For decades one of the nation’s most wanted bank robbers, Albany Jim Brady, was now old, ill, and housed in the Westchester County Almshouse. Newspapermen came to interview him, asking about what were literally his old partners in crime. Animated by the subject, he told with obvious delight the story of a co-conspirator who once attempted a double-cross. The man was Julius Doherty, one of a gang of thieves Brady worked with in the Southwest.
With a large bag of stolen money, they were returning to New York when Julius proposed the robbery of a jewelry store in Washington. Easy pickings, he promised, and just too good an opportunity to pass up. Brady was hesitant, not wanting to push their luck after a successful run, but he finally agreed to look the place over. They left the bag of money in a secure location at the train station.
Said Brady, “I strolled into the jewelry store, bought a diamond ring and a watch, and took a good look at the whole thing. I saw that the jeweler’s son kept a clothing store around the corner and that the two buildings met at the rear.”
He re-entered the store late that night and locked the door behind him, but sensed something suspicious about his partner, who was outside as the lookout. Before attempting the theft, Jim waited to observe Julius, who soon crossed the street, accosted a policeman, pointed at the jewelry store, and informed him of a robbery in progress.
Brady’s thorough preparation was about to pay off. As cool as ever, he sauntered to the rear of the building, climbed out a window, and entered the son’s clothing store. Passing through the shop, he grabbed a cane, applied a fake mustache to his upper lip, exited the store, and casually ambled around the corner to the jewelry store, where three policemen were attempting to force their way in.
“Burglar inside?” asked Brady. “Well men, do your duty.” And off he went.
A few blocks away, he paid a cabbie the modern equivalent of $500 for rushing him to the depot before the night train left for New York.
Climbing aboard, he spotted Julius in a seat with the bag of money next to him. In disguise, Jim rode along to the Jersey City stop, where, in a fake voice, he asked Doherty, “Can I help you with that bag, sir?” Without waiting for a reply, Jim removed his mustache, faced Doherty, and said in his normal voice, “If you touch that bag, I’ll croak you.” Brady laughed and told his audience: “Julius took a flying jump off the train. I never saw him again.”
In his glory days at New Rochelle, with money to burn, Jim had considered entering politics, not realizing that one day he would earn money by pretending to be a politician. In Washington, he had once gained access to banks and stores by impersonating Representative Clarkson N. Potter.
Said Brady: “Yes, I sat among the big ones for days. Went into the best, ate and drank the best. Why, I’ve passed for a senator and people never knew any better.… I did many a job in the West the same way. Good nerve, good clothes, good style; that’s all you need to fool people. You can make them think you’re anyone you say you are.” And the Oscar goes to …
Such was Brady’s legend that even as he languished in the county poorhouse, believers held that his vast fortune would someday be revealed. One of his interviewers wrote, “Possibly he has a hoard hidden away, or perhaps he knows how to simulate philanthropy as he stands forlorn and deserted on the brink. In his fierce blue eyes, there is ample evidence of cunning.” Jim always kept them guessing.
In fact, had his wife not made off with their property, valued at about $5 million in modern funds, Brady would have spent his final years in comfort generally reserved for royalty.
On the afternoon of May 27, 1903, nearly three years after he first went to the New Rochelle hospital, Jim left the almshouse. Several hours later, he was struck and killed by a train in a freight yard. Many newspapers described him as an old man, wandering aimlessly, and while stepping away to avoid the New Haven train, Jim had entered the path of the Boston Express. Reports said he was launched into the air by the cowcatcher and decapitated by the train after he landed on the rails. It was presented as a gruesome and tragic accident.
Gruesome and tragic, for sure, but perhaps no accident. Before leaving the almshouse, he reportedly told other residents, “Goodbye. You’ll never see me again. Something’s going to happen to me.” He may have decided it was finally time to go, and on his own terms. He always did have a flair for the dramatic.
Newspaper reports focused on an object found clutched tightly in his hand, even after such a violent death. Writers, perhaps romanticizing the notion that old Jim was in pursuit of just one more job, described a packet containing a complete set of burglar tools. Ignored entirely was the possibility they were simply locksmith tools, which Brady said had earned his living during the past decade.
Whatever the case, newspapers in the past had twice pronounced his death, but now he was finally gone. Or was he? A few days later, the New Rochelle Press reported that Big Jim Brady was buried locally in Potter’s Field. And a week after his death, the New York Evening Telegram ran the following headline: This “Jim” Brady Merely Horse Thief; Had Nothing in Common with Manhattan Bank Robber.
Again, it may have been an attempt to romanticize Brady’s story and keep the legend alive. Other than a similar snippet appearing in the New Rochelle Pioneer, the idea never caught on. Jim Brady, Big Jim Brady, Albany Jim, Oscar D. Peterson, James Morrison, George Osborne, and George Woods—their stories all ended beneath the wheels of the Boston Express.
Some writers offered eulogies of sorts, recounting the highlights (or lowlights) of Jim’s criminal career. Typical was the Elmira Daily Gazette: “Big Jim Brady’s name will live long in criminal history. It is said that no safe lock ever invented could defeat his skill.”
Pinkerton’s archives, referring to the capture of Brady, Hope, and others in the Delaware bank affair, offered this assessment: “When it became known that they were convicted, the sentimentalists cried: ‘My God. You are surely not going to flog Jim Brady!’ … As I have said, these men were among the aristocrats in their calling. They wore silk hats, frock coats, and had their boxes at the opera. Their good address, intelligence, and daring had caused the public to throw a glamour of romance about them.”
The greatest tribute, if it can be called that, came from America’s top detective, Thomas Byrnes. In his book, Professional Criminals of America, Byrnes acknowledged Brady’s remarkable abilities and his excellent connections in the world of business: “Dashing, handsome daredevil that he was, Brady for many years belonged to one of the most dangerous gangs of criminals in the country. He was the modern Jack Sheppard—a bank burglar, jail breaker, sneak thief, forger, and highest type of the audacious villain.”
In The Great Adventurer, Robert Shackleton’s 1904 novel about Wall Street, there appeared a charming, bold bank robber named Frank Thetford. Shackleton confirmed that as a newspaperman, he had become acquainted with Big Jim Brady, after whom the Thetford character was modeled. And there’s no denying it: a bold theft performed by Thetford in the book was classic Brady.
While The Great Adventurer hardly equaled Robin Hood, and Brady was no Prince of Thieves, he was best known as Albany Jim, the gentleman burglar. Firmly entrenched on the wrong side of the law, he remains today an infamous part of northern New York history.
Photos: New York World, 1900; Gloversville Daily Leader, 1903; New Rochelle News
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