his cell door with a key he fashioned from a piece of stove pipe. Bristol Bill’s biggest heist was the robbery of the barge “The Clinton.” After opening the ship’s safe with a key he had made from a wax impression, Bristol Bill walked away with $32,000 in cash. He kept $10,000 for himself and sold the rest to Drury for $7000, which Drury disposed of little by little from a bank he owned in upstate New York.
By 1849, Bristol Bill had earned over $400,000 in America, which he spent mostly on this three “wives,” one in Manhattan, one in Brooklyn and one in New Jersey. The three woman were fast friends, and they usually accompanied Bristol Bill on his out-of-town robberies; one posing as his wife and the other two as his sisters. There is no record of how he picked and chose which lady to play which role for each separate occasion.
Living the lush life, Bristol Bill thought it was finally time to exact his revenge on Drury. Bristol Bill knew that Drury had bombed the home of a lawyer with whom he had quarreled. Not needing Drury as a fence anymore, Bristol Bill, at the request of the Police Gazette, provided information to the police about Drury’s involvement with the explosion. While Drury and his son, along with One-Eyed Thompson, were in jail awaiting arraignment, the police raided Drury’s mansion in Astoria and found counterfeit plates and thousands of dollar in counterfeit cash.
For his help in nailing Drury, the New York City police gave Bristol Bill a pass. Knowing New York City was not safe for him, Bristol Bill traveled to Vermont with his current squeeze, a former opera singer known only as “Gookin’ Peg.” He was also accompanied by a counterfeiter named Christian Meadows and a London crook named English Jim. They leased a cottage in Groton, near the Canadian boarder and got ready to engage in what they did best. Acting on information supplied by the New York Herald and the Police Gazette, the Vermont police raided the cottage in the spring of 1850. They found Bristol Bill’s home-made burglary tools, a counterfeit machine and freshly made bills. In addition, there were several diagrams of banks Bristol Bill planned to rob.
Faced with insurmountable evidence, Bristol Bill and Meadows were arrested. English Jim was not at the cottage when the police arrived, and for some reason “Gookin’ Peg” was not charged. Bristol Bill and Meadows were sentenced to ten years at Windsor State Prison. When Bristol Bill was released, he was almost 60 years old, and he disappeared from the American crime scene. Some said he went back to London. Others said he died broke in America.
While he was in prison, Bristol Bill confided to fellow inmates, that the biggest mistake he ever made in life was inventing an unpickable lock in his early locksmith days in London, that was sold widely in the United States. He said there were many times when he encountered his invention on bank vaults and on the front doors of homes, which made his mission of breaking, entering and stealing, almost impossible.