Friday, February 08, 2019

Green Goods Bunco Artists Terrorized Pelham in 1899

In the late 19th century, the White Hotel stood in the tiny Village of Pelham (today's Pelham Heights) near the southwest corner of the intersection of today's Wolfs Lane and Third Street.  The hotel structure still stands, although it has been split into two adjacent buildings located at 303 Wolfs Lane (Stiefvater Real Estate building) and 307 Wolfs Lane.

The White Hotel was notorious and hated by many Pelhamites.  Its manager was a shady character who maintained gambling apparatus in the hotel.  The hotel was frequented by thugs and criminals who, occasionally, preyed on the region while using the tiny hotel as a base of operations.  Such was the case in 1899 when a group of so-called "green goods" bunco artists and robbers operated out of the White Hotel and terrorized the region.  To make matters worse, at least in the eyes of some Pelhamites, there was a baseball field behind the hotel where raucous and rowdy spectators watched games including Sunday afternoon ball games!

The "green goods scam" was widespread in the late 19th century. Con men would claim to have high quality counterfeit U.S. currency that they were willing to sell for pennies on the dollar based on the face value. A victim would be shown a bag containing large sums of genuine currency and would be told that the money was counterfeit. Once distracted, the con men would switch the bag containing the currency with an identical bag containing green paper, sawdust or the like and would "sell" the worthless bag to the victim for a substantial sum. Victims reportedly would rarely go to authorities because purchasing counterfeit currency was a crime.

During the summer of 1899, a gang of bunco artists operated out of the White Hotel.  They used the green goods scam and other scams to separate victims from their money.  Things got so bad that an undercover agent for the Secret Service attempted to pose as a victim upon which the gang could prey.  When he met with the gang to "purchase" the supposed counterfeit money, he attempted to take them into custody but was set upon by gang members he did not know were present and was nearly beaten to death.  I have written about this encounter before.  See, e.g.:

Fri., May 01, 2015:  After Secret Service Detective Was Nearly Beaten to Death There, the White Hotel of Pelhamville Was Closed, Moved, and Split Into Two Buildings That Still Stand in Pelham.

Wed., Aug. 26, 2009:  Fed Up with the Notorious White Hotel, Pelham Authorities Took Action in 1899.

Tue., Aug. 25, 2009:  Crimes Committed at the Notorious White Hotel in Pelham in 1899.

Thu., Mar. 12, 2009:  The Reason the White Hotel was Shut Down and Split from One Building Into Two Cottages

Wed., Mar. 18, 2009:  A Little More Information About the Closure of the White Hotel.

Today's Historic Pelham article collects accounts of a number of such bunco scams operated out of the White Hotel during the summer of 1899.  Following such alarming events, authorities shut down the hotel which subsequently was split into two adjacent structures that were used as residences for many years.

Farmer White from Jackson, Michigan

During the summer of 1899, an "old farmer" named Edward White from Jackson, Michigan somehow began correspondence with men in New York who claimed to have a large sum of counterfeit U.S. currency that they needed to dispose of quickly.  The men offered to sell the counterfeit currency to the old farmer at a massive discount.  Farmer White agreed to meet the men in Yonkers, New York.

On Wednesday, August 23, 1899, White arrived in Yonkers from Michigan.  He carried $250 and a train ticket to Buffalo which he hoped to visit after buying some counterfeit cash.  Two men met Farmer White at the train station in Yonkers.  They escorted him onto a local trolley car.

The three men traveled by trolley through lower Westchester to a stop in Pelham near the White Hotel where they disembarked.  The two bunco men escorted White to the third floor of the hotel where he sat at a table in a room filled with gambling equipment.  As he waited to complete the transaction, each of the two bunco men whipped out revolvers and held them to his head.  One said:  "Give us your money or we will blow your brains out."  

The old farmer offered no resistance.  He sank into his chair as the men went through his pockets.  They took his $250, all the money he had with him.  One of the thieves then said:  "You can go now, and don't you try any fresh games on us.  If you make any trouble you will never get back to your home in Michigan alive."

White left, but was followed by the confidence men.  They stood at the door with their revolvers leveled at his head until he disappeared.  White made his way back to Yonkers where he reported the crime to the police.  The Yonkers police, however, told him they had no jurisdiction.  He then reported the crime to the Mount Vernon Police who began an investigation, but determined that the crime took place in Pelham.  

Farmer Edward White returned to Jackson, Michigan $250 poorer.  Authorities believed that the old farmer was not really named "Edward White" though. . . . 

Man Purporting to Act for Secret Service and Hot on the Trail of the Con Men is Badly Beaten

A man named John Whittaker, a midwest farmer, may have been the first man scammed by the green goods bunco artists in Pelham.  Some time during or before the summer of 1899 he reportedly agreed to pay the bunco artists $2,000 for $10,000 worth of counterfeit currency.  When he arrived home with his bundle, he discovered it was a bundle of blank white paper cut the size of five dollar bills with real bills on the outside.  Unlike most, he reported the scam to the Secret Service in Chicago.  The Secret Service showed him little sympathy. . . . 

Whittaker vowed to the agents that he would track the con men down.  The agents reportedly deputized him for the purpose, but cautioned him to seek their assistance if he actually found the bunco artists.  

Whittaker began corresponding with farmers throughout the country trying to find any who had received correspondence offering to sell them counterfeit currency.  Finally, one such farmer contacted him.  Whittaker instructed the farmer to reply that the farmer's "brother-in-law" would buy the counterfeit currency.  Whittaker then posed as the brother-in-law and traveled to the White Hotel in Pelham, New York where he arrived on Saturday, August 26, 1899.  

Local historian J. Gardner Minard documented the entire affair.  His entertaining account appears in full immediately below, followed by a citation and link to its source.

"Old White Hotel a Colorful Spot In The Early Days Of The Pelhams 
Confidence Game Exposed After Farmer Had Been Fleeced Of $2,000. Hostelry Which Formerly Stood at Wolf's Lane and Third Street of Questionable Character ----- By J. GARDINER MINARD 

Whenever old residents of Pelham get together for an extensive talk, there is sure to be some mention of the White Hotel; but it is doubtful if one-half of one per cent of the present residents of the town are familiar with the history of the rather infamous building. It was a three-story, frame square building painted white, situated on the southwest corner of Wolf's Lane and third street,, and was the headquarters of a rather unsavory group of men and women. Rooms could be engaged at any time of the day or night; there was no registering; no baggage requirements and no questions asked. The few residents of the little village of Pelham tried desperately to wipe out the blot but the proprietor seemed to be above the law. In the summer of 1900, however, he overstepped the bounds and was forced to close. Here is the story. 

There lived in the middle west a young properous farmer who one day received a letter from a man in Chicago requesting an appointment to discuss an attractive proposition. The appointment was made and the farmer, Whittaker by name, was warmly greeted by a very genial gentleman who took a roll of $5 bills from his pocket and handing him one, asked his opinion of it. Whittaker examined it and pronounced it genuine. The stranger laughed and said it was a counterfeit and, taking him to a secluded spot, told him how a trusted employee of the Government bureau of engraving and printing decided as an experiment to smuggle out the plates for a five dollar bill. He succeeded, and then secreted a bundle of the paper on which the bills wee printed and carried this out under his coat. He intended to bring them back, but the loss was discovered and he became frightened and gave them to him to be destroyed. Instead of doing this, he went to a friend who conducted a printing office and the latter agreed to run the risk for half the money turned out. This amounted to $100,000 and the printer took one-half and he had spent all the remainder except $10,000. He feared capture and would sell the whole business for $2,000. He then took from his pocket what purported to be a clipping from a newspaper telling of the theft and the great alarm felt by the government, as the counterfeits could not be uncovered until redeemed by the government and the duplicate numbers found. 

He told Whittaker to take it to his bank and change it as a test and if the bargain was agreeable, to get the $2,000 and meet him at a given spot. Whittaker did as told and the next day with his money in his pocket kept the appointment. The stranger hailed a carriage and they drove some distance, after which they got out and the stranger paid the driver with one of the $5 bills and received his change. He called Whittaker's attention to this and the latter was satisfied the bills could be easily passed. He insisted upon blindfolding Whittaker before leading him to his home, for 'protection.' Another long walk and they entered a house and once inside the room, the bandage was removed and Whittaker told to sit at a table opposite the stranger. The latter then opened a drawer and took from it a package which he opened and handed to Whittaker, telling him to count it. It contained 2,000 $5 bills. Whittaker produced his $2,000 and the stranger insisted upon wrapping up the bundle again, meanwhile ringing a bell for a waiter and ordering drinks. The package tied up, he handed it to Whittaker, who pocketed it and, after again being blindfolded and led some distance, he was cautioned to tell no one, not even his wife, about the transaction. 

Upon arriving home, he went to the barn and opened the package and discovered he had a bundle of plain sheets of paper with a good bill on each end. He notified the secret service and two operatives were sent to Chicago. They listened to his story and gave him scant sympathy, telling him that the department has been spending generations warning farmers against just this same trick. No plates or paper had been stolen from the government printing plant and none could as frequent checkings made it impossible and the newspaper clipping was a fake. He vowed to dedicate his life and money to running the crooks down and asked to be appointed a secret service man for that purpose. Chief Wilkie appointed him but warned him in the event of getting on their trail to notify the nearest branch and two experienced men would be sent to assist hiim. Whittaker traveled all over the states visiting farmers, telling the story and requesting them to send a telegram collect to his home where his wife would relay it to him, should they receive a similar offer. In July, 1900, he received word from a farmer in the central part of New York that he had received such a letter. Whittaker hurried there and instructed the farmer to reply saying he had no money to invest, but his brother-in-law had $2,000 to invest and would meet him. The appointment was made for the Mount Vernon station. 

Here is where Whittaker made a mistake. He disregarded the instructions to notify headquarters and obtain aid, instead deciding to go it alone. A dapper little man met him at the station and, after cordial greetings, hailed a strange hack and drove off. There was the same long drive and getting off and walking blindfolded to the house and finding himself in a room with a table and two chairs in a corner. The stranger remarked that Whittaker was carrying a gun and as evidence of his own sincerity, asked Whittaker to search him and see he was unarmed. He then waved him to a seat in the corner with the wall behind him and the stranger sat opposite as usual. He then opened the drawer and produced the bundle of good bills. At the sight of the money, Whittaker made a grab for it and at the same time reached for his gun, but just then a blackjack crashed down on his head. When he awoke he was in a large field. He called for help and a driver on a delivery wagon heard and came to his rescue, taking him on the wagon. Whittaker hurried to the New York office with his story and was again berated for trying to work alone. Two agents came with him to Mount Vernon and, getting into a hack, instructed Whittaker to take the front seat and follow the road over which he had traveled. He stopped at east Sixth street, near the Pelham boundary line and said he was where the driver was dismissed. The agent informed him that the driver was a confederate. He knew he must have crossed a small stream and passed through a cornfield close to the building into which they went. Crossing the water would bring them into Pelham and the next step was easy. There was but one cornfield in sight and that was in the rear of the White Hotel. The agents followed Wolf's Lane to midway between Sixth and Third streets and came to the old brook that flowed through. They followed this and found where the crossing had been made. The tell-tale tracks showed through the cornfield as well as the wide swath when the employees of the hotel carried the unconscious man away. Going to the hotel they were met by the proprietor, who denied anything had happened there or having seen Whittaker. The agents were insistent upon searching the building and, after awhile Whittaker identified the room. He was asked to point out the spot where he sat and the agent examined the wall and after tapping it, smiled and instructed Whittaker to take the same seat while he went out of the room. Whittaker did as told and in a few moments the second agent told him to look behind him. There framed in the moulding of the missing panel was the other agent holding a blackjack over his head. It was the old sliding panel game. The agents then gave the proprietor the choice of closing up or going to jail and he chose the former. This ended the infamous hostelry." 

Source:  Minard, J. Gardner, Old White Hotel a Colorful Spot In The Early Days Of The Pelhhams, The Pelham Sun, March 15, 1929, p. 16, cols. 3-5.

Edward Lewis, Prominent Texas Merchant, Scammed Out of $1,000

Edward Lewis was a wealthy and prominent merchant in Austin, Texas.  On Friday, August 31, 1899 he was on his way to New York City on a business trip.  He was traveling by train.  As the train neared Newark, New Jersey, he entered the smoking car to enjoy a cigar.  As he lit his cigar there was a light tap on his shoulder.  When he turned, he faced an expensively-dressed gentleman wearing a white waistcoat, a silk hat, and a diamond stud that glittered in his shirt bosom.  The gregarious gentleman said "Why hello, Lewis, old man.  How are you?"

Edward Lewis had no idea who the man was.  He remarked that the stranger had the advantage of him.  The gentleman responded that he had met Lewis during "the carnival" (likely Mardi Gras) in New Orleans.  The stranger recounted a number of incidents at the event that Edward Lewis remembered perfectly well.  According to one account, "the Texan began to consider himself lucky in meeting such an affable gentleman."  The con was on.

The gregarious stranger insisted that once the train arrived in New York City he would treat the Texan to a nice lunch at the stranger's hotel.  The stranger took Lewis to the Astor Hotel and paid for a lovely lunch.  During lunch, the pair was approached by another man whom the gregarious stranger introduced as a friend of his from New Orleans.  The man joined them.

Following an enjoyable luncheon, the two strangers prevailed on the Texas merchant to join them for a day's rest at their country outpost, a hotel in the suburbs.  Weary after the trip and open to the free hospitality of his obviously-wealthy new acquaintances, Lewis agreed.

The two men took Lewis on a confusing, "roundabout" route.  The three men arrived at about dark "at a quiet spot near Pelham, where a small hotel loomed up out of the shrubbery."  The two strangers arranged a room for the Texan and treated him to a hearty dinner and a smoke on the plaza.  The three then retired to a private room for a game of cards during which the two strangers let the Texan win a sizable sum of money.  Throughout the game the strangers plied the Texan with plenty of liquor.  Finally, about midnight, everyone retired to their rooms for sleep.

The next morning, with the Texan still sound asleep, the door to his room burst open and the stranger he had met the day before on the train rushed into the room screaming "Lewis, ther've been burglars in the house.  They went through my clothes last night and got my watch and pistol and $300."

Lewis leaped out of bed to check for his belongings.  As he did so, the stranger hurried downstairs.  Lewis went through his waistcoat and found that his watch was safe.  However, his money (about $1,000) was gone.  He hurriedly climbed into his clothes and ran downstairs only to discover that he was alone -- the two strangers were nowhere to be found.  When Lewis approached "the man he supposed" was the proprietor of the hotel and another man there he "got no satisfaction."  

Lewis found a woman in the hotel and asked her where he could find the police.  As soon as he asked the question of the woman, men in the hotel "set upon" him claiming he had insulted the woman and began clubbing him.  They chased him out into the streets of Pelham where he ran for his life.

The plundered Texan finally made his way back to New York City where he informed business colleagues of his plight.  He reported the incident to New York City police who dispatched two detectives to assist him.  The Texan and the two detectives returned to the White Hotel in Pelham that evening (Saturday, September 2, 1899), but the three men learned little and the robbers remained at large.

303 Wolfs Lane (Stiefvater Real Estate) on Top
and 307 Wolfs Lane on Bottom. Photographs by the Author.

Detail from 1899 Map by John F. Fairchild Showing Location
of White Hotel. Source: Fairchild, John F., Atlas of Mount Vernon
and Pelham, Plate 21 (John F. Fairchild, 1899) (Lionel Pincus
and Princess Firyal Map Division, The New York Public Library).

*          *          *          *          *


Another victim of the gang of bunco steerers which has been operating in Pelham was found yesterday.  The man, who is an old farmer, and had travelled [sic] all the way from Jackson, Mich., was not permitted even to see the greengoods, but was robbed and then chased away.  The man says his name is Edward White, but this is believed to be fictitious.  He began a correspondence with the confidence men several weeks ago, and arranged to meet them in Yonkers.

According to the arrangement, White arrived there on Wednesday, and was met at the railroad station by two men, who escorted him to a trolley car and took him to a place which Chief of Police Foley of Mount Vernon says answers the description of the White Hotel in Pelham.  The farmer was taken to the third floor of the hotel.  There he sat down at a table, and while waiting for his companions to produce the greengoods he began to inspect the room, which was filled with gambling apparatus, all of which was strange to him.

When White turned around again to close the transaction he looked into the muzzles of two revolvers, which were being pointed at his head by the bunco men.

'Give us your money,' demanded one of them, 'or we will blow your brains out.'  The old farmer was horrified, and, sinking back into his chair, made no resistance, while the men went through his pockets and took out $250, all the money he had in his possession.

After depositing the roll in his pocket, one of the greengoods men said:  'You can go now, and don't you try any fresh games on us.  If you make any trouble you will never get back to your home in Michigan alive.'

White left the place, and was followed by the confidence men, who stood at the door with their revolvers levelled at his head until he had disappeared.  He took a car to Yonkers, where he reported the affair to the police.  He was informed that the Yonkers police had no jurisdiction in the case, and thereupon informed Chief Foley of Mount Vernon.  He said that a ticket from New-York to Buffalo was all that he had left.  This is the third affair of the kind reported from Pelham within a week.  The Town Board of Pelham held a meeting on Friday night, and it is likely that its members will take some action toward finding the guilty parties and causing their punishment."

Source:  ROBBED AND CHASED AWAY -- A FARMER FROM JACKSON, MICH., RUNS AGAINST A WESTCHESTER COUNTY GREENGOODS GANG, New-York Tribune, Vol. LIX, No. 19278, Aug. 27, 1899, p. 2, col. 4 (Note:  Paid subscription required to access via this link). 

Confidence Men Sprang a New Game on Mr. Lewis.

A special from Mount Vernon, N.Y., in the St. Louis Republic says:  Edward Lewis, a prominent merchant of Austin, Texas, reported to Chief of Policy Foley of the city that he had been robbed yesterday by bunco men of $1000 in the White Hotel in Pelham.  This is the place where Whitaker, an agent of the secret service, was nearly killed last Saturday while trailing a gang of green goods men.

Mr. Lewis left home recently for New York and had an uneventful trip until the train reached Newark, N. J.  There as he was about to light a fresh cigar some one placed a hand familiarly on his shoulder and said:  'Why hello, Lewis, old man how are you?'

Mr. Lewis turned and saw a fine looking man about 40 years old standing over him.  The man wore a silk hat and a white waistcoat.  A diamond stud glittered in his shirt bosom.  Lewis remarked that the stranger had the advantage of him, whereupon the well-dressed person recalled that he had met the merchant at the carnival in New Orleans.  He mentioned incidents of that event which Mr. Lewis remembered perfectly and the Texan began to consider himself lucky in meeting such an affable gentleman.

Meanwhile, as they were [illegible], the train had reached Jersey City.  The agreeable stranger insisted on taking his friend to his hotel to luncheon.  So he called [illegible] on the New York side and drove to a fashionable hotel, where the stranger did the honors, incidentally introducing a friend.  During the progress of the meal the two New Yorkers proposed, as their Texas friend must be weary after his long journey, that they go up to their 'club house' in the suburbs and recuperate for a day or two.  Mr. Lewis acquiesced, and after a roundabout journey the party arrived about dark at a quiet spot near Pelham, where a small hotel loomed up out of the shrubbery.  The strangers told the Texan this was the 'club house.'  After a hearty dinner and a smoke on the plaza, they went to a private room and sat down to a game of cards.

They had several drinks, and at midnight Mr. Lewis, with his roll somewhat larger as a result of the card game, went to his room in a good humored and contented frame of mind.  The next morning before Lewis had awakened the friend he had met on the train rushed into his room and called out 'Lewis, ther've been burglars in the house.  They went through my clothes last night and got my watch and pistol and $300.'

Lewis jumped up, reached for his waistcoat and found that his watch was safe.  Before he had time to look for his money his friend had hurried down the stairs.

The merchant then discovered that every dollar he had brought with him -- about $1000 -- was gone.  For the first time [it] dawned on him that he had been victimized and robbed by bunco steerers.

Mr. Lewis soon got his clothes on and rushed down stairs and found that both his transient friends had disappeared.  He appealed to the man he supposed was proprietor and another man there, and got no satisfaction.  He asked a woman who stood by where he could find the police.  As soon as he had spoken, he says, he was set upon and clubbed, the men saying that he had insulted the woman.  They chased him out into the street, Mr. Lewis running for his life.

The plundered merchant finally got back to New York and told business friends of his experience.  He came back this evening accompanied by detectives, but as yet the robbers have not been caught."

Source:  A TEXAN ROBBED -- Confidence Men Sprang a New Game on Mr. Lewis, The Laredo Times [Laredo, TX], Vol. XIX, No. 70, Sep. 2, 1899, p. 1, cols. 3-4 (Note:  Paid subscription required to access via this link).  

"Texas Merchant Robbed.

Since the disclosure made on Wednesday of the operations of a band of greengoods men at the White Hotel in Pelham another affair has come to light in that village.  The victim, although not assaulted and beaten, as was Detective John Whittaker, who made a futile attempt to arrest the swindlers, was buncoed out of nearly $800.

Edward Lewis, a prominent merchant of Austin, Texas, left his home several days ago for New York city.  At Newark, N. J., when Mr. Lewis was sitting in the smoking car and was about to light a fresh cigar, some one tapped him on the shoulder in a familiar manner and struck up an acquaintance, on the ground of having met Lewis in New Orleans, recalling incidents of the carnival which Lewis remembered.

Lewis accepted the stranger's invitation to dine at the Astor House, and on reaching the hotel was introduced to another well-dressed man, who, the stranger said, was from New Orleans.

Then the first stranger suggested that they take a ride up to his country home in the suburbs.  They went, and after some drinks and a game of cards retired.  About 8 o'clock next morning one of the men knocked at Lewis' door and told him burglars had been in the house.  The stranger went for the police and did not return.  Lewis' money was gone.  He believes the drinks were drugged."

Source:  Texas Merchant Robbed, The Baltimore Sun, Vol. XXXV, No. 88, Aug. 26, 1899, p. 7, col. 6 (Note:  Paid subscription required to access via this link). 

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